Southeast Asia has a charm of its own – almost unbeatable by the west. The amount of exoticness, diversity, gastronomy, landscapes, cultures, and adventure this region packs within its gamut, is at times difficult to fathom. A sucker for good food, backpacking, bustling markets, and a blend of old and modern, my love affair with Southeast Asia started quite early, and continues to invoke a serious sense of curiosity in me, to keep exploring more and more of these paradisal states tucked away between the Indian and Pacific oceans.
My most recent wanderlust for Southeast Asia took me on a solo trip to Vietnam! Ferociously intoxicating, exploding with surreal limestone islands, glistening pagodas, sweeping rice paddies shimmering in baffling hues of green, the soporific natural landscapes, a bucolic countryside, and solid culinary punches, Vietnam turned out to be unlike any other destination I had ever visited! I had dreamt of visiting this country for as long as I can remember, and finally I was off on a much-awaited solo trip – to dig into this slice of paradise, my way.
5 myths about Vietnam I managed to bust
1. Vietnam is not safe for solo women travellers
Believe me when I say this, and I mean every single word of it – Vietnam is the one of the safest countries I have ever visited! Having travelled to a handful of other Asian countries, I felt the safest while traveling in Vietnam – be it on the solitary roads of Ninh Bin, the hilly villages of Sa pa valley, or the maze-like alleys of Hanoi City! No molestation, groping, or roving eyes/bad stares witnessed – something that is a nightmare for every solo female traveller. Vietnam was a breeze, in that regard.
Having said that, I’m a strong believer of the fact that the key to safety, till quite an extent, lies in your own hands – follow your gut instinct, always be aware and have a good understanding of your surroundings, always dress according to the place you’re visiting, steer clear from deserted areas/streets, take care of your belongings, and you’re good to go!
2. Hanoi’s traffic is dangerous
Hanoi’s traffic is insane! You’re going to need some crazy survival skills to make it on foot, in Hanoi! These are some of the lines that were hurled at me, while I was planning my itinerary for Hanoi. The picture in Hanoi, turned out to be pretty alright! I won’t deny – there was traffic, but perhaps, the city needs to be spared all that exaggeration! Although the traffic was slightly chaotic in the Old Quarter area, the roads elsewhere seemed quite broad and well-laid and the traffic wasn’t so bad either!
3. The locals will try to con/rob you
This was something I was repeatedly advised about, before leaving for my solo trip to Vietnam. Almost every person who knew about my travel, seemed to be dead sure that I would not leave Vietnamese soil without being conned or robbed at least once! One well-wisher also happened to be sure that I was probably going to be kidnapped! Much to my amazement, I met some of the sweetest souls in Vietnam. From having a total stranger offering to repair my rented motorbike while I was stranded in the middle of nowhere, to my super-kind hostel owner in Sa pa, who went out of his way to make sure I was safe and sound when I returned late one evening. Not even once was I mugged or conned – be it by hostel owners, travel agents, cab/tuk-tuk drivers, or shop keepers. Also, I lived to write this blog, so no, I wasn’t kidnapped in Vietnam.
4. Vietnam buses are not safe to travel in
Majority of the forums I read online, they all seemed to get the notion of Vietnam buses totally wrong. As against everything that I had read, I found the buses in Vietnam to be not only safe, but also unbelievably comfortable, convenient, clean, and classy! All sleeper buses in Vietnam have a no-shoes policy, which means, the moment you enter the bus, you’re requested to remove your shoes, and you’re provided with a plastic bag for the same. I had never seen this happening in any other country, and I bet you haven’t either!
For my journey from Hanoi to Sa pa, I travelled in a luxurious sleeper bus, that gave me a private, curtained cabin all to myself, equipped with a TV, wi-fi, charging points, pillows and blankets, wet tissues, bottled water – what more could one ask for!
5. Vietnam is poor, dirty, and backward
No, it is not. Period. Vietnam is one of the cleanest Asian countries I’ve visited. Economically, it might not be at par with the biggies, but the country is steadily making its presence felt as a rising middle-income nation. As I travelled, I couldn’t help but be in utter awe of Vietnam’s huge highways, spotless highway infrastructure, world-class transport system, towering sky-scrapers in the cities, posh restaurants, impeccable wi-fi availability, and so much more!
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How to plan a solo trip to Vietnam
Planning a solo trip to Vietnam is relatively simple, as compared to its counterparts. Since it’s a massive country, what to see and visit in Vietnam will entirely depend on the amount of days you have at hand. Since I had just 10 days to spare, I decided to focus on just North Vietnam. If you want to enjoy a relaxed trip to Vietnam, here are some tips you can follow:
- Try booking flights at least 2 months in advance – for cheap airfare.
- Make sure you know what the best time to visit Vietnam is! Travel during the months of February-April and September-November, for the best experiences!
- Make a rough itinerary of the places you want to see.
- Decide beforehand, how many days you want to spend at each destination, so that you don’t waste time while you’re traveling.
- Always travel with an open mind. Be accepting and accommodating.
- Try booking accommodation in advance. Vietnam being a paradise for backpackers, there are literally trillions of hostels and budget stay places all across the country, and most of these are listed on major travel booking sites.
- Always keep someone back home informed about your travel plans – day-wise.
- Keep a mix of Vietnamese Dong and USD at hand – some places in Vietnam, especially the rural areas, don’t accept USD. Likewise, majority of places in the cities, don’t accept the local currency.
What to eat:
Vietnamese cuisine sports an interesting mix of age-old flavours of the natives, adaptations from colonial visitors, and modern-day twists. There are subtle variations in the taste and ingredients by region, but overall, the food remains superbly seductive. While there were tons of local dishes that piqued my taste buds, here are some of my favourite Vietnamese dishes:
You can never go wrong with this one! Usually meaning ‘bread’ in Vietnamese, this delicious, mean whopper is packed with meat slices and is topped with an army of other ingredients like cilantro, picked carrots, cucumber, peppers, and jalapenos. Slurrrrp!
Yet another hit with the locals, Pho is the quintessential Vietnamese noodle soup, served with either chicken or beef, topped with ingredients like mint leaves, basil, sprouts, and lime.
Goi cuon (spring rolls)
Vietnamese cuisine would be incomplete without these lip-smacking, translucent spring rolls stuffed with your choice of meat, greens, and coriander.
A famous snack easily found across the streets and food stalls of Hanoi, Bun cha comprises tasty meatballs served with rice noodles and herbs, served with a savoury sauce.
Cha gio (fried spring rolls)
Equally popular as it’s healthier counterpart, these are super crispy spring rolls served with a tangy sauce. They’re usually loaded with minced meat and diced vegetables.
Cà phê đá (Vietnamese iced coffee)
This is not your regular coffee, it is literally a phenomenon in itself! Hot black coffee topped with a couple of spoons of sweetened condensed milk and some ice-cubes. This coffee as creative and ingenious as coffees can get – do not leave Vietnam without gulping down at least a few litres of these!