Vietnam: A Two Week Itinerary
I’ve found, in the realm of holidays, time is relative. Five days in New York City will fly by quicker than you can finish a short stack. 10 days lounging poolside at a Balinese villa might have the effect of a month-long yoga retreat. Two days in Venice meandering through a maze of canals might feel like the 48 hours it is. Two weeks in Vietnam? It’ll feel as though a lifetime has passed in the blink of an eye.
Jump into the deep end with chaotic Ho Chi Minh, where you’ll dodge traffic on the pedestrian crossings and dive head first into a steaming bowl of pho before 9am. Lounge by the beach in Da Nang with a stomach full of seafood. Wander amazed through the old town of Hoi An, lit up by colourful lanterns. Glide through the crystal waters on an old junk boat and marvel at the limestone formations that make up just one of the UNESCO world heritage sites to Vietnam’s name. End your visit in Ha Noi, where the calmness contrasts the chaos of Saigon and the bahn mi cannot be beat.
Ho Chi Minh City
Your first morning in Saigon requires an early morning trip to Bến Thành Market for a steaming bowl of breakfast pho, setting you back about 75,000 dong or $3 USD. After breakfast, battle your way through the intense market traffic for a 10-minute walk to the War Remnants Museum. Charting the war through graphic photos, artefacts and preserved military vehicles, this museum is a challenging experience, and not without its own North Vietnamese bias. Just around the corner is the extravagant Independence (or Reunification) Palace, the site of the end of the war, where North Vietnamese forces drove a tank through the palace gates. Retire for lunch outside Saigon’s own Notre Dame Cathedral, which, predictably enough, was built by French colonists in the 1860s. After your day romping around the city, head to Quan Ngon 138 restaurant for dinner. Begin with an entree of fried spring rolls with crisp lettuce leaves and be sure to order the whole fried fish as your main and enjoy it in the low-lit alfresco ambience.
Tip: Taxis from Tan Son Nhat airport to Saigon city centre will cost roughly 130,000 dong. There is a load of content online about avoiding an extortionate rate, however, most fares we heard roughly equated to $6 USD, so you’ll be squabbling over peanuts.
The first essential day trip from Saigon is to the Cu Chi Tunnels, the sprawling network of tunnels used by North Vietnamese soldiers during the war. I picked a tour with Asiana Link, one of the bigger companies operating to Cu Chi and couldn’t believe my luck. The group was blessed by the most genuine, informative, hilarious and passionate guide, Thong, also known as Slim Jim.
Starting at a brisk 8am, the tour begins with an hour-ish drive north to the tunnel complex. The tour takes you on a stroll around the tunnel network, filling you in on the covert tactics used by the Viet Cong, including their infamous death traps. Of course, there are two sides to every story and yet, at Cu Chi and the War Remnants Museum, you’ll only hear one.
“The winner writes the history,” Slim Jim told us. You get the chance to have your own crawl through the 100 metre long tunnel, which has been widened for visitors and includes early exit points along the way.
The tour will get you back to your accommodation at about 2pm, giving you plenty of time to get to Bún Bò Huế 31 MĐC for a bowl of incredible bún bò huê, the spicier, tangier cousin to your classic pho. Quan Bui will be your dinner spot, a trendy and lavish space serving up modern takes on Vietnamese classics.
Tip: There are two tunnels networks you can explore at Cu Chi: Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc. The tunnels at Ben Dinh have been expanded, while the tunnels at Ben Duoc have remained much the same at 2 x 3 feet - something to consider if confined spaces are a concern.
Breakfast today will be from Tous Les Jours bakery, which offers an incredible selection of French pastries, from chicken croissants to blueberry cheese bread. Another tour you can take from Saigon is to the Mekong Delta, where Asia’s seventh longest river begins its 4,350km journey. However, not all tours are created equal, and I stumbled onto one of the more disappointing travel experiences I’ve had. An overly curated tour that stops at a tiny bee farm, a coconut candy workshop and little else. My only suggestion would be to make sure to pick a Mekong Delta tour that explicitly takes you to the famous floating markets, although these tours typically require an overnight stay.
In Da Nang, all you need to do is enjoy the beach. Pick accommodation near the waterfront and simply wander out to the shore to soak it all in. This is sun and cocktails, nothing else is required.
Da Nang is also known for its incredibly fresh seafood and the restaurant owners know it, with those on the main strip pumping up prices for an overpriced and underwhelming meal. Instead, head to a smaller restaurants away from the hustle, where the steamed crabs will only cost you about 150,000 dong or $6.50 USD per kilo.
If you find you’ve had your fill of the beach, head to one of the many massage parlours to indulge yourself further. An hour’s worth of relaxation might set you back 350,000 dong, or $15 USD.
Roughly half an hour from the Da Nang shoreline are the Marble Mountains, a chain of five majestic mountains with caves containing Buddhist shrines and sanctuaries carved into the rock. Your hotel might offer a round trip service but you might pay up to 500,000 dong, plus 30,000 for every hour the driver waits, which, after a couple of hours, could cost you $25 USD. Grab a local taxi instead, which will only set you back 80,000 dong each way, roughly $7 USD for the round trip. The caves themselves are steep, dark and slippery, so be sure to wear appropriately grippy footwear. Once you’ve explored the caves, the Buddhist depths of hell, you can make your way up the mountain to “Heaven”. There's a lift which can take you halfway up for around 15,000 dong or you can walk the whole way. There are two paths up to “heaven”: A cave with a small, rocky marble passage and a wooden stairway. Mix it up, take the slippery walk up through the cave and the stairs on the way down.
Tip: Entrance to the main cave is around 15,000 dong and another 15,000 dong for a map - it’s nice as a souvenir but not altogether helpful.
Just an hour away by car from Da Nang, is Hoi An. The historic and picturesque riverside village seems to be lit entirely by lanterns, including its bustling night market. Grab some street snacks, such as coconut cake or ice cream, and wander around the village’s antiquated facades. Hoi An is best enjoyed at a leisurely stroll.
Tip: You’ll be asked to buy a ticket at booth dotted around Ancient Town. The ticket is valid for the duration of your stay, allows access to five historical buildings within Ancient Town and costs around 120,000 dong. You should keep this ticket on you at all times.
An essential day trip from Hoi An is the My Son Sanctuary, UNESCO World Heritage temple ruins dating back to the 4th century. The crumbling red-bricked remains are actually remarkably intact and, according to the tour guide, the exact methods of construction are still a mystery.
The best way to enjoy the ruins is at sunrise, so aim for a tour departing at about 5am.
Once back in Hoi An, enjoy a nice bowl of pho at Pho Xua or banh mi from Banh Mi Phong. And, time permitting, try a trip to Tips Au Bing beach, a bicycle ride around the village or sample one Hoi An's many cooking classes.
While lacking the mania of Saigon, Vietnam’s capital has an appealing, laid back energy. Your first day here should be spent wandering around its old quarter, a network of historic streets that once made up the city’s commercial hub. Make sure you snap a few photos at St Joseph’s Cathedral.
Ha Noi’s centrepiece is Hoan Kiem lake, and you can’t miss a visit to Ngoc Son Temple, which sits right in the middle. Also known as Temple of the Jade Mountain, a temple has occupied this spot since the 1860s. Next on your tour should be the Temple of Literature. The title is a bit of a misnomer, this is less a temple than an ancient school. In fact, this is Vietnam’s first national university, first set up in 1070 and it is well worth a visit. As far as food goes, the local favourite is bun cha. Head to Bun Cha Huong Lien, a bustling little restaurant where President Obama and food critic Anthony Bourdain once famously shared a table.
Hoa Lo is Ha Noi’s infamous prison complex, used to house American POWs. The museum takes you on a harrowing journey through the war back to French colonialism. From the prison, take a walk to the monumental Ha Noi Mausoleum, the final resting place for Vietnam’s divisive hero, Ho Chi Minh. To unwind after a heavy day, head to the area around Beer Corner, where tiny plastic chairs and tables spill out into the street and the beers and shisha are readily available.
Bai Tu Long Bay
Of course, many tourists see Ha Noi as a gateway to the iconic Ha Long Bay. And, of course, you must take the time to get there. Tours are an enormous business, and deciding on the best is exhausting. My tips are:
Head to Bai Tu Long bay, Ha Long’s less busy but equally beautiful sister.
Take careful note of the stops the tour takes, as every company takes to you different sets of highlights.
Tours range from overnight stays to week-long jaunts—plan accordingly.
A tour provider that won't disappoint is Indochina Junk. Be sure to bring cash to tip the team on the boat when you disembark.
On your return to Ha Noi, make sure you make a pitstop at Banh Mi 25, hands down the best banh mi in Ha Noi, possibly the country. It may be a little street side stall, but the banh mi is perfect. Try the barbecue pork with pate for just 20,000 dong! Also, don’t miss out on the local variation on coffee, the egg coffee, best had at Giang Coffee.
It may be your last day in Vietnam, but there’s always time to squeeze in a bowl of bun cha. Head to Bun Cha Dac Kim to sample some of the city’s best, where you can get two bowls and two cokes for the equivalent of $9 USD. The dish is served in several bowls: put noodles into your soup bowl, add lime juice and herbs. The spring rolls are to be dipped into bowl of sauce. Enjoy!