My time living in Vietnam is nearing an end. I’ve been here for almost two years but haven’t had much time to travel around the country. When my friend from the States decided to visit Vietnam, I decided to seize the opportunity, and travel around the country with her. So here’s a bit about my most recent travel in Vietnam.
I’m currently based in Vung Tau, a beach town 2 hours southeast of Saigon.
Getting in and out of Vung Tau
Vung Tau is super close to Saigon and is a great getaway for those looking to get away from the chaos of the big city of Saigon. If you’re looking for a beach that’s close to Saigon, Vung Tau is a good choice. The beaches aren’t as nice or clean as those in Nha Trang but still pretty decent. There are also some nice hikes around the city.
Getting to and from Vung Tau and Saigon is easy and convenient. Buses typically leave every 30-60 minutes and usually will pick you up and take you to the Mien Tay, Mien Dong bus stations, as well as Ben Thanh market in Saigon. There are a ton of bus companies that go to and from Saigon and Vung Tau. Hoa Mai, Phuong Trang, and Toan Thang, Kumho Samhco.
There’s also a bus that goes directly from the Tan Son Nhat Airport in Saigon to Vung Tau that leaves every hour. It’s a JetStar/Phuong Nam bus. Their buses are bright orange so they’re easy to spot. If you’re coming from the airport straight to Vung Tau you’ll need to make your way to the parking lot that’s straight across from the terminal. Look for an orange bus that says JetStar, Phuong Nam, and Vung Tau on it. Or look for men wearing orange polos and baseball hats that say Phuong Nam on them. If you’re going from Vung Tau to the airport, they’ll pick you up from your place. Just call 064 6558 686 to book a ticket.
All bus tickets to Vung Tau should range from 100,000 – 150,000VND (or around $5 USD). Most bus companies will have someone that speaks English as well so it’s pretty easy to book a ticket.
Getting anywhere else in Vietnam
Once in Saigon, it’s really easy to go anywhere in Vietnam. There are a million bus companies and travel agencies that can help you book a ticket to anywhere you want. Buses go EVERYWHERE in Vietnam. They’re also super affordable so if you have the time and are on a budget this is a good way to travel. A lot of buses also leave from Mien Dong or Mien Tay bus stations so you could technically go to the bus station and find the right bus and hop on if you feel so inclined. Otherwise, go with a travel agency or ask your hostel or hotel and they can point you in the right direction.
If you book far enough in advance, VietJet and JetStar, sometimes have really good deals for domestic air travel. These airlines, however, aren’t always the most reliable. For example, my friend and I book flights to and from Saigon and Hanoi only to have our flight times changed a few days before our flight. We were able to change our flights back to the times that we wanted but it was a hassle. I’ve also had flight times change the day of my flight. And on many occasions one or both of my flights will be delayed. However, that’s just something to expect when traveling in Vietnam. Things often don’t occur when you want them to and time is pretty flexible here so you just have to with the flow whether it’s bus or plane travel.
There’s also a train that runs through Vietnam. I’ve heard parts of the train ride are really beautiful. I personally have never taken the train in Vietnam but have heard positive things. Train tickets are typically more expensive than bus tickets but are cheaper than plane tickets. Like the bus, you just have to have the time to choose this mode of travel. One thing I’d like to do is to take the train north to south or vice versa and stop along the way.
While traveling with my friend in Vietnam, we went to Tra Vinh which is the city I taught English in the year prior. Tra Vinh is a small city in the Mekong and. There’s not really a tourist industry here but if you’re looking for an off the beaten path option, Tra Vinh is pretty off the beaten path. There are barely any foreigners in this city. I think it’s a pretty charming little city if you want to experience a place that’s been untouched by tourism.
There’s a Phuong Trang bus that leaves every hour from the Mien Tay bus station. Thanh Thuy and Kim Hoang to Tra Vinh. Bus tickets are 120,000 VND, I believe. Just be sure to tell the bus driver where you want to be dropped off.
Cuu Long hotel, the only 3 star hotel in Tra Vinh also has motorbike rentals.
My friend and I flew into Hanoi from Saigon, stayed the night at a family friend’s place and then made our way to Sa Pa.
Getting to and from Sa Pa
There’s a couple ways to get to Sa Pa. One is to take the train and the other one is to take a bus. Vietnam recently built a highway to Sa Pa. We opted for the bus which was cheaper as well as faster than the train. Since it was my friend’s first time in Southeast Asia, let alone, Vietnam, she felt more comfortable booking our travel to Sa Pa and Halong Bay through travel agencies. We booked our Sa Pa travel through Sinh Tourist, which is a reputable tour company in Vietnam. There are a lot of copy cats of this company, so just be sure that you’re going with the correct one.
If you don’t want to book through a tour company and want to book transportation directly, I recommend Sapa Express. The buses are on time and SUPER comfortable.
Things to do in Sa Pa
We only had 2 days and 1 night in Sa Pa which is not a lot of time. We went with a typical 2 day package in Sa Pa from Sinh Tourist which included to “treks.” We basically arrived in Sa Pa, got off the bus, and was met by our guide. In this case, our guide thought that I spoke Vietnamese because of my last name so he didn’t speak a lot of English. He took us to our hotel where we could grab lunch before the trek. Since we wanted an English speaking guide, I emailed Sinh Tourist and they responded right away and told us that they’d find us another guide last minute. We met our new guide at 2 p.m. and she took us to Cat Cat village which took maybe a total of 2-3 hours. We saw a black hmong village and walked through rice paddies. Afterwards, she took us back to our hotel and we had the rest of the evening to ourselves.
The next day, we started at 8/9 a.m. This time we had a new guide and were joined by three more people. We trekked to Lao Chai, Ta Van, and Y Linh Ho Villages. Most of the way down to the villages were pretty slippery and steep so be sure to wear proper footwear. We were lucky that it didn’t rain while we were there otherwise, it would’ve been muddy and even more slippery. The entire walk was gorgeous. We walked through a few villages, ate lunch, and a bus picked us up to take us back to the center of Sa Pa. Since my friend and I were leaving to go back to Hanoi that evening, we went back to our hotel to grab our stuff and killed time before we headed to our bus which was scheduled to leave at 4 p.m. This of course meant we had to check out of our rooms before the trek and when we got back we were pretty muddy and had no shower to clean up in. So instead, we had to use the hotel’s public bathroom to clean up a bit before getting on our bus.
All in all, Sa Pa was an interesting place to see. Sa Pa is known for its beautiful scenery as well as the ethnic minorities that inhabit the area. The whole city is built around the tourism industry so expect a lot of people following you around and selling things. I felt a little conflicted about my time there though since in some ways it feels like the ethnic minorities are being exploited of their culture and “exoticness”. At the same time, the area is quite poor and the tourism industry brings in jobs and money. I didn’t have a lot of time in Sa Pa, so that was just my initial observations so it’s not at all reflective of what things actually are. If anyone has other experiences or observations of their time in Sa Pa, I’d be interested in hearing them.
Of course, be sure to do your research before going to Sa Pa. There are a lot of different options of things to do. I met a few people that did homestays in the area and heard good things so if you want to go that route instead of the typical trekking tours, that’s an option. If you’re more hardcore, there are more intense trekking that you can do in the area.
Getting to and from Halong Bay
We decided to book a cruise in Halong Bay through sapa-tour.net and went with the V’Spirit Cruise for 2 days and one night. The cruise was all-inclusive meaning all meals and transportation were included.
Things to do in Halong Bay
Since we chose an all-inclusive tour, our days were pretty scheduled and packed already. We did run into a snag though. We were supposed to get on the boat in time for lunch but when we were driving to Halong Bay it started to rain pretty heavily so we had to wait the rain out to see if we could even get on the boat. In some cases, if the rain doesn’t stop the tour will be cancelled. Luckily for us the rain lightened up quite a bit so our tour wasn’t cancelled but our schedule felt even more rushed than before. We ate lunch on the boat, had some downtime, and then explored Suon Sot cave. Afterwards, we got back on the boat and were able to hang out on the deck before dinner. After dinner we could go fishing for squid or play games.
We spent the night on the boat. The rooms on the boat were super comfortable with their own private bathrooms. If you get sea sick at all though, sleeping on the boat might not be the best option. I felt fine when I went to bed but in middle of the night I woke up feeling seasick. It started raining in middle of the night so the boat was rocking back and forth making me feel nauseated. I just had to prop myself up and lay very still until the rain stop. After that I was able to fall asleep again.
The next day we woke up and went kayaking. We only had 45 minutes of kayaking before we had to get back on the boat, pack our things, and make our way back to Hanoi.
If you have limited days and want to go to Halong Bay this is a good option. It does feel rushed but you do get to see a good part of Halong Bay. I’ve been to Halong Bay 3 times now with all different itineraries including a day trip on the boat, two nights on different islands, and one night on a boat. I would recommend, if you have the time, to spend time on an island such as Cat Bay instead of sleeping on a boat. While I thought sleeping on the boat was a good experience, you are trapped on the boat with very little to do. Once it gets dark you can’t see the scenery around you anyways. Also, if you stay on an island you might have more time to go swimming or kayaking.
Always do your research of course. My friend and I were a little disappointed in our boat since our boat consisted of only families and couples. We were the only two non-family and non-couple people on the boat. We didn’t want a party boat like others we’ve heard of but we were hoping to be on a bit more of a social boat.