We visited Vietnam in December 2007, right before trips to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and New Zealand. I also toured Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and China in 2006. Comparatively, Vietnam is my least favorite country. The sights are less well preserved and less impressive to start with. Streets were unpleasant to stroll because of infinite sea of motorcyclists and crossing street was hair raising. Scams and hawkers were everywhere. As foreigners, you were looked upon like a lottery ticket. China and Thailand has similar problem but for some reason they were not as annoying and frustrating as Vietnam. I'll give some opinionated suggestions that maybe helpful to your planning and I'll focus more on the negative aspects as I usually find the negative reviews more helpful.
Do not recommend Lonely Planet Vietnam 9th edition, for the below reasons. First, although the book provides good details on sights and hotels, it gives no recommendation like the 1-3 star rating system of Frommer's and therefore it's not helpful in narrowing down choices for sights/hotels/restaurants. Second, the restaurants suggestions were disappointing. I'm from California and New York where good Vietnamese food is abundant. The restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet were americanized and overpriced. Frommer's is better overall but doesn't provide as much details as LP.
What to bring:
1) Bring plenty of $1 bill. They are useful for handing out tips. American dollars are widely used. 2) If you want to tailor-make clothes in Hoi an, bring your favorite clothes for them to copy.
Travel agent and tour guides:
We used Tonkin travel. I recommend them for buying airline/train tickets, guided tour, and Halong cruise. I do not recommend them for hotel bookings. In Vietnam, most hotels prefer to deal with guests directly and you get a lower rate. I recommend two tour guides: Phong in Hanoi (assigned by Tonkin), and Tung at Sapa (see his contact below).
The weather was too cloudy and chilly in northern Vietnam in December. If we could have done it differently, we would visit cities south of Hue in December and visit the north (Sapa, Halong Bay) in the summer.
Cities to visit:
Among the cities we visited, here is the order of my preference: Sapa, Hoi an, Halong Bay, Saigon, Hanoi, and Hue.
- Hue: I suggest crossing out Hue if you are tight on schedule. Citadel, Imperial City, and the royal tombs were not great, far less impressive than the similar sights in China and Thailand. Hue is four hours drive from Hoi an and there's not much to see on the way.
- Hanoi: my favorite sight is the Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. 1 day was enough for us.
- Saigon: We enjoyed visiting Cu Chi Tunnels, Reunification Palace, and War Remnants Museum. One and a half day was enough for us. One day for city tour, and a half day for Cu Chi tour.
- Halong Bay: We did an overnight cruise on the Jasmine boat (more about Jasmine below). The weather was cloudy in December so everything looked grey. We wished we toured the Halong Bay in summer under clear sky where one could see the turquoise water contrasting with the lime rocks.
- Sapa: Same problem with Halong Bay, the weather was lousy. It was chilly and foggy. On the second day, the fog was so heavy that we could not see beyond three feet, which made the winding mountain road even more treacherous. Sapa was very scenic and walking to various minority villages was interesting. But the fog ruined everything, we could not see anything and the driving was dangerous. Lonely Planet recommended Bac Ha market, which we did not enjoy. The Sunday market didn't have much to offer compared to the sapa minority villages, and the two hours’ drive was not pleasant - a portion of the mountain road was not paved and it was so bumpy and narrow that it made Hana's highway look like a four lane highway. We used a minority guide in Sapa who spoke 4-5 languages. He's great and we highly recommend him. His contact is: Tung, 098 526 3680, Tulip Hotel, Sapa (I don't have his email).
- Hoi an: the small town is quite unique and has a lot of character. There were many tailor shops and we have >$2000 of clothes tailor-made. More on choosing a tailor below. Nam Hai (hotel) was so amazing that it could be a destination on its own. It would be good if you can time your visit to the Lantern night: "On the 15th day of each lunar month, the streets switch off their lights and hang cloth and paper lanterns on their porches and windows. Television sets, radios, street lights and neon lights are all turned off." We didn't enjoy the Red Bridge cooking school. We didn't get to cook much, mostly watched the teacher cook, and we didn't feel like we learned anything afterward. However, the facility was nice, the boat ride to the school was pleasant, and the price was cheap. Comparatively, A Lot of Thai (alotofthai.com) at Chiang Mai, Thailand was much higher quality.
Tailor in Hoi an:
We did our research on Yaly, A Dong Silk, and Thu Thuy. We ruled out Yaly because we didn't like the workmanship on the samples. We chose Thu Thuy for two man's suits and A Dong for another two suits and several casual clothes. In terms of our suits quality, Thu Thuy is much better than A Dong. However, picking the right tailor is more important than picking a tailor shop. At Thu Thuy, our tailor was an older woman and she seemed to have a lot of experience. At A Dong, our tailor was much younger. A general theme, tailors in Vietnam has little sense of style. They know how to make standard suits. But if you want something casual that's not cookie cutter, it's better to bring your own clothes and have them copied. They did a decent job in copying. Most of our casual clothes made from A Dong were not satisfactory and we wasted a lot time and energy as we probably made over four fitting trips to have them fixed things. In addition, A Dong was not honest. For the two suits and a dress, we asked them to modify something, they simply ironed the clothes in certain ways that covered up the problem temporarily and told us they fixed it. The problem eventually resurfaced and we found out after we left Vietnam.
- Hoi an: in the order of preference, Morning Glory, Mango Room, and Cargo Club.
- Hanoi: do NOT recommend Wild Lotus, overpriced and average food but nice atmosphere and interesting decoration.
- Hue: Y Thao Garden (Lonely Planet got it right this time). Food is average but the experience was unique.
- Ho Chi Ming: do NOT recommend Lemon Grass, overpriced and lousy food. Many tour groups go there.
Coffee: Vietnamese coffee is very good. It’s even better than the coffee in Italy, which is better than US’s. We were not coffee drinkers but we became addicted and must get one every morning while in Vietnam. You drink it with condensed milk. There are nine levels for the strength of the coffee, #1 being the lightest, #9 being the strongest. I would say a typical Starbucks coffee is somewhere between 3-5.
- Saigon: Indochine, 3.5-star. Basic, clean and conveniently located, in the same neighborhood as the Park Hyatt and Caravelle.
- Hue: Orchid Hotel, 4.5-star. Second best hotel under $80. Hotel staffs were great. Room facility was similar to a four or five star hotel.
- Remark: My spending style is value oriented. The two most important criterion of a hotel for me are cleanliness and convenient location. I'm willing to splurge on something that's spectacular and that I could spend time to enjoy it. I opted out of Park Hyatt Saigon and Sofitel Hanoi because they are just average five star city hotels. If you intend to have clothes tailor made in Hoi an, I suggest you to split your stay because Nam Hai is slightly out of town and not convenient to make multiple fitting trips.
- Hoi an: Ha An Hotel, 5-star. The best hotel under $80. Room was well decorated and spotless. Breakfast was very good.
- Hoi an: Nam Hai >5-star. The best hotel in Vietnam. The Nam Hai four-hands massage was amazing, even my partner who never cared for spa loved it.
- Hanoi: Elegance 2 Hotel, 3-star. Hotel staffs were great. However, we did not like the district Old Quarter as it was too noisy and dirty. Also, the early morning's propaganda loudspeaker was not conducive to a good rest.
- Sapa train: King Express 2-berth VIP cabin, 3.5-star. Ly from Tonkin informed me that the King Express VIP cabin is the same as the Victoria train but without any meal plan. The train is clean overall.
- Sapa: Topas Ecolodge, 4.5-star. The most unique and scenic.
- Halong Bay: Jasmine cruise, 3-star. The most overpriced for what we got.
Halong Bay Cruise:
The Jasmine boat was put in service for about a week when we boarded in December. It was the most expensive so we were expecting a lot. The boat looked nice, but not as nice as the photos showed. I originally booked the highest category Jasmine suite, but downgraded to the Deluxe after I realized that the only difference is the jacuzzi. The suite is not worth the money because I doubt you could fill the jacuzzi with hot water as the water turned cold quickly after a 5 minutes shower. There were two bottle of water for complementary use but one was half opened from prior occupant. We found a fake eye lash in the bathroom. Food was mostly mediocre. For example, our lunch dessert consisted of three stingily small slices of fruit. During dinner, despite the chilly weather, we had to open the window to let the smoke out because the chef burned the steak. Services were amateurish. They served rice near the end of a meal after we finished all the food. The wine was bad and overpriced. Breakfast was mediocre. There was no sitting area inside the room. The most hilarious was when we checked out, the staff carried three pieces of luggage off the boat but we could only find two pieces, because they left the third piece with the trash pile. Maybe they'll improve eventually, but for what we experienced, they should have given us a 50% off introductory rate. With all that said, the staff and captain tried hard to please and were very friendly and the boat, although nothing compared to the Seven Seas, it's still probably the nicest compared to other Halong boats.
1) Taxi: Safer to have your hotel called a reliable taxi for you. Many taxis have faulty meters and they run much faster than normal. We took one that jumped like every five seconds. We heard story that a taxi driver tried to make a tourist pay American dollar. The meter is displayed in Vietnamese Dong and removed the last three digits. So 32000 dong (equivalent of USD $2) is displayed as 32, and the taxi driver asked the tourist to pay USD $32.
2) Restaurant: if a restaurant doesn't have a menu with prices on it, make sure you agree on and write down the price before you order. At one place, the owner looked friendly and so we didn't expect to be gouged. We had two bowl of pho noodle and ended up paying $20 instead of $3. At another restaurant, the portion we got was half the size of the nearby table ordered by local Vietnamese (we ordered the exact same thing). It's a way to make you order and spend more. The money involved was so minor that we didn't bother with it but just found it unpleasant and petty.
3) Shop visit: On the way back from Cu Chi Tunnel to the Saigon airport, the driver asked whether he could have a bathroom stop. Of course we said yes. The "bathroom stop" was actually a handicraft shop. A girl came out and asked us to take a tour of the factory and the shop. We said no because we were in a hurry to catch a plane. She begged us and said her manager would be mad if we didn't take the tour. We felt bad and agreed to it. We wasted half hour at the shop and the driver had to drive like a maniac to make up for the time loss. We encountered the same situation on the way between Ha Long Bay and Hanoi. We told the driver that you could stop but we did not wish to visit any shops. This forced shop visit phenomenon is common in Vietnam because shops pay drivers/guides for bringing guests. When you set up an itinerary, especially for out of town visit on a tight schedule, be careful that they don't make you do things that you do not plan for.
4) Hotels: I had the most difficult time using tripadvisor's reviews for Vietnam to get unbiased opinion. Because many were post by touts. So put more weight on the negative reviewers.
5) There are just too many scams that I can't list them all here. Be watchful and expect you will be gouged one way or another. Don't get me wrong, there are many people who are nice and honest. People you need to watch out for are the random strangers who don't care for your return business and who have no reputational risk.