Due to its diverse landscape, ease of travel and accommodation that is amazing value for money, Vietnam has been my favourite Asian country to travel around so far.
Generally the cheapest way to travel is by bus or train. I usually booked my buses through the hotel I was staying in or on BaoLao (you can book trains on here too). It was around $5 to $15 a journey so more affordable than most other Asian countries! Vietnam also has some amazing value internal flights, check out Vietjet Air and Value Alliance.
If you haven’t already make sure you download the Grab app to get the best value taxi deals around Vietnam (although it didn’t work in Ninh Binh or Sapa).
We booked our accommodation either through Booking.com or directly with the hotel.
I travelled from south of north and thus have listed the top things to do in order of what I did.
1) Ho Chi Minh City
I’d heard mixed reviews about HCMC, maybe saying they didn’t like it because it was too loud. However I found it to be a lot cleaner and quieter than a few other Asian cities I’d visited. It also has a lot of cute architecture, my favourite being Tan Dinh parish church (it’s pink!), the old post office, the town hall and this random block of flats/shops on the street leading away from the town hall.
Make sure you walk around the city to admire the different buildings and stop off at the Museum of Traditional Medicine. Here you’ll find a traditional house from the north of Vietnam which has been dismantled and moved down south!
You can then end your day at the Bitexco Financial tower. TOP TIP: get a drink in the sky bar, this way you can enjoy the view without an entrance fee.
WHERE TO STAY:
Central HCMC is around the Bitexco tower. However taxis are super cheap here and I stayed south of the city in a studio with HOME, at only 12euros a night it was an amazing bargain!
2) MEKONG TRIP
The Mekong is easily reachable from Ho Chi Minh City, and is definitely possible to do as a day trip.
I booked my day trip through Buffalo tours, they organise private tours around Asia. Their Mekong itinerary was just perfect for me, from cruising on a small boat down one of the canals to interacting with locals and learning about their different trades. Find out more about my trip here.
3) MUI NE DUNES
A 5 to 7 hour bus drive north of HCMC lies Mui Ne. This town stretches along the coast and is home to two awesome sets of dunes; the white sand dunes and the red sand dunes.
Most tour companies run either a morning sunrise visit (4-8am) or an afternoon sunset visit (2-6pm) and costs vary depending where you book it. I booked a tour through my hotel (Mui Ne Ocean House) where a jeep costs 400k dong and fits four people. We chose to “privatise our jeep” in order to have the freedom to stay after sunrise when everyone leaves the white sand dunes and to arrive later at the red sand dunes.
If you want to avoid the crowds at sunrise and sunset then I would recommend going early (around 7-9am), as after this the sand under the sun might be super hot to walk on! If you are looking to drive there yourself then be careful as I’ve heard a few stories about tourists being pulled over by the police and asked to pay a “fine”.
Try your hand at sand boarding at the red sand dunes, you’ll see locals selling strips of plastic for you to use. But be warned that adults don’t seem to glide so well!
TOP TIP: at the white sand dunes you will see a load of quad bikes who can take you up the dunes for an extortionately high rate. We decided to walk and it took us around 20 minutes, so it is definitely doable by foot.
4) HOI AN
Easily my favourite town in Vietnam! By day enjoy all the tasty food and colourful streets and by night revel in the magic of the lanterns!
Have you ever seen the movie “Tangled”? And theres that one scene when they’re on the boat surrounded by lights? It’s just like that!
Make sure you check out the Fujian Assembly hall, the exterior is super cute! It used to be an assembly hall for the Chinese and it has since become a temple and is filled with beautiful engravings and statues.
This is also THE place to get tailor made clothes – especially if you’re a fan of fruit-print! xD
WARNING: you will need to pay 150K dong per person to access (and help maintain) the old town – this pass is valid for a few days and covers the assembly halls.
WHERE TO STAY:
I stayed at the Lotus Hoi An Boutique Hotel. It is ideally located between the old town and beach and they have a free shuttle running to/from both as well as free bikes! This 3 star hotel has an awesome buffet breakfast and a beautiful pool area (with happy hour from 2 to 5!). Prices start from around 25€ a night. Book directly through them on their website or Facebook for 10% off using code LOTUS10%.
5) MY SON
About an hour outside of Hoi An is the UNESCO world heritage site of My Son Sanctuary.
Between the 4th and 13th centuries a unique culture, which owed it’s spiritual origins to Indian Hinduism, developed in the coast of contemporary Vietnam. My Son was the capital of the Champa Kingdom for most of it’s existence.
Time and war have ravaged the ancient city but amazingly some of the engravings on the temples are still visible!
We booked a taxi through our hotel which was quite expensive at 700k dong (but cheaper than getting a Grab there and back), you could also drive a scooter here or book a tour. The problem with tours though is that they all generally go at the same time.
TOP TIP: If you have the chance, go to My Son in the afternoon. We went just after 14h and there were a few people but it wasn’t unbearably full (as it’s quite a small site). I read that most of the tour companies go in the morning so we avoided this time.
6) DA NANG
Most travellers skip Da Nang but I urge you to stop by, especially on a Saturday night! If I were to live in Vietnam I would definitely live here thanks to its modern city vibes coupled with a super long beach!
Not only is Da Nang a great place to chill by the beach for a few days it also has the most amazing bridges! With my favourite being the epic dragon bridge which on Saturdays at 9pm BREATHES FIRE! That’s right, a bridge that BREATHES FIRE!!!
TOP TIP: Enjoy the bridges by night on a boat – they all light up and it’s quite a show! The boats cost around 100k dong and leave from near the Novotel. On a Saturday night try to be there around 8/8:30pm.
WHERE TO STAY:
I stayed at the John Boutique Villas which are located super close to the beach. Their self contained studio apartments are like a home away from home! The staff were incredible and they even have a piano and guitar for guests to enjoy! Get 8% off when you book directly through them!
7) MARBLE MOUNTAINS
Just a little bit south of Da Nang (super easy to get to by Grab or you could also cycle) are the marble mountains. These are 5 marble peaks each named after an element; fire, earth, water, wood and gold.
They are home to several caves and temples and also offer scenic views over the coastline.
TOP TIP: Go early! Not just to beat the crowds but also to avoid the heat!
I went to the BEST restaurant in Vietnam here – Nina’s café! It’s down a little alleyway and just does the best local food ever!
8) IMPERIAL CITY OF HUE
Hue was an ancient capital of Vietnam and where Nguyen Anh took control of Vietnam in 1789 and proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long. The imperial city was built in 1804 for the royals to enjoy and thus is full of extravagant architecture, especially arches!
Top tip: The imperial city opens at 8am, there were quite a few tour groups entering at this time but as the inside is large and spaced out it was no problem avoiding crowds. I think you will be okay going at any time because it’s so spread out.
9) TOMBS NEAR HUE
As Hue was an imperial city there are multiple extremely extravagant tombs of past Emperors in its vicinity.
Don’t miss out on Khai Dinh’s tomb – the interior is intricately decorated whilst the outside is surrounded with sculptures of warriors!
10) TAM COC & THANG AN
There is a reason why Ninh Binh is known as the inland Ha Long bay. The limestone karsts were formed in the same way (the area used to be covered by the sea!) but they are now on land making the height of the karsts even more impressive.
One of the ways to admire the karsts is from below. You can either choose to get a boat around Thang An or Tam Coc or both! The differences are:
– Thang An is bigger thus more to see (but busier too)
– Tam Coc you can have a private boat
– Price is basically the same (200k per person for Thang An and 190k per person for Tam Coc).
Find out more about the top things to do in Ninh Binh!
11) HANG MUA CAVES
Another way to admire the landscape is from the top of one of the limestone karsts! Fortunately stairs have been put in on the Lying dragon mountain so it only takes 20-40minutes to climb up. Entry is 100k dong per person. Find out more.
TOP TIP: If you only want to climb one side go left as it has the better view. Also go early – it opens from 6am so you could go for sunrise. I was there from 8 to 9:30am and it wasn’t that busy then, but I saw the mountain from below around midday and there were lots of people then.
WHERE TO STAY: I stayed at the Golden Dragon hotel. It was amazing value for money, with beautiful rooms (and breakfast included) starting at only $20 a night! The price includes a manual motorbike (if that’s how you like to get around). Otherwise the staff are incredibly helpful at booking taxis. Check out their website here!
Around 5 hours north west of Hanoi (or 7 hours by train) lies the mountain town of Sapa.
Picture rolling green hills, amazing staired rice paddy fields and bamboo forests. An absolutely breath taking landscape to explore, it is no wonder why trekking is the most popular activity to do here.
There are quite a few local H’Mong people who might approach you on your arrival to offer their services as a guide. You can easily explore by yourself but personally I found having a guide extremely valuable.
If you are looking for the opportunity to dive into Vietnamese culture, especially ethnic minorities, then a trek and homestay in the Sapa is a must! Booking through Buffalo Tours was a great way to ensure the perfect itinerary as well as an authentic experience with a real local H’Mong family. Check out my blog on Sapa for more information.
TOP TIP: You can visit Sapa during every season but if you want to catch it when the rice is planted you need to go in July and August.
HA LONG BAY
13) BAI THO MOUNTAIN VIEWPOINT
The majority of people who visit Ha Long bay will head directly from Hanoi to their cruise. Whilst I definitely encourage you to go on a boat around these almost 2000 limestone karst islands, I also want you to consider a stop off on the mainland. Bai Tho mountain is worth at least a morning or afternoon in Ha Long city.
It isn’t the easiest place to get to as it’s actually closed to the public. However it’s quite an adventure getting to the top! Find out how to get there here.
14) Ha Long Bay Cruise
I think the number one thing to do on most peoples lists of Vietnam is sailing around Ha Long bay! The colour of the water is unbelievable and the area is scattered with 1969 islands.
I booked with Secret Ha Long Cruise and was not disappointed. Amazing food, super friendly and attentive staff, fun activities (kayaking and Tai Chi) and a beautiful boat! Find out more information and how you can get 30% off your trip here!
You will most likely be flying in or out of this city. The capital of Vietnam is a nice city to spend a chilled weekend visiting all the local sights, most are also within walking distance!
Head to train street and walk along the train tracks which runs between local houses. If you want to go when the train is passing make sure you check the timetable. When I was there on a Saturday there were trains running at 15h30, 17h30 and 19h00.
This track runs all the way to Long Bien bridge, one of Gustave Eiffels creations and you can plainly spot his industrial style. Walk along the bridge and go down onto the island to discover a wonderful little oasis of Hanoi filled with banana trees!
You should also check out Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, you can go inside (but no photos and you have to dress modestly) and see his embalmed body. He actually wanted to be cremated and have his ashes scattered across Vietnam, but his family thought otherwise…
A trip to Hanoi isn’t complete without a visit to the Old quarter, the place is brimming with cute streets and sidewalk cafés.
You also have to try the local delicacy of Bun Cha – I recommend Bun Bo Nam Bo (67 Hang Dieu), cheap and super tasty!
If you’re into cafés then I recommend you check out the note café. The idea is that all customers leave a note and still it to the wall! The result is a very colourful and inspirational café!
I hope you have an amazing time in Vietnam! I can’t wait to come back! If you’re interested in learning more about my spendings for my 7 month trip, check out my blog “How to Travel on a Budget in Asia“.