“‘Live each day as if it’s your last’, that was the conventional advice, but really, who had the energy for that? What if it rained or you felt a bit glandy? It just wasn’t practical. Better by far to simply try and be good and courageous and bold and to make a difference. Not change the world exactly, but the bit around you. Go out there with your passion and your electric typewriter and work hard…something. Change lives through art maybe. Cherish your friends, stay true to your principles, live passionately and fully and well. Experience new things. Love and be loved, if you ever get the chance.” // Emma Morley (Excerpt from One Day)
When I stepped on that flight to Hong Kong last October, I had no idea how much my life would change in the course of eight months.
When you think of Vietnam, you probably think of moody landscapes, thick jungles, and the hectic nature ofHanoiand Ho Chi Minh City. Very rarely do people think of tropical islands when considering a trip to Vietnam.
There are actually quite a few islands that tend to be less touristy than the mainland, because, well, not that many people know about them. I finally had my own tropical Vietnamese island experience this year on Phú Quốc.
Hello friends and welcome to my new monthly wrap-up series! In an effort to stay relevant and keep you informed on my current travels (since this blog is usually a month or two behind on where I actually am), I’ve decided to start writing personal wrap-up posts.
Where oh where do I even begin with wrapping up March?
As per usual, this last month flew by mainly because of the amount of curveballs life threw my way. Maybe I was trying to get through it all as soon as possible.
Kelsey and I quickly made our way to the Saigon Opera House, a short walk from where we were staying, and where we would be meeting our tour group for the day. We had signed up for a Mekong Discovery tour with Intrepid Urban Adventures, and we had a full day ahead of us of agricultural wonders and good food.
This was my first tour with Intrepid, but I had heard great things about them from other travelers and bloggers alike, which made me seek them out. They have tours all over the world, and their Urban Adventure tours specifically are meant to be more focused on the local side of a destination.
You can feel the vibrancy as soon as you touch down in Saigon – the motorbikes whizzing by, the smells, the sizzling heat.
Last time I was in the city, I was overwhelmed. It was one of the first cities I visited in Asia and my senses were doing overtime. I didn’t know how to cross the street without having a heart-racing adrenaline kick each time, and I soon found out that the motorbike thieves are a real thing when one tried to grab my friend’s bag from behind.
It was too much and I wrote off Saigon as a big city that I would never enjoy visiting. But as I sometimes find when I travel more, I couldn’t have been more wrong with my initial prejudice against the city.
One of my goals on The Atlas Heart is to break down travel misconceptions or judgments about places and ideas. Perhaps it could be that destination that everyone warns you not to visit because of how dangerous it is, or maybe you yourself had preconceived notions that were proven wrong once you arrived to where you were going.
My aim is to present a variety of different opinions and experiences through the eyes of other travelers. It’s important to hear travel stories from all different perspectives in life, I call it seeing the world through a kaleidoscope lens.
I know, there have been a lot of food posts on here recently! What can I say, my experience with Forktown Food Tours must’ve really inspired me to start looking at culture through the lens of food more often.
In any case, I promise I’ll be changing up my posts a bit more after this one, but I did want to share with you all a touch of international food culture with the help of a few friends in the blogging world. That’s right, this is my first collaboration post and I’m pretty excited that it’s about food – one of my favorite things in the world.
My last installation for Southeast Asia budgeting: Vietnam!
Note: All prices are in US dollars, and I rounded when necessary to keep things nice and easy.
The currency in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong, and the conversion rate comes to about $1US = 21,150 Dong
Time spent = 14 nights, 15 days
Accommodation = $64 (averaged around $6/night)
Hanoi (4 nights) = $7.50/night ($30 total)
Hue (1 night) = $6
Hoi An (3 nights) =$6/night ($18 total)
Nha Trang (1 night) = $5
Saigon (1 night) = $5
The other nights were spent on a boat in Halong Bay and overnight buses.
I spent a couple of extra nights in Saigon when I flew from Singapore, but soon left for Cambodia and Thailand before making my way back to Vietnam. Those extra nights aren’t included in my budgeting.
In Hanoi, we decided to splurge on Hanoi Backpackers, because we kept hearing such great things about it from fellow travelers on the backpacker trail. It was well worth the money for the free activities offered (walking tour, bar crawl, etc), the free breakfast, free internet, helpful tour desk, clean facilities, cheap bar, and much more.
We were only in Hue for a night as a stopover and to get a quick glimpse at the historical city, but we had a lovely stay at a more traditional Vietnamese hostel called Tigon Hostel. The free breakfast buffet was the best free breakfast I had anywhere in Southeast Asia, and the staff were some of the friendliest I’ve come across in the hostel world.
In Hoi An, we found a double room for $6 each a night, and it was a welcome respite from dorm life. Hop Yen Hotel, was just off one of the main streets, and still within walking distance to town, as we found most things to be in Hoi An. It was a standard hotel, but it felt like a luxury to have our own room for the first time in a long time, and we even had a tiny TV to watch BBC News.
We continued to have our own room in Nha Trang, at one of the swankiest hotels we stayed at. We just walked around town with our heavy backpacks on when we jumped off the overnight bus and asked around at different hostels and hotels. When we found a nice looking hotel for $5 each a night for our own room, I was sold and happy to take a nice long nap from the bus ride.
In Saigon we stayed at the same place we stayed a month previously, when we had first arrived in Vietnam. It was the cheapest room we could find on a slightly quieter alleyway in the main backpacker district. It was $5 for a dorm, and the rooms were above a restaurant called the Alley Cat.
Again, we employed the same tactic of walking around into random restaurants and hotels to see what prices we could find. This particular dorm wasn’t the cleanest by any means but it was fine for what we needed…really, the worst part was the first time we stayed there, when our roommate left the remains of a durian in our tiny bathroom. If you have never smelled a rotting durian, count yourself very lucky.
Transport = $46 ($3.25/day)
The Vietnamese have the tourist transport down and it was a much easier system to figure out than Cambodia and even Thailand. Most travelers buy open ended bus passes through one company from Hanoi to Saigon or vice versa. There are designated cities along the route, the downside meaning less of a chance to get off the beaten path, and you choose how many of those cities you want to stop at. The price varies depending on the number of stops you choose. My pass cost $39 for 4 stops.
Be careful with the travel agent you buy it from and make sure to shop around. It’s fine to barter down the price, especially if you mention you found another company offering a cheaper pass, but also remember that you get what you pay for. I actually ended up getting scammed a bit in Hanoi because I didn’t have enough loose Dong in cash, and I had to use my credit card.
The travel agent took liberties guessing correctly that I wouldn’t know the currency rate off the top of my head if he charged my credit card in Dong. He told me one price and charged me about $5US more in Dong, sneaky guy.
Other transport costs consisted of local buses, a shuttle to the airport, and renting bikes for the day.
Food = $68 ($5/day)
As I’ve mentioned in pretty much every one of my Vietnam posts, I adore Vietnamese food, and the French influence I found via the perfect flaky croissants I devoured in Hoi An. I spent a lot of my money on pho, but tried a different local specialty in almost every town we visited. We kept the food prices down by eating a lot of street food and finding new foods to try in local markets. Although my guilty pleasure, the French bakery in Hoi An, was my weakness and took up a chunk of my budget.
Smoothies/juices = $3.25
I hardly had any smoothies in Vietnam, weird, right? Southeast Asia is a smoothie haven, but Vietnam had something more intriguing to me at the time, delicious Vietnamese coffee.
Vietnamese Coffee = $9.25 (around $1.25 each)
Since I replaced my smoothie habit with Vietnamese coffee, I thought I’d make a new category. Why I was so enamored with Vietnamese coffee, other than it being simultaneously the most creamy, tasty, unhealthy, and most caffeineted drink I could find, was that I had suffered through more than my fair share of disgusting Nescafe instant coffee throughout Asia.
I had given up coffee and switched to tea by Cambodia, even the smell of instant Nescafe made my queasy. You can imagine how happy I was to find myself in Vietnam, my last stop, and real coffee within my reach again. Addiction renewed.
Water (1500ml) = $8 (about $0.50 each)
Hydration is key. I made sure to keep myself hydrated on those long bus rides and humid days throughout the country.
Alcohol = $17
Close to what I spent in Thailand on alcohol. I didn’t party as much in Asia as I originally thought I would. Partly from wanting to save money, partly from wanting to enjoy traveling without the hangover, and partly because I enjoyed saving my alcoholic nights for the big ticket items like The Full Moon Party and Halong Bay.
Even with cheap drinks on the boat, I spent most of my alcohol budget for the Halong Bay party cruise. I also went on a pub crawl in Hanoi and had a few cheeky drinks here and there in random places, trying to reach my goal of tasting the endless supply of different Vietnamese beers that taste the same.
Miscellaneous = $200
Breakdown of my miscellaneous purchases:
Halong Bay = $120
Snake Village = $18
Entry to Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi = $1
Handmade shoes (Hoi An) = $23
Handmade dress (Hoi An) = $36
Chair rental on the beach (Hoi An) = $1.50
Including everything (except Halong Bay), I spent about $19 a day, or $286 total ($406 with Halong Bay)
Overall, Vietnam was almost as expensive as Thailand, but I enjoyed my time here the most (along with Cambodia) out of the other countries I visited in Southeast Asia. Vietnam is a place I’d want to go back to and explore more in depth, I felt like I barely touched the surface. I was also surprised at how beautiful and romantic of a country it turned out to be.
Next time I want to travel the country on the back of a motorbike, wind through my hair, mountains and the sea beside me, and the open road in front of me. I can see it now. Vietnam, I’ll come back for you someday.
Hoi An is one of those places that conjures up daydreams of an ideal far away land – exotic, beautiful, and seemingly right out of a fairy tale. There’s still a French Colonial influence to be seen in the architecture and local restaurants, but I found the French theme to somehow work seamlessly well with the traditional Vietnamese culture there. From street food at plastic picnic tables serving up mouthwatering local delicacies, to high class art galleries and couture clothing shops, there is something for everyone in Hoi An.
My first night I was walking around at dusk, and I remember taking a mental picture in my head to try and capture the contentment I felt to be in such a gem. Walking along Thu Bon River I saw the city come to life at night, a boat turned into a cool bar one moment, and the next I was in front of three Vietnamese locals in matching pink ao dais and nón lás (traditional Vietnamese female garb and conical hats). Hoi An is one of the prettiest places I’ve found myself, and one that I would go back to in a heartbeat.
These are a few of my favorite things…
Handmade Dresses and Shoes
If you’ve heard about Hoi An before, you’ve most likely heard that it’s the place to go if you want to buy handmade clothes, shoes, suits, etc. Although they sell the handmade clothes at Western prices, it is well worth the price you pay to design a piece that will fit you to measurement, and that you know no one else will be wearing.
There are multiple little boutiques that line the streets, all offering slightly different prices and styles for you to choose from. Prices can range anywhere from $20-$40US for a dress or shoes, and upwards of $100US for a full piece suit. Although expensive for Vietnam, these were still a fraction of the price if I were to have clothes tailor-made from a local shop back home.
I spent the day walking around to a few different shops, taking a look inside at their catalogs or dresses on display, and talking prices for different styles of dresses until I found one suitable to my budget and my taste. Since it’s the color I have the least in my wardrobe, I chose to design a bright pink dress with a red lining to make it a bit richer, and a style that was flowy and had a nice twirl to it because it reminded me of summer. It cost me $36US and was well worth the cost with how much I love owning a piece I designed and had made abroad.
After telling the shopkeeper exactly how I wanted the dress to look, I went back the following day for my fitting, and by the third day I had a brand new dress at my disposal. The woman who owned the shop was helpful and friendly, although very insistent in trying to make me more dresses, even offering a buy 3 get 1 free deal. How she expected I could fit four new dresses in my tiny backpack is beyond me, but nonetheless, she was definitely a good saleswoman and I was seriously tempted to design a second dress.
Now, that one dress was the only handmade piece I was planning on buying, but when the woman said her friend owned the shoe shop across the way and that I should take a look, I found a perfect pair of greek sandals in my favorite color to replace the ones I had already broken on my trip. Again, I had my fitting and I was even able to pick the quality of leather I wanted for the sole. My sandals cost me $23US and I wear them everywhere in nice weather, especially when I was in Sydney for the summer.
Having clothes made in Hoi An was such a positive and fun experience, and I was happy that I was able to participate in one of the aspects that the city is famous for.
The Local Dish: Cao Lao
I’ve always been a fan of Vietnamese foods, of course when I say a “fan”, I have to admit I didn’t try a great variety of dishes besides my great love affair with pho before I arrived in Vietnam.
Thai food has always been my favorite Asian cuisine, but the food I tried in Vietnam was just as delicious if not more so than what I tried in Thailand. Vietnamese food also turned out to be the healthiest and freshest as a whole out of all the other countries I traveled to in Southeast Asia.
While in Vietnam, I focused on trying as much street food and local specialties as possible. After eating bugs in Bangkok, I knew I could probably stomach most of anything and I was ready and gearing to have some new tastes on my palette. Of course, I still had a lot of pho in my journey, but I was surprised at how it wasn’t all that popular and sometimes nonexistent at some eateries we found down the coast of Vietnam. The best pho I’ve had in my life is still the one I had my first night in Saigon, at a roadside restaurant with mostly all Vietnamese men inside and only a few items on the menu.
Most times when we would sit at the plastic picnic tables down alleyways or on the side of the road, there wouldn’t even be a menu, and at times, it would just be one dish they were serving. However, you know that if they only serve one dish, they must be really good at making it, so I seemed to always find the most delicious delicacies at the roadside street food.
In Hanoi, I ate bún chả for the first time down a little alleyway in the French district. I actually didn’t know what it was at the time I ate it, but I looked it up once I arrived back at the hostel, because it was incredibly tasty and the first time I had genuinely enjoyed eating pork as a main meat. It’s crazy how Vietnamese dishes are so simple, yet carry so much flavor and mouthwatering combinations. Bún chả, which is thought to have originated in Hanoi, is just grilled or barbequed pork with white rice noodles and some greens to top it off. That simple, and yet it was one of my favorite dishes in my Southeast Asia travels.
But back to Hoi An and my experience with their specialty, the equally delicious Cao Lao. It’s very similar to bún chả, having most of the same ingredients, but the noodles are cooked a different way, and the pork grilled and thinly sliced. Instead of the greens, it comes with croutons, mint, chili and a sauce (as opposed to a broth for bún chả).
As I mentioned for my first night in Hoi An, I was walking along the river at dusk and it was, well in a word, beautiful. This street food restaurant was just near the river, and I ate there my first night, while the sun was making its final descent and all the paper lanterns were turning on and the streets were coming alive with tourists and local Vietnamese alike. It was one of those moments that makes you grateful for travel.
The Central Market
The Central Market is a hub of activity and chaos. As soon as you enter, you have Vietnamese women shouting at you to try their food stall or asking you a million questions about where you come from, what you like to eat, where you’re going, if you have a husband. It’s exciting, the smells enticing as you walk around the stalls, or less than stellar as you make your way closer to the toilets. The Central Market is where you find more of a traditional Vietnamese culture when the rest of Hoi An can seem very touristy and Westernized in comparison. It is also where you find some of the cheapest food.
It’s worth an afternoon to go explore the market and look at the different food stalls and what new specialties they’re offering that you’ve yet to try. I ate there twice, once for a fix of pho, and the second time at a buffet style stall. I honestly didn’t know half the dishes I was eating as the woman didn’t speak much English, but I tried almost everything that was offered regardless, and it turned out completely fine.
The Cargo Club
My guilty pleasure in Hoi An. One of the many Westernized restaurants in the city, The Cargo Club, is a pricey French bakery in the middle of town. You know when you’ve been traveling for awhile and you just crave something familiar? Well, I’ve never been one to go to McDonalds while I’m traveling abroad unless I’m dying of hunger (maybe not that extreme but you get the point). My real weakness is buttery, flaky, pastry (hence, my new found love of meat pie when I moved to Australia). I went to the Cargo Club my first day in Hoi An, and they had the most tasty chocolate croissant I’ve tried in my life – yes, that’s including Paris. I ended up spending an hour or two there every afternoon I was in Hoi An in my happy state of mind with a chocolate croissant in one hand and a book in another.
I’ve always loved spending a copious amount of time in cafes, reading, writing, or working on this or that. I realized in Asia that I never really was able to do that much of just lounging in cafes while constantly on the road. Hoi An turned out to be my place of luxury and indulgence, and those couple of hours in a French cafe were no exception to the contentment I felt there.
Biking to Cua Dai Beach
On my last day in Hoi An, my friend and I decided to take a quick bike trip to the nearby beach, Cua Dai, about a 2o minute bike ride away. We hired bikes across the street from where we were staying at the Hop Yen Hotel for the equivalent of less than $1US and hit the road. This was my first experience biking in Vietnam, or Southeast Asia in general, and I have to say it wasn’t as crazy scary as I thought it would be. I don’t know if I would ever want to try bicylcing around Saigon, or even Hanoi, as they’re not the most bike friendly places I’ve been to in my life.
The beach wasn’t spectacular like the ones we found in Thailand or Cambodia, or even Nha Trang a bit further south in Vietnam, but it was a perfect way to relax on one of our last days in Asia. The beach was windy when we arrived, so it was worth it to pay for one of the beach chairs they have set up on the sand, otherwise there was constantly sand blowing in your eyes when you tried to lay down on a towel. The beach chairs were far more affordable than the ones we found lined up and down the beaches in Bali by a long shot (only $1.50US for the whole day), so we were quite happy to indulge.
The food along the beach is at least twice as expensive as most local eateries in town and not all that tasty, so if you don’t want to splurge for airport-esque food, make sure to pack a lunch or bring some snacks for your day at the beach.
The Lack of Leering Men
During my travels through Southeast Asia I found more than my fair share of catcalls, leering looks, and even a horrible experience of getting full on groped on the side of the road in Malaysia by local men. Not because of a short skirt I was wearing (not that that’s even a reason), or because I was asking for it, mind you, but simply due to my gender and/or my label as a “Western” woman.
I can’t tell you how quickly I lose my temper in situations where I feel singled out due to my sex, and I’d even go so far as to say it was one of the most challenging aspects of traveling through Southeast Asia. Although I try my best to ignore such behavior by local men, I’m also not one to stand by, lower my eyes, and allow them to think it’s an acceptable way to treat another human being. While abroad, however, it is the the safer option as a female traveler when you’re immersed in another culture with varying respect for women.
On one particularly long and irritating travel day, I was walking by myself in Bangkok to buy a bus ticket up to northern Thailand, when I passed by a large group of African men at a cafe. They immediately started making kissy noises, grabbing their crotches, and yelling the cliche sexist things gross men are fond of saying.
I stopped in my tracks, looked them in the eye, made the most disgusted face I could muster, put up both middle fingers and mouthed the appropriate words to go along with it. They stared at me, mouths agape and soon after started shouting obscenities at me as I quickly walked on. I just kept thinking, “did I really just do that?”, “what has gotten into me!?”, and “thank god it’s daytime and there are people around.” Maybe not my finest moment, but honestly, the look on their faces was priceless.
The taxi drivers in almost every Asian country we visited were some of the worst types of men to pass by, because more often than not they would give you some sort of unwanted attention. Hoi An, being such a small city, didn’t have many cabbies at all, so maybe that was one of the reasons why I felt a relief from leering men. It is also a very touristy place compared to a lot of other cities in Vietnam, so Western women may not be as much of a unique sight to see. Whatever the reason, it was one of the big aspects that contributed to my love for Hoi An. I didn’t feel the need to always be on my guard or expect a lascivious comment from the man across the street every time I would walk down it.
A Walkable Place to Get Lost
Hoi An is a very walkable city because of its size and cut through alleyways that make up the city. I love cities where I can walk from point A to point B and not have to worry about a car. I love walkable places to get lost. Hoi An was a great place for that with all of the souvenir shops, galleries, Central Market, and cool boutiques that lined every street. It’s an easy place to spend money or test your restraint and have an epic day of window shopping, whatever you budget or preference may be.
Have you ever been to Hoi An? What was your experience?
Historical Hue (pronounced “hway”) in Central Vietnam is a feast for the eyes and the history buff. Located along Song Huong River, more commonly known as the Perfume River, Hue is not only an UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the historical and once national capital of Vietnam and the Nguyen Dynasty.
The main attraction by far in Hue is the old Citadel. Built in 1805, it includes the Forbidden City within its walls, and it will give you a day’s worth of crumbling ruins, ancient architecture, royal palaces, and the knowledge that you’re standing in the original Royal Vietnam capital.
The entrance fee can be bartered like most things in Vietnam, but expect to pay at least 100,000 dong ($5US), if not more. I sadly didn’t get to actually go inside the Citadel as I only had one full day in Hue, and there was a lot more of the city that I wanted to see, but I would highly recommend spending a day exploring the complex if you have more time in Hue.
Besides the Citadel, there is more to see with the numerous pagodas, tombs, colorful culture on the streets, and scenic walks through the city.
Hue was a nice stop midway through my Vietnamese travels. From the little time I spent there, it seemed to have a slower pace and friendlier atmosphere than some other Vietnamese counterparts I visited. It gave me a chance to catch my breath and just relax. Drawn to the slow pace around me, I decided not to focus on an action-packed day of sightseeing, and instead used my time to walk around the city, get lost, and take pictures on a whim.
I found myself at Tigon Hostel, which was one of the nicer accommodations I stayed at in Vietnam, and one that I would recommend to any traveler on a budget. Prices start around $8US for a 10 bed dorm, free breakfast buffet and free WiFi, and go up slightly from there. Being a relatively new hostel, everything was clean, the free breakfast buffet was superb compared to what most hostels offer for free breakfast, and everyone was affectionately friendly. I also enjoyed the fact that the staff dressed in colorful traditional Vietnamese clothing, and were highly knowledgable about what to do with my time in Hue.
Although there may not be as much of a draw to see Hue as other places up and down the coast, it is a great city to soak up traditional Vietnamese culture and take a break from the sometimes overwhelming pace of most Vietnamese cities.