The hotel that I was staying at in Ho Chi Minh City, GK Central Hotel, packed a thoughtful takeaway breakfast for me because their restaurant didn’t open before I had to leave for the airport. I had many bad experiences flying with Air Asia and VietJet Airlines from excess, unknown baggage fees to rude employees. I didn’t want to repeat these experiences with Scoot Airlines, the Australian budget airline.
I prepared myself on the way to the airport to ensure my anger didn’t get the best of me. Their website was clear on baggage allowance and fees, so that was a good start. I firmly believe that your energy and your attitude affects interactions, so I approached the counter with a smile and said, “Good morning.” The woman behind the counter reciprocated and got me checked in. Then it was time to weigh my bag: 2.5 kilos (5.5 lbs) overweight. I sighed. The woman also weighed my carry-on backpack and it was underweight. She said that because it was underweight, she would let me slide on my suitcase this one time. I was so grateful for her kindness.
I boarded the plane for my two-hour flight to Singapore, where I had a 24-hour layover. The flight attendants were friendly and helpful. I sat back and thought about my time in Southeast Asia. It was my first time traveling there, and I was initially nervous because I don’t speak the languages. I ended up being able to navigate and communicate fairly effectively and had a wonderful time. I thought I’d share some of the things that I learned for future travelers.
- Grab: This is like Uber and I found it to be the easier and the most economical way to travel within cities. Download the app, and you can enter a credit card or pay cash to the driver. The price is shown upfront, so you know you won’t get ripped off. I found that the price was usually half of what taxis charge. Like Uber, the Grab app will show you where the driver is located on the map and has security features as well, like being able to call the police if needed.
- Tuk-Tuks: These can be fun to ride in once, but keep in mind that they will cost a lot more than a Grab. A good way to find out the price difference is to pull up the Grab app and use the quoted price to negotiate with a tuk-tuk driver (or even a taxi).
- Trains: The trains are old and can be uncomfortable. I always upgraded to a car with air conditioning, which will cost you very little extra – it’s worth it. The trains in Thailand often went backward to let a train pass. Both Vietnam and Thailand trains left within ten minutes of the departure time but arrived over an hour late. Don’t plan on the train arriving on time. They are faster than the bus, however, and were fairly comfortable. I never saw a cafe car, but people will occasionally walk down the aisle selling food. I recommend you bring some of your own food and drinks.
- Buses: These can be useful for shorter distances. They are very small, so if you’re taller than 5’7’, your knees will be in pain from hitting the seat in front of you. In Vietnam, the “sleeper bus” is awful for anyone taller than 5’2”. I do not recommend that you take these. They are cramped and uncomfortable.
- Flights: There are a lot of budget airlines in Southeast Asia, like Air Asia and Vietjet. Keep in mind that baggage is extremely limited, overpriced, and they don’t list the fees on their website (making it impossible to know what to expect). Often times, your baggage will be just as expensive as the plane ticket, so you might be better off with a more expensive ticket with an airline that treats you like a human being.
- Booking: I used 12go Asia to book trains and buses online. Keep in mind that you’ll need 24-hour advance notice. Many hotels will help book trains and buses for you, so I recommend you ask them for assistance. You can buy a ticket when you show up to the station, but you will risk one not being available.
- VIP: There are VIP buses in Vietnam and they’re usually only a few dollars more than a regular bus. The comfort level and time you save by not picking up a lot of other people are worth it. Same thing with train upgrades. The fee is small, but it is worth it. Southeast Asia is the place to do upgrades because your money will go far.
- Safety: The number of accidents and deaths caused by traffic accidents is a major problem in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand. Be sure to wear a helmet and a seat belt when you can.
- Airbnb: I found this to be a great way to stay in Southeast Asia. Some of the perks have been: laundry facilities available, free or discounted motorbike rental, breakfast, and local tips. I’ve rented a full modern apartment for $23 a night and just a single room in a house for $13 a night. The owners were all great and I always had a lock on my door, which made me feel safe. I found that a private room in an Airbnb was usually about $6 USD a night more than staying in a shared dorm in a hostel.
- Hotel: I stayed in hotels when I wanted some privacy or if I couldn’t find an Airbnb that I wanted to stay in. I used TripAdvisor to research reviews and Orbitz to book because I always had a discount code and earned reward points.
- Homestays: I did a few homestays and had great experiences. The beds were thin mattresses on the floor with mosquito nets above them, so I only did a couple of nights at a time. Homestays are usually in remote villages and provide a good way to live like a local.
- Cell Phone: If you are going for a short visit, it’s likely that your best bet is to use your current cell phone plan and pay the international rate. Many cost $10 a day, but be careful of roaming charges because they can get expensive very quickly. Google Fi includes more than 200 countries in their regular U.S. plans. If your phone is unlocked, I recommend getting a local sim card. You can find kiosks after the luggage pick-up at the airports. A month of usage and 30 GB will only cost around $10-$13. You’ll have a local phone number, so your number back home won’t work; however, you’ll have data and texting capability.
- Money: I recommend that you get a credit card that has zero foreign transaction fees. I used Chase Sapphire which doesn’t charge a fee and they will convert the money and charge me in USD at the current exchange rate. In Thailand, many places accept credit cards, but if you’re in a village, you’ll need cash. To take out cash, I use the ATM (notify your bank before you leave of your travel plans so they don’t freeze your card). I had to pay ATM fees and fees from my bank, so I always tried to take out a large amount at a time. In Vietnam, more places required cash and the ATM would not allow large withdrawals. I ended up paying a lot in fees for cash. You might consider arriving with a local currency that you can get from your bank. You can also exchange at the airport, but the conversion rates aren’t always the best.
- Communication: I did my best to learn the basics like, “hello” and “thank you.” Many people in Thailand speak enough English to get by and can tell you the price of things. In Vietnam, English was not as common. I used Google Translate on my phone and showed the person the translated message, which worked pretty well. If they didn’t know how to say a price in English, they often typed the number into a calculator and showed it to me, which also worked.
- Food: Much of the food in Thailand and Vietnam is street food. I highly recommend doing a food tour in each city so you know the best spots to go and how to eat the food. If you’re craving western food, you’ll need to go to a tourist spot or a nice hotel.
- Tour Groups: I started my time in Thailand with REI Adventures on a nine-day multisport tour. This was a great way for me to get familiar with a new country. I love being active and the tour delivered with hiking and biking every day. We were able to stay with locals and learn about the culture. All of the food is cooked and prepared for you. The price of the tour includes everything: accommodation, transportation, food, activities, etc. The only thing it doesn’t include is the airfare to and from the country. In Vietnam, I did a four-day motorbike tour of the northern mountains and loved it. It was a great way to see remote villages and not worry about where I was going to stay. I could just enjoy the scenery.
- Thailand: I loved Chaing Mai and the mountains north of there. It’s a big city, but not nearly as large as Bangkok. There is a lot to do without feeling overwhelmed. Because it’s farther north, it’s also cooler. Bangkok was my least favorite with its high-rise buildings and smog. It was extremely hot and humid there, even in February. The islands are a must-see! Think Hawaii, but for a fraction of the cost. Phi Phi Island is a party island with no cars available. It’s great for enjoying the nightlife and swimming and snorkeling in the island’s coves. Koh Tao Island is the place to go diving and to get certified. There is a plethora of dive shops and their safety standards are top-notch.
- Vietnam: My favorite area in Vietnam is the northern mountains near Ha Giang. The natural beauty was unlike anything I had seen before. The mountains are steep and lush, and I recommend a motorbike tour. Ha Long Bay is cool to see, but you don’t need more than a day. Hanoi felt older and less modern than Ho Chi Minh City. There were some great tours available in Ho Chi Minh City and the streets were cleaner. Hoi An is a romantic small city, perfect for couples.
As I think back on my time in Thailand and Vietnam, I can’t help but smile. The vast majority of people that I met (both locals and travelers) were kind and fun. People helped me when they noticed that I was struggling. I rode an ATV, fed and bathed elephants, hiked and biked in the mountains, snorkeled and got dive certified, drove a motorbike, went to war museums, saw an abandoned amusement park, and met more people than I can count. I developed fast and lasting friendships. I highly recommend both countries for travel.
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Post Edited By: Mandy Strider