For us, Christmas and New Year’s are always a time we enjoy spending on the beach, away from the stress of the season. The last couple of years took us to Costa Rica and Tanzania, where it was a lot warmer than Switzerland.
For 2016/17, we decided to spend three weeks in Vietnam, which along with its beautiful beaches in the south also offers adventure tours in the north.
Emirates’ A380 flies twice a day from Zurich to Dubai and from there to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). After about 14 hours of flying time, you’re back with both feet on the ground and ready to pick up your visa. We applied for our visas online ahead of time through Vietnam Visa. Even if some embassy websites only mention the standard methods of visiting the embassy or sending a letter, this method is legal and works best. Thanks to the VIP service we got through reserving our visas, we didn’t even have to stand in line and could continue to the passport checkpoint after only about 15 minutes.
Our tip: The VIP service is worth it, since the paper shuffling is pretty slow and the line is long. With the VIP service, you’re met by a local who locates the right counters, complete with contacts, at lightning speed.
Ho Chi Minh City or Simply “Saigon”
Once arrived in Saigon, we reserved an Uber right at the airport. In our experience, riding with Uber costs a little less than taking a taxi. But taxis only charge for the kilometers driven and not for the wait time. So it can pay to take a regular taxi in Saigon, where we spent 30 minutes sitting in a traffic jam. The locals even suggested taking an uberMoto. They can disregard the rules and simply move through any situation, which gets them to their destination at top speed.
Saigon is seriously hectic, especially with the constant honking, whether it’s meant for passing, saying hi, or just being a grouch – with 5.5 million inhabitants, there’s never a quiet moment.
When choosing a hotel, it’s also your best bet to check out a high-rise. It’s true that they’re in the middle of the city, but from the sixth floor up, the sound won’t bother you quite as much. One reason for the noise has got to be the missing windows, so be sure to pay close attention to the room description, since windowless rooms are par for the course in Vietnam. Another option is to get a room somewhat away from the city center. For our last night in Saigon, we decided on the I Am Vietnam Boutique Hotel in District 17, which is also just 30 minutes by foot to the famous replica of the French Notre Dame Cathedral.
In Vietnam, you’ll find a lot of narrow high-rises everywhere, reminiscent of the canal houses in Amsterdam. The reason for the narrowness is that real estate right on the street is fairly expensive because you could open a shop there. That’s why it’s cheaper to make the house narrow but also high at the same time. These houses are mostly inhabited by an entire extended family. And in spite of ongoing modernization, tradition is still important. That means that even today, an unmarried couple is unable to rent an apartment in Saigon.
Our tip: For those of you who really want to stay in the city center, we recommend the Silverland Hotel, with a bar and jacuzzi on the rooftop terrace. Or if you want something a little quieter, we suggest the I Am Vietnam Boutique Hotel.
Food and Drink in Saigon
From our search for the best of what Saigon has to offer in terms of food and drink, we agree that it pays to visit the following places. If you want to enjoy breakfast like the locals, try out the soup at the street stands. It costs about $1–$2 and tastes really good. The locals eat this way every morning, since they have no time to make homemade soup, which would take 4–5 hours to cook.
ID Cafe – Perfect for recharging with a cup of coffee or tea after a city tour.
L’Usine – If you need something more than just coffee or tea, you can get a good breakfast or lunch here. There’s also a clothing shop as part of the deal.
Chill Skybar – A good place to enjoy the sunset or to wind down your evening after supper. The Skybar is a rooftop venue with a panoramic view over Saigon.
Cuc Gach Quan – Our best dinner in Saigon was definitely at this restaurant. The menu is somewhat distinctive, but the staff is glad to help with good recommendations. Our tip: try as many different dishes as possible.
Mũi Né – An Almost Totally Russian Village
From Saigon, it was on to a brief stopover in the Mekong Delta (more on that in another post) before heading to Mũi Né, a fishing village in the east of Vietnam. By car, it’s around 4½ hours; by bus, 5½ hours. Just driving through the village, you quickly notice that for once things are not all written in English for the tourists, but in Russian. When I tried inquiring about kitesurfing at a place next to our hotel, I was asked whether I knew Russian, since they didn’t speak any English. So Mũi Né had been taken over by the Russians 😉
Kitesurfing in Mũi Né
There are kitesurfing schools all along the beach, and with the right wind conditions, you’ll find all the instructors in the water. If you want a lesson, the $70 fee will have you digging deep into your pockets in comparison with Zanzibar ($45) – or why we chose to refrain.
Unterwegs mit dem Motorrad
Just as in Saigon, the best way to get around Mũi Né is with a motorcycle. For $7 a day, you can rent a scooter, complete with helmet, anywhere along the street. Driving rules are relatively simple:
- Don’t drive faster than 50 mph.
- If someone runs into you, you’re considered at fault, so be sure to keep an eye out at all times and honk a lot.
- If the police catch you without a helmet, you may stand to forfeit 1 to 2 million dong ($44 to $88)
Although we never had a problem, the locals were constantly telling us that the police liked hitting up the tourists and crookedly filling their pockets with their money for whatever they find inconvenient.
Our tip: Really smear on the sunscreen, and also wear sunglasses and bring along a shawl or face mask to ward off the dust. Riding with sunglasses at night is not that great, but it’s the only way to keep the dust at bay.
Spending the Day in Mũi Né
Mũi Né features a few tourist attractions that you can book locally. Along with kitesurfing and diving, you can also see a large Buddha statue. We decided to look around the fishing village and the red sand dunes on our own. For the white sand dunes, which are somewhat farther away, we arranged for a driver.
Famous fishing village
Mũi Né is a fishing village and known for just that. If you have trouble staying in bed in the morning, you can watch the spectacle of the returning fishermen in their round boats. We weren’t awake quite that early and only visited the harbor somewhat later. But we can easily imagine that the morning hours must be really exciting. By noon, there’s actually not that much going on anymore, and the port serves more as a graveyard for crabs, mussels, and fish. Because whatever isn’t sold is tossed on the ground. A paradise for mussel gatherers, but the stench of the rotting creatures makes it not so great for people with weak stomachs. In spite of all this, the port also provides a romantic setting at sunset, which you can enjoy from the street above.
The red dunes
If you read our post on Huacachina in Peru, you’ll know that we love the dunes, which seem to rise up out of nowhere. Since they’re not far from the fishing village, you can travel by motorbike to see them. Once there, there’s no admission required, although some people will ask for a parking fee to watch your motorcycle. If you want a pad for sliding down the dunes, you’ll also have to pay.
The white dunes
About 30 minutes from the red dunes and one police check away, we arrived at the white dunes. For $7, we booked the ride from our hotel to the dunes through an agency, and there were no time limits on how long we could stay at the dunes. There’s no admission charge for these dunes, either, but the area is really big, and there’s also a lake to see. If you want to go up the highest dune, you can rent a jeep (no time limit) for about 600,000 dong. If you’d rather take a quad (ATV), you’ll pay a little less, but you can only drive it for 30 minutes.
Christmas in Mũi Né
If you’re in the area at Christmastime, you can also go by motorbike to Phú Thủy, west of Mũi Né. On our way there from Saigon, we came across a large Christmas village with lots of lights and attractions, similar to a fair. Though most of Vietnam’s population is Buddhist, Christmas is celebrated in Phú Thủy and all over Vietnam.