As if they were pieces of the Tetris, the bikes move and fit into each gap that is free on the road. Added to this is a swarm of people and children who go on foot or by bike to work or school. After nodding, one of the passers-by receives tacit permission to cross the street. Here there is no doubt when crossing or wasting time … Get the beat into the fast-paced Vietnam!
Despite its complicated and well-known history, Vietnam has much more to offer than the vestiges of the colonial era or the traces of the war that it suffered many decades ago. The country has an impressive virgin coast guarded by the stone cliffs, while inland you will find the flooded deltas, the rice fields and the small towns built around the canals, all different and with something to offer.
With the 12 days that we propose, you will have enough time to tour the country from north to south, or in any other direction, and discover the richness and diversity of Vietnam. What will surprise you the most is how different the urban area is from the rural one, how the life of its inhabitants changes. With our 12-day guide you can discover the most interesting and least known places in Vietnam.
Days 1 and 2: a history lesson in Hanoi
After eating a plate of xoi xeo rice, the funny thing about this rice is that it is more sticky than you are used to eating, and after having a good coffee, start your day in the old town of Hanoi, a labyrinth made up of 36 streets and narrow alleys where markets, temples, cathedrals and colonial houses are hidden. Start at the imperial citadel of Thang Long, then go to the Dong Xuan Market, the Cathedral of Saint Joseph, and end at 87 Ma May Street, where you will find an old house. Then go eat bún chả, a dish of pork noodles, typical of the north of the country. But the best thing about the old town is strolling and getting lost in the alleys, going into the shops and people-watching in your day to day, a routine that has been passed down from generation to generation. Go shopping, grab a bite on the street and end the day watching a puppet show, Múa rối nước, a thousand-year-old tradition.
Start the second day with breakfast in one of the Hoan Kiem cafes. Then we will dedicate ourselves to delving into the history of the country. For that we will visit the mausoleum and museum of Ho Chi Minh (be careful, do not confuse it with the city of the same name). We recommend that you dress according to the activity and that you already pay attention to the narration in the queue, which will explain the country’s communist history. Then he rides a motorcycle taxi to Hoa Lo Prison, which played an important and terrifying role during the war. Although it is not a pleasant visit, it does serve to see how far the country has progressed. Then go eat a phở soup before setting off on the journey to the north coast in the afternoon.
Days 3 and 4: a tour of the northern bays
The typical picture of the historical Chinese sailing boats, called reeds, sailing through the crystalline waters surrounded by the impressive cliffs … It is the image that comes to your mind when you think of Vietnam and we have to tell you that, in real life, you will not will disappoint. It does not matter what type of boat you travel the bays of northern Vietnam. You can kayak and discover the sea caves, climb the cliffs, have a beer on the jetty or swim among the plankton… Regardless of what you want to do, there is a boat waiting for you that will take you wherever you want to go. If you want to avoid crowds, you better take a night cruise or camp on one of the many deserted islands. We recommend that you do not book in advance, as it is the captains themselves or the ship’s staff who go out to look for the tourists that roam Halong Bay. If you want to live a more personal adventure and don’t mind spending a little more, go to Bau Tu Long Bay, which is a little further away and is not as well known.
After spending a few days sailing through the crystal clear emerald waters, it is time to head inland and discover rural Vietnam in the Quang Binh region. Although the distances may seem insurmountable, you have the option of taking a train or night bus and taking the opportunity to sleep. The night bus leaves Halong Bay every day at 7pm and arrives in Đồng Hới early in the morning. Despite the increasing number of tourists, the seats are made to measure for the Vietnamese. So get ready to tuck in and curl up your legs for a few hours.
Days 5 and 6: breathe the fresh air of Phong Nha
From ớng Hới to Phong Nha there is not much distance and here you will find the caves of the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park and the routes of the Bong Lai valley. These two days you will spend in the shadow of the mountains, walking paths in the jungle that will take you to lost caves or taking a bike tour through the rice fields and visiting the villages that dot this inland region.
If you want to live an authentic adventure, in Phong Nha you will find a network of more than 300 caves hardly visited. Skip the Paradise cave, which is advertised with neon lights, and go take a tour to the Hang Tien cave. If you want a longer excursion, you have the option of doing a two-day trip in Hang Én, a wonder of nature. At night you will camp next to the river, inside a huge grotto. For shorter excursions it is not necessary to have experience before and, in addition, the company will inform you in detail of what each excursion consists of.
If you prefer to relax in more rural Vietnam, rent a bike or a motorcycle and go visit the much lesser-known Bong Lai Valley routes. Here you can stay with families and see what their day-to-day life is like and their philosophy “from the field to the plate”. There are a lot of small organic farms and also the famous bar ‘The Pub With Cold Beer’ next to the river in case you want to go for a drink.
Days 7, 8 and 9: poetic reading in Hue and Hoi An
Take an early bus to Hue. Known for being the artistic and cultural center of Vietnam, the city stands on a network of houses built on the green hills that line the Perfume River. Once you’ve settled in, spend the afternoon at the Thien Mu Pagoda and stroll around the walls of the Hue Citadel, which is described in literature, art, and poetry of the 17th and 18th centuries. Do not forget the raincoat, as this city is also famous for its sudden and heavy downpours.
Get up early and before heading to Hoi An, go to He Café, a peculiar place adorned with tools, typewriters and souvenirs of the war. The best way to get to Hoi An is by motorcycle. You will cross the impressive Hai Van port surrounded by mountains and empty beaches. Travel agency staff stroll through the citadel of Hue to hunt clients. All agencies usually offer the possibility of doing this four-hour tour making stops to enjoy the views. Another way is to do it by train or by bus, which is a little faster, but you miss all the panoramic views.
You have already arrived in the colorful city of Hoi An. Here the only plan is to discover its charm and enjoy the atmosphere. The old part of the city, on the banks of the Thu Bon River, is full of colorful colonial buildings adorned with lanterns on the facade. You’ll also find restaurants, bars, and plenty of garment workshops and craft markets. It is the perfect place for photography fans, gastronomy lovers and even for shopping addicts. You can do a lot of activities, like participating in a traditional cooking class, asking to have a custom suit made, visiting the old houses or watching the locals fish in the river with those baskets made of bamboo that use nets. Finally, you can also go buy local products at nearby stalls. Rent a bike in the afternoon. Take a bath and have a drink at sunset on the beaches of Cua Dai and An Bang, as long as you do not have the bad luck to catch the typhoon season.
If you want to go to Ho Chi Minh, you will have to go to Da Nang, since buses and trains leave from there. However we recommend that you fly. It will only cost you an hour and a half, and in this way you will save 17 hours on the train.
Days 10, 11 and 12: sailing upriver through Saigon and the Mekong
Prepare yourself again for chaos at the final stop on our trip: Ho Chi Minh City, the most populous city in Vietnam. Motorcycles are once again the queens of this modern and commercial metropolis, but don’t let so much noise overwhelm you. It is best if you focus on the city’s strengths: its cuisine and its proximity to the Mekong River.
What you cannot miss is the Museum of the Remnants of the Vietnam War and the Cu Chi tunnels. These are the two things that make Saigon unique. In the morning you can practice martial arts, dance or do tai chi with the locals at Tao Dan Park. In the afternoon go for tea on the 53rd floor of the Bitexco Tower. And at night, go to the Amazing Viet Show, a satirical comedy with circus numbers that parodies Vietnamese customs. Despite being the largest city in Vietnam, good vibes reign in Saigon and the people are very friendly. Its gastronomy is a bit the same: many sweet flavors that mix with many international influences in the south. Don’t leave without trying the crispy Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, the Vietnamese chicken curry, cà ri gà, and the pho bo beef soup.
Finally, you cannot leave Vietnam without navigating the magical Mekong River, known for its rice paddies, floating markets, narrow canals, and its villages. This area has nothing to do with Saigon. Although you can go on a day trip, the Mekong region has a lot of possibilities and most of them unknown to the general public. So it is the ideal place to spend a few days in the country, in an idyllic and relaxed environment. You can spend the night in An Binh, here all you can do is ride a bike from village to village while the locals greet you as you pass. You can stay with families, so you make sure you can try authentic Vietnamese food. In short, it is the icing on the cake of this unforgettable trip to Vietnam.