I’m ashamed to say that it’s taken me over a year to get around to finishing off and publishing this post. Still, better late than never hey.
I visited Vietnam at the end of 2017 for just over two weeks and travelled to most of the key tourist areas. Whilst this guide isn’t going to provide much off the tourist track advice or insider knowledge, I hope that it will give you a little bit of an insight in to what different places in Vietnam have to offer and a general feel of what it’s like to visit the country.
Most nationalities need a visa to visit Vietnam if staying for longer than around 15 days or are entering the country more than once. I flew in and out of Vietnam to visit Cambodia and as such, required a visa. I won’t lie, getting hold of one isn’t the easiest (or cheapest!)
If you’re a UK citizen, you can either arrange a visa before you go with the Vietnamese embassy (in person or through the post) or arrange for a Visa on Arrival.
Although you can use US dollars when paying for tours and accommodation, Vietnamese Dong is the national currency and you will require this for smaller items and when travelling in more remote locations.
It’s difficult and expensive to get hold of Dong in the UK; take sterling with you and exchange this once you arrive at the airport in Vietnam or when you get to wherever you’re staying! If you take some US dollars with you too, you’ll be covered should you require money before you get chance to change your sterling in to Vietnamese Dong.
You can also pay by credit or debit card in a lot of bigger, tourist focused places. There’s ATMs all over the place in bigger towns and cities too.
There are tons of accommodation choices in the tourist hotspots, and most places are super cheap compared to the Western equivalent. There’s everything from dirt-cheap hostels to 5* palaces.
A lot of cheaper hotel rooms, particularly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Ming City, don’t have windows to the outside. I stayed in one hotel where this was the case, and I have to say, I really missed the daylight. Check when booking your accommodation if this would also bother you.
If you’re a solo traveller but still want your own space, I’d recommend staying in a private room in a hostel. That way, you’re not blowing your budget and will still be able to meet other travellers if you wish to.
As with the more developed countries in SE Asia, you’ve got a number of affordable transport options including plane, train, bus, taxi, motorbike and cyclo.
If you’re pushed for time, I’d recommend flying. Vietjet are the country’s main low cost carrier and I had a good experience with them. Vietnam Airlines is another option, albeit more expensive.
The overnight trains are decent; go for first class if your budget allows.
Ho Chi Minh
This is more than likely the place that you’ll start your trip, if not Hanoi. Be ready for chaos quite frankly; HCMC was by far the busiest place in Vietnam in my experience. There are hundreds of scooters everywhere, and crossing the road is quite the experience. Step in line with a local to make crossing easier. Even better, make your way round in Ubers, they are super, super cheap in Vietnam!
HCMC was my least favourite place on my trip to Vietnam, but that’s not to say you won’t like it. There’s plenty to see and lots of nice restaurants around the city. Only thing I would say is avoid doing a Cyclo tour in HCMC, the traffic and pollution make for a rather uncomfortable ride. Grab one in Hanoi instead if you want to experience this traditional Vietnamese mode of transport.
Don’t miss: Vegetarian restaurant Hum for delicious fresh food, tasty teas and cocktails with a twist.
If you talk to those that have visited Vietnam and travelled around, Hoi An is highly likely to be their favourite place. I’m one of those people, although for me, Hanoi was pretty much on par.
The main draw to Hoi An is its beautiful Old Town, which is covered in colourful lanterns. Walking around at night, it’s completely magical. The town also has a reputation for great and affordable tailoring, which it lives up to. Be sure to check out Yaly, one of the town’s most popular tailoring shops for good reason.
Add to that some beautiful surrounding countryside, delicious food and beautiful beaches, and you can see why Hoi An is so popular.
If you’re flying, Danang is the nearest airport. Stay nearby the Old Town for easy access to the main sights and don’t forget to buy your pass from one of the shops just outside before entering (it’s a UNESCO Heritage Site and you need to pay for admission).
Don’t miss: A noodle making class at Streets International, a social enterprise project that takes teenagers out of poverty and trains them to work in hospitality. Their restaurant is well worth checking out too, the food is top-notch.
Hoi An Old Town at night
Hoi An Old Town by day
Located in the centre of the country, Hue is not necessarily on everyone’s itinerary when they’re in Vietnam, but I think it should be just for the Citadel alone. Steeped in history with a laid-back vibe, I’d recommend spending at least a couple of days in Hue.
You can catch the overnight train down from Hanoi or up from HCMC. Fly if you’re pushed for time.
Don’t miss: Swap crossing busy streets for a ride on the back of a motorbike around the city and through the surrounding countryside with Hue Adventure Tours.
The Imperial City
Inside the Imperial City
Capital cities can often be a little overrated but that’s not the case for Hanoi in my opinion. Yes it’s busy and crowded, with crazy traffic, but not on the same scale as HCMC. It’s your typical dusty and untidy SE Asia city but with so much charm it’s ridiculous. Head to Hoan Kiem lake early morning to watch elderly locals doing Tai Chi whilst you drink a delicious Vietnamese style coffee.
Don’t miss: Book a Hanoi Street Food Tour and eat your way around the city with a knowledgeable and downright hilarious local guide.
Huc Bridge @ Hoan Kiem Lake
The view whilst enjoying a Vietnamese coffee lakeside
Halong Bay is the biggest tourist attraction in Vietnam and although it’s crammed with junk boats full of tourists, you have to visit. It’s spectacular, and spending the night on a junk boat is fun in itself (despite the karaoke no doubt forced upon you!).
Don’t miss: Be sure to rent a kayak if your junk offers it (most do). Being out on the water is incredible and you’ll more than likely see plenty of lively monkeys running up and down the limestone karsts as you row around.
A Junk Boat in Halong Bay
The view from Ti Top Island
Vietnamese food is widely regarded as one of the best in SE Asia and it’s easy to see why when you arrive in the country. The ingredients are so fresh and there’s an abundance of different foods to try across various regions. Here’s my pick of the must-try food and drinks:
- Traditional Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk
- Egg coffee
- Bun cha (grilled pork, white rice noodles, crisp lettuce, herbs)
- Pho (broth, rice noodles, herbs and meat- usually beef)
- Banh Mi (baguette usually filled with pork, pickled vegetables and a spicy sauce)
- Spring Rolls
- Salad Rolls (lighter versions of spring rolls)
- Banh Cuon (pancake type dish, usually with pork and mushrooms, topped with shallots)
Have you been to Vietnam? Would you add anything else to these tips?