My girlfriend and I have never been to Asia before, so we researched which country would be nice for a longer vacation. Our interests soon fell on Vietnam, because we felt the country had an interesting mixture of beautiful landscapes and organic cities. We also got great recommendations from friends, which is more than often a better source for information than a youtube video. So the decision was made – we are going to Vietnam. Besides that, our flight landed in Bangkok, so we had a chance to see this city at the beginning and the end of our journey too.
Depending where you are from, you need a visa for entering the country (f.e. german citizens can enter Vietnam for 14 days without one). So you might wanna check that out for your case. Since I´m from Austria, I applied for an online Visa which worked very well. For the payment, when you enter the country, you should have 25 Dollars prepared. Paying in Dong would be possible too, but paying in Dollars seems to be the established way.
Time & Weather
The weather in Vietnam is a little bit tricky, since it has three weather zones – North, middle and south. Many tourist informations recommend December to be the best time for traveling. Since it was appealing to me to leave the cold winter in Austria behind, I travelled there in December. But from own experiences and talks with other travelers, I would recommend April or May.
We experienced the north of Vietnam to be rather cold and rainy in December. So visiting Sapa could be not the best experience, depending what you expect. For green rice fields it´s the wrong time for sure. Just keep that in mind. On the other hand, when we visited the Mekong Delta / Saigon there was a very enjoyable climate at this time. Temperatures were around 20-25 degree centigrade and there was only a bit of rain. In Central Vietnam around Hue the weather was moderate.
I think the time around march could offer a more constant and warmer weather, before it gets really hot in summer.
Route & Booking
Most people travel Vietnam either from south to north or the other way around. We decided to go from north to south, so after landing in Bangkok we flew to Hanoi after two days.
I would recommend to book just a hotel for the first nights in Hanoi. You can easily book the rest (yes – the whole holiday) spontaneous from one stay to another. When you are finally there, everything else might be different than you would think. Of course it’s good to know approximately what you want to see, but too much pre planning and booking isn´t really an advantage, since for example you don’t know how the weather will be or if you like a place or not. We experienced the hosts of our accommodations to be very helpful for our spontaneous bookings, for example they gave us good tips on what to do next, organized transportation (to the hotel) and even trips for little money.
All of the transportation systems in Vietnam have nice online platforms to book tickets (e.g. one day) in advance. We booked the tickets for domestic flights directly via the apps of the airlines and for the train and bus tickets we decided to use the website www.baolau.com (direct booking via bus and train companies would have been possible, but to us the use of this website was more comfortable). The required payment is of course by credit card. When you go by train just keep in mind you have to bring a printed ticked (also required for online tickets!) – if you can’t print at your accommodation look for the printing machine at the train station where you can print the ticket with the QR-code of your online ticket. For traveling by bus you can buy online tickets too, but you wanna ask at a local station, where and when your bus leaves. Private cars are also a good option. We had a one hour drive into the country side and paid around 15$/€. Scooter taxis, for example from Hoi An to Hue are also very common, if you don´t have too much luggage.
How we travelled Vietnam
If you come from a western country, Hanoi is just something else, but in a very good way. There live about seven million people and the public transportation is not really build up for all these people. So you can expect scooters driving around all around the city for the whole day. Crossing the streets is always an adventure, but not too dangerous if you follow the “rules”. The speed of the drivers in general is not really fast, so I experienced the traffic system (not in the beginning) to be rather safe.
The prices for Hotels are (yet) not very expensive, so I would recommend you to spend a little bit more, so you have same quality time.
The city it self offers many things to do. Typically you wanna explore the old town. A good start for this could be around the area the Hoan Kiem Lake. From there you´ll reach all attractions by foot. The temple of literature and the Citadel are to me must-sees. Walking around the train tracks through the city is also a really cool experience. There you can get a good glimpse on how the people live and they aren´t bothered by tourists, especially if you are friendly (try to learn at least a few words in Vietnamese like “xin cháo” (hello) or “cam on” (thank you)) . Of course, the street food and the food in general is really good. You definitely need to try a pho, which is basically a rice-noodle soup with extras. Optionally you can order it with meat (e.g. chicken or beaf). It is served with a lot of fresh herbs and limes, which makes the taste very delicious and fresh. The night market from Friday to Sunday is also very nice for shopping and street food. In between you might wanna just relax and drink an excellent Vietnamese coffee (cà phê phin) with condensed milk. I can also recommend an egg coffee, but that´s not everyones cup of tea 😉
The landscape of the Halong Bay (which is located about 170km to the west of Hanoi) is just breath-taking. You shouldn’t leave the north without going there. Many agencies and boat companies offer different tours (duration, route, quality) around the bay. We booked a rather expensive tour with Signature Cruises – 3 days and 2 nights – which was absolutely worth it. The boat in general (crew, cabin, food, activities) was just amazing. The highlights to us were visiting an old floating fishing village with an oyster farm, kayaking through the Bai Tu Long Bay (a part of the Halong Bay, where not that many tourists come) and the cooking classes (we made different kinds of spring rolls) with Nancy, our very nice host of the crew, on board. Despite some rain, the trip was awesome.
The landscapes of around Ninh Binh (which is located about 90km to the south of Hanoi) are really beautiful and are called “Halong Bay on land” for a good reason. We had only a day trip there, what I kind of regret – next time I would definitely rent a room there (preferably at the riverside) and I would recommend you to do so. I enjoyed every second of our stay in Ninh Binh. At the beginning of our trip we visited the old imperial town Hoa Lu. After that we had a boat trip through Tam Coc. Two (to max. 4) persons sit in the boat with a local, who rows the boat by feet. You might wanna give them a tip after the tour, since they are paid very little. Our tour included a short bike tour after lunch (and I imagine biking / hiking or a motorbike tour through this landscape must be simply great). We finished our trip with a visit of the Mua Caves and climbing the scenic mountain “Sleeping Dragon”.
Phong Nha (Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Parc)
In 2009 the biggest cave with it´s own eco system – the Hang Sơn Đoòngcave – has been discovered in the area of Phong Nha (about 500km to the south of Hanoi). This particular cave is very expensive to enter, but there are so many other beautiful caves around, where can enter by paying a reasonable price.
We arrived by train near the coast at Dong Hoi. From there you either take the bus or like we did – get a private car (organized by your hotel) or a taxi to Phong Nha. I recommend to book a tour for exploring the area. Depending on what you are up to, you´ll find a cool tour provided by various agencies. Since we wanted to explore the jungle we decided to take the “Abandoned Valley Tour” from the company Jungle Boss. They provided us with good walking shoes, which are definitely needed. Even if you have your own trekking shoes, you wanna use theirs because during the trip it gets very muddy and sometimes you basically walk through a river. The hike itself through the jungle is amazing, but also very slippery and exhausting. I´ve never been in jungle before, so I was really overwhelmed by the nature. We also explored two caves. The first – “Dark cave” was by foot and we went around 700m meters into it. We got provided with a helmet with a light on it and gloves. The experience when we turned off the lights in the cave was quite interesting. Into the second cave – E cave – we had to swim with provided life wests, which was also really cool. After that we had dinner – we rolled our own fresh spring roles in the middle of the jungle. After we went out of the jungle and got back to the hotel, we were really exhausted, but this was for sure one of the highlights of this holiday.
There are lots of other caves you can visit – also with less physical effort. On our departure day we decided to visit Phong Nha Cave. To visit, you enter a boat at Phong Nha. You have to pay for the entry ticket and separately for the boat – we shared our boat (which can carry up to 12 people) with other tourists, so we got a very cheap price for the boat. The boat carries you up the river to Phong Nha Cave and you even enter the stalactite cavern by boat. The stalactites in this cave are nicely illuminated, but to me the caves on our “Abandoned Valley Tour” were more special.
Hue, the old emperor city, in Central Vietnam is definitely worth a visit. It´s very famous for its old imperial city (The Citadel), which is an amazing and very big area where you can get lost for some hours and get an impression how the past emperors and their families must have lived. During our visit we found a small cafe in the area of the residence of the mother of the emperor (Cung Diên Tho) – a really perfect place to relax and enjoy some Vietnamese coffee.
Hue is also known for its emperor graves, which are really spectacular. They are located outside of the city, may wanna arrange a tour with a private driver with a fixed price to see them all. We only had the chance to see one grave – Khai Dinh – which is said to be the most splendid of the emperor tombs. Khai Dinh tomb was really impressive to see and I think the other tombs might be as well.
The food in Hue is also worth mentioning. There are lots of local specialities; some really iconic dishes you should go for are e.g. banh nam (banana leaf-wrapped flat rice dumpling), Banh Beo (steamed Rice Cakers), Banh Loc Goi (Tapioca Dupmplings) or Nem Lui (Hue Lemongrass Skewers). We got great tips for local (street) food at our hotel and I’m sure you will get great recommendations too if you ask.
Although Hoi An in Central Vietnam is already rather touristic, it´s a very nice place to visit. There are many shops and restaurants in the center of the old quarter (which is the only completely preserved old town in Vietnam) and there is an regular celebration at night, where they put many lanterns into the river, which looks just beautiful. There are lots of ancient buildings, like the Japanese Bridge or Chinese Temples or Assembly Halls or just old trading houses, which are all great to explore.
The My Son Sanctuary (25 km outside of Hoi An) is also a great visit. About 70 temples of the Cham people are still preserved and the temple complex kinda feels like a small version of Angkor Wat. You should probably visit it in the morning, because it can get very crowded and hot in the afternoon.
The landscape around the area of Hoi An is also very nice (rice fields, small towns, river side). You may wanna rent a scooter like we did and just drive a bit around. The traffic is also not that crazy, so you should be fine, if you have no experience (like us) in scooter driving. If you want to have a destination for your scooter-trip: Monkey Mountain was recommended to us, but unfortunately we didn’t had the time
Ho Chi Minh City | Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon in the South of Vietnam is really different to the rest of Vietnam. The amount of people driving with scooters all day through the city is really the next level. Sure, it can be a bit stressful, but this crazy traffic also reflects the energy of the city. You may wanna start your visit at the main square in the city center, also known as District 1. The city center is pretty amazing and modern, mixed with some typical small Vietnamese buildings / markets and the remains of the french colonial rule like the Ho Chi Minh City Peoples Committee or the Cathedral Notre dame of Saigon.
To get an overview of the enormous dimensions of Ho Chi Minh City we went up the Bitexco Financial Tower – Saigon Skydeck. Since the city is rather big and the sights are not in walking distance from each other, you wanna grab a scooter taxi to explore Saigon. It is not expensive and they are very experienced drivers, which is handy for the traffic.
If you are interested in how the people live in Saigon, you wanna just turn left or right into a small street. I guarantee you will have great experiences with the locals there – wether by having a small chat, by trying local food and drinks or just by taking up all impressions. We always found little markets and restaurants, sometimes even amazing temples or pagodas like the Jade Emperor Pagoda. The people in Saigon were very friendly and appreciated it, that we were interested in them and their country. In some other countries it is certainly not recommended to enter unknown areas, but in Saigon it isn´t a problem – we felt really safe like in the rest of Vietnam.
Apart from the city center we explored the Chinatown of Saigon. There is a big market (Binh Tay Market) and there are also some nice old chinese temples to find. You should give the city a chance. The hectic traffic can be a turn off, but I wouldn´t want to miss the time we spent in Saigon.
The Mekong Delta was also a highlight of our trip. You can easily plan 4 days there if you want to. We were told you could / should only visit the Mekong Delta by a guided group, but since we had enough of guided tours, we decided to go on our own nevertheless. And despite what we’ve been told it was really easy to book a bus ticket (via Futa Bus lines); you could book online as well, but we decided to go to the bus office which provided a great service. When we arrived at our chosen destination (My Tho), the bus company even drove us in a separate van to our hotel, which was very nice. We had two nights there, so we booked a Mekong scooter tour with a local guide via our accommodation when we arrived. We got the scooter already the day we arrived so we drove trough the My Tho for a while, checked out the market and had nice dinner at the riverside.
We started our private scooter tour at 7 am and had to drive about 30 minutes to Cai Be and its floating market so we only saw the closing of the market. The floating markets of the Mekong Delta are very famous, but if you really want to see them, I think you should be at the market area at around 6 or 6.30 am and pay someone from the market to take you with them. We continued our tour by visiting a coconut candy fabric and drive through the breathtaking landscapes of the area – the Mekong and it little sidearms, the banana and coconut trees, the rice fields and small villages, the snake market and brick factory, the nearly untouched landscapes … it’s hard to put in words how amazing this tour really was. You could do the driving probably on your own, but our guide first of all prepared a nice route and he knew where to cross the Mekong and where you had to buy tickets for the ferry. The trip ended with visits of two little islands in the Mekong near My Tho, where I finally tasted the notorious Durian fruit, which was actually pretty good after all.
The experience of traveling Vietnam for three weeks was truly amazing. The combination of the beautiful landscapes, the crazy cities and the friendly warm hearted people just left great memories. The prices of hotels and food aren´t very high, you probably do your self a little favor, if you spend a little bit more on a good place and nice food, so you have enough energy to see everything you want. Since the North was rather cold and rainy in December, we might come back and visit the area of Sapa another time.