8 Travel Essentials

As I start to think about packing for my trip to Thailand, I’ve put together a small list of the essentials I have come to love, that at one point, hadn’t crossed my mind.

When packing for a long trip, you need the fine skill of covering every eventuality; packing for all conditions and preparing for the extremities that Mother Nature may throw at you.

So, while you’re battling over what 5 outfits your going to be rocking for the next month, don’t forget these essentials.

 

  1. A Travel Towel

Super compact and light as a feather, these towels don’t feel so good on your skin, but they dry incredibly fast; ideal for those early check-outs.

One of the best things about these towels is how small you can fold them; buying you some time before the inevitable battle when packing your rucksack towards the end of your trip.

 

  1. A Light, Waterproof jacket

Newsflash; it rains, everywhere.

As much as you think you may be escaping the miserable weather by traveling to more tropical parts of the world, no matter where you go, rain will soon follow.

Don’t be caught out!

It may not be glamorous; some countries don’t do drizzles; re-usable ponchos are advised.

 

  1. Mosquito Repellent

Over the last few years, cases of mosquito related diseases have risen to devastatingly high levels. Staying protected, particularly in notably dangerous areas, is essential.

DEET will do the job, but if you have sensitive skin, it burns. Aside from the burning sensations, your hostel bunk-buddies will not be your friends for much longer if you gas them with the smell, so you might want to consider an alternative.

Citronella essential oil based mosquito repellents are completely free of chemicals, protect you and smell so much better, so everyone will be happy.

In addition to the repellents, keeping a low salt diet and avoiding floral perfumes or moisturisers is strongly advised.

Should you have aches and pains, a fever and/or a rash, seek medical attention immediately.

 

  1. A Hoodie

If you are headed for the sunshine, don’t overlook this one!

Tropical countries are also known for having some of the most powerful air-con around.

During the day, you’ll be sweating like crazy wandering the streets in 35 degrees, but everywhere from coffee shops and supermarkets to the bus to your next destination will be blasting Baltic temperatures.

If you feeling a bit on the tired side after your travels, this is a one-way ticket to sickness, so keep your hoodie close by.

 

  1. Sun-cream

May seem obvious, but re-application is the key!

Red is definitely not a good colour, for anyone. So save yourself from pain and embarrassment and apply regularly.

I always get caught out after swimming, so keep an eye out for that one.

Remember, the closer to the equator you are, the hotter it is and the stronger the sun, so leave your factor 8 at home.

 

  1. Waterproof Wallet

A friend introduced me to these beauties that are ideal for solo travelers.

You might think that you look like a tourist holding a ‘rob me’ sign, as it’s a bit too close to sporting a fanny pack, but these little cases are a wonderful invention.

Pop your phone, keys and money in and wear it like a tiny cross-over handbag and say hello to carefree swimming and forget about your things being snatched; genius!

 

  1. A Waiter’s Friend

If you’ve ever worked in a bar, then you will understand the true value of owning one of these, and traveling is with no exception.

Whether you are looking to fix, cut, make a hole or help out the one guy who brought a bottle of wine with a cork to the party; a waiter’s friend is always the answer.

 

  1. Scarf-sarong-style piece of material

When traveling light, the problem of how many towels you should take is a big issue when it comes to compromising space in your rucksack.

My answer to this; you only need one (see essential number 1).

When looking for something for the beach, go for a scarf-style piece of material, available in all markets across the world; light, soft and easy to air, so it doesn’t stink.

It’s hot, the sun can dry you, and after a little shake you needn’t worry about getting sand in your bag.

Problem solved.

 

What are your essentials for traveling? Let me know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Traveling around Vietnam: Do’s and Don’ts

Do’s

Travel on local transport

Traveling on local transport seems like a foregone conclusion when traveling around a country, but many services offer ‘international’ standard services that are more expensive and specifically aimed at tourists that make it difficult to do as locals do.

When it comes to trains; you’ll rarely see a foreigner on one. It’s easy to understand why when you discover that the train stations are far from the main attractions and have little information on how to get there. To add to this, you may find yourself walking half-way up a train track to get on the train, but that’s the fun of it – right?

Trains are easily bookable online, with the option of hard or soft seats and beds.

If you are traveling for a long period of time take snacks, however there is a food cart that will be pushed around at meal times.

When it comes to getting to and from the train stations: city’s are fairly easy to navigate, however in smaller areas it is best to ask locals how to get there.

 

Try all the food

In Vietnam, you can forget your idea of what a restaurant should look like; eateries come in all shapes and sizes, especially in the mornings, when you will see plastic chairs and tables outside formal restaurants.

‘Street food’ is a way of life in Vietnam and if you want to get the good stuff, you not only have to be an early bird, but you have to be prepared to take a risk; it’s not always clean, however there is a simple way of finding the good stuff.

You’ll often see crowds of people sitting around street corners or on roundabouts getting their fix from their favourite street food vendor. There are no dodgy dealings here, just really good food for the equivalent of 80p. As many a seasoned traveler will tell you, if the place is packed with locals, pull up a chair.

 

Take locals advice

With Saigon and Hanoi now ranking as having the best English in Vietnam, many Vietnamese people take to the streets to find foreigners to practice their English.

You can expect to be stopped while walking around or accosted when having a drink in a street bar. During your free lesson ask lots of questions; find out where the best places to eat are, ideal day trips and weekend getaways.

You never know what might happen, you could end up at a wedding or if you’re staying long term, taking English classes for a company.

 

Break your big notes in chain-stores

Shop vendors don’t expect you to have the correct change, but if you are whipping out 200,000VND for something that is 10,000VND, then you’re going to annoy people.

In Vietnam, the smaller the shop; the smaller the change you must have.

If you’ve got 500,000VND a chain supermarket such as Family Mart or Circle K will give you small change without the evil eye.

Depending where you are this can be a big deal, so be prepared with your ‘pennies’.

Quick Tip: Don’t be alarmed when someone walks away with your money without giving you change, they’re going to find someone with the smaller notes they don’t have; promise.

 

Don’ts

Take shit from a taxi driver, especially outside airports

Taxi drivers can be ruthless. When you’re looking for a taxi outside the airport, it’s unnerving. When you arrive, you’re greeted by people shouting at you from all directions and what appears to be aggressive demands for dollars; not the best experience when you’re jet-lagged and don’t speak the language.

With the number of tourists coming into Vietnam, airport taxi’s rely on naive travelers who don’t know that the journey is actually half the price.

However, the development of apps such as Grab and Uber, have created fierce competition: not only do they have customer services who are at hand to give a rude guy the boot, but they can pick you up from the airport for a fraction of the price.

Alternatively, with the exact address, ignore anyone that tries to ‘help’ you and go straight to the nearest official looking taxi rank, these guys are normal taxi drivers; ask for a meter before you get in.

Important things to remember:

  • all taxi drivers should have their registration card clearly displayed on the dashboard, get out the car if they don’t.
  • Mai Linh or Vinasun tend to be the more reliable, avoid any variations of these names
  • There is an extra 10,000 VND charge to get out of the airport, unless you are in a Grab or Uber, you may have to pay this to them before you leave.

 

Say no to an invitation

Socialising is part of every day life in Vietnam and when it comes to big events, it’s an all out feast with every member of the family you can possibly imagine.

With this, Vietnamese people love to invite people, especially if you are a foreigner, they want to invite you into their way of celebrating.

The most important thing in all of this is if someone invites you to something and there is no reason for you to refuse; you cannot.

For example, it’s traditional for Vietnamese people to celebrate the anniversary of someone’s death. One day, I notice big preparations for lunch in the house I am living in: enough food for 30 people, crates of beer and Aunt’s and Uncle’s arriving and the family I live with are rushing around frantically – they’re preparing to celebrate their Mother’s life. As I make my way through the house to my room I’m stopped and invited to sit down by the ‘father of the house’ – I cannot say no!

Instead, I sit with the family and celebrate their Mother with them, and I end up drunk by 3pm.

 

Wave your expensive possessions around

As with any city, crime is to be expected, so you have to keep your wits about you.

No matter the time of day, if anything containing or worth money looks easy to grab, someone might just do it. Secret wallets hidden under your t-shirt are an excessive Western idea of safety when visiting a developing country; it’s unnecessary.

There are some tried and tested ways to avoid loosing your things when out and about:

  • Keep your possessions in a zipped bag, close to you.
  • Try not to purchase flimsy strapped bags, there are people out there with scissors and they are not afraid to chop your straps.
  • Separate your money by having big notes and small notes in separate compartments.
  • Try not to flash your cash.
  • If you can, don’t take your phone out when in markets or in the backpacker area. If you do need to check it, hold it with both hands.

 

Do you have any advice for travelers visiting Vietnam?

Comment below!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Away from the grime: the beauty of Saigon.

Just over a year ago I shut down my life in Scotland and went to Vietnam.

I quit my job, made a last minute trip to London to get a visa, and I was off. It’s the best thing I have done so far.

To many people, Ho Chi Minh City (District 1 being commonly known as Saigon) is a hectic, dirty place that is impossible to move around. As far as first impressions go, it’s not in my top five: it is exactly that.

Streets crammed with tacky souvenirs, over-priced food and elephant pants: the ‘backpacker district’ was once the poorest in the city, which is still quite shockingly evident today.

However, Saigon very quickly became my home: alive, thriving and filled with old buildings turned into quirky cafe’s, speakeasys and exhibition spaces. You just have to know where to look.

 

 

The People

When you are here for a while, people start to know your foreign little face. With that, comes the beauty of a friendly smile in return.

If you give a little respect, you get so much back. Vietnamese people are incredibly polite and deeply respectful (especially to their elders) just in a different way, of course.

In time, you become aware of the little, much more subtle gestures that go a long way: how a quick nod of the head can say a thousand words. It’s endlessly surprising how showing loyalty to your banh mi lady in the morning can lead to a great bit of banter that will make your day, even if your Vietnamese is not that great.

Life is quite beautifully simple here: these little interactions really make you fall in love with a city and allow you to develop a form of language without words.

 

What’s left of French Colonial Architecture

Sadly quite difficult to find, but hidden around the back streets of District’s 1, 3 and 5, there is a haven of old French-colonial buildings. Untouched, unclean and more often than not, overgrown with weeds.

This said: my favourite is right under the tourist’s nose and in perfect condition.

Not far from Ben Thanh market, as you venture up Nguyen Trung Truc you’ll find a building that could be plucked out of Hoi An’s ancient town. It’s more or less impossible to miss, standing bold in rich, golden pigment and beautifully contrasted with the soothing hue of classic Vietnamese blue.

Over 130 years old, it’s actually the People’s Supreme Court.  Well preserved, still being used and hopefully not going anywhere for a while. It’s an absolute feast for the eyes, and extremely significant to the city’s history.

 

Coffee Culture

Whether you’re stopping on the side of the street for takeaway or making a full-time job of it: coffee is an essential part of the day in Vietnam.

When you boil it down, it’s the same as any other country: a cog in the forming of social gathering, but on a much larger scale.

You can’t walk down a street in Saigon without seeing a coffee shop. At peak times of the day, it’s difficult to get a seat in the good ones.

It’s not just a casual stop off either, every coffee shop is a home from home to some who visit.

My top five are across here.

 

Endless Amounts of Food

Across the city, you can gorge on rice, noodles or mango at any time of the day. From your morning Phở to 3am Cháo: Vietnam has it covered. Fresh and packed with gorgeous subtle flavours that make you appreciate good, honest food.

Street snacks are not something to be missed, especially if working late. There are street vendors wondering the city at all hours of the day, some are infamous and known to stop by at specific times, you just have to catch them, they move fast.

Stop by, have a chat and snap up some deep fried banana, sweet potato fries covered in questionable dough-nut like seasoning or buttery corn: bắp xào tây!

There is a very good reason that Saigon is famous for it’s street food. Although sometimes a risk, I would never say it’s regretted.

24/7 city

Unlike the quiet countryside or seaside towns of Vietnam: Saigon wakes up at 5am.

I remember leaving early to travel to Nha Trang and meeting men sitting in the dark at the end of my alley drinking coffee, it was 5am. I found it bizarre, but they have the right idea; it’s the coldest time of the day.

Quite the opposite of this, you have the nightlife of the city.

Once you know where to go, Bui Vien is not your only stop for a late night on the town. Pulling up a plastic chair at a restaurant could lead to you still being there at 3am: it’s one of the charms of the city. It’s so cheap, you can’t say no.

Alternatively, you can head down to Little Tokyo: Japantown. A maze of small bars, questionable massage joints and delicious food; I’m not actually sure what time this area closes down, it might just keep on going.

It’s always easy to play it safe and go to that place with good music and the cheap beer, but venturing out of your comfort zone is the best part of being in the city.

That place with the good music and the cheap will still be there tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

#5 cafes that won’t give you a bad trip…

With hundreds upon thousands of coffee shops in Ho Chi Minh City,  it goes without saying that coffee is a way of life through-out Vietnam.

For some, it’s the highlight of their day, a break from work or a chance to catch up with friends. For others, it is a full time job and they are damn good at it.

For the average foreigner, living, working or even just visiting Ho Chi Minh City (more commonly known as Sai Gon), having a coffee can be risky business. You don’t need to spend much time in Saigon to experience a coffee hit that is not the buzz you were looking for.

What looks like a very small amount of this potent elixir can send you over the edge and leave you with horrible experience that can last up to 4 hours.

Within 10 minutes your head is pounding, you want to drink a gallon of water, your whole body is pulsating and you will probably feel like your breakfast is going to come back onto the table.

This substance we have come to know as “Vietnamese style” coffee is in fact not.

Over the last few years factories have been shut down due to the production of toasted corn that dipped in some tasty, tasty chemicals. When finished, it looks pretty similar to coffee, especially when ground up.

Although many of these factories have been traced and can no longer distribute, there is still plenty around – you know when you have some!

Needless to say, you’ll want to be avoiding it, here’s some help with that: my 5 coffee shops that won’t give you a bad trip.

 

Nam Muoi Muoi Lam (literally 5-10-10-5)

29 Ngô Thời Nhiệm, P. 6, Quận 3

Located on what I like to call coffee street, this quaint cafe looks like it was designed for the Instagram fiend. It works. But other than that it’s a popular lunch spot among Vietnamese business people. It’s a good idea to go and claim your seat early in the morning. The crowds start pouring in around 11.30am.

Their coffee is smooth and fresh – the perfect level of pick me up! If it a little too late for a coffee, try their iced early grey with a little sugar.

 

Hoàng Thị

33/72 Nguyễn Trung Trực, Quận 1 // 31 Nguyễn Thái Bình, Quận 1

This small art cafe has two wonderful locations to choose from; both in old French colonial buildings. The cafes are filled with up-cycled interiors and old-fashioned Vietnamese furniture, complimented with a local artists paintings and drawings everywhere you look.

Artists of all forms will join you here, a great spot to work or hang out for a few hours, listen to some good music and relax. Their coffee is quite light and not overly sweetened.

Sài Gòn Hẻm

15\29 Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, Bến Nghé, Quận 1

I stumbled upon this little beauty wondering down the alleys near my house. The cafe has three tables, two windows and two trees to sit around, so expect to make some new friends. Always packed with locals, most of the customers are really into film photography and will happily help you out if you have any questions.

A little heads up: this place is not frequently visited by foreigners, so the menu is in Vietnamese, but the staff speak pretty good English.

Their coffee is ground onsite, making it super fresh, quite fruity and very cheap as far as good brews go.

Cộng Caphe

336 Trường Sa, Quận Phú Nhuận (closer to D1)

A franchise through-out Saigon and Hanoi, this coffee shop takes you a step back in time: military outfits, old fashioned interior and representative crockery?

You can choose from northern or southern Vietnamese coffee (southern being typically stronger). This is my favourite location, it’s the biggest and the furthest away from the tourist area. Looking over the canal, not far from Tan Dinh market; it’s a great spot to sit and watch the world go by.

Others are located in backpacker area and around District 1.

If you want to splash out on 60K for a drink, I would recommend the coconut coffee – you have to have it at some point!

 

Enjoy!