I live in DC, which is a great place to live and visit. I try to make the most of it. However, I also love to leave my home and see what the world has to offer. Come and join me!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Vietnam 2008!

So feel free to hate me, but I went to Vietnam for work. I went to do a couple of seminars--one training their government people in what I do, and one open to the public on data privacy and security in the e-commerce sector. After the work part was done, I took another 5 days off to see what I could of the country in such a short time.

Because time was limited, I decided to go to Da Nang and use it as my base for day trips. Da Nang is well poised for day trips to Hue (the old imperial capitol), Hoi An (a World Heritage site), and the Marble Mountains. Well-poised, I learned when I arrived, does not mean that it's easy or excessively possible. They seem to be building a lot of luxury resorts in the area, so give it three or five years and I think everything will be smooth sailing. For now, it's still a little challenging.

Here's my itinerary:

Friday, 21 March: Leave DC
Saturday, 22 March: Arrive Hong Kong, overnight stay
Sunday, 23 March: Arrive Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon)
Monday, 24 March-Thursday 27 March: My Tho, a city in the Mekong Delta
Friday, 28 March: Ho Chi Minh City
Saturday, 29 March: Arrive Da Nang
Sunday, 30 March: Day trip to Hoi An
Monday, 31 March: Sights around Da Nang, including Marble Mountains
Tuesday, 1 April: Day trip to Hue
Wednesday, 2 April: Return to Saigon
Thursday, 3 April: Depart Vietnam

Pre-Trip Logistics

International Air Transportation

As I was traveling for work I didn't have to worry about (or have much control over) my flights. United Airlines got me there safe and sound, but that's about all I can say for them. Coach class is pretty intensely miserable for such a long flight and they don't do much to make it better.

-The flight attendants were reasonably nice and friendly
-The alcohol was free when the Ambien failed me
-I lucked out and sat next to nice people both directions

-Teeny seats that don't recline much
-The vegetarian food, predictably, was protein-free and quite inedible
-The "entertainment" is a joke. In coach class there is one screen at the front of the cabin. At my height and from my seat about halfway back I could see approximately the top 2/3 of the screen--unless someone was standing in the aisle in which case I could see 0/3 of the screen. I missed the fight to be king of the Panzerbjorn in The Golden Compass and the part where the water horse escaped in The Water Horse because of this. The sound sucked. Both directions there were two good films and two horrible schlocky films (e.g., Garfield, Alvin and the Chipmunks) so if you can't sleep on a plane and don't have the fortitude to carry 20 pounds of books (like me) you're kind of screwed. Even the sucky kind of seat back entertainment that is not actually on demand would be a major major improvement.

Be prepared. It took me over 24 hours each direction.

Domestic Air Transportation

I booked my flights to Da Nang and back to Ho Chi Minh through ivivu.com the week before I left. It is apparently the only website that allows booking of domestic flights in Vietnam from outside the country. I found one blogger who said he'd used it but no real information. There weren't any complaints about it being a scam. Since the score was 1-0 I decided to do it, reasoning I could challenge the charge on my credit card if it didn't work.

It worked, so I can highly recommend this. While you can book in Vietnam, both flights I was on were completely full and for one of them I had had to purchase a more expensive ticket because the cheaper tickets were sold out (I didn't get a better cabin class, though). I printed out my email confirmation that had my e-ticket number and had zero problems checking in or getting a seat. Total round trip cost was $143.90, which I suspect is a bit more than it would have cost to book in-country but the convenience of having this taken care of before I arrived and getting onto the flights that I preferred was totally worth it.

Viet Nam Air was totally modern, totally safe, and still serves food on short domestic flights (no veggie option though). Kinda made me nostalgic for the good ol' days of American air travel.

Hotel Booking

For the two hotels I stayed in that weren't for work I booked through hotels-in-vietnam.com. I didn't find anyone online who'd had experience with them, good or bad, so I took the plunge knowing it wasn't high season and I'd be able to find a place to stay if the bookings didn't work. They worked, and this is another website I can highly recommend.

For the My Khe Beach Hotel in Da Nang I had a reservation. My price was the posted price for the class of room I had--the website hadn't jacked it up to take a cut.

For the Duc Vuong Hotel in Ho Chi Minh I prepaid (I assume it's just the participating hotel's preference whether hotels-in-vietnam makes a reservation or collects the money), again at the posted price. My total was $25.75--$25 for the room and a 3% international currency fee. Most hotels charge this fee; My Khe did as well. It showed up on my credit card statement as "CTY TNHH DL TUNG NGOC HA NOI VN," which isn't exactly intuitive, but given the date and amount and the fact that Duc Vuong didn't ask me for any more money I'm certain that's the right charge.


I didn't get a chance to get an Asian system adapter/converter before the trip and I was wary about getting one there because of quality issues. Luckily, it was a non-issue. All the hotels I stayed in--expensive Western-style, state-run, cheap backpacker-style--had plugs that would accept both an Asian plug and a European two-pin plug (example). Luckily, I'd tossed my European adapter in with my stuff and didn't have to worry. The only electronics I brought were my Blackberry charger and my battery charger. Both of them accept up to 240 Volts and generally the voltage was 210 or 220 (and always listed on the outlet) so I didn't need a converter at all.


At this point I've done enough traveling that I bring most of the right stuff and little of the wrong stuff. Everyone has their preferences but a few things I'd brought I highly highly recommend:

-sun hat

-good sunscreen

-bug repellant with DEET (I should have gotten some more intense mosquito repellant because mine had DEET but didn't deter the mosquitoes very well)

-Cipro just in case

-Melatonin to take when jet lag wakes you up at 4:00 in the morning and you can't really take a real sleeping pill

-lots of granola bars and trail mix for when I couldn't eat the food. I brought two boxes of bars and two bags of trail mix for a 10 day trip and ate them almost exclusively for the last 5 days.

And a few things I *didn't* bring that I dearly wish I had:

-probiotic pills, in case you can't find yogurt with active cultures (if you believe in that sort of thing, which I do)

-Gatorade powder for dehydration from traveler's diarrhea (which you *will* get unless you eat only at western-style hotels)

-mosquito net, maybe something like this. I really needed one at the My Khe and it had a headboard I could have tucked one into without needing to hang it from the ceiling or have some kind of complicated frame.