The Ultimate Travel Guide to Vietnam: South to North
Travelling through Vietnam opened our eyes to how diverse South East Asia’s countries and their people are. It has been the highlight of our travels through Asia so far and a good destination to make our budget go further. It is very cheap to eat, drink and stay in nice accommodation for less than in other asian countries.
Great for budget travel!
This article is meant as a comprehensive guide to Vietnam; its cuisine, transport, currency, best time to visit and visa requirements. It includes our itinerary from south to north, covering a description of the destinations we visited, with where to stay, where to eat, what to see and costs, finishing with other possible destination ideas that we didn’t get to cover but researched.
I hope you don’t end up like that lady on the film ‘Airplane’ as you get through to the end!! haha!
If you are serious about visiting Vietnam one day or know of someone else that wants to, please save / share this article as a reference!
Vietnam is an amazingly diverse and epic country to visit, with lush landscape, captivating cities and over 3000 kilometres of coastline, not to mention a tremendous playground for the foodies. For the first time traveller it’s a deceivingly large country to explore and how much you get to see will depend on how much time you allow yourself to do so. Due to the narrow shape and length of Vietnam it is advisable to travel south to north or north to south, following the warmer weather.
The South and North regions are very different to each other, including customs, language (tonal dialect which makes Vietnamese very difficult to learn) and food. It isn’t surprising, as during the American War (as they call it in Vietnam) North and South were divided and fought against each other. One of our friends that is Vietnamese, from the South but living in the North, even refers to her home town as ‘her country’. Interesting to know that they think of South and North Vietnam as different countries whilst we see it as one.
Vietnamese food is delicious, distinct and unforgettable, with dishes differing to one another in the southern, central and northern regions of Vietnam; with Hue in the central region being famous for its spicier cuisine.
I used to love Thai food, but now Vietnamese food is my favourite!
Must try dishes include:
- Pho ‘pronounced as fur’ (beef or chicken noodle soup)
- Bun Cha (grilled pork and noodles; traditional of Hanoi)
- Cao Lau (noodles with pork; traditional of Hoi An)
- Goi cuon (seafood spring rolls)
- Bun Bo Nam Bo (beef street style noodles)
- Vit Gion (roasted duck)
- Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich fillings with french style bread)
- Banh Xeo (savoury pancakes with prawns, pork and other veggie yumminess)
Click on the images to scroll through some of these dishes!
Best advice we were given, but didn’t follow to the letter, was to never eat western food in Vietnam. Matt can testify to this, as he had food poisoning in Hanoi from a Burger King. We were perfectly fine with all kinds of street food, so best to stick to Vietnamese cuisine.
It’s not an easy country to travel through as from Ho Chi Minh in the South to Hanoi in the North it takes approx. an astonishing 40 hours by Train! It pays off to use Vietnam’s low cost airline VietJet Air, as prices can be as low as £30-35 per person for internal flights, but this will depend on the time of year you travel and whether there are any national holidays, where prices will go up considerably. When this happens, it is time to explore alternative modes of transport like the trains.
For those with lower budgets, if you are to take long train journeys it’s best to take an overnight sleeper to save on accommodation costs. Trains are a bit of a mind field, hence why we mostly opted for internal flights, but when choosing a day time train journey make sure you book a carriage with A/C and soft seats if you want a comfy ride (we made that mistake only once and had a very uncomfortable journey on hard wooden seats – not fun for bony bums!)
For getting around the cities, Uber is a popular choice as they are so cheap (no tuk tuks in sight!). A short Uber journey would cost you only 29,000VND (approx. £1 / US$ 1.29). Another alternative is to hop on the back of a Grab bike, where they will take you from A to B faster.
Vietnamese Dong is their currency and it is easy to feel like a millionaire as soon as you withdraw money from an ATM, as the denominations are in thousands and millions. Although they have some coins for smaller denominations, most of the money will be in note form. The largest denomination is a 500,000VND note, followed by 200,000; 100,000; 50,000; 20,000; 10,000; 5,000; 2,000; 1,000 and the 100VND note.
Be very careful with the 0’s and make sure you clock how much things cost and how much change you are given in return (as many try to trick you – watch out for my future blog about scams in Asia). It is so easy to give someone 500,000VND as opposed to 50,000VND, especially after a few drinks! I downloaded the xe currency app to help me work out the exchange rates.
To give you an idea, here is a snippet of how the exchange rates are (please note this is subject to change)
500,000VND = £17 / US$22
(takes 2 of these notes to feel like a millionaire, but it’s only £34 / US$44)
200,000VND = £6.79 / US$8.79
100,000VND = £3.40 / US$4.39
Usually ATM’s let you take out a maximum of 2,000,000VND at a time which is approx. £68 / US$88
Cost of living in Vietnam is cheap for westerners, as prices are low for food, drink and transport. You can survive on less than 300,000VND a day per couple easily (that is £10 / US$13), not taking into account accommodation. A bowl of noodles can cost as little as 22,000VND (£0.74 / US$0.96) depending on where you eat, and beer is approx. the same!
Best Time to Visit Vietnam
Vietnam has a complicated weather system due to its various monsoons, as each area will differ slightly, so to time it right and see the whole country, it’s best within the March to May timeframe but keep from south to north like we did, as seems a better way to guarantee sunshine every step of the way. However, as we experienced, you can still get a few cloudy and drizzly days when it gets humid.
We went in mid April to end of May 2017 and temperatures were within the early to mid 30s. By the time we had left the southern and central regions at the beginning of May they were heating up considerably and the North was getting warmer, making it perfect timing for us to still enjoy the sunshine. Temperatures in Hanoi in the North during May were mid 30s. As soon as we left Hanoi towards the end of May, it started to heat up considerably and by June temperatures reached the upper 40s (which actually felt like 50C, according to our friend who had to leave and head for the mountains)
Here is a summary according to Rough Guides by region, in case you only plan to visit one area:
Dry season lasts from December to April, creeping into May and then rains from May through to November, bringing some floods that can make transport a problem. It tends to rain heavily for a few hours in the day and temperatures rarely go below 20C, sometimes hitting 40C during the hotter months of March, April and May)
Around Hue and Da Nang the rains start from September to February, so it pays to visit in Spring (Feb-May) Temperatures get into the upper 30s and early 40C from June to August, so most escape into the hills.
Usually warm and sunny from October to December, after which the colder winter begins. Temperatures begin to rise again in March and reach the 40C maximums between May and August (in this hot summer’s rainy season, you can expect heavy downpours)
Official Vietnam Visa Website
For visits of up to 30 days, you can get an e-visa online before you travel, which costs $25. Use of the e-visa is limited to certain entry/exit points which you must select at the time of application. If you don’t have fixed travel plans, consider applying for a regular single entry visa from the nearest Vietnamese Embassy, which allows more flexibility.
For visits of longer than 30 days you must get a visa from the nearest Vietnamese embassy before travelling to Vietnam.
If you’re planning to make multiple visits in a short period to Vietnam, consider applying for a multiple entry visa. If you want to make a second visit within 30 days of leaving Vietnam, you’ll need to get a visa or an e-visa to re-enter the country.
Alternative Provider (easier application process)
You can also use a website called Vietnam Visa, which offers a Visa on Arrival Although their domain seems to be an official government one, it apparently isn’t. They charge a fee from $17 depending on the process speed chosen, which then is supplemented by the usual visa fee at the airport, which will cost you another $25. However, it is an easier process but go with caution and do read their latest reviews on their facebook page
They provide you with different duration options (including 1 & 3 month single entry visas, as well as 1 & 3 month multi-entry visas) This visa requires you to fill in an application form online; you will be sent a letter within 2 working days, which you need to take with you to the airport of entry chosen, along with 2 passport photos.
You can find out more info (including visa requirements for different nationalities) via their link on how to apply
Our Itinerary, from South to North
- Ho Chi Minh City (southern Vietnam) – we stayed 1 week but easily can be done in 3-4 days
- Da Nang (central Vietnam) – travelled here to get to Hoi An, but got to visit again by bike
- Hoi An (central Vietnam) – we allowed ourselves 1 week but 4-5 days is plenty
- Hue (central Vietnam) – we stayed here 3 days, which is also plenty to see the city
- Hanoi (Capital of Vietnam in the North) – we spent most of our time in Hanoi, around 10 days (recommend minimum 5 days to get to see it)
- Ha Long Bay & Bai Tu Long Bay (northern Vietnam) – we went on a 2 days / 1-night Cruise (wish we could have gone longer!)
- Cat Ba Island (an Island near Ha Long Bay) – we spent a long weekend here, 3 days
1. Ho Chi Minh City
Also known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City had a buzz unlike any other we’d seen. Full of bikes, that will even go on the pavements, so watch out behind you as you will certainly encounter them trying to cut through the traffic whilst you are strolling along. Apparently there are over 14 million bikes in Vietnam, 7 million of them are in HCMC alone!!
This city has a mere 24 Districts, however most tourists tend to stay in either District 1 (central), District 5 or District 3. These 3 are closest to each other. District 7 is a notorious Expat community.
I found the city had a lot less character than Hanoi, but still liked it and appreciated it for what it was. To really enjoy HCMC, it is advisable to avoid the tourist trail (trap as I call it) as the guide books only show you the typical tourist sites. It is hard to avoid hearing about the American War (as they call it in Vietnam) as it is practically thrown down tourist’s throats, mostly as a means to make money. It is a sad sad story and we didn’t fancy seeing the devastating effect on the country and wanted to enjoy Vietnam for what it is today. Strangely, most of the current generation (anyone under 42) in Vietnam weren’t even around at the time, so there is little animosity towards the US (lucky for American travellers!).
These War time attractions include the Cu Chi tunnels, the War Remnants Museum and the Independence Palace (also known as the Reunification Palace) and you will be charged a lot of money for a very sad story. However, if you are interested and want to see the devastating effect the war had on Vietnam, you will probably need a stiff drink afterwards!
Where to Stay
Hotels in District 1
Centre of the city action
Alagon Saigon Hotel & Spa (link to Agoda.com)
Part of a larger group of hotels, it shares its space with another 3 hotels, all with their own reception but interconnected by a series of dinning rooms, all sharing a roof terrace pool bar, Jacuzzi and swimming pool. They sometimes share rooms if fully booked which in some cases will be an advantage as you may get an upgrade. We booked Alagon Saigon Hotel but ended up staying in an upgraded Executive room at Alagon Central Hotel. We only had to get into another Lift in the same corridor to move rooms!
The other hotels are Alagon Central, Alagon City Point and Alagon D’Antique Hotel & Spa. The latter was much pricier, but still shared the same roof terrace pool, so we didn’t feel like we missed out. It was confusing at first, but you soon get used to the layout and how to benefit from more choice at breakfast time, as the dinning rooms are so close to each other!
A room at Alagon Saigon cost us approx. 1,170,000VND (£40 / US$51) per night which is usual for a nicer hotel in the city.
The Alagon D’Antique Hotel & Spa will cost double that amount. This will very much depend on what time of year you go (we found April a good time for cheaper accommodation). I used booking.com but you can also search on Agoda or any other Hotel app.
Make sure you include Pool access in your room booking by checking details. Some options don’t include this and you may have to pay a daily charge separately.
Silverland Central Hotel & Spa
(from £30-£40 per night)
Sunrise Central Hotel
(from £20-£30 per night)
Hoang Lien Hotel
(from £15 a night)
Prices are subject to change depending on time of year.
Hotel in District 5
This is a less busy district than district 1 and has everything you need, including a Cinema, shopping mall, Spas, bars and restaurants, so not a bad choice if you don’t fancy being in the centre of town.
If you can afford a little bit of luxury at a more affordable price than you would outside of South East Asia, then you must try this next hotel!
Hotel Equatorial (link to Agoda.com)
A beautiful hotel from £60 – £80 per night (we have seen it for £53 per night at other times of the year whilst looking on Agoda so there are deals to be had)
We stayed here at the beginning of our stay in HCMC as we hadn’t secured a hotel at the time of arrival. I think we were a little too relaxed when we flew there and then had to spend time at the airport looking up hotels, so we went for some assured comfort. It was a treat to enjoy, with big rooms, the comfiest bed I have ever tried, big swimming pool and nice restaurants/bars. A must stay for those with larger budgets.
Close to the Airport (for early flights)
Camila Hotel (link to Booking.com)
Perfect for Transfers and early morning return/onward flights!
The traffic is horrendous when travelling from District 1 or 5 to the Airport, so advisable to book a room here for those that need to fly early or have short stopovers. A room cost us 730,000VND (£25 / US$32) and was clean and comfortable, like many business traveller hotels around Europe.
How to get around Ho Chi Minh City
If staying in District 3 or 5, the best option is to book an Uber as these are a fraction of the price of taxis. You will either need WiFi (important to note that Vietnam has great WiFi coverage, probably the best I have encountered in Asia so far) or data on your phone.
If you don’t use or have the app and want a normal taxi, make sure you only get a Vinasun or Mai Linh metered taxi, as you will be less likely to be ripped off.
If you feel brave you can hire a bike, but once you see how they drive this may change your mind!
Once in District 1, it is easy to walk around if you have a map or use Google maps on your phone (again, it’s a good idea to get a local SIM card from an official VIETEL mobile shop with a Data package which is cheap – I’m talking about approx. 290,000VND (£9 / US$12) for a SIM and 4GB of data.
Where to Eat
We saw a few in District 1
This is a chain of restaurants around HCMC and serve Pho (pronounced ‘Fur’) which is the Vietnamese noodle soup (with a choice of Beef, Chicken or maybe even Seafood) Always check reviews on Trip Advisor, but these below definitely lived up to the reviews!
Home Cooked Vietnamese Restaurant in District 1
Good for all Vietnamese dishes, but a thumbs up for Vegetarian, Vegan and Gluten free options.
Ben Thanh Market
Pop up restaurants set up amazing stools, table and chairs from 7pm with the best seafood, however slightly pricier but worth it! You can see them running down the road with their extendable tables and ovens at 6pm for set up.
Lang Nuong Nam Bo
This was a recommendation by a friend and his Vietnamese wife. Quite possibly the biggest restaurant in the world! Great food and famously known for its Suckling pig ‘Heo Sua’ – A must try, as all the locals eat here, as do well-informed tourists like us!
Hum Vegetarian Cafe & Restaurant
Tasty, clean and fresh. Good food and service.
Other foodie streets you must go to:
Ton Dan Street
Cheap and tasty Vietnamese food, including Seafood!
Nguyen Thuong Hien Street
Also known as Snail Street – a must try!
What to do in the City
If you don’t want to be left to your own devices you can book a city tour by bike with XO Tours, which involves been taken on the back of a bike by a guide exploring HCMC’s food and culture. Different ones to choose from. Check them out on Trip Advisor, nothing but good reviews. Best way to see, feel and taste Saigon if you are on a tight schedule.
Or… do what we did and get lost in the city, eat all the street food you can and stop regularly for beer and/or fruit juices! The best advice we received from our friend that lives in Vietnam was to stop every 15 minutes in HCMC for a refreshment (he actually said beer, but this will be your choice!) During a hot day pick a hotel with a rooftop bar, such as The Majestic Hotel near the river, or the eateries with plastic chairs on the pavements and watch the world go by.
Cruise the Mekong Delta (River Tours)
If you want to book a tour from your hotel, this will be pricey at approx. 1.6 million Dong (£54/ US$70) Another way to do this is to hire a bicycle or a motorbike and do it yourself!
If you do take a boat tour with pick up from your hotel, make sure it includes drop off at the same hotel, as we heard from friends we met there that they had been dropped off in the middle of the city and had to take an Uber/taxi back.
We didn’t tour the Mekong, so I can’t really describe it to do it justice (check out reviews on Trip Advisor for the full picture)
Cu Chi Tunnels Tour
For those interested in war history.
You will need a stiff drink after!
Take a walk in a Park and read a book
There are a few parks in HCMC to say the least! These below are 2 of my favourite (probably because I haven’t seen them all)
The Crescent Walk in District 7, is a particularly good place to watch the sunset.
Tao Dan Park, in the city centre, is a vast space full of tropical trees. You will find Vietnamese people (mostly 50+ years of age) doing some form of Thai Chi in the mornings, girls with hula-hoops and people reading their book on a bench. It’s an oasis away from the traffic!
Go to the Cinema and have some Popcorn!
Most cinemas have films in English with Vietnamese subtitles. We went to the Lotte Cinema in the Nowzone Fashion Mall in District 5, which is just around the corner from The Equatorial, past a park. One thing that I wasn’t too happy about is that popcorn in Vietnam seems to only be sweet (no salty option, what is that about?)
See the amazing city views and sunset from the Bitexco Financial Tower
This 68 story skyscraper is home to the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th Floor with a Helicopter Pad on it’s roof, but they will charge an entrance fee.
Head up to the 52nd floor where you will find the Heli Bar and get an even better view for free! (you can actually see the Helicopter Pad from one side of the bar) and as an added bonus, they have a great selection of Single Malt Whiskies!
Go Shopping at Ben Thanh Market
Huge market in central Saigon District 1. In the middle you’ll find stores/stalls where you can haggle galore. At the outer edges the shops tend to have fixed prices, but don’t let that stop you!
One thing to note in HCMC, all the brands in non Shopping Malls are of course fakes/copies. You can find stores in this market and near by with almost any brand for shoes, bags and clothes. For real gear head to a Mall, but you will notice the vast price difference!
Enjoy the AirCon at the many Shopping Malls
More upmarket prices (some even more than in Europe) but good to browse to pass the time and enjoy some AC, even if you don’t buy anything.
Here are a few:
- Vincom Centre in District 1
- Zen Plaza (District 1, close to Alagon Saigon Hotel)
- Diamond Plaza (also District 1; we visited this one as needed new flip flops and wanted the walking Sketchers)
- Nowzone Fashion Mall (District 5, including Lotte Cinema as mentioned above)
Get out of the City and hop on a Ferry to Vung Tau Beach
If you fancy getting out of the city, head to the beach. Catch the fast ferry from Ho Chi Minh with Greenlines Ferry – you can get an Uber or taxi to district 4 where the jetty is off Nguyen Tat Thanh Street near the Ho Chi Minh Museum. There used to be a Vina Express Hydrofoil ferry that left from District 1, opposite the Majestic Hotel, but these have now been discontinued since December 2016. The ferry boats look small but are mighty fast. Prices are (subject to change, so do check) 250,000VND per Adult (£8.50 / US$11)
It’s a great way to spend the day away from the city’s crazy traffic. The journey takes about 90 minutes. For those that don’t fancy going by boat, now with the Long Thanh Expressway it is also possible to take a minivan and the duration of the journey is apparently about the same.
2. Da Nang
After Ho Chi Minh City, we flew with VietJet Air to Da Nang Airport (central Vietnam) so we could get to Hoi An, our next destination, just 50 mins away. Flights from HCMC to Da Nang were 1,796,000 Dong for both of us (£60 / US$79)
We took a metered taxi (Vinasun, as no Uber around) straight down to Hoi An from the airport, but then returned to Da Nang a few days later by bike.
Da Nang itself is a built up city with mountains surrounding it, but when compared to HCMC you’d see it as a town.
What to do in Da Nang
Go to the beach or drive up to Son Tra Mountain
We visited Linh Ung (Lady Buddha) and a beautiful Pagoda on Son Tra Mountain. It is a touristy place as coaches bring visitors there, but well worth it as the giant white Lady Buddha is the biggest Buddha statue I have ever seen.
Just past Linh Ung, you will find restaurants and bikes parked to one side with steps going down to a small bay where there is a bar and a pontoon that you can walk on. It’s beautiful! Here you are bound to find a wedding or two taking place.
Where to Stay
Our advice is to stay in Hoi An. Honestly, it’s the best option as it’s so much more beautiful!
3. Hoi An
Hoi An is a city in central Vietnam in the Quang Nam Province, known for its UNESCO World Heritage Ancient Town cut through with canals.
The ancient town was the most beautiful and quaint little town I have ever seen, showered with colourful lanterns, French influenced mustard coloured houses with shop fronts and restaurants along many small alleys and streets. In fact, the architecture has a mixed influence of French colonial, Chinese wooden and Vietnamese tall buildings split on two sides of a river, which makes the place so unique. It is a pedestrianised area apart from a few bicycles still allowed to enter, but mostly you’ll find people on foot. Although full of tourists, it is a spectacular place to visit and a must see for any traveller going to Vietnam.
There are some ancient buildings that are open to tourists, including the iconic Japanese covered bridge, however an entry fee applies to these visitors wanting to go into the ancient sites. In principle, if you are only there to eat and shop you shouldn’t have to pay the 120,000 Dong (£4 / US$5). We had mixed messages about this fee, as nowadays they are trying to charge everyone entering the town, but as it goes towards the maintenance of such a beautiful heritage site it’s not such a bad thing to contribute towards. Check with your hotel and get informed as this may have been implemented since we visited.
Not too far away (approx. 4km) Hoi An also has 2 beaches; Cua Dai and An Bang Beach.
Whilst in Hoi An we enjoyed a few days walking and cycling through the ancient town, as well as visiting the beaches. It was the highlight of our trip!
Where to Stay
Riverside Oasis Villa (see it on Agoda.com)
This is one of the nicest hotels we have stayed in over South East Asia. The place is stunning, a 3 star but looks and feels like a 5 star. Rooms are cheap, at £15-£20 depending on the time of year, big and luxurious with either a Garden/river or pool view. Great pool and yummy breakfast too. They also provide free bicycles so you can ride around Hoi An! It is a 10 min bike ride away from the ancient town and about the same from the beach. We hired a motorbike for a couple of days too so we could explore further afield. We loved it so much that we extended our stay 3 more nights.
Where to Eat
The choices are infinite, but as we were picky we have some great recommendations!
Ancient Town Restaurants:
Home Hoi An (See their website here)
We stopped here whilst walking the Ancient Town as looked cosy. It’s tucked away down one of the streets. The food is Vietnamese with a twist, refined with a French influence. We soon learned from the owner about the menu and how it worked (order a main dish each to share and 2 sides / rice is complimentary)
The owner was also a trained chef and has worked all over the world at fancy Hotels, so no wonder the food was so nice! We had a glass of red wine each too which was delicious, surprising as red doesn’t usually travel well to Asia. Prices are slightly higher than your usual Vietnamese restaurant but nothing compared to Europe. This was where I first tried Vietnamese iced coffee ‘Ca Phe Sua Da’ and I was hooked!
Lantern Town (see their website here)
This restaurant in on the front, facing the canal and is bang in the middle of the Ancient Town. Amazing looking place covered in lanterns and the food we tried ‘Bun Bo Nam Bo’ which is Vietnamese Street food style noodles but with a more refined finish, was to die for!
If you fancy Mexican food, this is the one to go to! Authentic Mexican Tacos. A recommendation to us by our friend who lives in Vietnam.
The Cargo Club
known as Cargo!
Also a good choice, but if you had to choose from the above then I would miss this one out. They serve a mix of continental and Vietnamese food, but less authentic feel with same prices as Home Restaurant.
Hoi An Restaurants:
Circle Cafe (check out their Facebook Page)
Juicy Lucy Burgers & more!
Jeff and his wife Anh own and run this restaurant, serving fantastic food. A must try are their Hangover Noodles and their Juicy Lucy Burgers (authentic from Minneapolis) We went there a couple of times and it had a lovely atmosphere. Jeff is from Minneapolis and has been in Vietnam for quite a few years.
He sat up with us one night till early hours of the morning exchanging music and stories and he is in touch with us to this day. We will definitely return for a visit soon! This place is not to be missed whilst in Hoi An.
Soul Kitchen Beach Bar & Restaurant (Check out their website here)
Situated on the beach front of An Bang overlooking the ocean, this is a fantastic place to stop and eat. Great vibe and open space to take a seat at the bar or tables scattered around. We heard about them through a friend and read the reviews. Another one not to be missed!
Beaches in Hoi An
Cua Dai Beach
About 4km away from the town and only 10 mins by bike from our hotel, our first impressions after seeing so many beautiful beaches wasn’t good. It was quiet, but full of sand bags to stop the obvious erosion and not as picturesque.
There are a few 5* resorts nearby and a few seafood restaurants (Cua Dai is famous for its Seafood), so plenty to do and see whilst there, but our advice would be to head up to its neighbouring beach ‘An Bang’.
If you are into Diving or snorkelling, it is best to go to Cham Islands, which are just off the shore of Hoi An and visible from Cua Dai.
An Bang Beach
A much nicer beach, with no visible erosion, white sand and calm waters. Usually not too busy during the week, although when we visited it was during a local holiday so it was packed with people filling up the beach and nearby bars. There are many beach bars and restaurants giving the beach a lovely vibe. This is where you will find Soul Kitchen and you won’t be disappointed.
Best time to visit is in the dry season from February–May and during the week, as at weekends and holidays it can get very busy. We were there in April and the weather was perfect.
Vietnam’s Imperial City
We ended up in Hue by default as we planned to fly to Hanoi straight from Da Nang, but unfortunately during a national holiday flights had gone up considerably, so we decided to take a 3-hour train journey up to Hue instead, which we heard was a picturesque journey from Da Nang, through the mountains, with some great views.
Hue is also in Central Vietnam and is known for its Imperial City, which is inside a walled Citadel. It was the Imperial capital of Vietnam before Hanoi. We stayed there for 3 nights and visited the river front and Imperial City, which was a lovely addition to our travels through the country.
Where to Stay
Hong Thien 1 Hotel
A budget hotel with a pool in the centre of Hue. Room cost was about £17 / US$22. We first got given a pool view room, but it smelt of damp so we asked to be moved. The hotel staff were great and moved us to a front-facing room on the 4th floor, which was huge, clean and with 2 double and comfortable twin beds. We didn’t need that much space, but it definitely improved our stay.
Hue Serene Palace Hotel
We also considered this hotel due to the great reviews, but had already decided for Hong Then. The rooms were around the same price, so check it out!
Funnily enough after looking at reviews for Massages in Hue we found out that this hotel also had a Spa, so we went over for a try. The Massage was amazing!
For a slightly more upmarket place to stay, this seems a good option and rooms cost approx. £20-30 per night depending on the time of year. We went in to have a look and read the good reviews.
Where to Eat
A must try. The food is typical of Hue, which is spicier than in the South, with a small but varied menu. The local custom is to order a few dishes and share (like Tapas) This was recommended to us by a friend that lives in Vietnam.
A fab recommendation from our hotel, just around the corner. We had ‘Pho’ here and it was delicious.
Check the addresses on Google maps!
What to do in Hue
Visit the Imperial City
Not wanting to walk or hire a bike, we opted for a Cyclo (a rider that takes you on the front of the bike in a basket type seat) that took us all the way to the Imperial City and back again.
They say to watch out for Cyclos as they can scam you asking for an extortionate amount after a ride, but we agreed on a cost of 60,000 Dong each way (£2 / US$2.63)
This was a fun ride as we got to see Hue’s sea front and roads leading into the Imperial City.
Once inside the walled Citadel, you get to know it’s History; Chinese and French influence and ruling, as well as what happened during the war when most of the buildings were bombed. They show you a digitalised reconstruction of the Forbidden City and then you get to walk around the still preserved buildings/temples. It is amazing to see.
We chose to use a golf buggy that takes you around the grounds, which was a very good move as it would have taken us a long walk in the heat to get around.
Luckily we shared this with another couple from South Korea and their 2 kids. It only cost us 80,000 Dong between us (£2.71 / US$3.51)
Check out the Embroidery Museum on the River!
Stunning pieces of art and fabrics. A must see!
Take a Motorbike Tour of the real Vietnam!
(around the countryside from Hue)
We met a couple that had done this tour for 3 days and said it was the highlight of their holiday in Vietnam. We didn’t have time, but it was a good recommendation from them to pass on!
They gave us the website and email address as:
The guy that runs it is called Quy (pronounced Quee) – email link below!
Vietnam’s Capital City
Our favourite city in Vietnam, Hanoi, lies in the North of the country and is full of French colonial architecture and has a rich food culture. The best districts, in my view, are the Ba Dinh District (aka the French Quarter) where the government offices are located, and the Hoam Kiem District (aka the Old Quarter) which is full of charm and is considered the business hub and main tourist attraction.
The Old Quarter is like a town in itself with many sidewalks and roads full of shops, street food vendors and restaurants, as well as the Hoam Kiem Lake. There are many commercial streets that form the Old Quarter, which are named after their original businesses dating back over 1000 years, such as cotton, silk, jewellery and herbs, to give some examples.
Hanoi and its old quarter is lawless due to its traffic which is formed mostly of motorbikes (approx. 4 million), similar to Ho Chi Minh, but slightly smaller scale! No one stops at traffic lights; green means go of course, amber means go and red means go too! You must be brave to cross the road in full traffic flow, but it’s the only way you will get across.
Best advise we were given was to walk slowly and steadily. You can stop as they will just go around you, but never ever take a step back or you will confuse them all and they will crash into you and each other!
Where to Stay
Little Town Hotel (we booked it through Airbnb.com)
Located on Hang Luoc Street!
Beautiful colonial style hotel in the Old Quarter. Rooms are usually £20-25 (US$25-32) depending on the time of year you visit. This hotel was on Agoda and Airbnb when we found it. Fantastic breakfast and friendly staff that will go out of their way for you. Very central and close by to all the sites.
What to do in Hanoi
Get your walking shoes on and go around the Old Quarter!
In our case, comfy Flip Flops
Visit the Hoam Kiem Lake
It has a lovely atmosphere day or night! It gets very busy on Sunday nights when all the locals are out with their families.
Go to the Cinema
It’s near the lake.
Have an Ice Cream or a Vietnamese Iced Coffee!
Ca Phe Sua Da, as it’s known in the South is called Ca Phe Da in the North, which is still with condensed milk, but much stronger – ask for more milk if you need it, I did!)
Useless information always comes in handy: ‘Da‘ means Ice!
Apart from all the shops in the Old Quarter, which there are many and some boutique styled, you will also find there is a market with lots of stalls and products such as bags and watches (there are some of the best top brand copies in Hanoi!). Hanoi is shopping heaven for those that want it.
Eat plenty of yummy food
Vietnamese cuisine in the North is different to central and south, with some completely different dishes. So go and explore!
Where to eat in Hanoi
We found some good spots, thanks to friends and Trip Advisor ratings. A must try dish is Bun Cha (grilled pork with noodles) which is a traditionally from Hanoi.
Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim
Now, this name is a mouth full!!!)
Local restaurant on Dung Thang Street. Serves the best ‘nem chua be’ (crabmeat rolls) and ‘bun cha’ (make sure if you want this dish you go at lunch time as more typical at this time of day) They open from 11am-7pm.
Best Pho in town! You will find this restaurant near Hoam Kiem Lake on Ly Quoc Su street.
Quan Com Pho Co
This was a recommendation by our hotel staff and a very good one. Lots to chose from on the menu and delicious food. The restaurant has a main dinning room at the front and one at the back which we discovered on a visit to the restroom. Lovely and private at the back. Well worth a visit and very near the Little Town Hotel.
Noodle & Roll
Best Bun Bo Nam Bo!
Fantastic little restaurant with 2 levels. I tried my best ‘Bun Bo Nam Bo’ here, which is Beef Noodles with peanuts, bean shoots and fresh herbs.
Where to drink in Hanoi
Cafe Pho Co
Known as Old Town Cafe on Google maps)
Best views of Hoam Kiem Lake and known for its Egg Coffee (if you are into that!)
The entrance is nearly impossible to find if you were just a passer bier. Our friend took us there one afternoon, so we were lucky to have been shown the way.
You have to go through a shop front to get into a courtyard where stairs lead up to the many levels that comprise this bar.
The courtyard is quaint, with an old Chinese style, full of plant pots and bird cages. Once you get up to the first level there is a metal staircase that leads you up to a further 2 levels (on one of these levels you will find the main bar) and finally you get to a roof terrace with stunning views of Hoam Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter. Great place to watch the sunset over Hanoi!
The Unicorn Pub
Not to be missed!
This is a wine/cocktail bar on the edge of the Old Quarter. Try their famous Pho Cocktail! It is amazing and unique. They have won awards for coming up with a cocktail that tastes like ‘Pho’ (without the meat and noodles of course!)
This was an experience for us and thanks to our friends that live in Hanoi, we got to try it or we wouldn’t have known. Now you know!
Funky bar on 19 Dang Thai Mai, near the Seven Lake expat area)
Our friend that lives in Hanoi is friends with the owner and DJ’s here from time to time, so we were lucky to get an introduction to this cool bar. It has a funky style, craft beers, spicy cocktails and live DJ tunes during the week and weekends. Great for a beer or two!
6. Ha Long Bay
Whilst in Hanoi we wanted to go and see Ha Long Bay (limestone islands – approx 2000 of them!) but heard about how crowded it gets with tourists and boats, so after doing a bit of research online we found out about Bai Tu Long Bay, which is still part of the Ha Long group of limestone Islands, but further north up the coast.
Bai Tu Long Bay is off the beaten track, so much less crowded, as only a handful of boat operators have licences to cruise its waters. Lucky for us we found a reputable company online called Indochina Junks and after booking we were able to go into their office in the Old Quarter of Hanoi whilst there!
We chose a cheaper option for a 1-night/ 2-day cruise on their Dragon Pearl, which is classed as a 3 Star Junk, costing approx. £143 / US$185. The choice was between this Junk or their 5 Star Dragon Legend, which cost over US$200.
They also offered a 2-night / 3-day cruise, but we didn’t want to spend that much, as were travelling and needed to watch our budget.
Lucky for us, we received an email telling us they had upgraded us to the Dragon Legend, due to the Pearl going into the docks for maintenance. Whether this was true or whether they didn’t have as much demand for the Pearl, we will never know. We were just very happy to receive a free upgrade! You can find out about them through this link for Indochina Junk
It was a fantastic experience and highly recommended, as you get to see so much natural beauty. It was like being in the new movie ‘Kong’, which was partly filmed there!
Definitely opt for Dragon Legend, if you can, as the boat and cabins are bigger, plus you get to see more, as it’s much faster than the Pearl.
You get the chance to leave the big boat and either hop onto a sightseeing boat that cruises around the islands, ending up on a secluded beach, or on one that takes you out with a guide to Kayak your way around the limestone islands to this beach! Depends on what you fancy!
7. Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba is the largest of the 367 islands that comprise the Cat Ba Archipelago, which makes up the south-eastern edge of Ha Long Bay. We went to Cat Ba with our friends who live in Hanoi to celebrate one of their birthdays. It is mostly a backpacker’s island or for those who want an overnight stay whilst visiting Ha Long Bay during the day. A good weekend getaway, especially for birthday celebrations!
All I could think about being on Cat Ba was the song Rock the Kasbah!! and naturally changed it to Cat Ba! And then it caught on, so we all sang it, plenty of times. Hahaha!
Where to stay on Cat Ba
Le Pont Bungalow Hostel
Le Pont is a backpacker’s hostel with dorms, but they also have Bungalows which offer nicer accommodation with comfy beds (bedbug free, as we checked!)
They have a choice of a Bungalow described as a Double Room with shared Shower and Toilet (cost us £14 per night) or a Deluxe Bungalow with your own toilet and more space (approx. £20 per night) Our friends had pre-booked this as they had been before. We soon got used to using the shared bathroom/shower (good thing is that it’s only for the bungalows and not the dorms)
This place is right on the sea and has beautiful views, with the restaurant area out in the open. We had a great time there with our friends.
Where to eat
Seafood is the main attraction on Cat Ba and partly the reason we went. There are pontoon restaurants floating on the ocean with their seafood swimming underneath in cages, contained in the actual sea. You can’t get fresher than that!
You can see the restaurants as you walk along the seafront from Le Pont into town. Don’t be shy to haggle with them for a good price as you can bet all the locals do.
There are plenty of bars that fill the stretch of the main promenade and side streets, so there is a lot of choice. We found a good one and went there a few times.
On the main street
Good food and drinks during happy hour. Great for Breakfast too!
Things to do whilst on the Island
Hire a boat with a driver to visit Monkey Beach (small Island)
Arrange this a day prior at the docks. A boat will cost around 600,000 Dong (£20 / US$26) We went on the boat mid-morning and spent the afternoon visiting Monkey Beach on a small island and cruising the waters, which was great fun.
Go to one of the 3 Beaches on Cat Ba
Cat Ba Island has 3 beaches which are in walking distance from each other. The first one which we visited was Cat Co 3 and you can reach it by going up the hill past Le Pont. If you go by bike they will charge you an extortionate parking fee of 5000 Dong (£0.17 / US$0.21)
On Cat Co 3 you will find Sunrise Resort, the main hotel on the beach, with a bar opposite called Coco, where we stopped for a drink. The beach itself is open to the public, but they will charge you for sun beds if you use them. If you want to use the toilet you’ll need to use the main beach one where they charge 2000 Dong (a mere £0.06 / US$0.08)
The other beaches are Cat Co 2 and Cat Co 1, which are much smaller and often used for film sets. When we were there they wouldn’t let us down to the bay, as there was filming in progress!
Go for a bike ride around the Island
We went around part of the island, as it is big! We saw the beaches, mountains, beautiful views and wartime bunkers. It was a fantastic weekend with our friends and so worth the trip if you have the time.
What can I say……….?
All in all, Vietnam was the most epic adventure of our travels so far!
We met some lovely people, who we are now friends with and will stay in touch, we even met some of them again in other countries! We also caught up with existing friends we hadn’t seen for a while and had an amazing time.
I would highly recommend Vietnam to anyone going on holiday or travelling through South East Asia. If you only have a limited time, my recommendations would be a minimum of 3 weeks to make it worth your while.
Other destinations worth considering in Vietnam:
If you have more than 1 month to explore, you may want to consider / include the following from south to north: Phu Quoc Island (South); Mui Ne (Beach in the South); Dalat (central mountains); Nha Trang (Beach in the South popular with Russian tourists); Quy Nhon (a village with a beach in the central region); Sa Pa’s Hoang Lien Son Mountains (North); Ha Gian (on the Chinese border in the North)– take a bike tour near the Chinese border (apparently the most beautiful scenery in Vietnam!)
Unfortunately we ran out of time to explore further and would probably have needed another 1-2 months. However, we will definitely be back!
We hope we have inspired you to go and explore Vietnam one day soon! If you have any questions, please feel free to comment and we will try to point you in the right direction!
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