Viet Nam, a diverse Southeast Asian country bordering Cambodia, Laos, and China, has a lot to offer to a curious traveler, with the sprawling Mekong River Delta and non-stop rhythm of Saigon in the South, relaxed rural pace of Hoi An in the country’s center, and the stunning landscapes surrounding the capital, Hanoi, in the North. Charting a course from the South to the North, let’s embark on an in-depth exploration of this fascinating country, with stops below serving as guideposts to your own journey.
The energy, youth, and future of Viet Nam is here, in Saigon (officially known as Ho Chi Minh City). So is the foreign investment, the startups, and the momentum. The city is on fire and does not stop; there are more motorbikes than people in this metropolitan of more than 8 million – cross the roads at your own risk! The city is divided into 24 districts. Most visitors stay in Districts 1 and 2, but a more authentic experience awaits outside of this overdeveloped, backpacker-friendly scene. Districts 3 and 5 provide a more balanced option that is still within walking distance to interesting sights of Saigon, yet situated in a more local area.
Saigon has a wide range of activities a modern traveler would like – from war history museums and colonial architecture to cutting edge restaurants and shopping. The city streets, however, remain Saigon’s best attraction. Get lost in the alleyways between major throughways for hours on end and explore street markets laden with food, fruits, home products, souvenirs, and of course, pho. For less than a dollar a meal, a hearty bowl of chicken (pho ga) or beef (pho bo) noodle soup seasoned with fresh basil leaves, fiery red chilies, and a squeeze of lime can be found on every street corner.
If historical significance is what you’re after, a visit to the Saigon Central Post Office is due. Built in the late 19th century by Gustave Eiffel, the building with vaulted ceilings is a fine example of French Indochina period. For a more modern touch, spend time at the Chill Skybar with stunning surround views of the city, and the Ben Thanh park where locals gather each morning to showcase their singing birds while sipping on dark, strong, and sweet Vietnamese coffee.
Speaking of coffee, a few shops with western-style coffee choices include The Good Coffee in District 5, ID Cafe with a few locations in the center, and Cycle Coffee Shop at a large roundabout on Ba Thang Hai street where you can observe chaotic Saigon traffic patterns for hours. For a more local take on the drink that powers the globe, sit down at any streetside cafe while your ca phe, a finely ground dark roast individually brewed with a small metal French drip filter, flows into your cup already filled with sweet condensed milk.
While in the South, add a trip to the Mekong River Delta to your itinerary. You can either arrange it with an agency in Saigon or travel independently. Going by yourself would ensure you are not being herded along with a group of tourists and have ample time for exploration of this dense area. My Tho is a town where most visitors start their Mekong experience. Instead, venture a bit further into Ben Tre, another town south of My Tho that is decidedly tourist-free. Once there, ride a bicycle in the fields and villages around Ben Tre and hire a small boat to go into the canals that criss-cross the land. This independent, leisurely exploration is sure to become one of your favorite memories of the South.
Saigon – walking mostly, although taxis and especially motorbike taxis abound. The Mekong Delta – take a local bus to Ben Tre and back which can be arranged with assistance from your hotel.
About 15 hours north of Saigon by train lies Hoi An, a provincial town off the coast of East Vietnam Sea. Hoi An Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means it is overflowing with tour groups. Still, it is worth the stop if only to unwind after the fast-paced rhythm of Saigon. Locals aggregate here every night to get as many dollars out of tourists as they can with boat rides across the calm Thu Bon river, floating candles for good luck, and fried banana pancakes that are ‘number one in my shop‘ according to every street vendor. Despite the manufactured experience, Hoi An old town is still an adorable place.
The best of Hoi An, however, lies outside old town gates. A ten minute bicycle ride will take you into the fields, where friendly rice farmers will strike up a conversation with you and will pose for photos (some – but not all – are doing it to later ask you for money). Fifteen minutes away, Cua Dai beach is a mighty display of the power of East Vietnam Sea. Not to be missed in Hoi An are the cao lau noodles. Sold on every street corner here, they are a unique Hoi An specialty and are not available anywhere else.
Additional stops in Central Vietnam include My Son, an abandoned ancient Hindu temple site and Hue, a remnant of Vietnamese imperial past of the Nguyen Dynasty.
In and out of Hoi An by train via Da Nang (taxi or bus from Da Nang to Hoi An). In town, bicycle or walking is recommended.
If you stay in the North of Viet Nam for the full duration of your trip, you would not be disappointed. The region has several distinct areas of interest – the mountainous rice growing districts of Sa Pa, Ha Giang, and Mu Cang Chai; the unbelievable limestone islands of Ha Long Bay; the otherworldly landscapes of Ninh Binh province; and Hanoi, with its easy pace and historical heritage. Let’s dive in!
A fifteen hour train ride from Hoi An further north takes you to Hanoi, the capital of Viet Nam. It is a busy city, but its chaotic movement is nowhere near that of Saigon, the Southern rival. The streets are wider and quieter; the people friendlier; the cafe lounging longer. Most visitors stay in the Old Quarter, the city’s famed tourist and backpacker district. If you can, stay elsewhere or on the outskirts of Old Quarter for a more authentic experience. Just below the Old Quarter lies Ho Hoan Kiem lake and the park by the same name. It is a great destination to people-watch: on early mornings you’ll see older men and women practicing tai chi or dancing Macarena under the rising sun; in the afternoons, school children congregate in the park to play badminton and practice their English with foreigners passing by.
Doong Tea and Coffee Express in the Old Quarter serves a very decent roast in a great atmosphere, with local teenagers perched up on stools outside while discussing the latest from Miley Cyrus. Street food abound, you’ll once again delight with pho and bahn mi, Viet Nam’s delicious take on the good old sandwich.
The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, about 25 minute walk from the Old Quarter, is an interesting place to visit for anyone curious about the crucial role this leader played in the direction the country’s development has taken. Many Vietnamese, especially in the North, have deep respect for ‘the uncle’, as Ho Chi Minh is affectionately referred to.
Once you are situated, make Hanoi your base for exploring the rest of the North. Getting around the region by trains and buses is most convenient to arrange from Hanoi. Although not impossible, it would be a bit of a hassle from other towns. One challenge to be aware of is the language barrier. Few locals speak English; those who do can often misunderstand what you say, leading to all kinds of misguided situations – but that makes traveling in Viet Nam all the more exciting!
About five hours north-east of Hanoi lies Ha Long Bay, a stunning UNESCO site that is worth visiting for a few days. It’s quite hard to arrange an independent trek into the bay as there is no infrastructure for that. The solution that most visitors end up with is a pre-arranged cruise. Look for smaller boats and responsible agencies – although hard to find in the crowded Vietnamese tourism space, it is not impossible. The karst limestone islands form a phantasmagorical landscape that’s described as ‘the bay of the descending dragon’. Particularly in early mornings, when the bay is shrouded in fog, the stillness and isolation create an eerie atmosphere suitable for a dragon to plunge into.
In addition to taking a cruise through the bay, spend some time in Hon Gai, a local part of Ha Long City that very few tourists venture out to. In Hon Gai, you will not see another foreigner, and the surprised looks on the locals’ faces will be priceless. While there, you can do a hike up the Bai Tho mountain for a bird’s eye view of the bay. This is a sight visitors rarely get to see as the hike is barely known to the outside world.
Another worthy trek from Hanoi is to Ninh Binh, a province south of the city that is often described as ‘Ha Long Bay on land’. Situated about three hours away from Hanoi by train, the village of Tam Coc is where you’d want to go. It is set among dramatic landscapes of wide rice terraces and steep limestone mountains. The people are friendly and you can observe and participate in everyday rural life of Northern Viet Nam. Once here, take a boat ride from Tam Coc Wharf into the surrounding area while passing walls of mountains, deep caves, and flooded rice terraces.
Finally, book some time to explore the remote hill tribe provinces of Northern Viet Nam. Many options exist, among them going to the developed village of Sa Pa that attracts visitors year-round for its dramatic mountains, trekking to less-accessible Ha Giang on the border with China, or riding to Mu Cang Chai, a remote – and poorest – district with Viet Nam’s most recognizable rice terrace landscapes. Back of a bike is the most dramatic way to explore the area, with rice cultivation on steep mountain sides and many ethnic minority villages such as Hmong and Tay spread across the terrain. If you’re not an experienced motorbike driver, getting a ride with a guide is recommended as the roads in these areas are often unpaved and muddy.
Easy travel by train from Hanoi to Ninh Binh and Sa Pa. Pre-arranged car rides to and from Ha Long Bay as part of cruise packages. Car/motorcycle rides to and from Mu Cang Chai. Walk everywhere inside Hanoi Old Quarter. Taxis in Hanoi are not reliable and have been known to grossly overcharge. Look for the Mai Linh taxi brand as it seems to be a more reputable option.
Written by Yulia Denisyuk, a brand manager, photographer, writer & wanderpreneur. Amongst many other travel publications she’s a contributor to Lonely Planet and has one of the most inspiring instagram travel accounts you’ll ever see, @insearchofperfect.