Vietnam is a beautiful country and far too vast to tackle in two weeks. But, we don’t have an infinite amount of time and money. So, here’s what we tackled in that short period Ho Chi Minh City > Nha Trang > Hoi An > Da Nang > Hanoi > Ha Long Bay > Dong Trieu > Hanoi > Ho Chi Minh City, and how we did it.
Recently, I started seeing a wonderful German man who lives in Berlin, while I reside in New York City. It’s a bit of a commute, and we don’t always want to just visit each other’s respective cities (tough life, I know. Quit rolling your eyes). We decided to find a country we both haven’t been to, and would be ideal for the month of November. Vietnam proved to be a good option although we did read rainy season was starting in the south. Regardless, the round-trip flights were incredibly low from New York and similar for Berlin. The RT flight from JFK to Ho Chi Minh was $510 all in. Deal me in.
Once the flight was confirmed, book-ended to be home by Thanksgiving, the planning commenced and gathering tips from friends and family. As suggestions rolled in, reviewing sites like TravelFish.com, Rough Guides and so on, I started mapping out how long to spend in each area and best mode of transport between cities, since Vietnam is a remarkably long country as I came to find out. The upside, domestic flights are cheap and train travel. We didn’t take the bus route due to lack of time, although I heard there are nice sleeper bus options. We traveled by train from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang and flew from Nha Trang to Da Nang, Da Nang to Hoi An and finally Hoi to An to Ho Chi Minh. Sounds overwhelming, however, very doable. A train route that I heard was known for jaw-dropping views is Da Nang to Hue, which we missed sadly. If you have more time, make sure to do that. Sa Pa in the north is another stunning area we wish we had more time to see. Those are the breaks, but do what’s right for your timeline and sanity. It’s a lot of moving around and you don’t want to have to take a vacation after your vacation.
When we arrived in Ho Chi Minh, we decided to walk all over to see the major highlights like the Palace, War Remnants Museum, Pagodas, markets and pho vendors. That evening, we joined a Foodie Tour by XO Tours – an all female guided motorbike group. It came highly recommended by my Vietnamese friend and honeymooner friend. It was the best way to dive into the many districts of the bustling city, try restaurants and cuisines we would have never known about. I had my first frog and learned a valuable new chopsticks game.
The following day, we hopped on our train mid-day to Nha Trang for about eight hours. Nha Trang hugs the coast and reminded me a lot of Rio at first glance from our hotel balcony that morning. Same, same but different. We only stayed two nights and one full day there, so we spent it walking up the beach to the Po Nagar Cham Towers – a beautiful temple. It’s also very close to a hot springs pool and well-known mud bath spa. I made the executive decision that we needed to drop by, paying for a day pass but not indulging in the mud slathering. Another day, another time.
Moving on to Hoi An, we flew into Da Nang and arranged a car pickup by our hotel, which made the 45 minute commute to Hoi An seamless. Our plan was to stay for three nights at Muca Hoi An Boutique Resort & Spa. We loved it so much, we added a night and forwent a night in Da Nang. Best decision we made. The hotel was an oasis, perfectly located between the beach and the Hoi An Ancient Town – a UNESCO World Heritage site. As luck would have it, we landed on the day of a full moon. The monthly lantern festival is where the city lights up with colorful paper lanterns floating down the canal. It’s a bit crowded at points by the bridge and many locals will clammer to you to give you a ride on a sampan boat to put a paper lantern into the water and make a wish. It might be kitschy or touristy but I had no problem jumping in and participating. The boat was one of the best views of the old town.
When we first approached the old town streets, we noticed all the leather goods, pottery and artwork. Leather handbags, weekend bags, side bags, shoes, oh my! I got shoes and a skirt tailor made within a day. Highly recommend the indulgent experience. While I waited on my tailored goods, we booked a day trip to My Son, an ancient grounds filled with temples from 200AD that was on the receiving end of US bombs during the Vietnam war sadly. It’s still worth the trip and impressive. Book it in the city for $12 for a bus to pick you up at your hotel and return via boat with lunch included.
On our last day, we scheduled our return via Muca hotel with a driver with an hour and a half stop at the Marble Mountains. It surpassed our expectations and was a real highlight. Take the stairs not the elevator, which is cheaper, unless you aren’t able to do 50 or so steep stone steps. Make sure to keep looking and taking pathways to see all the pagodas. DO NOT miss this huge cavernous temple that we almost overlooked. It was worthy of a huge Game of Thrones style scene. We were in awe of the place as we descended the steps. Photos don’t do it justice.
Now in Hanoi after a short flight, a city that received rave reviews by many friends, expats and travel experts, we found ourselves staying in the Old Quarter. It’s full of shops, restaurants and steps away from a lake. It’s relatively central to walk around to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (not open in October or November, apparently), war museum, and larger lake to the north. After breaking bread over some beers with an expat friend and colleague of my partner, we were taking a liking to this city too. The following morning, we took a trip down to Ha Long Bay – about a four-hour drive. The part of the trip I was salivating for. It lived up to the hype and photos. We took the Swan Cruises company that offered a tour for two nights and access to water less traveled into the Bai Tu Long Bay, closer to the China boarder. The limestone islands and inlets rise up out of the water with no rhyme or reason, showing off the supreme glory of Mother Nature. We kayaked around these massive rock formations and into caves, paddling past empty beaches. As we returned to the boat, we jumped into the water and spent some time fishing for squid.
Our last night on the Ha Long Bay tour, we stopped in a small town for a home stay at Vietnam Eco Adventure. The family who hosted us was lovely. We had a short walk down the road to the owner’s father’s home. He just happened to be an incredible former Viet Cong who survived some of the deadliest battles during the war. He welcomed us Americans and one German for tea to share his incredible outlook and history of Vietnam. At sunrise, we had breakfast and ventured out into the rural village to see the rice farming process via bikes, hats included. This was well worth the stop.
Back in Hanoi, we spent our night picking up souvenirs and eating local in the small side streets. Knowing we had only 12 hours in Ho Chi Minh before our long flights home, I booked a last-minute oasis in town overlooking the river with a pool on the rooftop. Best decision for killing time and sparing your nerves. The neighborhood had a ton of great local food places lining the streets for our last taste of Vietnam.
That’s the trip in a nutshell. I could go on and will expand on a few highlights on Travelogue, so stay tuned. Feel free to ask questions below.
Places We Stayed
Since we were in shoulder season, we organized a lot of last-minute hotel bookings with no problem. I am normally a big fan of Airbnb anytime I travel, however, Vietnam offers a vast variety of budget-friendly hotels, so we booked through Expedia.com for some points and good last-minute deals, in addition to Agoda.com:
Sunland Hotel – Ho Chi Minh – an incredible rooftop bar view
Crossing the street in Vietnam you must use caution and look every which way to avoid getting run over. Even though there are pedestrian street markings all over, that means nothing. It’s a dance with traffic. Try to go in groups or cross with the elderly or women with children. Mopeds drive up on sidewalks, park on sidewalks. I think the sidewalks exist solely as parking lots for these busy cities.
Getting around in the city by taxi is pretty cheap, and Uber is there, which I recommend for longer trips like to and from the airport.
Book with Vietnam Railways, also known as The Reunification Express, on the best time for your schedule. Make sure to get a soft seat or a sleeper berth or your tushy will be sore.
Airlines for domestic travel were all booked last minute. I’m partial to Vietnam Airlines over Viet Jet Air, due to the baggage costs and frustration of the process as the airport.