With Vietnam not being too far away from us in the UAE, it makes an excellent, interesting and cost effective option for a family holiday. Fellow British mum, Francesca Affleck shares her tips on where to go, what to do and how she organises her trip of a lifetime.
Having always wanted to explore Vietnam, we set about planning our holiday (that would be for just under 3 weeks) last summer (July 2016). The first thing I did was buy the Lonely Planet Guide and a large pull-out map (old fashioned I know) but I needed to understand the geography of the country. I then set about reading the guide, working out how many places we could fit in and how long we should spend in each.
Once I knew where we wanted to go, I emailed two travel agents in April last year – Premium Choice Travel in Dubai and Rickshaw Travel in the UK. Both were incredibly helpful and we went back and forth with emails working out accommodation and transport. In the end, we decided to go with Rickshaw Travel simply because we dealt with Zoe – the Vietnam expert, and the itinerary gave us a bit more flexibility and overall and it worked out (only slightly) cheaper.
At first we planned to begin in Hanoi and work our way down to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), which is the official name, or Saigon as it is often referred to by the locals – but when Emirates announced its direct flights out of Hanoi, we changed our plans and started in HCMC so that by the time we had worked our way up, we could catch the second (ever) Emirates direct flight from Hanoi to Dubai. Both travel agents were happy to change our schedules to suit our plans. We booked our flights on Emirates ourselves and Rickshaw Travel arranged all our transfers once we gave them the details.
We opted for private transfers throughout so we had fairly new transit vans to ourselves (much to the delight of our two teenagers who were able to stretch out). We always had an English speaking guide who travelled with us on our excursions and they were incredibly accommodating – transfer drivers also knew where they were going (although, at times, their driving skills were questionable).
We drove from Saigon to Phan Thiet, took two (day) trains – Phan Thiet to Nha Trang and Danang to Hue and two internal flights on Vietnam Airlines – Nha Trang to Danang and Hue to Hanoi. Rickshaw Travel’s local partner, Asian Trails, arranged all our tickets which were given to us at each stop for the next leg so that we were not travelling with a great pile of papers.
We chose to do day trains as we heard from friends that the night ones were too noisy each time they stopped! The day trains we thought were comfortable – Asian Trails made sure we had four seats around a table and best of all we were on the scenic (right) side of the train as we went through the Hai Van Pass, which had stunning views. There were meals on the train but we preferred to take our own snacks and eat when we got to the next stop. Vietnam airlines was reliable, although we did have one flight delayed but were given meal vouchers. We planned most journeys so they were about 4 – 5 hours in total.
Ho Chi Minh City
We started our adventures in Ho Chi Minh City which was an assault on the senses – a busy city which (according to Thanh Nien News – Jan 2016) has a population of 8 million people and 7.4 million motorcycles!
We launched straight into it with a tour that first evening with https://xotours.vn/ They have lady drivers (more careful we were told) who pick you up from your hotel, give you helmets and then proceed to whisk you straight into the busy evening traffic. It was an excellent, although slightly nerve-wracking, way to see the city as it is sprawled out over 2,096.5 sq km and divided into 19 districts – District 1 being the Central District also known as Saigon District. Our lovely lady drivers were very hospitable and friendly and took us to markets and street food stops across 4 of the main districts. Needless to say, the food was delicious!
We did a half-day roundtrip to Cu Chi Tunnels the next day. An incredible trip – highly recommended. In Saigon, we walked everywhere including the “Backpacker’s district” for a few bevvies (very cheap) in a fab, electric atmosphere and had a beer in a coffee shop overlooking the Ben Thanh night market as the traders arrived with their carts and set up for business.
We visited the War Remnants Museum (harrowing but so worth visiting), the old Post Office and Fito Museum (very quaint).
One of the highlights for us was a side trip to the Mekong Delta. We travelled all day on a boat – just the four of us, the guide and our driver – all the way down to Can Tho, where we stayed overnight. Watching life along the river was very humbling – Vietnamese people are incredibly industrious and we watched them cook, wash, bathe, sell fruit and food, offer boat rides, cultivate rice, herd ducks – there was always something to watch. We also took a small boat through a maze of smaller canals and had the opportunity to look at and buy,if you liked, local handcrafts. You can also cycle through these areas along the river.
In Can Tho, we woke up very early (much to our young adults’ delight) to visit the biggest floating market (Cai Rang) in the Mekong Delta – a sight to behold and thoroughly recommended!
At Phan Thiet we stayed in Mui Ne – a quiet beach frequented by kite surfers. It was a calm break after the craziness of Saigon. The hotel was right on the beach and in the evenings we strolled to nearby restaurants.
At Nha Trang, we opted for a bit of luxury and relaxation at Mia Resort before heading to Hoi An. Plenty to do at this hotel including the spa which is highly recommended.
This was our favourite stop and we spent a few days here. Hoi An has a charm of its own, although slightly touristy. We stayed by the river – our hotel offered a complimentary sunset cruise and set up a little market stall with street food every day. We walked into the town where restaurants were plentiful and tailors made suits or copied clothes you liked within a couple of days – we can recommend Kimmy’s.
We did an afternoon motorbike trip (riding pillion as before) from here – run by a bunch of Aussie guys. They had proper helmets, plenty of water and the lead driver with a first aid kit.
http://motorbiketours-hoian.com/ Like the other motorbike tours, they take you to places you would never venture out to on your own.
In the former capital city, we took a trip along the perfume river and explored the citadel (which is huge, takes a few hours and involves a lot of walking) tombs and other historic monuments (a day here is sufficient) with our very knowledgeable guide. We walked to the river and had dinner in one of the restaurants there in the evening.
Finally, on to Hanoi, which is a bustling city with a charming French Quarter and plenty of street food, shops, museums (we recommend Maison Centrale or Hoa Lo) and a lake to explore. We did a side trip from there to Ha Long Bay with Indochina Junk so we shared a ‘luxury’ transit van with other tourists. We were pleasantly surprised that the boat, although it looked rather tacky on the outside, had the most luxurious cabins.
The staff were so hospitable and while we are not big fans of tours as such, they did a good job with keeping the evening entertainment light and easy. Trips to caves and kayaking were optional too. The bay was absolutely magical even though the weather wasn’t great. On the way back they brought us back via a water puppet show which was interesting. A couple more nights in Hanoi and we were ready to get back on our plane to Dubai.
We opted for a mix of accommodation throughout. Most hotels in the city centres were functional – some had pools but unless you needed respite from afternoon thunderstorms, there’s so much to explore that there’s no need for any more. Most hotels are boutique hotels although you do have some of the big names here like the Anantara.
In Saigon, we stayed with friends. At Can Tho we stayed at the Kim Tho Hotel which was okay for a night and convenient to get boats and visit local restaurants. In Phan Thiet, we stayed at the Villa Aria Hotel – beautiful location right on the beach.
At Nha Trang we stayed at the Mia Resort that combined Dubai five-star luxury with first-class Vietnamese hospitality – also on the beach. In Hoi An, we stayed at the Vinh Hung Riverside resort which was a short walk from all the activity and restaurants and yet right on the river so you could spend hours watching the world go by. The better, quieter rooms were in the new wing.
In Hue we stayed at the Romance hotel – which again was okay – the only redeeming feature was its rooftop pool! In Hanoi, we stayed at the Emerald Elegance, a small boutique hotel in the heart of everything which I would highly recommend.
Meals here were excellent – we loved all of the food we had – and SO cheap. I think an evening in Prime 68 (with only a glass or two of wine) here in Dubai before we left set us back more than twice what we spent on food for the entire trip in Vietnam! Trip Advisor was our go-to and did us proud with every recommendation. Restaurants were very accommodating with allergies and we were always offered an alternative.
We can also recommend:
In Saigon – My Banh Mi near the old post office (French bread sandwiches very popular everywhere in Vietnam),
Cyclo Resto – a set meal with lots of amazing courses (does cooking classes too)
In Phan Thiet – Hills Smokeria – where you sit with your feet in the sand, reggae beats, a table tennis table and a rope swingand Breeze restaurant and bar in Mui Ne Hills – a little difficult to find but good location and food
In Hoi An – Nu Eatery – we loved this so much we ate here twice – pulled pork sandwiches, pork noodles, avocado salad and cheesecake and banana cream pie were especially delicious.
Phi Banh Mi – best Banh Mi we had and the cheapest – tiny street food restaurant with a chicken and avocado version! Hola Taco (self-explanatory), Jim’s Snack Bar – great burgers and the fries with gravy were yum and Morning Glory Restaurant – good food but a bit hot if sat by the open kitchen.
In Hanoi we found a few more restaurants that were air-conditioned – Bun Cha Ta was cool upstairs with air-conditioning and served traditional bun cha and cold beer.
Indochina Junk Halong Bay – all the food cooked on this trip was amazing – there was lots of it too!
Cold water and cold beer is available everywhere – fruit is really cheap and plentiful and coffee shops abound! Each one is quaint and unique and serves hot or cold coffee so we made plenty of stops at these.
Night markets are everywhere and there are plenty of bargains to be had – t-shirts, shoes, leather bags and souvenirs…some markets can be a bit overwhelming as each seller tries to lure you in.
We had plenty of downpours in the afternoons in Saigon, a few showers along the Mekong Delta but otherwise, warm weather. You do get incredibly sweaty as even restaurants are not air-conditioned.
Rickshaw travel quotes will vary depending on your itinerary, choice of hotels and excursions (we paid around 1300 pounds per person but bought our own flights on Emirates).
Both Rickshaw travels and Premium choice were very amenable with offering choices so you can change to suit your budget.
Of course it will be cheaper booking it all yourself – we just opted for the easy version where the hotels and transfers were arranged and we paid separately for some excursions ourselves so it gave us flexibility. It was all pretty seamless and we would definitely recommend for a hassle free holiday.
What to take
You can get unbelievably cheap local sims for your phone at the airport – a $10 Sim lasted the entire holiday allowing us to use Trip Advisor and Google Maps to find places and restaurants.
Money belts! We each had one that we put money, cards and phones!
Leave your jewellery and expensive watches at home as necklaces, phones are sometimes snatched by guys on bikes as they ride past you.
Comfortable shoes as pavements are uneven and you walk everywhere.
Plenty of light clothing – cotton trousers and long sleeve tops are good to avoid mosquito bites and sun burn.
Mosquito repellent and after bite.
Sunscreen and hats
Imodium for the occasional upset tummy
Your camera… and a sense of adventure!
If I had a chance to do it all again, and more time, I’d like to visit the mountains in the north (although this is not recommended in wet season) and the Island of Phu Quoc, which looks beautiful.
For more advice about safety, security and health, it is wise to look at:
Medical – FCO travel advice