Here is a collection of what I have eaten so far since landing in Saigon 3 weeks ago. I know that travel during Covid is tricky and exhausting as I experienced it first hand in, but if you can make it to my country and city, I hope this will help you get to know our cuisine. I don’t claim that the list below is the best in class. I visited some shops after some quick Google search while others were just sheer coincidence. Since most of them offer street food, always remember to ask for prices or a menu before making an order to avoid being ripped off.
A very traditional dish in Vietnam that originates from Hue, our old capital. There are plenty of options in Saigon. The shop where I had the above bowl is right at the corner of Phan Boi Chau and Le Loi in District 1. It’s pretty convenient if you wander around Ben Thanh market. Price is about 40,000k a bowl.
This shop is small and looks rugged on Tôn Thất Thiệp street in District 1, near Bitexco Tower, but the food is just excellent and not pricey at all for its quality and location.
This one is a bit biased because the owner is my close friend. Nonetheless, the food is really excellent and the ambience is nice. The prices are a bit high, but understandable if you want to be positioned as an upper market eatery place.
Laairai: 98 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, Da Kao Ward, District 1.
Bột Chiên – Fried Rice Flour Cakes
It’s a small cart on Su Van Hanh Street, District 10. You can see what the cart looks like in the video below. The food is tasty and affordable at only 25,000 VND for a plate
A popular snack here in Vietnam that originates from our annoying neighbor, China. This small cart is located on Co Giang Street in District 1. It doesn’t have a business sign and I forgot to film where it was. But just go to Co Giang Street, near Nguyen Thai Hoc Street and you should see it. Each dumpling costs 4,000 and there is a good variety for you to choose from.
This snack is not healthy as it has a lot of carb, but boy, does it taste good! I miss it tremendously as you can’t find the authentic version in Nebraska. There are countless shops in Saigon, but I got the below from Minh Phung Street, District 6. Only 20,000 VND for a portion like below
Bún Riêu Gánh: 163 Le Thanh Ton, District 1. At the corner of Le Thanh Ton and Nguyen Trung Truc. Price: about 50,000 VND a bowl
This shop is very near and dear to me. It operates from 6pm to midnight 6 days a week. Customers are loyal and love what the shop has to offer: affordable but great smoothie. Don’t take my words for it. Just visit it between 8pm and 10pm and you’ll see a crowd on the pavement and the street. Address: 119 Nguyen Van Cu, District 5.
The perks of living in the States as a Vietnam is that I get to see the differences between the two countries in several aspects. One of them is payments. If contactless and tap-to-pay is more common and popular in the US, QR Codes are much more ubiquitous in Vietnam, at least in the big cities. What you see below is in Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest economic hub in Vietnam. When you venture out to smaller and poorer provinces, things may change significantly.
This is how we paid at a convenience store. The cashier scanned the QR code on a phone to process payments.
In the below clip, we were at a local bakery named Tous Les Jours. You can see different QR Codes for different mobile wallets. Consumers can just scan one and make payments. The nature of the transaction requires immediate confirmation since nobody is going to wait 5′ for a payment to go through.
Even mom-and-pop stores like a sugar cane shop and a photocopy shop below allow payments via QR Codes
Mobile wallets like Momo strive to acquire and retain users. When we paid for our drinks at the sugar cane shop, we got 50% discount out of nowhere even though the transaction amount was only $1.2.
I recently went back to Vietnam to visit friends and family. This is arguably the most exhausting trip that I have ever taken since I went overseas at 19 years old. I’ll share some of my experiences below that hopefully may be helpful with your upcoming travel. My post is for informational purposes only, so please do your own research.
Read up on travel restrictions and prepare in advance
Like many other countries, Vietnam requires visitors to be at least double-jabbed. If you are vaccinated in the US like me, the square vaccination card should be enough. Visitors must also show a negative PCR test result that has to be taken within 72 hours before arrival. There are many types of Covid tests; therefore, research what is accepted and take an appropriate test. For reference, my test was a Nasopharyngeal Swab taken at Total Wellness in Omaha, Nebraska. PCR tests for travel are pricey, to the tune of $220 each, but if you are insured, you should be covered. Taking a cheap rapid antigen test will save you some money, but since such a test is not usually accepted, you are putting your trip up for more risks. Once again, research on what is accepted by all destinations on your journey and take appropriate actions. Folks often receive their test results digitally, but I recommend that you print them out and have them stamped, if possible.
Trips from the US to Vietnam often include a transit to Japan. I couldn’t finish the check-in process on the United Airlines app. When we got to the Omaha airport, United Airlines told us that we must show a filled quarantine questionnaire. We were spooked. My fiancé flew from Vietnam to the US through Japan and she didn’t have to show that questionnaire. Did something change in between? We frantically checked everything we could about travel restrictions in Japan, but the only thing we could find was this passage from ANA.
Since we were only transiting in Japan and our transit didn’t involve changing airports nor exceed 24 hours, according to ANA itself, we wouldn’t have to show any documents. But the United Airlines staff didn’t listen. She kept asking us for a completed questionnaire which mandates a quarantine address that we clearly do not have. After more than 30 minutes back and forth, she finally let us check in because the boarding time was coming, but implored us to finish the questionnaire before we landed in Japan. Once we got through the security check, I called United Airlines and was told that our interpretation of the situation is correct. Hence, if you are transiting in Japan and your transit doesn’t exceed 24 hours or involve a transfer between airports, you should not have to show any documents.
Transit at Haneda Airport in Japan
Barring any changes in the near future, if you transit at Haneda airport, you are likely to do so at Terminal 3. According to Haneda Airport‘s website, there are 38 stores at Terminal 3. Unfortunately, many of them are “temporarily closed” and some don’t open before 9am. If your flight lands there earlier than 9am, expect to see a lot of closed doors. The remaining open stores include mostly tax-free shops that sell perfumes, liquor, chocolate and some souvenirs. There are a few restaurants but the choices are limited and I couldn’t see any with sushi on the menu. The best option is to use a lounge. We used the ANA Lounge, whose access is worth 6,000 yen or about $50. Guests have unlimited access to a small buffet with good Japanese food. Liquor and wine are available only after 11am. I really enjoyed their soup as the broth was authentically delicious. I had nothing but praises for the staff. Even though they spoke limited English, their customer service was excellent. They brought food to our table and retrieved the empty trays for us. Promptly and unintrusively.
In addition to the buffet, there are also areas where guests can rest, wind down and get some work done in silence. What made the Lounge great for us is the shower. Access to the shower is by appointments only and each appointment is capped at 20 minutes. The shower rooms are spacious with excellent facilities. From the hair dryer, the toilet to the shower itself. If you have a long transit, a shower is just what the doctor orders.
In short, we were fairly disappointed with the stores at Terminal 3 of Haneda Airport. If you have a long transit there, adjust your expectation on what you can actually do. Make sure you check out the Lounges! In my opinion, they are worth the money
Arrival in Vietnam
Vietnam just recently opened its borders after two years of completely being shut off from the world. The border control at Tan Son Nhat airport is strict and tiring. It’s imperative that you keep the boarding pass of the flight to Vietnam. Immigration officers in Vietnam will repeatedly ask for it; which was not there before Covid, if my memory doesn’t fail me. After disembarking from a plane, visitors will have to show that they adhere to the Covid restrictions before getting to the passport control. Proof includes their vaccination status, a negative Covid test that was taken no more than 72 hours before, and a declaration on tokhaiyte.vn. There is Wifi at the airport; therefore, don’t panic if you don’t fill out the declaration in advance. It’s actually better to declare right at the airport because it’s more up to date, but make sure you have digital access to your vaccination card or proof that you recovered from an infection. The lines can be very long, so take this into account when you make travel plans in Vietnam. We landed around 9pm local time and only left the airport 3 hours later.
We didn’t have any rapid antigen test upon arrival at Tan Son Nhat airport. Hence, we only had to go through 3 days of self-quarantine at a hotel. We chose the Blue Diamond Luxury Hotel on Thi Sach street. The price for two people for 3 days, including 3 meals/day and a PCR test, was 7 million VND or about $300. The hotel is located in a quiet area of District 1. You are not disturbed by bars or heavy traffic. The food was actually better than I expected. The room was decent enough and the staff was nice. In hindsight, I don’t think that price was unreasonable.
We were told by a few friends and family members that a quarantine was not needed. I am not sure about that. We actually got a call from a local government official asking about our whereabouts and our test result. Being in quarantine is no fun, but I felt good that we followed the rules. We had time to recuperate after a long flight, slept to alleviate the jet lag and brought ourselves some peace of mind for not having to constantly look over our shoulders.
Covid cases in Vietnam have been rising after Lunar New Year. Hence, do yourself a favor and make sure you have hand sanitizers and masks with you at all time. I recommend that you have several masks and one of them is from paper. N95s offer great protection, but they can be hard on the ears after a while. Paper masks will be the break that your ears will desperately need.
Located in Quang Binh Province, Vietnam, Son Doong is one of the world’s largest natural caves and has arguably the largest cave passage by volume. It was first discovered by a local in 1991 before it rose in world wide fame when a group of British cavers did a survey of the cave in 2009. Since then, tourist permits have been issued on a limited basis to preserve the natural and pristine state of the cave. There was some discussion on creating a cable car for tourist purposes, but due to pressure from environmentalists and locals, the plan was scrapped.
Not many people will be lucky enough to access such a wonder. Hence, I am very appreciative of National Geographic for creating an outstanding virtual tour of the cave, bringing it to everyone with Internet around the world. As a Vietnamese, I am very proud of my country and the gifts that Mother Nature gave us. I hope even if you may not afford a trip to Son Doong nor secure a permit, you can still learn a bit about my country or feel more motivated to visit us and see what else we have to offer. I assure you that we have plenty to satisfy your curiosity.
What I find is that it is often these kinds of multiple small mispriced insights that overtime compound to form a business which is very defensible and very difficult to replicate. The discovery of those multiple small insights really requires a bottom-up organic idiosyncratic investment process.
AirBnb CEO Brian Chesky had an interview with Bloomberg two days ago. First of all, I think Brian seemed very real and genuine in this interview. Watching him speak didn’t give me a sense that he was a robot reading script or a politician giving all kinds of lip services or false hope. For example, he admitted to being unfocused in the past, working on too many things at AirBnb at the same time. He also publicly committed to publishing data on diversity at AirBnb one year from now. That kind of genuineness and down-to-Earth attitude are refreshing to see. He talked about his commitment to diversity & equality, how he thinks about IPO this year, what mistake he made while running AirBnb, Online Experience, how Covid-19 changed travel behavior and so on. But I will only discuss two topics as follows:
How Covid-19 changed travel
While many people said that travel pre-Covid as we knew it is forever gone and we will never see it again, I am much less certain on that. Humans are quick to forget. Once we have the vaccine or have this virus under control, no matter how many years that will take, I think we can get back to where we were travel-behavior-wise. Things tend to be cyclical, you know. Nonetheless, Brian talked about what he has seen in terms of behavioral changes of travelers:
Business travel will take a lot longer to recover
EU has recovered solidly from the pandemic. Asia started the recovery path. Latin America hasn’t recovered much. He said that the US “has been really really strong” and it “has seen a temporary recovery”. I am not quite sure how to think about it. The US has repeatedly seen a new high on the number of cases in a day for quite a while now. Even if a portion of the population traveled, what would that do to the full recovery? Would take delay the recovery much longer?
Less interest in travel to urban areas with dense population and in cross-border travel
Travel will be more local
For the foreseeable future, there will be major changes in how businesses operate in the tourism industry. Attractions will have to take into account social distancing when designing tours. Travel agencies will have to arrange transportation for small groups only and avoid trips to crowded places. Hotels or AirBnb hosts will have to increase the hygiene level and how to communicate that to travelers.
If you look at countries whose tourism plays a huge part in the overall economy such as France or Italy, they were decimated by the pandemic. However, they have recovered since and started to take on tourists. The picture is very different for the US. Not only does nobody want to travel here at this time, unless they absolutely have to, but the people living here are now banned from visiting Europe. The lack of commitment to take on short-term losses for future prospects and, by extension, the absolutely atrocious handling of this pandemic are setting this country back months in recovery and perhaps even longer for the US tourism industry.
AirBnb launched Online Experiences in April 2020 due to the pandemic. The service allows hosts to craft a unique experience online for a small group of guests. After reservations are confirmed, guests receive a Zoom invitation through which they can live participate in the Experience. For instance, you can book to learn how to cook with this Michelin chef from Italy in a live stream session along with 9 other people around the globe without leaving your home. All you need to do is to make a reservation, prepare ingredients beforehand and join the Zoom session.
Brian Chesky said that it is the fastest growing product of AirBnb, even though he didn’t specify whether it’s the fastest growing product ever or it’s just during the pandemic. He did reveal that the service has had 400 Experiences listed so far and generated $1 million in bookings.
AirBnb is quick to improvise and pivot during this pandemic that severely affects travel. I can see some value in this service. Firstly, for folks who feel lonely during this crisis (and there are a lot of them), this is a great and inexpensive way to meet new people and learn something useful without enduring more risks. The live stream format is key because if this were an on-demand video clip like what we have with streamers like Netflix, it wouldn’t work. There needs to be a real and tailored human interaction. That’s why I think it makes sense to limit the number of participants to maximize the interaction with each person.
Secondly, take Vietnam as an example. Our borders have been closed for months. Hosts can take advantage of this opportunity to offer local tours or experiences and gain revenue that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Regarding the future prospect of this service, I am not convinced yet. Covid-19 necessitates online interaction. However, when this blows over, though it may take some time, how much will people still prefer online interaction and how much time will they have for these experiences? There are many other services that can offer similar online lessons. Once people are free to leave home, they no longer need some strangers on the Internet to bond with to alleviate the loneliness as there are countless distractions. I don’t have any data, but that $1 million bookings in 3 months globally seems a bit soft. Furthermore, the live stream nature and the small group requirement of this service don’t necessarily let host scale their revenue. They are constrained by their time, being the presenter physically and the number of participants. Hence, I suspect that revenue from Online Experiences may just shift to Experiences post-Covid.
In sum, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for the tourism industry and AirBnb, in particular. The pandemic threw its plan to go public in the trash bin and significantly altered its business. If you are interested in the company, have a listen to Brian’s talk. Once again, I really like his down-to-Earth tone and genuineness.
I came across arguably the best promotional video about my country I have ever seen. The video was excellently filmed and edited to capture some of the best that my country can offer. Hope you will enjoy it as much as I did. Thanks a lot to Pau Garcia for the great video.
I truly wish Vietnam can produce more of these videos to advertise the country to our international friends
Trang An is where the movie Kong was shot. I had long been interested in seeing the place in person, but could only do so this year. Below is my experience in this largely untouched and breathtakingly beautiful place
I had limited time left in Vietnam. So I only did a day trip to Ninh Binh which could only allow me to visit Dance Cave and Trang An. If you want to visit Bai Dinh and Tam Coc, 2 days will be a better choice.
I took a limousine to Ninh Binh and a train back to Hanoi. The limousine ride was comfortable and the trip took 1.5 hours. If you intend to ride a limousine back to Hanoi, it’s highly recommended that you make a reservation in advance. My friend and I couldn’t find any available seats on our way back so we decided to go by train. A limousine seat for one person on way is around 130,000 VND.
The train takes around 2 hours and 15 minutes from the gas station in Ninh Binh to Hanoi, a bit longer than a limousine ride. The ticket is more or less at the same price. The train wasn’t the best in my opinion, but it did the job.
The attraction is a cave called Dance. However, the main point is the 400-something-step climb to a small mountain that stands next the cave. It’s highly recommended that you go there early in the morning to avoid the heat, wear sports clothes for easy movement and bring water!
Our next stop was Trang An. If you are not with a tour operator, you can go from the cave to Trang An by taxi. It cost us 80,000 VND. Do bargain to avoid being ripped off.
Trang An is a marvelous place. It looks surreal and untouched. Just like Halong Bay, Trang An is proof of how remarkable Mother Nature is with her creativity and patience to produce such a beautiful painting over thousands of years.
A boat ride lasts 3 hours and costs around 200,000 VND per person. There are three different routes to experience Trang An. Route #3 is the latest one. The construction for Kong movie was removed in September 2019. So don’t expect to see any of it.
I learned from the trip that local farmers were allowed by the government to carry passengers on boats once every two days in addition to their farming work. They are paid a meager amount of 200,000 VND for their ride, a ridiculous sum for 3 hours of physical work and some more idly waiting time. As a consequence, it’s expected that passengers tip the women around 50,000 VND per person.
My photos don’t do Ninh Binh enough justice, not even close. I urge that you visit the place soon as it is still in an excellent shape with little human impact. To feel the might of nature and the beauty that it brings. To feel humbled. To feel alive. I never got enough of that green color on top of the grey of the rocks.
Two weeks ago I visited Halong Bay. Here are a few tips I learned from the trip and some photos for your reference
There are different types of tours to Halong Bay: within the day, two days and one night or three days and two nights. The cruises vary as well. You can have your pick from a litany of three-star, four-star and five-star ships that offer more or less the same activites but presumably different levels of services.
There are two ways to reach Halong Bay from Hanoi, the capital. The highway is significantly faster and takes roughly 2.5 hours, compared to 5 hours taken with the usual heavily-trafficked roads. You can choose to travel in style with limousines which offer limited yet comfortable and spacious seats or go with a normal coach that doesn’t cost much less, but offers far less comfort.
There are two harbors in Halong Bay where the ships usually leave to start a tour. The old harbor has far more traffic than its newer counterpart. So, it’s worth asking your tour operator about this point.
For reference, I booked a two-day-one-night tour on Athena cruise with Vietravel that included all meals (no drinks included), limousines from and to Hanoi, my own cabin, a visit to a cave, kayaking in the bay on a less busy route and cost approximately 6 million VND.
The first stop of the trip was to a pearl farm. At the farm, you can listen to the staff explaining about how pearls are formed and what they do on a daily basis. There are some live demonstrations of how a pearl is retrieved from an oyster and how a pearl “seed” is planted in an oyster. The following videos are for your reference
The next activity on the card is kayaking around a local community. You can have a local operate the boat for you, but if you are physically fit enough, I highly recommend that you kayak yourself. One thing I learned from this activity was that kids in this community attend a floating school till they are 18, old enough to attend a university in Vietnam. They then come back to the mainland for college.
Halong Bay is magnificent. It’s humbling to be in the middle of this remarkable creation of Mother Nature. It’s highly recommended to watch the Bay during sunrise and sunset
The last activity on my trip is to a 200,000 year old cave. It’s mind-blowing how beautiful a cave created out of erosion can be. It is just impossible not to be impressed by Mother Nature and her imagination
All in all, the tour to Halong Bay is worth the time and money. I was struck from the very first moment by its wonderful beauty. Kudos to the local government for keeping this attraction in pretty good shape. I didn’t see trash during my trip. If you visit Vietnam and have two days to spare, do consider Halong Bay.
One more thing before I end this entry: do get yourself a good mobile data package. There is no Wifi. So your phone’s mobile connection will be the only way to keep in touch with the modern world: a.k.a your Instagram, Whatsapp, Facebook and so on!