Planning a trip to Vietnam and Thailand!
Months before leaving on our much anticipated family Asia adventure my mom and I spent hours on trip advisor, hotels.com, random blogs and whatever link we found ourselves on after endless internet searching. Planning a trip to Asia sounds glamorous until you realize you have absolutely no idea what to expect and where to go, ha!! Here are a few tips we learned, our favorite spots, favorite booking tools and what we would do differently!
Ho Chi Min City (AKA Saigon)- Okay okay PETER and I didn’t actually get to go here, BUT, we did go to Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi and my parents and sister had been to Ho Chi Min City the previous 4 days before we got there. The whole time we were in Hanoi all peter and I heard was “well it wasn’t as good as in ho chi min, ohhh you should have seen what we did in ho chi min… ohh the vibe is so much younger and relaxed in ho chi min… haha! So you get the point, Hanoi was cool for a day and I’m glad we experienced a Vietnam city and all the chaos of the crowds and the traffic, but next time I want to see what all the talk is about down south:)
TIP #1 – Do a rickshaw tour! It was such a fun way to see the city and experience the chaos of Veitnam traffic!
TIP #2 – Find a rooftop bar and order a Vietnamese Pancake! By far our favorite food experience of the trip.
TIP #3 – UBER!! Uber is by far the cheapest way of transportation in Hanoi or any of the cities and I was shocked to see that they even had it. We took a 15 minute cab to a restaurant downtown and it cost me $0.60 ! If you do end up taking a taxi, be sure to negotiate price BEFORE committing to ride with them or you can run into a bit of trouble. Uber felt like the safest option by far.
TIP #4 – Trip advisor is your best friend for finding great restuants and seeing the reviews, this was important since on the outside some places might look kind of sketchy, but after reading so many great reviews it gave us the courage to try it and they always turned out to be some of our favorite restaurants!
TIP #5 – Crossing the street is scary but not as scary as I was expecting. Wait for a local to go and follow them, keep your pace steady and the cars will go around you. Seems crazy the first time but it gets easier.
Ha Long Bay – This was sooo cool here and it honestly felt like we were touring around the floating mountains in Pandora from the movie ‘Avatar’. We stayed on a private boat for 3 days that was booked through a travel agent who had helped with the planning of my parents Cambodia and Vietnam portion of the trip, so Peter and I were lucky to get to tag along for this last excursion. The private boat was absolutely luxurious and the bay was mind-blowing, even with the stormy weather.
HOW TO GET TO HA LONG BAY: The plus side of going to Hanoi is that it is the closest major airport to Ha Long Bay, so, like us, most people fly into Hanoi and then hire a private van or take a bus for the 4 hour drive to get there. Definitely have your boat tour booked in advance, there are hundreds of options of companies and durations so do your research and use trip advisor for reviews.
One highlight was definitely our kayaking day in Ha Long Bay despite the rainy weather. The color of the water is incredible, we passed many floating fishing villages and we went through caves and lagoons. It was such a cool experience to get to explore where the tour boats couldn’t go so it was dead silent and the water was so still. It was like exploring a secret fairy land, haha!
What we learned is that the Krabi area of Thailand is VERY similar in aesthetic and we got much better weather in Thailand, so I think that the weather affected our experience and perception of how awesome Ha Long Bay really is. It was pretty hazy and rainy the whole time we were on the boat, and although we had the best time and it still was an incredible sight to see, I think had it been sunny we would have thought it was the coolest place on earth. I think a tour through the Thailand Krabi islands would be just as epic and perhaps a more tropical, maybe less crowded and less expensive experience.
TIP #6 – It can be COLD in January in Vietnam!! The nights were freezing and when it rained the air was crisp and cold. I was wearing all the sweaters and clothes I had basically for this entire portion of the trip. I was so grateful I brought a rain jacket too!
TIP #7 – If your a photographer and your looking to photograph the islands, be sure to bring a lens with some compression along with your wide angle. My two most used lenses of the trip were the 100mm and my 35mm.
Railay Beach – AHH! What to say about this place other than GO THERE! This was our first stop in Thailand and easily one of the very few places Peter and I have traveled to that we both agree we’d love to go back to within the next year. The vibe here is SO relaxed. The whole town is only accessible by long boat only (so there are no cars) and it is soo beautiful!
TIP #8: – We booked our hotel through hotels.com which is awesome because you get a free night for every 10 nights you stay.
We stayed at the Railay Village Resort which has a great location but they didn’t have any kind of a bar or serve alcohol on the premises, and the pool was pretty far from the ocean. A few better options would have been: Railay Bay Resort or the Rayavedee which is the luxury resort and much less expensive in the off season.
We were here in January so it was very busy and there weren’t many hotel options by the time we booked ours. I would recommend having your hotel booked as far in advance as you can to keep costs down and to reserve a rad spot if you’re planning on going anytime during the high season.
HOW TO GET TO RAILAY: Fly into Krabi and check with your hotel if there is a shuttle service to get to Railay through them. We did this and the Railay Village Resort sent a driver to pick us up at the airport, they took us to the dock to our long boat and they lead us right to our rooms. If your hotel doesn’t have an airport transfer, take a taxi to one of the piers in Krabi and you can hire a longboat from there.
Tip #9 – Get up early! We found the best time to explore was before 9am. The beaches were pretty crowded by 11am so if you want to get photographs of secluded white sand, the morning is the time to do it. There are hidden beaches everywhere so don’t be afraid to walk around and find your paradise.
Probably the best day of our entire trip was when we hired a private long boat from Railay for about $100USD for the 5 of us to take us around the nearby islands. Doing this privately was the BEST decision. Our driver took us to Hong Island and Paradise Island and it was so cool getting to be on our own time schedule instead of being herded like cattle onto the big tour boats. Also, Paradise Island was much less crowded when we were there because there were no large tours at the time. I would recommend going as early in the morning as you can to avoid crowds.
Our next stop was the dreamy Santhiya Resort at Koh Yao Yai – This was a complete accident while booking as we actually thought this resort was IN Railay but we soon realized after booking that it was on it’s own island. Luckily, it was perfectly between Railay and Phuket so the stop made sense and was on the way. We took a ferry boat over to Koh Yao Yai from Railay Beach and a taxi over to the resort.
Tip #10- Splurge and get the pool suite… it was seriously the coolest tree bungalow ever, we all loved it so much the first day we ordered in room service because no one wanted to leave the room!
the bar at this hotel was seriously the best ever. The seats were suspended over the ocean and they even had trampoline nets that you could sit on, and then up at the top of the resort you get this view from the infinity pool… so awesome!
Definitely be prepared to spend a bit more money at these fancy resorts, but what would cost thousands of dollars a night in the US costs a fraction of the price (but still can add up to be fairly expensive). I would recommend choosing one “fancy” resort during your stay for a few nights and you’ll get to experience that royal treatment. This resort was absolutely unreal and i’m pretty sure both my mom and dad would have just stayed there forever if we didn’t drag them out of there 😉
Tip #11 – Eat off the resort and it will be much less expensive. However the food at the Santhiya was some of the best, there is great food to be found at the little hole in the wall Thai places on the beach as well.
Tip #12 – Don’t look at the weather forecast! I checked the weather the day before we got to Thailand and it told us it was supposed to pour rain with ZERO hours of sun every single day for 2 weeks, and we only saw rain on maybe 2 days for less than an hour:)
Phuket: I wouldn’t overly recommend spending a lot of time here unless you’re after the party party scene. We stayed in Kata Beach which is more the family friendly party town but we found it to be pretty dirty and crowded. We took a boat tour on ‘The Beach Tours” out to Phi Phi Island one day but we all decided next trip we would stick to the islands and skip the cities as much as we can. We really regretted not booking a place for a few nights out on Koh Phi Phi, the water is crystal clear and it seemed much cleaner and less crowded when we were there for the day. Plus, there is so much exploring to do so close by! If you stayed on the island you could hire a long boat for a day and find secluded beach after secluded beach. Paradise!
Tip #13 – If you’re planning a day trip out to Phi Phi Islands, choose a sunrise tour to beat the crowds and book the tour you want and BOOK IN ADVANCE! The one we wanted (Simba Sea Tours) was sold out by the time we decided to reserve our spots. You can reserve your tour online here.
The first stop on our boat tour was Maya Bay for sunrise (the famous bay from the movie ‘The Beach”) and it really was highlight of this portion of the trip. We realized after looking at the map that we were actually closer to Phi Phi when we were staying in Railay Bay rather than Puhket, so for next time I would keep this in mind when booking tours. Either way, this entire day on the boat was amazing and we were SOO wishing we had brought our drone with us.
The beach was nearly empty when we first arrived and by the time we left about an hour later it was quickly filling up with boat tours and tourists, so the earliest tour you can find the better, or if you’re staying on Koh Phi Phi and you can hire a longboat to get there before the bigger tours that would be even better! Gah I still dream about this place <3
One thing we learned is that Thailand can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be, but personally I don’t think I would want to stay at some of the $9/night accommodations that we saw. We averaged around $100usd per night (high season) and we had very nice rooms, comfortable and clean beds and great pools and amenities. As far as eating goes, we had the best luck when asking local taxi drivers where to go, or finding recommendations on Trip Advisor. Some places were of course more than others for a meal but overall, great food was very inexpensive.
Experiencing Vietnam and Thailand was easily one of my favorite travel destinations so far, and when we go back we would definitely go back to Railay Beach and then tour around some more of the islands. We’d also love to check out Chiang Mai and Koh Samui. In total our trip was 20 days long and we didn’t even crack the surface of Asia exploring, I can totally see why people go there for months now! We’re already dreaming of our next trip, hopefully it will be for an Enchanted Elopement! 😉
Happy Travels friends! xoxo
Meg (+ Peter :))
** if you have any more tips or insight i’d love to hear them in the comments section below! also feel free to share and pin if you feel it may be helpful to anyone headed to asia! thank you so much for being here and i hope you have a beautiful day! xox