Grass-rooted huts on the beach. (Photo by Deborah Kane)
By Deborah Kane
White sand beaches, cool mountain resorts, a sad war history, varied culinary delights, beautiful children, pockets of poverty and talented artists. Vietnam has a lot to offer the soul. And to top it off, most of the Vietnamese you will meet on your travels speak great English.
I spent seven weeks in Vietnam last year. My friend and I volunteered in orphanages and a day care centre for disabled children in a small town in central Vietnam for one month before backpacking from Ho Chi Minh City up to the Chinese border for the remainder of our stay.
The average Vietnamese earns UD$2 per day and this is mostly earned through backbreaking, labour-intensive farming which you can see from the main highway running the length of the country. Therefore, our tourist dollars means a lot to the economy of Vietnam. Ravaged by war during the 60s and 70s, Vietnam has come a long way in recovery, but is still suffering the effects, which can be seen if you have someone to point out the discreet signs.
Anytime is a great time to visit Vietnam. There are two seasons in Vietnam: the wet and the dry. I experienced the wet season in May and June and it was a sweat bucket, but great for sunbathing and swimming. The beginning and end of the year are pleasant, but take along a jersey for those cooler nights.
The Vietnamese people are friendly and surprisingly non-judgmental about your origins. It is a safe place to travel as long as you have common sense. Only once was I made to feel uncomfortable by an opiate addict who looked like he came from Mordor. A watching local fruit-store owner screamed the madman off.
Accomodation is wide-ranging. We did our travels on a tight budget which was easy, and finally splashed out US$30 (for two!) on our last night in Hanoi at a hotel which was very luxurious. The least we paid was US$6 (yes for two again), but this was for a room without air-conditioning. The average cost for an average room is about US$10 – $12 per night for a twin/double room.
Transportation is easy. There are many options and it is dirt cheap. Trains run the length of the country with 4 different classes: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat and hard seat. Book soft sleeper if you can for any overnight journeys, but hard seat is fine for a four or five hour trip, and you will be bound to see an old lady gleefully tucking into a duck embryo.
The tourist buses are cheap and run often. You can jump on and off at your leisure. I talked to a couple buying a Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi ticket for US$16.
The local buses and minivans are a precarious but cheap way to travel. They leave you fearing for your safety sometimes, with 28 people so jam-packed into a minivan that the door is kept open. The long distance local buses also carry puppies and chickens!
Make sure you catch a ride on a motorbike, too. They are an easy way to get around where the buses don’t go, and north in the hillside town of Sapa (bordering China), a bike and guide hired for the day is a perfect way to visit minority villages and to view the stunning tiered rice paddies.
A positive by-product of the French occupation in the 1800s was the skill of making a great baguette. They are sold anywhere and everywhere and are cheap: from a street vendor you will pay 1,000 – 2,000 dong. There is an abundance of inexpensive tropical fruit, especially the mangosteen. And of course there is also the infamous Durian which has been banned from airplanes due to the interesting and strong smell (they are delicious if you dare). There is also a bit of Fear Factor vs Anthony Bourdain if you want it. My fellow volunteers asked our in-house cook to prepare dog meat and duck egg embryo for our last meal. Watching someone squirm trying to eat the baby duck bill with some never-seen -the-light-of-day feathers is one of my top Vietnamese memories. The duck embryo has remarkable health benefits apparently. The are eaten abundantly throughout the country.
Spend your money in Vietnam – the economy needs it and children in the orphanages need your love and attention so spend some time with them.
- Carry small denomination American notes all the time – a lot of Vietnamese claim to have no change for the bigger notes. Some sellers may also reject your money if notes are torn or dirty.
- Take a bunch of re-hydration sachets with you if you go mid-year to avoid those muscle cramps.
- Pack lightly and then fill up the remaining spaces with new tailor made clothes from Hoi An. Plan what you want to get made in Hoi An before you leave and take magazine pictures, sketches or even a favorite piece of material. The tailors are very talented and fast.
- Book train travel a few days beforehand through your hotel or a street travel agent or else you might only be able to get a hard sleeper on a long journey – tough and very loud.
- Take note of the Lonely Planet safety advice – especially about keeping the mesh screen windows down on train journeys to avoid rocks being thrown in the windows.
- Flights into Ho Chi Minh and out of Hanoi (or vice versa) work perfectly to avoid doubling back.
- Go and hunt down an orphanage; the children will love to get their hands on you. Take a cash donation, toys or learning materials, or just give a little time.
- Feel like a holiday helping out and traveling at the same time? Visit www.volunteer.org.nz for some great opportunies.