2 Weeks in Vietnam
If you've never been to Vietnam before, or even anywhere else in Asia you may be forgiven for having an assumption that it would be a difficult place to visit. However, let me assure you that you would be wrong because in actual fact Vietnam is one of the easiest countries to visit in the whole of Asia. English is widely spoken; there is a raft of accommodation to suit all budgets and tastes; the public transportation system operates like a very well-oiled machine; the food is incredible; the natives are very friendly, and so the list goes on...
What I want to demonstrate to you in this article is that Vietnam is a very easy country in which to travel. You don't need to book expensive tours or over-priced modes of transportation pre-departure from your own country. You don't need a guide, or an escort (unless you really want one), you don't need to speak fluent Vietnamese (although a few key words and the names of some tasty dishes may come in handy), and you don't need to book every nights' accommodation in advance: be flexible and go with the flow!
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When to Go
Let me begin by telling you when not to go. As all the guidebooks will point out, during the months of January and February there is what is known as the Tet Holiday. During this time you will have people from all over the world returning to Vietnam to see their families along with what seems like the whole of the resident population packing up their bags and heading off elsewhere within the country. Seems like an exaggeration but it is nigh on impossible for travellers to find seats on a bus or train at this time of year and just as difficult to find a bed in a hotel.
Generally speaking, apart from the Tet Holiday there are many ideal times of the year to visit Vietnam. The country only has 2 seasons: a dry season and a monsoon season. However, due to the length of the country the monsoon season in the north differs slightly from that of the south. For the itinerary that I set forth below, the ideal time to make the trip would be between April and July with June being the optimum month.
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The route that I suggest begins in Hanoi and ends in Ho Chi Minh City (still widely referred to as Saigon within Vietnam). However, if from where you are travelling you are able to get flights cheaper to Ho Chi Minh City then it's easy enough to do this route in reverse.
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Hanoi has a wonderful (but chaotic) old quarter (which you have to stay in!). Possibly because of the character of the old quarter Hanoi has a much different feel to it than a lot of other Asian cities. There's a distinct Vietnamese feel to it that one soon becomes endeared with. The street food in Hanoi is simply out of this world. You have to be adventurous and step out of your comfort zone to really appreciate this experience but I guarantee your taste buds will be well and truly drunk on the many flavours and textures of the dishes on offer. Generally, the street food vendors consist of only a handful of dishes (often only a single option) that are cooked up continuously in a big wok. The high, fast turnover ensures that cooked food is never left to cool and be re-cooked: it's always fresh from the wok to your mouth - and you even get to watch it being cooked. Seating arrangements on the street is almost always in the form of little plastic chairs (like the kind you may have had as an infant!). At first you'll laugh and think there's no way you can sit there but if you just take a look around and see that it's perfectly normal and everyone is doing it, then you'd be foolish not to!
The coffee is also excellent in Hanoi. It's inexpensive, available everywhere and strong. Just be very careful when crossing the street in Hanoi: It's one hell of an experience, but an experience in which you risk your life every time you step off the pavement. There are 2 million motorbikes in Hanoi and rising all the time! Cycling is not advised.
Next stop: Halong Bay. Located only a couple of hours to the east of Hanoi, this is a world heritage site and the supposed 8th wonder of the world. The sheer number of tourist boats takes the edge off the sense of wonder somewhat but it’s really a trip you have to do if you’re going to Vietnam. As I mentioned above, you don’t need to book trips from home, including this one as you'll end up paying well over the odds. Practically every accommodation outlet in Vietnam doubles up as a travel agent, no matter how big, small, expensive or cheap the accommodation may be. Just ask at your hotel, or ask around town, and they will be able to sort you out with a trip to suit your budget. There are many companies providing the Halong Bay trip, just be sure to have a look at pictures of the boat and ask what's included in the price. A standard trip is 1 night/2 days. Some do 2 nights but I would say 1 night is enough. Transport to and from your hotel in Hanoi is included and takes a couple of hours or so. A word of advice however: although most companies include meals and snacks, the alcohol that is sold on board will be sold at vastly inflated prices ie around 3 times more than it would cost in the city. Taking your own supply is generally against their rules and they do look out for it.
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Next stop: Hoi An. Hoi An is located approximately halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. This is a classic old French town with beautiful colonial style architecture and a quaint riverside setting. Again the street food is excellent although it being a relatively small town there is much less choice than in Hanoi. There are however, a number of lovely restaurants here if you want to enjoy a more comfortable meal, many of which are set in a beautiful old building against a water-front backdrop. My personal favourite place to eat is Trung Bac which is cheap, tasty and very popular with the locals. Two other places worthy of recommendation are Thuan Y and Green Mango.
Another great reason for visiting Hoi An is that it is THE place for tailor-made suits. A good quality hand-made, made to measure suit can cost less than $100. There’s lots of shops doing it though so it may be wise to do some research ahead of time if you think you might be tempted to get one – you really should. But note that in order to ensure a genuine made to measure suit the tailor will need to take your measurements maybe 3 or 4 times.
Hoi An also has a beach which is really beautiful. It’s not a particularly built up place so doesn't have that city feel which I think is a good thing. The beach is located a couple of kilometres away from the town so it's a good idea to hire a bicycle for the day which will set you back around $1.
You can read my guide of what to do in Hoi An here
Next stop: Nha Trang. I recommend this stop as it serves to break up the long, long, loooooong journey from Hoi An to Ho Chi Minh City. It has a slightly more up-market, developed look and feel to it as opposed to other places in Vietnam, but it does have a wonderful beach and some good options for food and accommodation. When you've topped up the tan and feel ready to move on it's time to get to the big city.
A top notch bang-up-to-date guide to visiting Ho Chi Minh City and other parts of Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon)
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). If you fell in love with the old charm of Hanoi, then you might be a little disappointed with first impressions of Saigon. It's a big, big city but there are numerous areas with plenty of charm. The main area in which tourists and travellers stay is centred around a road called Pham Ngu Lao. But just off this road is a fascinating network of little alleys and passageways that house whole communities and neighbourhoods. It's safe to wonder around this area and a very interesting experience. If you're interested in examples of old colonial-style architecture, there are still plenty of neighbourhoods and buildings to explore by foot. Just grab a map and start wandering! Although good food can still be found in Saigon, you generally need to go to a restaurant to experience it. The vibrant street food scene of the north is unfortunately not to be found in the south. Tastes and recipes differ from those of Hanoi and Hoi An but that doesn't mean a good meal can't be found.
From Saigon you should do a half day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels that were used during the ‘American War’.
An awesome book that looks at both the Vietnamese communists who built and occupied the tunnels as well as the American 'tunnel rats' soldiers who went into the tunnels to fight the Viet Kong.
Ok, here's the important part: How to get to all these places? Well, let me tell you. One of the great things is about Vietnam is that it is so incredibly easy to get around. Some travellers looking for a tougher challenge may say that it's too easy and that for this reason they get less of a feeling of personal accomplishment in seeking out their method of getting from a to b.
The options for covering long distances are generally, a) fly, b) bus or c) train.
Flights within Vietnam are usually cheap unless you are flying during the Tet holiday period. It's possible to book flights online and the price doesn't generally fluctuate too much. Flying gives you extra time on the ground as the travel time is so much shorter than the other modes, but you do miss seeing a lot of the country this way. Part of the fun is often the travelling part and looking out onto wonderful landscapes and seeing small villages and rural ways of life. You will, however,likely need to catch a flight back to the city you fly home from ie Hanoi back to Saigon or vice versa.
Buses are easily the most popular method of long-distance travel and are favoured by backpackers and locals.. There are a number of different bus companies offering the same route from the far north to the far south of the country. All companies generally stop at all the same points along the route. It's possible to buy one ticket that goes from say, Hanoi, all the way to Ho Chi Minh City that allows you to 'hop on and hop off' at various points along the way. However, all of the journeys need to be made with the company for which you have the ticket. There are many travellers who have a bad experience with a particular company and then buy a ticket for the next leg of their journey with an alternative company. It's worth bearing in mind. You may also decide that you want to fly one of the legs or take the train. It's easy enough to simply buy your bus tickets for each journey as and when you need them. Again, your accommodation will be able to provide your bus ticket and pick-up from your hotel is normally included.
Trains are a more expensive option than the buses and often have longer journey times but they are certainly the best way to travel long distance in my personal opinion. The trains are very comfortable and you get to enjoy the wonderful landscape and scenery as you travel. There is a lot more room on the train and if you are taking an over-night train then you get options as to what kind of bed/compartment you want. Just a basic bed in the general sleeper coaches is the cheapest option and is certainly a very comfortable way to cover the distance whilst getting some quality sleep.
The tunnels are a very interesting and informative experience. They're cool, but cooler still, and I fully recommend this, is a 2 day ‘Mekong Delta’ trip. There are trips to suit all budgets and, as I said about arranging the trip to Halong Bay, just ask at your hotel and they will organise the trip for you. The trip takes you into the Mekong Delta, the most populated part of Vietnam, although you'll see a different way of life down here. Usually, the accommodation for these trips is in a hotel but some operators offer you the chance to stay in a homestay with a local family. If you get this option then I firmly recommend it. It may feel like slumming it a little bit but nothing to make you too uncomfortable. It’s just nice to get close to how a family lives in the Mekong Delta. The families are very hospitable and may even take you out to the local bar for a beer and a game of Carom Billiards with the locals.
So there you have it. Vietnam in only 2 weeks. I haven't included durations of stay in any of the places set out above. This part is up to you! I think it's easy enough to complete this itinerary at a pace that allows you to absorb and appreciate all there is to offer. If you want to, you can always move around even faster and take in other places. I would recommend getting a guidebook and, as I mentioned above, if you're interested in food, then it may be a worth buying a book to research the kinds of dishes that you'd like to try to also brush up on how to ask for them/read them on the menu. Trust me, the food is so good you'll be wanting to replicate the dishes at home so you may even want to buy a Vietnamese cookbook. I recommend the books listed on this page.
For More Detailed Information
I prefer the Lonely Planet guidebooks when travelling. This one gives useful information on transport, accommodation, eating and drinking and sights etc. It provides you with a good idea of costs so really helps to plan your budget and limited your spending.
Useful for all the same reasons as the book above but this one includes all the countries in South-east Asia including Indonesia. It's very useful if travelling to more than one country.
If you're going to Vietnam and you're adventurous about food then buy this book to take with you and make notes on what you eat. Sometimes it can be difficult knowing what to order but this book contains all the translations to help you try a bit of everything