Vietnam: one heck of a (train) ride.
Getting there: by bus from Phnom penh to Ho chi minh city (check how in our post on Cambodia)
A few words on Vietnam: Before we went there, we heard and read mixed reviews on the country. Not that it is the right thing to do to judge a country based on the interaction you have with just a few of its inhabitants, but the experience you have seams to be quite different depending on what budget you’ve got.
For people going there on tours , living in a touristy bubble, Vietnam is amazing, people are very friendly and willing to help.
If you’re travelling through the country on a tight budget as a backpacker, it is very hard: people are offended if you refuse to pay more than the price the locals pay. If you negotiate, they will remind you in a broken english how “easy” it is for you to earn money back in your country, and there won’t be such a thing as “travelling on the cheap”. More than ever, you will have to play “the gime money game” if you don’t want to be ripped off every time you take your wallet out.
We had both experiences: the touristy one was amazing, the backpacker’s one was an absolute pain. So be warned and do negociate for everything.
Ho Chi minh city:
Before you do anything, be warned, the traffic is absolute chaos there. Drivers don’t know what a pedestrian crossing is (no jokes ), so be very carreful when you cross the road and look both sides more than once. The rule is: trucks have priority on cars, cars have priority on scooters, scooters have priority on everything else. As a pedestrian, you have priority on …cats and chickens…that’s it so whatch out!
Your bus from Cambodia will drop you off on the side of the road, in the middle of the city on Pham Ngu Lao. From there, you can just walk to find a cheap hotel. As always, walk from one to the other to make your choice (or book online in advance), check the bedrooms, negotiate the price. You’ll notice that it is a bit different than the rest of Asia. When you ask how much the bedrooms are, they will look at you from feet to head before they give you an answer, some will ask you how much you want to pay… always give a lower amount than what you’re actually willing to pay, and check the room before you do pay. If they laugh when agreeing to your price, go somewhere else – their laughter generally means you’ve quoted them a price higher than the value of the bedroom. You can find a decent bedroom for $12 US.
Restaurants are easy to find, if you’re on a budget, avoid western food, and don’t pay with american dollars. They usually do their own conversion and give you viet dongs in return.
Whatch out for that 10% tax at the bottom of the menu.
If you feel that something isn’t right, waitresses rushing to serve you food or drinks you didn’t order, meat being cut on the floor of the restaurant, etc, just walk away.
It will be between 7900 and 10 000dongs for a 1.5L bottle of water at any small shop.
To do in Ho chi minh:
Walking around the city is quite nice, there’s a park full of squirrels and aki sac players, a nice river and some interesting buildings to see. Just please whatch out when crossing the road!
Organise the rest of your Vietnamese trip!
Travelling by train in Vietnam is quite easy. From Ho chi minh, you can go to Danang (for Hoi an, the lantern town) or to Hanoi (for Halong bay). Find more information there.
To book a ticket, you can go to Saigon train station. You can buy them in advance (recommended). From Pham Ngu Lao (where your bus dropped you off and where you’re likely to have settled), just go accross the square and take bus 13. It will cost a very low 7000VND each. Get off at the first stop after the huge roundabout and follow the directions on your map to the train station. Once there, walk upstairs, staff speak a bit of english.
Tickets to Danang go from 727.000VND for a soft seat to 1.049.000VND for a soft sleeper. It takes 18 hours minimum.
Tickets to Hanoi go from 1.140.000VND for a soft seat to 1.725.000VND for a soft sleeper. It takes about 30hours.
If you decide to go to Danang to spend some time in Hoi an to see the lanterns, know that you will need to take a bus or a taxi from Danang. There will be plenty of taxi drivers at the train station asking you where you want to go. To Hoi an, it takes about an hour and shouldn’t cost more than $15 US if you choose the taxi option, negotiate! If you want to go by bus, walk to the corner of Tran Phu street and Hoang Van Thu street in Danang. It shouldn’t be more than 20.000VND, negotiate too as bus drivers and their colleagues are known to charge 50.000VND to tourists. There won’t be any buses after 5.30pm.
Our tips for the train trip through Vietnam:
–Pack food and water before you get onboard. There will be boiled water on the train, perfect for your dried noodles!
-The soft sleeper isn’t that soft so if you want to save a few dongs, go for the hard one and use the provided blankets for extra paddings and your sleeping bag to be warm.
-get some movies or series for your laptop. As opposed to bus trips through Indonesia, you will be able to take your computer out without worrying too much as you will share your cabin between 4 people only.
-If you’re on your own in the cabin when you board the train, the attendant will tell you that other passengers are coming at the next stop, but you can have the cabin to yourslef for an extra $20US. Refuse the “offer”, it is very likely that you won’t have anyone else in your cabin the whole way anyway, and even if this happens, no one is going to ennoy you.
–whatch your bags, if you sleep, put them somewhere hardly accessible to any potential thiefs. It is usely quite safe but we never know. Better safe than sorry.
You will arrive in Hanoi railway station. Same as usual, refuse drivers’ offers, walk a bit and try your luck with hotels or book in advance as you might be quite tired after such a trip and you will want to rest without the hassle of searching. The backpackers’ area is around Ma may street but sometimes, single beds in a dorm are more expensive than a private bedroom in a hotel….Up to you. Same as in Ho chi minh, you will be charged random prices most of the time, depending on how you look that day. You can find a good bedroom for $15 US.
There’s cheap street food everywhere, restaurants are ususally quite cheap too, but check the tax % and the bills when you leave. Happy hours are interesting, you can have one tiger beer for free when you order one at Gecko restaurant for exemple (even though food isn’t amazing there). You can easily walk around the little city. Ask for a map at your hotel.
Tourists usually come to Vietnam to see Halong bay. You will find offers for tours all around Hanoi, from 1 day boat rides to a full week around the thousand islands, and for all budgets too.
Do your research before you book anything, however convincing your host or agent is. Ask, write down the name of the company, or the name of the boat and don’t book anything before you check the reviews online.
Lily’s travel agency has good reviews and is quite reliable and cheap compared to others. She offers different tours, we went for :
3 days 2 nights on the boat called Fantasea and we paid $266 for the 2 of us, including pick up and drop off in Hanoi , and amazing food (no water though) and we were really happy with it. It is very good one for backpackers.
Check what is included in the price, most of the time water isn’t, so buy a big 5L bottle and 2 small ones beforehand. Also don’t fall for the free beer thing: one of the companies advertises all you can drink beer onboard the boat, but the crew is known for drinking most of it…yeah, not great. Alcohol onboard will usually be quite expensive and you will have to pay a service fee if you bring your own so better not drink too much during your trip.
What should be included in your tour:
-pick up/drop off from/to the hotel(s) of your choice in Hanoi (2-3h trip)
-private cabin onboard with showers
You will be dropped off at the hotel of your choice.
Organise your trip to China:
First of all, if you have decided to go through China, hopefully you know that you need to apply for a visa from your home country beforehand. There might be some ways around this but it’s safer to already have the sticker on your passport.
Overland, the best way is by train. You won’t leave from Hanoi train station though but from Gialam train station situated outside of the city. To get there, catch a cab for 60.000VND to 100.000VND depending on where you stay.
Your destination in China will depend on where you want to go next:
-If you want to catch the transiberian from Beijing, go East, your destination will be Nanning or Beijing depending on what day you’re leaving.
–If you want to go through the “Stans” you want to go North then West, your destination will be Kunming. Check this China railway map and the following page ,that gathers all the informations you need for your train trip through China.
At Gialam train station, go to the office that’s on your left when you’re facing the building. Being outside of the tourist area it is a bit more run down than the rest of Hanoi and I would suggest you keep your valuables safe and secure. Watch out for kids that hide behind you and try to ‘play’ with the zipper on your backpack while you’re standing in line purchasing tickets. (actually this is good advice for most train stations around the world)
If you want to catch a train straight to Beijing, it is quite expensive, they leave on tuesdays and fridays only and take 2 nights. You will need to book in advance too. Soft sleepers cost $336
For Nanning (Nam ninh in Vietnamese), you can book a ticket for the same day. Trains for this destination run every day and take 12hours, by night. Soft sleepers cost 744.000VND. Now get ready for a long train journey and enjoy the border crossing…
Next: On the fast train and through China…