TOP 5 REASONS TO VISIT HO CHI MINH CITY DURING TET

Vietnamese Tet

Vietnamese Tet

Lunar New Year, or more commonly known as Tet, is a wondrous and prosperous time in Vietnam, and is an event that is anticipated throughout the year!  It marks the arrival of spring, a brand new start for many of life’s endeavours, and is a time to appreciate and spend time with family.  If you are considering traveling to Vietnam during Tet, here are the top 5 reasons to be a part of this joyous celebration in Ho Chi Minh City.

1. Spectacular Sights – Ho Chi Minh City is incredibly festive on the days leading up to Tet.  Magical is the best way to describe the city during this time!  Imagine an entire street closed off to traffic and dedicated to flower displays and fascinating works of art created entirely by lights!  Tet is such a special time of year for the Vietnamese people and the country spares no effort or expense in creating a beautiful atmosphere for everyone to enjoy.  It is definitely a sight to see!

Saigon Walking street during Tet

Tet 2013 – Year of the Snake! Spectacular sights around the city.

2. Special Tet Food – certain foods and treats are only served during Tet and are considered auspicious and significant for a multitude of reasons.  For instance, one of the items you will see at food stalls during Tet is Banh Chung or Banh Tet.  It’s a mixture of glutinous rice, mung beans and pork covered with banana leaves and moulded into a square shape.  The ingredients and the colour of Banh Tet symbolize the offerings of the Earth, and this treat is offered at shrines or temples in order to pray for health and prosperity in the new year.  Be sure to give it a try!

Banh Chung is the iconic food of Tet

Banh Chung is the iconic food of Tet celebrations. It is made with glutinous rice, mung beans and pork along with various spices. The mixture is wrapped up in banana leaves in a distinctive square shape.

3. Less Traffic – people generally visit their families either in their hometowns or in the cities, so you will hardly see people out and about!  The hoards of motorcycles and the usual hustle and bustle of the city are at a minimum.  It’s a great time to cross the street without fearing the worst!

empty streets during tet

The area at the entrance of Ben Thanh market is one of the major intersections in Ho Chi Minh City. During Tet, all the traffic almost disappears for about 3-4 days!

4. Hotel Availability – traveling within the country is generally a little difficult during Tet due to the lack of transportation options or expensive prices.  Hotels, on the other hand, are more available because tourists tend to just stay where they are for Tet.  Some smaller hostels and bed and breakfasts may close for a few days but most hotels are open through Tet and have ample availability.

5. Pleasant Weather – late January to February is a great time to visit Ho Chi Minh City because the weather is mild.  Of course, Ho Chi Minh City has a tropical climate so it never really gets cold but the heat is more bearable than during other times of the year, and it is still within the dry season.  The nights get cooler too and you may even get a pleasant evening breeze!  The cooler weather coupled with less traffic make for a great opportunity to wander the streets peacefully and enjoy the sights during Tet!

Wishing you a Happy New Year and a prosperous and healthy road ahead! Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

3 reasons you should not book with XO Tours

Although we are very proud of the acclaim our tours have received over the years, we realize that they are not suitable for everyone. These are the 3 main reasons we think some guests should not book our tours:

  1. If you are looking for a typical food tour

    – All the dishes and stops on the “Foodie” tour are carefully curated to offer you the most unique experience possible. We are not trying to serve you the most popular dishes in Vietnam or even the dishes we think are the most delicious (although most people LOVE the food!). We want you to eat the exact same dishes that the locals eat every day, so those are the types of dishes we offer on the tour. We also want to show you the huge contrast between the different districts and give you a feel for what life is truly like for the Saigonese people. If you’re just looking for a food tour that jumps from one food stop to the next however, and you don’t care to venture outside the touristy districts in Saigon to see a side of the city that none of the other tours go to, then this is probably not the tour for you.

  2. If you are not interested in Vietnamese history

    – On our “Sights” tour, not only will we provide some interesting historical background for each location we take you to, we will also share unique local insights that you won’t find in most guidebooks. Rather than just throwing facts at you, we try to connect each place to a human event, so that you will remember each location for the impact it had on the Vietnamese people. If you find history boring however, then you probably shouldn’t book this tour.

  3. If you want the cheapest motorbike tour –

    At XO Tours we want to provide you with a boutique experience that you cannot find anywhere else, combined with the best customer service in Vietnam. We hire the best possible staff and train them to be great ambassadors for Vietnam. We believe the time, effort and attention to detail we put into creating our tours is reflected in the high quality of the tours. Everything we do to make our tours special increases our costs which makes our tours a bit more expensive than our competitors. We accept this fact however because we believe that majority of our guests are willing to pay a little more for a superior experience. For guests that just want to drive around on a motorbike for the lowest possible price, there are many other options in Saigon to chose from.

If you are like travel writer, Graham Caldwell or the majority of the 60,000 + guests that have gone on our tours however, we think you will love your time with us!

Lady Tour Guides with great testimonial from Graham Caldwell from Scottish Daily Express

Why you should book with XO Tours

Off The Beaten Path in Vietnam

Vietnam is seeing more and more visitors each year, with the actual number of tourists per year reaching well over 6 million.  Some areas in Vietnam, such as Halong Bay, Sapa, and Hoi An, are very beautiful but also packed with tourists year round.  Fortunately, if you want to get away from the crowds, you have several alternatives.  Here are some suggestions for ‘off-the-beaten-path’ travel in Vietnam based on the kind of vacation you are looking for.  

Off the Beaten Path: Nature

Central Vietnam Caves

A few years ago, the largest caves in the world were discovered in central Vietnam.  These caves are a complete marvel, in pristine condition and also thought to contain the largest stalagmites in the world, up to 70 metres tall!  Currently, only a limited number of expeditions per year are allowed and come at the very hefty price of $3000 per person.  If this is out of your price range, fear not!  In the same area, you can visit the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, wherein lies two famous caves – Phong Nha cave and Paradise cave.  Up until the discovery of Son Doong cave, Phong Nha cave was thought to be the largest in Vietnam.  To put it into perspective,  Son Doong is more than five times the size of Phong Nha cave!  Nevertheless, the smaller caves are beautiful and unique in their own way.  The entire area is also very serene and peaceful, with many small lakes in the area and quaint lodging options.  

How to get there: From Dong Hoi train station or airport, arrange a pick up with your hotel or hostel in Phong Nha.  The drive is a little over an hour.  Otherwise, it is a 4 hour drive from Hue. 

Phong Nha Ke Bang Cave

Phong Nha Ke Bang Cave

Buon Ma Thuot

One of the most unique places in Vietnam is Buon Ma Thuot, situated in the central highlands of Vietnam.  This area is most famous for generating a majority of Vietnam’s coffee for export and is often dubbed Vietnam’s “capital of coffee”.  Besides the coffee plantations, Buon Ma Thuot is also situated next to a large and beautiful lake which is still shallow enough in some areas to be able to cross on elephants!  This activity is a major draw for tourists, but still not enough to make this area touristy.  This is one of the few places in Vietnam where you can actually ride elephants, and it is much more ‘rustic’ of an activity than the organized elephant tours in Thailand and other neighbouring countries. 

How to get there: You can visit Buon Ma Thuot by road from DaLat or Nha Trang.  Or, you can sign up for a motorbike tour through EasyRiders where they have itineraries that take you to Buon Ma Thuot.  

Children riding elephants crossing streams in Buon Me Thuot

Buon Ma Thuot

Off The Beaten Path: Culture

Chau Doc

Chau Doc is a small city in the Mekong Delta close to the Vietnam-Cambodia border.  Due to its proximity to the border, the people of this region are  either Cham, Cambodian, or Vietnamese in ethnicity, and they all live together in harmony.  The Cham people who live in Chau Doc are descendents of the Muslim Cham people who were displaced from Central and South Vietnam during the war in the 18th century. This unique mix of cultures and religions gives this town a different kind of vibe.  The main draw to this town, besides the slower paced life, is the religious architecture.  A few kilometres outside of Chau Doc is Mount Sam, where they have many temples and pagodas, and around the area you will find many mosques as well.  Chau Doc has a very close trading relationship with Cambodia so this border crossing is very convenient if you want to continue your journey westward.  An interesting way to get to Phnom Penh from Chau Doc is to take a boat along the river.  

How to get there: By road from Ho Chi Minh City is the easiest route to Chau Doc, and the drive takes 4 to 6 hours. 

Boats on Mekong river in Chau Doc Vietnam

Chau Doc

Mu Cang Chai, Mai Chau

With towns like Sapa becoming more and more touristy by the minute, Mu Cang Chai or Mai Chau are great alternatives. Mu Cang Chai is a small town of 43,000 people in northwestern Vietnam is one of the most naturally beautiful places in the country, and Mai Chau is also very similar.  Many people have a romanticized view of rice terraces and open mountainous areas with farmers donning conical hats, and this is the place to see it!  Not only is it quiet and tranquil, the scenery is spectacular.  These areas are inhabited by more than 20 different ethnic groups, and in some areas, the Viet people are not the majority.  These different people live harmoniously with one another and live a very peaceful and self-sustaining lifestyle.  There is very little interference from modern culture and they adhere to their beliefs very strongly.  That being said, they are incredibly friendly and open with tourists.  You will find that they are also less aggressive than their counterparts near Sapa because these smaller towns have not been inundated with tourists in the way that Sapa has.    

How to get there: The easiest way to get to Mu Cang Chai or Mai Chau is by road from Dien Bien Phu or from Hanoi.  It is a longer drive but so worth it.  Even though it’s a long drive, the journey is much shorter to get there in comparison to the journey time to Sapa.  

Mu Cang Chai highland

Mu Cang Chai

Off the Beaten Path: History

Hue

Hue has played a very important role in Vietnam’s history throughout the centuries, not just recent history.  Hue was the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty almost 150 years just before the emperor abdicated to governmental pressures.  The DMZ between North and South Vietnam is also located very close to Hue.  During the war between North and South Vietnam, many tunnels were built near the DMZ, very similar to Cu Chi Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City.  Cu Chi Tunnels are very touristy, so visiting these tunnels near Hue is a great alternative.  There are many more historical sites and museums to visit in Hue, but far fewer tourists visit there than other cities in the region, like Danang and Hoi An.  If you can get past the notoriously bad weather, visiting Hue can be both an enjoyable and educational experience.   

How to get there: Hue is very accessible by road, plane or train since it is on the coast.  In order to visit the DMZ or the tunnels in the area, you will need to set up a tour or find a xe om.

Tourist are taking turn going into DMZ tunnel in Hue

Hue DMZ

Dien Bien Phu

Dien Bien Phu is the city that has been an important aspect of Vietnamese nationalistic pride.  During the French Indochina War, Dien Bien Phu was the site of the ultimate battle between the Viet Minh and the French Union which led to the termination of French rule in Vietnam.  In fact, this battle is so famous that it has been depicted in paintings and caricatures, and has even been featured into a movie of the same name.  As a side note, the commander who led the Viet Minh into battle and secured this victory, General Vo Nguyen Giap, recently passed away and his death weighed heavily on the hearts of Vietnamese throughout the country because he played a very important part in giving Vietnam its independence.  Interestingly, Dien Bien Phu was also once famous for being one of the strongest fertile areas in Vietnam at that time, exporting rice mainly but also being at the centre of opium export.  You can experience some of this history first hand by visiting the bomb crater sites and museums in Dien Bien Phu.  The surrounding area of this city is also breathtaking, with the hills and the greenery all around.  

How to get there: Dien Bien Phu is very close to the fringes of the Vietnam and although it is accessible by road, it could be a long trip.  Fortunately, there is an airport there and you can fly in from many major cities in Vietnam and Laos.

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Dien Bien Phu War Remnants

Off the Beaten Path: Beach

Quy Nhon

With beaches in Vietnam becoming more and more popular in Southeast Asia, it can be difficult finding some quiet beach time.  During high tourist season, many of the beaches in Vietnam are riddled with tourists and locals.  Although this makes for a very lively atmosphere, it is most definitely not tranquil.  Quy Nhon is the perfect alternative to busy beach areas like Nha Trang and Hoi An.  The beach is relatively untouched, there are very few peddlers, and it is not very commercialized yet.  There are very few resorts and hotels there and fishing is a major industry in Quy Nhon.  This city doesn’t have the kind of nightlife that Nha Trang does, but you feel like you are much more connected to the local culture.  

How to get there:  Quy Nhon is actually quite accessible by train or road, because it is situated perfectly between Nha Trang and Hoi An.  You can stop over in Quy Nhon to break up the journey!

quy nhon beach

quy nhon beach

Con Dao

Con Dao, an archipelago off the southern coast of Vietnam, is actually an old prison island.  Many political prisoners during the French rule were held in prisons in Con Dao.  Today, it is a highly sought after beach destination and is one of the few places in Vietnam where you have really white sand and turquoise waters!  These islands are very seldom visited by tourists because it is both remote and expensive.  Some of the resorts on the island are very expensive but thankfully there are a few places to stay that are easier on the wallet.  Nevertheless, Con Dao is very untouched and is considerably more ‘off the beaten path’ in comparison to other beach areas in Vietnam.  

How to get there:  The only reasonable way to get to Con Dao is by plane.  The short flight from Ho Chi Minh City adds to the appeal of Con Dao because only a few flights a week go there and the flight is operated by a smaller carrier affiliate of Vietnam Airlines.

con dao island

con dao island

If you like off-the-beaten-track experiences, join us on our Saigon By Night Tour, where we take you to parts of the city that are less frequently visited by tourists.  For more Vietnam Travel Tips, check back on our blog often!

How to stay safe and avoid scams in Vietnam – Part 2: South Vietnam

In this, the second part of our two-part series on avoiding common tourist scams in Vietnam, we focus on popular tourist destinations in the south of the country. Saigon, Nha Trang and Hoi An all have their fair share of scams and safety hazards that travelers should be aware of. (Read Part 1 of this series HERE).

Famous for its beaches, the south has its fair share of scams to look out for

Famous for its beaches, the south has its fair share of scams to look out for

 

SAIGON:

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is Vietnam’s biggest, busiest, and most exciting city. In any such city there are always going to be scams and dangers to beware of.

Airport Taxi & Cyclo Scams: You can learn more about these notorious scams in this comprehensive blog post.

**** If you would prefer to avoid dealing with taxis altogether, or if you’re arriving to Ho Chi Minh City very late and/or you have young children, we can highly recommend Drive Vietnam for the best Ho Chi Minh City airport transfers ****

Hit-and-Run ‘Cowboys’: Drive-by snatchings (including backpacks, handbags, cameras slung around your neck, and ‘smart’ technologies held loosely in your hands) are pretty common in tourist hotspots, such as Ben Thanh Market, Pham Ngu Lao (the ‘backpacker’ district), and Le Loi street. Be particularly careful when crossing roads around Ben Thanh Market and when walking on the sidewalk close to the road in Pham Ngu Lao near the park. Always wear your backpack or handbag on your front, and don’t use your smartphones and tablets in crowded public areas. Another thing to look out for, especially in Pham Ngu Lao, are the adorable ‘street kids’ who wander the backpacker area befriending tourists and selling them chewing gum amongst other things. These children should be at school and the money they receive from you will only go back to the ring of adults (usually not their parents) who control them.

Street life in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is frenetic, but watch those valuables

Street life in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is frenetic, but watch those valuables

 

NHA TRANG:

Vietnam’s favorite beach party town, most of Nha Trang’s scams revolve around nightlife and the beach.

Spiked Drink Buckets: Communal drink ‘buckets’ are great fun for a group on a budget, but sometimes bartenders spike these cocktails with their own ‘medicines’, which may lead to more than just a bad hangover. There have been instances where foreigners are robbed after drinking spiked bucket cocktails. Stay clear of the buckets or, at the very least, make sure you’re leaning over the bar staff as he/she pours the liquor.

Crowded House’ Pickpockets: Being such as party town, Nha Trang has more than its fair share of crowded bars and nightclubs. Naturally, this is a pickpockets dream. Keep your wits about you: if someone grinds up against you on the dance floor it’s not necessarily a prelude to hooking up; when the dance is over you might find your wallet and smart phone are no longer in your pockets. The same goes for busy bars where customers are cramped next to each other. Keep the cash you carry to a minimum (admittedly this can be difficult if you’re planning on a big night out). It’s a good idea to invest in a cheap ‘dumb-phone’ for nights out; a standard Nokia is only $20 in Vietnam. Or, quite simply, don’t get too smashed; it’s much easier to stay alert when you haven’t had 5 mojitos, 6 beers, and 3 shots of Jägermeister.

Beach Thieves: The long, lovely stretch of Nha Trang beach is fertile ground for opportunist robbers: a bag or phone left unattended for a couple of minutes while the owner paddles in the surf could be gone in seconds. As with nights out on the town, only take what you need to the beach. Also, drive-by bag snatchers can whip the bag off your back before you realize what’s happening, especially on the seafront road and the backpacker streets. Always wear your bag or camera on your front while in these areas.

Local Voyeurs: Young Vietnamese men have been known to take photos and videos of young foreign women in bikinis on Nha Trang’s municipal beach. Shooting from the beachside park, these people are not very subtle about it. There’s not much you can do other than ignore it, and it’s probably best not to sunbath topless, which is illegal anyway.

Long Son Pagoda: Don’t be fooled into a fake tour around this Buddhist complex by children with printed cards claiming to be guides working for the monks. After they’ve showed you around they’ll insist on a ‘donation’ for the monks or that you buy overpriced postcards from them. Say ‘no’ firmly and, if they persist, state clearly that you will not give them any money.

Nha Trang's beach is long and lovely, but beware of thieves

Nha Trang’s beach is long and lovely, but beware of thieves

 

HOI AN:

Thankfully, Hoi An is one of the safest tourist destinations in Vietnam. However, there are a couple of minor scams and inconveniences to look out for.

Tailors: Perhaps the thing for tourists to do in Hoi An is to get tailor-made clothes from one of the hundreds of fine tailors here. Prices vary from high-end to budget, but in general you will get what you pay for: if you go cheap there’s more chance of the fit not being quite right, the material being substandard, and the stitching coming apart as soon as you get back home to your country. Do your research and shop around before deciding where to go. (See this previous XO blog for more details)

Manicure scam: A common scam, run by very forceful ladies lurking in the old town, is to offer manicures and other beauty treatments for a dollar or two, only to demand far more once the job is done. Simple solution; do not get beauty treatment on the streets on Hoi An.

Thefts & Hassle: Hoi An may be a small place but it’s hugely popular with foreign and domestic tourists alike. The narrow old streets can get very crowded during peak months and public holidays. Pick-pocketing and bag snatching can be a problem at crowded places, particularly around the Japanese Bridge and riverfront during the full moon lantern festivities. Don’t carry too much cash or valuables, such as gadgets, on your person, and wear your bags and backpacks on your front. General hassle to buy things and book onto tours is fairly persistent, but strong-arm tactics are rare in Hoi An.

Floating lanterns for sale in Hoi An, one of the safest destinations in Vietnam

Floating lanterns for sale in Hoi An, one of the safest destinations in Vietnam

 

FINAL WORD:

Don’t let this list of scams scare you: Vietnam is an extremely safe place to travel, and its people are overwhelmingly hospitable, friendly and honest. Keep an open mind and if or when a scam occurs try to stay calm and put the relative loss of money or inconvenience into perspective. Remember that tourist scams mostly occur in tourist areas; the best way to avoid scams altogether is to get off the beaten path (see this previous XO blog for more details)

We hope you found this Vietnam blog post and our Vietnam Travel Tips useful. If you’re ever in Ho Chi Minh City and you want to see parts of the city that most visitors never get to see, you should consider booking either our “Saigon by Night” or extremely popular “Foodie” tour.