Vietnam Starts Here

 

 

I’ve got enough Vietnam itinerary planning experience to tell you a few things for certain. First, regardless of how long you plan to spend in Vietnam, it’s not enough. Vietnam is not only larger than it looks on the map, but a far richer and more diverse country that you’d expect, even for a few days after touching down.

And it’s not just because of the wide range of Vietnam attractions and destinations on offer, though the list of those is as long and impressive as you’ll find anywhere else in Southeast Asia. As you travel from south to north (or north to south, as it were) along the length of Vietnam, you’ll find diverge in culture, cuisine and landscapes so divergent you might think you’re visiting different countries.

Whether you’re clicked through from one of my Vietnam travel blog posts or have arrived here from Google, I encourage you to continue scrolling. Your trip to Vietnam—where it’s your first or fiftieth—starts here.

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Practical Matters

When to Visit Vietnam

The best time to visit Vietnam varies slightly depending upon where in the country you want to go. Namely, while Saigon and the south experience a monsoon similar to what you find in Thailand (i.e. rain from approximately May until September), this trend is flipped in Da Nang and central Vietnam. Hanoi, meanwhile, can actually get cold in winter, as can many highland regions. Overall, I’d say the best months to visit Vietnam are the “shoulder” months of April and October.

Where to Stay in Vietnam

I’m on the fence about accommodation in Vietnam, from the best resorts in Vietnam like Azerai la Residence in Hue, to boutique-style properties like Orchids Saigon Hotel, to Little Hanoi Deluxe Hotel to Da Nang Boutique Hotel. On the plus side, Vietnam is one of the cheapest places in the world to get a hotel, even by Southeast Asian standards, whether you go five-star (Sofitel Legend Metropole in Hanoi, for example) or stay on the lower end. You get what you pay for, however, and there’s no nice way to say this.

How to Get Around in Vietnam

Regardless of how long your Vietnam itinerary last or where you go, you’ll quickly learn about this long, narrow country’s infrastructural deficiencies. As a French-Vietnamese expat I spoke with recently explained, “Vietnam bet on airports—and nothing else.” On the other hand, while Vietnam domestic flights are a great idea if you want to hop from Saigon to Hanoi or vice-versa, much of what’s great about Vietnam is “on the way,” which makes an “open-bus” ticket (or, if you can get a first-class seat, trains) the best option.

Money, Costs and Communication

Vietnam is cheap, whether you’re backpacking Vietnam or taking a more luxurious Vietnam vacation. The vast majority of travelers can make do in Vietnam on between 25-100 USD per day, which translates to around 500,000-2 million Vietnamese dong. Credit card acceptance in Vietnam is actually pretty good by Southeast Asian standards, though you often have to pay the merchant’s fee, so I’d recommend carrying a few million dong with you for every week you travel.

When it comes to communication, there are two ways to look at this. In literal terms, Vietnamese is a very difficult tonal language, though many people in Vietnam speak at least basic English or French. In terms of communicating with the outside world, WiFi is prevalent and reasonably fast in Vietnam; you can order a Vietnam SIM card online before your trip to save time at the airport.

How to Get a Vietnam Visa

The good news? It’s relatively easy to apply for a Vietnam visa on arrival online. The bad news? Actually getting your visa upon arrival (and then getting through immigration, which requires a separate queue) can be frustrating and even infuriating. If you live near a Vietnam embassy or consulate, I’d actually recommend getting a proper Vietnam visa in advance, if you can.

Where to Go During Your Vietnam Itinerary

Saigon and the Mekong Delta

Officially, Vietnam’s southern metropolis is called Ho Chi Minh City, but literally no one calls it that. You’ll realize this before you start digging into your list of things to do in Saigon, whether you stick to the city center and eat your way through Ben Thanh Market, cry your way through the War Remnants Museum or ooh and aah inside the Saigon Municipal Opera House, or head just outside it to the haunting Cu Chi Tunnels.

 
 
 

Alternatively, you could travel far outside the city, either on Mekong Delta tour from your hotel in Saigon, or by traveling to cities of the region for a night or two. The obvious choice here is Can Tho, which is the largest such city, though you could also visit Ben Tre, which is more scenic even if it’s not as populous.

Mui Ne and Nha Trang

Assuming you start your Vietnam itinerary in Saigon, it must logically move north (unless, of course, you hop a flight southward to Phu Quoc island). The first stop along the way is Mui Ne, a beautiful part of the country that’s also dripping with irony: While its main beach is so eroded it’s had to be paved, massive sand dunes sit only 12 km up the coast.

 
 
 

Another popular spot for Vietnam beaches is Nha Trang, a large city that’s much farther away (at least if you travel by land) than it looks on the map. I’m not actually a huge fan of this city for a number of regions (this largely relates to how noisy the pounding nightlife you find here is), but it’s a logical stop along the way if you’re traveling up through south-central Vietnam by land, and don’t plan to head inland to Dalat.

Da Nang, Hoi An and Hue

There are many, many things to do in Da Nang besides making excursions to French-colonial Hoi An and Imperial chic Hue, to the extent that I’d say this region offers the richest range of attractions in the entire country. Which is not to say you should shirk either of Da Nang’s backup singers entirely, even if I’d say that Hoi An is slightly overrated in this day and age on account of its oppressive crowds.

 
 
 

Rather, I’d say that you should devote between 5-7 days of your Vietnam itinerary to this part of Vietnam (i.e. the central coast) and divvy them up mindfully. On paper, this would entail 2-3 days each in Da Nang and Hoi An and 1-2 days in Hue, though I’d personally recommend spending longer in Hue (which is as dripping in history as you’ll be in sweat) and shorter in Hoi An, which is really only worth visiting for a few hours out of each day.

Hanoi and Halong Bay

Many travelers I meet dislike (or even hate) the Vietnamese capital, but in my opinion, the long list of what to do in Hanoi is superior to just about everywhere else in Vietnam. This is true, whether we’re talking about mainstream attractions like Hoan Kiem Lake and the Temple of Literature, the sprawling Thanh Long Imperial Citadel or even the propaganda-y Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

 
 
 

On the other hand, I’ve never quite felt that any Halong Bay tour lived up to expectations, even when I took one almost 10 years ago (albeit from Cat Ba Island, rather than Haiphong or Halong cities). Instagram-worthiness notwithstanding, I actually feel like the rice terraces of Sapa (and, beyond that, the waterfalls of Cao Bang) are the most impressive natural attractions of northern Vietnam, by a relatively large margin.

How Long Should You Spend in Vietnam?

Many readers email me to ask how many days in Vietnam they should spend, and while my first reply is always “you mean weeks, not days”—without exception—there is some variance therein. To be sure, while I personally like to spend about 3 weeks in Vietnam, especially on a first trip, many factors can influence the length and depth of your visit to Vietnam.

For example, if you want to focus on just one region of Vietnam (for instance, Hanoi and Halong Bay, as well as Sapa and maybe the Chinese borderlands), then 2 weeks in Vietnam might be sufficient. On the other hand, if you want to see all the main destinations I’ve spotlighted as well as some of the secondary and tertiary ones, you could require a month in Vietnam—or even longer!

The Bottom Line

Regardless of what shape your Vietnam itinerary ultimately takes (Spoiler alert: I imagine it’ll be long and narrow like the country) or how long you spend in Vietnam, planning it will be a lot easier if you’ve read all I have to say. Whether you start in Saigon or Hanoi, and whether you prioritize the beaches of Nha Trang and Da Nang or the highlands of Dalat and Sapa, Vietnam is a country that will surprise you, and lure you back even when you thought it wouldn’t—trust me, I know. Speaking of which, I’m hankering to get another trip to Vietnam in motion. Maybe it can be yours?