Trip Coach: February 19, 2008

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Robert Reid, from ReidOnTravel.com (the online free guidebook to Vietnam), answered your questions on Vietnam.

Robert Reid: Hi there. This is Robert Reid talking from chilly Brooklyn, NY—way too far from Vietnam! It looks like there are a lot of questions, and I'll try to answer as many as I can! OK, let's get started!

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Lincolnshire, Ill.: What is the best way, in your opinion, to get from Hanoi to HCM City or vice-versa? How much time does that option take and how much does it cost?

Robert Reid: Are you planning on stopping off on places on the way? Such as Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hue? Many people like the "open bus," which is $25 for the full trip between Hanoi and Saigon. It allows free stop-offs, but would take something like 40-45 hours if done straight. I usually do some shorter leg flights, such as Hanoi-Hue ($57 one way) or Hanoi-Danang, near Hoi An ($57 one way), Hanoi-Saigon ($105, or $65 on Pacific Airlines).

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Is Vietnam an appropriate destination for families with young (age 5-6) children? If so, what locations/activities would be of interest?

Robert Reid: I've met a lot of people traveling with kids across Vietnam and having a great time. People love kids there, so they'll get some adoration. There's lots of interesting things to see: Hanoi has a water-puppet show, Saigon has a water park.

The most walking-friendly place is Hoi An, where you'll feel comfortable walking around the center. Otherwise I'd imagine kids will enjoy a cyclo ride (one adult/one kid can fit on one). A ride around Hanoi's "36 Streets" area is fun, and a bit safer than walking (lots of foot/pedal/motorbike traffic). You can see gibbons and monkeys close up at Cuc Phuong National Park (south of Hanoi). Bigger resorts have kid-oriented activities. Nha Trang's Sofitel Vinpearl Resort is a bit cheesy to my tastes, but it's an island resort you can get to on cable cars, there's an amusement park (near hotel), a HUGE kid's pool and a private beach.

Congrats on the win over Ohio State the other day by the way!

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San Francisco, Calif.: Do you have any suggestions for books to read about Vietnam that AREN'T about the Vietnam war?

Robert Reid: Many of the Vietnam travel lit guides came out after Vietnam 'opened' in the mid 1990s, a whole flurry of them. I think something fresh and new of traveling thru the booming 'little tiger' south of China's 'big tiger' is waayy overdue.

I probably like Vietnam, Now by David Lamb the most. He reported from VN in the '90s and gives a lot of cultural insight. But Catfish & Mandala by Andrew Pham is popular, written by Vietnamese American going back to former home on bike.

For Vietnamese lit, predictably most that gets translated is war-related, like Bao Ninh's Sorrow of War, which I did enjoy. Others I enjoyed less. But I REALLY LOVE the Vietnamese book from the early 20s called Dumb Luck by Vu Trong Phuong. It's rather slapstick, like a Charlie Chaplin character in the streets of Hanoi.

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Eugene, Ore. : We are traveling with a group and will be in Hoian March 10 and would like to take a participation or hands on cooking class. Do you have a recommendation? —Sharon

Robert Reid: Hi, Sharon. Nothing beats Vietnamese food. Red Bridge (or Cau Do) is a great place for cooking classes in Hoi An. They have two sessions a day, leaving from the center by boat to a riverside spot towards the beach. It's about $15 per person and you learn to make several dishes, then try it afterward. You should reserve spots, particularly if with a big group, as soon as you arrive. It often fills. Go by Hai Scout Café (98 Nguyen Thai Hoc St) in the center, or call 0510-933-222.

I was there with my wife last summer, but too lazy to do classes—she went in the morning, and I joined them later on and shared the spoils of their time in the kitchen!

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San Francisco, Calif.: Any tips or advice for a single female traveler going to Vietnam?

Robert Reid: In terms of personal safety, Vietnam, like most of Southeast Asia, has about the safest rep for women, solo (or any) travelers. I've not met any women travelers who've had the sort of problems that can happen in places like Indonesia or India. The best advice is keep any flashy necklaces or rings at home, and don't dress up any skimpy clothes. Loose bags sometimes get grabbed from men and women. Some Asian women who travel with white men occasionally get nasty comments (in Vietnamese), usually from cyclo drivers and the like. Otherwise, you'll find it's easy to meet up with fellow travelers to go around with.

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Argentan, France: I'm an American living in France and wish to travel to SouthEast Asia alone next winter starting first in Bangkok and overlanding north and then through Laos and over to North Vietnam and completing a large circle through Cambodia back to Bangkok. I'm planning a month to six weeks. Do you have specific recommendations on stops and durations? What are the best ways to get below the surface of Vietnam, where to you go, who do you try to talk to? With the above question in mind, what can a traveler do in a small village in order to experience below the surface?

Robert Reid: Hi there. Do you have a month to six weeks for the whole trip or just Vietnam? It's actually quite easy to get under the surface in Vietnam. Even if you are just seeing usual places. The key is just doing things on your own and not taking the (convenient, ever present) group tours available.

From Sapa, motorbike and overnight in Bac Ha, where some people go for the Sunday market—there are village markets nearby on other days, and guides that will take you on treks to villages that see little to no foreigners.

Instead of taking a cruise to Halong Bay, take a bus to Haiphong (an interesting, historic port town) and ferry to Cat Ba Island, in south Halong Bay. You can bike to north Vietnamese cave hospitals, camp on beach you have to hike to, and arrange private kayaking tours.

And I just LOVE going around the Mekong Delta on my own—i.e. not taking a tour. Etc.

As far as where to go, nearly everyone hugs the coast heading south... the alternate route through the Central Highlands (Pleiku, Kontum, Buon Ma Thuot) will get you off the beaten track too... A lot to say! Hope this helps.

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Salem, Conn.: How is the night life in Ho Chi Minh City? Is it anything like Thailand? Are the beaches touristy or sedate. Thanks.

Robert Reid: Saigon has some of the country's best nightlife, though I doubt you're going to find anything rivaling Thailand's... Thailand tends to win the beach debates, but I have a soft spot for some of Vietnam's farther-flung ones... The remote beaches of Phu Quoc island were isolated when I was there a year ago... The beach near Quang Ngai, a couple hours south of Hoi An, is a gold-sand beach with open-air fish restaurants catering to locals... and people are starting to make dive trips to Con Dao Islands, which was once a prison island off the south coast...

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Chico, Calif.: What is the best time of the year to travel in Vietnam? (Consider: Rain; temperature, humidity, heat, etc.)

Robert Reid: Vietnam is a tall, skinny place, with differing rainy seasons and temperatures depending where you are. October is great in Saigon, but rainy in Hue! In general, I say that March/April or Sept/Oct are the best times to go. It's not too hot, too wet or too busy.

Also note that more and more Vietnamese people are traveling around their country these days, and you may find it hard getting space on a bus or plane during times like Tet (VN New Year, just past) or summer (July and August).

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Bangkok, Thailand: We are 3 women friends traveling to Hanoi from May 7th for 2 nights. We are looking for affordable accomodation a short walk to shopping for art and Vietnamese handicrafts. We would like rooms that are clean and quiet, preferably with air conditioning (if you think we need it for this time of year). We've looked at guidebooks, but it seems like there's not many places that meet all these requirements. Any suggestions?

Robert Reid: I like Church Hotel. It's on a street of boutiques next to a lovely church, about a block from the Hoan Kiem lake, and two blocks from many galleries. It's small but nice rooms with wood floors, blasting AC and a bit more style than you get at the bright-tile and fluorescent-bulb guesthouses around the center. I stayed there for half my two-week visit to Hanoi last year. Rooms start at $40.

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Las Vegas, Nev.: I am Contemplating going to Vietnam next Feb or March with Ritz Tours. Is this a good time to go and do you recommend this tour company?

Robert Reid: Feb and March can be cold up north, so it's not the ideal time to trek in Sapa or cruise around Halong Bay. But that doesn't mean it couldn't be enjoyed. I tend to not be overly afraid of the weather in Vietnam. In fact, I think the monsoon is a great time to be there... hours of cloudless skies, then suddenly torrents of clothes-soaking rains, then clear again... Of course, there are times when that rain doesn't stop and cities flood. That isn't fun.

I don't know Ritz, sorry.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I am visiting Vietnam in April for 8 days. My boyfriend is there teaching English in Saigon. We have not laid out an itinerary yet and I was hoping for a suggestion for this time frame. Ideas include seeing some of Saigon, Hanoi, Halong Bay , Hoi An or Nha Trang, or possibly Phu Quoc. Basically, Saigon and Hanoi are set and the other options are what's variable.

Robert Reid: Your boyfriend may have a lot to show you in Saigon, but here's how I might carve up the time.

Plan on two days in Saigon and two days in Hanoi. That leaves four days to play around with. I'd fly to Danang and spend two days in Hoi An, perhaps taking a snorkel tour and sitting on the beach there. From there you can fly to Hanoi.

That leaves two more days. Pick something between a two-day Halong Bay cruise from Hanoi, or two days in Hue (north of Hoi An, then fly from Hue to Hanoi), OR two days in the Mekong Delta from Saigon. Or, like you said, you could fly to Phu Quoc from Saigon too. In all, a bit rushed but it could work!

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Madison, Wisc.: Are any steps being taken to protect travelers from rip-offs in the current rapid growth economy? Recent trip in November, 2007 with 4 experienced travelers. Hanoi cab driver scams, train platform "escorts," hotel passed credit card no. and illegally billed me through a third party business in Zurich, etc., etc. Otherwise loved the country!

Robert Reid: That sounds horrible. I'm sorry. I am happy that you still saw the good in Vietnam despite the the crimes of a few.

A few things on this:

Some people get ripped off by cab drivers in Hanoi—particularly from the airport. When I need a hotel anywhere (even outside Vietnam), I tend to go to a hotel or restaurant who know who to call—cabs working with them won't want to rip off their clients. From the airport, I establish a set fee (not a meter) and have the address of the hotel I'm going to handy. They may say it's 'closed,' that's a scam right there. Just insist on your destination.

I'm not sure what the train platform 'escorts' are—perhaps someone looking to carry a bag for a tip, or something dodgier?

I've heard about an occasional credit-card rip-off. To be honest, I don't use credit cards often in Vietnam for this purpose. If you're going to a more mid-range travel agent with a good reputation (eg Handspan), I wouldn't hesitate, nor would I hesitate at higher-end hotels (which I rarely stay at). Getting cash from ATMs is easy in Vietnam, and that's how I handle it.

By the way, I live in New York but I root for the Packers by the way...

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San Diego, Calif.: I have been on a tour to Vietnam and had a great time. I want to return and see some of the northern parts of the country, other than Hanoi. Do you have any suggestions for an itinerary?

Robert Reid: Good idea! Focus on one area you want to see more of. But where to begin?

Hanoi is one of the nicest cities in Asia, and it's easy to spend many days there, walking around the historic '36 streets' area, seeing Ho and his goattee at the mausoleum, the Temple of Literature and superb Ethnography Museum in the suburbs. Most go on a two-day cruise to Halong Bay, and a four-day or so trip (by train) to Sapa for treks in the mountains. You could add onto this by going a few hours south of Hanoi to Ninh Binh, where I enjoy renting a motorbike and riding around the 'Halong Bay of the ricefields' at Tam Coc or seeing gibbons at Cuc Phuong National Park.

Beyond that, I've always wanted to take one of those Minsk-motorcycle tours around far-flung corners of the north. Some go on the Dien Bien Phu loop up to Sapa, but I hear the best rides are to Ba Be Lake, towards China. Voyage Vietnam arranges these from Hanoi.

The north is beautiful.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: As a dancer, I'm interested in Vietnamese dancing. Does traditional Vietnamese dancing exist? Are there other forms of dancing popular in the country? Are there any schools of dance for someone on a backpacker's budget? I can't afford more than $10 or $15 an hour for lessons. I'll be going to Vietnam in Sept. and Oct. Thanks much. —Melanie

Robert Reid: Hi there. It's an interesting question that has me stumped. Vietnam doesn't have the developed and present traditional-dance scene that you find in many Southeast Asian countries. I don't know why. I'd love to hear if you find anything, but I'm afraid I can't help you. Oh, maybe contact Hanoi Backpackers Hostel... the manager's wife runs an excellent language/cooking school there... they may know something I don't...

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Honolulu, Hawaii: How do you get to visit the hill tribes of Vietnam? When we went there the government-managed travel agencies discouraged it and pretty much ignored requests of out-of-the-way villages and booked us for the major tourist sites: Saigon, Hue, Hoi An, HMC for shopping and look-alike fixed dinners/lunches. I might consider going there again if I had a contact who could organize individual travel to some of the more remote areas.

Robert Reid: Sorry about that agency. Sounds like the classic Saigon tourist-type reaction: no flexibility. But there are many many agents that do offer various hill tribe tours, which sometimes can lead to unsatisfying herd-like trips past bleary eyed locals. Most of the hill tribe trips are in the north, though you'll find ethnic minority groups in the Mekong Delta.

How to do it? I'd avoid things like the one-day trip to Mai Chau from Hanoi. If you don't mind roughing it a bit, you could hike through Cuc Phuong National Park's jungle, with guide, to stay at a Mnong village. The Minsk motorbike trips I mentioned earlier make many stops at lesser-seen hill tribe communities across the north.

The easiest way to visit hill tribes is on a Sapa tour, which usually includes a two-day trek through the Muong Hoa Valley filled with Dai, Tay, Giay and Hmong villages. Some overnight in Ta Van, but it's better to go farther like Ban Ho... Some people say it's overly touristy, but I do enjoy the area. Though Sapa town can be upsetting, with hill tribe grandmothers offering opium on the streets. There's also more to see if you break out of the tour itinerary for a day. Bac Ha village, two hours east of Sapa, is something of the 'next Sapa.' It's popular for Sunday market—but there are many other markets in that area during the week, and if you don't mind roughing it, you could arrange overnight treks where VERY FEW people see. Consider at least overnighting in Bac Ha and riding out to villages there.

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Clinton Corners, N.Y.: Thanks for taking my question. I am a veteran of the Vietnam war and am thinking of a trip back. Are their any tours designed toward veterans? Thank you.

Robert Reid: Hi there. Where is Clinton Corners, I wonder?

I've met many veterans who've done such trips, on package tours or on their own, and had incredible experiences that I loved hearing about. Some of them, however, have enjoyed not taking a full package tour, where guides at times were born after the war and lacked much knowledge! Other had a great time. I have a friend in Saigon who was stationed at Quang Ngai in 1970. He just motorcycled there and found his old camp.

A less adventurous way to do this is on a Saigon-Hanoi trip, going on your own to hub locations (Saigon, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi) and organizing day trips with local guides as you go, such as Cu Chi Tunnels from Saigon.

The best place to stage trips is from Hue, just south of the DMZ. Many visitors go on unsatisfying bus tours of a handful of sites, led by government guides born after the war. It's better to go with small-scale travel operators, including a few run by South Vietnamese vets: Stop & Go in Hue (tel 054-827-051, stopandgocafe@yahoo.com), or DMZ Tours in Dong Ha town just north (tel 053-857-026, dmzcafedh@yahoo.com). These guys know what they're talking about and give a much more insider perspective. I went on a couple with them—to see old fire bases, the Vinh Moc tunnels, some of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Thanks for your question. Feel free to contact me via my site (reidontravel.com) if you have more questions... And I'd love to hear what you end up doing!

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Austin, Tex.: We leave April 17th for SE Asia and plan to be in Vietnam sometime in May (dates are not concrete yet). My question is about obtaining visas. There is a service called http://www.vietnamstay.com/service/ that I read about on the LP blogs. They say they will send a letter to the Vietnam Immigration Dept. in Hanoi, an original letter of approval is then sent to the Vietnam Embassy abroad and in the US where they will then stamp it (they also send us a scanned copy). My husband is traveling to Washington DC in March and was planning to take everything to the Embassy to get it stamped. Have you heard of this? Is it legit? Or would it make better sense to just go the Vietnam Embassy to take care of everything. I'm confused by how the whole process works and what the best way is to go about getting a visa. Additionally, does the tourist visa start when you enter the country or are we required to give them exact dates for when we will be there? Long question I know, but I really appreciate any advice you have. I've tried calling the DC Embassy, but I either can't get a real person or I can't understand the person I do get. Thank you in advance for the help.

Kindly,
Jessica

Robert Reid: Hi Jessica. I've not tried this service, but have heard from people who have without problem. The catch is whether it still works as well—I always expect such things to change every other week. Anyway, I just called the VN consulate in New York and they swore you can only do that 'in rare cases, or in an emergency.' They may be being alarmist, but it's possible you may lose time and it won't work out. I'd probably stick with the embassy.

Oh, you need to establish set dates for your visit—you can extend visas in Hanoi (guesthouses can help) in a few days if you need to do it.

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Glen Burnie, Md.: My husband and I and our 2 children (10 and 7 years old)have decided to take a "family timeout". We are going to travel the world for one year! Main focus on education and being together. We are planning on staying in Vietnam for 1 month in JAN-MARCH (which month is best?) Where in Vietnam would be a nice, safe, and interesting base? We are planning on staying in a hotel for a month or rent an house. Any suggestions?

Robert Reid: Hi there. Sounds like a wonderful trip. I'd time it during next year's Tet, so you and your children can witness all the excitement of the Vietnamese new year (Jan 26, 2009).

As far as where to go, this is hard. Hanoi has tons of Vietnamese cultural events, lots of traditional-style restaurants and attractions to see—you could have a lot of fun in a month, though it's chilly that time of year. Saigon's less attractive, but so full of energy that I'm sure it'd be memorable—and you could go on weekend trips to Cu Chi Tunnels, the Mekong Delta (super) or Phu Quoc Island.

It'd be tempting to go with a random town, near things to do, but with less used to foreign faces. Something like Cantho in the Mekong (small but not too small), Hue (historic city with great, unique street food not found elsewhere).

I'd read up on these places and debate how much urban scene vs quiet/beach is... Hope this helps! Have a great time...

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Oakland, Calif.: We are planning a trip to Cambodia, Thailand & Vietnam for 2 weeks. With only 4 days in Vietnam, would it be enough time to see Ha Long Bay? Is it possible to see Ha Long without spending a night on the boat? Thanks!

Robert Reid: If you only have four days and want to see Halong Bay, I'd spend a couple days in Hanoi and a couple in Halong Bay. Considering it's about a four-hour drive from Hanoi, you're really not going to get anything out of it if you stay just a day. A one-night cruise gets back around 4pm or 5pm the next day.

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Paited Post, N.Y.: We have just booked a Smartour 16 days trip October 13-28 to Vietnam and Cambodia. Intended to drive to Kennedy Arport to start the long flight (via Korea). Is this a good time to visit Vietnam? Should we wait till November to avoid the raining season?

Robert Reid: I really like October in Vietnam. I went then a year-and-a-half ago. I don't recall being rained on once—though I was only in Saigon, Mekong and Phu Quoc that time. It may be raining in Hue at that time of year (but it rains in November there too). I always enjoy a little rain in Vietnam—people waiting it out at roadside cafes... You still gloating on the Giants Super Bowl?

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Enumclaw, Wash.: My husband, who served in Vietnam in the 60s, is interested in a return trip. Should we look into some type of package or can we get around on our own? We're fairly experienceD travelers, at least in Europe, but this will be my first time to Asia and it's obviously been a long time for him. What are the highlights we should make sure to see?

Thanks,
Dru

Robert Reid: Hi, Dru. I think you'd have a super time in Vietnam, and I don't think you have to go on a package tour. You'll find a bit more hassle at an airport or bus stop than you would in, say, Brussels, but it's not that hard to get around.

Offhand, you could fly into Saigon for a couple days, and maybe arrange a day tour to Cu Chi Tunnels, and perhaps a two-day group tour to the Mekong Delta from there. Then fly to Nha Trang beach town, or on to Danang, and taxi to Hoi An, a walkable historic town with a nice beach nearby. Then hire a taxi to go on a coastal road five hours north to the old capital Hue, near DMZ sites and king's tombs. Then fly to Hanoi for a couple days and arrange a two-day cruise of Halong Bay.

That's a standard introduction—you could stay in comfortable hotels in each place, and reserve them ahead of time—perhaps with airport transfers ready so you wouldn't have to worry about that. It's just a little more work and pre-planning, but you'd have so much more freedom...

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Plattsburgh, N.Y.: My best friend and I (both 30) will be traveling to SE Asia in 2 weeks. We will be in Ho Chi Minh for just 3 1/2 days (March 8-11) and would like to do a group day trip to the Mekong Delta. Could you suggest a budget conscious tour company and what places/activities we should look for in the tour? I've heard that the City is quite crowded—is it really very difficult to cross the road? Also, what would you suggest is the best way to get around the city. One last question please, we would like to relax by a pool one day and our hotel doesn't have one, where could we find one? Thank you for your help! —Kim

Robert Reid: Hi Kim. You'll find many options for Mekong Delta tours around Saigon's Pham Ngu Lao/backpacker area. Big ones include Sinh Café and TNK Travel.

Saigon is crazy busy—I've not seen many places that can compete. I love it for that—take it a bit easy the first day or two. Take a cyclo or air-con taxi for that matter. Till you start to get more comfortable with the ebb and flow...

If you want a pool, many high-end hotels let you in for a fee to use the pools (the Park Hyatt is a whopping $25!)... There's a nice complex east of the center called Van Thang at 48/10 Dien Bien Phu St in Binh Tanh district you might like. By the river, there's restaurants and tennis courts and a big pool for about $1.25...

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Chesterfield, Mo.: I am trying to decide on an itinerary and when to go to Vietnam, not too hot and not during the rainy season, is there a should season? I am hoping to go onto Ankgor Wat from there but do not want to go through Bangkok either way (even though I loved it). Any suggestions? Thanks.

Robert Reid: Why not start in Hanoi in the Oct/Nov or Mar/Apr and work your way south? Those times aren't too hot, too cold or too busy. Stop in Hue, Hoi An, maybe Nha Trang, or old hill station town Dalat if it's too hot. From Saigon, you could join a group tour through Mekong Delta that winds up in Phnom Penh, and head to Angkor Wat.

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Santa Rosa, Calif.: I will be traveling to Ho Chi Mien City for the first time on business. Words of advice, things not to leave home with out, must-see places, places to avoid? It is a 1-week trip with not a lot of down time. I will have a car and driver during the day. Best way to communicate with the folks at home? Thanks

Robert Reid: Doesn't sound like you'll have any time to leave the city then, huh? Saigon (HCM City) has a few historic sights that are fun to see. The Reunification Palace was the home to the South Vietnam presidents, and it's shocking how 1975 the government has left it to be—with the old banquet halls and meeting rooms left pretty much as it was when the tanks burst through the gates in '75. In the center, you'll want to walk down Dong Khoi St and Le Loi St, over to Ben Thanh Market. Though I think the main market in Cholon is more interesting—Cholon is supposedly the world's biggest Chinatown—there are a few pagodas to see too.

Saigon is a bit staring city. I'm not sure I've been to a place where everyone sits and stares at each other the same way. So join in. Sidewalk cafes are great places to sit and watch the mass parade of cyclos, motorbikes, push-cart vendors, SUVs roar by. And coffee is very good in Vietnam.

If you have just a half a day, you could make it to Cu Chi Tunnels. It's not the nicest drive north of town, but you can see the war site—supposedly rebuilt—in maybe four hours total.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Does Vietnam have beaches that would rival Thailand's beaches (fine, white sand, warm clear water) or do we need to go to Thailand for beach life?

Robert Reid: To be honest, Thailand will always beat Vietnam for beaches, but Vietnam's are pretty good, and if you go to the right places you won't be around crowds. Parts of Phu Quoc Island, off the south coast, are untouched—in November I had long beaches of white sand to myself. Nha Trang is more of a party place these days—I actually prefer sitting on the beach on Cham Island, off Hoi An. Not so many people. A couple snorkel trips (only) stop there, and you can camp out there if you want.

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Houston, Tex.: Do you recommend putting together an independent itinerary yourself or to buy a packaged tour from a travel agency? What travel agencies do you recommend for Vietnam?

Robert Reid: I'm all about independent travel to Vietnam. Most people go independently than join day tours or shorter two- or three-day tours as they go using local agencies. Handspan in Hanoi has a good rep for mid-range tours, Sinh Balo in Saigon is great for more activity-based tours with small groups. Sorry I don't have the websites handy...

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Naples, Fla.: Hi, Robert. My name is Jenifer and I'm 29 years old. I plan on doing a little globe trotting for a few months (July and August) hitting SE Asia, specifically Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The thing is, I plan on backpacking by myself, and my parents are concerened about my safety. I am a real "off the beaten path" type of person and don't like tourist hubs. I want to see the country for what really is, culture and all. Is this possible for a 29-year-old independent female traveler? This would be my first "real" traveling trip so I'm not sure if that matters. Thanks!!

Robert Reid: Vietnam, and most of Southeast Asia, is about the safest place in the world. I've only heard of the occasional purse or camera grab in many years in Vietnam. Even if you start your trip alone, Vietnam's a social place—and you're likely to meet new friends after a couple days that you'll end up traveling with for several days or more. You can get authentic Vietnam everywhere—get out of the center of Saigon or Hanoi, go to street stands or local noodle shops to eat and skip the Western-oriented restaurants in 'backpacker ghettos'.

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Evansville, Ind.: I am organizing a group of 60 seniors to go to Vietnam for a tour. Can you suggest a couple of reliable, less expensive tour operators that can handle a group of this size?

Robert Reid: I can't vouch for how any will handle such a group, never having done it. The classic group operator is Sinh Café, which have many fake locations in Hanoi. I'd probably stick with something not so big. And then talk with three or four to compare costs/service. Hanoi tends to have more agents than Saigon, though that doesn't necessarily mean its better to go via Hanoi (in fact it might not be).

Saigon-based Ann Tours in Saigon is a mid-range tour agent with a great reputation. Hanoi's APT is a budget place used to groups. Wide Eyed Tours in Hanoi is an expat-run place that may have good advice for you at least. And Hanoi's Backpackers Hostel are run by nice folks, incl an Australian, who may be able to help.

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Randolph, NJ: We will visit Angkor Wat from KL then we have 4-5 nights in Vietnam—what should we definitely see? We will arrive from KL and go back to KL for the flight to US. It will be mid-April. We are 2 people in our late 50's.

Thank you,
Howard

Robert Reid: Hi Howard, In four or five nights, you can probably get a taste of one city and one other place, eg Hanoi/Halong Bay, Saigon/Mekong Delta, or Hanoi or Saigon/Hoi An. I think you should consider what you want to get out of Vietnam. For Mekong Delta, you can go on group tour and take boats down little Mekong canals; some offer bike rides on island paths if that's your thing. Hanoi is more beautiful than Saigon, has more attractions, and with more links to 'Vietnamese history' (first university, many legends), plus April is a good time to be there (not Jan/Feb cold, or May/June hot). From either Saigon or Hanoi, you could technically spend a couple days, then fly to Danang and have a couple days in Hoi An, an ancient Chinese trading town that's very walkable—some people love Hoi An the most, particularly on a first trip.

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Robert Reid: Hi everyone. Time flies! I'm sorry I didn't get to everyone's questions today. I have a free online guidebook to Vietnam at reidontravel.com you can visit. Feel free to can contact me through the site and I'll try to help... Hope this has been helpful for everyone. I had fun being here. Thanks to the BudgetTravel.com folks for hosting it!

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