A Guide to the Guidebooks

by Steven K. Bailey, May 1, 1999 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

A trip to Vietnam requires all sorts of preparation from visas to airline tickets. One of the most enjoyable of these pre-trip preparations is browsing through the bookstore looking for the right travel guide. I can spend hours doing this and often have. Sometimes I do this even when I'm not going anywhere but wish I was--after all guidebooks can be a vicarious form of travel. Usually I'm readying myself for another trip overseas however, and want a reliable source of information. Over the years I've used guidebooks everywhere from Alaska to Africa, San Francisco to Saigon. I've become a bit of a guidebook connoisseur, and what follows is my advice for selecting the right guidebook for your trip.

Country Guide or Regional Guide?

First off, you need to decide if you want a country guide that covers only Vietnam, or a regional guide that covers all of Southeast Asia. Obviously, a country guide remains the best choice if you are going only to Vietnam. The decision becomes more complicated if you are traveling to more than one country in the region. You'll have to decide if you want to carry individual guidebooks for each country you'll visit or just pack one all-encompassing regional guide. A single regional guide will probably weigh less and take up a smaller amount of space in your pack. However, it will also contain less detail on any specific country. In fact, regional guides are usually just the condensed versions of the same publisher's country guides collected under one cover.

Myself, I prefer a regional guide because I'm never sure where I'll end up in Southeast Asia. If I pack a country guide to Burma, then I'm sure to end up going to Laos instead, so I find it's best to have one overall guide for the entire region. If I end up wanting a specific country guide, I borrow it from a fellow traveler or buy one in country. These days all the major guidebooks are available in the larger cities of Southeast Asia. The industrious bootleg publishers of Vietnam even offer xeroxed-copies of Lonely Planet guides for sale at rock-bottom prices, but then again, the book falls apart after a few weeks of use.

Budget Bias and Travel Styles

Definitely make sure that the guidebook you bring on your trip is geared to your budget. Most guidebooks have a budget bias. For example, some guidebooks assume their readers have travel budgets sufficient for luxury hotels, French dinners and rental cars. Others assume their readers have more modest budgets in the $15-30 a day range. Nothing is more frustrating to me than a guidebook that only lists hotels in mid- to up-market range; in Southeast Asia I generally pay between six to twelve dollars a night for a room. The room rates for Saigon's deluxe Hotel Majestic aren't much use to me, but more well heeled travelers might want just that sort of information. The key is to know your budget and match it to the right guide.

Just as guidebooks cater to different budgets, they also cater to different travel styles. Some guides are geared to younger travelers looking for nightlife, some to older travelers looking to shop. Some cater to military veterans; some are geared to college students. Some are written for the independent budget traveler--the impecunious backpacker--while others are penned for businesspeople on expense accounts. Some concentrate on ecotravel; some focus on adventure travel and so on. My advice here is to figure out what kind of traveler you want to be on your trip, then find the book for your needs.

You Have Pre-read to Prepare

For reasons of weight, it makes sense to bring only one guidebook on your trip, but you should still pre-read other guidebooks before boarding that airplane. Remember that no one guidebook does the trick; a mix of books provides the best information for a Vietnam-bound traveler. Guidebooks that are heavy on the background and history of the country are good ones to read before your trip. You don't need to bring them with you. The nuts and bolts how-to guides are the ones you want with you in Hanoi or Hue. After all, a guidebook that discusses the Nguyen Dynasty or the Trung Sisters makes great reading, but it won't find you a decent breakfast in Danang or a bus ticket to Nha Trang.

Just One of Many Travel Tools

Keep in mind that while guidebooks are great travel tools, they are just one of the many handy items available in your tool kit. The best sources of information come from what you see and hear as you travel. My best guidebook is the one I've compiled in my head as I've bumbled my way around Asia over the years. Another invaluable source of information comes from what other travelers tell you. Many of the best hotels, guesthouses, cafes and restaurants I've found over the years I discovered because a traveler or local person tipped me off. Guidebooks have their place, but work best in concert with other sources of information.

Guidebooks Have Their Limits

Last but not least, guidebooks are not perfect. No guidebook can be an all-inclusive source of information; it's impossible to keep up with the rapidly changing travel conditions of Southeast Asia. I consider guidebooks to be invaluable sources of general information--for example, where the budget traveler district lies in a given city. However, I think guidebooks are far less reliable for specific information, such as why a certain guesthouse in that district is such a good deal. I don't know how many times I've gone in search of a hotel or guesthouse recommended by a guidebook, only to discover that its prices have gone way up (or occasionally, way down), that it does not live up to its enthusiastic billing or that it has just plain disappeared.

Over-reliance on guidebooks just breeds frustration, because guidebooks are starting to get out of date before they've even been printed. For this reason, no matter how good they are, they will occasionally let you down at key moments. Like late trains and no vacancy signs, this is an unavoidable hazard of the traveling life. Expect this and then roll with it. After all, the train will always get you to your destination eventually. So will your guidebook, if you choose one wisely.

A Closer Look

Well okay, none of the guides below are going to win the best original title award, but nonetheless these books have a lot to offer Vietnam-bound travelers. I can recommend them all, but which one is actually best for you depends on what you want from a guidebook. The brief descriptions below should help you figure out which book is right for your own personal style. As with travel companions, it makes sense to be picky when choosing a guidebook.

Lonely Planet's Vietnam (Fourth Edition, 1997), by Robert Storey and Daniel Robinson. Lonely Planet. $16.95.

Without a doubt this is the most common guidebook used by travelers in Vietnam. It's a nuts and bolts how-to guide designed for budget travelers. If you want to know where to stay for cheap in Danang or how to catch public transport to Buon Ma Thuot, this is the book for you. Its small size and weight is a plus, as is its sturdy construction. One drawback is that because virtually every traveler in Vietnam carries one, you might reasonably ask yourself why you should bother to buy a copy. I didn't bring one to Vietnam, but whenever I wanted to have a look I'd simply borrow one from a fellow traveler.

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook (Second Edition, 1998), by Michael Buckley. Moon Publications. $18.95.

This detailed and up-to-date guidebook is obviously competing with Lonely Planet's Vietnam for readers. In fact, the two books are remarkably similar in layout and content, although the Moon book sports smoother prose and a series of excellent "Special Topic" sidebars that cover everything from the ao dai to betelnut chewing. The author emphasizes the informal "traveler network" that operates through certain cafes, bars, and guesthouses found in Vietnam, since by his own admission this grapevine is a far better source of information than any guidebook.

The Vietnam Guidebook (Third Edition, 1994), by Barbara Cohen. Houghton Mifflin. $19.95.

This is a great book for anyone returning to Vietnam who has an interest in what the locals call the American War. Barbara Cohen herself served with the US Army Medical Corps in Vietnam from 1970 to 71. With American veterans in mind, Cohen's book focuses on the historic sights related to the war years. However, there's plenty here for those travelers not interested in military history. This book is an excellent source of background information, but is not really a how-to guide. Includes a chapter on Angkor Wat, but oddly the book covers no other place in Cambodia.

Vietnam (First Edition, 1995). The Gioi Publishers of Hanoi. $15.00.

This book is meant to be more of a compendium of information about the country than a how-to travel guide. This book makes for good pre-trip reading. Everything you ever wanted to know about Vietnam, from annual rice production to the nomenclature of ethnic minorities, can be found in this book. Written by a Vietnamese author, this book will tell you about Vietnam through the eyes of a knowledgeable local--a nice balance to all those guidebooks written by Western authors.

The Rough Guide to Vietnam (First Edition, 1997), by Jan Dodd and Mark Lewis. Rough Guides. $15.95.

Despite the name, this practical guidebook does not cater exclusively to budget travelers. Alongside cheap guesthouses in Saigon, for example, the book also lists luxury hotels like the Majestic and Continental. Though Rough Guides is a London-based outfit, their guidebooks are not particularly Eurocentric. In fact, this book lists travel agents, airline offices, and embassies found in the United States, Canada, and Australia as well as Great Britain. I liked the common-sense advice of the authors. Their section on traveler's health, for example, points out that while inoculations and malaria pills are certainly a good idea, washing your hands frequently in Vietnam is just as likely to keep you healthy.

Fielding's Vietnam: Including Cambodia and Laos (1997), by Wink Dulles. Fielding Worldwide. $19.95.

As far as I know this is the only guidebook to have the honor of being banned by the Vietnamese government. (Could the fact that Wink Dulles is the cousin of a former head of the CIA have anything to do with this?) Fortunately this decree has since been revoked and both Dulles and his book are now welcome in Vietnam. He is opinionated and politically minded--which may explain why his book was banned--and places less emphasis on temples, pagodas and other "cultural" aspects than other guidebook authors. He says that this guidebook is "designed to be more fun than the penurious tones and dull squeaking of the backpacking guides, with less of the air-conditioned sterility of the business guides." All in all a well-written and no-nonsense guidebook. Contains an entire section for those doing business in Vietnam.

Lonely Planet's Southeast Asia on a Shoestring (Ninth Edition, 1997), by Chris Taylor, Peter Turner, Joe Cummings, and Brendan Delahunty. Lonely Planet. $21.95.

This classic guidebook is like the Jeep--it's evolved over the years and changed its style somewhat, but when you need to get from A to B, it'll still get you there no matter what. Probably the most famous of the Lonely Planet guidebooks, it covers every Southeast Asian country plus Hong Kong and Macau. It's perfect for me, since I generally hit 2-4 countries each time I travel in the region. However, if you want truly in-depth information about Vietnam, get Lonely Planet's more detailed country guide.