Hey all you lovely travellers, we’re mid-way through the month and already we’ve had some amazing interviews with travel bloggers from all over the world.
Today we continue onward in that trend by sitting down with the lovely Denise from the Art of Slow Travel, who’s currently making her way around the southern hemisphere travelling her little Maltese tail off. Let’s hear what she has to say about another destination close to our hearts, Vietnam!
1. Hey Denise. Could you briefly introduce yourself, your site and your experience travelling in Vietnam?
I’m Denise from theartofslowtravel.com, where I write about the benefits and pleasures of seeing the world at a slow pace in order to more fully understand and appreciate what it has to offer. I’m originally from the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta, which I left at age 23 to move to Zurich, Switzerland. Though I loved all the cows, I hated the bitter winter cold and moved to Melbourne, Australia in April 2012.
I spent two months in Vietnam (February and March 2012). After staying put in Hanoi for 1 month and completing a CELTA course, I travelled down south to Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Dalat, Mui Ne, Ho Chi Minh city and parts of the Mekong delta and loved it!
2. How does Vietnam compare to the rest of Southeast Asia in terms of things to see and do, its food and its culture? Is it very similar to other countries or very different?
Vietnam is the second South East Asian destination I have visited after Bali, so I can’t really make much of a comparison. However, what I can say is that many people who have been disappointed with Vietnam tend to visit the country and expect another Thailand. For example, while doing a 2-day trip in Halong Bay I came across a traveller who had flown to Hanoi from Bangkok and was terribly disappointed because of the rainy weather…and to me this sounded stupid because Hanoi is Hanoi. It’s cloudy, rainy and miserable in February!
The bottom line is that one cannot really compare Vietnam to any other country, as it has its own distinct culture.
3. How much money can someone travel around Vietnam for? What are the greatest expenses? What things are relatively cheap?
Vietnam can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. Simple street food is available for between 1 to 2 dollars (20,000-40,000 dong) per serving (though portions are small by Western standards), spartan private rooms with bathrooms can be had for around 10 dollars per night, local buses are inexpensive at 5000 dong per ride if you can figure out their routes, and taxis are also affordable at around 10,000-13,000 dong ( 50 cents) per Kilometre. Travelling around the country and doing the epic North to South or South to North journey is also cheap with open tour buses or trains, though with the latter it takes 32 hours to go from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh city. Domestic flying is a quicker and still affordable option.
I chose to travel on a midrange budget and stayed in private rooms costing between 25 to 60 dollars per night, with the most expensive place I stayed at being a small beach side resort in Mui Ne. I ate in restaurants catering for travellers and middle class Vietnamese from between 5 to 10 dollars per person and hopped on a domestic plane twice (Hanoi to Hue and Danang to Nha Trang, 40 and 60 dollars respectively, one-way). The most expensive parts of Vietnam were Nha Trang, Mui Ne and Hoi An (in that order) and seafood was ridiculously expensive everywhere, even by western standards. Danang city is cheap but the Danang beach stip is lined with horrendously expensive seafood restaurants. You wouldn’t guess it when you see their plastic décor, but I saw whole fish going for 25 dollars per kilo (excluding side dishes) and prawns for 50 dollars per kilo. Seafood is cheaper in other places though, so this was an exception.
From what I’ve heard and read, Vietnam is probably a bit more expensive than its neighbours but cheaper than Bali. I do however think that if you choose wisely you get a lot for your money.
4. What are your favourite destinations in Vietnam and why?
I love Hanoi because, even if it’s grey and wet in winter, AND clogged with motorbikes, it still belongs to the Vietnamese, not to tourists. It might not be big on tourist attractions, but it has amazing restaurants, fantastic shopping and palpable culture. Hoi An is a bit of a tourist Disneyland, but it’s the most beautiful and delicate of Vietnamese cities. With its car-free centre, the old town is picturesque and peaceful, and absolutely magical at night when it’s lit up by hundreds of lanterns. The countryside around Hue is gorgeous with its pagodas and royal tombs and Nha Trang has the best beaches in the country. And then there is the Mekong delta, filled with busy little cities, golden Khmer temples by the river, and little villages where time moves more slowly, people hang around at the local bar and watch tvs in hamocks instead of chairs, and make a living working hard harvesting coconuts, making bricks, weaving baskets and growing rice.
5. What cultural activities and events would you suggest everyone seeing or taking part in while travelling in Vietnam and why?
In Hanoi, I really enjoyed a water puppet performance which I’d highly recommend. I’d also suggest exploring the city and sampling many of its hole-in-the-wall local eateries and just in general getting in touch with Hanoian city life. From Hanoi, you should head to Sapa to meet the hill tribes and do homestays. In the Mekong delta, there are plenty of opportunities to catch a glimpse of local life and the way that people make a living here, though usually, you’ll need to be on some kind of organised tour.
The biggest event in Vietnam is definitely tet. Held on the lunar New Year, this is a time when everyone is busy cooking New Year food, cleaning their homes and giving gifts. Celebrations are held across Vietnam and this is a fascinating time during which to be in the country. However, you need to be prepared for the fact that, since many Vietnamese travel domestically during this period, prices rise drastically and trains and flights are booked out months in advance (or in the case of trains, may stop running all together). Shops and business are also often closed for at least a week.
6. What is your favourite thing about travelling this country? What is your least favourite thing?
My favourite thing about the country was the wonderful friendly people. Of course, like in many other developing countries, you need to be careful with scams and rip offs, but all in all, I was met with kindness, friendliness and smiles, especially when I went off-the-beaten track. Even sellers, though persistent, were generally never aggressive and always pleasant. I guess I was also lucky to have the opportunity to spend a month teaching young Vietnamese people in my CELTA course in Hanoi, and I got to know a lot about their culture as well as their hopes and dreams for a better future.
On a different note, I was also really surprised by how well developed the infrastructure is across the entire country, and how many people in the travel industry can speak English (even if sometimes their level of English is basic).
My least favourite thing about Vietnam is its lack of wildlife. Even when deep in the mountains or the Mekong delta, you could hardly spot a bird!
7. What things do you focus on most when you write posts about this country on your travel blog? Why do you choose these things?
I try to focus on writing about it in as much depth as possible. Too many times have I come across bloggers who only dedicate a couple of blogs to the country after having rushed through it. I also try and write about it objectively. I have read about many people who have hated Vietnam and it still baffles me why. However, in my posts I present images and incidents and let readers make up their own minds. You can read what I have written about Vietnam so far here.
8. What’s one thing you can’t travel around Vietnam without?
Any sort of clothes which cannot be tailored (for example, underwear). It is true that you can find anything in Vietnam, but it tends to be Vietnamese-sized. I am a UK 8) and ‘large’ underwear bought in Hanoi did not fit me! You can get everything else tailor-made, especially in Hue and Hoi An. You should also probably carry emergency medication as Vietnamese drugs tend to be heavy on some nasty chemicals. Travel insurance is also a VERY good idea. City roads are dangerous (I came very close to being hit by a motorbike twice because I wasn’t focused enough while crossing the road) and Western style health care with English speaking doctors is expensive, though available in major cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.
9. If you could have travelled anywhere else in the country where would it be and why?
I would have loved to visit Sapa in Nothern Vietnam, but I was in the country in the middle of the Northern winter, and a trek there would have been cold and wet, with the beautiful view of terraced rice fields obscured by thick mist, as is common during that time of year.
Though I did make it to Dalat in the Central highlands, my partner came down with a nasty form of flu and I decided to stay with him in our hotel room most of the time, meaning that when we left a few days later, I hadn’t seen anything of beautiful Dalat and the surrounding Central highlands.
Though I travelled around the country for close to 4 weeks, I still didn’t have time to head to Phu Quoc Island in the South of Vietnam, which is as close as the country comes to having a tropical style island. All the above places I missed as well as the great impression which the country left me with means that I’ll definitely be visiting Vietnam again, hopefully soon.
10. If you could think of one thing you wished someone had told you before you started travelling in Vietnam what would it be?
That it would be so fantastic! Everybody raves about Thailand but judges Vietnam after a couple of days in the country. Vietnam may not have the best beaches in South East Asia, or the best cities, but for me it is amazing because it is simply Vietnam, and it constantly surprises you with the unexpected.
I really believe that if you go to Vietnam with an open mind and a desire to get to know the country (without being obsessed with travelling on the lowest budget possible), you’ll have an amazing time. Some planning before landing in the country will also go a long way.
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