Ever since I shared my travelogue on Sapa, a lot of people have shown immense interest in visiting Vietnam and have sought my help in planning their trip. So this post and few upcoming posts are dedicated to helping you plan your first trip to the incomprehensibly exotic and utterly compelling, Vietnam.
Vietnam is abundant with breathtaking natural beauty, unique heritage and culture. Travel becomes addictive in this country which is brimming with infectious energy and warmth. Once you visit Vietnam, you can’t stop but prolong your trip or return again. Vietnam is a living example of resilience. A War trodden country until 1975, Vietnam has bounced back remarkably to make up for the time lost to the ravages of the war and a government that kept the outside world at bay until the 1990s.Vietnam does have its task cut out when it comes to attracting tourists from across the world, in comparison with its more open and developed south Asian neighbours. But thanks to cheap currency and unique cultural experiences, it is slowly and steadily becoming the darling of tourists.
So without further ado let me help you plan your maiden trip to Vietnam. Here is my personally experienced and curated recommendations - a practical guidebook for your first Vietnam visit.
WHERE TO GO?
Vietnam is a long, snake-like narrow country sandwiched between the South China Sea and the border between Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam is unrivaled for its diversity of landscapes - from the lush rice terraces and majestic mountains in the far north to the picturesque valleys of the Central Highlands and the fertile delta to the beautiful white sand beaches and turquoise waters of the south. And that’s not all. Vietnam offers a unique mix of booming modern cities, colonial towns, traditional villages, UNESCO heritage sites, archaeological marvels and otherworldly islands. Vietnam has a lot to offer. Perhaps even few months are not enough to see all, forget admiring the beauty! Here are some recommendations.
- Don’t rush into seeing everything in one trip. Travel slow to absorb the vibe of the place.
- Decide what you want to see first and keep the rest for subsequent trips.
- Most travelers who I’ve met prefer North Vietnam over the central and Southern regions.
- If you are a history buff or a beach bum and is not wary of chaos and crowd, south is for you. I prefer mountains and peace, therefore, I decided to do just North and far North.
The geography of Vietnam is as follows
- Mountainous Far North: Sapa, Ha Giang, Bac Ha
- North Vietnam: Hanoi, Halong Bay, Cuc Phuong, Mai Chau & Ninh Binh
- Central Vietnam: Hoi An, Danang, Hue, Quy Nhon & Nha Trang
- South Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City, The Mekong Delta, Dalat & Phu Quoc
WHAT TO SEE?
I explored only North and North Western Vietnam and hence I am going to share what I experienced
The capital city is famous for its thousands of colonial-era buildings and over two dozen exotic lakes. Known as the “Paris of Asia”, Hanoi exudes grace and grandeur through its appearance and architecture amidst the chaos of modern day living. Hanoi is a melting pot of the historic charm and the expansion of modern realms. A place still preserving grand old boulevards and ancient pagodas where locals practice their tai chi moves beside tree-fringed lakes. There is not a dull moment while walking the narrow congested streets of the Old Quarter. During the day it a thriving hub for commerce selling everything under the sun at throwaway prices. In the evening it transforms into one giant street food market. The transformation is so quick that I almost got lost. Hanoi is renowned for its street food, especially the Old Quarter and around Hoan Kiem Lake area. Other attractions that one must see are Hoan Kiem Lake, the Ngoc Son Temple, the French Quarter and the Hanoi Hilton, Temple of Literature, the Vietnam Army Museum, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Nha Tho Cathedral among other attractions. To know more how to make your Hanoi Trip awesome do check out 10 Tips For Hanoi Budget Travel
The UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the most romantic and beautiful seascapes. Sailing in the calm emerald sea of Halong Bay dotted with thousands of spiky limestone pinnacles is an unworldly experience. The sunsets are to die for. There is no better way to experience the bay but on a cruise. There are different kinds of cruise available – luxury to mid-range to cheap Bai Chay tourist boats. Safety is a big concern so it’s advisable to go for a mid-range overnight or two nights cruise.
I booked Imperial Classic Cruise and I was overwhelmed with their hospitality and their guide’s knowledge. I had a private luxury hotel like a cabin with attached bathroom and I was spoiled with exotic and tasty multi-course meals and drinks. One interesting thing that I noticed in North Vietnam was the influence of Chinese culture – right from their food to their folk stories to their celebrations. One prime example is how they name their places and objects. The word “Halong” translates to “where the dragon descends into the sea” and they have interesting names for even the rocks in the bay and the caves. The activities during the cruise include visiting:
- Huge natural Caves
- Singing karaoke and dancing
- Squid fishing, swimming, sailing through the many fishing villages
- Stopping off at the Pearl Farm before taking a cooking class
- Exploring untouched area in Lan Ha Bay and biking in the middle of Cat Ba national park.
If you are visiting Cat Ba Island don't forget to read Vietnam Discovery – Cat Ba Island
Halong Bay is one of the star attraction of Vietnam and definitely worth the hype. Halong Bay is best explored with a partner, whom I was badly missing 🙁
Being a mountain person this was the most cherished part of my trip. Hikers and adventure seekers cannot afford to miss this beautiful hill station. Sa Pa is located in Lao Cai Province, north-west Vietnam, and 350 km north-west of Hanoi. Sapa lies near the Chinese border in northwestern Vietnam, known as "the Tonkinese Alps" and is famous both for its unspoiled rugged scenery and for its rich cultural diversity. The entire Sapa region is a sightseeing place in itself. Trekking is an ideal way to explore its enchanting beauty. If you have time on hand then you can see Tha Bac (Silver) waterfall, Ham Rong Mountain, Rattan Bridge, Bamboo Forest and Ta Phin Cave among others. To reach Sapa, you can either take a 5-hour private sleeper bus leaving at night or early morning from any of the travel agents in Hanoi or take a 9-hour overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Chai, and then 45 minutes more from Lao Chai City by bus. In Sapa, I discovered the soul of Vietnam. Do read the untold story of Sapa.
WHEN TO GO?
Vietnam is a place for all seasons. There is no right or wrong season to visit Vietnam. Like its South East Asian counterparts, Vietnam is typically warm and humid. However, like India, weather can vary drastically from one region to another due to the length of the country. So you can experience snowfall in the far north and at the same time basking in the 32 °C sunshine in the South.
The climate in Vietnam can be divided into three different zones – North, South and Central.
- Far North Vietnam: The best time to travel in the North-East is from October to April and the best time to travel in North West is either from September to November or from March to May. Although trekking and cycling are possible around the year, winters can be brutally cold and foggy with temperatures occasionally dipping below freezing point and Summers can be very rainy.
- North Vietnam: The best time to visit North is in winters - November to April. Avoid summers as it becomes not only hot and humid but can also throw water over your sailing plans in Halong Bay due to severe rainfalls. The latter happens rarely, though.
- Central Vietnam: The best time to visit Central Vietnam is during the dry season – January to August. During the winter months, the rainfall increases with peaks in October and November
- South Vietnam: Temperatures mostly remain constant year-round in South Vietnam but its climate can be split into two seasons - wet and dry. The best time to visit South Vietnam is in the dry season – November to April
Remember one thing, there is no such thing as bad weather. Only just bad clothing. If you are well prepared Vietnam is a country for every season.
HOW MANY DAYS?
Vietnam has long been the darling of backpackers who spend months in the country and no prizes for guessing why. If you want the best value for money then there is no better place than Vietnam. However, for people who are into full-time jobs and cannot take a mega travel break, begin with 8 days itinerary for the Northern part. If you want to cover the key places in Northern, Central and Southern part then 14 days itinerary is good and if you are not time-starved and want to explore all the key attractions, 21 days itinerary is good. However, if you are really time-starved, 5 days are good for a start. Do keep in mind the time spent reaching these places.
Here are few examples of possible itineraries for your first Vietnam visit.
FIVE DAYS ITINERARY
A ‘Mini skirt’ break: To refresh you with the natural beauty of Northern Vietnam
- Day 1: Arrive in Hanoi. Explore the city attractions and relish the street food
- Day 2: Arrive in Halong Bay. Take an overnight Cruise. Sleep on the Cruise
- Day 3: Sail through the Halong Bay. Return to Hanoi. Take Night bus to Sapa
- Day 4: Trek in Sapa, explore the rice fields and enjoy the hospitality of Homestay
- Day 5: Trek in Sapa, take the bus back to Hanoi. Fly out of Hanoi
EIGHT DAYS ITINERARY
A ‘Cocktail skirt’ break: I would add three more days to the above itinerary and explore Halong Bay and Sapa. Or I would visit Mai Chau or North East Vietnam. But in case you don’t want to trek and want to cover the other important city of Vietnam then this itinerary should work for you:
- Day 1:Arrive in Hanoi, sleep in Hanoi
- Day 2:Halong Bay day trip, sleep in Hanoi
- Day 3:Explore Hanoi, take the Reunification Express to Ho Chi Minh City in the evening,
- Day 4:All day on train, sleep in train (or to save one day fly out)
- Day 5:Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City early in the morning and explore the city
- Day 6:Visit the historical sites of Ho Chi Minh
- Day 7:Visit Mekong Delta and return to Ho Chi Minh
- Day 8:Fly out of Ho Chi Minh
FIFTEEN DAYS ITINERARY
A ‘Midi skirt” break: Personally, I would spend 8-10 days exploring Hanoi, Halong Bay, Sapa, Ha Giang, Bac Ha and spend the rest exploring Hue, Hoi An and Nha Trang. But for others who want to explore all the three regions, this itinerary should work fine:
- Day 1: Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City
- Day 2: Explore Ho Chi Minh
- Day 3: Take Cu Chi Tunnels or Mekong Delta day trip
- Day 4: To Nha Trang, sleep in Nha Trang
- Day 5: Explore Nha Trang, spend a night in Nha Trang
- Day 6: To Hoi An via Da Nang, Hoi An
- Day 7: Explore Hoi An, sleep in Hoi An
- Day 8: Depart to Hue
- Day 9: Explore Hue during the day and take an overnight train to Hanoi
- Day 10: Explore the Hanoi attractions
- Day 11: Drive to Halong Bay and take 2D1N Halong Bay Cruise
- Day 12: Enjoy the Halong Bay cruise and return to Hanoi in the evening
- Day 13: Explore, shop, eat, drink and sleep in Hanoi
- Day 14: Fly home
TWENTY ONE DAYS ITINERARY
A ‘Gown” break: This is the ideal break and will be ideal to discover the heart and soul of Vietnam where you’ll not be rushing into places.
- Day 1:Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City
- Day 2:Explore Ho Chi Minh
- Day 3:Take Mekong Delta day trip
- Day 4:To Mui Ne, sleep in Mui Ne
- Day 5:Explore Mui Ne, sleep in Mui Ne
- Day 6:To Nha Trang, sleep in Nha Trang
- Day 7:Explore Nha Trang, sleep in Nha Trang
- Day 8:To Hoi An via Da Nang, sleep in Hoi An
- Day 9:Explore Hoi An and spend a night in Hoi An
- Day 10: Take a day trip to My Son day trip and return to Hoi An
- Day 11: Leave for Hue and spend two days and a night in Hue
- Day 12:Explore Hue and take the overnight train to Hanoi
- Day 13:Explore the exuberant day and night life of Hanoi
- Day 14:Drive to Halong Bay, take 3D2N trip to Halong Bay Cruise
- Day 15:Enjoy Halong Bay Activities and explore CatBa National Park
- Day 16:Last day of Halong Bay cruise, Return to Hanoi & take overnight bus to Sapa
- Day 17:Trek in Sapa and experience the authentic tribe homestay experience
- Day 18:Explore Northern Sapa and spend a night at Sapa
- Day 19:Take an afternoon bus to Hanoi and rest in your hotel
- Day 20:Explore, shop, eat and drink in Hanoi
- Day 21:Fly home
- The best time to go is either in October - November or February-April
- Pack light as it is a shopping heaven. You will carry more back than what you carried in.
- Stay is not an issue in Vietnam. You can get any type of accommodation as per your taste. However, book through websites like booking.com. agoda.com or reliable travel agents
- Be careful with the currency. 15000 Vietnamese Dong note looks similar to 50,000 Vietnamese Dong
- US dollars are accepted everywhere even in remote Sapa villages
- Don’t ask for price from hawkers until you want to buy it. Asking price is equal to buying
- Bargain. Bargain. I cannot stress enough.
- Be careful of bikes when crossing the streets. Maximum accidents are caused by motorbikes in Vietnam
- Be careful with the street food. Eat at places that have huge number of guests to ensure fresh food quality.
- Hanoi has the world’s cheapest beer - Hoi Na. it is Fresh, to be consumed within the day. And Costs only 5000 Dong.
- Never drink tap water. Always buy bottled water
- The normal way of addressing tourists is, “My lady” for women and “Sir/Mr.” for men
- Lying is a part of the Vietnamese culture. The first answer you will hear will always be NO until it has some benefit for the locals.
- Not everyone speaks English. It’s best to learn few local language words
- Be very careful of travel scams. Always book through reputed agencies only. Read reviews. Never pay 100% advance
- Avoid taxi frauds. Use Hanoi Taxi. Getting in and out of the airport has become fairly easy. It takes maximum 45 minutes from Old Quarters to the airport
Hoping this practical Guidebook for your first Vietnam visit will be useful to you. Do share your feedback.