For our vacation this year, we picked Vietnam: Christmas in the touristy region of Mui Ne, then New Year in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City). This post is a short travel log with pictures, highlights, travel costs and tips from our stay there. My hope is this may help someone planning a similar trip.
Don’t expect any machine learning in here! (for my regular crowd)
During our past travels through Asia, we never got to visit Vietnam. I’ve always felt regretful about that. The truth is, we love Vietnamese food. It’s the “phos” and “buns” we miss the most here in Korea, BY FAR. They have this weird thing they call “Vietnamese barbecue” here, which has nothing to do with Vietnam (and which is called, of all things, “Korean barbecue” in Thailand).
Also, there’s a surprisingly strong Vietnamese community in Prague. This is a by-product of the communist partnerships between the two countries a long time ago, and the Viet families are at their second or third generation now. I’ve always found the community in Prague culturally intriguing (if impenetrable), so the choice for this Christmas was clear!
Getting to Mui Ne
The first leg our trip, the flight from Busan, South Korea to HCMC, Vietnam, was pleasantly uneventful. I had arranged for a “fast track immigration” at the HCMC airport with the company through which we applied for our visas.
This “fast track” cost us an extra 15 USD (on top 20 USD for the regular one-month single-entry visa), but turned out to be unnecessary. There were no queues at all (this was around noon). Ah well.
Still, the visa company was very professional and reliable, I can only recommend them: visa-vietnam.net. They arranged everything, so we didn’t have to bring any US dollars or withdraw Vietnamese dong at the immigration hall at the airport, which I read could be problematic (no ATMs).
While still at the airport, I bought a “tourist SIM card” for something like 10 bucks. It included an unlimited data plan as well as free local calls, which both came in VERY handy later.
You can probably buy them anywhere, and possibly even a dollar or two cheaper, but this was our first taste of what was to come: the ever-present, bumptious feeling of not having to haggle. It made us feel royal, and slightly guilty… is this how west Europeans feel when they visit Czech Republic and Romania?
Anyway, we took a taxi from HCMC airport straight to Mũi Né (I’m gonna write the local names with their proper accents from now on, to show off), which cost us about 90 USD and took ~5 hours. The road was fairly unpleasant (dark, raining, aggressive buses causing numerous dangerous situations). More on traffic later. This prompted us to consider using a train on our trip back to HCMC, ten days later.
Mũi Né and Coco Beach resort
Mũi Né is a tourist region in the far south-east corner of Vietnam, the Bình Thuận province. It’s most famous for its beautiful beaches, sand dunes, steady wind and Russian tourists.
We stayed in a bungalow at a resort called Coco Beach. It was quite nice — good location on the beach, smack in the middle of the Mũi Né strip of shops and restaurants, French owned (one of the very first foreign establishments in the region, apparently).
Overall we had no issues at Coco Beach, apart from a snobbish lizard who liked to shit all over our veranda at night. On the other hand, the resort was nothing special either. A bit overpriced if you ask me, but I can’t blame them for that… the location does call for a premium.
Things to do in Mũi Né
I immediately rented a small bike from one of the (many) rental shops around. The cost is around 100,000 VND per day, which you could probably bargain down a lot, if on a tight budget.
US dollars are generally accepted, but we never used them (and didn’t have any). We withdrew VND directly from ATMs, which are everywhere, even in fairly remote places, along the roads and such.
On that note, Vietnam is one of the countries where you’re supposed to bargain for everything. The people were so nice and the prices so cheap that we generally didn’t do that. We just payed the “tourist prices” with a smile (with an occasional grumble from Oana; women take discounts much more personally!). We were very thankful everything was so cheap.
Having a mode of transportation, and not being the beach type, we rode around the region visiting various sightseeing places. Since a picture is worth a thousand words:
Fishing village and the fairy stream
Red sand dunes, white sand dunes
Christmas in Mũi Né
Since we stayed in Vietnam over Christmas, we got to experience the annoying, commercial atmosphere with tiresome “festive decorations” that touristy destinations invariably put up.
Right next to the city of Phan Thiết (the province capital, ~15 min by bike), where we frequently went for shopping, are the ruins of the ancient Champa civilization.
Eating in Mũi Né
As stated, food was one of the main reasons for our trip to Vietnam. And Mũi Né didn’t disappoint.
We took an embarrassing number of pictures stuffing ourselves like pigs, but these are too boring for a blog. Suffice to say, being a touristy region, Mũi Né offers both a variety of local, Vietnamese dishes as well as a solid foreign choice: Indian, Italian, Korean, steaks & burger (American?), Russian…
Tacu mountain, Buddha and cable car
Tà Cú is a mountain near Mũi Né, known for its cable car that takes you up to a massive, 49m long statue of reclining Buddha, apparently the largest of its kind in SEA.
You can get to Tà Cú on bike (about 1.5 hours), though the road is super boring (nothing like the exciting trip to the white sand dunes above!). It was a scorching day, so we covered ourselves in sun screen and set off. The police tried to stop us again around Phan Thiết, but I just pretended I didn’t see them (they were hiding in the shade at a bend) and rode on. Luckily they didn’t follow us. Too hot.
Overall, we were rather unimpressed with this Tà Cú expedition. Or maybe we were getting too tired of all the travelling.
By now, we’d been in Mũi Né for a week. For the remaining two days there, we just relaxed, reading books, lazying around the resort, getting massages, pacifying my email inbox, tending to github projects etc.
Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon
On our last day, we took a cab to the train station of Phan Thiết and from there a train to HCMC. We had bought our train tickets on one of our trips the days before, because we weren’t sure what to expect. I wanted to see the place first.
The trip was fine, Vietnam Railways proved to have a surprisingly good standard of comfort (at least on this line): aircon, dining car, stewardesses distributing complimentary snack & water. Each car even had an overhead TV.
Saigon turned out to be as busy as everyone said it would. The traffic looked completely bonkers. We got around Mũi Né on our bike with ease, but I wouldn’t attempt using a motorbike here.
But after a while, I started to appreciate a certain beauty to it. With practically no traffic rules, the flow is very organic. You’d think there would be havoc, people dying everywhere, and while I’m sure there are accidents (just statistically, from the sheer amount of bike traffic!), we didn’t see any while in Saigon. Nor did the drivers seem upset or anxious or stressed about the general mayhem. People honk, but it’s not the aggressive “get out of my way”, but rather “I see you have no mirrors on your bike, I’m right behind you, don’t do something stupid please”. The traffic was amazing to observe, in a scientifically-philosophical way, like watching the sea.
In a way, the flow was calming to watch, I imagine you could get used to it. Drivers generally pay more attention to what others around are doing, rather than the rules and regulations, which is more common in Europe.
Anyway, we arrived on New Year’s Eve, checked into our hotel (Japanese-run), and had a look around the city.
Blog readers who don’t know us probably don’t appreciate the gravity of that last sentence.
For the past ten years, ever since I met my wife, sushi has been our favourite dish, sort of our “couple meal”. We just love it and have it all the time, everywhere we go — probably every single country in Europe, plus most in East Asia. Close to a thousand individual sushi meals, if I had to guess.
So to say this was the best sushi ever says a lot. It was better than the sushi we had in Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka!
After that, though our eyes were closing, we went to the centre and waited for midnight. Time for Saigon’s New Year celebrations!
Again, the bike traffic congestion at the centre is the memory that stands out the most, from that night. “Normal” Saigon traffic squared, if you can believe that.
The following day, we did the usual sightseeing round, being the good tourists we are. We wanted to visit the “War Remnants Museum” (officially called “Museum of Atrocities of USA And Its Puppets” until recently), but the queues were humungous, so we skipped that. Oana wasn’t too keen on the war stuff anyway.
On that note, I found it fascinating how relaxed the Vietnamese people are about this (recent!) history of theirs. Millions died as a result of the Vietnam war (called “American war” in Vietnam; like Americans, they fight all the time, so “Vietnam war” would be too ambiguous). Most nations, after being subject to much less than an unprovoked full-scale war, hate the aggressor’s guts for generations. Not so here. The country feels incredibly tough and resilient as a whole.
We learned that Vietnamese people still die from the chemicals Americans deployed during the war (Agent Orange), children are born disfigured. But surprisingly, there’s little animosity on a personal level. The people don’t necessarily love the US government, but they seem to be able to draw a clear distinction between the US government and US citizens. From what we could see, they are very civil and welcoming even to Americans (French, Chinese etc).
Instead, we visited the zoo.
In Saigon, we were reminded again of how nice Vietnamese people are. People came up to us randomly in street, just to say “Happy new year”, kids, elders, without any expectation of selling us something or getting tips. It was very sweet.
After that, we quickly picked up our luggage from the hotel, a trip to the airport (110k VND, 30 min), a 3h wait for our flight back to Busan, and home! Good-bye Vietnam.
Costs, overall impressions
As usual, we kept a close tab on all expenses. Long story short: everything’s super cheap. We spent like 700 USD there, including all our princely meals, transportation, tips, bribes, entrance fees and so on.
A normal meal is 1-2 USD; you’ll have a fancy, high end dinner for 10 USD. Motorbike 4 USD/day, gas less than 1 USD per litre. The cost of our Vietnam stay was therefore massively dominated by the airplane tickets (return flight from Korea) and the accommodation (Coco Beach, T.Espoir).
TL;DR highlights and summary:
- Friendly, helpful people.
- Expect little English from the locals (even in Saigon, and even from taxi drivers).
- Culture of haggling: always negotiate price in advance (if you care).
- Internet no problem, wifis widespread, mobile data plans cheap. Some international sites blocked though (incl. twitter) — get your proxy ready.
- ATMs everywhere, no issues withdrawing.
- Amazing traffic: Mũi Né’s oversized roads, Saigon’s organic flows.
- The typical SEA “four people on a bike” sandwich. Tiny tot in front basket asleep, lady in the back doing her nails…
- Beautiful girls on bikes. Graceful and elegant. For Viet women, the bike feels like an accessory — they wear their Honda Air Blades like western girls wear Louis Vuitton bags.
- The Saigon Go club. If you’re into Go (baduk, weiqi, cờ vây…), pay them a visit. They have loads of other games, too (Oana played the Settlers of Katan).
- Ichiban sushi in Saigon.
- Taxis even cheaper than in Geoje-do. Reliable, dressed smart, GPS tracking a norm, accept international credit cards.
- Did I mention everything’s cheap? We really didn’t mind paying the proverbial “double prices”, as long as they were not smug or arrogant about it.
- Prague pho bo > (south-)Vietnamese pho bo. Weird.
- Vietnamese sushi > Japanese sushi. Weird.
- Finally learned how to pronounce “phở bò” properly. In case you’re wondering: first “f?”, as if asking about the letter “f”. Then “boh”, with voice dropping down sharply.
In case you couldn’t tell, we had an amazing time in Vietnam! We’ll be back for sure :)
Hopefully this blog post will help someone in the future. If you have any specific questions, feel free to ask in the comments below.