Updated: Jun 11, 2020
Are you planning on going to Vietnam soon or do you want to learn more about this country ? Welcome, you're in the right place.
Feel free to grab a cup of coffee and to relax while you'll be traveling with me.
We'll go through a couple of things that will you help to plan your trip but keep in mind that, for me the best way to travel is allowing a major part to unpredictable activities and encounters. So my best advice to fully enjoy a trip is to stay open as much as possible to what is surrounding you and to follow your feelings in the now.
Before your trip
For the flight tickets, Google Flight or Sky Scanner will be your best friends.
As you may know, you need a visa to travel in Vietnam. I would recommend you to go through a specialized company that will deliver you a pre-visa letter. It's really convenient, fast and not more expensive than to go through your national embassy.
I personally used Vietnam Visa company and would highly recommend you to do the same thing. It works in 3 simple steps :
Apply and pay : you will then receive your approval letter by email in 2/3 working days. To give you an idea, you'll pay 12 USD for 1 Month Single Entry or 20 USD for a 3 Month Single Entry.
Receive and prepare : print out the letter and prepare 2 photos, the entry/exit form and the stamping fee in cash ($25 US)
Arrive to the airport and get your visa : you'll be able to get your visa in international Vietnamese airports (Hanoi, Da Nang, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Min City)
What should I bring ?
I am not going to give you an exact list or absolutely everything you need to bring but there are few items that could save your life. (Yeah I mean it, especially if your traveling during the rainy season like me).
So, I would advice you to bring :
A phone with the Grab App. It's the vietnamese Uber and you can book scooter rides knowing the price in advance so no need to negotiate or whatever; locals use it. Cheap, reliable, pretty cool because you will be able to talk with vietnamese people (some of them might ask you if you are married but take this as a compliment) and more importantly : it's so fun. And if you're thinking about choosing this option to go from the airport to your homestay when you will first arrived; please don't end up like as trying to exchange with a nice vietnamese guy through google traduction trying to understand how to pay him. Make sure to have some cash (dongs) with you, they will give you the difference. If you only have euros or dollars, it worked but not convenient for them. And I know you like to play nice.
A flashlight. Power cuts often happen in Vietnam and it's always useful to be able to see something.
Plastic zipper bags of different sizes. I personally used one for each group of items (socks, t-shirts, wallet..). It's useful because you don't turn your backpack into a big mess every time you look for something, you can save space by releasing the air inside the bags and also, nothing gets wet when traveling. Please use plastic bags that are reusable and don't throw them into the nature (Be careful, Nature mother is watching you).
A notebook. Obviously.
An external battery. In case you run out of electricity or you've been photo shooting too much at the beach. If you don't have one, wait for being in Vietnam to buy one, it's way cheaper.
A bum bag. This will allow you to keep all your important belongings (money, passport..) safe everywhere you'll go. Either during the day or during crazy partying nights, you name it.
Where should I go ?
Here is maybe the most important part for you. I have to say, I like cities, but I love natural spaces so much more. It's important to know when you're about to travel what kind of environments you like the most, so that you can decide if you'll be happier traveling in the country side or in the main cities. (or both, of course!)
You have three main cities in Vietnam which are : Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang.
And the good thing is that they are spread all along Vietnam; Hanoi is up North, Ho Chi Minh is up South and Da Nang is right in the middle. So to plan your trip you can consider starting to Hanoi and going South to Ho Chi Minh or the way around. Depending on how you're traveling but if you are traveling by night bus and trains, you will need at least one month and a half or two months to see what Vietnam has to show you.
If you don't have much time, I would definitely recommend you to stay in the North of Vietnam, for me it's the most beautiful part. So let's start with that one.
North of Vietnam
The Ha Giang Loop
My best experience in Vietnam was The Ha Giang Loop for sure but you may have not heard about it yet because it's not really touristy. Basically after a 7h bus trip from Hanoi you will arrive in Ha Giang village, in the middle of the mountains and close to the Chinese border.
You will rent a motorbike and go for a 3 or 4 days trip with your backpack. You will see astonishing landscapes, share an amazing adventure with other travelers and meet locals.
I would recommend you to stay at the Jasmine Hostel : you will be able to leave your stuffs during the loop, will have a free tour guide if you want and will be able to share the adventure with all the travelers that will be there as well. So even if you're traveling alone, don't be afraid, it's really worth it and not expensive.
No need to introduce yourself to this place, the following photos will be enough.
You can go there with a boat trip (usually from 1 to 3 days). I was staying at the Central Backpackers Hostel in Hanoi and booked a tour with them, it was nice; if you like party boats, go for it. Otherwise you can find cruises that would be better for a family or relax trip. It's a bit expensive because it's very touristy, but it's really worth a visit.
I stayed at Cat Ba island overnight and would recommend you to stay there because it's kind of out of the touristic part of the Halong bay. But hey, don't expect to be the only one there it's almost impossible unless you're going there right after a typhoon as I did. You may think that this is a bit too risky. Jim Rohn will make your decision easier :
“If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.”
Ninh Binh is often considered as the land Halong Bay, and I have to say, it's amazing and less touristy.
The best attraction there is a boat tour right in the middle of the rice fields. You have two options : Tam Coc or Trang An.
I would recommend you Trang An because it's longer and more authentic. but both are nice honestly.
It will take you between 1 to 3 hours depending on the tour you decide to do. You'll be able to go through lovely caves and see amazing and green landscapes.
I would advise you to stay in Tam Coc for your stay because you'll be able to go to many nice places such as pagodas by walk or through renting a bike. I stayed at the Banana Tree Hostel and it was amazing; it's brand new, the staff is really nice and there is a swimming pool!
From there you can go visit the Tam Coc Caves, the Thai Vi Temple, the Bich Dong Pagoda, the Thung Nham Bird Park Ecotourism but also the Hoa Lu Ancient Capital and the Bai Dinh Temple. Plenty of things to see.
Hanoi is probably the busiest city in Vietnam but also the best one. There is so much to see there if you only have one day, you can go for a walk along the Hoan Kiem Lake and visit the old quarter.
If you have more time, I would recommend you to visit the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, the Perfume Pagoda, the Ba Vi National Park but also the Temple of Literature and the Hanoi Opera House.
If you are into museums, I really fancied the Vietnamese Women's Museum. It is not expensive and you will have an audio guide that will explain you everything about women's role during the war but also in general.
Hanoi is also full of yummy places for food. My best advice is to eat at local places right on the sidewalk, trust me you won't be seek. Why? because all the locals eat there everyday so they get fresh food one or twice a day!
The best hidden gem for me is Senté - The paradise of flavor. This quiet restaurant cooks lotus seed in an unconventional way. Coffees are insane. Everything is perfect and it's not so expensive for what it is. You have to check it out.
When in Vietnam, you also have to try Bánh Mì, this Vietnamese sandwich made with French bread. You can have it with fish (Ca), meat (thit) or vegetarian. The best place for me is Mr. Bin; plus they are so welcoming.
One of my favorite Vietnamese dish is Bánh cuốn . It's made from a thin, wide sheet of steamed fermented rice batter filled with a mixture of cooked seasoned ground pork, minced wood ear mushroom, and minced shallots. Pictures are not fancy, but you won't regret it. My favorite place in Hanoi is Banh Cuon Gia Truyen Thanh Van.
If you are looking for a nice place for a coffee, check the Hanoi Coffee Station out, and try the egg coffee. Very sweet (maybe too much) but worth a try. You can also go to the Note Coffee, it's a bit touristy but the idea is lovely. Don't thank me for upgrading your Instagram wall, it's all on me.
My final recommendation is a nice bakery where you can get lotus milk. Check Shope Bakery out, it's on Chả Cá street. Don't try to find it on google maps or anything else, it's 100% local.
Middle of Vietnam
Hoi An is definitely a must see in Vietnam, especially at night. This small city is very touristy but has managed to keep an authentic vibe. You'll find many artistic shops such as paintings for instance. There is a night market which is nice as well, you can find cute jewelries made by hand.
Hoi An is also a very good place for food. And in case you haven't noticed yet, I am quite into food actually. But can you blame me for that ? Nah. If you want to eat seafood or Vietnamese food, 5 son is the only place where you need to go; only locals know this place.
It's actually quite difficult to get it right in a map so just go down this street and you will find it. I know the lazy part of yourself would like to have the accurate address and maybe even more, a TripAdvisor profile where you could analyse all the reviews and comments. But most of the time, the best places are the ones you won't find online; so go ahead, play the adventure apprentice and leave your confort zone. Isn't that what's best while traveling?
Now you might wonder how I got there. An amazing person brought me there, this man is called Uncle Ty and he holds a restaurant called Le Fe. If you are looking for a fancy and crazy dinning experience, please go there.
Then, I would recommend you to try Mi Quang Ong Hai, a Vietnamese friend advice me to go there and I was amazed by the taste of my dish. The main ingredients of mì quảng are rice noodles (thicker than in the pho), meat, and herbs, most commonly served with a small amount of broth, which is generally infused with turmeric.
Otherwise, if you are looking for a nice coffee with a view, check U Cafe Hoi An out. The view is lovely.
Then if you want a Banh Mi, you can head to Madam Khanh - The Banh Mi Queen; you won't regret it.
Finally, if you're more into chicken & rice, you can go to Com Ga Ba Buoi.
Da Nang is a special city for me because it's where it all started. This city is for me the best compromise if you're looking for a place where to stop a bit longer. It is not so busy, you have nice mountains very close and cool beaches as well.
You can go to the amazing Golden Bridge and then visit Ba Na Hills, you will need the whole day as it is not inside the city. It is really worth it, try to go there for the sunrise or the sunset because it's nicer and less busy.
I you have a scooter you can easily go to the Marble Mountains, it gives you a nice view of Da Nang and you will be able to visit some pagodas.
Closer to the city center but still very worth it and free you have the Son Tra mountains but also the Lady Buddha.
Then you can chill at the My Khe beach, it's right inside the city center and beautiful.
If you are looking for a nice coffee or for a volunteering job, you have to go to Tipi Cafe. It is an English speaking cafe where you will meet foreigners volunteers talking with locals about everything. It's an amazing place where I stayed a week and I definitely recommend you to go there.
Last but not least, you can do the Hai Van Pass, and it's definitely worth it. You need a scooter and at least one day. You will ride and cross a mountain with amazing views. You can go up to Lang Co beach, it's precious. If you have more than one day, go to Hue, this city is full of history and pagodas. I advice you to stay overnight there and go back to Da Nang the next day.
Oh and also the Museum of Cham Sculpture is really worth a visit if you want to learn more about the Cham culture.
I tried so many things here that I won't be able to remember them because they were on the sidewalk and held by old grandma. So make it simple, leave your phone, walk down the street and stop where you feel good vibes. Don't pay attention to decoration, good looking of the place or if there is any seat at all. Think like a local and live the vietnamese way.
Because I don't want you to hate me : if you are looking for a bakery, BonPas Bakery is where you need to go, if you are more in a coffee mood, check She café out. (Best coffee in town. And yes I made a survey among the locals I've met.)
It's not really in the city center, but I have no doubt that you've already became an Grab expert.
South of Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh is a huge city, that looks like a bit more as an European city. It's really busy there, especially in terms of traffic so you might not want to stay really long there depending on the atmosphere you prefer.
One thing you shouldn't miss is to visit the War Remnants Museum. If you are interested in what happened during the independence war and so on, you should go there. Let me just warm you, there are not a lot of figures or explanations; it is more about photos, but emotions are here, trust me you will feel it.
Then if you want to go inside a genuine market, the Chợ Tân Định Market is where you need to head next. It's both a food and general market, so if you are also looking for buying some souvenirs, it's a good and cheap place where to do it.
What I liked in Ho Chi Minh is artistic exhibitions, do not hesitate to enter into painting galleries, book stores etc. Also, the Chinese suburb has amazing pagodas, different from the Vietnamese ones that you can visit for free.
If you are looking for a place to stay, the Like Hostel & Coffee is a nice one with a lovely outdoor terrace on the rooftop.
There is one restaurant where you definitely have to go, it's a vegetarian one and it is called Buddha Chay. It was probably my best food experience in Vietnam. Do not hesitate to try artichoke tea or salted kumquat juice for instance.
If you want to experience both cooking and eating Vietnamese food, I would recommend you to do the Saigon Cooking Class. You will first go to the food market with a chef to buy all the ingredients you need and then you will head to the fantastic Hoa Tuc restaurant to cook. The chef was speaking English and was lovely, it is really worth it, you will learn so much about Vietnamese food. Besides, the South of Vietnam is the best part for food experience because they are able to grow more different kind of vegetables and are more into tasty dishes.
The Mekong Delta
Around Ho Chi Minh you can decide to go on the Mekong Delta. It will be easy to find a tour in the expat area but I won't recommend you to do that. The Mekong Delta is really touristy so all the tours are not really authentic and you won't feel the peacefulness and experience the beauty for the river.
My advice would be to allow more time to go on your own. Start in Can Tho, you will easily find some cool home-stay and the people there will advice you where you should go. You can do everything with buses, it's just a bit more of organization but it is worth it. You will be able to visit the floating market during a different schedule than all the organised tours for instance.
In this article I tried to give you all my best insights about Vietnam and I hope you are now ready and willing to go to this amazing country. Something I would also like to share with you is my feelings about this country and how I reflected on my travel.
One of the thing that amazed me the most is the capacity of Vietnamese people to be so open minded, generous and hopeful considering what happened with the war and the current political situation.
Because, yes, Vietnam has beautiful landscape and incredible food but it’s also a communist country where corruption is widespread, where hundred of people die of cancer every 2 days because of air/water quality, where a single bed at the hospital is shared with 3 persons at the same time, where all the internet content is monitored and controlled, where the government does not give any financial help to reduce inequalities and to offer education to everyone and where ideas cannot be expressed if it’s opposed to the government line.
Traveling alone there was so amazing but it was also an awareness of our impact on the country. As travelers, we are using so many single use plastic stuff that end up in some hidden tips or right in the middle of these natural paradises. We are also driving our motorbikes in the middle of the mountains, close to people’s houses and crops.
But also, when buying some cheap counterfeits, we are financing an official market where Vietnamese people are exploited; working more than 10h per day at the factory and earning almost nothing.
Traveling is also realizing how strong is our culture of success and achievements. We do mind more about taking the perfect shot rather then the history of the monument. But also, and thanks Lydia for making me aware of this, we are founders to a certain culture of shame. Shame of not being able to travel, shame of failing something that other travelers achieved, shame of not feeling happy or confortable while traveling.
There is no perfect answer to all of that, just awareness, reflection and actions. So thank you Vietnam for teaching me more about the world we are living into and questioning myself on what citizen I want to be in this world.