Hoi An UNESCO World Heritage

Hoi An UNESCO World Heritage

Formerly known as Fai-Fo, Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a small city in the east of Vietnam. It is a well preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port which operated between the 15th and 19th century with a unique blend of architectural influences, both from Vietnamese culture and from abroad. It is an excellent place to escape the larger cities of Vietnam to as there is very little traffic and pollution, despite a steady rise in tourism in the last few years. Despite no longer operating so much as an international trading port, international business is still very important as the trade of tourism has taken over the town.

At the centre of the town is the iconic and beautiful Japanese Covered Bridge. This was constructed by the Japanese community to link them with the Chinese Quarters and has been well preserved ever since, becoming an emblem for H?i An and a top location to visit. While the French flattened the roadway to enable cars to cross, the original arched shape was restored in 1986 making it more true to it's original design. As Vietnam experiences a lot of earthquakes, the bridge has a very solid design and has survived some potential battering over the years. There are some old and weathered statues at either end of the bridge, a pair of monkeys at one end and a pair of dogs at the other, which are more than likely relevant to the year of the dog and the year of the monkey in one way or another, although nobody quite knows why.

Another top attraction is the Tan Ky House which was built over two centuries ago by an ethnically Vietnamese family and has been well preserved ever since. Both the Chinese and the Japanese have had heavy influences over the architecture and the attention to detail in the interior decorating is truly stunning. This little house holds a lot of history and culture and is a memorable and interesting destination for tourists in the area.

There are several tours operating in the area to give you an insight into the culture and history of the town, including boat and bike tours to explore the surrounding islands and villages, four tours around the town to introduce you to some of Vietnam's world renowned cuisine, and excursions out of town. One of the more popular locations to visit on these tours is the My Son Sanctuary which is another UNESCO World Heritage Sites dating back to the 4th Century.

Walking around the town is a good opportunity to admire the fusion of different cultures. A lot of the architecture has been well looked after and a gentle stroll would feel like a step back in time if not for all the modern tourists. The town is a blend of mostly Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese design with elements of French influences from colonisation. There are many little temples to discover, pagodas and ancient homes and buildings to explore around a series of canals and narrow streets and alleys. There are four museums around town to highlight the history and culture of the region, all of which can be accessed using a H?i An Entrance Ticket which is available from the tourist information.

Accommodation ranges from basic shared rooms in hostels from as low as $8USD a night to a $600USD a night world class, 6 star resort called Nam Hai which is supposedly the best in Southeast Asia, and everything else in between. There are restaurants and cafes all over town to cater to the tourists who may very well outnumber the residents of the town.

The main season for visiting H?i An is between the end of May and the end of August, when the weather is calm and mild and more stable. For those looking to explore the Cù lao Chàm Islands, this is the best time to visit the town as tours are more frequent and run more often. The weather in the remainder of the year is very temperamental and conditions can vary drastically between humid hot weather, cold rain, and windy conditions.

For a truly unique, historical and cultural experience in Vietnam, make sure to include a trip to H?i An on your travels.

Hostelling in Vietnam

Hostelling in Vietnam

There are many different ways to experience Vietnam as a country, from high priced luxurious tours to more budget friendly alternatives. Hostels often have a bad reputation, particularly for those who have never stayed in them before, however there are a lot of benefits to sharing your accommodation over having a private room in a hotel, and Vietnam is a great country to start.

The first, and probably the most important benefit is the price. You can find yourself a bed for as low as $4USD in Hanoi and $7USD in Ho Chi Minh. For those who are willing to sacrifice their privacy, having their own bathroom, and to risk sharing a dorm room with a snorer, the financial benefits are huge. Whatever money you save from your accommodation can go straight to paying for your adventures or can be put towards trying all of those exotic and exciting Vietnamese dishes. You can also have private rooms in hostels which tend to be cheaper than hotels, but still cost a little more than paying for a bed in a shared room. As people who stay in hostels tend to be budgeting a little more than those in hotels, the partnered companies who provide the tours tend to also be cheaper and more local, so overall you will be saving a lot, and maybe you will even go home with some change for once.

Socially, staying in hostels is awesome. You have no choice but to mix in with people from all over the world, with stories to tell and experiences to share. Quite often, travellers in Vietnam will actually be taking the same routes, and so for those who are travelling alone, it is a great way to meet and to make travelling companions who can help you to spread the cost even further. As a lot of people travel around Southeast Asia by motorbike, you can also find people who will travel with you this way, and perhaps have a more mechanical mindset than you for when they break down. As people who stay in hostels tend to be very international, they are usually very open minded, and you are likely to leave with some friends for life, as well as making a few friends just for the day.

Culturally, staying in a hostel usually lands you closer to the local action. They are usually run by local people who are fully immersed in the local world, and who will be able to recommend potentially less touristic attractions to visit and more diverse things to do. They will be able to send you to restaurants where the locals eat, and to give you a more legitimate and genuinely unique experience of Vietnam. As they are often family run businesses, you will be supporting the local economy in ways that the Marriott can't as an international conglomerate company. Staff are often young people who are enthusiastic about travelling and about the country that they are residing in, and want to provide you with the best snapshot of what their culture means to them.

For those really looking to budget, some hostels have a guest kitchen, although in Vietnam this is less common than in other countries. Here, you will be able to try out local ingredients and to make recreate some Vietnamese dishes while the recipes are still fresh in your mind, as well as team up with other travellers to save even more money and cook together. The sanitary element of hostels is often a worry for first time hostellers, however these are always improving to keep up with modern expectations, and the kitchen is, most of the time, a safe place to prepare, cook and to eat.

Hostels often provide very unique sleeping opportunities, and Vietnam is no disappointment at showcasing some weird and wonderful accommodation. The Circle Vietnam Hostel in Da Lat City offers guests the chance to sleep in some strange pipe shaped rooms, two meters in diameter, with a panoramic view of the city. The Asia Home Nha Trang is similar to capsule hotels in Hong Kong, with shared facilities and the chance to sleep in an all inclusive capsule bed. While competing with each other for guests, hostels quite often are very weird and wonderful places to sleep and offer a unique experience for their guests.

Like most of our visitors, if you are used to five star hotels and have never stayed in a hostel, maybe Vietnam is the place to try something new.

Preparing for your trip to Vietnam

Preparing for your trip to Vietnam

Vietnam is a culturally diverse and fascinating country, and is often a big step away from familiar cultures for visitors to the area. It has a variety of different climates, ranging from tropical to temperate mountainous zones, and the country experiences a high amount of rainfall and also some very strong sun, making it also very humid. For those flying in from Europe or the USA, it can be very difficult to know what to expect upon arrival.

The first thing to consider after booking your flights is to create a rough itinerary. This way, you can start to predict which areas you are going to be in and which vaccinations you may or may not require to protect yourself against infection. The zika virus is a risk in Vietnam, and travellers should take steps to prevent mosquito bites and sexual exposure to this during and after the trip. This is particularly dangerous for pregnant women as it causes serious birth defects, and so it is worth considering postponing your trip if you are expecting. Hepatitis A and typhoid are also possibilities, and it is worth checking with your doctor that you are protected against these before travelling.

Depending on what regions you are visiting, malaria can be a problem, but do be aware that preventative medication against this is very strong and can cause sickness in itself, so it should only be used if necessary. Rabies can also be found in some of the animals, so for travellers involved in outdoor activities, particularly in rural areas, and for people working with animals it is worth protecting yourself against this also. Yellow fever is not a problem in Vietnam, however if you are travelling from a country with a risk of the virus, you will require proof that you are vaccinated against it. It is usually considerably safer to get vaccinated from your home country before travelling than to get vaccinated upon arrival, and sometimes the vaccinations take a few days to become effective, so do ensure this is done before the start of your trip. It's also worth taking a small first aid kit with you, just in case, and it is also worth checking that your travel insurance covers everything you intend to do.

While it is very important to try the food of the culture on your trip, also be aware that unsanitary kitchens and a drastic change of diet can have very unfavourable effects on your body and potentially ruin your whole vacation. Immerse yourself into the new cuisine slowly, and don't eat from anywhere that looks too unclean.

After you have your itinerary, you can start to book accommodation, transfers, and to plan out all of your activities, from which you can start to pack your luggage accordingly. Everybody hates travelling with too much stuff, and there is a real art to packing light which will make all your transfers considerably easier. Vietnam experiences a whole plethora of different weather conditions, often all in the same day, so lightweight and multipurpose outdoor clothing is the most effective solution to ensuring you have the lightest baggage possible. A completely waterproof rain jacket is absolutely essential, but do be aware that the country is quite warm and so pack a small and light one. Strong sunscreen and polarised sunglasses are also very important, and due to the tropical conditions in parts of the country, it also pays to have some tropical grade insect repellent. The mountainous areas are a little cooler, and the temperature drops off a little at night, so make sure you also have some lightweight warm clothing with you as well as plenty of light clothing for the warmer weather. Aim for layering as this minimises packing and maximises the effect. Take some sturdy walking boots for hiking and some flip-flops for the beach. At least one swimming costume is a good idea, as you will likely spend a lot of time in the water.

The best way to obtain a visa for Vietnam is through the official government website, and all of the information can be found at https://vietnamvisa.govt.vn. Some nationalities can bypass this if they are staying for a short time, however you should absolutely ensure that you follow the correct procedure for your country and not make assumptions.

Sa Pa

Sa Pa

Sa Pa (or Sapa) is a small market town in the north west of Vietnam which attracts a lot of tourists due to it's picture perfect views, it's dramatic landscaping and it's cultural antics. Snuggled into the mountains and overlooking a deep valley, this French settlement has become the tourism central for the region. The town is filled with colour as the local hill-tribe people flood the streets, and even on a misty day, which is quite common in the mountains, the views are spectacular.

The town is quickly increasing in size, and due to some building regulations being ignored, the buildings are growing taller and taller over the years. The town is heavily reliant on tourism bringing in money, and as a result the town is quite busy and not as quiet as "a small town in the mountains" suggests. Most people who visit the area have come to immerse themselves in a world of trekking and hiking, and so the town merely serves as a place to sleep and eat after a long day of tramping through the hills.

The area is awash with the iconic cascading rice fields that are often seen on postcards and travel websites for the area. Set against a backdrop of dramatic mountains, rolling mist, and small local villages, the real charm for the region lies outside of the city. A lot of tourists also opt to see the area by bicycle with plenty of routes to explore and plenty of rental opportunities from the town. For those exploring the area, it helps to travel light, but also to prepare for rain and bad weather with a lightweight waterproof jacket as weather conditions change very quickly in Vietnam, and even quicker when you are at higher altitudes.

Sapa is also home to Vietnam's highest peak, Fan Si Pan, which stands at 3,143m above sea level. The trek to the summit is a three day ordeal and is probably the most challenging route for tourists to tackle. If you want to take on Fan Si Pan, it is not allowed that you hike alone and a local guide is required, as well as highly recommended. There are campsites at around 2300m and 2900m where you will sleep after your first and second days of hiking. The view from the top is absolutely breathtaking, and will be worth all of the hard effort of travelling up there when you have a panoramic view of Vietnam. The hike passes several remote villages, going through different types of forest and crosses over mountain streams, providing interesting and diverse landscapes throughout.

For those looking for something a little easier, there are medium and easy graded walks that can last for everything between a few hours and and a few days. Always make sure you have spoken to local experts to enquire about track conditions, weather forecasts, the difficulty of the walk and what equipment is required.

Sapa can endure some quite rough weather, and for those who are dissuaded for venturing outside when the rain is falling, there is plenty to see and do in the town itself that should shelter you from the showers. There is a museum quite aptly named Sara Museum which showcases the history and ethnology of the area, including information about the ethnic minorities and the French colonisation. This is located behind the tourist information office and is worth a quick visit. There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants where you can relax after a long hike. There is also a market which operates just outside of the centre of town in a purpose built bus station.

Sapa is just a short journey from Hanoi, and some people even chose to hike there from the capital city. It offers a lot of diversity and contrast to the bustling streets of the capital, and is a great stop to include on even a short itinerary, especially for those looking for something a little more rural and a little more natural. There are plenty of transport options for those not willing to hike, and plenty of multi-day guided tours that leave from Hanoi for those who want to leave all the hard work and preparation for somebody else to worry about.