The only image I had of Vietnam before visiting the country was of Vietnam war pictured in various Hollywood movies and the bustling traffic of Ho Chi Minh City, but little did I know that this country has so much to offer, from beautiful mountain valleys to gorgeous beaches, and not to forget the rich variety of Vietnamese food.
Vietnam is best traveled from either North to South or the other way, and if you buy an open-bus ticket from a reliable company like I did, its quiet easy to explore the country without much of a hassle arranging transport between cities. I started my month long trip from Ho Chi Minh City, better known as Saigon among the locals; and traveled all the way up to Sa Pa stopping at different places along the way. Spending a month in Vietnam gave me enough time to travel at a slow pace and soak myself into Vietnamese culture and beautiful places.
Itinerary and Places to Visit
My Itinerary: Saigon (5 Days) –Dalat (4 Days) – Nha Trang (2 Days) – Hoi An (4 Days) – Hue(2 Days) -Ninh Binh (2 Days) – Hanoi (4 Days) – Cat Ba (3 Days) – Sa Pa (4 Days)
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
I arrived late evening and crashed into my hostel bed after a gruelling 12 hour bus-ride from Cambodia, and woke up to the hustle-bustle of Ho Chi Minh City in the middle of District One where I was staying.
Saigon can be overwhelming for someone not used to cities, but I loved the liveliness in every corner. Vietnamese Ladies in traditional hats bringing morning supplies, tons of xe-om drivers almost forcing you to take a city tour, swarms of motorbikes making it almost impossible to cross the road and people exercising at city parks amidst all the buzz; that is how morning looks like in District One, the heart of Saigon.
I spent my first day strolling around the area and it was a true delight to see the busy local markets, street food stalls, massive skyscrapers and beautifully maintained old buildings; all in a small area easily accessible on foot. Try to avoid the xe-om and cyclo drivers since they can rip-you off for a lot of money in the name of a city tour, which is usually a ride around the attractions of Distinct One.
I also visited Cu Chi tunnels, which are definitely a no-miss if you are in Saigon. Though I’m not a history buff, passing through the long underground tunnels and learning about the smart tactics of Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam war almost made me into one. I skipped the Mekong Delta tours because they looked unauthentic, but a lot of other travelers I met afterwards recommended going there.
Da Lat or Dalat
What could be better than a place set in the hills with cool weather all year round to cure the craziness of a big city? Dalat is the place to slow down and relax in the lap of mama nature, popular as a honeymoon and wedding photography destination in Vietnam. I rented a bike for going around the city and exploring the beautiful parks and surroundings. Dalat is also known for its Vietnamese pizza which is quite different from its Italian counterpart. You really have to travel there to find out how it tastes like!
Nha Trang is a beach city just a few hours from Dalat. Though there are interesting historical sites like Long Son Pagoda and Po Nagar Cham Towers; but the crowds of tourists at the beach make it a bit unpleasant for a beach experience. I spent most of my time hanging out with a Vietnamese friend and treating my taste buds with a large variety of good Vietnamese food, especially Nem-Nem (Vietnamese spring rolls) and the street food. There are usually some local festivals and concerts along the beach on weekends.
I dreamt of visiting Hoi An ever since I saw the beautiful pictures of the lanterns and its old buildings, and it didn’t disappoint me at all. It was an amazing experience to roam around the streets of this little town by the river and the ocean, while soaking into its beautifully preserved architecture and the small town culture. The inclusion of Hoi An as a UNESCO world heritage site has definitely made it very touristy, but it is too beautiful and rich to skip from your itinerary.
Hoi An is the place for a beach lover, the shopping addict, the culture and history buff, the experience seeker, the photography hobbyist and for everyone else who doesn’t fit these descriptions. Full moon is an excellent time to visit since the whole city is lit with lanterns at night and its definitely a sight to embrace.
Hai Van Pass and Hue
Hai Van Pass, sounds like heaven pass right? Well, it is pretty close. One of the best part of my travels in Vietnam was riding a motorbike through the Hai Van pass. Imagine yourself driving on narrow roads of a green mountain touching the turquoise blue ocean. The views on this trip were absolutely surreal and make for stunning photographs; plus the absence of traffic on the pass is nothing less than icing on the cake!
Hue has a lot of historical sites to see within the premises of its popular imperial city, and I didn’t find it very interesting but it makes for a good stop on the way up to Hanoi for someone interested in Vietnamese history.
Hanoi and Ninh-Binh
Ninh Binh is known for its limestone cliffs and the underground river, and is a must-see if travelling by road from Hoi An to Hanoi. A clear green river flowing through the huge limestone cliffs rising from the land presents a mesmerizing view and is definitely a magical landscape.
Hanoi is not as large and as bustling as Ho Chi Minh city, but the traffic and incessant honking makes it a bit underwhelming, especially if you have already seen a lot of Vietnam; though I loved the charm of old Hanoi and its creative chic cafes. The public transport is quite efficient and it definitely serves as a good base for exploring Halong Bay and Sa Pa.
Cat Ba Island
Most people book one of the overpriced tours to explore the popular UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong bay, but there is another way to see the this natural wonder by yourself, by doing a trip to Cat Ba island and visiting Ha Lan Bay, a smaller part of Halong Bay. The island itself is mesmerizingly beautiful and is worth exploring on a motorbike, and you can see stunning sunsets on the Ha Lan Bay from the island. The island is quite touristy since most tours on Halong Bay include a one night stay on Cat Ba, but its a great adventure if you do the trip yourself.
Sa Pa is a place to relax and enjoy the coolest weather in Vietnam. Though is is also very touristy, you can find your abode in the rice terraces at one of the numerous surrounding villages. Sa Pa has a lot of unique culture and a plethora of natural beauty, but its quite hard to find an authentic experience since most of the villages are now frequented by tourists, most locals speak English and usually have something to sell to the tourists. The best way to explore Sa Pa is to visit some villages by yourself and try to find a local who wants to take you on a tour of their village.
I recommend spending atleast two weeks to experience the natural beauty and the unique culture of Vietnam. I took an open bus ticket from The Sinh Tourist and I highly recommend this bus company since the drivers speak English and you are less likely to miss your destination because the bus driver couldn’t inform you where you had to get off!
About the Author:
Sachin Agarwal, blogger at http://aheartontheroad.com is an engineer by education and a true backpacker at heart. Eager to strike off 30 countries from his wishlist before he turns 30! High on life, budget traveler, couchsurfer, photography hobbyist and a self-proclaimed travel hacker. Enjoys kayaking (with a life vest), beaches, local experiences and cold beer after a hike!