How to stay safe and avoid scams in Vietnam – Part 1: North Vietnam

Generally, Vietnam is a very safe country in which to travel. Compared to most major tourist cities in the West – Paris, London, New York, Rome – the streets of Vietnam’s urban centers are much less threatening. However, in some of the more popular tourist destinations in Vietnam, there are a handful of tourist scams and safety hazards that all travelers should be aware of. In this XO blog – the first in a two-part series – we describe some common scams in tourist hotspots in the north of the country; Hanoi, Halong Bay, and Sapa. This guide to avoiding common tourist scams will help you get the most out of this fabulous country and avoid any negative experiences. (Read Part 2 of this series HERE).

Even at night, Hanoi is safer than most cities in the West

Even at night, Hanoi is safer than most cities in the West

 

HANOI:

Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, is one of the busiest and most beguiling cities in Southeast Asia. But, as tourist numbers have risen steadily, so too have tourist scams.

Airport Taxi Scam: Many visitors emerge from Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport dazed after a long-haul flight. Scam taxis take advantage of this by picking up passengers at the airport arrivals gate and immediately saying that the hotel they’ve booked has closed down. They will then offer to take you to another, better, cheaper hotel. Inevitably, this turns out to be a substandard and much more expensive hotel. Bewildered and weary, travelers give in to the demands and check-in. Naturally, the taxi drivers get a cut of the room charge. The solution is either to prearrange your airport pick up through your hotel when you book it, or, at the airport arrivals, look out for the official airport taxi drivers (who wear bright yellow jackets). Alternatively, make sure you flag down a trusted taxi company, such as, Mai Linh, ABC, or Taxi Group. Other common taxi scams are covered in this previous XO blog post.

Fruit Seller Scam: Notorious in recent years, this scam involves local fruit sellers, who struggle along Hanoi’s streets carrying bamboo poles laden with tropical fruit over their backs. The fruit sellers offer tourists a ‘go’ at carrying the bamboo pole, presenting it as a good photo opportunity. When the tourist hands the pole back to the fruit seller they demand money for the ‘service’ or insist that you buy their outrageously overpriced fruit as compensation. Don’t pick up that pole! This common scam can also be found in Ho Chi Minh City.

Hotel Currency Rates: Some budget hotels in Hanoi have been known to swindle customers by switching the room price from dollars to dong, and massively inflating the exchange rate. They may also say that the rate quoted was per person, not per room. Double check when you book, and keep any email confirmation you receive as evidence. Hotels may also charge guests for any preexisting breakages in the rooms. If anything is broken when you arrive notify reception immediately so that they cannot claim you were responsible.

Hoan Kiem Hospitality: A walk around Hoan Kiem Lake is a favorite activity for tourists and locals alike. Young men and women will approach you to practice their English and ‘make friends’. While this is often a genuine attempt to establish friendly contact – I have good friends made exactly like this – it can sometimes lead to invitations to expensive meals or day outings, for which you will be given the bill. Use your ‘travelers’ radar’ to assess whether contact is genuine or not.

Hoan Kiem Lake, a popular meeting place in Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake, a popular meeting place in Hanoi

 

HALONG BAY:

Famed for its mystical limestone karsts rising from the sea, Halong Bay is a captivating sight. But, these days, it can get pretty darn crowded with boat tours. Before you visit you should take note of a few things.

Tours & Cruises: A day cruise (and usually a night too) around Halong Bay is one of the most popular tours in all Vietnam. Tourists often book all-inclusive tours from Hanoi. These vary wildly in price and quality. Travellers who book onto the cheaper ones are often disappointed: bad food, terrible accommodation, sloppy service. More importantly your major concern should be safety. Vietnam has a poor maritime safety record and there have been incidents in recent years in Halong Bay, including sunken tourist boats and on-board fires, which have led to tourist deaths. Our advice is to spend more on your tour, and thoroughly check its credentials before you book. Not only will this ensure better quality, it will also mean better safety standards. An all-inclusive tour to Halong Bay from Hanoi should be around $100-150, anything less and you run the risk of disappointment. Another point to be aware of is that boat tours are often cancelled due to bad weather, especially during the monsoon months from July to September. Good tour companies will reimburse you, but many of the cheaper ones do not. Make sure you understand the policy of your tour clearly.

Save 15%-16% off the best Halong Bay Cruises from Indochina Sails, Indochina Junk or Bhaya Cruises when you book an airport transfer or private tour with Drive Vietnam.

On-board Theft: Unsurprisingly, there are reports of belongings and valuables being stolen on-board some of the cheaper tour boats. Take care not to leave your valuables unattended. At night, tour boats should have lockers available to passengers so that you can sleep easy knowing that your possessions are safe.

Floating Restaurants: There are hundreds of floating restaurants in Halong Bay, where fresh, reasonably priced seafood is available. However, these restaurants represent the most captive market in Vietnam; with water on all sides, where are you going to run if your hosts decide to overcharge you? Establish in advance (before you’ve made the voyage there) the cost of meals, and whether drinks and the return boat fare are included in the price. The restaurants in Ben Beo, off Cat Ba Island, are said to be better and less touristy than others. A boat out and back should be around 150,000 vnđ, but don’t pay your fee before the return journey to dry land is complete, otherwise you might find yourself stranded at sea.

Halong Bay's limestone karst landscape draws huge crowds of visitors

Halong Bay’s limestone karst landscape draws huge crowds of visitors

 

SAPA:

A mountain town surrounded by towering peaks and plunging valleys, unfortunately Sapa’s natural beauty is undermined by the constant hassle to buy trinkets and book onto tours, as well as the odd tourist scam.

Bogus Hotel Bookings: Such is Sapa’s tourist boom that, in recent years, hotels struggle to serve the hundreds (even thousands) of foreign and domestic travellers they receive on any one night, especially on weekends and public holidays. Even if you have booked your room months in advance, you may still find there are ‘no vacancies’ when you arrive. Check the reputation of your chosen hotel before you book, and, if you’ve booked in advance, reconfirm your booking before your arrival. One of the best things about staying in Sapa is having a spectacular view of the mountains from your hotel balcony. When you make your booking check and check again that you will have a clear mountain view, and, as always, keep the email confirmation from the hotel. Many travelers arrive in Sapa only to find that their mountain view is no more than an air conditioning unit and a bare brick wall.

Train Station Pick Up: Don’t accept a ride to Sapa from Lai Cao train station from anyone except your pre-booked hotel or tour agent. If you don’t have prearranged transportation take a taxi ($25) or one of the reliable minibuses that wait outside the station (50,000vnđ).

A Helping Hand? A quiet walk around Sapa town or the surrounding countryside is now almost impossible. At each turn tourists are met with shouts of ‘You buy something?’ or ‘I take you go for beautiful walk’. The hassle is constant and out of control. Many tourists come to Sapa specifically to visit ethnic minorities who live in the nearby mountains. It may be difficult, but you should ignore approaches from friendly young minority girls telling you their life story and offering you a free guided walk to their village. Inevitably, these ‘free’ guides will demand, beg, and even cry for money once you arrive at their village. Don’t make payment for a service you did not ask for or in order to get the girls to leave you alone, as this only sets a precedent – these young girls’ time would be better spent in school, but, at the moment, it is simply more lucrative for them to prowl the streets of Sapa for the tourist buck. All this leaves travelers in a quandary: what’s real, what’s fake? Is hospitality genuine of just a ruse to a scam? Contact Sapa O’Chau (www.sapaochau.org) for more information about the situation and for tours with genuine local guides.

Mountain view from a Sapa hotel balcony; make sure you get yours

Mountain view from a Sapa hotel balcony; make sure you get yours

 

We hope you found this blog post, and our Vietnam Travel Tips useful. The 2nd part of our Vietnam scams and safety article, focusing on Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An and Nha Trang, can be found HERE.

This blog is sponsored by XO Tours – Vietnam motorbike tours; offering the most acclaimed food tour in Vietnam for 5 years running!

The Ultimate Hanoi Shopping Guide – What to buy and where to buy it

We wrote a very popular shopping article focused on Ho Chi Minh City 2 years ago, and have since had many requests for a similar piece for Hanoi. Shopping posts are difficult to do however, because there are so many unique things that you can buy in Vietnam that it’s impossible to include everything in a single article.

We think this blog post offers a fairly comprehensive list of things that most people will want to buy when they visit Hanoi however.

What to buy in Hanoi:

  1. Silk and Clothing
  2. Lacquerware
  3. Do Paper
  4. Embroidery
  5. Souvenirs
  6. Products of the Ethnic Minorities
  7. Bamboo and Rattan
  8. Lacquer Paintings and Cloth Paintings
  9. Luxury Goods (Real and Fake)
  10. Housewares and Ceramics

 

  1. Silk Goods, Clothing

Silk is everywhere in Hanoi. Scarves and sleeping bag liners are available at every tourist shop. Raw fabric is rolled and stacked, waiting to be turned into a creation of your choosing. Finished dresses, men’s ties and Ao Dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress, are so plentiful that shops have to display excess wares on the sidewalk.

Tailored clothes are another local specialty. Tailor shops will recreate designs from samples or pictures, and can make intricate dresses or high quality business suits in a matter of days. Check reviews online to determine a tailor’s quality, and be sure to leave enough time for multiple fittings and adjustments.

The best known area in Hanoi for silk is Hang Gai, aka “Silk Street”. Expect to pay 25-50 USD per outfit for dresses and ready to wear clothes. Be sure to drop into Khai Silk (96 Hang Gai) and Duc Loi (77 Hang Gai). Another option is the three-story Hang Da Market (1 Hang Da st). On the ground floor you will find flowers and wine; the upper levels contain fabrics and vintage clothes upstairs. Visit early and keep an eye out for Ao Dais and goods made from Do Paper.

For larger quantities or better deals on silk, cut out the middleman and take a trip out to the villages of Van Phuc or Ha Dong. Both of these villages produce silk and carry wide selections, and with skillful haggling a better deal can be gotten. Van Phuc is famous for silk sheets and is located in Ha Dong District, about 10 kilometers away from the centre of Hanoi. For other fabrics, try Ninh Hiep village.

Location of Khai Silk

Location of Hang Da Market

Hanoi Shopping1
  1. Lacquerware

High gloss tableware is one of Vietnam’s best known crafts, one that is recognizable to many people from around the world. Introduced to the world in 1930s Paris, Vietnamese lacquerware offers a better selection and is usually of a better quality than offerings from other Asian countries. Unfortunately many low quality mass-manufactured offerings have flooded the market. If you have a discerning eye, try your luck browsing along Hang Trong, Hang Hom and Hang Manh streets. For a more curated selection, visit MARENA Hanoi (28 Nha Chung). Minh Tam (2 Hang Bong), a 10 year old family business, offers top quality lacquerware. To buy directly from the source, visit Ha Thai village.

Location of MARENA Hanoi

Location of Minh Tam

Hanoi Shopping2
  1. Do Paper

Do paper, (pronouned yaw), comes from the bark of a wild river plant known as the Do tree. After a three month process, the bark is transformed into a durable, high quality paper. This paper is then turned into all manners of goods for you to enjoy. You can browse postcards, notebooks and stationary sets, all costing under $3, along Hang Gai or Hang Bac or check out at Craft-Link (43 Van Mieu). Another traditional craft to keep an eye open for is Dong Ho paintings, which celebrate the Lunar New Year. These woodblock prints on Do paper are made in the village of Dong Ho.

Location of Craft-Link

  1. Embroidery

Northern Vietnam produces some stunning embroidered cottons and linens. From the patterns of the many ethnic minorities to the fine art quality work found framed and hung in galleries, beautiful embroidery can be found on any budget. A large selection can be found at Dong Xuan Market (Dong Xuan St and Hang Chieu St).

For better quality purchases, a trip to a specialty store may be in order. Tan My, the oldest embroidery shop in Hanoi, is located at 66 Hang Gai, but watch out for similarly named shops nearby. Once there, enjoy the plentiful selection of pillow cases, tablecloths, placemats, dresses and more. Everything in this shop has amazingly detailed designs, all of which are made 100% by hand.

Two more highly recommended shops are May (7 Nha Tho) for the a nicely displayed selection and Chi Vang (17 Trang Tien) for the unbeatable quality.

Location of Dong Xuan market

Location of Tan My

  1. Souvenirs

Hanoi is full of interesting souvenirs; you are sure to find the right gift for everyone on your list, as well as something unexpected for yourself. For wooden puppets, paper lanterns and paper fans, wander the areas close to the Water Puppet Theatre (57b Dinh Tien Hoang). For t-shirts exalting Vietnamese traffic, milk coffee, and pho, browse along Ly Quoc Su st.

If you’re looking for something more unique, try out musical instruments at Thai Khue, (1A Hang Manh) or browse Communist Party propaganda posters at The Hanoi Gallery (several locations, try 17 Nha Chung).

If you need to purchase a few thousand conical hats, try Chuong village. Here you can also find the flat topped hats, often with intricate embroidery, known as Non Quai Thao.

Location of Thai Khue

Location of The Hanoi Gallery

Propaganda art
  1. Products of the Ethnic Minorities

Vietnam has over fifty ethnic minority groups, more than any other Asian country. Most of them hail from mountain villages in the north. If you’re not making a trip to Sapa, you can still find some of the clothing and handicrafts of these industrious peoples for sale in Hanoi.

Browse the woodwork, lacquer paintings, ceramics, textiles, carved Buffalo horn goods as well as a selection of clothes, bags and scarves at Craft-Link (43 Van Mieu). This not for profit organization specializes in fair trade products of a better quality at comparable products. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, visit their second location, which carries a different selection of products.

For more crafts and home furnishings, as well as fair trade coffee, try Indigenous (36 Au Trieu) who donates profits to disadvantaged children.

Another not for profit organization, Mekong Quilts (13 Hang Bac) focuses on offering employment and developing the community through the making of quilts. Growing from selling quilts in her friends homes, owner Thanh Truong now employs over 340 women in the northern provinces.

Location of Craft-Link

Location of Mekong Quilts

Hanoi Shopping3
  1. Bamboo and Rattan

Bamboo and rattan are incredibly versatile materials. The multitude of things you can find fashioned from them is astounding. From tiny chopstick rests to intricately woven full size chairs, rice paper drying trays to three meter tall vases, seemingly anything can be fashioned out of these materials by skilled craftsmen. A good place to browse these offerings is Bamboo Shop (4b Hang Hanh). Bargain hunters are advised to look for bamboo shops along Quang Trung st, near Tran Nhan Trong st.

To see the craftsmen at work, take a trip to Bang So village, famous for bamboo work. Another option is a short 35-km trip from Hanoi to Phu Vinh, well known for crafting rattan products.

Location of Bamboo Shop

Hanoi Shopping4
  1. Lacquer Paintings and Cloth Paintings

As the traditional artisans and craftsmen left Hanoi, a void emerged and today that void is filled by fashion and artwork. Lacquer paintings bridge the two worlds, creating contemporary art with ancient techniques. Hanoi has no shortage of art galleries featuring the glossy, richly colored, beautifully layered lacquer paintings, as well as high quality cloth paintings by local artists. Stroll down Trang Tien st between Hanoi Opera House and Hoan Kiem Lake and you are sure to find a number of galleries worth peeking into. One gallery you should definitely visit is Thanh Binh Gallery (25 Trang Tien), well known for high end contemporary fine art.

If history’s greatest artists are more to your tastes, Hanoi has a number of painting shops that offer recreations of famous paintings by the masters. Many of these shops take requests and will work with you to create something specific.

Location of Thanh Binh Gallery

Hanoi Shopping5

Luxury Goods (Real and Fake)

Do Manh Cuong is the most successful fashion designer to come out of Vietnam, and his Do Manh Cuong Boutique (88 Nguyen Huu Huan) is the best place to find his designs. After working for Christian Dior and Dominique Sirop in Paris, DMC returned to Vietnam, where he can be found judging on Project Runway and Vietnam’s Next Top Model.

High end fashions can also be found at Ipa Nima (73 Trang Thi, 2nd location on Nha Tho). Ipa Nima carries in house designed and made handbags from Hong Kong designer Chistina Yu, as well as Spanish designed fashions from Chula (6 Ven Ho Tay) if the latter’s West Lake location isn’t convenient.

Another can’t miss area in Hanoi for high end fashion is along Trang Tien st south of Hoan Kiem Lake. Be sure to check out Trang Tien Plaza, which has a large number of designer stores on the ground floor. Just watch out for locals taking wedding pictures on the sidewalk in this area. Speaking of weddings, if you’re preparing for the big day, check wedding fashions at David Minh Duc or Thu Huong, both on Yet Kieu street.

If your budget isn’t as high, there are an endless supply of fake North Face backpacks and clothing in Hanoi, mostly near Hoan Kiem Lake. Be sure to pull on the seams and slide the zippers before buying though.

Location of DMC Boutique

Location of Ipa-Nema

Hanoi Shopping6
  1. Housewares and Ceramics

Hanoi is full of interesting, high quality home decorations available at low prices. Check out Vietnamese House (192 Hang Bac) for a nice selection of stone carved vases and boxes. For birdcages, some with birds in them, find the small shop at the intersection of Hang Da and Hang Dieu.

Mosaique Decoration (6 Ly Quoc Su) has three floors of home furnishings, from trinkets to bedroom furniture. Nearby La Casa (2 Ngo Bao Khanh) also carries beautiful locally made furniture from Italian designers.

For a better selection of ceramics, take a trip to Bat Trang village. You can easily explore it on your own, as it is located just outside the urban districts and can be accessed by a taxi or bus (number 47 from the Long Bien bus station). It is a small village with endless shops. The prices are much more reasonable compared to those in the city.

Location of Vietnamese House

Location of Mosaique

Here are a few other things to round out your shopping trip:

Shoes:

Shoe lovers will find paradise just off the east side of Hoan Kiem Lake, listed under the name Hang Dau st. This street is nothing but shoes and sandals, many direct from the factory with minor imperfections equalling large discounts. Fake luxury brand handbags can be found at the intersection with Lo Su street.

Location of Hang Dau

Jewelry and Silver:

Hang Bac, which translates to Silver St, is a dazzling maze of silver of all shapes and forms: from plain, simple rings and necklaces, stylish teapots, beautiful décor plates; to worshipping articles, such as incense holders and the four sacred animals. Silver is considered a powerful element to drive away evil spirits in Vietnam, so it’s no surprise that the silver industry prospers so much.

For a finer selection, visit Phuc Tin (Hang Gai Street), a high quality silversmith with traditional Vietnamese jewelry.

Location of Phuc Tin

Books:

Bookworm (44 Chau Long) is the best place in Hanoi to refill on reading material before a long flight or bus trip. This decade-old English language bookstore is located near Truc Bac lake.

Location of Bookworm

bookworm

Snacks:

O Mai and Banh Com are special treats commonly offered by Hanoians to their guests during the Tet holidays.

O Mai was originally used as a remedy for sore throats in Vietnamese tradition medicine. It is made from dried apricots, seasoned with salt, sugar, ginger, chili and licorice, which gives it a nice mixture of many flavors. Nowadays, O Mai is not only a favorite treat for the Hanoian, but also a best-seller souvenir for any Vietnamese tourist visiting Hanoi. Aside from apricots, many other fruits are now used to make O Mai as well.

Banh Com is another variety of glutinous rice products. Banh Com has a soft and chewy texture, with light sweetness and a hint of the trademark “cốm” fragrance. Banh Com is normally made without any preservatives, so eat it within 5 days after purchase.

Shops selling these treats are found mainly on the Hang Duong Street (Street of Sweets/Candies). Some of the older and more prestigious shops are Hong Lam (11 Hang Duong Street), Toan Thinh (15 Hang Duong), Van Loi (34 Hang Da).

Location of Hong Lam

snacks

A guide to the Old Quarter:

For tourists of all ages, Hanoi’s Old Quarter can provide a fascinating look into the culture and history of Vietnam, making it a can’t miss destination even if you don’t plan on buying anything. For shopaholics and souvenir seekers however, this is one of the best area to wander, browse and haggle. Famously known as the 36 streets, this neighborhood’s roads are named for the guilds that use to occupy them.

Villagers in Vietnam’s small towns ofter produced one thing per village. When craftsman and merchants moved from these villages to Hanoi, they would end up living on the same street, selling the same products. Eventually the streets of Hanoi’s old quarter came to be known for the guilds occupying each street. Salt, sugar, copper and tin were all more than items on a shopping list, they were locations for where to find these items. Today, some of these streets retain the products of their ancient guild. Some of them have evolved to sell similar products, and some have no relationship to the past, but nearly all retain their ancient names.

The following is a list of streets in the Ancient Quarter. In italics is the guild or product this street used to be known for. Following that is what is currently sold on that street, if a common theme exists. Streets marked “Same Same” still carry the goods they were named for.

Bat Dan / Wooden Bowls

Bat Su / China Bowls

Cha Ca / Roasted Fish / Same Same (Cha Ca La Vong is world famous)

Chan Cam / String Instruments

Cho Gao / Rice Market

Gia Ngu / Fisherman / Underwear, Socks, Scarves (Asian Sizes)

Hai Tuong / Sandals

Hang Bac / Silversmiths / Same Same

Hang Be / Rafts

Hang Bo / Basket

Hang Bong / Cotton

Hang Buom / Sails

Hang Bun / Vermicelli

Hang But / Brushes

Hang Ca / Fish

Hang Can / Scales

Hang Chai / Bottles

Hang Chi / Threads

Hang Chieu / Mats

Hang Chinh / Jars

Hang Cot / Bamboo Latices

Hang Da / Leather / Produce Market

Hang Dao / (Silk) Dyer / Ready Made Clothes

Hang Dau / Beans, Oil Extracts / Shoes and sandals

Hang Dieu / Pipes

Hang Dong / Copper

Hang Duong / Sugar / Jam and Candied Fruits

Hang Ga / Chicken / Same Same

Hang Gai / Hemp / Clothes, Scarves, Handbags

Hang Giay / Paper & Shoes / Candles, Incense, Famous Beef Jerky

Hang Hanh / Onions

Hang Hom / Cases

Hang Huong / Incense

Hang Khay / Trays

Hang Khoai / Sweet Potato

Hang Luoc / Comb

Hang Ma / Counterfeit Papers / Votive Paper Products

Hang Mam / Pickled Fish / Tombstones

Hang Manh / Bamboo-screens / Traditional Musical Instruments, Cushions

Hang Muoi / Salt

Hang Ngang / Transversal Street / Textiles

Hang Non / Conical Hats

Hang Phen / Alum

Hang Quat / Fans / Funeral and Festival Flags, Religious Paraphernalia

Hang Ruoi / Clam Worms

Hang Than / Charcoal

Hang Thiec / Tin / Sheet Metal, Mirrors

Hang Thung / Barrel

Hang Tre / Bamboo

Hang Trong / Drum

Hang Vai / Cloth

Lang Ong / Herbs and Spices / Same Same

Luong Van Can / Children’s Toys / Same Same

Lo Ren / Blacksmiths / Same Same

Lo Su / Coffins

Ma May / Rattan / Tours, Hostels, White People

Ngo Gach / Bricks

Thuoc Bac / Herbal Medicine / Same Same

To Thinh / Wood Turners Street / Same Same

 

We hope you found this Hanoi shopping post helpful. For more great Vietnam travel tips, please check back with us often.

If you need help shopping in Ho Chi Minh City, please consider booking our popular Shopping Spree Tour.

XO Tours in Hanoi

fake XO Tours

This is not XO Tours!

XO Tours does not operate in Hanoi, and it’s unlikely we ever will. So why the misleading blog title? We felt the need to write this blog post to protect our brand, so that when our valued guests search for XO Tours they will know that XO Tours only operates out of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and will not be tricked into booking onto a substandard and unsafe copycat tour in Hanoi or other cities in Vietnam.

We’ve always had many tour companies copy our tours, but it’s gotten especially bad in the past year with many new fly by night tour businesses actually stealing our website content, photos, and even our logo. Our website content is copyrighted and we have also trademarked our logo which has allowed us to file lawsuits against many of these tour operators and put many of them out of business. But it seems that for each of these copycat tours we shut down, a new one will pop up.

Although we cannot patent the concept of  female motorbike tour guides, we do object to companies that blatantly steal our name, logo and website content with the intent to use our hard earned reputation as a way to make a quick buck.

The companies that have been stealing our company name and website content are all poorly run businesses. These companies are also operating illegally and are not safe in our opinion. Instead of working hard to build a sustainable business and brand, they prefer to use deception to trick guests into believing that they are XO Tours.

If you’re in Hanoi and you want to book with a trustworthy and reputable tour operator, you should consider booking a tour with Vietnam Awesome Travel. Vietnam Awesome Travel, offers great walking food tours, cooking classes and even motorbike tours. You can contact Vietnam Awesome Travel by clicking on the link below:

http://www.vietnamawesometravel.com/

Please tell them that XO Tours recommended you.

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

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.  

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. 

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

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.

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

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

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

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 get around Saigon on the cheap!

As tourists, Ho Chi Minh City can seem very centralized because not only are many of the tourist attractions around District 1, the centre of the city, but this district is also quite compact.  However, with 24 districts, the city is actually very spread out and some of the other districts are more than twice the size of District 1.  Though D1 has a lot to offer in terms of culture, sights and activities, there is lot more to experience outside of the city.  Getting to the other parts of the city may seem challenging, but there are a number of public transportation options available to you, especially if you want to get around efficiently and in a cost effective manner.  

1. Xe Om

The Xe Om (the local name for a motorbike taxi) is one of the most efficient modes of transport within the city. It may seem unsafe initially but most Xe Om drivers are courteous and are willing to take you wherever you want to go. Of course it is entirely possible that their driving style may be rough, but you can always tell them to slow down or be more careful. If you feel completely horrified, you can simply cut the ride short and hop off!  Keep in mind though that traffic is intense in Ho Chi Minh City and a certain level of agility and aggressiveness is required to drive in the city. The prices are usually reasonable, around the range of 20,000-40,000 VND for shorter trips. Trips from D1 to the farther districts like D2 or D7 is roughly 70,000VND.   It is best to take a Xe Om within the more central districts such as 1, 3, 2, 7, 4, or 5.  Any farther, and the trip can be draining and more dangerous due to highway driving.

Xe Om drivers may not advertise themselves clearly, but they are very easy to spot.  On any given street corner, you are bound to see one or two men sleeping on their motorbikes – they aren’t just lounging in the sun for fun!  They are in fact waiting for someone to tap them on their shoulder and ask for a ride.  Near touristy parts of town like around Ben Thanh Market, many drivers will call out to you but be careful of the price that they offer as it can be marked up significantly.  Make sure to bargain the price down if you feel that their price is unreasonable.

He is eagerly waiting for his next customer... :)

He is eagerly waiting for his next customer… 🙂

2. Public Bus

The public bus system is incredibly developed and vast in Ho Chi Minh City.  There are over 100 different bus lines and routes, many of which serve the districts and tourist locations that are far from the centre of the city.  The public bus is also incredibly cheap, where a single ride fare starts at 3000VND.  As a tourist, taking the bus within the city can be arduous.  Having to wait for the bus in the heat, and sometimes rain, can be draining, especially when you can get around more quickly on a Xe Om, Taxi, or even walking.  Getting to the farther destinations is a situation in which the public bus is handy.  Taking the public bus is usually more appealing to the adventurous travellers, but given that Vietnamese people are usually friendly and helpful, we urge you to give it a try!  It may be easier than you think. 

To and from the airport, bus no. 152 is very convenient.  We have explained Bus no. 152 before in our taxi scams blog, since many people fall prey to taxi scams en route to the airport and back, making this airport bus a great alternative.  Bus no. 13 is another great route, which takes you to Cu Chi tunnels.  As we previously mentioned on our day trips from Saigon blog, many tour buses go to Cu Chi, but Cu Chi Tunnels offers free tour guides on site so you can take the public bus there and still have a similar experience as compared to an organized tour.  If you are headed to the Suoi Tien Amusement Park, you can take Bus no. 19, which leaves from Ben Thanh market and stops at the amusement park on its way to a national university.  It is about a 45 minute ride, which is only a little bit longer than the car ride there.  Dam Sen Water Park is also a popular tourist attraction, and Bus no. 11 goes directly from Ben Thanh market to the water park.  In general, Ben Thanh market and Cho Lon are big bus hubs and it is quite convenient to get around if you can get to either market.  The main Saigon Bus website also has a Google Maps based interactive guide to show you all the stops within each route.  And, here is a complete, yet overwhelming, map of all the bus routes in Ho Chi Minh City.  

More information on the city bus – SaigonBus

A typical bus depot.  The Ben Thanh and Cho Lon bus depots are much bigger.

A typical bus depot. The Ben Thanh and Cho Lon bus depots are much bigger.

3. Uber and Taxis

Last month, Uber launched in Ho Chi Minh City, just months after launching in Bangkok, Jakarta, and Beijing.  For those of you unfamiliar with Uber, it is an online app that has changed the game for taxi services around the world.  Basically, you download the Uber app, put your credit card information in, and get tuned in to cars and drivers in the area on a real time map.  You put in your pickup location and destination, and the closest driver comes to pick you up!  The whole ride is tracked on GPS and, best of all, there is no cash interaction between you and the driver.  The launch of Uber is encouraging other taxi companies to modernize by using the technologies from Uber competitors like GrabTaxi and EasyTaxi.  The use of this modern technology for taxi rides is also making it difficult for taxi drivers to scam tourists, which has been a major issue in this city for a long time.  

To Uber’s advantage, Google Maps is well developed and fairly accurate in Ho Chi Minh City.  The ability to pinpoint your start and end locations into Uber is incredibly useful for tourists since communication between taxi drivers who do not understand English can be an issue.  And, for women especially traveling alone late at night, Uber is a much safer option.  Right now, riding with Uber is cheaper than taking a taxi.  For instance, a ride form District 1 to District 2 or 7 is around 100,000VND, and from District 1 to Tan Binh District is roughly 50,000VND.  If you are a tourist here, take a look at our blog on cell phones to set yourself up with a local SIM card and 3G here.  Download the Uber app (available for iOS, Android, and BB), add your credit card, map your location and go! 

Uber in Vietnam Blog

Download the Uber App

The UBER interface!

The UBER interface!

4. Saigon Metro (under construction!)

In 2001, the idea of developing the Ho Chi Minh City Metro was first proposed with 6 different lines covering the greater Ho Chi Minh City area.  Construction for line 1 started 2008 and for line 2 in 2010.  The first line is said to be finished in early 2018, so only a few more years until we can ride the metro in Saigon!  Although it is still a ways away, the construction is affecting tourism in the city.  Specifically, construction for the District 1 portions of the metro started last month.  As a result, large parts of Le Loi and Nguyen Hue are blocked off and traffic has become much more fierce in parts of District 1.  Nevertheless, it’s an exciting time to be in Ho Chi Minh City now as many big changes are on the horizon.  

The proposed map and model of the Ho Chi Minh City Metro.

The proposed map and model of the Ho Chi Minh City Metro.

At XO Tours, we strongly believe that there is a lot more to this city than just District 1.  We would love to have you join us on our Foodie Tour, which is the best way to see many different districts besides District 1 and eat great street food along the way.  For more Vietnam Travel Tips, check back on our Blog regularly.