Flight & tour preps – Vietnam 2016

My parents like to make spur-of-the moment decisions, that’s why I found myself arranging a trip to Vietnam for December. My dad just thought of going there, we decided on a date, and I arranged the itinerary. Dad wanted to go to Hanoi, mom wanted to go to Ho Chi Minh, ate Mako was going wherever as long as it’s free, and I wanted to go anywhere. Easy. Not.

It was surreal stepping on a boat and being in Ha Long Bay – a place I first read about when I was in grade 4 (18 years ago!). But now I know Vietnam is so much more than that breathtaking cluster of islands and the historical basis for one of my favorite musicals (Miss Saigon). Nam is both the most chaotic traffic I’ve ever seen and the most peaceful countryside I’ve ever passed through. It has speeding mopeds yet laidback villages where locals would wave when you pass by their street. A place where you have to hurry up eating because there are crowds waiting while you try to savor the tastiest pho. It wasn’t the perfect trip I envisioned but it gave me a more colorful memory to cherish.



Flights to Vietnam

Cebu Pacific’s flights were sold out, PAL was too expensive, and the only way we can follow our itinerary was if we booked via Vietnam Airlines.

Tip 1: Book flights (and hotels) as early as possible.

Since flights to Hanoi from the Philippines would pass by Ho Chi Minh, we decided to go to Hanoi first, then Ho Chi Minh, so we only had one layover. We ironed out our schedule and itinerary by August, but my dad wanted to delay buying tickets because he was hoping they’d be cheaper by September. However, I booked our hotels already (via Booking.com) because they were so inexpensive.

When I booked at the start of September, our flights were sold out. I then tried to book directly with Vietnam Airlines but they kept denying my booking. I searched for a travel agency that could help book our tickets, and by that time, the flights were even more horrendously expensive. I think we paid P19k per person (including travel taxes). We didn’t even get the flights we wanted (we were delayed by a day) so I had to rebook our hotels too. When I checked, they have become slightly more expensive. Bummer.

It’s a dream come true for my parents to visit Vietnam

From Manila, we took a flight from Manila to Hanoi, with a four-hour layover in Ho Chi Minh City. Plan your outfit carefully because you will need to remove your shoes when you pass through security. Once we arrived in Ho Chi Minh, we had to pass through the terminal’s doors, then turned right and walked over to the next building, which was five minutes away on foot. From there, we had to locate Vietnam Airline’s booths, check-in, pass through security, and wait for our flight. They don’t have announcements in English, so make sure you memorize your boarding gate and flight code because they moved our flight’s gate from one place to another. It was a good thing we were keeping watch!

Tours in Vietnam

My friend Kinah had been to Vietnam earlier that year, and she advised me to book in Vietnam because there are several agencies available and they offered way cheaper rates. However, since my parents wanted everything ironed out before we go there, I contacted several travel agencies. Go Asia Travel was the agency that gave me the best rates, and they were very communicative.

Walking around Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

Moreover, they gave me advice when I tried to book a tour for the Perfume Pagoda temple. They said they’ve stopped offering tours there because of environmental concerns and that based on feedback from previous clients, it wasn’t so enjoyable. They offered a tour of Hua Lu Tam Coc instead aside from our Halong Bay tour. No problem, we thought. We just wanted to see more of Vietnam. This turned out to be a good deal, although it has its drawbacks too. More on these later.

But Kinah was correct – there were several travel agencies that offered cheaper rates once we arrived. However, I wasn’t sure if their deals were as inclusive as the deal we got from Go Asia since we didn’t have to pay for anything anymore (except for tips, which are not required).

Since we were arriving in Hanoi late in the afternoon, no tour would accept us for a day trip. We were given the option to take a food trip at night, but my family weren’t feeling adventurous with food. So I just mapped out some places for us to see near our hotel and we walked around the park.

My family cannot go through the Củ Chi for health reasons, and they didn’t want to ride the Mekong river because we already had several boat rides in Hanoi and we’ve experienced that in Thailand too, so we just booked a city tour. I think it was better because we saw more of Vietnam, from their culture to their history.

Vietnam Airlines flight experience

We flew via PAL from Manila to Ho Chi Minh, then we flew from HCM to Hanoi via Vietnam Airlines. However, we booked our flights with PAL (they have a codeshare), and I was confirming with our travel agency because they haven’t given us assigned seats yet. This was on the 22nd, and it was a holiday on the 26th. PAL kept saying they couldn’t find our booking. I called our travel agency and they said there was something wrong with our flight. That it wasn’t confirmed. I’m like…we paid. It was booked months ago, how can it not be confirmed? Why were there no updates? It was so stressful, but I’m so thankful the agent we got on the line was patient, even though it was past the time she should go home. Apparently Vietnam Airlines’ flight code changed and…I don’t understand what exactly happened, but we were given a new ticket number. She also advised us to bring our old and new ticket, although there shouldn’t be a problem.

Of course, I was freaking nervous, especially since the travel agency was on holiday. But they did give me the number of her manager and said I can contact her no matter what time it was, in case we encountered any problems. But we had no problems at all, thank God.

The windows would get lighter or darker with a touch of a button, so you can get some sleep even if it’s sunny outside. I wish all planes would have this feature.
Economy food – noodles and vegetables. They have a few other choices.
Meat with soft egg (almost like mashed potatoes)

The plane was small but spacious enough. I’ve been in more cramped planes so I didn’t complain.

Tip #2: For long flights, bring a thick shawl (not the cotton ones), twist it around from end to end then wrap it around your neck. Voila! Neck warmer and neck pillow in one. Make sure it’s comfortable, don’t cut off your air!

On our flight home, our schedule kept changing whenever I checked it in the website. We were confused by all the changes, and since it was already New Year, we didn’t want to go home so late. Our flight was supposed to be 10:30am, but it was moved to 1:30pm. My mom and I rushed to the nearest Vietnam Airlines office from our hotel at 8am, and we were told we could catch the next flight at 10:40am if we rush.

I mean…

We had booked a car from the hotel, but since we had already moved it to 1:30pm, the driver was unavailable. But the hotel was very kind and sorted out everything for us. We arrived at 10am but when we got to the counter, they said they can see our booking but we weren’t confirmed for that flight. We were confirmed for the 1:30pm flight.

They wanted us to be waitlisted instead as chance passengers, but if we can’t take the 10:40 flight, our flight will definitely be 1:30pm. I mean, what else could we do? So we agreed wearily, and the ticket agent left to arrange our tickets.

She came back at 10:20am and said we had to board nowLiterally, our flight was boarding already, and we still had to go through security and customs. And in Vietnam, you have to remove your shoes. We were all wearing our heaviest shoes to save on luggage.

We ran to the boarding gate, shoes in hand. It was insane and definitely my maddest airline/airport experience.

Clothing in Vietnam

I’m not sure how strict Vietnam is with clothing if entering temples but we dressed up the way we would when entering churches/temples around Southeast Asia i.e. nothing too bare, and clothes reach past our knees. We’ve heard so much about the taxi haggling system in Vietnam, so we made it a rule that we should not ride in cabs and just walk around the city. Thus, we had to bring very comfortable shoes. Our experience in Italy taught us that!

Based on research, it will be cold in Hanoi but about the same temperature in Manila when we reach Ho Chi Minh City, so we packed long sleeves and jackets in Hanoi. That was a smart move! Hanoi in December was quite old, especially for us who live in tropical countries. Even when we went biking around the village and started to sweat, we still didn’t feel warm. But when we flew to Ho Chi Minh City, we couldn’t take our jackets off fast enough because of the heat.

Since my dad came down with pneumonia right after we got back from Switzerland, it was especially important that he kept warm while in Hanoi. And he’s also become a fan of carrying his own shawl to ward off the chill.

Shopping around Hanoi’s old quarter
Playing in one of Ho Chi Minh’s parks while waiting for our tour bus

Shopping

If you’ve heard how things are so cheap in Vietnam (ehem North Face), it’s absolutely true. The best place to shop for trinkets/pasalubong would be in Hanoi. I was able to buy a pure Vietnamese silk nightdress for only P350, and I feel so luxurious when I wear it. Also, when we checked the prices of the same things in Ho Chi Minh, it was way more expensive. If there’s one thing we regretted in Vietnam, it was that we wished we had more time to shop in Hanoi!

But in Ho Chi Minh, there’s this market called Ben Thanh where you can shop for clothes or have gowns/suits, etc, made so cheaply. My mom had a beautiful yellow gown made that cost her about P2,500. Including labor and materials. They just took my mom’s measurement, and the next day it was delivered to our hotel. And it fit! However, the sequins started coming off a little. Nothing that can’t be fixed.

Safety

As with anywhere in the world, you have to be careful. We didn’t experience anything bad in Hanoi but we were repeatedly warned by the store sellers to keep our belongings safe and our wallets in front of our body. The hotel also had some notes left in the room warning us of pickpockets and how to cross the street.

Traffic in Vietnam was so dangerous, especially for us who were just walking around the city. Majority of the locals (and some tourists) were riding Vespas or scooters and they rarely stop for people who will cross the street. The instructions from the hotel were to just keep walking and the drivers will know to just go around you. I mean, we saw a motorcycle drive into a taxi. The taxi driver just checked that the motorcycle driver was uninjured and that his car wasn’t ruined, then they both went their separate ways.

Crossing streets made me extremely nervous.

Traffic lights? Almost non-existent. But if you watch them (we ate at a cafe with a view of a very busy street) and they had a certain art. Imagine all four lanes crossing at the same time. As a tourist, I thought it was crazy, but they were used to it and there weren’t any accidents. They just avoided bumping into each other. It was crazy yet fascinating to watch.

Even though the capital of Vietnam is Hanoi, it felt more peaceful and quiet than Ho Chi Minh. It felt laidback, and we were so relaxed while we ate at the French-Vietnamese fusion restaurants that seem to populate the city. We’ve heard so much about the pickpockets but we were safe so far. Living in Manila, you’re used to keeping your things secure anyway.

Crazy experience on the way to this church

But on our last day in Ho Chi Minh, I was using my phone as a map to get the nearest Church for Sunday mass. Right before we crossed to the church, we stopped at the corner of the street because it wasn’t so busy and they were following the stoplight. I saw a motorcycle from the corner of my eye about to turn the corner where we were standing, and some instinct told me to step back. I thought I was going to be hit by the driver, but he grabbed my phone. I was so surprised, I screamed right in his ear (he was that near). He got startled (and perhaps scared) and my phone dropped on the ground. He didn’t even stop driving. I took a deep breath and looked around if there was a policeman to whom I can report the incident, but there was none. Another motorcycle driver who had stopped due to the red stoplight, just grinned at me as if to say that’s how it is.

My parents were so concerned but I wasn’t even shaken by the thought of losing my phone (because I have a phone tracker and I can remotely erase my device). I was more shaken by the attempted crime (right in front of the church, no less) and how fast it happened. Everything happend so fast – it felt like forever but it maybe happened two to three seconds, before my family even had time to react. But I know I didn’t imagine it – and I had the bruises and wounds on my hand to prove it. Apparently when he tried to snatch my phone, he hit me too hard, leaving my hands bruised.

Tip #3: Keep your belongings close to you – and step away from street corners!

That (and my near misses crossing the street in HMC) made me long for Hanoi. However, I’m not put off the idea of going back to Vietnam because I want to see Da Nang, which I hear is beautiful.

Keep an eye out for my next posts about the tours we did, and the amazing customer experience we’ve ever had from a small-time hotel. They kind of spoiled us!

Read my other posts about Vietnam!

Booking.com


4 Replies to “Flight & tour preps – Vietnam 2016”

  1. […] Hanoi became our base for two whole-day tours we took with Go Asia Travel. However, since we arrived late in the afternoon and my family didn’t want to do a night food tour, we didn’t see much of Hanoi. The only times we were only able to tour the city was on our first day, and at night after our tours. The last day was spent mad rushing to the airport, as I detailed in my first Vietnam post. […]

  2. […] We only had one full day to spend in Ho Chi Minh (formerly named Saigon) so we took the full day city tour with Go Asia Travel. Thank God we booked the city tour with them because traffic was so hectic in Ho Chi Minh that I’ve become so terrified of crossing the street (read more about it here). […]

  3. […] Flight & tour preps for Vietnam […]

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