Vietnam tourism is exploding at the moment, no longer is it the reserve of the intrepid explorer, it’s pretty big business. On my recent trip to ‘Nam I met all kinds of people, from 18yr old wide-eyed backpackers to retirees on a trip of a lifetime and everything in between. It’s a blimmin’ massive country with so much to see and do it can be hard to wade through the guide books and decide which places should make it onto your Vietnam itinerary.
I spent 6 weeks in Vietnam, travelling from south to north, entering from the land border with Cambodia. I initially entered on a 1 month (30 day) single entry visa, but almost immediately knew I would want to extend my trip. I would absolutely recommend you get at least a 1month (30 day) Visa to see the whole country, but if you have more time it’s worth getting a 3 month visa straight off as it works out cheaper than renewing, I learnt that the hard way! If you only have 2 weeks to spare I would choose either north or south, otherwise you’ll be spending most of your trip seeing the country from a bus or train window!
I’ve put together a 1 month Vietnam itinerary based on my experiences, but you could easily add in a couple of destinations or take a few out, it’s up to you, there are no hard and fast rules here people. I’ve also made accommodation suggestions which are a mixture of low to mid range hotels, bungalows and private rooms in hostels. I found that our money went further in some locations and not so much in others, so we mixed it up a bit.
Phu Quoc – 3 nights
My first destination in Vietnam and it was a dream! It’s a reasonably big island so close to Cambodia that you can see the beaches of Kep on the other side of the water. There are regular flights from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, or like me you can ride the Super Dong (yes, really!) from Ha Tien, which only takes 90 mins and is actually really comfortable for a ferry.
What to do: sunbathe, snorkel, Scuba diving, scooter riding to see all the beautiful secluded beaches, visit the markets and watch the sun set over the water. Proper chill.
Where to stay: There are some super fancy hotels on PQ, mostly round the main town. Duong Dong. We stayed in the old village just to the south of Duong Dong at The Simplest Phu Quoc village. Super cute little bungalows, with AC in beautiful gardens and a nice pool we couldn’t believe our luck, as it was only £13 ($16.7/€14.7) a night.
Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon – 3 nights
The city formally known as Saigon….actually, lets be real everyone still calls it Saigon. This city is a huge modern metropolis, and the place to be if you want to learn about the Vietnam War, or the American war as the locals know it.
What to do: Book a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels to see all the gruesome ways the Viet Cong trapped American GIs. Buy all sorts of tat quality goods at Ben Thanh market, a huge covered market that’s like a rabbit warren of clothes, souvenirs, food and loads of other stuff. Visit the War Remnants Museum to learn about the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective, be prepared for plenty of gruesome photos! Drink, eat, get a tattoo or massage in Pham Ngu Lao back packer district. Take a tour to the Mekong delta to take a glimpse at rural life in Vietnam.
Where to stay: 23 town house is in between PNL backpacking district and Ben Thanh Market, and a 2 minute walk from the airport shuttle bus stop. It’s a hostel that doesn’t feel like a hostel, with really modern and fresh private doubles and a decent free breakfast for £25 ($32/€28) per night.
Mui Ne- 2 nights
4 hours by bus from Saigon is the beach resort of Mui Ne, famous for kite/wind surfing and a popular weekend destination for people in the city. There are miles and miles of beach, but as it’s super windy it’s not really a sun bathing kinda place. What it is great for is water sports, eating seafood and seeing some amazing sand dunes!
What to do: kite/wind surfing, I didn’t do it but there are plenty of one day classes if you want to give it a bash. Full day Jeep tour to see the old fishing village, fairy stream, quad biking on the white sand dunes and sun set/sledging on the red dunes. If you’re in Mui Ne on a weekend head to Dragon Beach Club, it’s an open-air club and plays a mix of electro & chart. When we were there it had a really friendly crowd of locals and tourists, just don’t drink a shot of tequila with every cocktail like I did, ouch!
Where to stay: We stayed in the Mui Ne Sports Hotel, which was good value for money if a little out of the centre. However, it is right next to the best place to eat in town, Dong Vui food court and taxi’s along the beach are cheep and easy to flag down. £18/$26/€23 per night.
Dalat- 3 nights
Dalat is an old French colonial town up in the mountains known as the land of eternal spring because of its year round cool weather. If like us you’re taking the 4ish hour bus ride from Mui Ne be careful who you book with. We just took who ever our hotel recommended (no doubt the company with the biggest kick backs for them). And were crammed into the back of a very cramped mini bus with no suspension and an engine that kept cutting out. Every time we went over a tiny bump my arse lifted clean off the seat and my head hit the ceiling. FOUR BLIMMIN HOURS of this and I felt like I had whiplash, so for the love of jeebus go with a reputable company like Hanh Café or Futa bus.
What to do: Crazy house is probably the biggest attraction in town. A sort of fairy tale house made to look like trees and creatures. It reminded me a lot of the Gaudi buildings in Barcelona, and you can even stay in one of their quirky rooms for the night. Take the cable car up to the monastery or stroll around the beautiful lake and take a swan pedalo out on the water like the local newly weds do. Or if all of that sounds too tame go canyoning, hiking, rappelling, motor biking or mountain biking with a tour company like Phat Tires.
Where to stay: We stayed at Dreams Hotel, which was a short walk from the town centre, nice rooms with a huge comfy bed and an actual bath, not just a shower. Amazing after a day of hiking for those sore muscles. They also do a really good free breakfast and the staff their couldn’t be more charming and helpful. The rooftop Jacuzzi was being refurbished when we were there, but it’ll be incredible once it’s ready for guests. £15/$18/€16
Nha Trang 1 night
Nha Trang really wasn’t my bag. It’s a beach resort town with huge hotels with Russian and Chinese tourists arriving by the coach load. The beach it’s self is pretty nice, but I found it a bit soulless.
However, as it’s a long way from Dalat to Danang, we stayed one night in Nha Trang before getting the sleeper train up to Danang. Trains can be booked on 12go.asia or in person at the station. The best beds sell out, so buy your ticket as soon as possible. We booked a 1st class, soft sleeper, lower bunk departing at 20:50 arriving at 06:15 for £20/$25/€22. The lower bunk is slightly more expensive, but totally worth it as there is no ladder to get into the top bunk. Fine if you’re some kind of gymnast, but I think I would have looked more like a drunk Orangutan trying to get up there.
Danang/Hoi An- 4 nights
There is LOADS to see and do in Danang and Hoi An, which is why I’ve suggested 4 days there. We actually stayed for 7 days, basing our selves near the old town in Hoi An and travelling around the wider area. Danang is the 3rd biggest city in Vietnam, a modern sprawling metropolis with glass sky scrapers, and an impressive dragon bridge and some very expensive beach resorts and hotels. This is where you will arrive by train/plane/bus if you’re visiting Hoi An, a 40 ish minute drive away.
What to do: Visit Marble Mountain with all it’s Buddhist monuments and shrines. Be prepared to walk up loads of steps in intense heat, but totally worth it. I would highly recommend getting a guide to make the most of your time there; our guide “snail” was hilarious. Monkey Mountain and Lady Buddha can be seen in the same trip. Take a boat trip to the Cham islands, an idyllic marine conservation area. Visit the ancient Cham temples at My Son, Vietnams answer to Angkor Wat. Take a motorbike up the Hai Van pass, a largely abandoned winding mountain road that featured in the Top Gear Vietnam special. In Hoi An town it’s self; see the Old Quarter with it’s Chinese merchant buildings, sail to coconut island in a traditional bamboo boat, visit vegetable/organic village for lunch or a cooking class, or get some made to measure clothes made at a tailors in the Old town.
Where to stay: We stayed at Maison Vui Villa, which was the most incredible place we stayed in the whole of Vietnam. After a rough night on the “sleeper” train seeing a super king size bed with loads of pillows almost brought me to tears. We had a huge room with two balconies, a giant marble bath, rain shower inside and a shower outside on the balcony, amazing breakfast plus the incredible staff bent over backwards for us. Fresh juice and ice cold, moist towels after a day cycling round the local villages was heaven, and they even gave us hand made gifts when we checked out. We honestly felt like royalty here, so even if you take nothing else away from this post STAY HERE. £23/$30/€26 per night. What a flippin bargain!
Ok. The next part of this itinerary I must caveat by saying we didn’t actually go to Hue or Phong Nha even though that was the original plan, because we flew last minute to Hanoi for Music Republic festival. But I really, really REALLY wish we’d gone, because everyone we met said it was their favourite bit of Vietnam *sobs
Hue 2 nights
Known as the Imperial City, Hue was the seat of the old Nguyan Dynasty that ruled this area from 1802 to 1945, it’s Vietnam’s answer to China’s Forbidden City.
What to do: Visit the imperial Citadel, where the Emperors would have lived and worked. Or see the imperial tombs and pagodas along the Perfume River. But the main thing I wish I’d seen is the abandoned water park that’s 7km outside of Hue city. It’s apparently very eerie and until recently crocodiles wandered around the moss-covered slides! Hire a motorbike, ride right up to the gates then you have complete free reign of the park.
Where to stay: Orchid Hotel comes highly recommended, beautiful, spacious rooms with a good free breakfast and helpful staff all in the center of the tourist district. £22/$28/€24
Phong Nha – 2 nights
4 hours north of Hue is Phong Nha, the gateway for Phong Nha-ke Bang National park, home to some seriously massive caves. Unless arriving by motorbike you will need to get a bus or train to Dong Hoi and contact your tour company or homestay host to come and collect you.
What to do: Explore those humongous caves of course! The biggest cave in the world is here although only a select few people every year are granted permission to enter, and you must go with a registered guide at a cost of a few thousand dollars per person. If that seems like a bit much, there are 2-day (1 night) treks through Phong Nha Cave, which at 31kms long is still absolutely massive with incredible grottoes. Dark Cave (as the name suggests) is pitch black and full of mud baths. Sigh, I will go back and see this soon.
Where to stay: If you’re not on an organised trek and camping in the caves, there are plenty of home stays in Phong Nha village where local families provide food and local knowledge as well as a bed for the night.
Ninh Binh/Tam Coc – 2 nights
If you haven’t had enough of rock formations yet, head to Tam Coc. We went to Ninh Binh (the nearest big town) by train from Hanoi, only 2.5hrs and £3. It’s a fair distance from Phong Nha though so you’ll need to take the sleeper train or a sleeper bus from Dong Hoi.
What to do: Take a tiny little boat through the Karst rock formations. It’s a sort of inland Halong bay. Visit the village where King Kong Skull Island was filmed.
Where to stay: We stayed at Go Ninh Binh hostel, which is the old train station. It’s then a 7km taxi or motorbike ride to Tam Coc. The hostel was nice, but if I were to do it again I’d stay at a homestay in Tam Coc with beautiful views. Ninh Binh it’s self is a pretty dull and lifeless town, but convenient for the train station. Go Ninh Binh hostel private room – £11.50/$15/€13.
Cat Ba/Halong Bay – 3 nights
Halong Bay has to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in Vietnam. You can choose to see it from Cat Ba Island or Halong city. Cat Ba is much less touristy than Halong city, and the cruises also concentrate on the quieter Lan ha Bay, which still allows kayaking. We chose the cat Ba route and bought a bus/boat/bus combo ticket from a travel agency in Ninh Binh. The whole thing took around 5 hours.
What to do: Take a cruise around the thousands of lime stone islands and caves. You can do anything from day tours to 4 day 3 night tours with various activities. Most of them include kayaking and snorkeling; some include hiking and rock climbing too. We did a 1 night, 2 day cruise with Cat Ba vision. It was fairly basic comfort, with a shared birth but the crew took us to some beautiful quiet bays, gorgeous caves and we ate delicious seafood that they caught from the boat. The trip cost around £60 ($75/€67) each.
The day before your cruise, hire a motorbike and cruise up to the National park and hike up to the lookout point. Take plenty of water, bug spray and good shoes. It’s a pretty steep hike through the jungle but totally worth it when you reach the top.
Where to stay: Le Pont is a cross between a hostel and a hotel/restaurant. It has amazing views of Cat Ba bay. Private bungalow with free breakfast cost £19/$25/€21.
Hanoi – 3 nights
The Capital is the last stop in your Vietnam itinerary! We bought a bus/boat bus combo ticket that picks you up and drops you directly at your accommodation if you’re staying in the Old Quarter in Hanoi. The Old Quarter is the heart of the tourist district and there are lots of interesting things in this part of town.
What to do: See a traditional water puppet show, stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake watching the locals do Tai chi or play card games. Visit Ho Chi Minh mausoleum & museum as well as the Royal Palace in a super posh part of the city. Visit Hao lo prison, used initially by the French Colonialists and then by the Viet Cong to house American POW. In the Women’s Museum in the French Quarter, you can learn all about Vietnamese tribes and their traditions. And you seriously can’t go to Hanoi without sampling the street food. There are some group tours that run day and night, but we decided to sample things as we went. Things to try: egg coffee, Banh My, Banh Bao, Banh Xeo, Pho and Bun Cha. Plus you have to drink Bia Hoi on the streets. A fresh beer made daily, god knows how strong it’s meant to be but some of it is lethal!
Where to stay: Definitely stay in the Old Quarter. There are loads of hostels on Hang Be street and the streets close to it, but we opted for a hotel on the outskirts of OQ as a bit of a treat. We stayed at Palace Hotel, a beautiful boutique 4 star hotel. Cost £26/$33/€29. Just as a handy hint, lots of hotels in Hanoi have very similar names and a regular scam for taxi drivers is to take you to the wrong place on purpose! My advice is to use Uber or Grab, much less chance of being conned.
And if you’re on a 30-day visa sadly that’s the end of your trip, sigh. Vietnam is a beautiful country, very easy to explore and incredibly affordable. The most expensive part of the trip is like to be your flight, however you can follow these handy tips on how to get the best flight deals, leaving you with more money to do the fun stuff, win!
Have you been to Vietnam? What were your favourite places? Let me know in the comments.
- accommodation, travel costs and their currency conversions are correct at the time of publishing.