There’s probably a window, a small window, of about half an hour when most visitors are at ease with Vietnam and may think their ideas of the hustle and bustle were wrong. This half an hour usually happens on the drive from the airport into Ho Chi Minh City and quickly disappears once in the heart of the Ho.
Once safely tucked inside the city’s folds, there’s no holding back the madness and sheer energy this buzzing city has, and it can be hard to prepare yourself for such a range of noise and excitement, but it’s definitely entertaining.
Big billboards, shanty towns, endless waves of people, sweaty sun, street markets and no order whatsoever seems to sum up the arrival into Vietnam. Add to that some of the friendliest people and best service, and this South Asian gem will soon become a favourite, as it did for me, although there are a few things you should be prepared for… the first being the traffic.
In Ho Chi Minh City, scooters and cars mob the city roads weaving in and out of each other with towers of people squeezed onto the back of one mini motor. If there’s one place the intrinsic friendliness might waiver, it’s here, as the Vietnam roadways bring about a whole load of finger wagging action and name-calling.
With no semblance of structure or formation, the vehicles mish mash along narrowly dodging one another but the riders show no anxiety whatsoever. Meanwhile pedestrians trying to cross the road are puffing for breath as they attempt to navigate the chaotic roadways.
The trick, in the words of Nike, is to just do it. Once you’ve connected flip flop to floor it’s time to take the plunge and make your moves as you whisper your prayers and hope to reach that curb unscathed.
While your flights might have put you back a bit, once in Vietnam, the costs of food, accommodation and alcohol make for a significantly cheaper holiday than any destination in Europe.
When it comes to food, you can usually get a two-course, two-drink meal for two for well under a tenner in the restaurants, or even a fiver if you hit up the delicious street food.
Massages are around £3, which means you can ease those aching joints time and time again, while the average night’s accommodation costs about £8. These are classy joints with celeb-level service which, when complimented with 15p beers, make for a very sweet and cheap life.
As well as the low prices, the food of Vietnam would have any non-believer praising a lord. The cuisine is made up of the purest flavours and the best quality ingredients. It’s obvious a lot of love goes into making the delicious fare.
I loved the pho, and although it’s breakfast there, it would do for any meal for me. It’s a broth-based soup with meat that cooks in the water – you can season and spice to suit your taste as you sup at a roadside stall.
Reading any amount of travel blogs before a trip to Vietnam will have most people flip-flopping between thinking you’re heading to the friendliest nation ever and thinking that the whole nation is out to get you and you’ll be bundled away Taken-style.
While it’s always best to air on the side of caution, watching your belongings and avoiding those offering drugs, Vietnam is relatively safe for the sensible. One thing to certainly keep an eye out for are the sneaky rats lurking in the shadows come night fall. I saw an absolute beast scuttling past me on one market plaza in Ho Chi Minh City, makes me shudder to remember.
Making your way around the rest of the country is surprisingly simple. Both planes and trains are reliable and not too expensive. Booking in advance is definitely recommended and although Vietnam doesn’t actually have an official rail site, many companies put on a good front to be just that.
Often sleeper trains are the best means to travel, especially if you’re making a long journey out of Ho Chi Minh to the likes of Nha Trang, or venturing further afield to Da Nang. While the idea sounds quaint and rather exciting, reality can be a little different once you realise there isn’t much sleep to be had on the ironically named sleeper train. Whether it’s a four or six sleeper carriage, personal space is always a bit of an issue and team that with trying to keep your bags nearby and safe means you’ll often end up playing snuggle bunny with your backpack. Once all settled down with your four new best mates, aka Vietnamese strangers, the night is a constant battle of noise, light and uncomfy conditions.
Another option is night buses, but really, avoid if you can, just trust me on that one.