Whether you’re a newcomer or a seasoned expat, escaping Vietnam’s tourist trail can be tricky business. Travel guide author and AsiaLIFE contributing editor Dana Filek-Gibson offers a few helpful hints on how to make the most of your travels. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Make (flexible) plans
On my first trip to Halong Bay, I was involuntarily booked onto an overnight cruise. As someone who goes to pieces at the mere mention of the word ‘itinerary,’ 48 hours of heavily-scheduled activity turned me into a monster. Lunch was timed, air-conditioning was withheld until the evening and when we were asked to disembark for a kayaking excursion, I threw out a terse “I’m coming” and, purely for emphasis, proceeded from my cabin to the gangplank without lifting my feet off the ground. Nothing sucks the fun out of travel quite like over-planning.
Instead, the best trips contain reasonable preparation but also ample room for spontaneity. In Vietnam, reservations are generally unnecessary for budget or even mid-range travelers. Of course, it’s wise to map out your route but don’t overdo it. Rather than detailing each day’s activities, keep your trip research simple: hop online and learn five things about each destination before you go. What you find won’t be a comprehensive guide, but anything from a good restaurant to a signature dish, a famous landmark, a bit of historical background or even the name of a hotel will be enough to peak your curiosity and get you started once you arrive.
Know when to book a tour and when to go it alone
Let’s be honest, not a soul among us appreciates the no man’s land of a handicraft factory. We’ve all been there, surrounded by thousands of lacquered statuettes, breathless employees watching us like hawks, poised to make a sale. Indeed, many travellers contend that organised tours are a waste of time, and some of them are: from Hanoi to Hue, Saigon and Nha Trang, most generic city tours amount to little more than an over-glorified taxi service.
That said, bear in mind that tours don’t have to involve cramped buses, disgruntled guides or stopovers at an overpriced café. More and more well-organised independent tour companies are cropping up across Vietnam everyday and it’s these smaller outfits that provide some of the most authentic excursions. Look out for tours that explore a specific aspect of your destination: street food, for example, photography, nightlife or even an activity such as snorkeling or silk-making. More remote areas, too, are greatly enhanced by having a local on hand: think Sapa’s minority villages, the DMZ area of Quang Tri province or much of the Mekong Delta.
Talk to people
Far away, in the westernmost corner of the Mekong Delta, is a small town called Ha Tien. It’s not a particularly happening tourist spot – most people only bother to overnight here if they’re en route to Cambodia or Phu Quoc – but late last year I found myself here on a research trip and wandered into Ha Tien’s sole backpacker bar. Over a beer or two, the owner, Andy, and I got to talking about Ha Tien, its surroundings and what there was to do in town. Before the night was over, he’d called for Mr The, Ha Tien’s one and only tour guide, and the following day Mr The and I visited a beach, a cave pagoda, a local fishing pier and an old wartime haunt of Ha Tien’s VC soldiers – all places I would never have known had it not been for my chat with Andy.
This advice seems obvious enough but, especially in a place like Vietnam, where so much travels by word-of-mouth, you will not find a better source of information than a local resident. Beyond the cookie-cutter tour outfits and provincial tourism agencies many towns, big and small, have at least one spot like Andy’s bar in Ha Tien. Whether it’s a café, hotel or restaurant, many businesses and their owners are willing to dole out useful – and free – travel information to those who seek it. All you have to do is ask.
There is (almost) always a way
Last year, I cycled from Saigon to Battambang, Cambodia with a friend. At the end of it all, sweaty, sunburned and ready for a bus, we tried to book tickets to Siem Reap. Every hotel and tour agency in town swore that it was impossible to put two bicycles in the luggage compartment of a coach bus. Three days earlier, we had watched a van breeze by us on the highway, packed to the bursting point with rice sacks and Cambodian families, a motorbike secured to the back of the vehicle with a passenger astride it. Two bicycles couldn’t fit on a coach bus? Sure.
Lo and behold, when we went directly to the bus company themselves, it was no problem. Whether it’s transportation, shopping, hotels or sightseeing, one of my personal travel mantras is this: there is (almost) always a way. Despite what one individual might tell you, sometimes doing or getting what you want is a simple matter of creativity and a little patience. At the bus station, a fare collector wants to charge you double the local price for a ride to the next town; when he refuses to budge, all you have to do is walk away. There are dozens of minibuses parked here and there’s a solid chance another one is heading in that same direction. While your yellow-star tank top or flowy, low-crotch harem pants may make you come off as a clueless tourist, I find that this approach – polite, friendly but vaguely disinterested – almost always has the power to convince people that you know what you’re doing and, as a result, are less easily duped.