If you haven’t been to Vietnam yet, and want to visit this country for the first time in order to have a basic knowledge about it, how should your arrange your trip? What to visit first, how to set your route, for how long time? If you are just looking for beaches, then you focus on the sea coast destinations. If you are looking for adventures, then you would focus on more adrenaline places like canyons, waterfalls, peaks, diving spots and something like this. Or if you are looking for history and culture, you would focus on old town complexes, temples, and ancient buildings. But if you just want to initially “taste” of everything featuring this country, how to build your itinerary, your first travel to Vietnam?
The map of Vietnam
First of all, look to the map of Vietnam- situated on South China sea’s west coast, its shape is like a long narrow strip along the coast, with a “wider head” on the north. But it is its political shape. Geographically the Vietnam area is mainly the seacoast area. Yes, there are a lot of mountains too, but again geographically they belong not only to Vietnam, but also to neighboring areas of Laos and China’s provinces Guangxi and Yunnan. And there is the plain of Mekong river on the south, but it also belongs to Cambodia.
Another important fact about Vietnam is that it is culturally divided into North and South part. It is due to its long history, which has been very different in the North and in the South.
So if you want to make a first basic trip to Vietnam, the seacoast is its core. And since it is a narrow strip, obviously the best way is a core route following the coastline. The good point is that there are two main big cities- Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), which can serve very well as a start point and an end point of the route. And from some destinations on this route, you can make detours to the west- to the mountain areas located more distantly from the coast, or to the east- to some islands in South China sea- depending on your time and budget.
The main route of the Vietnam itinerary and its main destinations
There are few main destinations of the Vietnam route, representing the main features of the country:
It is the capital of Vietnam. As such, Hanoi is the political center of the country and the cultural center of the North part of it. Hanoi represents various historical ages and it can be seen visiting its few most essential points of interest:
– Ba Dinh Square with Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum: the political center of the modern Vietnam, where the government buildings are situated, as well as the mausoleum and the Museum of Ho Chi Minh.
– One Pilar pagoda: It is located close to Ba Dinh square, but I separate it as another destination because it belongs to another historic age
– West Lake: the biggest lake in Hanoi, offering a lot of relaxing, sports activities, as well as some temples nearby
– Hoan Kiem lake park: the central and most notorious park of Hanoi, featuring the lake itself, a temple and a monument of an ancient Vietnamese emperor, all related with history and legends.
– St. Joseph Cathedral: the first western Catholic cathedral in Vietnam, built during the French colonial time.
– Hoa Lo prison (Maison Centrale): built by the French colonial authorities, now it is a museum of the recent history of Vietnam.
It is another city, full of history and culture, located in the south part of North Vietnam. It has been a capital of the country in 19th century, home of Nguyen dynasty. Its main attractions are the big Citadel, the Forbidden Purple city and a replica of Royal theater. Other attractions include Lotus lake, Khai Dinh emperor’s tomb and mausoleum, Perfume river coast, and others. It has been a place of the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam war in the 60th of the last century.
Danang and Hoi An
They are very close to each other, so I determine them as one destination.
Danang is the third largest city in Vietnam and represents the “middle center” of the country since it is located in the northernmost part of cultural South Vietnam. And Hoi An is the best “Old town” of the country. Remember that Old towns in the world, although often adjusted for the tourist business, are always very essential for representing history, ethnic culture, and rich vacation nightlife. Both Danang and Hoi An have an excellent beach nearby too, thus you can combine the culture, beach and the nightlife in one.
It is the main big sea resort of Vietnam, representing the modern and luxury sea vacation experience. It has an excellent beach too, as well as few islands nearby, with great nature and diving opportunities. Nha Trang’s most elite resort complex is Vinpearl, located in Hon Tre island and connected with the continent by lift. It has also some historic sites, such as Po Nagar temple, Hon Chong promontory, Nha Trang Cathedral and Yersin museum.
It is another sea resort, but different than Nha Trang. It is mostly pointed to younger and adventurous travelers. The reason is its geographical position. Mui Ne is the driest place in the whole Southeast Asia, with only 50mm annual rainfall. Usually, especially in the dry season (January to April), it is windy and it causes good waves for surfing. Mui Ne is a center of kite surfing too, again especially during the windy season. But the best attraction is its mini-desert Bihn Tuan, situated about 25 km from the resort (the White dunes). It is not just dunes, but a real desert since it is formed by the dry climate of Mui Ne.
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
This is the biggest city of Vietnam and center of its South part. It represents the modern face of the country, as well as the modern way of life of its citizens. Here you can visit its essential points- the backpacker’s center Pham Ngu Lao, the Reunification Palace, the Cathedral, as well as few other temples and markets.
A basic Vietnam itinerary draft
These 6 main destinations and the connecting route between them can form your basic essential trip to Vietnam. Normally the time for the basic route itinerary can be 10 days, as follows (in my version it is from north to south):
Day 1: Arrive in Hanoi. Walk around Hanoi- mainly for the first “taste” of Vietnam. Accommodation: Hanoi
Day 2: Hanoi- explore the main destinations of the city (mentioned above). Normally it can be done for one day without hurry. In the evening by night bus or train going to Hue. Accommodation: night bus or train
Day 3: In the morning arrive in Hue, walk-in Hue, with visiting the Imperial city and its Citadel, the Forbidden Purple City, the Royal theater, Perfume river coast, Khai Dinh mausoleum and tomb and Lotus Lake. Accommodation: Hue
Day 4: In the morning take the train to Danang, arrive at noon, then by bus go to Hoi An, explore the town and enjoy the Hoi An evening. Accommodation: Hoi An
Day 5: Walk around Hoi An and Danang, you can rent a bicycle and ride around the town and to the beach. You can go to the Marble hills on the way back to Danang. In the evening by night bus or train go to Nha Trang. Accommodation: night bus or train
Day 6: In the morning arrive at Nha Trang. Explore the city- you can visit its historic and cultural sites, as well as Vinpearl resort by lift. Accommodation: Nha Trang
Day 7: Nha Trang, make a cruise to the nearby islands (The most popular is “Four island cruise”, offered by many local travel companies). At evening take the bus to Mui Ne. Accommodation: Mui Ne
Day 8: Explore Mui Ne, its beaches, and Binh Tuan desert. You can go to the desert by motorbike, usually, rent in many places for 5 to 8 USD per day, and the rest of the time you can enjoy the beach, and even kite surfing (there are kitesurfing instructors who can guide you for 50-60USD/h). Accommodation: Mui Ne
Day 9: In the morning take the bus to Ho Chi Minh. Arrive at noon. At afternoon explore the city. Accommodation: Ho Chi Minh.
Day 10: Explore more of Ho Chi Minh if your flight or scheduled bus is afternoon. If it’s in the morning, better stay one more day in Ho Chi Minh and leave on the next day morning.
This itinerary time can be reduced to 7 or even 5 days of course, but it is not enough for an essential introduction to the country. So the basic minimum is 10 days.
Extended Vietnam itinerary
If you have more time, you can use this route as a basic and make detours from various points between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. Also, you can use these two main cities as starting points to nearby destinations in various directions.
Destinations near Hanoi
Halong Bay– it is the most popular tourist attraction of the North. It is a limestone hills area, located in the sea, so the hills are turned to more than 1700 islands, islets, and rocks. Not is it UNESCO World Heritage. You can apply for a cruise from Hanoi or directly from its coastal city Bai Chay’s local travel company. Halong Bay trip length: 1 day, organized by a Hanoi travel company. Cost: 55-60 USD.
Sapa area– this area is located at higher altitude and featured stunning mountain landscapes, rice terraces, valleys, and waterfalls. It is also home to many ethnic groups and their villages, full of local culture. There are classical tours offered by many travel companies to Sapa. Trip length: 3 days and 2 nights. Cost: 130-150 USD. Or you can travel by train to Lao Cai (9 hours), then by car with driver to Sapa (5 hours). Then you can make some trekking tours there.
Other destinations near Hanoi include Ha Giang– the most beautiful mountain and valleys area in Vietnam, Ba Be national park with its beautiful lake, Ban Gioc waterfall, Mu Cang Chai– with its beautiful rice terraces, Ninh Binh limestone area and some other. They are not basic destinations, but more proper for a second, deeper trip to Vietnam, however, it is always worth to add some more additional few days off the beaten road trips to your basic trip to Vietnam.
Destinations near Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
Mekong Delta– it is one of Vietnam’s landmark. The Mekong is one of the longest rivers in Asia and here is its delta to the South China Sea. Mekong Delta features a lot of river natural canals, few wider and much more narrow, with many islands between them. You can see the local culture of the islands, deeply related with the delta. You can enjoy rowing on the narrow canals under the deep shadows of the river reeds, as well as the local fruits, local people’s live performances and many more. There are daily trips from Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) to Mekong Delta, as well as longer 2-3 days trips. The easiest of them is by bus to My Tho town, on the coast of the northern main river canal, then by boat to the nearby islands. Cost: 1 day trip to My Tho and Ben Tre- around 35 to 40 USD (you can apply for a trip the day before it, from almost every travel company, especially around Pham Ngu Lao quarter).
Cu Chi tunnels- It is a large tunnel system, build by Viet Cong army during the Vietnam war. It served as an underground base against the US army. It has been so complicated, that various efforts of the Americans to destroy it were unsuccessful, and eventually it had its contribution for the Viet Cong’s victory. Now a part of it turns into a museum and a tourist attraction. Trip length- 4-5 hours. Cost: various travel companies offer different prices, but mostly it is between 6 and 20 USD.
Other attractions: Vung Tau, Can Gio island, Ho Tram beach. Since they are not too far from Ho Chi Minh, you can make 1-day tours to there.
Detours from the route between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh
Generally, there is not much to see as a “basic” destination in the middle of Vietnam, west of the sea coast. There is only one really important destination- Dalat.
Dalat- It is a mid-sized city in Southern Vietnam, famous as a French colonial resort. Its location in a beautiful natural landscape with stunning views, mountains, forests, lakes, canyons, and waterfalls has influenced the French to build their resort in this place. So, along with nature, you can see the local French architecture, making it like a piece of Europe in Southeast Asia. With all these features, Dalat is known as one of the adventure destinations of Vietnam.
Since Dalat is located between Nha Trang and Mui Ne, you can go there from Nha Trang (by Sinh Tourist bus), sleep one night, then by another Sinh Tourist bus proceed to Mui Ne.
Best time for travel in Vietnam
Basically, not only in Vietnam but in the whole Southeast Asia, the rainy and wettest seasons are on the second half of the year, from June to December. It varies in the different destinations, also it varies every year, but generally speaking, this is the climate picture of the region. So the best months to visit Vietnam are from January to April. In this season most of the time is sunny, dry and not too hot. However, in January and February, North Vietnam can be cold, with temperatures under 20 C. So March and the first half of April is the best time before it becomes too hot and wet in the south.
In general, Vietnam is a “Visa friendly” country. For most of the countries, it is easy to obtain a visa. Many countries are “visa-free”, for a different period of time, from which the longest is Chile (90 days). For the other “visa-free” countries the free period is shorter, but e-visa can be issued allowing up to 30 days staying in Vietnam, for 25USD. However, all the countries in Africa, as well as most of the countries in the Middle East and Latin America are required a visa in advance, issued only from a Vietnamese embassy or consulate.For more information, see here.
Currency and money change
The official currency in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong (VND).Currently 1 USD = 22786 VND and 1 EUR = 26849 VND. You can exchange your money in few kinds of places around the country: banks, airports, hotels and jewelry shops. Banks, airports, and big hotels have a good rate for exchange. The small hotels usually charge a little more. And the jewelry shops (mainly in Hanoi) have a good rate too, but usually, accept only small bills. You can also use your credit cards in many ATMs around Vietnam, VISA, Master card, JBC and American Express are widely accepted. The charging is usually around 3-4%.
Transportation in Vietnam
There are many ways of transport from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min, but the main and the easiest are by bus or by train.
There are few kinds of buses:
It is a good bus with air condition and sleeping beds. The most popular luxury bus company is The Sinh Tourist. You can find many offices and travel companies which use The Sinh Tourist buses everywhere from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min. Although the price is the most expensive of the bus transport, it is still not too different than other buses.
Example prices and time: from Mui Ne to Ho Chi Minh is around 7 USD (there are many buses from the morning to evening and the price varies a little), and the travel time is 5-6 hours. Nha Trang to Mui Ne- around 5 USD (normal) and 8,5 USD (extra service), and the travel time is 4-5 hours, but sometimes more.
Buying tickets: Since there are a lot of tourists, especially in the high season, it is better to buy tickets in advance. There are a lot of travel companies in every destination, who can arrange tickets for you.
Normal public bus
There are many normal buses running from the city’s bus stations. You can go to the bus station or around it and you can see many buses and minibusses with their drivers calling for passengers. The price is usually 3/4 of the price of The Sinh Tourist. However, these buses are used mostly by locals and they are not so luxury. We used such bus from the Chinese border (Mong Cai) to Halong Bay, and we got it for 6 hours.
Many travel companies can arrange minibuses for you. The price is usually almost same as The Sinh Tourist. The schedule depends on the travel company. We traveled by minibus from Halong Bay to Hanoi for around4 hours.
There is a long railway connecting Hanoi and Ho Chi Min (Saigon)- more than 1700 km, called Reunification Express Train. We have traveled by train from Hanoi to Danang and from Danang to Nha Trang- both by sleeping carriage.
Hanoi to Danang: there are 4 trains running on this route: S1, S3, S5, and S7. The price was 54 USD, the time- 14 hours (we have traveled from 22:00 am to 12:00 pm on the next day).
Danang to Nha Trang: 34 USD, and the time- 9 hours (we have traveled from 23:00 pm to 8:00 am on the next day). You can buy tickets from Reunification Express Train website in advance, or from a travel company, but the cheapest price you can get directly from the railway station.
Motorcycle touring is also very popular in Vietnam. For such kind of “first visit a country” trip, there are offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, which give motorcycles for one-way rent- you can rent it in Hanoi and back it in Ho Chi Minh, but you will be charged around 100USD for shipping the motorcycle back. The prices are usually 5-10 USD per day. Note: a non-Vietnamese driving license is NOT valid in Vietnam. However you can obtain IDP (International Driving Permit, convention 1968), and it is accepted in Vietnam, along with your country’s driving license. But it is only for motorcycles, not for car driving. Anyway, if you drive a motorcycle without IDP, usually the police would not stop you unless you do something wrong. And most of the local motorcycle rent shops would give you a motorcycle if it is for a short time (for example few hours driving from Mui Ne to the White dunes and back).
Since non-Vietnamese driving licenses are NOT valid in Vietnam, you can’t rent a car for self-driving. The only option is to hire a car with a local driver (and usually with an English speaking guide, because most of the drivers can’t speak English), which makes the trip quite expensive.
The food in Vietnam is Southeast Asian, but with some French European influence, since the country has been a French colony. It is easier to find western food like western bread and cheese than in China, for example. Generally, the food is not spicy, but some of the meals have a specific fragrant taste. There are a lot of noodles and seafood, which can be found in many restaurants. The meals are relatively cheap, however, some of the restaurants, especially in North Vietnam can require more money from the foreign tourists than the locals.
There are various kinds of hotels in Vietnam, and many of them are in very good price- cheap and in good quality. WiFi is not so good in some hotels, so you have to be patient when use internet. You can easily book your hotels in Booking or Agoda, without any special additional conditions.
Mobile SIM cards
The mobile SIM service in Vietnam is quite cheap, so it is very convenient to buy a SIM card during your short trip. There are three main mobile companies, offering mobile service: Viettel, Vinaphone, and Mobifone. You can buy their mobile cards in many places, including the airports of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. For more information, see here
Scams and safety
Vietnam is quite a safe country. There are no unrest, sensitive and dangerous areas, no terrorists or something like this. But as in most crowded countries with a lot of tourists, the small pickpockets is not impossible. Be aware in some clubs, especially with prostitutes and other kinds of “working girls”. Be aware when you want to find a local girl, it is not impossible to face troubles with guys behind her.
The most popular scam in Vietnam is overpricing for foreigners. We faced it, especially in the North. They know that their money (Vietnamese Dongs- VND) are with many zeros and it may be sometimes difficult to calculate and convert the price in your currency for reference. Sometimes they just may add one more “zero”. Sometimes they don’t mention the “small zeros” of the number and just say “this is 100 (should be 100 000)… money” (but don’t tell you what currency they mean). For example, my wife is Chinese, and when they knew it, they told us the price is 100 RMB (Chinese yuan), like trying to help her to calculate better. But actually, it was 100 (100 000) VND, which is only 27 RMB, not 100.
Costs and final conclusion
So, what is the final conclusion and cost for a first time Vietnam trip?
Visa: 25 USD
Accommodation: if you follow my example itinerary, you can have 7 hotels and 2-night buses or trains. The average price of a hotel can be 20-25 USD x 7 nights. It is per room, not per person/bed.
Main transport from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon): around 120-150 USD total
Food: usually around 20-25 USD per day (for budget travelers)
Additional transport (motorcycles, taxis within the city, public city bus, etc.): average around 2 to 10 USD per day
Destinations entrance fees: it is very cheap. Entrance fees are required for One pillar pagoda and Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, for the Old town of Hoi An, for Po Nagar temple in Nha Trang and few more destinations- usually around 2 to 5 USD.
Local cruise (Nha Trang): basic price 10 USD, and some optional additional fees (for scuba diving, Mun island entrance fee, etc.)
SIM card: between 8 and 10 USD
And of course, always prepare some more additional money. I mean not only for gifts and souvenirs but for various urgent cases.
For reference, our trip, excluding the expenses outside of Vietnam, as well as the air tickets, was around 480 USD for 10 days (everything inside Vietnam).
All this info is for your first reference. Of course, there is a lot of detailed information about every destination, as well as every other detail of the trip. But I hope this article can help for planning your first trip to Vietnam.
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