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Travel Special: The ultimate handy guide to Vietnam

Despite its turquoise charms and abundant beauty, Vietnam can be a tricky holiday destination. Unless you are armed with our invaluable hacks

Imagine you are on a cruise ship, drifting slowly on turquoise waters, bare feet up from your lounge chair.

Hanoi's Old Quarter is dotted with street-side restaurants that serve local brews and fresh seafood. PIC/MALAY DESAI
Hanoi's Old Quarter is dotted with street-side restaurants that serve local brews and fresh seafood. Pic/Malay Desai

You're trying to read a book amidst this calm but the dozens of limestone isles around you are too stunning to not gaze at.

One of the worthwhile reasons to get off your Ha Long bay cruise is to go to Monkey island for its views
One of the worthwhile reasons to get off your Ha Long bay cruise is to go to Monkey island for its views

Lost in this idyllic moment, you spot the smiling face of a woman under a bamboo hat — she's paddling her boat towards yours. She seems to want to tell you something, and you expect her, with that angelic face, to tell you words as divine as the horizon, a moment you'd recount to your grandkids. As she inches closer, you sit up, lean toward her and she yells, "Good evening, sir! You want chips? Only 50 million!"

Vietnam, despite its charms and beauty, can surprise you in ways that will call for a face palm moment. Even for us Indians, pros of street smartness and pioneers of the bargain game, some handy tips won't hurt:

Nha Trang, in South Vietnam, despite its urban facilities, has a serene vibe. It is a popular scuba-diving destination in Asia.
Nha Trang, in South Vietnam, despite its urban facilities, has a serene vibe. It is a popular scuba-diving destination in Asia.

Don't touch the corals
Where:
Nha Trang

Sometimes, the only tip one can give about a destination is two words, 'just go'. Nha Trang, on Vietnam's South coast is what many beaches aspire to be — clean, calm and just as commercial as any urban traveller would like. Us Goa revellers would find it luxurious that there are ample public showers, changing areas, swings and amenities such as volleyball nets on the sands — all for free. Among paid frills, the world's longest over-water cable car ride and Louisiane, the micro-brewery by the beach are breath-taking. Also, a shout-out for scuba diving enthusiasts: the corals here, and your co-divers who come from across the world, can make for a terrific story to tell.
DON'T MISS: Pretending that you're in a James Bond film as you hail a stunning cab ride to town, from the airport that's an hour away.

Women from the Hmong tribe in Sa Pa wait for tourists. They have built a notorious reputation of being aggressive salespersons.
Women from the Hmong tribe in Sa Pa wait for tourists. They have built a notorious reputation of being aggressive salespersons.

Look through the Hmong-ers
Where: Sa Pa
Native to North-West of Ha Noi, the ethnic Hmong people have braved the French rule, World War II and painful ear piercings only to discover the true motive of their existence — rice cultivation and relentless salesmanship. From the moment you step off the bus in this cloudy town, the Hmong vendors, mostly women, begin selling you all and sundry, sometimes after initiating a misleadingly friendly chat. Helpful for someone who lands after a decade in solitary confinement. But for you, I advise, keep walking, as there are many treks to go on, rice wines to taste and a few waterfalls to ride your rented motorbike to. Buy those ethnic trinkets from Colaba instead.
DON'T MISS: Tavan village, four hours of a picturesque trek away. Spend the night at a quaint homestay; there are no hotels.

Avoid the Ha Long frills
Where: Ha Long Bay
And then to the paradise I mentioned earlier. Ha Long Bay's topography of limestone karsts and thousands of islets took millions of years to evolve, and it would take you two nights and as many days on a cruise to see just half of it. Being Vietnam's biggest tourist draw, and a backpackers' favourite, many cruise companies offer 'more' experiences such as parties on the deck, cooking classes and excursions to nearby islands. But opting for these would be like avoiding the Taj Mahal, and shopping for chappals in its neighbourhood instead. When you can pick a book, lounge on a sun deck, sip wine and stare at magnificent rock formations, doing anything else seems criminal. What you must do is jump into a kayak or take a dip. To avoid chips-selling salespersons and for a calm stomach, get a room on the upper level.
DON'T MISS: Monkey island, a 20-minute boat ride away from Cat Ba is the stuff you saw in Danny Boyle's The Beach.

Traffic under the French-made Long Bien bridge in Hanoi. The roads of its capital are replete with two-wheelers. PICS/MALAY DESAI
Traffic under the French-made Long Bien bridge in Hanoi. The roads of its capital are replete with two-wheelers. Pics/Malay Desai

Stoop low for the food and bia
Where: HA NOI
There are capitals that are Asian tigers and then there are the kittens, such as Ha Noi. The vibe here is no more energetic than that of a B-category Indian town (though two-wheelers are twice the number) but if you travel for food like I do, well, sit down, listen. Ha Noi, like most of Vietnam, is dotted with small roadside restaurants and cafes, where grown men sit on tiny plastic stools (the ones our three-year-olds use to bathe), elderly women manage makeshift cash counters and delicious food happens. Pho, the broth that's a national obsession, pork-filled spring rolls and bia (beer) are best enjoyed with your derriere perched uncomfortably.
DON'T MISS: The fare at Gecko, a chain of eateries all over the capital, each outlet has it's own touch.
Traffic under the French-made Long Bien bridge in Hanoi. The roads of its capital are replete with two-wheelers. Pics/Malay Desai

Exotic holiday destinations in southeast Asia

A photo journey inside Cambodia's Angkor Wat

Exploring Thailand's Koh Samui on a moped

Bhutan: A land of legends and happiness

Soak up the sun and sand at Bali

Off on a canoe, down Philippines' rivers

Tips and tricks

Vietnamese Dong can make you a millionaire in seconds. Don't get too muddled with cryptic conversions, just leave out three zeroes from any price and multiply the rest by three to convert to Indian rupees.

A Nha Trang vendor sells spiced pork fried in sticky rice patties
A Nha Trang vendor sells spiced pork fried in sticky rice patties

Take your masalas along. Vietnamese food could be very bland for us, and sometimes asking for ‘spicy’ would just get you more soy sauce.

Most night markets are a farce. Those who’ve been to Taipei or Bangkok would know, there’s nothing really quaint about China-made phone covers and selfie sticks. Rather crash early and go for a morning walk.

Indulge in pork. And bread. Bun Cha, the marinated pork belly smoked over charcoal is best had in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. And we must thank the French for leaving behind a rich legacy of baguettes.

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