Let’s Go Exploring! Vietnam: The Country Travellers Love to Hate

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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Once we started travelling, we realized the best way to gather intel about places to visit is to simply ask other travellers. And 90% of the time, their recommendations are spot on. So you can imagine our disappointment when, over and over, after asking about Vietnam, we got these unanimous responses:

1) You will get ripped off
2) It’s dirty
3) The food isn’t as good as I thought it would be

The biggest blow was this article, written by our budget travel hero, Nomadic Matt:

Why I’ll Never Return to Vietnam

We almost skipped Vietnam all together, but his wise words at the end of the post changed our minds:

“But just because I didn’t like Vietnam doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. This is my experience, but you should always just take what someone says, file it away, and go yourself. And if you don’t go because of this article, I’ll find you and drag you there myself.”

To save Matt the trouble of dragging us there himself, we decided to go to Vietnam to see if it really is as bad as everyone says.

Nha Trang

As soon as our plane touched down in Nha Trang, I prepared myself for battle. Walking through the arrival section, I mentally scanned through my “Vietnam Survival Guide”:

1) Bullshit detector. Check.
2) Bucket of hand sanitizer. Check.
3) One-way flight back to Thailand in case of shitty food. Check.

Clutching my purse to my chest, my eyes swept the area continuously for touts, ready to elbow the first guy in the face who tries to pull the ol’ “shoe repair” scam.

It was exhausting trying to be vigilant all the time, but luckily after only the 2nd day, I realized it was pointless.

Turns out, the trick to avoiding touts in Vietnam is to NOT stay in the tourist area. Because we stayed in an AirBnB in the local area (that was still only 5 mins from the beach), we managed to get the best food, best deals, and meet some of the nicest people we’ve ever met.

Two of these people were Sean and Leah, our hosts from Australia.

“People keep asking us ‘when are you back going home’?” Leah said. “When we say ‘but we ARE home,’ they get very confused.”

“So why don’t you want to go back to Australia?” I asked.

“Well,” Leah said. “We could stay there and work our asses off for decades and never get ahead, or we could move here and already be ahead.”

“It was a no brainer,” added Sean. “We have a community here, luxury style living for next to nothing and delicious food. What else could we possibly ask for?”

And looking out the window of our $25/night AirBnb, I could see why:

As the happy owner of a top Spa in Nha Trang, you’d never know that Sean once worked a stressful job in IT.

Several depressive episodes and one massive heart attack later, Sean realized he needed to make a change. After showing us the giant scar on his chest from his coronary by-pass surgery, I immediately had déjà vu .

“We knew, if we didn’t get him out, he would die.” Leah said. “That’s why I asked ‘what’s your dream? Let’s work on that instead.”

For Sean, that dream was  to open his very own Spa.

So that’s what they did. Now their award-winning Spa is rated top 10 out of all of Nha Trang, they contribute to the economy by employing locals, and Leah even started an orphanage which has saved the lives of 22 children to date.

And because Sean and Leah embedded themselves into the community, they were able to give us the best recommendations for food.

Like this life changing bowl of pho:

I’ve eaten so many bowls of Pho in Toronto, but after this, I completely turned into a Pho snob. Now I can’t even look at a bowl of Pho unless it’s prepared by a nice old granny who’s been making the secret family recipe for 40 years, and just one sip is enough to make me weep tears of joy.

In addition to the Pho, I also discovered one of my favourite drinks: Vietnamese Drip coffee.

Now, I’m not a big coffee drinker, but the second this liquid, chocolatey goodness hit my lips I was hooked. The coffee, fragrant and strong, is dripped through a filter, and tastes very much like melted dark chocolate served over ice. Yum!

After 4 days in Nha Trang, we really regretted not staying longer. We were so preoccupied thinking we’d dislike Vietnam, we completely didn’t plan for the opposite experience.

Not only was the food amazing, we never got ripped off once. In fact, a few shopkeepers even ran after me, leaving their shops completely unattended, thinking I had forgotten my change when I left it for them as tip.

And even though Vietnam didn’t have the quantity and quality of Thai masseuses, they had something that was almost as good:

Mud Spas. Perfect for cooling you off on a hot day.

It left my skin feeling so soft, it put Prince George’s butt to shame.

Hue

After Nha Trang, we were pretty pumped for the next place (which Leah recommended and taught us is pronounced “Hoo-ay “ not “hu-ew”).

Admittedly Hue was way more touty than Nha Trang. We had one rickshaw driver follow us around the outside of the royal palace demanding that we hitch a ride with him. Another lady tried to charge us double the price for a bowl of lacklustre “bun bo hue” (Hue’s specialty).

*looks under the table* *checks behind the glass* Where is the flavour? Where is it? Where is it?

But none of those things mattered, after we saw this:

Having been the old capital during the Vietnam War (or rather American War as the Vietnamese prefer to call it) some may say Hue is full of spirits and ghosts. But I thought it was pretty magical.

And the best part was that because most of the travellers we spoke to had such a negative memory of Vietnam, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

You know what they say about men with long sleeves. *sexy growl*

 

BFFs forever!

 

After a full day of sight seeing and looking at the imperial palace and tombs of the emperors, we got to relax and sip a cold Vietnamese coffee by the perfume river.

After having such low expectations for Vietnam, we were pleasantly surprised by Nha Trang and Hue.

And the costs were ridiculously easy on the wallet too (even cheaper than Thailand!):

Category Cost/couple/day (CAD) Thoughts
Accommodations $24 CAD (or $18 USD) $25 for Nha Trang, $23 for Hue. The Hue hotel even had a pool and breakfast included! Vietnam had even cheaper hotels than Thailand! I suspect it's because the bad reviews scared tourists away. Oh well. Their loss, our gain.
Food $15 CAD ($12 USD) Beer was even cheaper than Thailand, so that reduced our food bill even more. One thing I did notice is that, unlike Thailand, it's harder to just walk into a random food stall. You have research and ask around for the best ones. Otherwise you might get overcharged for bland food. But then again, we're talking about an extra 50 cents, so no big deal really.
Attractions $8 ($6 USD) The Mud Spa was $21 for the two of us, which included access to 3 pools and mud spa for the entire day. The entrance to the palace and tombs were $18 and $24 for the two of us. Averaged over 8 days, that's around $8 a day.
Transportation $14 ($11 USD) We flew with budget airlines, VietJet ($61 for 2), and got to Hue by sleeper train ($83 for 2) which saved us 1 day of hotel costs, plus some additional bus fares to get around. Averaged over 8 days, that's only $14/day.
Total: $61 CAD ($47 USD)

So instead of running back to Thailand before our 1 month Vietnamese visa was up, we soldiered on. And as it turns out, Vietnam had even more surprises in store for us…

Which we will write about in our next Travel Post.

45 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Vietnam: The Country Travellers Love to Hate”

  1. I didn’t even realize a lot of travel bloggers had bad experiences in Vietnam – I always thought it would be a place we’d visit eventually. So glad you had a good time!

    It’s so true about touristy areas. My husband has family in Malaysia, and it’s always funny to me when I see travel bloggers going to touristy areas and being really pleased that lunch for two was $10 (USD) — compared to the places family took us, that was highway robbery!

    1. I was surprised too. It has a return rate of 5% while Thailand’s return rate is 50%. I guess they’re just not as used to tourists. Or maybe it’s because of the crap the had to go through during the Vietnam war…makes them distrustful of outsiders.

      Yeah, touristy areas are the WORST! Bad food and even worst prices. $10 USD could feed 2 people for the whole day in the local areas and the food is SO much better.

  2. My wife and I just bought tickets to Vietnam. She plans on taking a few cooking courses in Hoi An and Hanoi, but after reading your article, I must include Hue since it’s pretty close. Can’t wait to read your next article.

    1. Awesome! Coincidentally, Hoi An is coming up in one of my future posts.

      Yes, I highly recommend Hue…it’s a beautiful city (especially the park along the Perfume river). The touts are a bit annoying, but you get used to it after awhile.

  3. The only thing I would never adapt is to the asian cuisine.
    I know people love it but I never really liked so…will have to try south america for my geographic arbitrage.
    Hey FC, are you going to visit Hang Son Doong? I heard it’s really amazing !

    1. It’s just not your thing, that’s okay. Mexico, Central, and South America are all great places for geographic arbitrage as well. The food maybe better suited to your palate. I know people who weren’t a big fan of Thai food but LOVED Mexican food. So maybe it’ll be right up your alley.

      I actually never heard of Hang Son Doong until you mentioned it. The google photos look amazing! I’ll add it to my bucket list.

    1. Please do! It’s extremely affordable! Also, they money is called “dongs”…tee hee.

      The drip coffee is one of my favourite things about Vietnam. So good and only $0.50-$0.75. Mmmmmm.

  4. Looks pretty awesome! I definitely want to give SE Asia a try for a month or three at some point. Mrs. RoG and the kids would be eating pho all day for sure. I’d be out looking for the Vietnamese version of tacos. 🙂 As always, I’m concerned about the tropical heat since we melt in it. I need to find a moderate temperature location in SE Asia where we can head to if the heat gets too much. Chiang Mai? Somewhere else nice and mountainous?

    That coffee looks pretty killer too. I always see those 3-in-1 coffee mix packets at the Asian grocery store and assume it’s cream, sugar and coffee. Now I’m curious if it’s a really dark bold roast or it has chocolate in it too.

    1. The Vietnamese version of tacos is probably the rice paper roll. You can put in your own meat and veggie and roll it up into a spring roll. So good!

      To avoid the heat, you may want to go Northern Vietnam, places like Sapa, which is in the mountains. In July it’s actually pretty nice and temperatures are around 70 degrees F.

      Chiang Mai is very comfy but in July and Aug, it’s rainy season, so may want to avoid it at that time.

      Oh those coffee mix packets in the Asian grocery stores is NOTHING like Vietnamese coffee. Vietnamese coffee is nice and strong and also very smooth. I doubt there’s any chocolate in it, it’s just so smooth it tastes like dark chocolate 🙂 They also like to add condensed milk instead of cream, so that’s the Asian twist that I love.

      1. I guess I need to do some more climate research for SE Asia because that’s the biggest hurdle to us visiting SE Asia during summer – way to hot to relax anywhere outside of a pool or beach.

        The condensed milk in that coffee is probably what makes it so smooth. 🙂

  5. Great post! I went to Nha Trang last year and enjoyed it. I didn’t know travelers didn’t like Vietnam. We didn’t get tricked or harassed at all while there. The people were lovely. We did however find it hard to relax in the spa when mopeds were constantly honking outside to announce they were alive :). I wonder how your host deals with that at his spa (or if it was just our part of the island with that problem). I need to change my american notion that honking means someone is about to crash because honking in Vietnam seemed to say “Hello!” and I just put myself on edge the whole time. Anyway, thank you for the post. I love seeing your perspective of different places. You’ve helped me add several countries to my post-FI travel plans.

    1. Ha ha. Yeah, the mopeds in Vietnam are nuts. That’s one of the downsides to Asia…the incessant honking. It’s loud, chaotic, and full of people, but I think that’s one of the reason I like it. You never feel lonely ;P

      Our host’s spa is actually pretty removed from the main street so it’s quiet. They also set up private rooms that are pretty sound proof so that visitors don’t get disturbed. Probably why it’s so highly rated.

      I think, having grown up in China, I was already used to the honking so I just tuned it out. But I can see why that would be confusing and seemingly obnoxious to people aren’t used to it.

      Happy travels! Glad I could help add some places to your travel list.

  6. I have never heard anybody complaining about Vietnam before. Spent three weeks there in 2014 and returning later this year, which is an indicator of how much we enjoyed it.

    Nha Trang is a great place and the surrounding countryside is absolutely stunning. We didn’t have any problems at all and found the locals very friendly and honest. We were very impressed with how well many young Vietnamese spoke English, mostly learned from the Internet.

    We’ve visited all of South East Asia, apart from Myanmar, and Vietnam struck us as a particularly dynamic country and is certainly one of my favourite countries.

    1. Awesome! Glad you enjoyed it! I don’t know if it was just us, but with the exception of 1 or 2 people, every time we asked other travellers about Vietnam, they said they hated it. I have a feeling they just went to the wrong places (like Halong Bay or touristy areas in Saigon).

      1. I guess that it is opening up more to tourism and perhaps expectations are becoming higher. I imagine that many visitors will have already visited Thailand, which has a more developed tourism infrastructure than Vietnam and maybe they are comparing the two in this respect.

        I liked Vietnam because locals did not fawn over us and it was necessary to make some effort, on our part, to establish a rapport. It was not that local people were unfriendly or unhelpful, rather that they seemed more reserved, even shy. I found people there very proud of their country (rightly so, in my opinion) and once they saw that we were genuinely interested in them and their country, relationships developed and seemed more genuine.

        In terms of the food, we were initially a little disappointed, as the quality of many of the meals didn’t match the quality of Vietnamese restaurants that we had visited in the UK and France. Subsequently, however, we discovered many gems but the best meal that we had and one of the best that we have ever had, was when we were invited into the home of a young Vietnamese woman and her husband that we had met; the flavours were to die for. Locals, both Vietnamese and the ex-pats, tended to offer the best advice, as one would expect, so just ask them.

        Vietnam doesn’t have the conventional tourist attractions that some of its neighbours possess but, in terms of its culture, natural beauty, ongoing development and most of all, its people, it is easily one of the most interesting and attractive countries that I have ever visited. We like it so much that we plan to use it as our main base, once we retire.

        I think that for anybody who goes there with an open mind and is respectful, it would be very difficult overall to have a negative experience. Really glad that you both enjoyed yourselves and were able to appreciate its positives.

        Keep up the great work and hope that you keep on enjoying life! Regards from a wet and cold UK.

        1. ” quality of many of the meals didn’t match the quality of Vietnamese restaurants that we had visited in the UK and France.”

          This is what we found too…at least in Hue. But when we did find a gem (extremely well hidden, as we were only able to find it via locals/expat suggestions), it was the BEST food we’d ever had. So I guess that’s the trade off. On average, good food is harder to find than Thailand but when you find a gem, it’s insanely good.

  7. After reading your post my biggest worry about traveling to Vietnam is I’ll never be able to enjoy pho in Toronto again.

    1. Yup, there’s definitely a risk 😛 Though, for some reason, I couldn’t find good Bun Bo Hue in Hue, oddly enough. The best BBH I’ve had to date was in Markham place and Minneapolis. So at least I can still eat that when I go back to North America.

      Oh and another thing that Vietnam ruins for you is Bánh mì. Can’t eat that in TO anymore either. *sigh*. That’s coming up in the next post…

      1. *Shocked* Oh no, but Torontonians think Toronto is the CENTRE OF THE WORLD… In all seriousness though, Banh Mi Boys (which, incidentally, doesn’t actually sell traditional banh mi) in Toronto sells kimchi poutine, which is kind of awesome.

  8. My parents left Vietnam in 1971. Weren’t a fan of the American War. I can speak the language but it gets a bit difficult when they start talking about history or philosophy.

    I find, for instance, Greece easier to travel than Vietnam. I never actually got ripped off, but my spouse did when she was first there. Crossing the street is challenging but you can get used to it. The honking is indeed incessant. I found that in Hanoi it was easier to get around on a bicycle than on foot because momentum.

    I tried giving a Vietnamese name at Banh Mi Boys (the three guys before me all were “Patrick” somehow) and that totally failed. But they do have an interesting twist on Banh Mi. I prefer more traditional ones. There’s a good place in Kitchener.

    Also have had good bun bo hue from Pho Dau Bo in Ontario. Definitely has flavour. In general I prefer pho cooked by me or my mom than in restaurants, but then you have a bunch of it.

    Been to Dalat? My mom went to school there. When we visited we rented a tandem bike but somehow it was harder to pedal the tandem when my dad was in the seat. Odd. There’s also a giant concrete chicken somewhat nearby.

    1. “Crossing the street is challenging…”

      Oh don’t even get me started. The first time the swarm of mopeds were so insane, we got stuck paralyzed on the side of the road for 30 mins. Finally we realized just to cross at predicable speeds, like the locals. After that it was easy. I actually think it’s safer as a pedestrian in Vietnam than Thailand. The mopeds are very versatile and can manoeuvre around you pretty easily.

      Very cool that you’re from Vietnam. I guess being able to speak the language helped you not get ripped off?

      Haven’t been to Dalat yet. Is it nice?

      1. Yeah, my spouse got helped across the street by a little old lady. It’s probably not that dangerous in the grand scheme of things but the traffic injury rate is definitely higher than in North America. I’d bet on surviving collisions from mopeds rather than cars.

        I definitely wouldn’t say that I’m from Vietnam, seeing as how I was born in Quebec and didn’t go to Vietnam till my 20s. My cousin described for me once all the ways they can tell that we are overseas Vietnamese (“Viet Kieu”). Even my parents, who were born there. But I do suspect that avoiding touristy things helped, as did for instance being picked up at the airport by relatives.

        (signs of Viet Kieu: how we dress, how we walk, etc.)

        Dalat is nice, yes. It is touristy but internal tourism for the most part I think.

  9. Wow – never known anyone who hasn’t loved their visit to Vietnam. Popular destination for us Aussies. Enjoy – further north is fantastic too.

    1. I suspect it might be because we spoke to American travellers…the Vietnamese seem to be more hostile towards Americans because of the war.

  10. Huh, I had never heard that Vietnam had a bad reputation among budget travellers before. I went to Vietnam in 2013 for a month – had booked a one-way ticket so wasn’t sure how long I’d go, but ended up loving it so much I stayed until my visa ran out.

    Yes, there are definitely parts of Vietnam that are chaotic and yes, there are scams (I myself fell victim to the shoe “scam”, except they were happy and left me alone after I gave them $1, so I didn’t mind – and my shoe got a bit cleaner). I did not like HCMC at all. But I had no problems in Nha Trang or Hue, adored Hoi An and Hanoi, and absolutely loved Cat Ba (in Halong Bay). And the food was amazing – Vietnam is up there with Japan with places I would visit again just for the food.

    Having read Nomadic Matt’s article, I wonder if my and your different experiences were because Vietnamese people are not as friendly to white-looking people? I am Chinese , so like you two, perhaps we blend in more easily?

    Finally, I have not yet returned to Vietnam, but I do plan to go back at some stage. Part of the reason I think Vietnam has a poor return rate is also just because flying to Vietnam is more difficult than flying to Thailand – Bangkok is an international transport hub, after all.

    1. Hey you loved all the places that I did! 🙂 HCMC was too crowded and chaotic for me.

      It could be because we’re Asian and blended in more. Or maybe it’s because we stayed away from the touristy areas (Halong Bay is notorious for rip offs). No idea.

      I don’t think flying into Vietnam is that difficult. Lots of VietJet and AirAsia flights that go there. Both very inexpensive.

      Oh well, I don’t know exactly why there is only a 5% return rate. But as I result, I did find that it was much less crowded than Thailand. But hey, their loss, our gain 🙂

      1. Flying into Vietnam isn’t that difficult if you’re already in Asia. But, for example, from NZ there are many connecting flights that go through Bangkok, so even if I didn’t like Thailand that much I may well end up returning there just as a stopover. Very few flights from NZ stop over in Vietnam, so I’d have to be going to Vietnam deliberately to return there. Also until recently there were no direct flights to Vietnam (so I might have had to stop by Bangkok or Singapore if I wanted to visit Vietnam).

        I would wager it’s the same for travellers from Australia and other countries also – Bangkok is a big transit hub.

        1. Huh. I had no idea there were no direct flights from NZ to Vietnam. Well, there’s the problem. I guess people could always fly to Bangkok and then take a cheap flight via VietJet from there, but many probably don’t think of it. No wonder Bangkok is the most visited city in the world. The Thais really thought this through 🙂

  11. I would agree with Nomadic Matt here. We went to Vietnam this past year and took between 3-4 weeks to travel north to south. Nha Trang was probably the least “intense” tourist place we went and got harassed the least by people trying to rip us off, steal our stuff etc. The food was not as good as it is at home, people were very rude and not helpful when compared to other countries in the region. It was good to see Northern Vietnam and the rice terraces and hills of Sapa, which I recommend for everyone to see. Glad we went, but would never go back. I would say Vietnam was our least favorite SE Asian country out of the ones we went to (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam).

    I do understand why they don’t generally like western tourists… there is a lot of bad blood and history between nations. I found generally we were treated better once they found out we were Canadian and not American. Also I believe Vietnam has the lowest returning amount of tourists out of SE asia. Somewhere in the ball park of less than 10% of tourists go back again. Whereas Thailand is somewhere in the 70% range.

    1. Your feedback basically matches most of the feedback we got before going there. I suspect they treat Aussie and European’s better because they’re less likely to be confused for Americans.

      Though I did find that the young people generally are less bitter about the war. For the older people, it’s still fresh on their minds.

      I also find that people who went to Thailand first, and THEN Vietnam generally had higher expectations and were more easily disappointed. It’s because Vietnam isn’t as used to tourists so they don’t bend over backwards to make sure you have a good time like the Thai’s do. I also feel like the Viets have a bit of an edge, since they had to go through so much war and suffering.

      King Bhumibol Adulyadej somehow managed to keep Thailand from being colonized and also kept away the communists, so the Thais didn’t have to go through that. War makes you more bitter and distrustful towards outsiders.

      1. I do agree the younger generation generally less bitter/were more open to talk with us Canadians. We kind of set our expectations like you guys did, but maybe we just ran into the wrong people. I don’t know if you went there, but we went to an island called Phu Quoc (not sure on spelling) and this was the best part of Vietnam. Very nice people likely because it was just starting to see tourists.

        I am interested to see what happens in Thailand in the future with the new king.

        1. Phu Quoc was definitely on our list of places to visit. Originally, when we heard all those bad reviews of Vietnam, we were just going to fly into Phu Quoc, stay a week, and fly out. But as it turns out, you have to get your Visa stamped in HCMC, which pretty much defeated the purposes. Glad you enjoyed it though! We’ll check it out next time we return to Vietnam.

  12. Vietnam is definitely on my list! So glad that you went and had a great time. We were supposed to go there a few years ago, but it fell through. After reading your post, I want to go even more!

    1. Yes, definitely go! I wasn’t a big fan of HCMC, but Nha Trang, Hue, Hoi An, and Cat Ba were all wonderful!

  13. Very informative post Mrs. FireCracker! I can honestly admit that Vietnam wasn’t high on my list …. although I do love a good bowl of steaming hot Pho.

    It’s interesting that Vietnam didn’t get a lot of the communist hate we’ve seen in some of your previous posts. Maybe the communism doesn’t stand out as much in Vietnam?

    1. “didn’t get a lot of communist hate…”

      Oh just wait until I get to Cambodia. 😛

      Oddly enough, the communism in Vietnam didn’t seem to result in the mass graves and suffering that I saw in other countries. Maybe it’s casual communism? 😛 (*eye roll* right, like there is such a thing)

  14. After reading your post, I have a plan to visit Vietnam in the future.
    Hope to know more Asian culture and observe how western and oriental culture merged in Vietnam.
    How about weather? Was it too warm for Canadians?

    1. Nha Trang was hot (like the rest of Southeast Asia), but it’s a beach town, so you can cool off by swimming. If you don’t want to be too hot, you can try the northern places in Vietnam like Hanoi and Sapa.

      And yes, Vietnam is interesting in that it’s Asian culture with a French influence. You can see this in the food…Bahn Mi sandwiches (with french baguette) and Vietnamese drip coffee.

  15. Can’t wait to hear your travel experiences in South America, the place I’ve chosen for my FIRE life !
    I wanna hear about a good place to call home for a year there !

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