here’s our take on this destination
Are you planning a trip to Vietnam and you have no idea where to start? Which cities to visit or what to do once you get there?
Here’s our Trip Itinerary around Vietnam to get you warmed up!
In Autumn of 2017, we travelled for 2 months around Southeast Asia. Our first destination had to be Malaysia since it’s Harris’ home country, and our nominated base for the trip. And from there, our next destination country to visit would be VIETNAM. We didn’t know much about what to expect of this country, if it would meet our expectations, or if its safe, or if we would even like it.
And surprisingly, it did check all the boxes! A country with a totally different culture from what we’ve experienced before, the pros are definitely more than cons. We travelled ultra-light, only with the essentials in our backpacks and spending the least money possible. It wasn’t a luxurious trip, but certainly a trip where we learned a lot.
We decided to start from Hanoi (capital city of Vietnam) located in the north, and finished in Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon, second most important city in the country) located in the south. The route that we chose was: Hanoi → Hai Phong (to Cat Ba Island) → Ha long Bay → Da Nang → Hue → Hoi An → Ho Chi Minh City.
Our trip in Vietnam spanned a total of 14 days. Once we get there, we travelled between cities by plane for longer distances (anything >3 hours by road), and by bus or train over short distances (<3 hours by road). The idea was to save as much as possible but also taking into consideration of the time spent on commute. Obviously within the 14 days we didn’t have enough time to see everything that we wanted. But that’s a good reason for us to return someday!
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and its our first stop in this country. Its both chaotic and exciting as its filled with noise from its never-ending incessant traffic. Crossing the streets was always a challenge as the traffic never waits for you to cross to the other side of the street.
On day 1, we visited the old quarter. It’s full of small streets and small shops full from the floor to the ceiling with all sorts of things. Street markets where they sell a variety of fresh produce. Most of them without food safety control measures like we use to see in Europe or the western developed countries. And all of that bundled with the millions of motorcycles passing close by the sellers as nothing could go wrong lol. We couldn’t stop laughing looking at peculiar things because they just coexist in perfect harmony.
In Hanoi we stayed 3 days + 2 nights and we explored the city on foot with snacks-in-the-backpack. Even in a busy city such as this, you’ll always have an option to book organised excursions. Operators will pick you up at the hotel and drop you off at the end of the tour.
What’s in Hanoi?
The city is divided in two areas:
First, the historical heritage area of the country, which extends along the massive and beautiful Ho Tay Lake. This is where the Ho Chi Minh Musoleum and the Presidential Palace. In the Palace, there’s a War Museum, in addition to the house and gardens where the Vietnamese leader took refuge during the bombings.
Next is the Old Quarter, that’s where all the interesting shops are located, the authentic Vietnam lifestyle thrives in this area.
Another must-do for tourists in Hanoi is to see the train that passes through the city center. Around this densely developed area the streets are very narrow, buildings have been built with all kinds of shops and homes. Certainly amazed us the first time we saw it.
Hai Phong → Cat Ba Island
From Hanoi city, we took a train-ride to Hai Phong. Once we got there we took the ferry to Cat Ba Island and we stayed for 4 days + 3 nights. From Cat Ba Island, we took a full-day boat-tour to Halong Bay.
Cat Ba Island is a small fishing island which thrives mostly on tourism. Its full of restaurants, hostels and hotels for those who want to escape from the noisy cities and enjoy the sea and tranquility. Most visitors choose to stay here as a base to visit Halong Bay.
The citizens of Cat Ba know that Halong Bay is a “must visit” for tourists, thus the main economic activity here are tourism based, from restaurants, shops, hostels…and boat-trips to visit the bay. You have to be careful not to get ripped off by some operator’s prices. Ask in several places and choose the one you like most. There are also cruises for a few days (eg. 3 days + 2 nights or 2 days + 1 night) but we didn’t have much time and decided to do it in just 1 full day.
For our boat-trip to Halong Bay, we chose the company which was in collaboration with the hostel where we stayed. The price was VND400,000 per person (£14) for a full-day visiting few areas of the bay. It included kayaking, snorkeling and lunch with some drinks. The food was rice, some seafood, vegetables and fruits. And the drinks were water and juices. Not a 5-star meal, but it’ll taste great after a day out swimming.
Without any doubt, Halong Bay was the best experience we’ve had in Vietnam and we totally fell in love with it. We could not describe the feeling getting to cruise on the boat among the hundreds of small islands at sunrise.
An overwhelming silence that bristles the skin and where the view stops time. The tiny houseboats in between the islands makes you think about everything we already have but really don’t need. And its small beaches with clear waters where you can take a dip.
From Cat Ba Island, we took the ferry back to Hai Phong. Then we took a local flight to go to Da Nang. Prior to the trip, we looked for tickets to go by train or bus but it took about 16 hours commute, which doesn’t make sense for our cramped schedule.
Since our time here was quite short, we decided to go by plane and it didn’t cost too much. In Da Nang we stayed for 4 days + 3 nights and we did day trips to visit Hue and Hoi An. There are tour vans that ferries tourists return-trip between Da Nang and both cities.
Da Nang is the most important city in the middle of Vietnam. It was known as the city of the bridges as it has several of them to cross the Han River from one side of the city to the other. Among them was the famous Dragon Bridge, which also serves as access to reach the My Khe beach and Non Nuoc beach.
What’s in Da Nang?
– Walk the waterfronts of Bach Dang along the Han River and cross the bridges because none of them look the same. The Dragon Bridge is spectacular when it’s illuminated at night. Every Friday and Saturday comes alive and it also spits fire! Yes, a proper ‘dragon’ lol.
– Visit some of their pagodas. The most prominent is the Linh Ung Pagoda. The dragons and his Sakyamuni Buddha are the main attaction for tourists. One of the wonderful things was the 18 sculptures of Arhats that represents different human emotions. And of course, its gigantic statue of Lady Buddha that stands almost 70 meters high.
– Don’t forget to visit the Golden Bridge located in Ba Na Hills. It’s a massive 150-meter long walkway held by two huge hands, which rises 1,400 meters high above sea level. There, you’ll have stunning views of the city below. Its official name is ‘Cau Vang Bridge’.
From Da Nang to Hué, we decided to take a train which was about 2-1/2 to 3 hours. Also because the train was a more comfortable mode of transport than a bus. The views en route by train are much more beautiful. There’s also an option to take a bus-ride, which was a bit cheaper, but the journey is almost 4 hours.
Hué is the imperial city of Vietnam. They still preserve seven of the imperial tombs from the ancient days. All of them were a pharaonic work in hectares of gardens, temples, artificial ponds and bridges. They followed the principles of feng shui and various geomantic divination methods. For this, Hué is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From Da Nang to Hoi An, we took a bus because it’s only 27 km away. The commute was about 45 minutes.
Without any doubt, Hoi An was for us the prettiest city of all that we visited in Vietnam. It’s a small but magical town. But this makes it horribly touristy and spoils a lot of its charm. The city can be explored in one day but its atmosphere makes you want to stay here longer 🙂
Unlike other cities in Vietnam with its chaotic traffic, Hoi An is very calm in this regard and very walk-able without fear of being hit by traffic at any point of time. It’s a place to walk quietly between its streets and along the river to enjoy its colonial buildings, the Japanese bridge, its shops and especially its coloured lanterns that make this place so special.
Ho Chi Minh
We arrived at our last destination in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh city (or its cooler old name -Saigon). From Da Nang we took a plane to get here since we found a good offer. We also saved a lot of time than with the train or bus options. Never underestimate what you see on Google Maps in relation to distance, because commuting on the roads in Vietnam could take longer than you expect as there might be traffic jams, urban areas and so forth.
Ho Chi Minh is the most important city in the south of Vietnam and also is a lot busier than in Hanoi. We spent only 3 days + 2 nights here but we figured out that it was too much since we got overwhelmed by the traffic.
In addition to loud noises, the air is not the freshest as there were millions of motorcycles, mopeds and scooters. At rush-hour traffic, you could see a blanket of haze over the city. That explains why Vietnamese people wear face masks most of the time. It’s a huge city which is worth visiting at least once. The city has a lot to offer and enjoy, but if we have a chance to visit Vietnam again, I think we would avoid this city… hehehe 😉
What’s in Ho Chi Minh city?
Visit the Ben Thanh Market:
The market is located in the district 1, in the middle of the city. Inside you can find clothes, footwear, fresh products, souvenirs and food stalls where it’s worth stopping for a drink. To buy any product you have to haggle (which we hated because we were horrible at it). We recommend you call-out half of the seller’s offered price they tell you and from there come to an agreement.
Visit The War Remnants Museum:
It is a war museum at 28 Vo Van Tan, in District 3. It houses exhibits relating to the Vietnam War and the first Indochina War involving the French colonialists.
Visit Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon:
Located in the middle of the city, it was built at the end of the 19th century with materials imported from France. It has two bell towers standing 58 meters high. Yes, it does look something like Notre-Dame Paris.
Saigón Central Post Office:
The Central Post Office of Ho Chi Minh is very close to the Basilica. It’s one of the best preserved buildings of the colonial era. It’s a building that is worth visiting due to its architecture and historical values.
Visit at night Pham Ngu Lao Street:
This street is one of the places with more night life in Ho Chi Minh city. Here and the surrounding streets you can find many restaurants, bars and discos that attract a lot of the attention.
It’s also a street that is full of lights at night, so it’s an attraction if you want to take photos. In this area there are also many hotels and hostels at a good price ideal for backpackers. Our hostels were in one of the streets parallel to this.
Visit Cu Chi Tunnels:
One of the most popular excursions in Ho Chi Minh city is to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. They are located 45kms from the city. This place forms a network of interconnected tunnels used by the Viet-cong (National Liberation Front of Vietnam). They were used for hiding and communication systems during the war. There are a total of 120 km of tunnels where they had hospitals, weapons and food storage rooms, meeting rooms, etc.
Other Great Places to Visit in Vietnam
The trip was short and we wished to visit some other places, but our 14 days trip wasn’t enough…hehehe
If you have more time in Vietnam, these are some of our recommendations on very interesting places to visit:
Rice Fields in Sa Pa
It’s located in northwestern of Vietnam and can be reached from Hanoi on the night train. It’s located high-up at 1,500 meters altitude. Known for its intense green rice fields and for its cultural diversity. In this area many of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities live together. Some of the women in the area offer to guide travelers also does help their economy.
To escape the busy, noisy cities and enjoy some of Vietnam’s beaches, you should definitely go through Nha Trang. Some of its best beaches are Doc Let, Bai Dai and Bai Duong.
You can also discover places like the waterfalls of Yang Bay or Ban Ho. Or relax in the thermal waters of Thap Ba. Nha Trang is also the most important diving center in the country. If you are addicted to diving or simply want to snorkel, this is your must-do place.
The Mekong starts in China and flows out to the sea in Vietnam, where this impressive delta is formed, definitely an attractive place to explore. Here you can take boat trips where you can visit the fantastic floating markets on the Mekong and learn about the lifestyle of its inhabitants.
The Bottom Line
If you’re still not convinced by our story, there’s a movie about visiting Vietnam on Netflix : A Tourist’s Guide to Love. It features this story about boy meets girl and fell in love to stay in Vietnam. Here’s the trailer. In the movie, it features the placed we’ve been and gives you a good overview what the country is like to visit.
Now you’re on the idea to see Vietnam? Read our Visiting Vietnam : the Cheat-Sheet as our travel gift for you!