Vietnam has been on my travel to-do list for a number of years. I hadn't travelled anywhere in Southeast Asia and I decided that Vietnam with its rich culture and history, its bustling cities and beautiful scenery, and, of course, its delicious food was the best place to start. I could only take two weeks off work but managed to factor in a sneaky bank holiday, which meant that after flights, I had 15 full days in the country. This timeframe also meant that I could take advantage of the current visa waiver for UK visitors to Vietnam for stays of up to 15 days (including both the day you arrive and the day you leave).
I booked my flights at Christmas and paid just over £500 for Cathay Pacific flights into Saigon and out of Hanoi, with short connections in Hong Kong in both directions. I used a Lonely Planet guidebook, as usual, although unfortunately, their latest Vietnam guide is from 2013, which meant there had been a fair few changes. Throughout this post, I have given prices in GBP — while I was there, the exchange rate was about 32,000 dong (VND) to the pound.
Day 1: Arrive in Saigon
My plane landed around 10 am and I took a car arranged by my hotel into the city. The pick-up service cost £13 (it was half the price on the way back — taxis are a similar price) and the journey to my hotel in the backpackers' area of District 1 took about 35 minutes.
I had booked a room at the An An 1 Hotel but the car took me instead to An An 2 Hotel, the sister hotel. The receptionist explained that there was some kind of building work going on at An An 1 and they thought I would be happier at An An 2. I wasn't convinced but I knew that both hotels were fairly similar. I checked into my room (which cost about £22 per night) and had a quick shower before heading out to get some coffee. An An 2 was fairly basic but the room was a decent size, quiet, cool and comfortable. The bathroom had seen better days but was fine.
In the afternoon, I joined an organised tour to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels (about £9), which departed at 1 pm and dropped us back in the city at 6.30 pm. I went for dinner at Secret Garden, which I highly recommend, and then went for an (OK) cocktail on the 51st floor of the Bitexco Tower.
Day 2: Exploring central Saigon
I spent most of the day visiting some of the main tourist attractions in District 1, including the (excellent but hard-going) War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace, Saigon Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral. I also went to two great speciality coffee shops — The Workshop and Klasik Coffee Roasters — and had lunch at a hip industrial-chic restaurant/concept store called L'Usine.
In the evening, I did an excellent tour on the back of a motorbike with XO Tours (XO stands for xe om, which means motorbike taxi (literally, motorbike hug)). I did the 'foodie' tour and really enjoyed the experience. We visited several different districts, covering many more than District 1, and tried so many different types of food, from gorgeous scallops to barbecued frog. My driver, Anh, was knowledgeable and really lovely, and although it was expensive (about £50 for just over four hours), it was great fun and you could eat as much food as you like.
Day 3: Day trip to the Mekong Delta
I knew it wasn't really going to be possible to see much of the 'real' Mekong Delta in a one-day trip, but I wanted to experience the region anyway. I booked a full-day tour with Asiana Link, which cost about £36 and was pretty good, although it was a long and exceptionally hot (37C) day. I was picked up from my hotel at 8 am and we got back to the city at around 5.30 pm.
In the evening, I made it up to the Saigon Skydeck in the Bitexco Tower just in time for sunset and then went for dinner at hawker-style restaurant, Nhà hàng Ngon.
Day 4: Fly to Hué
I booked a Vietnam Airlines flight to Hué for about £45 two months in advance. My flight left Saigon at 11.40 am and arrived in Hué on time at 1 pm. I couldn't check in online because the flight was overbooked (there was a very large group of Vietnamese school children were on the same plane), so I got to the airport two hours in advance (my hotel arranged a car for £7).
In Hué, the Orchid Hotel, sent a car to pick me up (£9). The journey into the city was quick and, after the constant frenetic energy and traffic of Saigon, Hué felt much calmer. My room at the Orchid was about £30 per night and I was upgraded from a deluxe room to a large family room, which had two beds and a small balcony. The room was attractively decorated and the bath had a rainfall shower. A decent breakfast (small buffet plus one cooked dish) was included in the price. The staff were extremely friendly, addressing me by name each morning and offering to help in any way they could.
After a quick but delicious late lunch at Hanh, I walked down to the Perfume River and began to explore the city. I visited a few of the city's famous imperial tombs on foot, which was probably a mistake given the intense heat and humidity, but I had wanted a break from tours and guides, and Tu Duc Tomb was worth the walk, especially as I had it almost to myself.
Day 5: Visiting Hué's Imperial Citadel
The main tourist attraction in Hué is the former capital's imposing Imperial Citadel. I went in the morning — an unsuccessful attempt to beat the heat — and spent about three hours exploring the huge site. There is some information in English but you might get more out of it if you hire a guide. After a quick lunch, I visited a couple more temples and Dong Ba Market before returning to my hotel for a bit of chilling and chillin'. In the evening, I went back out for some street food and then returned to the citadel, which was all lit up and which was staging the dress rehearsal for some of the festivities for the biennial Hué Festival.
Day 6: Travelling to Hoi An by train and car
The most spectacular way to travel from Hué to Hoi An is to hire a motorbike or car to drive you over the Hai Van Pass. I opted for the less stunning, but still impressive (and much cheaper) train journey to Da Nang. My ticket, which I booked via BaoLau, was £4 and I booked it a couple of weeks in advance (you probably don't need to book that far ahead, but the train was pretty full). In Da Nang, a driver from my Hoi An hotel picked me up and drove me to the hotel, which took about 40 minutes and cost £12.50.
I stayed at the Ha An Hotel, which cost £40 per night for a standard garden view room (they upgraded me to a larger superior room). I really liked Ha An Hotel: it is set in a beautiful colonial mansion with rooms overlooking the central garden. My room was big and with a large, comfortable bed and good-sized bathroom. There was a small pool, extensive free buffet breakfast, and bikes available to borrow. The staff were very sweet and the hotel is located a ten-minute walk from the Old Town, which means it is slightly out of the hustle and bustle but still very central.
In the afternoon, I went for a wander around the Old Town, stopping for local noodle speciality cao lau and coffee at the Hoi An Roastery. I eyed up a few tailors, visited a couple of historic sights, checked out the Japanese Covered Bridge and people-watched, before going for dinner at lovely Vietnamese street-food restaurant Morning Glory.
Day 7–9: Exploring Hoi An
I stayed four nights in Hoi An — the longest I stayed in any destination — and I think it was the right amount of time. It allowed me to explore the town properly. I spent a lot of time wandering through the gorgeous Old Town streets without a destination in mind. I also visited An Bang beach, which is a 25-minute cycle ride from the city centre and a nice place for R&R. Sun lounger and parasol rental won't cost you more than £1 — head to the southern/eastern end of the beach for a quieter experience.
Some of my food and drink favourites are listed here; for speciality coffee, head to The Espresso Station, Mia Coffee or Rosie's Cafe. Shopping-wise, I bought a few scarves from Cocoon and had a silk party dress tailored at Yaly Couture. The latter cost about £40 and I'm really pleased with the material, fit and quality. Finally, I took a sunset photography tour (£25), which lacked a good sunset but was informative and interesting.
Day 10: Fly to Hanoi
My flight from Da Nang to Hanoi left at lunchtime and again, Ha An Hotel arranged a car for me (£12.50). I had 90 minutes to kill at Da Nang airport and although there isn't a huge amount to do, I bought a colourful silk dress for about £12. The food opportunities are also limited, but I had taken a packed lunch: a final sandwich from Banh Mi Phuong.
The Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi took just over an hour and cost £60 (a little more expensive because of the public holidays, I expect). At Hanoi airport, I met the driver from my Hanoi hotel, who took me into the city. They charged me about £16 and the journey took 45 minutes.
I stayed at the Hanoi Elite Hotel, right in the heart of the Old Quarter. The hotel is tucked away in a quiet alleyway, but it's a really nice and well-run place. It was about £37 per night for a superior room but they upgraded me (they said — it's sometimes hard to tell) to a deluxe room on the fifth floor. Unfortunately, there was no lift but the stairs were fine for me and my room had a great city view and was very quiet indeed. The room was small but well-appointed and the staff couldn't do enough to help me. The free breakfast was very nice: coffee, freshly squeezed juice and a hot dish of your choosing.
By the time I had checked in, it was gone 5 pm, so I hurried out to explore Hanoi. I had been hoping it might be slightly cooler 'up north' but this didn't seem to be the case. I went for a walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, had dinner at La Place (the food was OK but there were great views of St Joseph's Cathedral) and a decent cocktail at Nola.
Day 11: Exploring Hanoi
I visited the famous red Thê Húc Bridge on Hoàn Kiếm Lake and then spent the day exploring some of the attractions west of the lake, including the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long and the Temple of Literature. I also went to an excellent speciality coffee spot on West Lake — Maison de Tet Decor — and had a nice dinner with friends at the Hanoi Social Club.
Day 12—14: Ha Long Bay Cruise
One of the highlights of my trip was the three-day, two-night cruise I took on Indochina Junk's Dragon's Pearl. It was quite pricey ($400 for two nights, including a $100 single supplement) but well worth the money, in my opinion. We went to the quieter (but just as beautiful) Bai Tu Long Bay and had dinner in a UNESCO-listed cave one night, which was an incredible experience. More generally, the food, activities and service on the Dragon's Pearl were top notch. Yes, you can visit Ha Long Bay much more cheaply, but you tend to get what you pay for with these trips.
I got back to Hanoi early evening on day 14 and checked into my final hotel, the Oriental Central, just around the corner from the Hanoi Elite in the Old Quarter. I had great service at every hotel on this trip but the staff at the Oriental Central were really exceptional. From providing various snacks and Hanoi-survival-guide leaflets in my room, to letting me shower in a vacant room before my journey to the airport on my last evening and giving me a leaving gift (a Vietnamese coffee dripper and some coffee), they really had thought of everything. My room cost about £35 and there was a free buffet breakfast — and a lift.
That night, I went out for pho, coconut coffee and a cocktail, before visiting the sprawling night market and returning to my hotel to pack for the last time.
Day 15: Exploring the Old and French Quarters
I had to leave for the airport at about 4.30 pm so I rose early to pack in as much of the capital as I could. I went to several nice spots for Vietnamese-style coffee and fell in love with the Old Quarter's methodical madness. I did a bit of shopping on Hang Gai (silk street), picking up a few scarves as gifts and a turquoise silk kimono for myself (hey, it was only £6). I also got a coffee-themed reproduction propaganda poster for about £2 from Ha Noi Gallery. Then I headed south to the French Quarter, which is more modern and, to my mind, less interesting. I did enjoy the Museum of the Revolution, though. Finally, I just had time for coffee at Cafe Runam, before returning to the Oriental Central for a shower and a car journey to the airport (about £10 / 45 minutes).
Overall itinerary thoughts
15 days isn't enough to see even the key highlights of Vietnam and, as I met travellers who sung the praises of Da Lat, Sa Pa and Ninh Binh, I soon realised that another trip was in order. I thought my itinerary worked well enough, although it was a little rushed at times — in Saigon and Hanoi, in particular, I felt as though I had to hurry around checking off all the key sights (and coffee bars). With hindsight, I might have ditched the Mekong Delta tour, giving me an extra day in Saigon. I might also have shaved half a day from Hué and added it to Hanoi. I could also have taken half a day from Hoi An to add to Hanoi, but I rather liked the more leisurely stay in Hoi An as it allowed me to wander and to relax on the beach. I am glad I did the two-night Ha Long Bay cruise — a one-night cruise would have been too tiring with the long minivan journeys to and from Hanoi.
I was in Vietnam from 23 April to 7 May and it was hot and humid throughout. I travelled from south to north and hoped that Hanoi and the central towns of Hué and Hoi An would be cooler, but the temperature rarely dipped below 34 degrees for the whole fortnight. Hué in particular was almost intolerably hot and humid, with the mercury hitting 37 degrees one day. Hoi An did at least have a bit of a breeze — and my hotel pool and the sea within easy reach — and Hanoi was a few degrees cooler, although still unseasonably hot. It only rained twice: 20 minutes one night in Hoi An and a couple of hours one morning on Ha Long Bay. By the end of the trip, I was praying for rain to clear the air but that didn't really happen. Everywhere I visited had a combination of sunshine/blue skies and thick, featureless haze — Ha Long Bay had about 80% of the latter and only 20% of the former, unfortunately.
The long, s-shaped geography of Vietnam means varied climates throughout the country and it's hard to pick a perfect time to visit the whole country, weather-wise. March is apparently cooler and still dry (perhaps too cool in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay) and although September can be rainy, the rain is usually intermittent. I didn't find that the April/May heat interfered with my plans, though; I drank lots of water, took air conditioning breaks and tried not to push myself too much at the hottest times of the day.
In total, I spent just under £1,000 on flights, hotels and airport pick-ups; about £275 on Ha Long Bay; about £120 on food, drink and coffee; and about £250 on everything else (mainly tours and shopping (especially the tailoring!), but entry fees, tips and other sundries too). You could do a similar trip much more cheaply by taking trains instead of planes and opting for cheaper tours and hotels. And, of course, if you are travelling with someone else, the accommodation costs and some tours will be a lot less expensive.
If you haven't been to Vietnam yet and are on the fence, I heartily recommend that you go. For more inspiration, you can read all of my blog posts from my trip here.