The author of Frommer's Vietnam, Charlie Agar, and our host Kelly Regan take some time to talk about Vietnam as a travel destination. With its natural beauty, lush coastal plains as well as steel-and-glass modern cities, Vietnam is a lively, exciting and gorgeous introduction to Southeast Asia. Charlie and Kelly discuss the opportunities for adventure travel, sightseeing, historical travel and religious sites, as well as Vietnam's history and culture. Includes tips on planning a getaway to all of Southeast Asia including nearby Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.
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- Getting Around: Riding a cyclo in Hanoi
- Demilitarized Zone Tours: Hue
- Central Business District: Ben Than Market in Central Saigon
- Learning about Religion: Cao Dai Holy See Temple in Ho Chi Minh City
- Food: Won-ton in Hoi An, Pho Bo in Hanoi
- Restaurant: Ngon Restaurant in Ho Chi Ming City
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Kelly Regan: Hi, and welcome to a conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, Editorial Director of the Frommer's travel guides. I'll be your host. My guest today is Charles Agard, the author of our new book, "Frommer's Vietnam," which is on sale now. He's here to talk about Vietnam as one of Southeast Asia's hottest and most affordable destinations. Charlie, welcome and thanks for being here.
Charles Agard: Hi, Kelly. How are you doing?
Kelly: Great. So let's start with the basics. For people who might not be familiar with Vietnam as a travel destination, give me a brief snapshot of what makes it such a memorable place to visit.
Charles: Vietnam is exciting. It's a really exciting place to travel. If you're coming from the West, if you're coming from the US or Europe, if you've never been to Asia or Southeast Asia, it's actually quite overwhelming. When you first get off the plane it's hot, crowded. The ride from the airport, whether you ride from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, the ride from the airport to your hotel is a real trip. Vietnamese roads are crowded and chaotic, swarms of motorcycles, and it's really something. It's really an exciting place to travel.
One of the greatest things about traveling in Vietnam is the natural beauty. Absolutely stunning. There are great beaches. There are high mountains. The coastal plains are just so lush. The rice farms are just stunning. Rice farmers still work with water buffalo. You see people bent in the fields, conical hats. If you're a photographer, Vietnam is like the moving picture.
Kelly: Yeah. It sounds like there're so many great opportunities to see things that you've really never seen before. And it also sounds like there are a lot of adventure sports that you can do in Vietnam, or just in terms of just being outside and experiencing the outdoors.
Charles: There are. Vietnam, there are lots of good adventure tours. I mean some of the greatest experiences I've had traveling in Vietnam. For example, riding a big Russian motorbike around the north of Vietnam. They're called Minsk, is the brand. It's made in Bellaruse, Russia. There are those kind of adventures, like getting up and trekking in the northern hills among hill tribes and kayaking off the shore.
There's also the kind of thing, like in Hanoi, for example. Just taking a pedicab ride, which they call them cyclos in Vietnam. Just taking a cyclo ride around the old quarter is really wild. I had a friend come and visit on my last research trip and she and I hopped in the cyclo and we went around the old quarter. And after about twenty minutes she just said, "Oh my God! It's too much!" There's just too much information. There's just too much to see. Particularly in the old quarter of Hanoi, it's a wonderful place. And there are all kinds of adventures. Eating on the street. Just getting around is really a lot of fun. Trains, planes, and automobiles, that kind of thing.
Kelly: Well, yeah. It sounds like braving the Vietnamese traffic is a bit of an adventure sport in itself.
Charles: It is. It really is. Like I said, just getting around is wild. Getting from the cities, just swarming with motorbikes. I first went to Vietnam in the late nineties so Hanoi, in particular, was still mostly bicycle traffic. In the recent years, it's had an influx of Honda motorbikes made in China.
Kelly: Uh Huh.
Charles: So Vietnam is just swarming with motorbikes, especially in the big cities. It's wild. It's overwhelming.
Kelly: Yeah. It sounds fascinating. Last year marked the 30-year anniversary of the fall of Saigon, which is now, of course, called Ho Chi Minh City. And I think many Americans still associate Vietnam with the long and destructive war that was fought there. I mean what do you think people find now when they visit the country? Are there still reminders of the war when you go?
Charles: There are. It's funny. I think most Vietnamese people were born after the war. More than half are born after the war.
Kelly: More than half of the country's population.
Charles: More than half of the population were born after the war so young people really don't know about it. And people who experienced the war are less inclined to talk about it. Right now the climate in Vietnam is so optimistic and so positive, so bent on moving into a market economy, cooperating with countries like the United States and countries in Europe, and countries in other parts of Asia.
I mean, the war is certainly not forgotten, and in fact, Vietnamese are very proud of their fortitude. I mean Vietnamese have been fighting wars for thousands of years. They were really under the thumb of the Chinese for over a thousand years. And so many Vietnamese celebrations celebrate victories over various dynasties of China. Then came the French. And the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu is a great source of pride. And, of course, it's not gloating so much as pride.
Kelly: Yeah, pride in sort of finally achieving self-determination, I would guess.
Charles: Exactly. I've never really experienced direct recrimination, like, Americans are bad, we don't like you. Younger people love American culture. Like I said, the war is not forgotten. Although if you go to Vietnam, kind of looking for remnants of the war, it's sometimes hard to find. For example, if you go outside the city of Hue, which is near the demilitarized zone, which separated the north and south, they have DMZ tours, demilitarized zone tours, and you ride up to a battlefield. And it's amazing how quickly a battlefield becomes a regular field. So the tour guides have to point and say there was a big battle there, and that's about all you know.
There's a few museums. The War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which actually used to be called The Museum of the American War Crimes. And it's now called the Vietnam War Museum but it's interesting to see the war from the other side.
Kelly: And I understand that the Vietnamese refer to the war differently. In the US, it's called the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, it's called the American War.
Charles: It is indeed. Sometimes the Vietnamese will call it The War for Vietnamese Liberation, or some people call it The War of Indo-China and include the conflict with the French. But in general, the Vietnamese call it the American War or the American years.
Kelly: I understand that there are tour operators that will help organize trips for veterans who want to go back and experience the country in a different way or achieve some degree of closure.
Charles: That's right, there are. And there are a lot of quite good tour operators that do that. And I've talked to a number of veterans. In fact, one of my good friends, Mike Cavanaugh, was featured in the book. He wrote about his experience of returning to Vietnam. I've talked with a lot of veterans and a lot of tour operators.
A lot of the tours will center on doing humanitarian aid work. A lot of the veterans will go back and work in a village. Some of them say, when they went on their first mission to Vietnam, what they had hoped to do -- that winning of hearts and minds -- that they actually get a chance to do that.
They can connect with Vietnamese culture in a way that, when they were 18 years old and afraid, they weren't able to. Now they can learn more and experience Vietnamese culture. The Vietnamese people are so kind.
Kelly: In a new way.
Charles: In a new way. The kindness of the Vietnamese people just has no bounds.
Kelly: That's great.
So for people who are traveling to Vietnam, we talked a little about getting around the country by motorbike and seeing the city on cyclo. How hard is it to get around the country if you don't speak Vietnamese, which, I understand from a friend who lives there, is a notoriously difficult language to learn. [laughs]
Charles: It's a hard one. It's helpful, of course, to learn a little bit -- "hello" and "goodbye" and "thank you," of course. It is very easy to get around. Tourists and travelers have been going to Vietnam for a while now since the mid 90s. The tourist infrastructure has grown. Their domestic flights are great. So if you're traveling in Vietnam you're basically either going north or south. So you'd start in Hanoi in the north and come south, or start in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon and come north. There are a lot of great ways to do that. There are domestic flights for the longer hops.
If you are on a budget, there are very affordable things called "Open Tour Buses." You are basically traveling in air conditioned buses with other Western tourists. It's a big can and a bit of a cattle drive, [laughs] but it's a very affordable way to get around. A lot of small companies operate mini-van shuttles. Trains are great. You can hire your own car quite affordably. You have lots of options.
Kelly: Where does the Reunification Express go? I assume that's a train.
Charles: It starts in Ho Chi Minh City and ends in Hanoi, so it runs the length of the country. There are also some great spurs, particularly from Hanoi. If you go to Vietnam and you're in the North, you definitely do not want to miss the train ride up to Sapa which is an old French hill station. It's a really great overnight luxury train with a restaurant car. It connects with a few very nice hotels up in Sapa. Sapa is a beautiful town with ethnic hill tribes all around the town area and a central hill tribe market. There's a lot to see.
Kelly: That's great. So it's relatively easy to communicate with people as well to make yourself understood?
Charles: It is. The international language of money kind of gets across quite easily. [laughs] Most Vietnamese people who work in tourism at all speak some English. I always found I could get by. Sure, you get overcharged like you do in a lot of developing countries. Using a hotel concierge sometimes helps to have it written in Vietnamese script. It's quite doable.
Kelly: Great. I'd like to hear a little bit more about some of the other destinations that there are in Vietnam. We've talked a little about Hanoi and the Old Quarter. I understand that Ho Chi Minh City is the biggest city in Vietnam. It's a little bit bigger than Hanoi. What's the atmosphere like there?
Charles: It's a big steel and glass city. The central business district looks like any Western city in a lot of ways, or any other city in Asia. It's actually funny. People call it "Saigon" because Saigon is the name of the central business district.
Kelly: Uh Huh.
Charles: It would be like calling New York "Manhattan." So people refer to it as Saigon. There are different districts of Saigon. There is Cholon which is the Chinatown which is this big massive area of Ho Chi Minh City. There is a huge market. There are lots of Chinese temples. There are churches. It's a great place to explore. You can go to Ben Than Market which is right in the center of Saigon. That's kind of a highlight. It's the central business district so there's a lot: great hotels, great restaurants, lots of shopping.
From Saigon, you can make a lot of really good day trips. From there to the south is the Mekong Delta which is a really really lush part of Vietnam where a lot of the produce and rice is grown. They call it the bread basket of Vietnam. That's a multiple-day, at least, day trip from Saigon. A good day trip is up to the Kuchi Tunnels which were where North Vietnamese guerillas lived in tunnel compounds, and used those as bases to attack Saigon.
Kelly: You can tour those tunnels with a guide. Is that correct?
Charles: You can. It's a little cant, but it's kind of fun. You do, in fact, get to go down. They've widened the tunnels for Western tourists in certain spots because the original tunnels were, in fact, so narrow. That's a fun day. Most people go to the Kuchi Tunnels and also to Cao Dai Holy See. The Cao Dai religion is a uniquely Vietnamese religion. It's kind of an interdenominational faith binding all religions, including science as religion. Louis Pasteur, for example, is a saint in the Cao Dai religion.
Charles: So that's a great trip. The Cao Dai Temple is very colorful. You'll go on a tour to see both of these sites and they time it with a ceremony on the inside of the temple.
Kelly: Oh, that's great! One of the things I wanted to ask you about that I am always kind of fascinated by is the fact that, I believe when you're in Hanoi, you can see Ho Chi Minh because they've preserved him in the same way that they've preserved Lenin in Red Square. Is that right?
Charles: That's true. Ho Chi Minh asked to be cremated in the standard Buddhist way, and his wishes were not met after he died. He died before the end of the war and then was kind of canonized as a saint and they made a tomb. It's right in the Old Fort area just west of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. It's kind of the main tour site of Hanoi. You can't miss it. You've got to go see Ho Chi Minh for one time. [laughs] In fact, he is shipped off to Russia, I'm told, at certain times of year and they don't tell you. So there are times that you might be looking at a wax Ho Chi Minh lying there in state.
Kelly: So does he get shipped off for, like, an overhaul or something like that?
Charles: Yes, exactly. But they don't tell you when. And there's no joking around. I went to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum some years ago as a backpacker. There's just no joking around on the way in. There are some very severe guards who stand around. It's all very somber. I think every city has a Ho Chi Minh museum.
Kelly: Yeah. What you're saying reminds me a little bit of Turkey where almost every town in Turkey has some connection to Ataturk, who is considered to be the founder of modern Turkey. That sounds really fascinating.
Also, before we go, I wanted to talk a little bit about Vietnamese cuisine, because you mentioned at the beginning that eating street food is one of your favorite Vietnamese experiences. So, can you tell us a little briefly about the food you find on the street, and whether it's safe to eat it, and things like that?
Charles: That's my biggest recommendation. I love eating interesting food, so I always recommend people to try food on the street. It's a little off-putting if you've not traveled in a developing country, but that's really where the best Vietnamese cuisine is.
A lot of the hotels will do a reasonable facsimile of local specialties, but it's really best when you're right out there. Every part of Vietnam has some kind of unique dish, and I know only a scant view of them, because there are just so many. You can eat pho, which everyone thought was actually becoming quite popular in the West, the West Coast and New York.
People eat Vietnamese noodle soup, and you can pretty much get that everywhere. You could write a separate book on the different kinds of cuisines, but I just recommend asking locals what's good, what's special here.
In Hoi An, they have a kind of won-ton. In Hanoi, they have pho bo, which is the beef and noodle soup. There's a great restaurant, one of my favorite restaurants in the world, is in Ho Chi Minh City, and they've actually got a few new locations. The restaurant is called Ngon which means delicious.
Kelly: Wait, how do you spell that?
Charles: N-G-O-N. They bring in local chefs from all over Vietnam, something like the hotels do, but it's really geared to Vietnamese people. So, if you go to Ngon, you don't see other tourists. More so now, but local chefs from all over Vietnam and kind of an outdoor courtyard kind of place cooking at different stations, and you can sample everything. Great food, and if you're into the weird and wild, I mean you can try snake or you can try dog.
Kelly: Really, you can try dog?
Charles: You can eat dog. There's a market, in Hanoi in fact, near the city where you can see whole roasted dog. It's a little bit much. But dog is kind of a taboo food. There's a section of town north of Hanoi where people go. For example, a company might go and celebrate and eat a whole dog like we might eat a Thanksgiving turkey or something.
Kelly: Wow. Have you tried it?
Charles: You know, I haven't gone out and sought a meal of dog, but I was once sitting with university students and talking to them, and I asked them if they ate dog. And they made a big show of ordering something and made me try it.
Charles: I reckon it was dog. It was kind of like lean pork. I didn't eat much.
Charles: Snake can be quite good. Snake is delicious. There's a village, again, outside Hanoi where they do special meals of snake and I've eaten snake a few times.
Kelly: So advice for eating from street vendors is just ask people what's good. And I know you say be careful with eating raw vegetables.
Charles: Yeah, that's true. That, in fact, is where you'll get sick traveling anywhere. It's hard, because Vietnamese cuisine uses a lot of fresh greens, and making your own spring rolls, for example, you might roll in different kinds of herbs and lettuce and things like that. But you can just beg off if it doesn't look too good. I always make sure I go places where they are cooking things to order in front of you, which is just a general good rule of thumb.
Kelly: Yeah, that's a good idea.
Charles: Not picking up something that's just sitting out.
Kelly: All right, that's great. So my last question for you is, for people who are listening who are so excited about what you're saying that they want to get on the next plane and leave for Vietnam, what's the best way to get to Vietnam from the U.S.? I understand that recently, within the past few years they've started direct flights from the U.S.
Charles: There are. There are direct flights from the West Coast of the U.S. to Vietnam. A lot of flights have one simple stopover in, for example, Seoul, South Korea, Hong Kong. In fact, if you're flying, the flight from the United States to Vietnam is so far. I always recommend people to spend more time, because it's just such a long distance to get there and such an expense. It's almost like if you're going to Vietnam, going to Southeast Asia, it's worth it to hit a few other destinations.
I always recommend Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or even combine a multi-stop ticket. I know a few airlines offer multi-stop tickets in Southeast Asia, so you could go, for example, to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and then back to Vietnam. And they're also close, so they're easy flights. I always use Bangkok as a hub, it's very easy and it's quite affordable.
Kelly: It sounds like that would really be the way to go, and for people who might not be familiar with Angkor Wat, it's a gorgeous sprawling temple complex in Cambodia.
Charles: Angkor Wat is definitely the Disneyland of Buddhist temples. Don't miss it. It's become kind of overrun with tourists in recent years, and that doesn't matter. It's still so worth it to spend a couple of days at Angkor Wat and get a guide and get out there and be a tomb raider. Again, if you're a photographer, it's a wonderful place.
Kelly: That's fantastic. And I know that in your Vietnam guide you do mention, there's a separate chapter on visiting Cambodia and Angkor Wat. If people do want to combine a trip, that's a relatively easy way to do it. OK, great. That's really all we have time for today. I've been talking with Charlie Agard who's the author of our new book, "Frommer's Vietnam," which is on sale now. Charlie, this was a really interesting conversation, thanks for much for being here today.
Charles: Great, thanks Kelly.
Kelly: Join us next week for another episode of all things travel, I'm Kelly Regan, and we'll talk again soon.
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