By John M. Edwards
With rolls of communist red tape and only a rudimentary tourist infrastructure, it’s still quite difficult to get there and travel around Vietnam. The two official government tourist agencies, Saigon Tourist and Vietnam Tourism, offer prohibitively expensive and restrictive organized tours and accommodations in overpriced luxury hotels. The mushrooming private “tourist agencies” are often corrupt. Fortunately, independent travelers can turn to “traveler cafes.” Evidence of free enterprise–in a country still ruled by hardline communists–the cafes are more than just places to socialize and have a cheap meal (starting at around 5,000 dong).
They are also centers from which to take cheap trips throughout Vietnam, including areas that are difficult or impossible to reach via the anarchic public transportation system. Foreigners can swap news and post messages; arrange transport and cheap accommodations; obtain visas to neighboring Laos and Cambodia; and rent motorbikes ($5-$10 a day) or bicycles ($1 a day).
It’s possible to travel from one end of Vietnam to the other for less than $200 using a combination of cafe tours. Most of them offer an open ticket that lets you get on and off wherever you want.
The most common route is Saigon to Hanoi (or vice versa) via Dalat, Nha Trang, Qui Nhon, Hoi An, Da Nang, and Hué, using these stopovers as bases for shorter day trips. Because trips are mostly in crowded minibuses, it’s best to use them for short hops rather than long hauls.
Traveler Café Locations
To hook up with the loosely associated traveler cafe network, jump in a cyclo (about $1) in one of Vietnam’s two entry points: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south and Hanoi in the north, with the name and address of a cafe in hand.
In Saigon, the two main traveler cafes offering organized excursions and transport are within walking distance of each other and near a cluster of budget hotels.
- The Sinh Cafe
The most popular travel cafe outfit in the country (T-shirts sporting their logo can be spotted throughout Southeast Asia), offers one- to three-day tours of the Mekong Delta ($8-$27), three-day tours of the idyllic hill retreat of Dalat and touristy sea resort of Nha Trang ($20), and 10-day tours to the ancient former capital of Hué ($140), among others.
- The Kim Café
270 De Tham St.
Offers a day trip to the Cao Dai Temple at Tay Ninh and Cu Chi tunnels ($4). The colorful rococo Cao Dai Temple is the center of a uniquely Vietnamese religion combining Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Laoism, and Catholicism; the Cu Chi tunnels are a network of underground tunnels begun in 1948 by the Viet Minh in their struggles against the French and expanded by the Viet Cong.
Mekong Delta Boat Tour
The highlight of my cafe travel was Kim Cafe’s boat tour of the Mekong Delta ($19). Our guide was a former SVA interpreter (who after a stint in a “reeducation camp” drove a cyclo until 1989). One passenger was a returning Viet Kieu exiled in New Caledonia who had fought with the French against the Viet Minh. Many villagers we met on the riverbanks had survived the war by living underground as Viet Cong “tunnel rats.”
In Hanoi, tours can be arranged through a number of cafes, including:
- The Queen Café
65 Hang Bac St.
- Green Bamboo Café
42 Nha Chung St.
- Tin Tin Café
14 Hang Non St.
- Meeting Café
59 Ba Trieu St.
Lonely Planet Café
33 Hang Be St.
- Kolo Friendship Café
24 Mai Hac De St.
- Love Planet Café
98 Ma May St.
- Old Darling Café
4 Hang Quat St.
(Don’t confuse the Old Darling Cafe with the Real Darling Cafe, on the same street.)
Offers a two-day trip to Ha Long Bay ($24), a three-day trip to Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island ($38), a four-day trip to Sapa ($48), a two-day trip to Mai Chau/Hoa Binh ($25), plus daytrips to Hoa Lu/Tam Coc ($15) and Perfume Pagoda ($17). It also offers discounted tickets ($2-$4) for the ancient Vietnamese art of roi nuoc (water puppetry) at Thang Long Water Puppet Troupe.
The pinnacle of my trip was a visit to Ha Long Bay, where some 3,000 cave-riddled spiky chalk islets rise up from the crystal-clear waters. It is almost impossible to tour this region independently as cheaply. I met two intrepid travelers who somehow made it there on their own, only to get stranded on a deserted islet (where they were forced to pay an additional bribe of $100).
Ha Long, which means “Where the Dragon Descends into the Sea,” has a jagged karst topography similar to Guilin in China and Krabi in Thailand, and its own version of the Loch Ness Monster, dubbed the “Tarasque.”
So, if planning a trip to Vietnam, become a member of the Café Society and discover the cheapest and easiest way to see the country!
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