Tour Guide

Population: 82 Million; Political System: Corrupt Communism;
Religion: Money

National Motto: "Hey, friend, you want a surfboard keychain? Cheap price! Okay, how about a postcard? Many types! Hey, where you from? Maybe later?"

Good Things
  • Beautiful, interesting scenery
  • Low prices for lodging, meals
  • Not heavily touristed yet, so there’s still lots of authentic Vietnamese culture
Bad Things
  • Uncomfortable and rough transportation
  • National conspiracy against sleep
  • Chilly northern weather in winter
  • Fleece-the-foreigner attitudes

From January to February 2005 I was in Vietnam. I kept records of our trip and my unscientific opinions. For those who might find such things useful for planning their own trip, I’ve included as many details about where we went as I can. I’ve given prices in US dollars. I gripe a bit about Vietnam but I still think about the trip a lot as it was so different.


1. Hanoi

We arrived in Hanoi on the morning of Tuesday, January 18, 2005 and haggled for an airport taxi to the Old Quarter of Hanoi ($US8). We stayed at the Camellia II on 31 Hang Dieu Street ($16 w/ cheesy breakfast). There’s some nice restaurants in the Old Quarter, including Little Hanoi and Le Thach Quan (2 Le Thach, next to the statue facing Hoam Kiem Lake), and some overpriced (the Cyclo Bar & Restaurant) or overpriced and boring (Long Van Cafe, next to the lake). The finest food was at the little hole-in-the-wall diners where a bowl of outstanding pho or bambo nambo was as little as 75 cents. There’s lots to see in Hanoi, such as roaming the ancient Old Quarter markets, seeing the Temple of Literature, or taking in a water puppet show (next to Hoam Kiem lake). The streets of the Old Quarter are narrow and at times you need strong nerves to dodge the homicidal motorcycles and cyclos (bicycle taxis). It’s also the noisiest place I’ve ever been in my life, and this is after living in Mexico. The chill of Hanoi January and the endless din of horns drove us southbound within four days.

2. Hoi An

We took a sleeper car on the S1 train to Hoi An ($25) and arrived the next morning to sandal weather and sunshine. We stayed in the Vinh Hung II ($18) for one night and then five nights in the Thuy Duong (11 Le Loi, $8). Hoi An had great restaurants, such as the Mermaid (2 Duong Tran Phu), Before & Now (on Le Loi), and some places on the riverside where you can find local specialties such as Cao Lao or White Rose or take cooking classes. We had wedding clothing made at A-Dong Silk (40 Le Loi). They were fast, non-pushy, and even shipped it all to Hanoi for us to pick up. We made a day trip to My Son, the imperial ruins of the Cham dynasty (4th and 12th centuries), and our tour ($4) included a boat ride back with a tiny lunch. The tour included a pleasant stop-off at a pottery village where people chased us for fifteen minutes to buy junk, and a stop at a wood carving factory. Other nice things to do in Hoi An is take a motorcycle ($3-4) to nearby Cua Dai beach and pig out on prawns, and ride past the rice paddies on the way back. Hoi An wasn’t as noisy as Hanoi, but at night the dogs made such a racket that we didn’t sleep much, and so it was time to move on.

3. China Beach

A one-hour ride on a tour bus took us just south of Danang to the Marble Mountains, which are made of— get this— marble. We arrived at China Beach, famous for a TV show in the 80s and for being a holiday place for American soldiers during the war, only to find that there wasn’t much there. There’s a few little diners and several hotels under construction, and we were lucky to find the Romance Hotel ($15) next to the beach, with its own restaurant. Other than a day trip to Danang, which is enough, there wasn’t a lot to do there in late January. But the beach was quiet, and after the incessant sellers of everywhere else in Vietnam, it was nice to be left alone for a while. We then travelled from Danang to Nha Trang on the S1 again ($28).

4. Nha Trang

Vietnam isn’t known for beaches, but Nha Trang isn’t bad. There’s no surfing, but the water was warm and there’s a laid-back atmosphere in the town. We stayed at the Blue Star at 1B Biet Thu ($8) next to the beach, and again didn’t get much sleep; Nha Trang appears to be a party place for Australians on college break. The locals go to bed by ten and are up by six, and there wasn’t much nightlife in Vietnam— except for the hotel balcony in front of our room. The food was edible but nothing spectacular. Good Morning Vietnam and the Same Same But Different restaurants were fair but the overhyped Cafe des Amis and El Coyote were disappointments. It felt a little seedy at night in Nha Trang and some of the local laborers were a little hostile. But there’s lots to do in Nha Trang. There’s the pricey Lousianne Cafe with a private beachfront and pool and good cake, or you can be ignored at the Sailing Club. We took a day trip on a boat to nearby Mun, Mot, and Tam islands ($6-8). Our tour with Linh Tours involved some morning swimming, a surprisingly good lunch, and some cheesy music from the boat crew band.

5. Doc Let

After a while the noise got to us again, and so on February 3 we took a taxi to Doc Let beach, an hour north. Our first stop was the ridiculous Ba Ho falls, a hike through the rocks to see a dribble of water, and then the meager salt fields near Doc Let, with our taxi driver ’re-negotiating’ our fare at the falls to $19 for the day. Jungle Beach resort was full, so we ended up at Doc Let resort, a dreary cabin next to the beach for $16 with a drearier restaurant. After one day we switched to Paradise Resort ($16, all meals), a short walk up the beach. It was so much fun and such good value we stayed four days. The crusty French owner runs a sort of hostel with little bamboo cabins and communal meals. We met an older couple from California, a couple from Holland, and a journalist from New York. The swimming was good and it was quiet. But after a while it was maybe too quiet and we left for Hoi An on the bus ($10). It was nearing Tet, new year, and the trains were getting full. Bad timing to be traveling anywhere in Asia.

6. Hué

After getting little sleep on the bus, with frequent stops to see the same souvenirs over and over and a mid-night bus switch, we arrived in Hoi An to find not much open. We stayed in the adequate Hoi Pho hotel (4 Hai Ba Trung Street, $8), where I had my Lonely Planet book stolen through the grating in my window, and we managed to get a bus to Hue (way) the next day ($4, or ’special Tet price’ of $7). In Hue we stayed in the very pleasant Sunrise Hotel ($12, with actually good breakfast) next to the Sinh Cafe bus terminal. As it was Tet and markets were closed, restaurants were even more sparse and food was generally poor despite Hue’s reputation for dining. One honorable mention was the Omar Khayyim (Indian), next to the hotel. Things to do in Hue include pretending that you’re rich at the sumptuous Morin Saigon hotel garden, or touring the old buildings inside the citadel, or... touring the old buildings inside the citadel.

7. Halong Bay

We took a night train back to Hanoi on February 11. We were charged $5 commission on a $24 fare without being told. It wasn’t the end of the world, but at the time I was getting irritated with these minor scams. We talked with a friendly Austrian couple in our sleeping car, which in the S2 is built for four. Our train arrived early, which would be great if it wasn’t four in the morning; we stayed at the Viet Anh hotel (11 Ma May Street, $15 with breakfast). We went on two short trips. The first, a day trip ($14), took us to some ancient pagodas and Tam Coc, a series of three caves and gorgeous spiky Apocalypse Now-ish mountains which you see in a paddled boat. It’s stunning, but you need strong nerves to endure the pestering from your driver to buy cola or embroidery. The second was to Halong Bay (two days, all meals, $27). It was eerily foggy the first day, giving everything an otherworldly feel. The caves are pretty and it’s fun sleeping on a boat, even if you feel a little damp the whole time. If forced to choose, Halong Bay is well worth seeing, but for flat-out scenery I would probably pick Tam Coc.


And that was the end of our vacation. Back to wonderful work, work, and winter in Korea. But it was nice to get a full night’s sleep again and I slept a great deal my first few days back. If you go, I hope you find some of this information helpful. If not, it’s a web page.. here’s your money back.


Useful Vietnamese Signs!

Hoi An, Vietnam



Interesting Vietnamese Bathrooms!

It’s official: the filthiest bathroom I have ever seen in the world, in Hue.

Green toilet paper for all your decorating needs.