Are you going to Vietnam soon? We give you our recommendations and 2 itineraries to enjoy in a greener way your three week travel there.
Vietnam is not a very big country but there are quite a few things to see and there is something suitable for all tastes. While the North is traditional and relatively green, the South part is more industrial and Western. Then of course the border is not completely clearly traced out and you will be able to find very typical/authentic spots in Southern Vietnam as well.
I recommend to you below two itineraries but obviously these are just my proposals and you will find a whole bunch of others on the internet. Finally, it seems to me that these destinations are the best known but also the most interesting ones in Vietnam. Other locations deserve to be explored as well, but if you only have 3 weeks at your disposal, you must make a choice obviously. And then it depends on the type of holidays that you enjoy; however you will discover below the routes that we put forth as highly worthwhile.
When to travel to Vietnam?
We went ot Vietnam in May, one of the hottest month of the year but with little rain. It was a good choice because rain can pour quite heavily in Vietnam. So our recommendation would be to skip summer season (our summer season) and go aroung April/May, when it gets warm but not too wet.
Where to sleep ?
We have generally been satisfied with homestay (rooms or apartments shared with the owner). Have a look on Booking.com or Tripadvisor, there are plenty to choose from and oftentimes they are less expensive than hotels but just as comfortable! Prepare to spend on average around 30-40 euros per night, not taking into account more luxurious options obviously.
In Vietnam, beware of scams!
Regarding food, always ask for the prices in advance; we have discovered in restaurants a technique rather popular in Vietnam: two menus exist, one for locals and one for tourists in English. The one for locals normally displays the prices, but not the one for tourists as the manager or the waiter will charge you more (or at least per person). We have noticed this also in bars and in neighborhood shops. No price displayed and when you ask for the price you are being asked an amount 5 times more than what a local would be charged – unacceptable but very common in Vietnam. Therefore ALWAYS ask the prices beforehand if they are not mentioned! And especially if you are being told in a neighborhood bar that a beer costs more than 50.000 duong don’t believe a word. Because we had forgotten to ask, we had to pay 200.000 duong (approximately 8 euros) for 2 local beers of 50cl in Hanoi. We are not in Paris however! So upon arriving at a bar, ask and negotiate. Yes, even the beer…I must admit that constantly having to negotiate from the moment when there is no price, is quite tiring and frequent if you go to more local spots. Of course the touristic and westernized restaurants will display prices 2 to 3 times higher than what you would pay with a local, but hey, at least you won’t have to negotiate.
Tipping is not a common practice in Vietnam especially in the North, but obviously if the service is good, why not give a little something?
Where and what to eat in Vietnam?
The best cities where we ate were Hue, Ninh Binh and on the way to Lang Co – a restaurant that didn’t seem to be one from outside, but we were hungry, travelling by bike and it was extremely hot so we saw two Vietnamese going inside a house and we asked if we could eat here given that there were tables on the level below. It was simply glorious, fresh seafood caught in the morning with just a pinch of salt and lemon, and with rice of course since rice is the staple food in Vietnamese cuisine. Luckily this cuisine is vast and diverse and you will not have to eat only rice for 3 weeks.
Obviously the phô, this famous soup based on rice noodles is found almost everywhere. Its price varies significantly, but on average, it shouldn’t go above 50.000 duong. In Ninh Binh, on the way to the Bai Ding pagoda, we have even eaten one for less than 50cts, meaning around 13.000 duong – and it was probably one of the best we’ve had. Another dish that I adored the green mango salad with cabbage, shrimps and peanut chips called Gỏi Xoài, delicious!
Also very local and practical for a tasting on the go is the Banh Xeo, available with either chicken or beef. It’s the equivalent of the Vietnamese sandwich.
Try the street food, it is worth it but try to skip meat. Denis got actually sick from a “something” which looked like beef but probably wasn’t (more probably dog or another animal???). We only had fish and other seafood street food, which was perfect.
Vietnam has very delicious seafood but no actual legislation in place for fishing, which leads to a very substantial depletion of fish stocks and corals in the China Sea. Besides since we have been in Nha Trang, we can tell you that it’s not nice to see this phenomenon at all. Thefore take advantage of seafood like shrimps, crabs, lobsters, if you can as the least bad solution. Some fish like the catfish and carp are also bred in farms, ask the restaurants when possible if the fish was fished or if it comes from a farm. Similarly, there is no legislation for the fair treatment of animals in Vietnam, therefore you should try to focus on vegetarian products and dishes. We have eaten shrimp instead of fish, and chicken when we had no other choice. But we have not consumed beef often replaced by dog meat since we were well aware that Chinese or Vietnamese meat factories are far from being conscientious when it comes to animal treatment. I highly recommend favoring vegetables and the different rice dishes, there are fewer chances to get sick over hygiene reasons (meat stays in the street for many hours in full daylight and we have seen restaurants purchase meat from street vendors…) or after having eaten an animal that has suffered atrociously. Once again, there are no perfect solutions. A cool website, if you are looking for restaurants in Hanoi that are more bio and vegetarian oriented is Happy Cow. Another for Ho Chi Minh, referencing also the organic and vegetarian restaurants.
Transportation in Vietnam
As far as safety is concerned, we haven’t run into any trouble in Vietnam, we have found the country to be relatively safe but we have also been careful of course. In general though, you shouldn’t worry..
For transportation, take the night train! This will help you save hotel night fares and the overnight trains also have sleeping compartments! You can reserve with the Vietnam Impressive agency like we have; they are very professional and speak English and they leave your tickets at the hotel, wherever you may be. Their rates are very reasonable and they can advise you with regards to different travel routes. Alternatively, you can purchase the tickets in the station or at the hotel directly. Try to always reserve in advance your night trains given that the compartments tend to fill up quickly. You have here the link equivalent to the Vietnamese railway system. You must be aware of the fact that the North trains are the SAPA trains and the trains towards the South are the Reunification trains. Another very useful website for train connections is Vietnam Railway.
Very useful is this website in English, detailing each itinerary and how to get from one city to another. Written by an Englishman, it has helped us tremendously transportation wise!
Air travel wise, we have flown from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh with Jetstar Pacific – good company despite the aircraft dating from my grandparents’ time. The prices are very affordable. Try to minimize plane travel as much as possible, however for long distances it remains a very practical option (one way ticket Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh costs 60 euros)
Vietnam “South” (beach) total : 21 days
I have to write an article about Hanoi, but the main attractions are definitely the puppet show, the Temple of Literature and the animated streets in the old town upon nightfall! Also do not forget to grab a Café Sua Da (iced coffee with condensed milk, a Vietnamese specialty).
Recommended hotel. Essence Hanoi. Pretty and well situated; Price per night: 50 euros
Halong Bay is a well known attraction in Vietnam, or perhaps even a symbol. We found it to be lovely and definitely worth spending the night there. For a cruise on Halong Bay with a more ecological cruise operator – Vspirit would be a good option. Another very well known cruise operator called Paradise has entered a partnership with a local environmental association called Green Halong. We have chosen Indochina Junk. However we don’t recommend it since it was expensive and food was average for an excessive price.
Cruise on the Halong Bay. Price for 2 people: approximately 350 euros
To reach Phong Nha Ke Bang, you will have to take a bus from Hanoi. Take into account around 10 hours of travel time (departure Hanoi at 18h, arrival at 4h am). By train you would have to take a night train from Hanoi then take a night train (Reunification train departing at 22h for example and arriving at 7h25 in Dong Hoi) and then make your way by local bus (approximately 1h30) from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha. Indeed the journey is long but feasible and especially Phong Nha Ke Bang is worth the effort. You will find an article about Phong Nha Ke Bang here.
Recommended hotel. Ho Khanh Homestay; Price per night: 45-50 euros
From Phong Nha it’s fairly easy to go, again by bus around 5h. You can find additional information on the website of this youth hostel in Phong Nha (in English). Hue is a very pretty city, all walled in, a nice stop before heading towards the South, the gastronomic capital of Vietnam. You will find here excellent restaurants like this French-Vietnamese restaurant that’s rather expensive but very refined, high Vietnamese cuisine, le Jardin de la Carambole.
Recommended hotel: Orchid Hotel (we have been pleasantly welcomed and the breakfast was good).
Only shuttle buses will take you to Lang Co from Hue. There are no buses or trains really. We were cycling but we knew that for a negotiated price we could get to Lang Co with an agency. You can also ask the hotel for information or do the road by bike for the more sporty types (around 70 km).
There are only 3 hotels in Lang Co: Banyan Tree, Lang Co resort and Angsana Lang Co – high prices but well preserved, non-touristic beaches. We stayed at Lang Co resort. Not amazing but for those of you looking just for a place situated close to the beach, it’s good enough! The issue is that none of the hotels are environmentally friendly or green; unfortunately this is the case almost everywhere in Vietnam, therefore don’t hesitate to ask questions and observe, we would be delighted to hear your feedback! The beach is very beautiful and quite clean – we loved it a lot.
From Lang Co same issue – there’s not really a public transport system, however given that you would be close to the Col De Nuages (being in Lang Co), ask your hotel for a trip to the summit and Hoi An. There are some that organize the trips even upon departing Hue. I can’t really advise on the price, my guess is that the trip would cost around 100$. Or you can do the journey by bike like we did. Breathtaking but exhausting!!! (approximately 90km out of which 10km climb to the Col).
Recommended hotel. No specific hotels to recommend, but would be a good idea to choose a hotel close to the historical centre. We stayed at Essence Hoi An, cute but nothing more.
An article will follow on Hoi An since we have thoroughly enjoyed our time there, the city is very pretty although touristic.
From Hoi An, you will have to take a bus in direction of Danang (around 30km) in order to catch a plane to Ho Chi Minh. The journey is short since the Danang airport is 30km away from Hoi An. If you have the time, travel by train rather than by plane (more responsible and greener), but be aware that the train travel takes 17h to reach Ho Chi Minh from Danang…The landscapes are simply incredible on this stretch of land. If not, you can take the plane for approximately 1 hour and this will definitely be simpler and not much more expensive than the train. Ask you hotel about the easiest way to get to the Danang airport, they might be able to help you.
Recommended hotel. Intercontinental Asiana Saigon; Price per night: 150 euros
We didn’t go to Phu Quoc, but a friend of mine has spent 10 days there. The beaches are apparently magnificent and the island very pleasant. Once again, you will most likely have to take a plane since the bus and the ferry, although potential means of transport would take much more travel time and would make you stop in several other places before Phu Quoc. My friend came from Ho Chi Minh through an organized trip which crossed several very nice villages but this took almost 3 days.
The island is ideal for a 4 day stay at least, rent a bike and go round the island, take advantage of the nature in Phu Quoc.
Vietnam “North” (more nature and authenticity oriented trip): 22 days
Same remarks as for route 1.
Recommended hotel. Essence Hanoi; Pretty and well situated; Price per night: 50 euros
Ideally you should take a night train to Lao Cai, the capital of the region. There are daily trains and one leaving at 21h and arriving at 5h35 in Sapa. Then you will have to take a bus to go to your hotel. To go from Lao Cai to Sapa, you have to jump on one of the numerous minibuses that can be found in the parking lot, a couple dozen meters on the left side of the central station (follow the stream of people). You will be approached and you will have to negotiate. Try to negotiate a price of approximately 50.000 duongs if you manage to. In Sapa make sure that you book a homestay in advance if you do not want to be approached every 100 meters. You will hear this sentence incessantly: “Buy. Buy from me.” Don’t pay attention to it, otherwise you won’t be able to get away from the people! Similarly, look into hiking guides available in Sapa in advance. Actually Sapa is nothing but a departure point for exploring the beautiful region of North Vietnam. Therefore book a guide through an agency and negotiate everything, all the time. Be aware that you will need a guide since he will be the one facilitating you obtaining the necessary permits to visit the Vietnamese ethnic minority tribes. He will also be able to communicate with them and this will make it much much easier for you. A fairly reputable agency for hiking trails is called Sinh Tourist Café in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh (be careful there are 3 similar ones on the same street and only one is the good one!!) if you want to reserve a tour to Sapa all inclusive.
Same comments apply for itinerary 1. And departure immediately after the cruise to Ninh Binh.
You can take a local bus for about 6$ per person or book a touristic bus that will come to pick you up upon your cruise arrival at 13h and will take you to Tam Coc (close to the sightseeing spots). Their phone number is +84 (0)30 3542 345 and you will be able to ask your cruise operator to indicate the best route to follow. When you get to Ning Binh, arrange your travel from the moment you leave the bus up to your hotel. It’s a gorgeous place; you can find here an itinerary.
Recommended hotel. NGuyen Shack; Price per night: 50 euros
Faster access upon departure from Ninh Binh, take the night train instead though. You could also take the train to Dong Hoi if you feel like it – it’s less direct though. As far as the rest is concerned, same comments as for itinerary 1 apply. You could have a look at the article about Phong Nha Ke Bang here.
Why not make a trek on the ancient routes of Ho Chi Minh upon departure from Phong Nha? We didn’t have the time to do that, but we heard only good things about this route. With camping and guides included, ask an agency about this route or at certain homestays or hotels. Everything is paid only in cash in Phong Nha, therefore plan accordingly!
Same comments as for itinerary 1.
Take a bus or go by train from Hue. Hoi An is truly gorgeous but very touristic. Don’t make the same mistake as I did by getting a custom made dress! I paid 40 euros for a dress that turned out to be not that pretty and not well cut. I had however followed the recommendation from the Lonely Planet guide.
Same comments as for itinerary 1.
Translation & Copy Editing by Liana Marinoiu