Every night as the sun sets, thousands of lanterns reflect neon colours over the rippling waters of the canal.– A description of the city Hoi An
When Shaun and I first decided we wanted to visit South East Asia, we were overwhelmed by the possibilities. We dreamed of seeing the sun rise over Angkor Wat in Cambodia and playing with elephants in the sanctuaries of Chiang Mai. We poured over different itineraries, jumping from country to country, hoping to take it all in.
The problem, however, remained that with only three weeks, we were slowly stretching ourselves thin. Through all my research, we quickly realized that trying to do all of our SE Asia bucket list items in one go would lead to over exhaustion and frustration.
And so after much deliberation, we finally settled on Vietnam.
Now, though better than the entirety of SE Asia, Vietnam is a deceptively huge country in itself. It looks so small on the map, stretched thin along side Cambodia and Laos. Even more discerning is that there is something to see in the highest point to the north all the way down to the bottom edge of the south.
What we finally landed on was a ten day itinerary that left us feeling satisfied and wanting more all at once. Travelling South to North, we started in the busy street of Ho Chi Minh before flying to the lantern filled town of Hoi An. From there, we made our way to Hanoi where we included short weekend/day trips to Halong Bay and Ninh Binh.
All in all, this itinerary allowed us to explore the bigger, more popular hubs of the country while giving us an appreciation for the natural scenic elements Vietnam has to offer.
To better help plan your trip, read below to find out a little bit more about each city and whether it needs to be included in your Vietnam adventure!
HO CHI MINH (DAYS 1-3)
With its bustling motorbikes and busy streets, Ho Chi Minh is in every way a modern city. Though people tend to have mixed feelings about it, we found it to be an interesting hub filled with colour, sound and most overwhelming, heat.
Though I had done a lot of research on the city itself, we still knew very little about Vietnam’s history. Ho Chi Minh is the place to learn. Formerly known as Saigon, this vibrant city hosts the War Remnants Museum as well as the Imperial Palace, two buildings fundamental to Vietnam’s history. After I had whipped out all the Miss Saigon references I could manage, we were left with a much deeper understanding of the country we were about to explore.
Though we did not go, the Cu Chi tunnels are also a popular sight for those interested in the Vietnam War and the chaos it created. Other highlights in town include the Ben Thank Market and the Bui Vien walking street, a busy area filled with restaurants and shops that wakes up as the sun sets.
Finally, though many tourists visit the Notre Dame Cathedral and its nearby post office, we were substantially more impressed with the Tan Dinh church, a bright pink cathedral that was festively decorated for Tet.
HOI AN (DAYS 4-5)
A UNESCO world heritage sight, Hoi An is one of the few cities that can still be seen as it was before the Vietnam War. A charming melting pot of Chinese, Japanese and European architecture, the ancient town sits amongst its canals, which are themselves covered in small fishing boats.
Every night as the sun sets, thousands of lanterns reflect neon colours over the rippling waters of the canal and can be purchased by locals and tourists alike to fulfill their very own Rapunzel moment. The city itself boasts a grid of small roads filled with beautiful and sometimes crumbling yellow buildings.
From restaurants to handcrafted stores, to amazingly priced tailors, you can easily fill an afternoon perusing all the gems these hard working shop owners put together. For dinner, we highly recommend “Morning Glory”, a busy restaurant with delicious authentic Vietnam cuisine that will leave you feeling full and culturally satisfied.
More so, there are 22 temples, museums and old houses that can be visited to quench the historian in all of us. For a fee of 120,000 VND (about $5USD), you can visit your choice of 5, including Hoi An famous landmarks like the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Cantonese Assemble Hall.
HANOI (DAYS 6-7)
Hanoi sits much further north near the country’s border and was by result, the coldest destination on our trip. The capital of Vietnam, this city seems less hectic than Ho Chi Minh while still carrying the charm and vibrancy Vietnam is known for.
We chose to stay in the Old Quarter, a district that is best known as Hanoi’s tourist and business hub. Here you can cross the busy streets, worming and side stepping through fast paced motorbikes and cars. You can walk lazily around Hoan Kiem Lake, taking in the beautiful Ngoc Son Temple along the way. You can peruse the various stalls and markets, bargaining with locals for the best price on Herschel backpacks and North Face jackets.
Hanoi is home to Train Street, a narrow road in which a passenger train passes just metres from the buildings around it.
Just slightly to the south lies the French Quarter, where you can find colonial architecture, high end boutiques and delectable restaurants. More so, Hanoi is home to Train Street, a narrow road in which a passenger train passes just metres from the buildings around it (for more about this, see my Train Street blog!).
We did not spend more than two days in Hanoi, using it more as a middle ground for our day trips to Halong Bay and Ninh Binh.
HALONG BAY (DAYS 8-9)
Another proud UNESCO world heritage site of Vietnam, Halong Bay sits just two hours east of Hanoi. With its beautiful limestone islands and turquoise water, we opted to spend a night there sailing with Sunlight Cruises. This is something I truly recommend. For more detailed information, feel free to read my Halong Bay blog, where I further explain our experience and the activities we did when there!
NINH BINH (DAY 10)
Though only a day trip, we found Ninh Binh to be a highlight of our time in Vietnam. About 2 hours south of Hanoi through the Red River Delta, Ninh Binh is stunning; embodying a more rural Vietnam through its towering limestone cliffs and peppered rice fields.
For a more historical visit, Hoa Lu is the country’s ancient capital city and home to two beautiful 17th century temples. Surrounded by Yen Ngua Mountain, the first temple is dedicated to the Dinh Dynasty while the second pays homage to monarch Le Dai Hanh.
About one hour north of Hoa Lu – but still in the Ninh Binh province – is the village of Trang An. Here, you can take a two hour scenic boat ride, through lush green rice fields and glistening limestone caves. The boat itself can accommodate up to four people and is rowed by a local villager using both her arms and her legs intermittently, almost in the same way a frog swims in the water. Though there were many tourists on boats around us, this was an experience like no other that left us feeling completely immersed in Vietnam’s natural beauty.
More so, tourists can rent bikes in the village to capture an on land experience, complete with unparalleled views and roaming water buffaloes!
Note: Because days 6-10 are all based out of Hanoi, they can be reordered to best suit your travel needs!
SHOUT OUT MOMENT!
All in all, the hospitality and inexpensive prices resulted in wonderful hotel experiences in all three major cities. We especially loved the Lief Pulo Saigon Hotel in Ho Chi Minh for its fun pastel decorated rooms, the Cozy Savvy Boutique Hotel in Hoi An for its rustic elegance and the Imperial Hotel in Hanoi for its large room sizes and attention to detail.
Lief Pulo Saigon (Ho Chi Minh): https://lief.com/pulo/
Cozy Savvy Boutique Hotel (Hoi An): http://www.cozysavvyhotel.com/
Imperial Hotel and Spa (Hanoi): https://hanoiimperialhotel.com/