Just talking or thinking about Vietnam already brings a smile to my face. Great memories! Vietnam is a fantastic destination for lovers of nature, culture, food and adventure. In this article I will describe the highlights of the Vietnam route we took during our three weeks round trip. This Vietnam route will take you to the main highlights: Hoi An, Sapa, Phu Quoc, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
Wander around the Old Quarter of Hanoi and eat delicious Pho Ga. Encounter colorful hill tribes while hiking the rice terraces of Sapa. Relax underneath the palm trees of a Phu Quoc beach. Watch the crazy traffic in Ho Chi Minh City. Explore the charming streets of Hoi An and get a new outfit at a tailor in Hoi An. What a bliss.
Vietnam trip planning
First of all: do not underestimate the size of Vietnam. Vietnam is elongated and traffic is slow, therefore I would definitely recommend to make at least some sort of plan before you go, unless you have got months. We traveled around Vietnam for three weeks and stayed in:
- Hanoi (4 nights)
- Sapa (4 nights + 2 nights in train)
- Hoi An (3 nights)
- Ho Chi Minh City (2 nights)
- Phu Quoc (4 nights)
Plus traveling time from/to home. In three weeks’ time you can see a lot of Vietnam, especially if you take several flights, this will save a lot of time. By bus easily takes 10x longer. If you have got less than 3 weeks, skip Ho Chi Minh City and surroundings. If you have two weeks or less, I’d suggest to focus on North Vietnam only (Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay, Hoi An).
Hanoi is an enchanting city that never bores. I just love the vibrant atmosphere, especially the Old Quarter. Streets full of people sitting on those tiny plastic stools, eating street food and drinking bia hoi. The French Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake, Ho Chi Min Mausoleum, Train Street… Oh I love Vietnam! Read all about Hanoi in my earlier blog post Hanoi: must do’s in the vibrant capital of Vietnam, my Southeast Asian favorite.
How to get to Hanoi
Hanoi should be an indisputable part of your route through Vietnam! Hanoi is located very central within North Vietnam and should therefore be either your starting point or final destination of your Vietnam route. And possibly you cross the city a few times when traveling to other places like Sapa, Halong Bay and Hoi An.
- Get a cheap private transfer to/from Hanoi airport to/from Hanoi Old Quarter (30min)
- For flight options and prices check Skyscanner
Where to stay in Hanoi
Finnegans Hotel is located right in the heart of Hoan Kiem, the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The huzz and buzz is just around the corner. Should you want to get something to eat or dance the night away, all you will need to do is take a few steps and enjoy! Great service and breakfast.
Another day, another adventure. Hop on the King Express overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, the main station for Sapa. We booked the entire coupe with four beds for just the two of us. Nevertheless, by the time we arrived at Lao Cai Station, we caught no more than an hour of sleep. I should have known, I’m not good in finding rest in a noisy environment… With our heads still sleepy, it was great to find a guy holding a sign with our names written on it, waiting for us at the station that early morning. Book the train at least a few days ahead and buy some snacks and drinks before boarding.
Hiking & Hill tribes in Sapa
Sapa is famous and worth visiting for two main things: hiking to enjoy the beautiful mountainous landscape with rice fields and the various hill tribes (ethnic minorities). Both a wonderful experience. Next to Viet, Chinese, Khmer and Cham, fifty (!) minorities live in the highlands of Northern Vietnam, including the Red Dao, Hmong, Yao, Tay, Kinh, etc. The Hmong are divided in subgroups; Black, Red, White and Flower Hmong, each with their own special customs, dialect and clothing. Very colorful!
Our first encounter with Hmong women in Sapa was not very positive to be honest. Their behavior once stepping our of our transfer van was fairly intrusive and clingy, trying to sell blankets to us. From the beginning of our 16km guided hike at the highlands of Sapa, two or three Hmong ladies walked along with us, on their flip-flops, uninvited, which we found pretty annoying at first. The guide did not say or do anything about it, I guess it is a daily practice.
Bring sandals with sturdy soles with grip like Reef, Teva, Keen, etc. Perhaps not the most charming but hiking shoes are too warm and more difficult to wash, while flip-flops provide too little grip. Expect mud and bamboo in the shadow of the mountains.
During our trekking, I accidentally slipped over some muddy stones with my stupid sneakers. A strong female Hmong hand grabbed me and picked me up from the ground. The guide did not bother at all. Out of appreciation, I bought a handmade wallet from the Hmong lady once we arrived in their village for lunch. My life saver!
There is also the option of taking a guided tour by bicylcle to several hill tribes. I am not a fan of scooters in Vietnam. Keep in mind you usually need an international driver’s license. We picked up a girl from the asphalt after she had an accident with her rental scooter and brought her to the nearest doctor’s office. Tom had to carry her up the stairs over his shoulders to get her injuries medically treated. What a hero!
Can Cao market near Sapa
Visiting the local farmers market in Can Cao is definitely one of the highlights of our Vietnam trip. It is a great way to experience the daily lives of the local hill tribes. The sounds, the smell, the colors, the faces… this sticks to your memory. Read and see more in my earlier blog post Photo Essay – Can Cao Market near Sapa, North Vietnam.
How to get to Sapa
Sapa should definitely be part of your Vietnam route, most logically you will travel there from Hanoi.
- Overnight train from Hanoi station to Lao Cai station ±7.5 hours (20:30-05:00h)
- Bus tour from Hanoi to Sapa 5-6h
- Mini-van, taxi or rental car from Hanoi to Sapa village 3.5h – 5.5h (320km)
- Taxi from Lao Cai train station to Sapa village ±1h (35km)
- If you prefer your Sapa trip to be fully organized, go for this tour
Where to stay in Sapa
Topas Eco Lodge is a very charming, unique accommodation with breathtaking view on the mountains. Do not let the idea of sleeping at 18km (11mi) outside Sapa village restrain you from spending the night here. As you may notice, the main photo of the Flitter Fever website’s homepage was made right here at Topas Eco Lodge!
Topas Eco Lodge is not cheap; bungalows start at EUR 300 p/n, but sooo worth it! The rooms are beautiful and comfortable, each with balcony and private bathroom, the restaurant serves various Asian dishes. Besides it is good for your sustainability conscience. One of the most special hotels I have ever been to!
If Topas Eco Lodge is really above your budget, you could consider staying at Panorama Hotel. A guided trekking is easily booked down at the lobby desk and there is a small shop with trekking gear. Room prices start around EUR 23 p/n.
Hoi An is a charming old harbor town, listed as UNESCO World Heritage since 1999. Hoi An was an important trade center in the 16th and 17th Century (there were Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, French, etc.) but stopped growing after that so it stayed rather small. Once my cousin from New Zealand told me about Hoi An, I knew I had to see it for myself. Despite the rain, Hoi An did not disappoint!
The Chinese merchant houses at the Tran Phu and southwards to the river are the prettiest. These are 19th Century reconstructions that may remind you somehow of Kyoto. The streets of Nguyen Thai Hoi, Bach Dang, the Quan Kong Temple and the Japanese bridge are other must-sees of the Hoi An Ancient Town. Unfortunately, as a result of the rainy weather we had in Hoi An, most of my sightseeing photos of Hoi An failed.
Hoi An tailors
Besides its pretty architecture with the typical old wooden shutters and yellow walls, Hoi An is also known for its skilled tailors. We went to Be Be Tailor and had several dresses and a suit made. Best is to bring a printed image of the outfit that you want, they measure you up, you negotiate on the price and delivery date.
Averagely taken, fitting is on the 2nd day and delivery on the 3rd day, so if you want something made, and you only stay in town for 3 or 4 days, make sure to visit the tailor on your first day in Hoi An. When picking fabric for a suit, be smart; you pay for quality and be reminded it is all custom made so a bargain anyway (compared to Western Europe prices).
What else to do in Hoi An
- Get up early and wander the streets and alleys
- Rent a bike or join a guided tour by bicycle
- Visit Rehan’s Photography Gallery (the guy makes amazing photos)
- Try some fresh Vietnamese spring rolls
- Make a boat ride on the river with a local skipper
- Take a Vietnamese cooking class
- Buy a piece of art (calligraphy, silk)
- In June: watch the lotus flowers blossom and getting harvested (between An Bang beach and the Old Town)
- Relax at Cua Dai beach (4km)
- Visit Cham islands, locally known as Cu Lao Cham (18 km offshore)
How to get to Hoi An
No doubt Hoi An shoud be part of your Vietnam route. You can travel there in various ways.
- Flight from Hanoi Non Bai International Airport (HAN) to Da Nang airport (DAD) 1h 20min
- Bus from Ha Noi Nuoc Ngam Bus Station via Da Nang to Hoi An ±15.5 hours
- Taxi from Da Nang Airport to Hoi An taxi 30-60min (30km)
- Bus or train from/to Hue to/from Hoi An 3h – 3.5h or taxi 2.5h (125km)
- For flight options and prices check Skyscanner
Where to stay in Hoi An
We loved staying at Hoi An Ancient House Village Resort and Spa! It is only a short taxi ride away from downtown but such a tranquil place! Beautifully decorated, well-serviced, outdoor pool, gorgeous view over the lush green fields that the resort is surround by. The resort is well thought out in several ways, for example there were two suitcase racks instead of the usual one. The shower and bath of our huge room were lovely!
Breakfast is delicious with fresh warm waffles, crispy baguettes, fresh fruit like dragon fruit and passion fruit, eggs… basically anything you may wish for. Hoi An Ancient House Village Resort and Spa was definitely a favorite during this Vietnam trip! Room prices start around EUR 55 p/n.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly known as Saigon, goes by the nickname ‘Paris of the East’. The French colonized Vietnam for almost 100 years (1859-1954) and definitely had their influence on the architecture of the city (and food).
After the communists took over, a whole bunch of – sorry to say – ugly, grey, concrete Sovjet style buildings were added. Plus speaker boxes on electricity poles on the streets to repeatedly share communist messages to the people. A reminder to even the most oblivious visitor that Vietnam is still a communist country. Apparently, nowadays, the speakers also broadcast commercials.
With around 8 million inhabitants, HCMC is the most populous city and the economic heart of Vietnam. The streets bust of life, or actually of exhaust gasses, with thousands of scooters and motorbikes joining the traffic chaos every day. Just stop and stare for a few minutes at the ‘ant nest’ that bursts out once the light turns green.
Compared to Hanoi, HCMH felt more business oriented and did not steal my heart to be honest. I would suggest not to make HCMC an essential part of your Vietnam route. Good to see, but do not stay too long in HCMC I’d say, there are better things to see. But who knows, you may love it?
Sightseeing in HCMC
This guided Ho Chi Minh City Discovery Small Group Tour shows the main highlights and hidden gems within 8 hours. Be aware that HCMH’s weather is notoriously hot and humid, so walking can be exhausting. Consider joining HCMC’s traffic craziness by hiring a so-called cyclo, a three-wheeled rickshaw, with a driver.
Agree on the price via hotel staff and let the driver take you to Lom Son Square with City Theatre, Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office, the War Remnants Museum, Dong Khoi with Hotel de Ville (town hall), Independence (or Reunification) Palace and along the Saigon River for an impression of the city.
Get a refreshing cocktail at the Saigon Bar of Carvelle Hotel, where foreign journalists gathered during the Vietnam War. The rooftop sunset view is gorgeous. And get your nails done at one of the many beauty salons! Ho Chi Minh is the perfect place for some shameless pampering (4 hours for less than 15 euro!).
Where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City
As we were staying in HCMC for a couple of nights only, we wanted to find a nice place in District 1, but one that would not cost and arm and a leg. Besides a comfy bed, with the hot humid weather in HCMC, it was great to have a roof top pool at the Sunland Hotel.
Places like the Saigon River, the Backpackers’ Area and Ben Thanh Market are all within walking distance from Sunland Hotel. Room prices starting around EUR 24 for a capsule or EUR 40 p/n for a superior double or twin room.
In the south of Vietnam, in the Gulf of Thailand, near the border of Cambodia, Kiên Giang province, there is an island called Phu Quoc, which means ‘pretty land’. Local beaches on Phu Quoc such as Bai Truong, Bai Sao and Bai Ong Lang are the only Vietnamese competitor of the tropical beaches of Thailand.
The island is becoming more and more popular and I understand why: it is beautiful, relaxed and sunny! Next to beaches, the island has a mountainous interior with a National Park, monkeys and pepper plantations. The village of Ganh Dau and Coconut Tree prison are worth a visit. Ask your accommodation about boat trips to the smaller islands and to a pearl farm.
- Consider taking this guided Full-Day Phu Quoc Island Tour.
- For sporty folks I’d suggest this East Phu Quoc island Cycling Tour or
- Discovering North of Phu Quoc Island and Kayaking.
Life is a beach
While planning our vacation in Thailand later this year, I caught myself looking for something like Phu Quoc. The beach is peaceful, sipping your delicious cocktail while staring at the beautiful sun(set) and palm trees, go snorkeling or kayaking, get a massage, eat some mango, rambutan or dragon fruit for lunch or breakfast… How good can life be?
How to get to Phu Quoc
If the season is right, make sure Phu Quoc is part of your Vietnam route! Best is to fly there from Hanoi or HCMC.
- Fly from Tan Son Nhat (SGN) at Ho Chi Minh City to Phu Quoc (PQC) 1h
- Fly from Hanoi Non Bai International Airport (HAN) to Phu Quoc (PQC) 2h
- For flight options and prices check Skyscanner
Where to stay in Phu Quoc
For four wonderful nights we stayed at one of the cute beach houses of Sea Sense Resort. You will be surprised how affordable this resort is (starting at EUR70 p/n). If you get tired of the food at this resort, you simply walk a few meters to the neighbor hotel and eat there.
From the cities mentioned you can take day trips to Halong Bay, Da Nang, Cu Chi tunnels, Mekong Delta, etc. Soon I will post another blog about those day trips. Personally I would not include Hue (palace not well maintained) and Nha Thrang (too touristy) in your Vietnam route.
Should you have more time, for example a couple of months, or going for a second or third time to Vietnam, you may want to consider expanding your Vietnam route by visiting (from north to south):
- Ha Giang Province
- Ba Be National Park
- Ninh Binh with Tam Coc and Trang An
- Cuc Phuong National Park
- Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park (Paradise Cave, Phong Nha Cave)
- Chu Mom Ray National Park (if open)
- Cat Tien National Park
- Mui Ne fishing village a.k.a. kite surfer’s paradise
- Con Dao islands
Promise not go on an Easy Riders trip at the Ha Giang loop with bad weather due to risk for accidents and falling rocks!
How to get to Vietnam & around
As mentioned before, flying from one place to another will save you a lot of time traveling around Vietnam since the country is long. The bus is cheaper yet slower. So it depends on your budget and how much time you have available for your Vietnam route. Road transportation like cars and busses can drive max 80 km p/h. Vietnam has no highways like we have in Europe or US and the country is huge, as a result bus rides take forever.
Check Skyscanner to find suitable flights. In total we took eight flights to be able to make this Vietnam route in three weeks:
- Amsterdam (AMS) – Hong Kong (HKG)
- Hong Kong (HKG) – Ho Chi Minh (SGN)
- Ho Chi Minh City (SGN) – Phu Quoc (PQC)
- Phu Quoc (PQC) – Hanoi (HAN)
- Hanoi (HAN) – Da Nang (DAD) near Hoi An
- Phu Bai (HUI) near Hue – Hanoi (HAN)
- Hanoi (HAN) – Hong Kong (HKG)
- Hong Kong (HKG) – Amsterdam (AMS)
Between Hanoi and Sapa you can take the train, like we did; there are several ones (including overnight). Day trips like Halong Bay, Mekong Delta, Cu Chi Tunnels, Hue, etc. you can do by road with a guide. More about day trips in Vietnam in a future post.
The government charges around 200% tax on cars, as a consequence most Vietnamese cannot afford to own one.
In big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City you will mostly walk around by foot, hire a cyclo with driver or take a regular taxi (via Uber or Grab app). Real adventurers may want to take a local city bus.
This mobile friendly map includes most things mentioned in this article and more!! It is smartphone friendly; you can use it easily via Google Maps. Click on the top left icon to open the menu. To customize the map to your interests, simply (un)select categories. Via Google Drive you can copy it to your folder of My Google Maps.
When to visit Vietnam
Regardless whenever you visit Vietnam, there is always good weather somewhere. The country is so long it can be divided in three regions, with each a different type of weather, which alternate year round. As a consequence, out of the three regions (north-central-south), there will always be one region rainy, the other region OK weather and another region with great weather. In conclusion, basically either you accept some parts of your Vietnam route will be rainy, or you limit your Vietnam route by picking the driest region for the time of year you will visit.
- October, November and December tends to bring the best weather conditions in northern Vietnam (Hanoi and Sapa) with little rain, good temperature conditions and clear skies. January is the coolest month in Hanoi (around 18 degrees Celsius average).
- In the first half of the year (January-July) the coastal area (Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang) usually gets the best weather.
- From November through to February/March the south of Vietnam (Saigon, Mekong Delta, Phu Quoc) has averagely taken the best weather forecast.
Vietnam is a good option for teachers, families, etc. who celebrate their longest holidays during the summer (of the northern hemisphere). That is to say, summer monsoon will bring some downpours and July/August is high season, but it is not like Thailand (busy). Friends of mine went in July/August last year and they had a blast; the weather was pretty hot yet fine overall. We went in November and overall the weather was good (dress and sandals), just a few days with rain in Hoi An, nothing bad really.
In addition, would recommend to try to avoid the national holidays in Vietnam (most are in February and April) as much as possible. Try to plan your Vietnam route in a way that you visit popular attractions during the week (instead of weekend).
Do I need a visa for Vietnam?
The answer to that question highly depends on your nationality, how long you wish to stay, what you plan to do (tourist or other), etc. Check for example the website of iVisa to learn whether you need a visa or not.
Did you know that Vietnamese people…
- love to plasticize everything, from car interiors to passes to straw hats (‘non la’)
- who work for the government and get a second child, will not get a pension
- prefer to be buried on their own piece of land (including fake money in the coffin)
- make a sport out of piling up as much stuff on their (motor)bike as possible
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Have you ever been to Vietnam? Or are you planning to visit Vietnam? What would be your ideal Vietnam route? Please feel free to share your experiences and plans via a comment below.