Since coming back from our Vietnam trip last September/October a few people have asked me for tips and recommendations, so, continuing on from my earlier impressions, here it is. If you're just after a few quick recommendations, I've highlighted the best bits of each location pink.
There are many ways you can 'do' Vietnam. You can do it on a shoestring or with a little bit of luxury; you can pre-plan or fly by the seat of your pants, and speaking of which, you can fly between destinations or you can take a bus. A very long bus.
Here's how we did it, and a few things we picked up along the way.
DONG: You could certainly enjoy a very cheap trip in Vietnam. We incorporated a few treats so that pushed things up a bit. We did book a few cheapy stays ($17 per night each - there are cheaper, but let's be serious) but also had a couple of splurges. We had many massages, incorporated multiple $5 cocktails as a daily staple (as opposed to $1 beer) and so on. Withdraw two million dong at a time and that should keep you out of trouble for a few days.
TRANSPORT: We did a lot of research into modes of transport across the country. We traveled 7 locations over 3 weeks and decided to pay extra to fly between locations so as not to cut into our travel time with 16 hour bus and train journeys. Having said that, we did take the overnight train to the mountains and it was a great experience (to appreciate once... maybe not 6 times).
HOW LONG: We traveled for three weeks and we were able to visit nearly all of the areas we were interested in. I'd say you could do it in 10 days to 2 weeks weeks without missing out.
WHERE TO GO: We went to Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hanoi, Sapa, Ha Long Bay and Cat Tien National Park. If you only have time for a few cities, I would recommend HCMC, Hoi An, and Ha Long Bay. All of the places we visited had something different to offer.
OUR ITINERARY: We traveled from South to North to catch the best sun when we arrived in the North for our cruise.
Arrive HCMC: 2 nights
Nha Trang: 4 nights
Hoi An: 2 nights
Hanoi then straight on overnight train to Sapa: 2 nights
Hanoi: 1 night
Sail out to Ha Long Bay: 2 nights
Back down to HCMC: 1 night
Cat Tien National Park: 1 night
HCMC: 1 night before flying home
Ho Chi Minh City. Such a surprise package to me. You risk your life every time you cross the road. The funny thing about HCMC (Saigon to the locals) - when you arrive you might think it looks a little run down, but we returned here at the end of our trip, and compared to some of the other sights we'd seen, Saigon looked pristine! Highly recommend a visit here to soak up the hustle and bustle of Vietnam's most developed city. We stayed at Silverland Central - basic but clean with very friendly staff and served the purpose. We went on a half day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels which was definitely worthwhile. Our trip to the National History Museum was difficult; the Agent Orange display was extremely graphic and upsetting but it will stay will me forever... perhaps worthwhile, but have an icecream treat lined up for once you get outside to perk you up. One of my favourite memories from Saigon was our second night in the city when we went out drinking (you can take a girl out of The Shire but she'll find another Hunters somewhere in the world). I loved Seventeen Saloon (Pham Ngu Lao St) and its western band, and getting our dance on with the locals at Acoustic Bar (above). I can't remember how to get there, we were a little drunk and it was raining... but it was down an ally. You'll find it. Such fun - had a ball and this was one of my favourite nights of the trip.
We LOVED the Nha Trang part of our trip, but this was purely based on our accommodation - the area is a bit ho-him. This was the splurgey section of our trip. We stayed at Evason Ana Mandara in a beautiful little villa with a four poster bed and outdoor bathroom with a huge stone bath. Private beach, amaaaazing food, so peaceful. We wanted somewhere to just relax for a few days and we found it here; a tranquil atmosphere and a good chance to take a breather after the hustle and bustle of HCMC. While in Nha Trang we took a walk through the town, ate at some of the beachside restaurants (a few hits and misses - we liked the Sailing Club) and also took a trip across to the water park, Vinpearl. We weren't enamored with the city itself, but it's probably because the resort was so nice we were just happy to bask there, relax and attend massages at the spa! Vinpearl was good for some watersliding entertainment and Vinpearl Beach was nice for a little paddle as well. I have since heard that the mud egg baths in Nha Trang are worth a visit, though we didn't make it there ourselves.
Hoi An is a 'must-see' city, mainly because of its amazing old-world charm (the best food, too). Hoi An is an aesthetically interesting place to visit with its old buildings, laneways and the hundreds of colourful lanterns that decorate each and every building and float down the river every night (the lanterns are actually required by law to maintain ye olde worlde charm). We found some top-notch places to eat in Hoi An. Faifoo on Tran Phu St was our favourite - try the White Rose and the Vietnamese dumplings (like none you've had). Cava on Nguyen Puc Chu St and The Cargo Club on Nguyen Thai Hoc were also winners. Hoi An is the place to visit if you're after a tailor. There are roughly 265 million tailors in Hoi An. Lindsay got some suits and shirts made while I sat and gave constructive comments and fought off the ladies trying to force me into skirts and suits. Lindsay is happy-ish with his suits but concedes they're no Hugo Boss, and that it might not be quite the bargain people rave about. You also have to return a couple of times for fittings - just something to keep in mind, time-wise. One of the Hoi An highlights was our guided Easyrider trip along the Ho Chi Minh trail and surrounds. We paid $50 each to Mr Son Nguyen and his pal. Email email@example.com or phone 05106260207 when you arrive, and tell Mr Son that Alex and Lindsay sent you. He probably hates us because we tried to negotiate a much lower price (beforehand) but turns out this was an excellent deal. We rode pillion on their bikes through the town and country and it was the ideal way see it all close up. My favourite part was visiting a minority village. I was thoroughly blown away by the remoteness and simplicity of it all. A worthwhile adventure, but be prepared for a loooong day. It swung between blistering heat and pouring rain that day; between that and being slathered in thick, sticky insect repellent and plastic rain pants, I have never in my life wanted a shower so bad. As for accommodation, we stayed at the Vinh Hung Emerald Resort. It was not too bad; I recommend it but don't expect anything too la di dah. Some other friends of ours stayed at a resort along the beach and raved about it.
After leaving Hoi An we flew up to Hanoi. We arrived at sunset and into what I genuinely thought was the The Apocalypse. Never ever have I seen such a black and sinister sky, punctuated with a highlighter orange sun. It was seriously. depressing. More on Hanoi later. Hanoi was the jumping off point for getting an overnight train to Sapa, located north-west in the mountains. We pre-booked our train tickets through Livitrans. There are many different companies to choose from, but I walked the length of the train and peered in all the sleeper cabins and aside from different lampshades there wasn't much difference between the companies so don't worry much about that. Finding our way around the station was an ordeal... we kinda fumbled our way by sheer luck and running into a helpful expat. You'll find your way. It'll be part of your adventure. My advice: arrive 60-90 minutes before your train is due to depart. If you have spare time you can reward yourself with beer. We decided to include Sapa in our trip so that we could see a different aspect of the country - a mountain area and its native people. Perhaps surprisingly, the train was one of my favourite parts of the trip and Lindsay and I were a bit like giddy kids on school camp. We booked ourselves a VIP berth, which basically meant that we had a 4 berth cabin to ourselves rather than having to share with others. Totally worth the extra cost, in my opinion. We stocked up on treats, played card games in our berth, chatted, read, tried to sleep. I amassed zero minutes sleep. Not to worry because the train arrived at Sapa at 4am anyway. Sapa is an interesting place, though not what we expected. It is kinda chilly up there, in stark contract to the eastern cities. It feels like you're in the Swiss Alps, which is a bit of a shock to the system, with the mountain air and the log cabins. The town was busier than I'd expected. Sapa is home to "mountain people", and, while certainly very interesting and rewarding to get a glimpse into their way of life, it can be overbearing having to deal with the incessant hassling in the street as they try to sell from their baskets and ask their standard questions on repeat: "What's your name, where you from?" (this problem was much worse on the weekend - not an issue on the Monday). We stayed in Sapa for 2 nights to break up the train trips but 1 night would be enough. We took ourselves on a walk through Cat Cat Village - enjoyable sightseeing and a bit of a workout. We also took a guided walking tour through another village. A pair of H'mong women latched on to me from the get go. I quite enjoyed talking with them. We would have liked to look through their village but the swarm of harassing H'mong women were just too much to handle. We stayed at the Sapa Unique Hotel on the cheap. We enjoyed the cooking class offered by the hotel, but didn't think much of the rooms. I wouldn't give my recommendation. We did, however, find a gem at the Sapa Rooms on Phan Xi Pang Street. I think we ate there three times - food was great and same with the atmosphere. They have rooms, but not sure of the prices. I recommend Sapa if you have the time and are after a bit of a different adventure.
After arriving back in Hanoi at 4am from the Sapa night train, we headed straight for the Hanoi Holiday Diamond Hotel. Very cheap and cheerful - couldn't speak highly enough of the service throughout our stay and I wouldn't bother looking anywhere else. Hanoi was just supposed to be a jumping off point to Sapa and our Ha Long Bay cruise, but we ended up having a whole day and night there and I'm so glad that we did. My first impression of the apocalyptic Hanoi was a terrible one, but must have caught the city on a bad day. We arrived back to a clear sunny day and enjoyed exploring the city on foot, particularly walking through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter. In Hanoi it was interesting to see the posh department stores and Vietnamese women dressed up at lunch - to see signs of prosperity in juxtaposition to the poorer areas that we'd seen; it was a side of Vietnam we'd not yet encountered. One of our highlights was visiting the Women's Museum - some of the displays were quite touching and we left feeling humbled and with renewed perspectives. We took a 2-person cyclo (the cyclo seats in Hanoi are the only ones wide enough for two bottoms!) back to the hotel which was a bit of a wild ride through the crazy traffic and something you have to do. Loved it! At night we perched ourselves street-side for some 5 cent beers (you read correctly!) got a little tipsy and then took oursevles out for some delicious food and hopped through a couple of bars. Hanoi is definitely worth a visit, even if just for one day and night.
Our Ha Long Bay cruise was another trip highlight and a little bit of a splurge as well. There are many cruise companies, but we went with Indochina Junk as they are the only company permitted to sail beyond a certain point in the bay. To enquire about booking email firstname.lastname@example.org (currently you can't book via the website). We were pleasantly surprised by the boat, which was beautifully outfitted. Our tour guide, Hung, was fantastic, the food was excellent and the company was, too. Our cruise was a 2 night 3 day trip with 18 others (there are different options); it was nice to meet some other travelers - although it was an older crowd, it wasn't an issue. Highlights of the trip included visiting a floating village and school, kayaking to the beach where we were met with drinks on arrival, and a dinner in a cave.
After Ha Long Bay we flew back down to HCMC, and from there took a hairy drive down to Cat Tien National Park, where Lindsay had booked a Gibbon (endangered monkey thing) trek. Sounded like an excellent idea but I wouldn't recommend you follow suit. The accommodation was archaic and in the absolute middle of nowhere. We went for a walk in the evening as we had nothing else to do (no TV in the room... not sure if there was even a light, just wasps and frogs and someone's old cake of soap) and it was a bit of a "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore" moment. Anyway, fast forward through the sleepless night til 4.30am when we had to get up and slather on the repellent and head out into the darkness to the trek. We got to the river bank and a man appeared out of the bushes, muttered something and gestured toward his little barge; we were't sure if he was a murderer but we hopped in anyway. He deposited us on the other side of the river. It was pitch black and there was no one around. We started to walk along this eerie path and then we kinda just spotted who we assumed to be our guide, because who else would be awake at this hour, peering through a creepy window from a creepy building? Fast forward and we found ourselves perching on a tree trunk in no man's land at 5am in the dark waiting to hear the song of the gibbons. Eventually, after a long time, he spotted some gibbons. We got to see them as well but they were so high up, sorry, they just looked like any ol monkey, and I was quite hangry by then. I was extraordinarily irritable from lack of sleep back at the house of horrors. After a few hours of pretending to be amused by the monkeys (actually I think I'd given up pretending) we headed back to the "accommodation" and I couldn't get out of there quick enough. But as a finale we had to endure three hours of the worst driving we'd ever encountered... I wanted to kiss the road when we finally arrived back at the hotel in HCMC. So yeah, I probably wouldn't recommend that one. BUT IT WAS ALL PART OF THE ADVENTURE!
We had a nice last night in HCMC involving a spa treatment for myself (highly recommend the spa in our hotel, Silverland Cental) and then some market shopping and our last supper. Plenty of authentic food to be found, but if you've had it up to here with 'pho' we found these A++ mazing Aussie burgers at Al Fresco's, oops. It was great to return to HCMC at the end of our trip before flying home - we felt a little like locals by the end.
So, that's it. Three weeks, seven destinations and one amazing holiday. Good luck - in a country like Vietnam, I know your own adventure will be just as memorable as ours.