Vietnam is a country known mainly for its chequered past and tourist wise, it’s relatively new on the scene. Since the early 90’s however, it has become one of the go to spots in Southeast Asia, and with its beaches, nightlife, scenery, culture and the fact that it’s ridiculously cheap, it makes Vietnam a great spot to spend a few weeks. As the numbers of tourists have grown, to country has become more tourist friendly, with the numbers of English speakers continuously rising and the hospitality sector growing steadily too. Visiting Vietnam is also a great chance to visit a communist country (albeit a relaxed form of communism) and see firsthand how it ties into the lives of the Vietnamese.
Both I and Eva have been to Vietnam and we followed very similar itineraries, which we have outlined below.
Now for the essential info:
Visa: Firstly and most importantly, you have to apply for a visa for Vietnam before you go. Personally, I booked through cheapvietnamvisa.net and picked up my visa at the airport – they charged $8 for the application and then I had to pay $25 dollars for a single entry 30 day visa while a multiple entry visa for 30 days came in at $50. I heard of a few people sorting it with trailfinders before they went although, I also heard of other people organising they visa before they went and even though they paid for it already, they had to pay again on arrival. Also, make sure you have cash to pay when you arrive – they don’t take card or I couldn’t see any ATM’s in Hanoi airport anyway, I’m not sure about the others.
Eva got her visa before she went from the Vietnamese Embassy in London. She filled in a visa application form online, scanned a copy of her passport, confirmation of the paid visa fee (the fee changes depending on the length of your stay so contact the embassy directly for prices), return postage fee (all paid by bank transfer) and a passport photo, which she emailed to the embassy. They then sent a loose leaf visa out in the post.
Currency: Vietnamese Dong, US Dollar/Dong conversion rate $1=22,200VND. Both dollars and dong are widely used here while ATM’s can be found readily in any decent size city or town.
Accommodation: Hostel dorm beds range from $2-$10 for higher end hostel rooms – all the reviews I heard of the cheaper places were fine so in all, there’s options for every budget. Hotel bedrooms depend largely on the level of luxury – decent double rooms can be got for $10 a night with air con and private bathrooms although this was more so in the bigger cities where there was more choice, in the smaller towns prices increased to about $15 for a double room, so it’s still cheap by normal standards. At the top end, double rooms in four or five star hotels could be got for $80-$100 so again, pretty decent by western standards!
Food: Vietnam is a country famous for its cuisine – it has all sorts of food, local Vietnamese food, the larger multinational chains such as McDonalds and Subway in the bigger towns, typical western food can be found most places and Indian restaurants were also common. Street food is also quite popular here and can be bought for about $1 for a bowl of rice in most places. Restaurant prices vary depending on the venue although a full meal in a decent spot should come in at about $3-$5.
Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi can be found in pretty much all of the hotels and hostels – it can be gotten in the smaller local restaurants although it was less common. I bought a Vietnamese sim card in the airport which served me well for my three weeks; it cost about $10 for 2gb so it was really handy for finding my way around.
Cost Saving Tips: There aren’t a whole lot of ways to save money in Vietnam as it’s already really cheap. There are the obvious tips like choosing hostels over hotels, street food over restaurants or getting buses from place to place instead of flying. Other than that, you have to haggle for anything you buy in the markets and whenever you get a taxi and you should get by without too much expense as they are all metered.
Travelling Around: Buying a scooter or a motorbike in the north or south of Vietnam and driving up the coast is becoming increasingly popular for tourists although for the more risk adverse souls such as myself, bus or plane worked just fine. As with most places, bus is ultimately the cheapest option. It was relatively on time and seemed quite safe. Flying is the more comfortable option and it is also quite cheap so if you’re pressed for time, this is a good alternative. Eva ended up having to book a flight at the last minute and ended up flying business class for less than $100!
So where should you go if you have 3 weeks in Vietnam. Well first stop for most travellers will be Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Both myself and Eva started our Vietnamese adventure in Hanoi and worked our way down south to Ho Chi Minh.
Hanoi (2 – 3 days)
The first thing that struck me when I arrived in Hanoi was the dramatic culture change; it’s like entering another world where crossing the street was a challenge as the whole city is buzzing with the sound of motorbikes, cars and rickshaws. The best advice I could give you is join a group of people and just cross the street, they’ll swerve to avoid you! There is so much to do and see around Hanoi, spend a few hours wandering around the ‘Old Quarter’, where you will find St. Joesphs Cathedral (Hanoi’s Notre Dame), Hoan Kiem Lake and the 36 streets. Each street is dedicated to a different speciality for example you’ll get silver on Silver Street, paper on Paper street etc. If you are interested in Vietnamese history pre the American war, visit the ‘Hanoi Hilon’ or Hoa Lo Prison (30,000d). While this old French prison was used to imprison American pilots during the war most of the exhibits focus on the Vietnamese struggle for freedom from the French up until the mid-1950s.
Vietnam is famous for its amazing street food and there so many great options in Hanoi, so pull up at plastic stool at any of the local cafes and join the locals in eating Pho, Banh Cuon, Banh Rom Ho Tay and drinking Bia Hoi Ha Noi once the sun goes down. Oh and don’t leave Hanoi without trying some Vietnamese coffee.
There are so many accommodation options in Hanoi from dorm beds starting at $6 to high end hotels starting at $90. A great option in Hanoi is Maison d’Orient Hotel a boutique situated in the Old Quarter close to all sights, restaurants and shopping.
Mai Chau (1-2 days)
If you want to get out of the city and get a feel for what Vietnam was like before all the developments then head to the beautiful and picturesque rural area of Mai Chau. Mai Chau is about a 4 hour drive from Hanoi, there are direct buses from My Dinh Bus station in Hanoi or you can book a day tour with an agency in Hanoi. The town itself nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains and green, green fields of rice; it is just stunning as you can see from the pictures.
While rice farming is the main industry in Mai Chau tourism is on the rise, this means that there are lots of options for accommodation from homestays ($10) to lodges ($90).
Halong Bay (1-3 days)
While, there are many different must see attractions in Vietnam, Halong Bay is probably the one that struck me the most. As you can see from the photos, it is a place with staggering beauty and scenery. With more than 2,000 different islands, the UNESCO world heritage site can be visited in a number of ways. Getting here is usually organised through a travel agency in Hanoi, as getting here on your own can prove tricky. The two hour bus and the short boat trip out are a great way to see the islands, visit some of the caves and spend time on the beaches. The amount of time to spend here depends on the person – some come for a day, some come for 2-3 nights while some got boats over to some of the islands and either camped or stayed in the accommodation there. Before booking, have a chat with your tour operator and see which option suits best. As for price, in Vietnamese terms, it can be expensive although it’s still well worth the outlay. Remember to haggle too though, especially if booking in a group as you could save 20 or 30% depending on the package you book.
Hue (1-2 days)
Hue (pronounced Whey) gets mixed reviews but I have to say I had a really enjoyable time here, exploring the Imperial City (The Citadel). Ok, Hue does pale in comparison to other Vietnamese cities, it’s not a bad place to spend a day or two. I actually had the nicest Vietnamese food on our trip in Les Jardines de la Carambole, the food and cocktails were just amazing!
It is easy to get from Hue to Hoi An, you can get a bus or a train. The train stops in Danang and you will have to get a taxi from here to Hoi An. As I wanted to go via the famous Han Van Pass and buses use a tunnel, I booked a private taxi to take me to Hoi An stopping at Lang Co beach, the Han Van Pass and Marble Mountains south of Danang on the way. I arranged this with my hotel (Hue Serene Palace) for about $55.
Hoi An (3-5 days)
Hoi An is one of the most famous towns along the coast of Vietnam – particularly for its Old Town and quaint streets. Also, it’s a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities with a more relaxed way of life. The Old Town is renowned due to its UNESCO world heritage site status – the town itself is well preserved and gives a great insight into a port town from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Just roaming around the streets, you really get a feel for what it must have been like back in the day. Getting clothes tailored is another reason why lots of people come here – you have to haggle to get a good price but tailor made silk suits can be gotten for under $100, with most being ready from start to finish in less than two days. If buying a suit, you can ask in your hotel or hostel to see which places are the best although many of these can get commission for recommending different tailors so it may not be as trustworthy a source as it seems. I found that by asking fellow travellers, you can find out which places are recommended and you can find out more about prices and quality. Also, talk to the tailors themselves and after talking to a few you can get a feel for which ones seem more reputable. I used Bebe Clothshop, the girls in the shop were very professional and the clothes I had tailored were of a very high standard.
For accommodation, there’s is literally tons of places to stay. One option is the Sunshine Hotel it’s a great spot with a pool, bar, restaurant and I couldn’t fault it. Another option a little bit out of town is Hoi An Chic Hotel, they offer a free transfer into town in old US Army jeeps. They also offer a free transfer to Hidden Beach, a secret tranquil spot on Cua Dai beach, where it will be just you and the fishermen.
Another mention I have to give is for Paddy’s Hostel and Sports Bar, set up recently by a friend of mine from school. A newly built, well run establishment with a good atmosphere, quality food and great service! Apart from the normal tourist attractions in the city, Cham Island is a short boat trip from Hoi An and can be done in a day trip – it is an exotic uninhabited beach and coming here usually involves some snorkelling and some lunch on the island. You can see from the photos that it’s well worth the trip.
Ho Chi Minh (2-4 days)
Although Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh has a slightly larger population and is an essential visit for anyone interested in learning about the Vietnam War. Firstly, visiting the Cu Chi tunnels was an experience to say the least. We got the chance to travel through the underground tunnels that the Vietnamese had built during the war to hide from the Americans and witness first-hand the conditions they lived in. Also on the tour, many of the booby traps used during the war were on show, not for the faint hearted! Towards the end, the tour stopped off at a shooting range and we had a chance to shoot a range of guns, from AK-47’s to M60 rifles. The bullets can be expensive but it’s a fun way to finish off the afternoon. The War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh is also a good place to learn about the Vietnam War and it gives the Vietnamese side of what went on in the war. Very interesting history if this interests you.
Staying in Ho Chi Minh, the city itself is massive, and just flying into it you can get a scale of its size with urban sprawl there to be seen in every direction. District 1 tends to be the tourist area – it’s safe here, has a few decent eateries and bars and taxis are plentiful so I’d recommend this area for anyone staying here a few days. Like most parts of Vietnam, cost isn’t really an issue. You can find decent accommodation, hostels or hotels for a few dollars a night if you shop around. Another thing to do in Ho Chi Minh is visit the Bitexco Financial Tower. It is the world’s largest building with a side helipad. Paid tours can be gotten during the day although at night time, it’s possible to go up to the bar (one floor below the viewing deck) for free. You do have to buy some pretty expensive drink (by Vietnamese standards, probably normal by western standards) although it’s well worth it to see the views of the city at night time.
So there is our 3 week itinerary, but if you only have two weeks don’t worry, you will still have plenty of time to see most of what we have mentioned above.
If you have any questions or comments please feel free to get in touch.