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).

Street food stall man waiting for customers at night

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.

A man looking into the air at 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.

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.

Mountain and sky scenery at Ha Long Bay

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

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 8 years running!

Why choose XO?

*1st motorbike food tour in Vietnam and still most acclaimed food tour in Vietnam. Voted 1 of the top 9 food tours in the world by Forbes magazine. Listed in Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and Fodors.
*1st motorbike tour with all female drivers, providing Vietnamese women with previously unafforded opportunities to work in tourism
* 1st motorbike tour in Vietnam to provide accident insurance for all guests
* 1st tour operator in Vietnam with security/support staff following every tour
* 1st tour operator in Vietnam to provide free tour photos to every guest

To learn more about all our fun tours in Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An, please visit our website at:

https://xotours.vn/

The Best Day Trips from Hanoi

Beware! XO Tours does not operate in Hanoi. If you book with a tour operator in Hanoi that claims to be XO Tours, you have been defrauded!

Hanoi sits on a bend in the Red River. To the south and east lies the watery world of the Red River Delta, where farms and villages continue as they have done for millennia: producing crops and crafts to supply the capital. To the north and west, the Red River Valley extends all the way to China. Here, mountains rise from the floodplains of the great river, forming deep ravines surrounded by misty peaks and forests. The Red River Valley and Delta is also the historical, mythological and spiritual heartland of Vietnam. It was here that the country’s first great kings ruled; its first citadels constructed, and military triumphs gained. As such, the area is strewn with temples, pagodas and shrines. In short, there’s a lot to see and do around Hanoi.

In this XO Tours Blog, we outline the best day trips from Vietnam’s capital. If you’re looking to travel to Saigon, you should take a look at the best day trips around Ho Chi Minh City.

 

The best Hanoi day trips

The best Hanoi day trips

 

In general, all of the day trips listed here can be easily organized through reputable Hanoi travel agents. Because there are so many great sights within reach of Hanoi, we’ve arranged them into three groups according to different categories. Click on a category below to read more about the day trips in that group:

 

 


 

PAGODAS, TEMPLES & HISTORY:

 

Thay & Tay Phuong Pagodas:

A mere 30 minutes west of Hanoi, these two pagodas are rich in embellishments and set in surprisingly (given their proximity to downtown Hanoi) serene locations. Built around craggy hillocks, these pagoda complexes offer lots of atmospheric chambers, anterooms, ponds and courtyards. Papier-mâché and jackfruit wood figurines populate the prayer halls, some of which date from the 16th century. Thay Pagoda has founded nearly a thousand years ago, and there’s a suitable sense of time and history here, especially since there are very few tourists compared to other historical sites. Travel tips: combine with a trip to Ba Vi National Park (see below) Time: a few hours

Thay Pagoda, Hanoi Day Trips, Vietnam

Thay Pagoda, Hanoi Day Trips, Vietnam

 

Perfume Pagoda:

Long considered the Hanoi day trip, the Perfume Pagoda is a mystical journey southwest of the capital: by road at first, then by boat through a limestone valley, and finally by foot up the long stairway to the sacred grottoes housing temples and shrines. In many ways, this is the perfect day trip: a mixture of natural beauty, history, culture and architecture. But over the years it has become increasingly busy with domestic and foreign tourists and pilgrims. The crowds can’t detract from the natural beauty of the area, but the litter, trinket selling and constant hassle, can make it feel like a bit of a circus, and certainly detracts from the spirituality of the occasion. Travel tips: book onto an all in one tour from Hanoi so that you won’t have to deal with the queues and hard bargaining once you arrive. Time: half or full day trip.

Perfume Pagoda, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Perfume Pagoda, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

 

Hoa Lu Ancient Capital:

Strategically located in a forest of limestone hillocks, Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam from 968-1009AD. The physical setting is very pretty indeed, with rivers and moats bisecting dozens of limestone ‘molehills’. Most of the original structures have vanished, but several temples dating from the 16th century still stand. These buildings are dedicated to the worship of Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Dai Hanh, both of whom ruled from Hoa Lu. The temples are dark and atmospheric, but the best place to view Hoa Lu is from the hilltop where Dinh Tien Hoang’s tomb is located: from here there are superb views of the site and surrounding countryside. Traval tips: combine with other sights in the area, such as Bai Dinh Pagoda (see below). Time: a full day trip(if combined with nearby sights).

Hoa Lu Citadel, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Hoa Lu Citadel

 

Bai Dinh Pagoda:

Just a few minutes’ drive from Hoa Lu, Bai Dinh Pagoda is an enormous complex of brand new religious buildings. Although built on the site of an old temple, Bai Dinh was constructed between 2003 and 2010. The scale alone is reason enough to visit. But there’s also artistry and finery in the smaller details of this gigantic, modern monument to Buddhism. For example, of the 500 statues lining the initial courtyard, each one has been individually designed, and there are a beautiful symmetry and rhythm to the general layout of the complex, which stretches across 700 hectares. As far as scale, awe, pomp and ceremony are concerned, there’s nothing else quite like it in Vietnam. However, Bai Dinh Pagoda has quickly become popular with domestic tourists, so expect crowds and a certain theme-park atmosphere. Travel tips: combine with other sights in the area, such as Trang An boat rides (see below). Time: a full day trip(if combined with nearby sites).

Bai Dinh Pagoda, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Bai Dinh Pagoda

 

Ho Ancient Citadel:

The most southerly of all the sights in this list, it’s worth the extra mileage to visit Ho Citadel, especially if you’re a history buff. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2011, the citadel’s imposing walls and wide enclosure date from the late 14th century. Only recently beginning to attract tourists, the old gates and walls of Ho Citadel are surrounded by a fertile, rural landscape typical of the Red River Delta region. The remains of this royal enclosure are impressive and extensive. But another appealing aspect of this historical site is that farming and rural life continues inside the ancient compound. Travel tips: combine with the Ho Chi Minh Road (see below) for a scenic drive to and from the citadel. Time: a full day trip, including travel time.

Ho Citadel, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Ho Citadel

 

Phat Diem Cathedral:

Visited by Graham Greene in 1951 and featured in his novel, The Quiet American, Phat Diem Cathedral is an architectural mélange of Christian, European and Asian elements. The result is an enchanting, East-meets-West version of a cathedral. The curved, tiled rooftops, stone nave, and wooden pillars of this 1891 church are very exotic. The cathedral serves the large Catholic population in the area, which has been exposed to Christianity for almost four centuries, since the arrival of Portuguese missionaries. Travel tips: combine with nearby attractions, such as Tam Coc boat trips (see below). Time: a full day trip (if combined with nearby sights).

Phat Diem Cathedral, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Phat Diem Cathedral

 

[Back to Contents]


 

NATURE, NATIONAL PARKS & OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES:

 

Ba Vi National Park:

A former French colonial hill station, the forested slopes of Ba Vi Mountain rise to the west of Hanoi. Roughly 70km from the capital, this national park is an easily accessible slice of nature: a dose of greenery, birdsong, and clean air just a couple of hours’ drive from Hanoi. A road leads almost to the summit, where there are excellent views over the Red River Valley and back towards to the urban sprawl of the capital. Hiking, bird watching, and waterfalls are all on offer. Travel tips: combine with Thay and Tay Phoung Pagodas (see above). Time: half a day trip.

Ba Vi National Park, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Ba Vi National Park

 

Tam Dao Hill Station:         

Yet another French colonial hill station nestling in the mountains northwest of Hanoi, Tam Dao is larger, greener and wilder than Ba Vi. Three main peaks rise out of the mists to form tam đảo (‘three islands’). The area is a national park, with many varieties of flora and fauna on its jungled slopes. Tam Dao town itself is a tourist trap, but from here there are hikes to bamboo forests, waterfalls and orchid gardens. At almost 1,000m above sea-level, temperatures here are noticeably cooler than Hanoi, which is particularly appealing if you’re visiting during the hot and humid summer months. Travel tips: avoid weekends, when Hanoians flock here in great numbers. Time: a full day trip.

Tam Dao National Park, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Tam Dao National Park

 

Mai Chau Valley:

Although most visitors will want to spend more than a day in this green valley, if you’re pushed for time it’s possible to get to Mai Chau and back in one day. Improved road connections from Hanoi mean that the verdant valleys, terraced hillsides and minority villages of Mai Chau are more easily reached from the capital than ever before. They’ll be a lot of time spent in the car, but it’s a fascinating journey and by lunchtime you’ll be in the green embrace of one of Vietnam’s prettiest valleys. Relax in a wooden stilt home belonging to a White Thai minority family and dine on superb home-cooked food while looking out over a sea of rice paddies, before taking a gentle trek through the valley. Travel tips: start as early as possible to make the most of the day. Time: a full day trip.

Mai Chau, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Mai Chau

 

The Ho Chi Minh Road to Cuc Phuong National Park:

One of Vietnam’s longest and most scenic highways, the Ho Chi Minh Road starts just an hour west of Hanoi. From here, follow it south through a memorable landscape of limestone outcrops broken by blue rivers and dotted with small agricultural towns. In a day, it’s possible to reach as far south as Cuc Phuong National Park where, weather permitting, you can swim in the river before heading back to Hanoi. Travel tips: combine with a trip to Ho Citadel (see above). Time: a full day trip.

Ho Chi Minh Road at Cuc Phuong National Park, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Cuc Phuong National Park

 

Trang An & Tam Coc Boat Rides:

Trang An and Tam Coc both offer boat rides through a beguiling landscape of limestone caves and pillars, creating a natural maze which can only be negotiated via narrow waterways, channels and canals. The wooden canoes are piloted by Vietnamese women, many of whom steer the boats using their feet to operate the oars. The scenery is incredible: it’s everything you wanted exotic Southeast Asia to be. But be warned that both Trang An and Tam Coc are firmly on the domestic and international tourist radar and as such can become very busy. Try to go early in the morning or after midday when the crowds tend to lessen. Travel tips: combine with nearby attractions, such as Bai Dinh Pagoda (see above). Time: a full day trip.

Tam Coc & Trang An boat rides, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Tam Coc and Trang An

 

Bac Son Valley:

A fair drive north-east of the capital, Bac Son is emerging as an alternative destination to Ninh Binh. Bac Son Valley is a corridor of bright rice paddy along a gently meandering river, towered over by majestic limestone pinnacles: a landscape worthy of Lord of the Rings. However, unlike Ninh Binh, mass tourism has yet to arrive at Bac Son, which means there’s far more sense of adventure when visiting this region. There’s not much in the way of tourist infrastructure yet, so driving the loop around the pretty valley and stopping for lunch in Bac Son town is likely to be you’re only itinerary option. Travel tips: it’s a long way, so start early in the day. Time: a full day trip.

Bac Son Valley, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Bac Son Valley

 

[Back to Contents]


 

CRAFT VILLAGES:

 

Bat Trang Ceramics Village:

Of all the craft villages surrounding Hanoi, Bat Trang is probably the most famous, the easiest to get to and, therefore, the most-visited. Bat Trang is known for its ceramics: bowls, plates, tiles, and pottery of all shapes and sizes. Not 15km from central Hanoi, the narrow, winding lanes of Bat Trang village feel like a medieval suburb, still fueled by the industry that has kept its inhabitants busy for centuries. The famous blue and white ceramics are on sale throughout town, but to see some of the actual work taking place, wander down some of the smaller, back-alleys, where you’ll find coal and gas-fired kilns. Just a short jaunt east across the Red River, Bat Trang can be visited by bicycle or even on foot from central Hanoi. Travel tips: combine with other sights close to Hanoi, such as Thay Pagoda (see above). Time: a couple of hours trip.

Bat Trang ceramics village, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Bat Trang ceramics village

 

Van Phuc Silk Village:

Just 10km southwest of Hanoi, Van Phuc is known for its silk production. With a long and proud tradition of producing some of the finest textiles in the country, you’ll find material for tailor-made clothing as well as off-the-peg outfits, both of which are cheaper here than in central Hanoi. There are many workshops in the area – the sound of electric looms is deafening – and no one seems to mind if you wander around them. Travel tips: combine with a trip to Ba Vi National Park (see above). Time: one hour trip.

Van Phuc silk village, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Van Phuc silk village

 

Duong Lam Ancient Village:

About 50km west of Hanoi, Duong Lam is a preserved and restored, traditional village. Although many of its buildings are new, a good portion of older buildings (some as old as 300 years) still remain. It’s a very atmospheric place to walk around, and local villagers (many of whom appear to be octogenarians) are particularly friendly and keen to chat. The traditional architecture is beautiful: large stone courtyards, village gates, tiled porches, and local shrines. Travel tips: combine with a trip Thay Pagoda and Ba Vi National Park (see above). Time: half a day trip.

Duong Lam village, Hanoi day trips, Vietnam

Duong Lam village

 

We hope this guide helps you in planning your trip to Hanoi and the surrounding areas. XO Tours currently does not offer any tours up north. However, if your trip includes a visit to Ho Chi Minh City, we would love to have you on one of our 4 acclaimed ho chi minh tours. To learn more about our tours, see current prices and schedules, please visit our website at xotours.vn.

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.

Xe om in ho chi minh city

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 travelers, 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 best day trips from Saigon article, 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 – Ho Chi Minh city Management and Operation Center for Public Transport

If you are looking for some day trips from Ho Chi Minh. UNESCO Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere is probably the best trip to go by bus. 

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 (now Grab) and Taxis 

Uber is no longer operating in Vietnam after they merge with Grab in South East Asia  

3 years ago, 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 from 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  Vietnam SIM card and 3G here.  Download the Uber app (available for iOS, Android, and BB), add your credit card, map your location and go! 

Download the Grab App on iPhone | Android

Grab is now offering at Ho Chi Minh City | Ha Noi | Da Nang | Quang Ninh | Khanh Hoa

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 2020, 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.

Custom made? Yes Please! A Guide to Custom Tailoring in Vietnam

custom tailoring vietnam

custom tailoring vietnam

If you haven’t already heard, Vietnam is a superstar manufacturing country.  In the last several years, many multinational companies have created manufacturing facilities in Vietnam, solidifying the country’s superstar status.  The direct consequence of this is a huge reservoir of skilled and knowledgeable workers who can do everything from shoemaking, jewelry making, dress tailoring, suit craftsmanship, and more.  The unique thing to come of this is that custom made things for normal folk is readily available!  So down to business… We bring you one of the most important (and fun!) Vietnam travel tips.  The where/when/how of custom tailoring in Vietnam!

USEFUL TIPS

How much does it cost?

Well, this is tricky.  If you walk into 5 different tailor shops (and this applies to clothes, shoes and jewelry), you will be quoted 5 different ranges in price.  You can expect to pay a higher price for more experienced tailors and much less at less experienced ones.  On the other hand, if you walk into some tailor shops in touristy areas, you will pay a serious premium just for using their business.  The big appeal of these types of tailors, aside from the convenience of being in a tourist area, is the quick turn around time.

The Proper Strategy

It’s very important to have the right knowledge and strategy before even walking into a tailor shop.  If you go the tailor unsure of what you want, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.  The first step is to research what dresses, shoes, jewelry or shoes you want and printing out pictures.  Good pictures are key!  For shoes and jewelry, it’s more simple because you can basically just walk into a shop and ask them to make it for you according to the picture.  Although you can buy leather and other material, shoe and bag makers usually have better resources and it’s best to leave the materials shopping to them.

For clothes, in most cases it is best to buy the fabric before going to the tailor.  It may even help to understand the difference in fabrics – jersey, knit, chiffon, net, wool, cashmere, cotton, linen, silk, silk chiffon, silk crepe, cotton silk, polyester, poly blends, etc.  It sounds tedious, but if you want to achieve a certain look, a lot depends on what fabric you choose!  Make sure you get a chance to feel the fabrics and drape them, stretch them, crumple them, just to gain an understanding of how it will behave once it is sewn.  Remember that the raw materials are never prewashed, not even denim.  If you purchase cotton based fabrics, make sure the garments are sewn a little bit longer than what you want it to look like.

Fabric shopping is important for suit making.  If you are going to wear the suit in a tropical climate, you need different weighted fabric than if you wear the suit in a cold climate.  Or, did you know that cashmere blends don’t hold creases as well as other types of wool?  Or that silk wool blends are all the rage this season for wedding suits and tuxes because you can get a softer and more natural sheen than polyester fabric?  Do your research! 🙂

After you have all that settled and you have purchased the fabrics and materials, find a tailor that is right for you.  You can go into high end tailor shops where the track record is more established to increase your chances of getting what you want.  But remember that no matter how much experience the tailor may have, there is still a chance that it may not work out.  Some pricier tailors in the city also carry their own selection of materials and will not allow outside material.  For example, some specialty suit tailors have couture fabric from Zegna, Cerruti and more.  They will only use those fabrics in order to uphold their reputation.  Beware of frauds, however – a lot of ‘Italian made’ fabrics are actually made in Thailand and just given an Italian name.  It’s also very easy to replicate the embroidered labels on the fabric.  That being said, if the name brand is not important to you, we have seen fabric made in Thailand that competes with the best Italian imported fabric, so make quality a priority!

You will also have to choose the right kind of tailor for the type of item you are trying to make.  For instance, for expensive materials like silk, you should go to a tailor that specializes in it because it’s a very difficult material to work with.  Once you have all of this done, the most important thing is to leave yourself some time.  Although there are a bucket load of tailors who will turn around items in 1 or 2 days, it is much more risky and the craftsmanship may not be as good.  The town of Hoi An in Vietnam employs thousands of tailors and the custom tailoring aspect is a large part of the economy there.  Their turn around time for shoes, clothes, suits and jewelry is a day or sometimes even part of the day.  But remember, many times if you go to a tailor that promises something back in a day, it looks like it was made in a day!  If you want simple shirts and dresses, they are usually not a problem to whip out quickly but don’t expect to get anything complicated made.  And if you feel like getting suits made in a day, we suggest having lower expectations!  🙂

Shoes and Jewelry

There are certain things to watch out for when getting custom shoes made.  The major problem with custom shoe making is that the shoemakers don’t make their soles but buy them instead.  If your foot does not fit diagonally on an A4 (8.5”x11”) sized paper, chances are you are out of luck!  This is also why shoes with padding and proper foot support are really hard to make because the soles are pre-purchased.  For example, you can get shoes made that look like Cole Haan dress shoes on the outside, but don’t expect them to have fancy cushioning technology on the inside!  Bespoke shoe making is another thing to leave some time for because many times you will have to get the shoe makers to re-do the shoe because it will just look shabby or have wonky stitching.  These are things that foreigners tend to value and is an unfortunate annoyance when creating custom items – you are your own quality control department!

As for jewelry making, many of the jewelry stores in the city will make almost anything for you.  For jewelry made from precious metals or precious/semi-precious stones, we suggest going to proper jewelers who specializes in bespoke jewelry.  For simple costume jewelry, almost anyone can do it, and well at that!  All of the raw material for fake jewelry, at least in Ho Chi Minh City, comes from the same place.  As long as they have a good picture to work with, they can make you your desired piece with no hitches!  If you want to have more control over the process, you can just as easily go and pick out the items yourself and just give it to the shop owner to assemble.

The basic strategy to get anything custom made in Vietnam. Seems arduous, but worth it if you can get your desired items made to your specifications!

The basic strategy to get anything custom made in Vietnam. Seems arduous, but worth it if you can get your desired items made to your specifications!

WHERE TO GO

** Please note that the following  list  of shops and tailors are places that we have had good results at.   HOWEVER,  we cannot guarantee your success at these places!  **

Raw Materials

– Fabric Street – along Hai Ba Trung street around Tan Dinh market; almost any kind of fabric you can find; the shops inside the Tan Dinh market are generally cheaper.  At first glance, it may not seem like the selection is as great, but the market is a lot larger than it seems.  Here’s a tip – when you walk into the main entrance of the market, turn left right away to get to denim heaven!

– Soai Kinh Lam Market – 545 Tran Hung Dao, Q5; this is a huge wholesale market in Ho Chi Minh City, mostly for fabric.  If you are making a wedding dress or something else that takes a lot of fabric, this is a great place.  Otherwise, the stall owners are hesitant to sell smaller cuts of fabric.

– Craft Market – at the corner of Tran Hung Dao and Chau Van Liem, Q5; this is another wholesale market with everything from lace to ribbon to jewelry chains to accessories for clothing.  They have it all!  They also have the best selection of embroidered lace – a must see for wedding dress enthusiasts.  And for those of you wanting to make that ‘Hermes belt’ or the ‘Tory Burch handbag’, find the goods here! 😉

Custom Shoes

– Tran Quoc Lan – 97 Le Thanh Ton
– Any of the cobblers sitting along Le Thanh Ton – you’ll be surprised!  Many of them have their own shoe making businesses and will make your shoes for much cheaper than the stores.

Custom Suits

– Tricia and Verona – 39 Dong Du; they also ship overseas if you don’t have enough time in the city.
– Dung Tailor – 221 Le Thanh Ton; best selection of linen fabric in the city (they also own the fabric shop next door).
– Nhut Tailor – 232 Le Thanh Ton
– H&D Tailor – 76 Le Lai St; great selection of high end fabric, but the prices are high end too!
– Viet Thang Silk Tailors – 129 Le Thanh Ton; very fast turn around time.

Custom Swimwear

– All the shops around 185 Ly Tu Trong – our favourite is the store called Ly Ly.  Choose your fabric right there!

Custom Jeans

– Huong Tailor – 48 Ly Chinh Thang – this guy is a jeans magician!  He has a shop full of denim wear and he specializes in jeans.  Buy the fabric beforehand though because denim has such a huge range in terms of feel, stretch, and wash that it’s really hard to tell what you want from a photograph.

Custom Dresses

– Huy – 237 Trang Quang Khai, Q.1
– Lan Vy – 217 Le Thanh Ton, Q.1
– V&H Tailor – 98 Le Lai (the entire block is 98 Le Lai, so just find their V&H yellow and black sign); the ladies here also have connections with embroiders so if you want something hand or machine embroidered, they’ll get it done for you! 😉

Custom Wedding Dresses

– Ho Van Hue St – Phu Nhuan District; several shops that make custom bridal wear.
– The One Couture (www.theonecouture.com) – online store; a very creative Vietnamese American girl in Ho Chi Minh City runs this business for overseas clients wanting their Vera Wang or Vivienne Westwood dress at a fraction of the cost!

Custom Jewelry

– Therese Jewelry – 147 Dong Khoi; specializes in gold jewelry or silver plated with gold as well as precious stones
– La Hand Made Jewelry – 323 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Q3; go here for all your fake jewelry needs!
– The many jewelry shops along Nguyen Trai – for custom costume jewelry, almost any of these shops will do it for you.

We hope you found this post on custom tailors in Vietnam useful!  Please visit the XO Tours Blog regularly for other fantastic Vietnam travel tips!   If you are in Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon and you need help with shopping or tailoring, please consider booking the XO Tours Shopping Spree tour!

A review of our “Foodie” tour by a renown New York Chef

New York Chef and winner of The Food Network's "Chopped" in 2010.  Mr. Mario Tolentino

New York Chef and winner of The Food Network’s “Chopped” in 2010.  Mr. Mario Tolentino

Here is an excerpt from the food diary of Mario Tolentino, a New York Chef and winner of The Food Network’s “Chopped” in 2010.  Mr. Tolentino, a street food fanatic, decided to take part in our “Foodie” tour on August 6th, 2011.  He was kind enough to send his review of “The Lunch Lady” and our very own “Foodie” tour to me, and to say that we are flattered and ecstatic about his remarks would be an understatement!  Thanks Mario!

Here is what he wrote:

Nighttime foodie tour

I want touch on 2 eating experiences

1- lunch lady day 2

I started my day at the War Remnants Museum, it was a big eye opener to not only see the Vietnamese view of the war but also just to learn about this epic failure of a war, the parallels of our current Afghan war are undeniable. As they both were wars against terror, meaning only terrible things happen. I left the museum shook, sad and disturbed so there was only one remedy, LUNCH LADY!!

I arrived right at 11am, when she begins serving and there were around 10 people waiting for her “secret ingredient” soup. She greeted me with a huge inviting smile I almost felt like she remembered me from the day before. I take my seat and it was like she was sending me an amuse for having to wait and the fresh shrimp spring rolls hit the table with it’s sweet spicy peanut sauce. The roll itself has vermicelli rice noodle, a herb called morning glory, garlic chives, cilantro, lettuce and steamed shrimp. The peanut sauce is not like the kind you get in the states with your satay. It is heavy with the tamarind paste and has pickled carrot & daikon, crushed peanuts and crushed chilies. Great start!! Since I arrived last of the early guests I observed what the soup contained a Thick “macaroni” like rice noodles with a pink hue in a light but flavorful pork broth, blood cake, sliced ham, steamed sausage, pink plump shrimp, quail egg and various herbs. The ecoutremants are lettuce leaf, and this very light, airy and crisp fried breadstick, intended to be used to sop up the broth, lime and fermented spicy shrimp paste.  Absolutely ethereal! The pork and shrimp combination is very common in SEA and the rich porky broth only enhances this combo. The blood cake is much more mild then I anticipated and the irony slightly bitter taste actually serves an important purpose to cut the intense flavor. I throw in the “croutons” and they soak up the liquid like a sponge while still retaining it’s texture and integrity. Slurping up the thick noodles also give the soup a fun aspect. At my feet are exotic chickens and rooster, I look up and take notice to something, what’s that I hear?!? NOTHING! Only the quiet slurping of soup and noodles. Fully satisified I pay my tab and zoom off. Already thinking about my biggest treat of my stay, a night time foodie tour.

Mario Tolentino and Nga, tour guide, grill seafood, saigon

Mario Tolentino and Nga, his tour guide

The company is called XO tours and is rated number 1 in every genre for things to do in Sai Gon, My guide Nga, pronounced Nee-yah promptly arrives at my hotel to pick me up. It has been raining for the past 3 hours and I considered canceling but decided to man up and brave it in the rain. It was cool to be on the back of a moto and not have to worry about navigating. I jump on with a plastic poncho and off we go into the smoky soaked Saigon  streets.

Our first stop is laterally 2 blocks from my hotel!?!! I was like, what the hell!?! Great another SEA scam, they’re not going to take us anywhere good! But they served us a bowl of soup, it was good, but nothing compared to my earlier experience with the lunch lady. As I’m slurping away the other guests on the tour arrive, I can’t remember their names but it was a British couple and their two Vietnamese scooter hostesses and the owner of the company Tung. They sit down we introduce ourselves and I can’t believe my ears, Tung has an American accent! He grew up in Texas it was actually comforting as traveling alone I really haven’t met or spoken with many ppl from the states.

Side note – travelers I have met and chatted with German, British (largest group), Thai, Canadian, Dutch.

My hostess Nga, confessed that Tung was very nervous for me to go on the trip, I asked why? She said, oh he looked you up and say you very famous chef. I laughed!! I said no I’m not famous, just a chef. Actually, when I first booked my reservation Tung was adamant about clarifying that this wasn’t fancy food and we would be dining on street food. I replied to him yeah I know that’s what I’m looking for! I always forget about the auto signature at the bottom of my emails.

Ok back to the food tour, it was fun to be on the back of the moto, I was able to take videos. Our second stop is in Chinatown, it was raining so we weren’t able to get the full experience of the night market but it was cool to ride thru, Nga told me how everything is on sale at this night market and only on sale at night. It was about a 30-40min ride from stop 1-2. Tung, then told us that are next stop was going to be a popular hotpot spot that is only frequented by locals.

And all 3 of us are excited. As I’m riding along, Nga is very informative, bright, funny and witty! She tells me about all the things we are riding by. We also talked about other foods and she mentions that one of her favorite things is bulot! (Baby chicken embryo) **edit: it’s actually duck embryo**.  I asked her if I would have the opportunity to try it. I think the girl thought I was kidding but I didn’t let up and after riding for 30-40min she pulls over to a small cart on the side of the road and gets 2 chicken eggs and 2 quail eggs! We ride another 5 min or so and we arrive at the spot. We are noticeably the only westerners in the place, as the moment we duck under the tent all eyes turned too us. Especially the British couple the lady was tall, blond hair, blue eyed and stuck out like a sore thumb. But they quickly put our table together and bring us beers, set up the little habachi grill and load the table with their specialty goat. Yup goat, not lamb, not mutton, straight up goat! But before I can dive into the specialty of the house I must eat the quail egg and bulot while it’s still hot. Quail egg is no problem because it is so small, so on to the next.  Nga gives me a demo, first you take a spoon and crack the wider end of the egg and peel away just a bit of the shell and drink the liquid inside. Ok…… so I go for it and it was absolutely delicious!! It tastes like chicken consommé light in texture and heavy on chickeny flavor. Well this is a great start!! My beer arrives right on time! Moments before it is time to tackle the rest. Nga sets me up with a mixture of salt, pepper, crushed chilies and lime juice also thai basil and a commonly used  amazingly complex herb named morning glory (it has a minty, cilantro, lemony, bitter taste) I begin to peel away the hot shell and can see the chick clearly now take a spoonful of the mixture and take a bite……not bad, got a good amount of yolk, familiar taste, and a livery type tast, also familiar. But I still have a large amount to go, take a bite of basil, morning glory and a swig of beer to prepare for the next bite. There is no real way to take a bite, I douse it in salt mixture and pop the whole thing in my mouth!! WOW!! Flavor this time is more livery and the texture is of rubber!! And since I took such a large bite I had to stop take a breath, stuff basil in my mouth… man up and chew, and chew, and chew half way thru I’m like what have I gotten myself into!! I take another spoonful of salt mix and a few more herbs and finally get the rest of it down! This was the only time I can remember in my life that I ate something that gave me that level of adrenaline! I conquered it the table applauded and I’m ready for my goat! The flavor o the goat is odd not at all like lamb, but unmistakably red meat. It actually had almost a bacony type quality and of course the char was my favorite part.  Tung explained to us that this is the breast of the goat.  They also brought us shrimp in a delicious chili marinade. We set off to our next destination.

Mario Tolentino trying the Balut

Mario Tolentino trying the Balut

Our ride continues off into areas unknown to most foreigners. Another 30min until we reach our next destination. Tung explains that this place has his favorite dessert, we would be sampling 2 types. 1 – coconut gel served in the shell. 2- a creme caramel with ice and Vietnamese coffee. The coconut dessert had two layers, the top was white thick fatty and rich, while the bottom was very dense and jelly in texture but clear and light in flavor. I love coconut so this dessert is right up my alley. I love flan! An this creme caramel was no exception what made it unique was the crushed ice and strong coffee. I must also note the the silky, creamy texture, was perfection and a obvious expert created this dish, I loved them both but preferred the flan.

Tung informs us too save room we still have our seafood stop!! We enter the next district and it is back to the densely packed streets. We arrive at a our place and we are all excited for what is to come. Oh yeah, after hearing Nga speak so highly of her favorite dish I have requested the grilled chicken feet, common in these parts. The first dish is chili crab, small fresh water blue crab claws, wok fried with a lot of chilies and garlic!! Perfect!! Then we get a steaming pile of small razor clams in gravy with the sauted stalk of the morning glory! Unbelievable taste, as this surf clam has the intensity of the sea, mixed with the richness of the gravy, and complex herbaceous quality of the morning glory. Another home run!! Then my favorite dish of the evening, small scallops grilled in the shell, with butter scallions and crushed peanuts!! This dish had it all buttery scallop, bright oniony flavor, great texture with the peanuts, simple but so incredible!!  I turn to look at the grill an seeing the cook fanning and stoking the coals and meticulously rotating the chicken feet to grilled perfection. I’m not kidding, these feet blow chicken wings out of the water!!! I’m going to make this when I get home to eat, it’s the best part of the chicken, it’s basically grilled chicken skin, gelatinous fatty minute amounts of meat and just an intense chicken flavor. I could taste the marinade which I deduced was the same chili marinade the other place used on the shrimp so it must be standard.

This tour has been one of the highlights of my entire trip! They really bring you to tucked away hidden gems you would never know to go and definitely wouldn’t be able to reach on your own. The guides, mine in particular, are charismatic, funny, informative, personable and safe easy drivers! Tung has hit a home run!! Put it all together and it is no surprise that it has been so well received. It really doesn’t matter if your a newbie trying to push your boundaries, a hardcore foodie, or even a highly trained chef, this tour can and should be enjoyed by all!!

Mario Tolentino
Can Cook Cuisines