Last year I travelled through Vietnam for two weeks with one of my good friends from my bachelor’s degree. It wasn’t my first time backpacking in South East Asia, I had been once before, to Thailand, but this was again a completely different experience!
We started in the far north of the country, in Hanoi, and ended up in the south after two weeks and flew back from Ho Chi Minh city. Many people travel from south to north as well. I don’t think one is better than the other but because of flight prices we travelled this way around, and I could only recommend it! Here is the itinerary we put together for the two weeks.
Summary of our itinerary
- Hanoi – 2 days
- Ha Long Bay – 1 day
- Hanoi – 1 day
- Tam Coc – 3 days
- Phong Nha – 1 day
- Hue – 1 day
- Motorbike trip – 1 day
- Hoi An – 2 days
- Ho Chi Minh City – 2 days
Where to stay, what to do and where to eat
Hanoi – 2-3 days
We flew from London to Bangkok and to Hanoi. This was our first destination, where we spent about three days before starting our journey south.
- Accommodation: We stayed at the Babylon Garden Hostel right in the middle of the city centre. We were extremely happy with our choice. Some people also recommended the Hanoi Central Backpackers Hostel, and we did end up staying here one night because we got the bus south from here, but I would not recommend the latter. Out of the two I would stay at the first one hundred times over as it was very clean, calm and the staff were very helpful. The type of people staying at hostels, especially when staying in a shared room, also make a huge difference, and we found this much more chill at the Babylon Garden Hostel.
- Where to eat: Noodle & Roll, Jalus Vegan Cafe, Quán Cơm Phố Cổ, Phở Cuốn 31
- Where to go for coffee: Cafe Pho Co – extremely nice hidden cafe with delicious drinks and views over the lake; The Note Coffee; Young Coffee
- Things to see/do: The Lake Temple, Prisoner’s Museum, Merchant streets, Water Puppet Show, Duang Xa market, the train street, Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh Musoleum, One Pillar Temple, the botanical gardens, Quan Thanh Temple, the West lake, the National Museum of Vietnamese history, have a Vietnamese massage.
Ha Long Bay – 2 days (1 night)
So many people don’t go here because it is very touristy. It is also very tricky to find a good cruise company to do the cruise with as many offer cheap deals and offer something that is not actually what you get when you go. Before we went to Vietnam I did a lot of research on this and booked with Signature Cruise. It is quite expensive for one night but it was one of the only “more expensive” things we did during our trip, and definitely worth it. The quality of the cruise is just amazing, the guide was the best and most friendly I have ever had and the rooms were sublime.
The trip includes:
- Transport to and from Ha Long Bai from Hanoi,
- Day 1: a five-course lunch, a trip to the fishing village and a kayaking trip through it, a cooking demo, a four-course dinner, and squid fishing before bed.
- Day 2: tai chi in the morning, coffee and fruit, a cave visit and breakfast before getting off the boat again and going back to Hanoi.
Quick stop in Hanoi before going south (1 night)
We stayed one more night in Hanoi after the cruise, because you only get back to Hanoi in the early afternoon with the minibus, so it makes the most sense to take a bus somewhere else the next morning. We stayed one night in the Hanoi Central Backpackers Hostel (I would not recommend it – it’s dirty and noisy) as we booked the bus to go to Ninh Bin and Tam Coc.
Ninh Binh & Tam Coc (3 days)
Ninh Binh is a rural area, about 3-4 hours south from Hanoi. We absolutely loved staying here, especially after being a city for a few days (cities in Asia are crazy busy!). We stayed here for three days (two nights) before going to our next destination.
- Accommodation: the best places to stay in Vietnam once you leave the bigger cities are Homestays. They are run by local people who have extra space in their house and are usually great quality for the price you pay. They are also more than happy to organise anything for your – from booking taxi’s to bus tickets to tours. The food at Homestays is also some of the most delicious! We stayed at Anh Huong Tam Coc Homestay and it was absolutely amazing! It’s close to the main part of the town, the family is absolutely amazing and the rooms as well. The homestay consists of the main house where the whole family lives (from grandparents to grandchildren) and a beautiful garden with little guest houses in it. My friend and I had a guest house all to ourselves with two double beds and breakfast included for about €8 per night each. We did our washing here, ate here, booked a taxi for a full day to take us around the area and booked our night bus to Phong Nha through them. Absolutely top service!
- Where to eat: Rose’s, Banh Mi Hoi An, Chookies and at your homestay as it probably has really nice and cheap food!
- Things to see / do: rent some bikes to explore the neighbourhood, as it is quite spread out.
- I would recommend seeing the following by bike: Thung Nham bird park and the Mermaid caves and taking a boat ride on the lake here, Den Thai Vi temple, Hang Mua temple, Trang An, Bich Dong
- We hired a taxi for a day to see: Chua Bai Dinh (three pagodas spread over a very large area of land, this takes about two hours to see) and Hoa Lu.
- In Tam Coc: there is not that much to do, but there are some good food places and the hostels in town tend to organise some social events. I would recommend doing the Tam Coc boat ride, which you can find at the centre of town.
Phong Nha (1 day)
We took the night bus from Tam Coc to Phong Nha at around 7 pm and arrived at 4:15 am in the morning. We decided to add Phong Nha to our stops as the natural park here is beautiful and you can do some one- or multiple-day treks out here.
- Accommodation: we booked Thao Nguyen Homestay and again, it was better than one could have expected. The owner of the homestay was so nice to let us sleep in a room for a few hours (despite not having booked for that night!) before setting off on our one-day trekking experience at 7 am.
- Tour: we booked a one-day trekking tour with Oxalis beforehand. They are a great local tour company that is slightly more expensive than some others, but again it is really worth paying a little extra on these trips to actually get good value for your money. They came to pick us up at 7, gave us a short briefing at their base camp and then drove to the natural park. We trekked for 30-40 mins to the entrance of a cave and caved here for 2 hours. The cave was more than 1km deep into the mountain and we even went through water to get in. We then had lunch with the crew outside the cave. They took us to a kayaking place after lunch where we kayaked for 30 mins and then had a bit of relaxing/swimming time before they took us back to our homestay. I would really 100% recommend this experience. The group we went with was small, we were only 6 people and the tour guides had a lot of experience and really knew what they were doing.
- Other things to do: get a massage at Magic Fingers and go to the small market. There really isn’t much to do here apart from visiting the surrounding nature.
- Eat at: Bamboo Cafe
Hue (2 days – 1 night)
We got the bus to Hue from our homestay at 7. They made us breakfast to go (I got banana pancakes). We had a sleeper bus and arrived to Hue after 4hrs, at 11 am. Hue is the old capital of Vietnam and has the Imperial City, which it is best known for. We also decided to visit Hue to see this, and because it was an easy stop on our way down. There is not much else to do in the city, apart from this and the nightlife scene.
- Accommodation: we decided to get something a little more fancy in the middle of our trip and booked Cherish Hue Hotel, a 5-star hotel, for €27 for one night (for the two of us, crazy cheap!). We were able to check in early upon arrival and freshen up a little. If you spend a day in Hue I would really recommend staying at this hotel, it’s crazy cheap for the quality (it really is like a 5-star hotel would be like in Europe, but for the price of a hostel in Europe). We both had a double bed, there is a spa and we had a huge buffet for breakfast.
- What to see / do: The Imperial City, walk through the city, visit the market. There really isn’t that much to do in Hue, apart from visiting the Imperial City. There is a lot of nightlife so head over to that area for some drinks in the evening!
- Where to eat: Nina’s, Family Restaurant
- Where to drink: Cong Caphe, Cay Cafe (also for drinks at night)
Hoi An (2 days)
Both Hoi An and getting to Hoi An were the best parts of our trip! A lot of people rent motorbikes to go from Hue to Hoi An or vice-versa. There is a beautiful stretch of mountains between the two cities and it all passes by the coast, so it really makes for some beautiful views. And once in Hoi An, apart from it being very touristy – we were also here during the national school holidays which didn’t help – it was amazing as well. The city is so beautiful, especially at night with all the lights, and it was super nice to be able to bike to the beach from here.
- The bike ride tour: Now, because my friend and I don’t know how to ride motorbikes, we found a tour online where you are taken by someone on the back of a motorbike and you can get this experience anyway. And oh boy was it worth it! We got completely drenched at some point during the trip, but it was beautiful. We stopped at various places along the way – by a fishing village, the Elephant Springs for a refreshing swim, Lang Co beach where we had lunch (great for seafood!), passing through the Hai Van pass, through Da Nang and finally at the Marble Mountain before being dropped off in Hoi An. I would 100% recommend this experience. The company we booked it with is called Hue to Go Tours.
- Accommodation: in Hoi An we stayed in a private room in a hostel, the Tribee Cotu Hostel. It was really nice, the staff were super friendly, we could rent bikes from the hostel and they organised some sort of event or tour almost every day.
- Where to eat: Minh Hien Vegetarian, the French Bakery & Restaurant, Morning Glory, try the traditional mango cake (sold on the street)
- Where to have coffee: Hoi An roasteries
- What to do / see: the night market, the old town, get a ticket that gets you access to five of the cultural sites in town – we visited Japanese Bridge, the old house of Tan Ky, the Chinese Assembly Halls, the Museum of Traditional Medicine and the Hoi An Museum, go to An Bang Beach by bike, get some clothes made at a tailor’s, have Mot tea (only exists in Hoi An and its DELICIOUS), bike to Cau Dai beach, visit Cam Kim island.
Ho Chi Minh City (2 days)
From Hoi An we got a flight with VietJet Air to HCMC because it is really quite far from each other. We got up early to go to Da Nang airport for our flight to HCMC. If you let your hostel or homestay know that you need to get to the airport they will book a taxi for you, and the same goes for when you arrive, someone will be at the airport of destination to pick you up. They, of course, charge you for it, but it’s really cheap and it prevents you from getting ripped off by a taxi driver.
Ho Chi Minh City was really like nothing else we had seen so far on our trip. It was maybe a little comparable to Da Nang, which also had a lot of modern high-rise buildings. This city is really quite large, which was quite strange as we were used to being able to walk to cycle everywhere. It is a mix between the traditional Vietnamese life we had seen throughout our whole trip so far and a really modern and advanced part of the society. I think I preferred the rest of Vietnam compared to it, but it was super nice to go to a shopping centre, some fancy restaurants and being in the city.
- Accommodation: we stayed at Cactusland Homestay – Tran Hung Dao. It’s a small homestay with tiny rooms, but it is very well maintained, clean and the staff are super friendly. It is also close to the main part of town.
- Where to eat: Propaganda, Hum Lounge and Restaurant, Five Oysters
- What to see / do: Notre Dame, Saigon Central Post Office, Independence Palace, the War Remnants Museum, Ben Thanh market, Veggie Saigon, Fine Arts Museum, Botanical Gardens, the Jade Emperor Pagoda, the mall, Air360 Sky bar for the views, Bui Vien street at night is where most of the action is.
I hope you enjoyed it!