Travelling Vietnam is fairly easy. One reason for this is the good infrastructure in most of the country and the wide availability of public transportation like trains and busses. Another reason lies in the geography of the country. Since Vietnam is a very narrow stretch of land, travellors who do not cross the border from Cambodia or Laos only have one big choice to make: North to South or South to North? Both ways are possible, depending on where you start your jorney – Hanoi or Ho-Chi-Minh-City. I started in the latter, so my itinerary follows this route, but it is all the same possible vice versa. In this article I will present my travel itinerary and try to give advise on where to go, what to do there and how long to stay in one place.
Although there are many flights to Vietnam´s capital Hanoi, most of the cheaper airlines seem to favour Ho-Chi-Minh-City, also known as Saigon. Although many people I have met prefer Hanoi for various reasons, I can recommend starting your journey in Saigon. The city has an exotic flair while at the same time being more Westerner-friendly than Vietnams capital: I found the traffic less crazy, the streets wider and less crowded, the food better, the people friendlier and the language-barrier less imposing. Saigon is a buzzling, modern megacity where you can easily spend 2-3 days. Besides visiting tourist spots like the Ben Than Market, the War Remnants Museum and the Walking Street, you should also do a day tour to the Cu Chi-Tunnels, where you can see the tunnels that the Vietcong used as a hiding place during the Vietnam War.
2. Mekong Delta
Since you are already in the South of Vietnam, you should not miss the opportunity to visit the Mekong Delta, home to 17 Million people who live at and off the river. There are many organizers who offer 2-day-tours for as little as 35 USD, and while you will be taken to a lot of shops and workshops, where you are encouraged to buy souvenirs, you will also see interesting places like the temple complex of Vĩnh Tràng, small canals where a boatsman will row you to the main river, and a floating market, where you can buy fruits and coffee from floating vendors. You can also try local specialties like fried frog, snake and dried fish.
3. Đà Nẵng
After Saigon I faced a difficult decision: Visit places like Da Lat and Nha Thrang or skip the South of Vietnam completely to have more time for the North? Since this was a 20-day-trip, I decided for the latter and did not regret my decision. I booked a 17-hour train ride to Đà Nẵng, a city in Central Vietnam. Although most people go directly to neighbouring Hoi An, I would advise everybody to spend at least 2 days in Đà Nẵng: The city is clean and modern, and besides impressive architectural sights like the Dragon Bridge and the Linh Ung Pagoda, you can also visit beautiful natural sights like the Marble Mountains and the Green Lake, and even relax on clean and relatively quiet beaches. In 2-3 days you can discover the most important sights.
Only one hour South of Đà Nẵng lies the city of Hội An, whose old town is a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site. It is a well-preserved historical trading town and features many traditional halls, palaces and temples, as well as the beautiful Japanese Bridge. If you are in Hội An, you can also rent a motorbike and drive to Mỹ Sơn ruins which give witness to the same ancient civilization responsible for Angkor Wat in Cambodia. And while the temple ruins might not be as extensive as their neighbouring counterparts, Mỹ Sơn is still a fascinating archeological site. All in all, one day for Hội An and one day for Mỹ Sơn should be enough.
Most visitors will be familiar with Huế, the old imperial city and home to the mighty Nguyễn dynasty. The citadel of Huế was almost completely destroyed during the Vietnam War and reconstruction is still in progress. While most of the palaces have been rebuilt, my visit left my a bit „underwhelmed“. The citadel and its forbidden city are quite extensive, but I did not find them exactly beautiful. A visit should not take you more than half a day. If you want to see the Tombs of the Emperors a bit outside the city center, you should account for 2 days in Huế.
5. Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng
This place is an absolute highlight in the north of Vietnam, although still a relatively little-known one. Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng is a National Park that features some of the most impressive caves in Vietnam, situated in the most beautiful landscape I have seen in the whole country. It is a very rewarding feeling to ride the mountan roads through green valleys that seem to stretch for an eternity. A definite must for every trip to Vietnam! If you want to go hiking and caving, or just enjoy the beautiful scenery, you can easily spend 3-4 days here.
6. Ninh Binh
Almost as beautiful as Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng is Ninh Binh in the north. The place is often called „the Halong Bay inland“ because of its majestic lime stone rocks that scatter the lush greenery. Nature lovers will not be disappointed as Ninh Binh features some of the most serene landscapes and most beautiful panoramas in all Vietnam. A river cruise in the shadow of the large rocks is an absolute must, and the sheer variety of beautiful temples means that you can spend 3-4 days here without ever feeling bored.
No trip to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to its capital, Hanoi. The city feautures some highly symbolic sights like the Hh-Chi-Minh Mausoleum and the Literature Temple. However, I have to admit that I did not like Hanoi very much. Expect heavy, relentless traffic, very crowded streets, poor English skills and considerably colder temperatures than in the South. I was glad to go back to Saigon after 3 days, but do not let my opinion discourage you and see for yourself.
Of course you do not have to stop in Hanoi if you still have time. A lot of travellers visit the Rice Fields of Sapa to the North (which I skipped because I was already about to visit Banaue in the Philippines), Halong Bay with its majestic lime stone formations, or rent a motorbike to discover Ha Giang, Vietnam´s most Northern province.