Insightful Vietnam Travel Tips from a Saigon Insider
If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, you can consult guidebooks, travel blogs or TripAdvisor. But unless the advice is from a local expert it’s probably not going to be very helpful – unlike this new book of insightful Vietnam travel tips by Saigon insiders.
I first ‘met’ Ho Chi Minh City resident and expat Australian writer, Barbara Adam, some years ago on Twitter, where she’d been sharing Vietnam travel tips. We’d just landed in the north at the time to work on travel and food stories. Seven months later, after stints living in Hanoi and Hoi An, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon) with the aim of catching up on what was new since our last trip.
The first thing I did was check in on Barbara, who also has a blog called Dropout Diaries. We arranged to sample one of Barbara and her Vietnamese husband Vu Vo’s Saigon Street Eats‘ food tours, but we ran out of time. Over the years I’ve sent many food loving travellers heading to Vietnam Barbara’s way. Their feedback has always been brilliant, so I was thrilled to learn that she and Vu had compiled their local knowledge into a new e-book.
This week I interviewed Barbara about their book, and, as I expected, she revealed some insightful Vietnam travel tips that only Saigon insiders and local residents could share.
Vietnam Travel Tips from a Saigon Insider
Q. You’ve called your book Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips – and a Guide for Moving There so I expected a long list of tips, but there isn’t one.
A. The format evolved over time, with input from the publisher, Jessie at Wandering Educators Press. The book was originally supposed to be a guide to moving to Vietnam. But I felt there were a lot of things that the original table of contents didn’t cover. I added a few (quite a few) extra topics trying to explain ‘my Vietnam’ until Jessie said “this is so much more than a moving guide”. So we ended up with a two-in-one book with a very long name! We also have more than 100 tips. Somehow 127 Unusual Travel Tips doesn’t sound as catchy as 100!
Q. Describe that “so much more” part of the book.
A. The book is an attempt to explain ‘my Vietnam’. Everyone experiences this country differently, and over the years I’ve heard and read plenty of negative stories about peoples’ travels here. It can be a challenging place to visit, especially if a few things go wrong, as they are wont to do when you are traveling.
But Vietnam is also endlessly fascinating. I was lucky enough to work for a newspaper, alongside a team of very bright go-getting young people when I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. They were journalists and translators who were learning to present news to a Western audience. I learned so much about Vietnam from them as we worked together on stories, from big-picture political stuff to funny little quirks, such as the Vietnamese word that translates to ‘exploit’ having no negative connotation in the original language.
The book also covers what I’ve learned since I met my husband, Vu, my very own personal tour guide. Sometimes I had questions he struggled to answer, so he had to consult with friends and family and the Internet. (There is a lot of information about Vietnam on the Internet but unfortunately 95% of it is in Vietnamese.) The more I learn about Vietnam, the more I love it. It is a country of contrasts, with such an interesting history.
This book is my way of giving something back to a country that’s given me so much – a husband, two hilarious children and a thriving business. What I’m giving back is an explanation of how some things work, so that visitors get a richer experience. They’ll still spend a lot of time being gobsmacked by what’s going on, but hopefully the craziness will be more enjoyable if they have something more than a superficial understanding of what Vietnam is all about.
Q. How did you come to fall in love with Vietnam?
A. I did a cycling trip through Vietnam with my Dad in late 2006. I actually wasn’t interested in visiting Vietnam, what I really wanted to do was cycle through Cambodia. But Cambodia isn’t big enough for a three-week cycling trip, so I added the Vietnam section. Dad was interested in visiting Vietnam, and I was interested in Cambodia, and we both wanted to do a cycling tour. And that’s how I ended up here.
But by the end of my first day in Vietnam I was besotted. It’s just such an amazing place, so very different from the sedate suburban life I had in Australia. People who travel to Vietnam are usually the more intrepid and adventurous souls, people who are interested in the world and in different cultures. For these people, Vietnam is a fascinating and exotic place to visit and/or live.
Q. We love Vietnam also, yet Vietnam is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia about which I continually hear travellers complain, saying they didn’t have a great time there.
A. A little bit of understanding goes a very long way when it comes to expectations. I hear people complain about Vietnamese service standards, about the driving habits, and about the terrible food. (I mean – !!!???!!!!) One of the many things that prompted us to start our street food tour business was hearing a guy complain long and loud about the worst pizza he’d ever had… in the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City. (Why on earth you’d want to eat pizza instead of Vietnamese food in Vietnam is beyond me.)
Anyway, what people need to understand is this: Vietnam has not been open to tourism for very long. Foreigners weren’t allowed to visit until the 1990s, and things started very slowly. The first wave of travellers were either very adventurous or super-budget. Many Vietnamese people formed their view of ‘what foreigners want’ based on those first tourists.
Vietnam is still a very poor country, too. The average per capita income is US$1,100 a year. The economy is growing, and people are getting richer, but people are very careful with their pennies. I compare it to how things were in the USA and Australia after the Great Depression and World War II.
For many years, Vietnamese people couldn’t afford to travel. Now, some of them can, and it’s a very new and exciting concept. When Vietnamese people travel they often do so in large groups and they stay in very cheap places (with rock-hard beds because that’s good for your spine). They eat the local specialties, and plonk themselves down on seemingly random patches of beach or grass for loud ‘picnics’. They also take an insane amount of photos of themselves standing in front of things.
What pleases the domestic tourists is very very odd for non-Vietnamese. There is very little demand for mid-range in Vietnam. There’s budget and there’s high-end and not much in between, and that can be frustrating for some foreign visitors, especially those with champagne tastes and a beer budget.
Q. You write that Vietnam is “a country full of internet-savvy mobile phone-toting young people – 60% of the population is under 40 – who still follow the ancient practices of honouring their parents and dead ancestors.” Why do you think the Vietnamese have been able to hold onto their traditions so well?
A. Vietnam was closed to the rest of the world between the end of the last war in 1975 and the mid-1990s. Vietnamese people had very little contact with the outside world during this time. The only news they had came through government-owned media outlets. It was a very tough time for the country, with very little food available.
People were just focused on staying alive during this time. Everyone followed the same traditions, and no one had much time or energy to question things. The Vietnam of today is a modern country that has retained a lot of its traditions, such as ancestor worship. I think this is because it’s just what everyone does. Future generations probably won’t follow these traditions as attentively as in the past.
Q. Tell us about some of the traditions that visitors are likely to observe as they explore Vietnam’s cities and towns.
A. There are offerings made on the footpath that are usually to the ancestors and/or wandering ghosts. The offerings are usually made twice a month, at the beginning of the lunar month, and when the moon is full. On these days, it’s believed heaven and earth are connected and the ancestors can see what’s happening on earth. They will feel kindly towards people honouring them, and prevent the wandering ghosts from causing any problems for the family. The practice is a uniquely Vietnamese blend of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.
Many Buddhists also mark the start of the lunar month and the full moon, considered the most ‘peaceful’ days of the month, by avoiding meat. Vegetarian restaurants are very busy on these days, and quite a few non-vegetarian places close so the owners can go to the temple and eat vegetarian food to purify themselves.
The offering to the kitchen gods happens once a year, on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month. It’s a week before Tet, the lunar new year, and the biggest celebration of the Vietnamese calendar. Vietnamese people believe that the kitchen god, Ông Táo, rides a goldfish to heaven to report on the household happenings of the past year. It takes a week for Ông Táo to get to heaven, file his findings and return. To ensure a good report, families send Ông Táo off with offerings of fruit and candy to make sure he’s in a good mood when he gets to heaven.
Q. Any insidery Vietnam travel tips for visitors who want more insight into local life and the chance to experience the country’s rich cultural traditions?
A. It’s not easy to experience the culture if you don’t speak Vietnamese. There are homestays, but it’s a very new concept for Vietnam. I think it’s very difficult to have a deep ‘immersion’ cultural experience in Vietnam if you’re only spending one or two weeks in the country.
My advice would be to just walk around and see local life. Vietnamese life is very public, with eating and drinking and exercising done on the streets. Most homes have their doors wide open, with their living area in full view. Just walk and see what you can see. It’s a fascinating place.
I advise people not to travel in Vietnam over Tet, the lunar new year. The trains, buses and flights are usually booked solid on the main traveling days, as everyone goes home to visit family, then returns to their place of work. Most towns are like ghost towns, with virtually every business shut, at least for the first few days of the week of public holidays.
Q. In the book you recommend travellers exploring Vietnam take a south-north route. Why is that?
A. I recommend a south-north route because Hanoians have a reputation of being arrogant and unfriendly. I’ve been to Hanoi several times, and the city has really grown on me but it definitely did not create a good impression.
If you start in the south, you will experience smiles and laughter everywhere. Reactions will become more subdued when you travel north and by the time you get to Hanoi, you’ll be somewhat acclimatised to Vietnamese culture so you won’t get the double shock of Vietnam’s craziness and sullen faces.
In fact, you’ll probably love Vietnam so much by the time you get to Hanoi that you won’t notice anyone being sullen! I have had friends recommend starting in Hanoi, because people get friendlier as you travel south, so your trip just gets better and better!
Q. For those who are visiting Vietnam for a second time and want to get off the beaten track, do you have any lesser-visited spots in which you recommend people spend time?
A. I really love Quy Nhon in Central Vientam and Vung Tau, about 90 minutes by ferry from Ho Chi Minh City. Both places aren’t really on the tourist radar, and so they are just busy medium-sized coastal Vietnamese towns. Great local food and locals who aren’t yet jaded by tourists.
There are also a few new homestays in the Mekong Delta and Ninh Binh in northern Vietnam that really try to show visitors village life. It’s well worth looking at the websites of Nguyen Shack and Green Village Homestay.
Q. When do you recommend people visit and why? Any other special Vietnam travel tips?
A. The peak tourist season for Vietnam is December/January. As much as I like to avoid the crowds, it really is a good time to visit. It’s the coolest season, so Southern Vietnam is just hot rather than stinking hot, and northern Vietnam is deliciously cool.
Vietnamese people go crazy with Christmas lights and nativity ‘caves’, so spending Christmas here* can be awesome. The Vietnamese don’t buy into the consumerism of Christmas. ‘Noel’ isn’t about gifts here, it’s about driving around with your friends and family to get your photos taken in front of all the Christmas displays.
Also, be aware that typhoon season in Central Vietnam runs from September to January. If you’re traveling during those months, you should keep an eye on the weather forecasts and be prepared to change plans if a typhoon starts heading your way.
*We spent a Christmas in Hanoi and we highly recommend it.
Click through to read part two of this interview, focused on food, for more insightful Vietnam Travel Tips or click here to purchase Barbara and Vu’s book: Vietnam: 100 Unusual Travel Tips – and a Guide for Moving There.
Pictured above: Sapa in Northern Vietnam, which Barbara recommends because it’s “deliciously cool”. See more pics of Sapa on Terence’s photography site.