1. Hoi An
2. Phong Nga-Ke Bang
3. Sa Pa Rice Fields & Trekking
4. Cat Ba Island & Lan Ha Ba
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
I wasn’t super impressed with Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a bit loud and crazy due to all the motorbikes and I didn’t find people all that friendly. There are a couple nice streets that are similar to something you might see in Europe but with an Asian style. There are a few neat temples in the city, and the Cu Chi Tunnels outside the city which are very popular. Stay around Bui Vien Street.
The Mekong Delta, about 2 hours south of Ho Chi Minh City, is a neat trip if you have time. Definitely something unique to check out in Vietnam. There are several small islands and villages to visit, all of which are pretty standard among all the tour operators. The best thing to do is a 2-day overnight trip, but you can do part of it in a day. You will see how vermicelli noodles are made, water coconuts along the canal, get a taste of special honey, and cruise through the floating market along the mekong river. There is a lot of local Vietnamese cuisine to try and you can see how a lot of it is made. The Mekong Delta is pretty touristy, but it’s fun nonetheless.
The drive up through the mountains to Da Lat, a small town north of Ho Chi Minh City, is really nice. On the way, just outside of the town, is Datanla which has waterfalls and a toboggan you can ride yourself down to the bottom to see the waterfalls. You can also go abseiling down a waterfall. In the town itself, there is a lake, although it looks man made, and some nice gardens if you want to relax. Otherwise not much going on.
I only passed through here on the way to Marble and Monkey Mountain from Hoi An, but it looked quite nice. Although it’s decent sized city and I would imagine it’s similar to other cities, the beaches looked very nice.
I read about and heard from other travelers that Nha Trang was supposed to be a really nice place with a wonderful beach and even some scuba diving. Personally, I didn’t like it here very much. It’s a very touristy beach town with many Russian and Chinese tourists. Nothing against either of these folks, but if you’re not from one of those places or Vietnam, you might feel a bit out of place. There are also quite a few skeevy middle aged men looking for Vietnamese girls, similar to places in skeevy areas in Thailand. I also didn’t think the beach was all that nice, but if you go about 20 minutes north up the coast, there are beach huts and it looks much nicer. One interesting thing about Nha Trang is that from the main part of the beach, you can see off in the distance a funicular (cable car) that crosses the sea to a nearby island which hosts an amusement park.
I found Hue pretty boring, but other people like it. It’s a nice city, but small. The Citadel is pretty cool and there are a bunch of imperial tombs around the city.
DMZ & Vinh Moc Tunnels
This was the division between North and South Vietnam, and referred to as the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone). There is an exhibit about the history and also tunnels used by the Viet Cong from the war. These tunnels are much bigger and easier to walk through than the Cu Chi Tunnels.
- Flights: $135 (from Siem Reap)
- Lodging: $472 (hotels)
- Transportation: $92 (tuk tuks)
- Activities: $39
- Food: $525 (estimated $15/day)
- Tours: $675 (Stray Asia, Mekong Delta, Ho Chi Minh day trips)
- Purchases. Negotiate for everything, it's expected. But no need to take advantage, as a dollar there goes much farther than a dollar in the U.S.
- Transportation. Most popular is train (day/overnight) or bus (day/overnight). Open Bus allows you to pay one fee for the places you want to visit and gives you the option to go whenever you want as long as there is space on the bus. My friends who did this booked their seat a day or two in advance.
- Vaccinations. Check with your doctor and the CDC website. Figure out which ones you need in advance for those that take time to become effective or require multiple doses.
- Weather. Can be quite different in the north and south. In February when I went, the south was very hot reaching up to 90°F/30°C. In the north around Sa Pa and Ha Long it was around 60°F/15°C. Be sure to wear a hat, sunscreen, and even long sleeves/pants if you can bear it. Drink plenty of water. Bring a jacket.
- More Info. Travelfish has the best in depth information about Southeast Asia.
Stray Asia (Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus)
When I first started traveling abroad, I joined Trafalgar tours. I very much enjoyed them, but have since graduated to planning myself. While in Bangkok, I serendipitously stumbled across Stray Asia. I was asking about bus tickets in Thailand when I noticed a sign about a hop-on, hop-off bus. There was a map that showed several itineraries around Southeast Asia, identified with places you could "hop off" and catch the next bus in a few days. They promote off the beaten path travel and the opportunity to meet other like minded people. After traveling for a couple months I thought it would be nice to meet some people.
Get your visa before you go and allow yourself some lead time. The process can take several business days. The visa on arrival (VOA) is an approval letter allowing you to get a stamp once you enter the country. So you don't actually get the visa until you get to Vietnam. You can go to a foreign embassy or get online. I used MyVietnamVisa, a private company online. Everything was great regarding the process of getting my approval letter, but there is one caution. When approval letters are submitted to the Vietnamese government, they are submitted in batches. So when you get the letter back, you will see your name along with a list of others complete with the name, date of birth, and passport number for each of you! If you go through a third party instead of an embassy, ask if your information is protected. If not, I would take a different approach.
Mosquitoes, Malaria, and Dengue
While not really a problem in the popular tourist destinations, some of the more rural areas in Vietnam have a risk of malaria. In urban areas there is a risk of Dengue. The best you can do is cover up with long sleeves, long pants, and socks that cover your ankles. Also, be sure to wear bug spray on exposed skin, especially at dawn and dusk. You can get bug spray in Vietnam.