Vietnam may not look it on the map, but it is a big country. To travel from one end to the other is a journey of several thousand kilometres and takes quite a while. If you’re short on time, as we were, and find yourself with only a couple of weeks to do it, you may need to skip a few things. We had to prioritise, so we picked out what we knew were the best bits of Vietnam, based on recommendations from friends who’ve been and what we knew.
This is a rough map of the route we took:
The first question we asked ourselves was where to start. We decided to fly into Hanoi and travel down to Hoi Chi Minh City as we felt this was the most popular route. It is also quite nice to start in the more chilly part of the country. By the time you’ve arrived in the hot and sticky south you have acclimatised to the heat. Although, we met lots of travellers heading in the opposite direction so it really didn’t seem to matter.
Day One – Hanoi
We landed in Hanoi on a Sunday afternoon and to beat the jet jag forced ourselves to stay awake and explore the city sites. After checking in to Central Backpackers in the heart of the Old District we went for a wander around the Old Town and Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of the city. The hostel is a great base to explore from, especially when you only really have one afternoon in the city and are a bit jetlagged, so don’t fancy walking too far.
We’d been warned about the traffic in Vietnam, but even so, it took us a while to get used to just stepping out into a seemingly unbroken flow of mopeds, cars, buses and bicycles. But, as promised, they parted around us and provided we kept moving it all worked out ok. Panicked stopping in the middle of the road is the worst thing you can do, as Antie found out. Although she managed to avoid injury, thankfully.
Hanoi is famous for its food, particularly the blend of French and Asian flavours, but more on that in our Guide to Food in Vietnam to come.
After a wander round the old town, some bun cha and a visit to the Temple of the Jade Mountain on a small island in the lake, we headed back to the hostel to crash out before our Ha Long Bay tour the next day. Central Backpackers, does have nightly bar crawls and is very sociable, we just weren’t there for long enough and were exhausted from the flight over.
Day Two/ Three – Ha long Bay
A true natural wonder, Ha Long Bay is an absolute must see. If you’re going to Vietnam, you have to go to Ha Long Bay. No question about it. Home to 9000 islands, it’s a natural wonder on a par with the Grand Canyon in scale and beauty.
Most hostels, and plenty of travel agents in Hanoi, will be able to organise a boat cruise for you. Whether you want to spend one night, two nights or even three nights on the boat and/or sleeping on one of the islands, there’s something for everyone. Being a little pressed for time, we opted for the one night choice, but with hindsight would have preferred to spend a bit more time there, if only for the chance to sleep on Monkey Island and swim with bioluminescent plankton at night.
As we mentioned in our Top 10 Tips for Vietnam post, Central Backpackers cruise is a good level of party if you’re looking to have fun and get a bit boozy without ending up with your eyelids taped open in some sado-masochistic game of Ring of Fire. We’ve also got to give them credit for the amazing food that was served up on board. It far exceeded our expectations!
We arrived back into Hanoi on the second day at around 4:30pm and had a couple of hours to collect our bags, thoughts and some food for the overnight train journey we were about to embark on from Hanoi to Da Nang.
Overnight Train Journey to Da Nang
This is worthy of its own section as it was both amazingly easy to organise and a real experience in itself. Booking online before we arrived in Vietnam via Vietnam Impressive, couldn’t have been easier. We strolled into the station to find our train was on the nearest platform and with clearly marked coaches and births, before settling down for the 17 hour journey ahead.
Berthed in a four bunk sleeper cabin, the journey was easy, safe, clean and ultimately great fun. We were gently rocked asleep by the motion of the train as we sped our way from Hanoi south, before waking up (I was rudely prodded awake by Antonia to ‘take some photos!’) to find the sun rising over the endless miles of paddy fields we were whizzing through. After a couple of stops we arrived in Da Nang and were met by our hotel’s representative who drove us straight to pretty Hoi An. (This journey took about 45 minutes.)
Day Four/ Five – Hoi An
Hoi An is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site and we could well see why. Its old town is beautiful, with painted yellow walls, climbing plants adding accents of green everywhere and lanterns strung across the streets lighting up at night adding a red glow. Curiously they also pump out old school French music (think Django Reindhart) in the early evenings from speakers on every street corner. It sounds kitsch and invasive, but actually manages to be pleasant and add to the atmosphere.
We stayed just out of the Old Town centre at the Sunshine Hotel, which was recommended to us by a friend of Antonia’s who had stayed there the previous year. As a couple it was a nice place to retreat back to and relax, but there are plenty of hostels and more lively places for backpackers.
Most accommodation in Hoi An will offer free bikes to either potter around the town on or to cycle over to the nearby beaches (approx. 2km away). The beach is well worth visiting, it is a beautiful stretch of sand with fun waves to play in.
We spent the two days we had there visiting Kimmy’s tailor, getting clothes made and shopping for trinkets, sitting on the beach and enjoying good food on the waterfront. Hoi An was easily one of our favourite places in Vietnam. If you have longer, we’d definitely recommend spending more time here.
Day Six – Nha Trang
We’d heard mixed things about Nha Trang, but decided to see for ourselves. We flew down from Da Nang and again took advantage of the offer of a car from our hostel, but quickly realised it wasn’t really the place for us. It’s very built up, with high rise buildings right up to the edge of the beach and extremely busy with tourists.
Unless you’re looking for a massive night out, or perhaps to buy a new pair of Converse trainers in their shop there, we’d suggest skipping Nha Trang entirely.
Day Seven/Eight – Mui Ne
Mui Ne is Nha Trang’s antithesis. It’s small, low-rise, pretty and although clearly popular with tourists, not too busy and far less commercial.
We stayed for two nights at Cat Sen Auberge in a pretty bungalow surrounded by lush gardens with a hammock and chickens pottering around (we could easily have stayed here for a whole week!).
It was nice to spend some time relaxing on the beach, watching the kite surfers and tasting amazing seafood in a restaurant recommended to us by Thung (the owner of Cat Sen Auberge). Although it took us rather a long time to sit down and eat our seafood feast as Antie was distracted by the two puppies frolicking around the restaurant.
Day Nine/Ten – Da Lat
Feeling relaxed after a couple of days in Mui Ne, it was time to up the pace and head into the mountains for some adventure. We boarded a bus for Da Lat and bounced our way along mountain roads, round hairpin turns and eventually wound our way up to this busy little town in the highlands. Located 1,500m above sea level, Da Lat is hardly alpine, but its altitude definitely helps it being a bit cooler and fresher than the coastal towns and cities.
We stayed in the wonderful Wolfpack hostel, which, again, we were recommended. We cannot praise it highly enough. The staff were amazingly friendly and welcoming, the hostel itself is lively, fun and extremely sociable and best of all they do a ‘Family Dinner’ every evening in the communal area. This is simply a chance for everyone who wants to, to sit on cushions on the floor and chat over a delicious meal cooked by the hotel staff and for just $3/pp you get more food than you could possibly eat. It’s delicious and I’m fairly sure Pete ate 15 spring rolls alone.
The hostel also organise canyoning for anyone who wants to do it and apparently it’s some of the cheapest and best in town. The guys at Highland Sport Travel come and collect you from the hostel, before guiding you through a series of abseils, jumps and slides before depositing you exhausted, wet and giddy with adrenaline back at the hostel. A well spent $30!
Day Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen – Saigon
Again, being pushed for time, we opted to fly from Da Lat to Saigon with Vietnam Airlines. Finding ourselves back in a sweaty, busy city was a bit of a shock to the system, but we quickly acclimatised and enjoyed wandering around Saigon’s busy streets in search of food, shopping and museums.
We stayed at the New Saigon Hostel, which again was excellent. The staff spoke excellent English and were very friendly and the rooms were clean, comfortable and reasonably priced. Although it is more like a hotel than a hostel, so isn’t hugely sociable.
Our first day involved a rather intense trip to the War Remnants Museum and its fascinating exhibits on the French colonial era, the Vietnam War, the subsequent recovery and Communist period. As well as some excellent war photography exhibits from the likes of Tim Page, Robert Capa and notable Vietnamese photographers.
Although depressing, it is well worth a visit to gain some (not entirely unbiased) insight into the Vietnam War. This combined with a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels the same afternoon meant we had a rather Vietnam War heavy first full day, but all in all, well worth the visit to both. The Cu Chi Tunnels were fascinating and gave a real insight into why the Americans lost the war and how. There’s also the chance to actually get into the tunnels and gain some sense of what they must have been like to fight and live in.
The following day, having not really had any clear feedback on the Mekong River, we decided to go on a full day tour of the Mekong River, but (as we wrote in our Top Tips piece) it’s probably not worth it if you’re short on time. Instead, although we didn’t get to do it, we’d recommend checking out With Locals (a local dining experience a friend had done and recommended highly) and perhaps a cooking course if you’ve not already done one by now.
If you’re unsure how to explore such a big city and pick out its highlights, the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam has an excellent walking tour, which we did and thoroughly enjoyed. Although you can probably skip some of the Communist monuments. You’ll have seen enough of them by this point.
Saigon has many, many great restaurants, but we’d recommend trying Temple Club for a glimpse of old colonial Saigon hidden away on the first floor of a building down an innocuous side street. Book ahead as they get busy.
After some last-minute shopping, one final trip to get a full body massage and a risky decision by Antie to get a hair cut for 80,000 dong (£2.30)- with a surprisingly good result – it was time to head home.