The most popular route through Vietnam is along the coastal highway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Many of the tourist hotspots are along this route, and those that are not are often easy to reach if you use one of the major cities as a base.
Vietnam is a friendly and accessible country with a huge range of activities set among some of the most spectacular scenery. To stand half a chance of doing it justice, you’ll need at least a month. The following, from north to south, are some of the places you’d be crazy to miss.
In Vietnam’s far north overlooking a picturesque valley lies the frontier township of Sapa. It’s a tourist hub characterised by restaurants, guesthouses and shops selling hiking gear. The most popular activity is a two or three day trek including a homestay. You can also use it as a base from which to tackle Indochina’s highest peak – Mount Fansipan, or rent a motorbike and visit waterfalls, viewpoints and hot springs nearby.
For many people, Halong Bay is the reason they came to Vietnam. It’s towering limestone karsts, clear waters, remote beaches and jungle walks are a huge draw for millions of tourists every year. If you’re looking to meet people and party, the Castaway Island tour run by Vietnam Backpackers is your best bet. This includes two nights on a private beach, water sports and a cruise. If a lower-key, romantic tour is more your scene, there are hundreds of other tour operators offering a wide range of budget to luxury, and single to multi-day, excursions. Cat Ba national park is also worth a look if you have the time.
The Mai Chau Valley has only recently started to get a name for itself. Four to five hours southwest of Hanoi by bus, it’s a stunningly beautiful hideaway and the perfect way to escape the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. Consider splashing out on a couple of nights at the Mai Chau Ecolodge and indulge in a massage or some time by the pool. You can also rent a bike, visit caves, go hiking, take a boat trip nearby, or help out in the rice paddies. Homestays are popular here too.
As you head south out of Hanoi, after a couple of hours you’ll reach the Ninh Binh province. This is a good place to stop if you’re keen to see Tam Coc, which is often referred to as the Halong Bay on land. The main activity here is to hire a boatman to show you the valley. They have a very unusual technique of paddling using the soles of their feet. You can also go hiking, rent bikes or visit local temples, and the history of this region is especially fascinating. Day trips to Tam Coc are available from Hanoi.
Phong Nha is famous for one reason in particular – its impressive labyrinth of caves. It’s home to the largest cave on the planet, although you’d have to be pretty well off to justify the $3000 price tag for a tour inside. For those on a tighter budget, there are loads of more affordable caves to explore. For the adventurous, Dark Cave includes a zipline and kayaking, as well as the chance to slop around in a huge mud pit. Many people hire a motorbike and do a 65km loop that also takes in Paradise Cave, but if you’re not comfortable driving one yourself you can ask an ‘Easy Rider’ to take you or do a day tour by van.
Hue is a pleasant riverside city steeped in history. The main attraction is the Imperial City – a walled fortress with fortified ramparts, a moat, elaborate gates and walkways, a palace, and some pretty gardens featuring bonsai trees. There’s a strong oriental influence on the architecture, as well as a modern-day fascination with topiary. About 90 km out of town is the demilitarized zone, or DMZ. This is an area around the former border between north and south Vietnam that saw heavy fighting during the war. Day trips visit La Vang Church, Vinh Moc tunnels, Khe Sanh, Dong Ha town, Quang Tri Citadel and the Rockpile.
HAI VAN PASS
Whether you’ve chosen to travel through Vietnam by bus or train, or to buy a motorbike at one end and sell it at the other, the stretch of road between Hue and Hoi An really needs to be done by motorbike. The Hai Van pass is an incredibly scenic route, with some popular stops along the way, including the somewhat underwhelming Elephant Springs, as well as Lang Co Beach and the Marble Mountain. It costs about $20 to hire a bike just for this and, to make the journey more comfortable, most tour operators arrange to send your big bags to the next hostel by bus. For a taste of what’s in store, check out the Top Gear episode that features this motorbike journey.
Hoi An is an incredibly beautiful city decorated with thousands of colourful lanterns. Its many tailors present the perfect opportunity to have clothes custom designed. A tailormade suit costs significantly less than it would back home and can be finished in just a couple of days. To visit the historic sights in the city centre you first need to purchase a coupon (120,000 VND for five attractions). Stay at Sunflower Hotel for a lively backpacker scene, bar, swimming pool and reasonably priced dorms and private rooms. There’s also a pretty decent nightlife here. Most people start in or around Tiger Tiger and end up in Why Not Bar. While it’s not traditional Vietnamese food, you should also check out the Indian restaurant Ganesh.
There’s only one place you should consider staying in Dalat and that’s the Dalat Family Hostel. Headed up by the self-titled ‘Crazy Mama’, this small guesthouse has daily family dinners that often lead to games and dancing. While the rooms are incedibly cosy, no other hostel rivals this in terms of atmosphere and ease of meeting other travellers. If you arrive in the evening, don’t be alarmed if the whole hostel welcomes you with cheering and a round of applause! If there’s one activity you can’t miss while you’re here, it’s the canyoning tour, where you get to cliff jump and rappel down waterfalls. Also check out the Crazy Cafe and play a game of hide and seek.
HO CHI MINH CITY
Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known as Saigon, is a busy metropolis overrun by motorbike traffic. One of the interesting facts about Vietnam is that HCMC is actually the biggest city in the country despite not being the capital. One of the most popular sights is the War Remnants Museum, where you can learn about the brutality of the wars with America and China through a series of graphic and often disturbing photographs. Other hotspots in the city centre are the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office. Most tourists also use the city as a base for exploring the fascinating Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta. There’s a huge variety of cruises along the Mekong, some of which last up to 15 days and pass through Cambodia. The best time to visit is between November and February when water levels are still high but the rainy season has ended.
Vietnam isn’t known for its beaches, but there are a few select locations where you can enjoy the sand and sea. Nha Trang has a water park, Mui Ne boasts some impressive sand dunes and is a popular spot for kite surfing, Bai Xep is a hidden gem that’s yet to surface as a traveller hot spot, and Phu Quoc is an island off the south coast, close to the Cambodia border, with white sand beaches and tropical jungle.
Probably the cheapest way to travel the length of Vietnam – aside from hitchhiking – is to book a hop-on hop-off sleeper bus. Plenty of vendors sell these in all of the major cities, and you can get a ticket that passes through Hanoi, Ninh Binh, Phong Nha, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Mui Ne and Ho Chi Minh City for less than $45. You get a booklet of unconfirmed tickets and all you need to do is contact the company using the details provided the day before you wish to travel. The sleeper buses generally have three rows of beds on two levels. They’re all single, so you don’t need to worry about sharing with a stranger. They’re not very wide, but you can hang your bag from the side rail and get reasonably comfortable. They say they have WiFi but it never works. If your journey is during the day you may be put on a regular bus or in a minivan instead, especially if there are low numbers of bookings. Sometimes you get picked up or dropped off at your accommodation and sometimes you don’t. The buses might also set off quite a lot later than advertised. In general, though, it’s a straightforward, reasonably comfortable budget way to see multiple destinations in Vietnam.
Rius Cruises offers over 30 different cruise options on the Mekong River and their flat-bottomed boats ensure a safe and smooth ride without motion sickness. One huge advantage of travelling through Vietnam this way is that you only have to unpack your bags once! Find out more: https://www.riuscruises.com/river-cruises/asia/mekong.html