Honeymoons are a great excuse to go somewhere amazing. When Brooke and Thompson got engaged, Brooke knew this would be the perfect time to fulfill a dream trip to Vietnam. Back in high school, Brooke signed up for a summer exchange program to Vietnam, but unfortunately, not enough people opted in, so the trip fell through. When the couple thought about their honeymoon, Brooke suggested visiting Vietnam - the one that got away.
Thompson took some convincing. While he's content to spend 2 weeks on a beach reading, Brooke imagined her cabin fever and yearn for adventure. In true married fashion, the couple compromised: if Brooke planned the trip, Thompson would happily go to Vietnam. To maximize the vacation time their jobs allowed, they decided to travel over the Christmas and New Year holiday: December 29th through January 9th.
To kick off their planning, and to ensure they got the dates they wanted, Brooke and Thompson booked flights first. From there, they needed to figure what to actually do in Vietnam. Like most people dealing with unfamiliar travel, they talked to several travel agents. Unfortunately, the agents were expensive and required a lot of commitment to the trip up front. Other than their budget, the travel agents weren't flexible in giving Thompson and Brooke much say in their itinerary. The information they received from two different travel agents came in at the top of the couple's budget. With the lack of flexibility in budget and itinerary, Brooke and Thompson decided to plan a different way.
Enter Zicasso. Zicasso is a relatively new website to help travelers get connected with guides, travel agents, and tour companies all across the world. For travelers, you punch in what you want your trip to look like: are you into romance? Adventure? Are you a Foodie? After answering your questions and entering your budget, Zicasso shares your details with their network of agents who bid on your trip. All of this is free to you, the traveler. Agents put together an itinerary and once you select an agent, they work with you to revise as needed.
Brooke and Thompson got great responses from agents all over Southeast Asia within 48 hours. They chose a Vietnamese based company who was the most responsive and willing to make the most noticeable revisions to the trip. After all was said and done, Brooke and Thompson revised their itinerary 12 times, but felt extremely satisfied with the end result. Their process started in April 2016 and was completely wrapped up and tied with a bow by September 2016. After a wonderful wedding in North Carolina in October 2016, Brooke and Thompson spent the next 60 days settling into married life and gearing up for their December honeymoon.
In addition to their trip planning, Brooke and Thompson had to acquire in-passport visas. Similar to Russia, China, and others, Vietnam requires Americans to have a visa in their passport before arriving. Vietnam has a few different tourist visas based on entries. A single-entry visa is different from a multiple-entry visa. Yes, that seems fairly obvious, but with Vietnam's proximity to the South Pacific Islands, Thailand, and Cambodia, it might be tempting to fly into Vietnam, do some country hopping, and fly out of Vietnam. That's a great idea, just remember that is a different type of visa than if you just go in once and leave once.
Zicasso helped the couple by providing a letter of intent to mail with their visa applications. A coworker of ours (Brooke and I work together), George, has tons of experience visiting countries all over Southeast Asia. George's recommendation: Have both Brooke and Thompson separately email the Vietnamese consulate to ask for a visa quote. His theory was they would each get different answers. And George was correct. For about $85.00 USD per person, Brooke and Thompson sent their paperwork to the Vietnamese consulate in Washington DC for a single-entry visa. With tracking, the couple knew when the paperwork and passports arrived in DC, but there was zero communication once it arrived. Luckily, within about 1 week, Brooke and Thompson had their passports back in hand with Vietnamese visas ready to go.
As part of working with Zicasso and the agency in Vietnam, Brooke and Thompson had local tour guides in each destination. In the planning stages, the couple decided to traverse the country north to south. They started in Hanoi, did a day trip to Ha-Long Bay, back to Hanoi to fly to Hoi An. From there, they went down to Ho Chi Minh City and then flew to Phu Quoc . At each destination, Brooke and Thompson were greeted by a local guide. Sometimes, this guide simply picked them up and made sure they got safely to their hotel, other times, the guides took them around on walking tours or day trips. In each place, they had a local person to call to act as a resource or if they found themselves in a sticky situation. In every city, they had a driver, different from the guide, to get them around. Driving in Vietnam is not for the faint-hearted.
During their adventure, Thompson and Brooke didn't encounter many Americans. They met quite a few Aussies, which makes sense given the closeness of the countries, and they also met a few Germans and French. For the most part, the trip was just the couple and their independent travel. By independent travel, they were not part of a tour-bus style group. From Hanoi, Brooke and Thompson took a short trip to Ha-Long Bay, where they cruised on an overnight boat.
Pro Tip: Before you travel, check the weather and set your expectations accordingly. The boat ride could have been one of the favorite parts of their trip, however it was foggy, cold, and they couldn't stay outside on the boat for too long as it was just too cold.
While in the first city on their trip, Hanoi, they met another American, a teacher traveling solo. She booked a week in Hanoi and Brooke and Thompson's guide told her to plan lots of day trips because there is simply not enough to do in Hanoi for a week. In our chat, Brooke said Hanoi is the Detroit of Vietnam. Not a bad place to visit, but very industrial and not a lot of tourism, but a good central base for day trips.
Pro Tip: One thing to avoid in Hanoi are the water puppet shoes. These shows often manage to get tourists to congregate at the theater and share a puppet show, like what you might see at Disney… except it’s entirely in Vietnamese. Not so great for the English-speaking tourists.
If Hanoi is the Detroit of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the New York City, full of modern architecture, hip cafes, and absolutely massive. From Ho Chi Minh, Brooke and Thompson took a day trip to the Mekong Delta full of unique activities. While exploring the Mekong, the couple biked along the delta, but spent most of the day boating and exploring from the water. During their time on the water, they stopped at a coconut de-shelling factory and toured a brick making factory - things you don't typically do or find in the States. From there, Brooke and Thompson hopped in a row boat and explored the canals of the Mekong.
Another stop on their adventure was Phu Quoc, a rapidly growing island on the coast of Vietnam. With the pace of development, there is a lot of construction throughout the island. But, it's an easy walk from the beach resorts to the main road full of restaurants.
Fun Fact: Most fish sauce is made in Phu Quoc. Quick, go check your bottle right now!
Pro Tip: Phu Quoc is a great place to rent scooters to explore the island. It's much less intimidating than driving in one of the large cities.
It's hard to pinpoint what is true Vietnamese culture because they've been occupied by so many cultures: Chinese, French, American, English, etc. Even at Vietnamese museums, it was hard to tell what was authentic vs just passed down. During their travels and close interactions with local tour guides, Brooke and Thompson got to meet many locals and, through translation, heard stories from the people. Many of Thompson & Brooke's guides were former school teachers and had similar experiences of growing up in a time of food-rationing. Even today, education is limited and prohibitively expensive. Many families choose to only have one child so they can afford to put him or her through school.
Hearing how the economy and industry are picking up was a memorable experience. Vietnam is still a communist country and propaganda is rampant. Brooke and Thompson met former Viet-Cong soldiers who still support the old ways and support communism. The current government is buying acres of previously private land. Many cemeteries and cemetery plots have been purchased by the government causing families to bury their loved ones on their farm land. And while corruption may be prolific among government employees, many of the citizens, including the couple's tour guides, are vocal about wanting to leave the country and start a life elsewhere. There is a widespread feeling among the people that communism is not the path to a healthy and successful country or economy.
The good news is Vietnamese love American tourists and seeing so many people from other countries continues to offer hope to locals looking for a better path.
One interesting result of the government's attempts to skew citizens' perceptions about the economy is the currency. In Vietnam, there is a $1000 Dong note, but at the time Brooke and Thompson visited, the exchange rate on the USD was $1 USD to $15,000 Dong. Essentially, a $1000 Dong note is meaningless. That being said, due to the amazing exchange rate, they got to stay at beautiful hotels for not much money.
Pro Tip: Research tipping amounts and customs as much as possible before the trip, especially if you have guides. Also make sure you find out when to tip, how much is appropriate, and in what currency most people prefer.
Food is nearly everyone's favorite topic. We live vicariously through others and through food. Brooke and Thompson had great experiences with food throughout their trip. During their time in Vietnam, they learned there are regional differences in the cuisine, but much of it is the same. A classic Vietnamese dish, pho (pronounced Fuh) is served nearly every meal throughout the country. While most Americans think of pho, and mostly beef pho, for dinner, chicken pho is the most common breakfast. Brooke and Thompson got to enjoy chicken pho every day. In the northern region, pho is common, however in the central region, it's sister dish, Cao lầu is served. Pho is more broth-based while Cao lầu has thicker noodles which are more prominent than the broth.
Brooke and Thompson also tried their hand at street food. My general rule, learned from many other travelers who love and live in Southeast Asia, is the busier the street vendor, the less likely you are to get sick. The right street food can be super inexpensive while still rivaling some of the best food you've ever had. This is exactly what happened to Brooke and Thompson. In Vietnam, there is a tiered street vendor system and often times, it's illegal for vendors to operate on the street. Because of this, many have a small, lightweight table, with a couple small, plastic chairs for dining patrons. This helps make a quick exit if the local police come around. During one of their outings, they found a street vendor selling fried fish balls. Those delicious little fish balls were made with the white fish head meat and stuffed with sausage and mushrooms. Now, that might now appeal to everyone, but it sounds utterly scrumptious to hear Brooke describe it. Beyond the fish ball street food and pho, there are a lots of French restaurants to enjoy.
Pro Tip: Bahn Mi sandwiches are popular in America, but in Vietnam, they are served with liver or a liver pate on them. For non liver lovers, this might come as a rude surprise. Don't worry, there's always the fried fish balls!
While in Hoi An, Brooke and Thompson took a Vietnamese cooking class. During their class, they got to make spring rolls, shrimp salad, a savory pancake, and a pork dish. Not only did they learn how to make and flavor the food like the locals, they got to keep the recipes to make back home in the States.
In a Nutshell: Tips & Tricks for Vietnam
- Work with an agent to help you find guides and be a resource.
- It's difficult to get around due to a lack of public transport and the language barrier.
- Plan early and figure out what you want your path in the country to look like and how you want to get around. Vietnam requires lots of advanced planning.
- Check the weather - north and south are very different climates. You should know the weather for more than just packing. It's important to know what activities make sense in each area.
- Think about what you'd like to see. While airport security is easy in Vietnam and intra-country travel is quick and cheap, Brooke and Thompson missed seeing the country side and maybe would have liked to have driven more.
- Famous and historical areas, like the Viet-Cong trail and River Kwai are on the western side of the country. Again, be intentional about your planning to ensure you get to see what's important to you.
For twelve days in Vietnam, Brooke Thompson covered quite a bit of ground without feeling stressed and overwhelmed. By working with a professional, they knew they had great local knowledge and resources throughout their trip while still having an itinerary that they chose. But beyond the planning and logistics of the trip, Thompson and Brooke thoroughly enjoyed their honeymoon and their first trip as a married couple.