If you're heading to Vietnam for the first time you'll have probably done some internet research in order to prepare for the adventure. You'll have heard that each time you cross the road in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City you take your life into your own hands. You'll be desperate to sample some of the delicious street food that is amongst the best in the world. You'll be equipped with a camera to take your very own shots of the beautiful landscapes that you've got pinned to your 'Vietnam' Pinterest board.
Having just returned from two incredible weeks in Vietnam with an itinerary featuring Hanoi, Sa Pa, Ha Long Bay and Hoi An I have decided to share some of the lessons I learnt while I was there.
1. Book a tour before you go
If you only have a limited amount of time in Vietnam, it would be worthwhile booking any tours you may be interested in taking in advance. Although there are numerous travel agencies and tour desks in the hotels, the choice can be overwhelming and the quality and price can vary greatly. Before we departed, we knew we wanted to visit Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay, so we found a tour company online who had excellent reviews. We were offered a discount for booking 2 tours with the company, and it saved us a lot of time when we arrived.
2. Check internal flights before you leave for the airport
I got an e-mail the day before we were leaving Hoi An for Hanoi, announcing our flight had been rescheduled. This actually worked in our favour, as it meant that we had an extra 3 hours to enjoy the beautiful UNESCO town. We would not have been impressed however, if we head headed straight to the airport and had three hours to wait before the rescheduled flight took off - as is what happened to a couple we met when they were on their way out of Hanoi.
3. Wi-Fi is everywhere
Which is a good thing when you need to check that your flight is still running to schedule, if you are a blogger making a living from writing about your travels, or if you are an Instagram addict, avid Tweeter or Facebook obsessive. This is not so good however, if you are hoping to disconnect from the outside world, and the 'free Wi-Fi' signs prove too alluring to resist.
4. If you're going trekking, wear the correct shoes
Just because your guide is wearing converse of flip flops, don't be fooled in thinking you can too. Because you can't. Even with the right footwear you'll probably fall down once the rain starts (as it likely will in the North) but at least you'll stand a better chance of staying up right. There are plenty of places you can buy trekking gear, however, if you're only going to be needing it for a couple of days, just hire some trainers from the centre where the trek leaves; they only cost 30,000 Dong (£1), and trust me it'll be the best 30,000 Dong you'll spend.
5. Buying local handicrafts and produce
Wherever you go in Vietnam you will find people trying to sell you their handmade wares. This was never more apparent than when we arrived in Sa Pa; we were greeted by H'Mong ladies, all in traditional dress who accompanied us on our trek and holding our hands, and saving us from falling several times. We were told that they do not like to take tips, but like you to buy some of the items that they have made. I bought a cushion cover that was made in the same pattern as the clothes the ladies were wearing. The fabrics are made from hemp and dyed indigo. As soon as I arrived back to my hotel, I realised that my hands had turned blue, along with several items of clothing that were in my bag with the cushion cover. When the local ladies dye the fabrics, they don't set the dye, meaning that the indigo will stain anything that it comes into contact with. Make sure you put any goods of this nature in a separate bag, and cure using water, salt and vinegar when you get home.
When we reached Hoi An, we noticed there were lots of ladies in traditional Vietnamese dress, carrying fruit and approaching tourists asking them to 'take a free picture of me' - yes the picture is free, but you will be expected to buy some of their produce in return for the picture. If you don't buy, expect a group of these ladies to appear, who will follow you until you do buy something.
Vietnam for Beginners - Part 2, up next!