Vietnam: A Land Fit for Travellers
After several months of travel, we have developed a style that fits our desire to find a balance between the tourist hotspots and a more adventurous, local experience. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Finding a truly local, authentic experience can be very difficult, what with lack of information and language barriers.
We’ve also found out that even if we do find a local who speaks enough English and wants to help, there’s a preconceived notion of what a tourist wants, and this informs their response. For example, if we ask “What is the cheapest way to get from A to B?”, we would likely be directed to the VIP air conditioned bus for tourists, which may be less expensive than, say, a flight, but we know that there’s a much cheaper – and often more interesting – local way to do it. Being crammed into a minibus with 20 other locals, livestock in tow, and no A/C may sound uncomfortable, but if it gets us closer to the local experience, then we’re all for it. The fact that it’s a fraction of the cost of tourist transport is just bonus.
In Vietnam, we encountered both options – and, believe it or not, had a much better experience using cheap local transportation and piecing together an excursion on our own than we did with paying for an expensive organized tour.
We knew we couldn’t visit Vietnam without seeing the Mekong River, but instead of joining a rushed group tour from Ho Chi Minh City, we hopped on a bus for $6 each and head to a village near the river, figuring we’d book a homestay when we got there. This worked out great for us, as a homestay on nearby An Binh island was easy to find and we had the advantage of flexibility over the pre-booked group tours.
We spent one night in a house on a commune with a few other guests and did our Mekong River tour from there – beating out the crowds from the exact day trips we were trying to avoid. We had a nice big Vietnamese dinner, met some cool people, and took the bus back to Ho Chi Minh City when we were ready.
This experience contrasts with our tour of Halong Bay. After reading horror stories about crowded boats, unsafe regulations and rushed day trips to Halong, we opted for an overnight trip with a more reputable company at a higher price.
In the end, though the scenery was gorgeous, our very average experience with this company reaffirmed our preference for the cheaper, more authentic alternative. Exploring on your own is almost always a more rewarding way of experiencing a destination, and on top of that, it’s almost always a fraction of the cost of an organized tour. It can be difficult to get the right information, and uncomfortable to get where you need to go, but in the end it is usually worth it.
Thuy Tien Hotel, $20/night for a double room, Ho Chi Minh City – Recommended
Ngoc Phuong Home Stay, $27/night for a double room including breakfast and dinner, An Binh Island – Recommended
Hop Yen Hostel, $10/night for a double room, Hoi An – Recommended
Vietnam Backpackers Hostel, $14/night for a double bed in a mixed dorm including breakfast, Hanoi – Recommended
Both Stephie & Eric – Set menu of ban xeo (rice paper wrapped with crispy savoury pancakes, pork skewers & fried spring rolls) and mango pudding, $6 each, Bale Well (Hoi An)