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Saigon, Reasons To Go!

Saigon VietnamFood is better

This is much related to personal taste, as most of Northern people are not quite getting along with Saigon’s food flavors. What I like is a big range of food. Many choices for your eating, especially breakfast. It will be easy to stay a month but you don’t need to eat the same courses each day

Service is much better then elsewhere

No matter what service you use, small restaurant or 5 star service standard, you will feel comfortable and ‘be served’. That is hardly to get elsewhere in Vietnam, especially Hanoi.

Taxi is good

You will have reason to worry when you use Taxi in Hanoi, but in Saigon you will find more reliable taxi around. It is not only to reputable taxi operators like Mai Linh or Vinasun, I found others are also fine. They are helpful and honest on serving.

Things seem to be cheaper now

Depending on services you use, but lately I found cost of living in Saigon is cheaper than Hanoi.  Accommodation is 20% cheaper than Hanoi in the same standard. House renting is even lower at least about 40% which is great chance for anyone wish to stay in Saigon at the moment.

Weather is stable

It is sunny and hot year around in South of Vietnam including Saigon. I personally don’t like sun and heat but stable temperature and lower humidity would please most of people especially Northern where the weather is always hard to predict.

Top 5 things to do in Vietnam 2011

Whilst my work is required lot of updates on travel and tourism to give customers the best advice on Vietnam travel and bring the most exciting things or destinations to our programs. Last year, I wrote a top do list in Vietnam and gained back such a great comment  from customers. This year, I would like to show you few more activities that you may put them onto your consideration.

As you may know, Vietnam offers different of cultures and exciting activities to travelers. It is hard for me to narrow to 5 things to do in Vietnam. However, I think those 5 are must sees or dos while traveling to my country in 2011. As normal, I always prefer to suggest people stay closer to local culture or activities.

1, Drive a motorbike

Sounds a bit crazy especially on rush time in Saigon or Hanoi, however, you can find quite a few of quiet places in Vietnam to do that. For example, countryside of Nha Trang or Hoi An could be a good places to experience. Joining with a local guide is recommended and don’t forget your helmet.

2, Pick an island along the coastlines

Vietnam beaches are great! They are raw, quality water and offer a great range of seafood. Any islands in central or further south could please you in any ways. I particularly fall in love with Nha Trang, not touristy island tours but Whale island that located about 60km north up. Great food, no crowded, enough activities to keep you happy for few days. What are you looking for more? Phu Quoc or Con Dao islands recently become a popular destination too.

3, Get a suit made in Hoi An

Why Hoi An? Because Hoi An offer more choices of fabrics, cost effective and amazingly instant service. There are number of shops in old quarter to choose from. People often recommend Yaly, A Dong and Thu Thuy shop which provide quality service in town. That would be nice souvenir for yourself, wouldn’t it?

4, A food walk tours in Hanoi

Best Vietnamese foods are not from posh restaurant, they are all from the places on the street. Hanoi can be considered for food vendor paradise. If you have a local friend, that will be easy, if not, some tour companies can arrange a meaningful day for you to enjoy the famous Vietnamese food or drink. I have 100% satisfaction customers on this unique tour.

5, Drive along Ho Chi Minh Trail

It can be wonderful for adventure minded. The drive itself already made people happy by its amazing scenery, visit and meet the friendliness locals on the way will make your day. I am just so surprised that not many tourist taking this route. Trip can be arranged from Hanoi and southbound with stops at beaches in some towns. Experienced driver and tour guide are required.

I know there are many Vietnam travel experts out there, if you have any personal interesting activities of your own, please help me to complete the list. Cheers and happy travel!

Junk or Junk?

Some time ago I started to put my free time into the Trip Advisor Forum that seems to be the in-place for travelers now so I could get back the fluency of ‘Westerner’s conversation’ that I lost when I quit my tour guide job a few years ago.  These days I find this forum useful for me (apart from spammers and touts) as I can see the ‘travel trends’ that people are moving towards, and that helps me keep ahead in business. The Halong Bay section of the forum now seems to be the hottest.  Experiences are mixed – good and bad – but that’s what you would expect with such a large enterprise.  I am not trying to recommend any specific cruise agents to you in this article, just wanting to alert you to use your common sense to help you make the right choice in general travel shopping (especially online shopping).

Purpose of your visit

You should ask yourself first: “What am I coming to the bay for?  Relaxation?  Sight-seeing?  Photography?  Luxury?  That is the first step towards choosing the right Junk boat.  If you are on your honeymoon or a photographic expedition, an affordable charter Junk can be found – or even a small capacity one would be suitable.  A trip just for relaxation may require a bit further research on Junk facilities. A few Junks now offer massage, cooking classes or Tai Chi exercising on board, and they seem to be the ones for leisure customers.  If you are not too sure about the purpose, then just choose a classic Junk that offers a basic cruise with transfer, food, and sightseeing included.  Don’t worry too much about what you might miss on a ‘classic option’ as most Junks in Halong Bay go by the same routes and you are unlikely to miss the highlights of the Bay.

Budgeting

The range of fares varies from 50 USD to 500 USD per cabin (each cabin usually sleeps 2 people). Junks are now divided into three levels: under 100 USD, under 200 USD and above 200 USD.  Personally I think the middle range between 100 and 200 USD suits most people.  These offer a comfortable cruise with nice bedding and facilities. The risk of being ripped-off is lower in that range too.  If you are looking for a relaxing trip at the end of a long journey, just choose the middle range as the safe option.

Book through an Agent or Direct?

This has both Yes and No answers!  If you are in rush, booking through an agency seems to be the better option as most Junk operators have limited access to direct customers, so they focus more on local sales partners  who employ the sales people and handle all the booking systems. The sales culture is also quite different if you try and deal direct with the operator; mis-communication due to language difficulties is much more common in direct sales attempts, and both the operator and customer lose out if the Junk departure time is missed. However, if you choose the high-end option, most of these operators offer booking online and you can deal with them directly. The deals may lead you to a good buy depending on your travel dates (high or low season or availability of the Junk). Nothing is lost to try this method if you have the time, BUT, note that there are a number of fake Junk websites on the internet now. Double check to make sure you have the correct website of the Junk you are looking for.  Making a phone call in advance is recommended.

Booking via a reliable travel agency also saves much of your time maybe money too.  As I stated above, Junk companies sell their vacancies through any available agency but the selling price will vary from agency to agency depending on their sales volume – low volume equals a higher price. Travel agencies also have the power to do a deal with a special booking you may have, so don’t hesitate to bargain when you deal with a travel agency. If you travel with your own big group for a party, school meeting or photography, I am sure an agency would fight hard with the Junk operator to get you the best deals.

Junk or Junk?

Halong is the place you should spend more time and money to enjoy even if you are budget travelers. Choosing the right Junk is important; don’t get excited and take the first cheap deal that comes along.  Safety in Vietnam is not the high priority it is in the West.   There have been number of accidents and deaths in Halong Bay because of fire and lack of safety instructions on the boats. While the Government controls security and safety for all Junks in Halong, it is difficult to monitor and control. Make sure your Junk provides at least basic or above safety equipment such as fire protection, emergency exit instructions and life vests for all passengers. Food is also important; if you are vegetarian travelers, make sure you ask for the right menu for you at NO additional charge. If you find your Junk is suspicious in any way, ask for details of the menu they provide. It is good anyway to flag to them that you are alert to these matters so that they pay more attention to your booking. There is another question to ask them: “How is your boat and service different from the others?” Check that the answers are correct.  All these things may take you a little time, but it is worth it to ensure that your time and in Halong Bay will be a time to remember with pleasure rather than the opposite!  One final thing – does the boat company do anything towards protection of the Bay’s environment?

Choosing the right Agent

There are thousands of travel shops around Vietnam now where you can place your booking. It is essential that you book your trip in advance in the high season (from October to May) to secure your seats. The better Junks often sell out in advance. Book it from Hanoi agents – they are closer to the Junk operations and get better updates and price. Spend time on the official Junk website to view the real pictures and facilities they offer. The agent you book with must have:

  • Travel license – meaning that they are an established organization and you can claim for a refund to Vietnam Tourism if something is not delivered as they promise.
  • They must understand what they sell – Make a phone call to see how professional they are, how they respond to your concerns and then you will find out how much knowledge they have.
  • Book with a company that does not own their Junk. They may steer you to better  Junks instead of just pushing their own. Ensure that you deal with a specific Junk brand rather than a non-Company boat.
  • Don’t just trust promises, pictures or other materials they provide. Ask around or visit some trusted forum like Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet.

As you know, crap is all around out there in this world. Whatever happens, don’t be too difficult to please as Halong Bay can please you simply by its own beauty. Have a good trip!

Official web pages of Junk Company in Halong Bay

Bai Tho Junk

http://baithojunks.com/vn/

Huong Hai Junk

http://www.halongdiscovery.com/

Emeraude Classic Cruises

http://www.emeraude-cruises.com/Halong-Bay

Oriental Sails

http://www.orientalsails.com/

Paradise Cruise

http://www.paradisecruises.org/

Indochina Sails

http://www.indochinasails.com/

10 restaurants I like from Saigon to Hanoi

Food is always the most important part of every trip. I am lucky to have chance to travel throughout my country more than one time. Every city or province in Vietnam has their own specialty. It is likely impossible to list all them here. I just want to show you my personal favored list that I often go. My choice is simple: hygienic, affordable and unique foods that you may not find in anywhere else.

Saigon

1, Pho Le (Beef noodle soup)

It tastes quite differently from most of Pho from the north. It is a bit sweeter I think. This shop serves with a big bowl, plenty of extra fresh vegetables and herbs. Chicken eggs and meat balls can be ordered as aside at small additional charges.

  • Address: 303-305 Vo Van Tan St., Ward 5, District 3.

2, Luong Son Quan (Bo Tung Xeo)

This is a popular place for both Vietnamese and tourist. It offers the beautiful grilled beef with self grilled service at your table. Beef is very tender plus secret mixed source. The other specialties are also available such as snake, scorpion and other you may not want to hear.

  • Address: 31 Ly Tu Trong St., District 1

3, Banh Xeo (Saigon Pan Cake)

The shop located in a small alley of Hai Ba Trung street in Saigon. It is always crowded by locals. There are couple of courses are served but highlight of restaurant is Banh Xeo which is the typical southern food.

  • Address: 46A Dinh Cong Trang – District 1 – Ho Chi Minh City.

Nha Trang

4, Lac Canh Restaurant

Lac Canh is small family run restaurant, it’s also famous for grilled beef but they offer in different flavors. Other grilled seafoods are also available here.

  • Address: 44 Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm – Nha Trang City

Hoi An

5, Mermaid Restaurant

The one of very first restaurant opened in Hoi An. The founder owned number of restaurant in town but still keep Mermaid in purpose of providing affordable menu and unique tastes. I recommend to get some specialties of Hoi An and Stuffed Squids. They are the best in town.

  • Address: 02 Tran Phu – Hoi An Town

Da Nang

6, Quan Ba Thoi

This is a must – visit place for fans of seafood while you are in Da Nang. Restaurant of Ba Thoi offers the fresh seafood at affordable price. Just ask any locals for direction.

  • Address: 96 – 98 Le Dinh Duong – Da Nang City

Hue

7, Lac Thien Restaurant

Lac Thien is family run restaurant in Thuong Tu gate of Forbidden Citadel. The owner – Mr. Lac is deaf and mute. He is quite good at body language and foods has picture presented so it will be fine for your order. Don’t miss the special Hue Pan cake. Love this restaurant; love this family and also Mr. Coin.

  • Address: 06 Dinh Tien Hoang street – Hue

Hanoi

8, Bun Cha Hang Manh (Grilled pork with noodle)

It is busy all the time, especially at lunch. It offers a unique taste of meat and fish source. Bun Cha is also one of Hanoi specialties. Try it!

  • Address: 01 Hang Manh – Hoan Kiem – Hanoi

9, Snailed Noodle Phu Tay Ho

There are number of shops here for your choice. I think they all offer the good food. Just try to jump to the first one on the line – street. Snails are caught from the West Lake right in front. Fresh taste, a bit rubbery though, broth contents tomatoes, bones and other herbs that make a perfect combination.

  • Address: Phu Tay Ho – Tay Ho – Hanoi

10, Alfresco

The one and almost only Western restaurant I like in Hanoi (I go there quite often actually). It offers great pizza and spare ribs. Pasta I like is seafood with scream source. It is great service there too.

Those are places where I like to go, if you feel like following my routes, please click here to get the printable version. Kindly note that what I like may not the same to what you like. And do you have your own list of Vietnamese restaurants that you fall in love with? please write them down to our comment box below to show to the others. It’s very helpful isn’t it?. Enjoy your meals!

The hat of memories!

If you asked me what is the most meaningful object that represented in Vietnamese culture? I choose a conical hat!

I did not know much about it until getting old enough and remembered the story that had told by my grandfather when I was small. I and my sisters used to be sent back to my hometown when we had left school for summer breaks. It was time for my grandfather meet nephews and makes them happy with countryside games and foods. Most of countryside women are wearing conical hats; it’s cool and also protects people from sun. My grandfather had one too. Her hat used as a wheat candy basket that I often firstly checked and fought with my uncle’s children when she came back from market. She told me when a girl is shy; she uses the hat to cover her face, the act of charming girl! Or the hat could be a handy fan on the heat working day in the rice field. And when people are waving someone or getting attention, they wave their conical hats.

The conical hats in my hometown is not the same as the other parts of Vietnam, it’s not romantic like the hats in Hue which the boy make one with a poem between layers that visible to girls when they held up to the sun. It’s also not as hard as the one in Mekong delta which made of from the coconut’s leaf. My grandfather told me the best hats must be made from the palm leaf that made it lighter and last longer. The shape is covered by many round bamboo rings from top to bottom that represents for Vietnamese union, the round of perfection, round of earth and sky!

My grandfather had passed away, but the image of her walking with conical hat back from the market will stay with me forever. The candy I fought for is the sweetest one I have ever had. Time flies, those values sometimes are forgotten by us, a young generations, fashion trends are changing, people maybe don’t wear the conical hats anymore in the future but the memories are still so fresh to me, to anyone who had been one time followed our grandfathers to the market.

Some scenes of conical hats in Vietnam

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