Introduction and Planning
This trip has been in the works for a very long time. Really, as far back as our Around the World trip in 1998. But then, when we were considering going to Vietnam, the country was beseiged by massive floods and we ended up in Nepal instead. Which wasn't so bad, considering.
Years later, I planned a trip but was shocked at the sky high prices for airfare from the US during the summer months. While July and August may be low season in Vietnam, it is high season for the airlines. At that point we decided to use frequent flier miles for our tickets. The problem is, FF tickets go fast and they have to be booked 11 months in advance, as soon as they become available. I was too late by the time I started checking for a summer '08 trip. But I got smart and set an alert in my Outlook to let me know when to call for the next summer.
Dutifully, I called on the appropriate day and there were no tickets to be had for my dates. What? How is that possible? Diligently, I called back and after a few days, I was able to secure two Business class tickets on Japan Airlines (in conjunction with American Airlines) for July 2009, LAX-Tokyo-Hanoi and for the way home, Bangkok-Tokyo-SFO-LAX. That was the best I could get.
Shortly after, I booked a day with Tong, a wonderful tour guide in Bangkok. My mother and I had so much fun with her in 2007, I wanted David to meet her.
No planning done.
A week in Paris and the Dordogne in October.
The months have flown by and apart from some reading and a bit of research, I have done nothing to plan for this trip. I guess it's time to start.
I've booked our hotel in Hanoi, the brand new, highly rated Hotel Hanoi Elegance 4 for four nights at the start of our trip.
I've booked the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit in Bankok using Starwood points plus cash to for the last 3 nights of the trip. Everything else is still unknown including our final itinerary.
Initially, I had planned on us spending all our time in North and Central Vietnam. But then the weather factored in. Summer months are very, very wet in North vietnam and as much as I wanted to see the area around Sapa, I had no inclination to do it while slogging through the mud. In addition, in looking for flights from DaNang to Bangkok, it apeared they were infrequent and expensive. Finally, I read some traveler's accounts of HCMC (Saigon) and it suddenly became more appealing. Great food too aparantly. So, as of now, it looks like we are going to get the grand overview of the country, North, Cental and South in our 12 days in Vietnam.
After a short trip to San Francisco in early April, I plunged fully into the trip planning for Vietnam.
I found a decent summer deal at the Peninsula Bangkok, our favorite hotel anywhere; book 2 nights, get 1 free, including their outstanding breakfast. So I booked that, canceled the Sheraton in Bangkok, and using the same cash plus points, booked the Sheraton in Saigon.
I also started working with a local travel agent, Tonkin travel, in Vietnam. What, me work with a travel agent? Yes, it's true. They seem to have access to better rates than I can find for myself for hotels. I'm using them for the middle section of the trip, Hue and Hoi An. Plus, they can book our flights inside Vietnam, arrange for a car and driver between Hue and Hoi An, and pre-arrange our visas.
About visas; as of right now, US citizens need a visa to enter Vietnam. You can get a visa in advance by mailing your passport to the Vietnamese embassy in Washington DC ($65 each plus express mail postage each way for tracking). Or you can opt for a pre-arranged visa letter (sometimes mistakenly called "visa on arrival") done by a Vietnames travel agency. For $25 they send you a letter which allows you on the plane in the US, then on arrival, you pay another $25 for the "stamp fee" at immigration. I was a little nervous about this, but I've not read of anyone having any problems with this, so this is they way we're going to go.
I've booked a day with Hanoi Kids at that's about it. Not much else planned. I think I need to stop playing with my food blog and start planning this trip more!
When I first started researching this trip, right after we booked the tickets I was frustrated when I tried to look up places on Google Maps in Hanoi and there was nothing. Some time in the last year, Google Maps have added street names, along with certain places of interest to their largest cities in Vietnam. They still have quite a way to go as actual street addresses are hard to come by, but it's a start. Check out the Google Maps I created in the column to the left.
Summary of Trip:
July 2-19, 2009
Hanoi-4 nights (Hotel Hanoi Elegance 4)
Hue-2 nights (Villa Hue)
Hoi An-4 nights (Victoria Hoi An)
Saigon-3 nights (Sheraton Saigon)
Bangkok-3 nights (Peninsula)
I booked almost everything myself, but also used a local Vietnamese Travel agent, Tonkin Travel, to book the hotels in Hue and Hoi An as well for a couple of transfers. They had much better rates for those hotels than I could book myself. For the Sheraton, I used SPG points plus cash and for the Peninsula I found a good rate which was 3 nights for the price of 2, including breakfast.
I also had Tonkin book our internal flights on Vietnam Airlines, from Hanoi to Hue and from DaNang to Saigon because I could not get the Vietnam Airlines web site to work for me. For the SGN to BKK route, I found a $12 fare (plus taxes) on Air Asia which certainly beat Thai Airlines $175 per ticket.
It was HOT and HUMID and it rained a lot, but that didn't deter us too much. In some ways the rain was preferable, because when it was clear it was so much hotter outside. It's very easy to become dehydrated (I did) so be careful.
I will be writing a lot about the food because, well, that's what interests me. I'm willing to eat almost anything, almost anywhere. This means that we ate everywhere from markets, to street side vendors, to "local" and "tourist" restaurants, to our hotels. I'll try and include addresess and/or directions to the places we ate where possible.
I'll say this up front; yes, I got sick. No, it was not debilitating, and no, I did not require medicine. I'm not even sure what was going on with me was food-borne considering that my husband David ate everything I did and did not get sick.
I do my best to make smart decisions when I eat, but I probably take more risks than some here would be comfortable with. On the other hand, I've had similar stomach issues in Paris and Rome, eating in "nice" restaurants, so it could be just that my tummy does not like to travel as much as the rest of me does.
We each had a 22" roll aboard and a smaller carry-on bag/backpack. We did not plan on checking our bags, at least not on the way there. Neither bag was stuffed full.
We each wore everything we brought. We had laundry done mid way through the trip in Hoi An for $1 per kilo, spending about $10 to have 2 loads of all of our clothes combined done.
I also had a knee length wool coat made, bought 2 purses, many scarves, a 10' table runner, and 4 single serving Vietnamese metal coffee filters plus coffee. I was able to add all these items to my suitcase without having to expand it.
David bought 5 golf/polo type shirts plus a couple t-shirts and they all fit in his bag without expanding it.
The point is, one can travel light, with some proper packing and planning.
My packing list can be seen at
From the information I put on my Google Maps (restaurants and sightseeing) and information cut and pasted from various trip reports here (thanks to all of you who posted here before me), I created my own "guidebook" for each city. I've done these type of notes for my last few trips and they really come in handy. I arrange them by area or neighborhood, so if we are some place and want to stop for lunch, it's easy to find something.
I'm happy to say, the restaurant recommendations I had steered us in the right direction at least 80% of the time. The tailor recommendation I had was a good one. And the sightseeing notes I had from http://www.reidontravel.com/ came in very handy when we didn't have a book with us.
I took over 1500 photos in 16 days. I use a Nikon D40x DSLR and will be posting links to photos on my website as I go. Be patient, that's a lot of photos to wade through!
We brought a 5 year old, 2 lb laptop with us. Every hotel we stayed in offered wifi, and we used it to keep in touch with family and friends (email, facebook, twitter, fodor's), do on-the-fly research about places we wanted to see, and David was able to keep up with Wimbledon, the Golf British Open and the Tour de France. I also tried to download my photos every day as a backup.
Below are links to interesting things I found while researching for this trip.
In the past, I've sent out this information in a email to whoever was traveling with us in preparation for the trip. But this time, it's just us!
Vietnam Tidbit #1-www.savourasia.com
I love this website! It's all about food with an emphasis on Hanoi. There are other cities, but not with as much detail yet. You can tell these people really love food and there lots of description of various types of street food and drink. In addition there are 24, 48 and 72 hour itineraries with most of the tourist stops interspersed with great places to stop and eat. I also like that the restaurants they list aren't the same as all the ones in the guidebooks.
The only downside is that the site is a little difficult to navigate so make sure you look at a lot of the links to get inside to where the good stuff is!
Vietnam Tidbit #2- Blogs and Message Boards:
I love to follow food blogs before I travel anywhere. It helps me learn more about the local cuisine and where to go for the best street food and restaurants. Message Boards are probably the best resource out there for current, first hand travel experiences.
Some of my favorites for South East Asia are:
Eating Asia -food bloggers based in Malaysia, but they travel (and eat) all over Asia. Excellent photography
Sticky Rice-All about food in Hanoi
Gastronomyblog-LA food blogger who has lived in Vietnam. Lots of good stuff on Vietnam. Look for the "Top 10" lists for Hanoi and Saigon. Make sure you read about the Lunch Lady.
Fodor's Asia Message Board-My favorite traveler's message board.
Chowhound Greater Asia Message Board-For food lovers.
Trip Advisor Forums for Vietnam
Vietnam Tidbit #3-Cooking classes in Vietnam
I've pretty much given up on taking cooking classes after being disappointed time after time. However, I'm not as familiar with Vietnamese cuisine as I am with Thai or Italian, so I may be willing to take the plunge again this time.
Here are some which get good reviews:
KOTO (see #6 below)
Old Hanoi Restaurant and Cooking Class
Red Bridge Cooking School
Vietnam Tidbit #4- Free Hanoi walking tours
Hanoi Kids Club
This is an organization which pairs students who want to practice English with tourists. The students give free tours all around Hanoi.
Vietnam Tidbit #5- More Expat Blogs
A Girl in Asia
Living in Saigon
Vietnam Tidbit #6- KOTO
KOTO stands for Know One, Teach One. KOTO is a restaurant in Hanoi which doubles as a hospitality school for street kids, teaching them a trade to help them break the cycle of poverty. They have both a restaurant and cafe in the same location:
KOTO on Van Mieu
59 Van Mieu Street, (opposite the Temple of Literature)
Dong Da District, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel (84 4) 3747 0337 or (84 4) 3747 0338
Open seven days for breakfast and lunch, and dinner from Tuesday through to Sunday.
Vietnam Tidbit #7-Itineraries
There are a number of magazine articles out the offering a quick view of a city in 36, 48 or 72 hours. Take them for what they are worth, just an overview and not gospel.
NY Times 36 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City
National Geographic Traveller-48 Hours Hanoi—The Best of a City in Two Days
Website: Savour Asia has lots of wonderful and unique itineraries
Vietnam Tidbit #8-Train travel
We are not taking the train, but the website Seat 61 has some excellent information on Vietnamese trains.
Vietnam Tidbit #9-Vietnam Embassy
The Vietnamese Embassy website is http://www.vietnamembassy-usa.org/
Vietnam Tidbit #10-Reid on Travel
This guy wrote the book on Vietnam, literally. Robert Reid writes for Lonely Planet guidebooks and lived in Vietnam. He's put all of his personal recommendations online, for free. It's excellent.