THE SOLO DRIFTER: Things to do in Vietnam (Travel Guide)

This article was first published on 3 June 2018, 1:39PM; updated on 2 June 2019, 7:24AM.

Welcome to the first stop of the first series of my Indochina tour – Vietnam.

I went to Ho Chi Minh for a vacation in May 2018. This year, I went back to Ho Chi Minh for our Asia-Pacific Conference.

For your information, the Philippines is one hour ahead of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. At the immigration, the officer stamped my passport right away. I had my USD exchange into VND at the airport – it’s a good deal. One good thing about Vietnamese people is that they are honest and helpful to tourists – I will prove this in my story below. But before that, watch the video below. It sums up my whole Vietnam journey this year.

Vietnam currently offers visa-free travel to nationals of 24 countries, including the Philippines. Philippine passport holders are visa-exempt in Vietnam up to 21 days.

What you need to know about Vietnam

  1. Bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest
  2. Its capital city has been Hanoi since the reunification of North and South Vietnam in 1976, with Ho Chi Minh City as the most populous city
  3. By 1884, the entire country had come under French rule
  4. The French administration imposed significant political and cultural changes on Vietnamese society
  5. World’s largest producer of cashew nuts, with a one-third global share; the largest producer of black pepper, accounting for one-third of the world’s market; and the second-largest rice exporter in the world, after Thailand
  6. World’s second largest exporter of coffee
  7. Bicycles, motor scooters and motorcycles remain the most popular forms of road transport
  8. Vietnam’s primary cross-country rail service is the Reunification Express, which runs from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, covering a distance of nearly 2,000 kilometres
  9. The official national language of Vietnam is Vietnamese (Tiếng Việt)
  10. The French language, a legacy of colonial rule, is spoken by many educated Vietnamese as a second language, especially among the older generation
  11. Popular tourist destinations include the former imperial capital of Hué, the World Heritage Sites of Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, Hội An and Mỹ Sơn, coastal regions such as Nha Trang, the caves of Hạ Long Bay and the Marble Mountains
  12. Current is Vietnamese dong (VND)
Transportation in Vietnam

What you need to know about Hanoi

  1. In modern tourism, it is sometimes nicknamed Paris of the Orient, or Paris of the East
  2. Rainy season is May to October

What you need to know about Ho Chi Minh

  1. Also widely known by its former name of Saigon. Under the name Saigon, it was the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina
  2. Immediately after the communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975, a provisional government renamed the city after Hồ Chí Minh, the late North Vietnamese leader
  3. Rainy season is May to November

I did not have a Vietnamese SIM card. Yes, I did not also buy any SIM card in Cambodia and Thailand. I roamed around the three countries without an internet. I only used a GPRS in my phone to track my location. I survived!

Where to stay

A25 Hotel

In 2018, I stayed in A25 Hotel. A25 Hotel is widely known in Vietnam due to its good service and its discount being offered to customer staying for more than ten days. While discussing with the receptionist, I thought I would be paying VND60,000. When I arrived at 14 Lu’ong Huu Khanh, my receipt showed an amount of VND660,000. Tip: When communicating with Vietnamese, you need to be patient and try to understand their English as they have a different accent. Paying that amount was not an issue for me when I saw the quality of the service and the room. Different branches of A25 Hotel are strategically located near Vietnamese landmarks.

Rex Hotel Saigon
Rex Hotel Saigon

In 2019, our firm booked Rex Hotel Saigon. Its Vertical Garden is recognized as the first & biggest in-door vertical garden in Vietnam.

View from Sheraton

The venue of our conference is in Sheraton Saigon Hotel and Towers, which is strategically located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.

Things to do in Ho Chi Minh

A day before our conference, Danny, my tour guide took me around the slum areas in the city. I booked an afternoon Slum Tour by Motorbike through Klook amounting to PHP1,528. We talked about the history of the city, the leaders and people of Vietnam, the country’s culture and tradition, cuisine. Along the tour, I got to immerse myself among locals living in the slums around and beyond the city, and saw makeshift houses along the Saigon river and the floating market.

Vietnam coffee

The last two stops of the tour  – Cheo Leo Cafe. I learned that whenever Vietnamese people drink coffee, they couple it with jasmin tea to fight the taste of the strong coffee. I do not drink coffee but I have to. I didn’t want to miss drinking a Vietnamese coffee in the oldest coffee shop in Vietnam. The coffee costs VND16,000-USD30,000 but I did not pay as my drinks are already included in the amount I paid for the tour, including the coconut juice I tried in the floating market. We stopped at a charity food stall that offers cheap meals at VND2,000. The operator could have just give the meal for free but it wants to deliver a message that if you want something, work hard for it. The operator accepts volunteers and donations. For details, I am posting the photo below.

Charity food stall

Had a morning walk in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh and saw see people having their exercise in parks. I visited the following places:

September 23 Park
  1. September 23 Park – By September 23, most of Saigon was back in French hands, with less than half a dozen vital positions in Viet Minh control
  2. Ben Thanh Market – Buy local delicacies, shoes, clothes, colorful candy, and souvenirs here. Tip: The market is notorious for pickpockets. Make sure to secure any valuables
  3. Saigon Square – Best deals from clothing and backpacks to jewelry and shoes. Open from 9:30AM-12MN

4. Bitexo Tower and Sky Deck – Standing at 262 metres tall, 68 storey Bitexo Tower is the highest tower in Vietnam with a sky deck offering 360 degree views of the city and surrounding area. It has a sky bar called Alto where you can see all of Ho Chi Minh while enjoying a cocktail and some tapas style international dishes. Open 9:30AM-9:30PM

5. Opera House – Hosts A O Show, a performance of traditional Vietnamese dance using bamboo. Price range: VND630,000-1,470,000. Check their website for more details

Along the way, you will see a number of restaurants and street stalls serving different cuisines from Asian to Western but the best thing to have in the morning is Vietnam’s own product – coffee. For those who are health-conscious like me, why not try Vietnam’s own Bánh mì, a kind of sandwich that consists of a Vietnamese single-serving baguette, split lengthwise and filled with various savory ingredients.

I bought a voucher from Klook amounting to USD13. Tip: Consider booking tours through Klook. They offer affordable deals. Most tours have travel guide. It is better to have travel guide for you to understand the history and culture of the place you are visiting. From the city to Cu Chi Tunnels, we had a two-and-a-half travel time, including stop-over.

The Aftermath of Agent Orange

After more than an hour of travel, we had a stop-over in an art shop where Agent Orange victims’ artwork like lacquerware are produced. There, we saw people with different disabilities. We saw how they produce their works. The Vietnam war may have ended in 1975 but some families are still battling Agent Orange – a chemical sprayed during combat by United States troops between 1961 and 1971. It was later proven to cause serious health issues – including cancer, birth defects, rashes and severe psychological and neurological problems. Seeing these people battling the aftermath of Agent Orange will get you inspired and rethink that each people are blessed – not with material things but with different attitude in life or a positive perspective.

Agent Orange victims

I must thank TNK Travel for an unforgettable experience. Our tour guide Huy is informative and funny. He gave us glimpse of the history of Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Vietnam, the war, and the leaders of their nation. With this, I saw how Vietnamese people love their country and how they value the gift of independence.

In De Tham St., there a number of travel agency offering tour packages. I suggest to go to TNK Travel office (#220 De Tham St) as they offer a variety of packages from small to big tours around Vietnam. The crew and the quality of service are outstanding.

Cu Chi Tunnels

In 2018, I booked a Long Phuong Cambodia standard seater bus with WiFi amounting to USD15 with schedule every two hours from 6:30AM to 11:30PM. We departed at 3:30PM and arrived in Phnom Penh at 10PM.

This year, I took a Kumho Samco bus with WiFi amounting to VND315,000 (USD14). There are scheduled trips every hour from 6:30AM to 3:00PM.

Where to eat

Vietnam offers the best and a variety of cuisine.

  1. Danny told me that his favorite noodle is Bun Bo Hue Song Anh so I tried that one in Ben Thanh Street Food Market, a trendy food hall. Danny even recommended this place to me. I also got a taste of sugarcane + kumquat juice. I only spent around VND60,000 here.
  2. Tried something other than Vietnamese cuisine so we found Morico, a modern Japanese restaurant. Good prices! Ramen and a mixed berries shake only cost me VND75,000.
  3. We bought pasalubong in Vincom Center, the biggest shopping mall in Vietnam. Tip: If you are buying Vietnamese coffee, do not try to buy in Ben Thanh Market. If vendors know that you are a tourist, they will give you a price of VND100,000, while in supermarkets, it will only cost you VND45,000 for a branded one. There are lines of affordable restaurants in Vincom Center. Why not try to visit one of them.
Vietnamese pancake

4. If you are looking for a cool place where modern and traditional Vietnam meet, SH Garden is for you. Had a dinner with one of our Tax Partners in our local firm here. There are two locations of this restaurant in the city – Mon Viet is near the seaside, while Com Viet is near the City Hall – we went to the latter. From the ground floor, a receptionist welcome us and asked us to take an old, traditional elevator that will take us to the rooftop. It has large serving. A seafood hotpot can serve four diners, while Vietnamese pancake can serve two to three people. Our dinner only amounted to a million Vietnam dong.

5. Ice cream is around the corners of the city. I wanted to try it so while walking around, I saw Fanny Ice Cream. It offers all-natural ice cream. It has a good ambiance. I tried MaliCoco. It has a coconut ice cream, mango sorbet, malibu, white chocolate and chocolate sauce in a coconut shell. It only cost me VND99,000.

Vietnam-Cambodia Border

The conductor collected our passport. We were asked to get off the bus twice – first one is at Vietnam Exit and the other one is at Cambodia Entrance. There is no need to load off all things. The conductor was the one who gave our passport to the immigration officer in Vietnam Exit. We waited for our name to be called – it only took us 30 minutes there. Going to Cambodia Entrance, the conductor gave back our passport and we completed the Cambodia arrival card. After which, the conductor collected our passport again and brought to the immigration officer. I received my passport with a stapled Cambodia departure card – please do not remove it in your passport, keep it. When you exit Cambodia, the immigration officer will look into it. Vietnam-Cambodia immigration process is hassle-free.

Other things to do in Vietnam

I had a limited time to visit all places in Vietnam but I am listing down below other things to do in the country based on the locals and our tour guide:

  1. War Remnants Museum – it details the effects of the 30 year-long war between America and Vietnam. There are preserved tanks, planes and other war machines in the outside grounds. Open daily, 7:30AM-12NN and 1:30PM-5PM
  2. Independence (Reunification) Palace – discover secret rooms, grand reception halls and the command bunker where General Ngo Dinh Diem conducted his war strategies. Open daily, 8AM-11AM and 1PM-4PM
  3. Notre Dam Cathedral – with two 40 meter high towers, and a statue of the Virgin Mary in the front lawn area. Open daily, 8AM-5PM
Puppet Show

4. Water Puppet Show – lasts for 50 minutes. As the puppets dance and perform in the pool of water, a traditional Vietnamese opera band plays instruments and sings. Thanks to Rex Hotel Saigon for the complimentary ticket. You can buy tickets at the Reception Area amounting to VND300,000. Show starts at 6:30PM every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

What makes Vietnam an outstanding country is the people. Vietnamese are humble. They value life, the culture and the rich history of their nation. They take pride of the tourist spots and their agricultural products. People are brave yet simple.

Before I end this blog post, here’s another video from my 2018 travel:

For a detailed budget and suggested itinerary, visit my Indochina Tour Series 1 main page.

Please click the following links for the following travel guide:

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About the Author

Paul Michael Jaramillo
Paul Michael JaramilloExecutive Editor
Paul is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), a youth and environmental advocate, leader, writer, blogger, filmmaker and an organist. He’s the former Chairperson of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines-Ilocos Chapter. As a writer, he has found focus and interest on reproductive health, deaf rights, youth development. At the age of 14, he has fully embraced the call of leadership by leading student organizations and college publications. He was a recipient of the PGMA Campus Journalism Award. He joined and won national contests and published some articles related to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals in a Spanish paper and website. Some of his articles were also published in leading Philippine news websites and featured in international organizations website.

He launched his career as a CPA in KPMG R.G. Manabat & Co. Paul is currently leading the Data and Analytics Network (and its university arm) of KPMG in the Philippines. He is also the Business Lead for Innovation. He provides trainings to KPMG professionals in the Philippines. He also joined Financial Services Academy for Shared Service Centres (SSC) as a presenter. He is part of the Technical Advisory Group of the Firm's Department of Professional Practice, focusing on data and analytics, audit methodology, accounting standards, root cause analysis, system of quality management, and financial statement quality control review. He represents the Firm as a resource and motivational speaker, arbiter, adjudicator and judge in academic conferences, audit conventions, accounting and audit cups, and audit case study competitions. He sits as a member of Root Cause Analysis team of the Firm. Paul is an Audit Methodology Champion and Workforce of the Future Champion of the Firm. He is also the Firm's System of Quality Management Implementation Manager.

Paul is the Review Master and Head Coach of PREMIERE Review School.

Paul is a member of the Iglesia Ni Cristo (Church Of Christ) and a Church officer in their locale congregation.