Vietnam is a whole lot different than any other South East Asian country and still it is the one that combines them all. I would have never thought I would be just traveling one country if I haven’t done it and seen it with my own eyes. Culture, people, landscapes if you travel the approximately 3400km coastline starting from far down south in Ho Chi Minh up to Hanoi and Sapa it feels as entering another cultural sphere every view miles. Vietnam is a great mixture with influences from China, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand as well as France, which had been the colonialist power for over a century. The sunny side of this cultural clash is that if you know how to handle Vietnam, you know how to handle them all. That’s why I want to share 10 survival tips for traveling South East Asia, which I had to learn on the go.
- be aware of the “Minibus-Mafia” – you can replace minibus with every other vehicle. It doesn’t matter if taxi, bus or rickshaw. If they are working together or everything has to be done quickly – their only goal is to rip you off. Especially the Minibus drivers in Lao Cai – the train station from which you have to take a bus/taxi to get to Sapa – thought us this lesson. After an overnight train ride from Hanoi we where exhausted and it was 5 o’clock in the morning so we weren’t really prepared for being ambushed by greedy ticket seller. And yes, I do understand that they have mouths to feed at home and this job is definitely a very profitable, which doesn’t require hard manual labor, but this half an hour brought me to the edge of losing it. A whole bunch of men had been upon us wanting to sell their tickets but all at the same ridiculously high price of 300.000 VND (= 12€) each one way. Despite the fact that we hadn’t that much money in cash I had read about the bus ticket price before which should be about 50.000 VND (=2€) each and so I just shook my head and turned around. I wasn’t up for bargaining and simply wanted to find one honest business man. But the second the man realized that I wouldn’t buy his ticket he went down with his price immediately and thanks to Christophs bargaining skills we agreed on for 200.000 VDN in total, which was still double the price but we didn’t care. Anyway when we reached Sapa (safe and sound) we realized that we should have paid after the journey as then the price suddenly was 50.000 VND … who would have guessed? So inform yourself about the ticket prices first, wherever you go and don’t hesitate to bargain or if necessary turn around and go, because anyone will run after you giving you an acceptable price after all.
- only take taxis with a meter – in general, taxi rides are amazingly cheap, but some drivers try to make some extra cash by selling cab rides for fixed rates saying that the meter is broken. As the price sounds more than fair – 50.000 dong = 2€ for a 10 min. drive – especially to those who are used to the meter starting at 4€ quickly rising above 10-15€ for a 10 min drive. But most of the time they at least double the price or the meter is hacked and runs fast (when used) – so be careful and only take taxis having a meter that actually shows the driven distance! Btw. the cheapest taxi rides are operated by the mini taxis which have only space for 2 people but if you only have your backpack to carry it’s enough space two.
- never stop walking – the simple act of crossing the street might be dangerous for itself, but you get used to it. The only mistake western people make is freeze the second they see a motor scooter navigating into their directing. I must have looked like a paralyzed Bambie on the open field facing a wolf when I crossed the streets if Ho Chi Minh. But sometimes one has to be brave and simple forget about the wolf aka motor scooter, because standing still for a moment in this chaos will be the worst decision you’ve ever made as people gonna drive around you like you’re a road cone. This happened to me quite a view times actually and only at my last stop – which was Hanoi – I really payed heed to this simple rule of survival in South East Asia: Never. Stop. Walking.
- know how to navigate – in a country where nearly no one speaks English except for those living in tourist hotspots it can be quite tricky to ask for the way and in general it is better to know how to get around all by yourself. As a generation Y girl I would ask google maps or something but even though Asia has the best free-wifi network I’ve ever seen there are places where internet isn’t available and then you are stuck. But there is one App that made it all so much easier for us: maps.me It is definitely the best offline map ever invented! You can download maps for every country which include restaurant tips, sights and much more. I already downloaded it for Europe so I won’t get lost on my city trips too 🙂
- Better safe than sorry – the food is absolutely delicious but even the best restaurants don’t stick to a cleaning plan and sometimes it doesn’t have anything to do with the tidiness of the kitchen because the food is simple to “different” for a western stomach. We were prepared that both of us will have problems at least once but in the end only Christoph had an upset stomach for a few days, while I had no problems at all and that’s because I took pills (herbal only) to strengthen my tummy every day and it worked out just fine and we have tried a lot of different restaurants (and with very different hygiene standards) in those three weeks.
- Soft or hard seat? – We have literally tried every means of transport from plane to private car to sleeper bus and overnight train and from day-train, minibus to motorbike. Everything worked out well after some time and when it comes to trains we are real experts now. First, everyone told us to only book first class tickets for the train because western people won’t survive a regular class ride. That nonsense! But there is no first class on public trains, anyway – only soft and hard seat – and the only difference is the fact that one is slightly more comfortable. And when it comes to a hard seat – don’t expect to find other adventurous fellow europeans in the same carriage – there are non and you gonna be the attraction for all the locals (especially the kids because of your funny face) but it is super fun and if you are lucky enough to find someone speaking English you make friends very fast. But don’t book a hard seat for train rides longer than 2h – it would be torture. Regarding overnight trains (which we took to Sapa) I would only go for the private carriages, which are operated by private companies. They are only slightly pricier but you can be sure that the bed is clean and that lining is provided. Moreover these carriages are guarded by stewards from the company because in public sleeper trains thieves are quite common and their main targets are western people. If you need more information and survival tips for your South East Asian (and even world wide) train ride check out this blog – www.seat61.com/Vietnam.htm – it helped us a lot.
- dare to do it on your own. Of course it is more covenant to simply book a guided tour for a day trip and of course in a foreign country with a strange language it is hard to get what you really want as even reading the bus/train schedule suddenly becomes an impossibility. But as Audrey Hepburn once said: Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m Possible’. So we did it (after two guided tours in Southern Vietnam) and organized e.g. our very private Ha Long Bay experience plus saved a lot of money. First thing you have to do is finding out more about the local transport including for tourists rather uncommon train connections – the best tool for this including the booking of everything from train to plane is definitely www.baolau.vn (sadly only available for Vietnam). It helped us booking the overnight trains as well as our flights and was super easy to handle. When we had arranged our commuter train ticket from Hanoi to Hai Phong (btw. a very ugly harbor-city) we organized everything from there – the boat, the tour, everything and we had a great day spent in Ha Long Bay’s even prettier little sister “Lan Ha Bay”. It has been a great day all on our own only with a guide how didn’t speak English at all but who grew up in Lan Ha Bay and was so happy to show us all his favorite spots. Simply one of the best days ever! And if we would have taken the easier way – we would have never seen this magical place as all the guided tours from Hanoi end up in Ha Long Bay making you visit one tourist attraction after the other such as tacky decorated caves that had lost their beauty the second people started making money with it.
- always drive a hard bargain. Europeans aren’t used to it and I personally really hated it – but it is part of South East Asia as much are chopsticks . You either learn how to use them or ask for western cutlery despite the waitresses browbeat. At home I use chopsticks even more often then a spoon, so that never happened to me – but bargaining … that’s a whole other story. When I strolled through a handcraft market in Sapa where women of the minorities-villages sold their products – colorful, embroidered (that even my grandma would be impressed) handbags, scarfs, skirts, everything – I bargained for the first time all on my own, while Christoph who already had more experience in that field wandered off leaving me behind surrounded by 6 elderly ladies eager to sell their work. I struggled not buying all at once at the first price, which was still very low – even for a tourist spot, which Sapa definitly is. But I had some limitations myself as my cash wasn’t much more worth then 8€ and they wanted 10€ for 6 wallets, and I simply had to by one wallet from every lady. So I took the jump and started bargaining. And the second I told them that I would buy them for 145.000 VND (equals 6€) they smiled and started taking me serious. After exchanging polite smiles and head-shacking from time to time we ended up at 180.000 VND (equals 7,3€) – both parties happy and laughing because of our language barriers. So this is what essential when traveling in South East Asia, they won’t take you serious, when you buy everything at first price, because they think you are a rich fool and will never pay you honest respect but the second you start playing their game they see you as equal.
- money, money money. As we are talking money right now we have to talk about banks too, as this was quite a nerve recking topic during our Vietnam adventure. When traveling Indonesia and Singapore with my family before I didn’t much care about money, as I honestly confess that daddy took care of everything. But now I was on my own and suddenly everything stopped working. Classic, isn’t it? First, Christophs cards – both debit cards and credit card – broke down and then even my cards were declined by cash machines – and we were just at the beginning of our journey. As we still had enough cash for the week, we forgot about it but it has only been a matter of time when we had to face the cash dispenser again. And of course then everything worked just fine and we realized, that it was the Sacombank that accepted our cards without any problems as well as VietBank. But all the others – and there are hundreds, believe me – declined them every time. So my tip for you is: don’t lose it and think your account is blocked or all your money is gone – when a bank doesn’t accept your card even though it says Maestro and MasterCard “accepted” – simply try the next cash dispenser as there are normally 3-5 different ones within a few meters. Moreover, come prepared with at least 200$ as a nest egg – because these green bucks gonna save you a lot of trouble when everything goes wrong (and believe me it does from time to time, especially when riding on a motor scooter!).
- the one day ahead rule. South East Asia is a lot of ground to cover and of course this rule definitely don’t work in every part of the whole subcontinent, but as long as you are somewhere near civilization the best thing you can do is simply lean back and enjoy the ride. If you really want to get to know a country you shouldn’t plan everything from the arrival to departure, making up an insane schedule of sightseeing. I’m not saying that planning a trip is wrong but South East Asia is such a magical part of the world were everything is so different that you often don’t really know what to expect and so it is the best thing to simply plan ahead day by day (or maybe two days). Especially when it come to accommodation one day us more than enough time to find a nice hotel or hostel and the same is true to buying coach or train tickets, organizing a flight as well as a boat trips or a privat car – and we have tried them all. This one simple rule of only planning one day ahead give you the freedom to stay longer wherever you want and leave if something else interests you more. And one thing is for sure – a journey of only a few weeks will never be enough to see everything – you have to come back anyway – so trading a “must-see” for a day spent at the beach lying under palm trees could be the best deal you’ve ever sealed and makes your South East Asia experience even more perfect!
I hope you enjoy these (survival) tips for South East Asia and have fun making your own experiences when traveling this beautiful and fascination part of the world! Happy Traveling!