Travel and Shopping Tips for Your First Trip to Vietnam
By Ellen Curry
Travel and shopping tips for your first trip to Vietnam.
Do lots of shopping on your first trip. Everything is cheap. There is nothing
you will buy that you will regret later. Everything can either be used for
your child, your home or as a gift. It is much easier to deal with extra and
extra heavy suitcases on trip #1 when your hands are not busy with your baby.
Bring rubber bands, scotch tape, packing tape, bubble wrap, cardboard tubes, and extra lightweight soft suitcase (e.g. sportsac brand) from home for ease in packing for the trip home. We were able to get 5 conical hats, and much heavy lacquerware home without any damage.
Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Very few stores have fixed prices or anything that is unique. Do not be afraid to be firm about your top price and walk away. You will find the item someplace else if the vendor does not then meet your price.
I tried to buy the 54 Ethnic Minorities book near the corner of Dong Khoi and Le Loi in Saigon. The mute vendor disappeared, returned with a copy in poor condition and asked $35. When I declined she started dropping her price: $30, $28, $25. It was difficult to explain that I did not want it at any price because of the condition. But I walked. Then I went into the fixed price book store on Dong Khoi and found a good copy for $17.
Of course, you will not always get the lowest price. You will "win" on some items and "lose" on others. But the bottom line is that none of the prices are really high and if there is anything you really want you should buy it. I have looked in Philadelphia, New York City and the Eden Center and found a very LIMITED selection of Vietnamese crafts. A 24 inch lacquerware platter sells for $200 to $300 at the market in Grand Central Station in NY. It sells for about $20 in Saigon.
You can bring your baby to many restaurants, but there are a few that will be too elegant (but yet not real pricey) for baby. Enjoy these spots on your first trip.
Get out and see the city! For those of you who are not comfortable going around in unfamiliar foreign cities do not hesitate to take a taxi to tourist spots, popular shopping areas and restaurants. Taxis are VERY inexpensive, readily available and metered (i.e. no negotiating necessary). We stayed up near the zoo and the fare plus tip all the way to Ben Thanh market was never more than $1.50.
Visit Ben Thanh (or any other local market) early in the morning when vendors are setting up. We arrived at 6am and could not believe the bustling activity. It was very exciting and a whole different experience than walking through the market at midday.
Explore, explore, explore. Store vendors are very friendly and not pushy at all (very, very different from Morocco where people follow you for 10 minutes to try to get you to go into a certain store). Jim found some interesting books and teapots by going into stores other than the ones recommended to us.
It is not uncommon for people to try to walk off with your bags as they go through the several security conveyor belts. The airports are crowded and the concept of waiting your turn in line is not well understood. People will be crowding you as you deposit your bags on the belt and again when you pick them up at the other end.
For all trips to and from Vietnam, use plastic stretch wrap to seal your already
locked suitcases. Write your last name on a large colorful
piece of paper and lay it on your suitcase before you wrap the stretch plastic
around it. This way your bag will be very obvious and you can keep your eye
on it more easily if someone does start to walk away with it. (You can buy
rolls of the stretch plastic at U-Haul packing supply locations or Staples.)
The product is similar to a very fat roll of Saran wrap but is only about
3 inches wide. I also used some fluorescent masking tape to make my bags VERY
distinctive - more so than the usual red ribbon tied around the handle.
Play it safe and hand check your film. We kept our film in a clear plastic bag to make the hand check easier. Most times we were able to pass the film through the security check without anyone even glancing at it.
We had prints developed at a store near Ben Thanh. We thought the processing was good. But once we got home we had an extra set of prints made from the negatives and found that the colors were more true to life in the dupes. I would still develop my film in Vietnam as this way I am sure my exposures are good. If they were really bad, I would buy more film and reshoot because I would be extremely disappointed to come home without any good snaps.
We bought a tripod for our camcorder and thought we would capture the entire visit with Maia. However, we were so excited meeting her that we pretty much forgot about the camcorder and most of the time it is filming nothing or people's backsides. If I could do that over I would hand carry the camcorder and the camera and just switch off between the two. I think the tripod would be better suited for the G&R where everyone is seated in a room and you can set up the camcorder and let it roll.
The airport is very crowded and busy, especially in the winter/spring. It took a long time to get a cart once the taxi dropped us at the terminal. Then we had to navigate past many, many people some of whom are just sitting on the floor. It also took a long time to go through the numerous check-in and security lines. By the time we got to the gate the plane was boarding. I recommend you plan for extra time for good measure.
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