Colourful, sometimes chaotic, with a rich culture and wonderful scenery, Vietnam is an intriguing and affordable destination that appeals to all ages. Ed and his friends spent 3 weeks in Vietnam in July. This post covers the first leg of their journey, packed with must-sees from a Halong bay day trip and 3 days in Hanoi to Phong Nha with its astonishing cave systems and trekking adventures. Read on for their Vietnam itinerary.
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3 Weeks in Vietnam
A thousand miles long but, at one point, only 30 miles wide, Vietnam stretches down the coast of the South China sea in Southeast Asia. With a diverse culture and rich history Vietnam has lots to offer travellers of all ages. And, once the initial airfare is paid, it’s remarkably cheap to eat, sleep and travel there. My son Ed is in his second year at university. He and his Interrail mates decided to set their sights on further-flung climes this summer. They wanted a mix of cultural sights, fun, a bit of history and some adrenaline-rush activities. Vietnam was the answer.
For students like Ed, Vietnam offers a tempting combination of culture and chaos, activities, amazing food, scenery and nightlife. But it has something to please every age group, making it a wonderful destination for families with teens and 50+ travellers too. One of the few remaining communist countries in the world, it also has colourful historic cities and a colonial past. A sad and turbulent recent history is behind it now and Vietnam’s economy is thriving. The glorious scenery, traditional ways of life and diverse culture all add up to a fascinating and affordable destination.
Planning a trip to Vietnam
Ed’s 3 week Vietnam itinerary was a big success.They planned the trip carefully, talking to friends who’d already been there, researching online and weighing up alternative routes. Their Vietnam itinerary runs from North to South, sampling cities, scenery, beaches and treks. Ed’s feedback includes things to do at each stop, along with some of the options that they didn’t have time for. Click here for Part 2 of their Vietnam itinerary which includes the De Militarised Zone, Hue and Hoi An in central Vietnam.
The boys were on a budget so stayed in hostels with dorm rooms and chose the cheaper, longer, transfer options. But, as Ed points out, the sights and experiences are basically the same whatever your budget. You can tailor this Vietnam itinerary to suit yourself by hand-picking your preferred accommodation, transfers, tours and eating out.
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Vietnam in July
Ed is quick to admit they lucked out with the weather. July might be the best time to travel for UK students and families but it’s the rainy season in Vietnam. Even so, the boys knew that by travelling the length of the country they were going to meet a mix of weather. And it was less extreme than they’d expected.
Hanoi was hot and humid with a constant haze and the occasional downpour. But Halong Bay was less hot and was surprisingly dry, as was Phong Nha. They expected the best weather to be in the central regions of Vietnam and that proved to be the case. In the south July falls in the middle of the southwest monsoon season but even so it was less wet than they’d feared. Ed says that at no point in their 3 week trip did the weather prevent them from doing any of the activities they’d planned.
ED’S BUDGET-FRIENDLY GUIDE TO FLORENCE ITALY is one of our most popular posts. Click here to read it.
Vietnam Itinerary part 1: Hanoi to Phong Nha
This post is about the first half of the boys’ Vietnam itinerary. They spent 10 days in North Vietnam, travelling roughly north to south with a diversion to visit Halong Bay for 2 nights. For the second half of their 3 weeks in Vietnam they travelled to Hue, Hoi An, Darlat and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Their trip began with 3 days in Hanoi in early July, after flying from London via Bangkok.
3 Days in Hanoi
Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital and second largest city. It’s a vibrant mix of French colonial buildings, historic pagodas, colourful shops, shady trees, food stalls, high rises and a constant stream of weaving, honking scooters and motorbikes.
Ed: “We arrived in Hanoi after a 14 hour flight with Thai Airways. We left Heathrow at 9 am and stepped into the terminal at Noi Bai at 7am the next day so we’d basically missed a night’s sleep. As a result we didn’t do much on our first day in Hanoi. We picked up a cab at the airport and went to our hostel in the Old Quarter.”
You can arrive at your hotel in in comfort by booking a private airport transfer here in an air-conditioned vehicle.
Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem lake
Ed: “It’s easy to get cabs but we walked everywhere during our 3 days in Hanoi. The Old Quarter dates back 1000 years and there’s the constant contrast of old and new. Shops rub shoulders with temples and the streets are full of scooters and bike repair shops. We started by heading to Hoan Kiem lake in the historic centre of the city. There’s a little island, with a building called Turtle Tower in the middle of it, which is part of an ancient legend of the lake involving a magical sword – and a turtle.
A red lacquered bridge connects the shore to a temple, Ngoc Son, on another small island. It’s touristy but still peaceful and richly decorated in red and gold. The bodies of two giant turtles which once lived in the lake are also on show. They are revered for their links to the legend and seen as a symbol of Vietnam’s struggle for independence.
In the evening we had dinner at a street food place with a few plastic tables and chairs. We chose it pretty much at random and sat down to the first of many cheap meals based around noodles, fried rice, beef or pork. Afterwards we went to the Legend Beer bar, with a third floor terrace that overlooks the teeming streets and the lake. A beer was £1.66 or whatever 50,000 VND translates as.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
We were still jetlagged on our second morning so we got up late and went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. For lots of Vietnamese it’s a place of pilgrimage since ‘Uncle Ho’ fought for the independence and unification of modern day Vietnam for three decades. His embalmed body lies inside a monumental building inspired by Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow. However, when we arrived they weren’t letting anyone in. Instead we went to see the little stilt house and carp pond next door where Ho Chi Minh lived off and on for 10 years.
Afterwards we visited the One Pillar pagoda which is on the same site. Also called the Dien Huu pagoda, it’s a little wooden temple that stands on a central pillar above a square pond. Its design looks like a lotus blossom and it’s an iconic symbol of the city. The original was destroyed when the French left Hanoi in 1954 but the government built another in its place.
Hanoi Train Street
We spent the evening by the railroad. So close to the railroad in fact that when a train was due the cafe owner pulled the tables back. We all had to stand against the wall as a huge diesel commuter train surged past. Once the train passes it’s back to business again. Except the same thing happened four times at rush hour and it became a bit of a nuisance.
The railway track runs along Ngo 224 Le Duan or ‘Train street’ in the cramped Old Quarter. In places there’s just inches to spare between the track and the houses on either side. We tried the famous egg coffee here, strong black coffee with a delicious creamy meringue-like topping.
Hoa Lo prison
Next day we visited the Hanoi Hilton. This is the infamous nickname of the Hoa Lo (meaning Hell’s Hole) prison. The French built it for political prisoners in the 1880s when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. Only a few cells are left from the original building and most of the exhibits focus on this early period.
But during the Vietnam War it also housed US prisoners of war. One pilot, John McCain, survived torture and deprivation there to become a US senator and presidential nominee. Perhaps north Vietnam hasn’t come to terms with its history in the way that the south has. But according to the museum’s display the US POWs were treated very well by the Vietcong.”
If you’d prefer some help in discovering Hanoi’s Old Quarter, click here for a private guided tour that includes Hoan Kiem lake, Hoa Lo prison, and some hidden gems too.
More sights in Hanoi
Ed: “I was a bit underwhelmed by the famous Dong Xuan market. It’s one of Hanoi’s oldest markets in a four-floor building with outside stalls too. I was hoping I’d find presents and souvenirs there but it’s more for the locals with lots of household wares, cheap gadgets, fabric and fresh produce.
We went on to the Vietnam Military History museum which is packed with planes and guns, many captured by Vietnam forces. It was interesting and we stayed an hour but a military geek could easily spend a lot longer here.
Thanks to Jeremy Clarkson and theTop Gear: Vietnam Special we also made a detour to Huu Tiep lake. It contains the remnants of a B 52 shot down in 1972, towards the end of the war. It was part of a controversial bombing campaign in which many lives were lost. We walked for about 45 minutes from the Old Quarter to get there. To be honest it’s a chunk of metal barely recognisable as a plane in a little lake in a residential area. But it becomes a more powerful symbol if you know its story.”
Here are some more suggestions of things to do in Hanoi from Get Your Guide:
Take a private street food walking tour of the Old Quarter.
Book tickets in advance with a choice of seating at the famous Thang Long water puppet theatre. Watch ancient village tales and legends with a traditional live orchestra.
Escape the tourist trail for half a day by travelling to an authentic village for a farm and market tour with cooking class.
Cycle through the local countryside then join farmers in the paddy fields to learn how rice is grown.
Where to stay in Hanoi
The boys stayed in a budget hostel that was adequate but not one that Ed would particularly recommend. So to browse a selection of hotels and apartments via Booking.com click here. Set the filters you prefer then scroll through images, descriptions and reviews to find the accommodation that suits you best. These are the ones that caught my eye for a mix of style, convenience and atmosphere:
Silk Path Boutique affordable and stylish hotel with marble bathrooms and city views from the rooftop bar.
Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake resort hotel with lakeside location, over-water rooms and swimming pool.
Sofitel Legend Metropole luxury colonial era hotel with a romantic French Indochina vibe. Close to the Hoan Kiem lake and Opera House.
Cat Ba Island, Halong Bay
It’s about 100 miles from Hanoi to Halong Bay, one of the most popular Hanoi tour destinations. Hundreds of tiny limestone islands dot the spectacular bay, some towering high above the green waters and topped with jungly vegetation. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and visitors can swim, kayak, explore the thousands of islets and caves or watch sunrise and sunset from an overnight cruise.
The boys took a three hour coach journey to Hai Phong on the mainland. If you’re interested in more luxury transfer options you could book a private car service , a limousine bus or even a sea-plane. At Hai Phong they caught a ferry to Cat Ba Island to the south of Halong Bay. The Cat Ba national park is huge so they took a bus across the island to Cat Ba town where they stayed for two nights.
Halong Bay day trip
Ed: “We decided to use Cat Ba island as a base as it’s to the south of the bay and slightly less busy than other parts. A lot of Vietnamese tourists go to Cat Ba, probably for this reason.
When we arrived we booked the amazingly good value Full Moon one day boat tour for £17. We cruised in Lan Ha bay, saw a floating fishing village and jumped off the boat to swim. Then we kayaked through caves of stalactites and trekked up to a viewpoint on Monkey Island. Our guide, Paul, told us lots about the local people and culture and was the real reason the tour was so successful.
NB Vietnam has a more relaxed attitude to Health and Safety than the UK. As we scampered around the rocks on Monkey Island with sheer drops below us we did point out to each other that our mothers wouldn’t be happy. According to the guide visitors tend not to fall off. But make sure you’re wearing non-slip trainers if you do this tour.
The next day we spent at the beach on Cat Ba. Late that evening an American traveller we were chatting to in a bar told us about a special sight. He led a group of us to a locals’ beach called Tung Thu where the sea was glimmering with bioluminescent plankton.”
Exploring the caves of Phong Nha
The Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park is a region of ancient mountains, jungles, caves and underground rivers. It’s conveniently halfway between Hanoi and Hue so is an obvious stopping-off point on a Vietnam itinerary.
Hanoi to Phong Nha
After taking a bus back to Hanoi from Halong Bay Ed and his friends caught an overnight coach, with wi-fi and air-conditioning, for the 11 hour trip to Phong Nha. They could have taken a train, or even a plane from Hanoi to Phong Nha. But in both cases the nearest station or airport to Phong Nha is at Dong Hoi, a further hour’s drive by car.
Ed: “The first day in Phong Nha we were all quite tired. So we met up with a friend and spent a pool day at our hostel. On the second day we took a touristy adventure trip into the caves. We set off on Vietnam’s longest zipwire down the river and into the entrance of Hang Toi, or Dark Cave. There we put on lifejackets and helmets with head torches to paddle through the waist deep water into the cave. The route included squelching barefoot through the muddy cavern, floating in a strangely buoyant mud bath (good for the skin!), then swimming in a pool of clear water before kayaking outside the cave.
Then a bus took us all to Paradise cave which is a gentler experience: it is deep, cavernous and packed with multi-coloured stalactites. We walked along a kilometre of subtly-lit wooden walkways inside the cave to see the spectacular rock formations.
Abandoned Valley trek
The following day a friend and I did a more hardcore trek that took in 12 km of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Abandoned Valley. We trekked along a narrow track through the jungle as the guide explained some of the history of the Vietnam-American war. Eventually we reached another entrance to the Dark Cave, explored deep inside the cave itself and swam in a crystal clear river cave called Hang E. At lunchtime porters arranged a wonderful barbecue lunch which was probably the best meal I ate in the whole three weeks in Vietnam.
You need to be fit for this trek and we got very bitten in the jungle despite insect repellent. But it was the most challenging and rewarding thing I did on the whole trip. Plus we didn’t see another tourist all day. It wasn’t cheap but the fees help support conservation and local employment.”
More places to visit in North Vietnam
Sapa – another very popular tour from Hanoi is to the northern hill station of Sapa. Visitors can enjoy the mountains and rice terraces whilst seeing small villages with a traditional way of life.
Ha Giang Loop – the Ha Giang Loop is a breathtaking mountain road, generally attempted over several days on a motorbike.
Ninh Binh – a hidden gem, about 100 km south of Hanoi that’s been nicknamed ‘Halong Bay on land’. It has similar limestone rock formations that rise out of paddy fields.
Vietnam North to South
Click here for the second part of our 3 weeks in Vietnam itinerary: includes Hue and Hoi An. Part 3: Dalat and Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, is coming soon.
Please note that all visitor information here is for guidance only. Please check the venues’ websites for the most up to date information on tickets, entrance requirements, opening times etc.
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