If you are planning to travel to Vietnam, or if you have just touched down on our soil, take a look at this article. Many of our friends have been asking me how to make the most of their trip in this charming country within several days, either on a standard budget (which is what this article partly covers) or with luxurious standards. This article is not for those of you traveling for a month or more, and it covers the middle of the road expenses, not too much and not too little. If you have roughly a week or two, with the most casual experiences in mind, read below.
Where To Go
Here is what I recommend:
- Top priority: Ho Chi Minh City (3 days), Da Nang City – Hoi An (3 days), Hue (3 days), Hanoi (2 days) with optional 3 days in Ha Giang
- Secondary: Phu Quoc (2 days), Quang Ninh (2 days), Halong Bay (2 days), Sapa (2 days)
I have prioritized cities based on how much they represent the face of life in Vietnam regarding our cultural features, economic conditions, and how much the city supports tourism. In this article, we will go through the top prioritized cities. For other cities not mentioned and second-priority cities, please follow our blog for more information!
Ho Chi Minh City
I do recommend that, instead of trying to visit too many cities all at once, try to live as wholeheartedly in one place as you can. Vietnam is so diverse, however, we all share the same hospitality. So, if your time is limited and you are not sure what you want to see in this country, head to Ho Chi Minh City!
HCMC is not about walking back and forth in front of its thousands of cafés, or a brief sight-seeing around the Notre Dame Cathedral. To experience Ho Chi Minh City, I recommend that you chat with a local person as they guide you around the sites. The more people you make friends with, the better your experiences will be. From everywhere across Vietnam, people gather in this city to study, to earn a living, or simply to seek a purposeful job.
What is loved about this city is that people, mostly students and fresh graduates, are super hospitable and just like the youth across the world, they love making friends. In the small alley, right next to the bustle of Ben Thanh Street Food Market, you will find a tiny coffee shop (address 24/8 Thu Khoa Huan street) run by students with great prices, for instance. Such hidden gems are everywhere in this united city, where you can seek to talk with authentic people and listen to their adventurous stories. Making friends with the Vietnamese will have you understanding the life in this country!
I highly recommend booking a homestay in town via the Airbnb platform as it is more popular in Vietnam than homestay.com. So many beautiful little rooms are delicately set up and listed on Airbnb by college students and fresh graduates. Authentic concepts, naturally friendly hosts, and really good prices are what you can expect here.
Means of transport:
To reach the city center from the airport, check out our article Getting Around Saigon. Tan Son Nhat International Airport, the largest of the country, is located approximately six kilometers from the city’s center (District 1). With such a convenient location, getting from the airport to your place in District 1 won’t take much time (if you are not traveling in rush hour, of course).
To get around the city, Grab bikes are most recommended, especially for a low budget and adventurous spirit. You should have your own SIM card (the easiest way is to get your SIM at the airport since they speak English), not only to help navigate in the maze of Saigon but also to book the best and most affordable means of transport. Non-uniform taxi bikes men are not recommended for you as foreigners since not many of them can effectively communicate in English.
For cabs, in case you, unfortunately, cannot book from Grab, opt for Vinasun or Mai Linh taxis. The price is a bit higher than Grab but you can trust these taxis.
You can also use buses once in a while but keep in mind that the bus quality in Vietnam is still limited. Download this App to your phone: Busmap. It helped me a lot in selecting the bus lines and navigating bus stops.
See and Do:
- In town: The most recommended area to see in Saigon starts at the War Remnants Museum and stretches to the River Site. I recommend an early morning walk from the River Site across Nguyen Hue Walking street then head to the Notre Dame Cathedral, have street food on Nguyen Van Chiem street as your breakfast, breath the early fresh air while seeing the streets getting crowded, and enter the historic buildings when they’re opened at 8 AM.
- You can also make it in the late afternoon (around 3:30 PM – 4 PM), starting from the War Remnants Museum, complete the buildings at 6 PM, enjoy street food soup at the street corner right opposite to the sparkling Metropolitan Building, and walk along Dong Khoi street to Nguyen Hue the Pedestrian area. Let’s check out Onetrip’s beautiful hand-map, which guides you around all the places to see in the city. It will take you a day to see Saigon in full, so be prepared. You can also look for Onetrip donation-based tours guided by students, who are more than willing to take you around the city, and as I said, be your great friends.
- If you want to try the good street food of Saigon, check out these three places in District 1: Nguyen Van Chiem food street (food is served by the disadvantaged from 6 AM – 9 AM), Bui Vien street at night (for a cheerful beer and lively night), and Co Giang street at night. A standard meal will normally cost from 20,000 VND – 35,000 VND (1 USD – 1.5 USD).
- Coffee is the norm of Saigon. If you are a fan of coffee and are sick of massive takeaway coffee shops, ask your guide to take you to Monday Morning Saigon. This place is a coffee sharing common space rather than a coffee shop. Organized by top young baristas of Saigon, providing the best quality coffee in the world, while maintaining a standard price of 2.5 USD per cup (you can contribute more or less since it’s a donation-based format), this place will surely enhance your insight of not only the city, but also the second largest coffee exporting country. You can find them on Facebook and most importantly, you can’t really find this hidden gem without a local guide.
- Mekong Delta Adventure: I recommend two to three days in Saigon since you can head for the rustic and alluring Mekong Delta and get back within a day or two. High-quality trips to Mekong Delta are quite costly. However, Onetrip – the top-rated adventure company has recently launched its group tour to Mekong Delta – one day. It will save you half the price of traveling, enhance your network with other travelers while assuring the quality of your experience. Check out Onetrip Group Tour.
- Cu Chi Tunnel: It’s the mark of the past, yet it will never lose its value of lesson as long as there are still wars on our planet. Visiting the Tunnels, you will feel the depth of human endurance, as there are tunnels deep under the ground for you to discover. Trust me, 10 meters below the ground surface is enough, but there are even tunnels 50 meters below.
As you are on tour, you can ask the guides about Vietnamese Heroes’ Mothers. These are mothers of Vietnamese soldiers who sacrificed their lives during the Vietnam wars. Many of these Mothers are still living in the Cu Chi district and receive support from either the government or charity groups in town.
Da Nang City – Hoi An
After HCMC, take a flight north to Da Nang city. If you buy these flights even a week ahead of time, they should not be very expensive, maybe around 30 USD. As one of the most beautiful coastal cities of Vietnam, Da Nang is, however, attracting travelers not only because of its white sandy beaches and crystal seas but also its amazingly friendly people.
Just like in HCMC, opt for a homestay in Da Nang and Hoi An from Airbnb. There won’t be as many options because these are much smaller cities, but it’s still a good chance to meet local people. You can also look for a hostel dorm if you are traveling alone from Booking.com.
Means of transport:
Grab bikes are newly available in Da Nang so there aren’t too many yet. Check out more from this article about getting around this city. Many hostels also provide cheap motorbikes that are typically very old. If you want to try driving like the locals, Da Nang is a good place to do it since there are less traffic and more open roads.
In Hoi An, you won’t find Grab. I recommend that you rent a bike (only 6 USD per day). You can also ask to borrow a bicycle from your accommodation (most of them have some for free).
See and Do:
- In town: One day in Da Nang may be enough for your discovery. I do recommend student tours as well. Check out Onetrip: Student City Tour in Da Nang. For a detailed insight of the city, check out this beautiful travel guide.
- Marble Mountains: If you don’t wish to experience Son Tra peninsula, plan your short trip to the Marble Mountains. This cluster of five mountains is precious thanks to the amazing natural cavern system and impressive shrines it houses. The natural landscape will bring you the joy of peace. Half a day is recommended. To understand the meaning behind its shrines’ interior, let’s check out more details here.
To get to the Marble Mountains, from Da Nang, you can take the Busline No. 1 (25,000 VND per ticket) to Hoi An and stop mid-way at Ngu Hanh Son station (Ngu Hanh Son is the name in Vietnamese of the Marble Mountains). After your discovery, take Busline No. 1 and continue to Hoi An.
Praised as a UNESCO World Heritage, Hoi An is an impressive little town housing over a thousand architectural monuments, such as famous streets, buildings, halls, temples, pagodas, churches, wells, etc. Some of the popular sites here include, but are not restricted to, Hoi Quan Quang Dong, Phuc Kien, Tan Ky, Phung Hung, Quan Thang, Chua Cau, and Bao Tang Sa Huynh, etc. Every night, when the sun goes down, all alleyways in the Ancient Town put on a glamorous outfit lit up by numerous colorful traditional lanterns. And not just the Ancient Town sparkles with beautiful monuments, be sure to check out Tra Que herb village, My Son heritage site, and An Bang beach! And you only have to pay the cheap ticket price for My Son sanctuary. Check this article out for an interesting day in Hoi An: One Day in Hoi An See and do.
Notes: December through June is a good time to visit the central coastal areas of Vietnam, during which January to March is the best time ever! Be careful from July to October as storms are approaching.
There are so many small areas to discover if you get a chance to see Hue, namely: the gigantic Citadel, the historic royal tombs, Phong Nha – Ke Bang cavern, and Khe Sanh basecamp. I highly recommend taking the train from Da Nang in order to get to Hue. It takes you six hours. Take it in the morning so you can contemplate the beautiful Hai Van pass and Lang Co Bay on your way! And yes, get to Hue right at check-in time.
Means of transport:
You can rent a motorbike for 5.5 USD per day to get around the city. Check it out here: Getting around in Hue.
See and Do:
At night, the Perfume River changes its silent, elegant dress of the day, into its most alluring and romantic dress of the night. You can too! Then, you can join a group of tourists to enjoy Hue Traditional Music Show while leisurely sailing along the river, for only 7 USD!
On your trip to Hue, don’t forget to take a bus to Phong Nha – Ke Bang cavern cluster. This brilliant natural wonder is 180 kilometers to the south of our old capital, including several huge caverns that are located quite far from one another. It usually takes two days and it is a bit costly to visit most of the caverns within, although it is well worth the expense. If you don’t have time, Phong Nha Cave is the most recommended. For a day bus and a good, really budget-friendly round trip from Hue to Phong Nha, check out the 25 USD from Hue to Phong Nha one day tour from VM Travel.
There is no doubt that, unless you can’t arrange your time, you must visit Hanoi. As the capital of Vietnam for a millennium, the city holds more than what words and photos can hope to explain. I recommend two days in Hanoi to visit in full what it has to offer.
Once again, I recommend looking for an Airbnb. However, Airbnb in Hanoi is not as popular as it is in HCMC, so you can also opt for a two to three-star hotels/ hostels from highly accredited online platforms popular in Vietnam: Booking.com, Hostel.com. I don’t recommend Agoda since there have been several scandals around this platform lately. The best areas to stay in on a budget are around the Old Quarter.
Means of Transport:
Check out our article here for clear instructions from the airport: Everything You Need to Know About Hanoi Airport.
Again, Hanoi offers Grab. Transportation works much in the same way as HCMC. If you look for a taxi, I recommend Van Xuan taxi, Taxi group, or Mai Linh. Do check out the distance before you start your trip. I always like to walk long distances in the morning and by the afternoon I get tired. You can save a little money by only paying for a taxi once.
In Hanoi, you can download this map from your app store for the bus guideline: Busmap – Map of the bus routes in Hanoi and Saigon.
One good point is to think about renting a motorbike in Hanoi. It’s roughly 7 USD a day and it’s super convenient! Check out more information on this from our article for the best ways to get around Hanoi.
See and Do:
- I need not mention that the Old Quarter, West Lake, and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum are the most alluring attractions of the capital. It may take you the whole busy day, from dawn to dusk, to discover this city. Check out this beautiful article: Two Days in Hanoi – How to Make The Most of It for a fulfilled trip to Hanoi.
Also look here for super exciting Hanoi breakfasts with pho rice paper. For a standard meal in town, 25,000 VND – 35,000 VND is a good price.
I can’t end this article without mentioning one of my favorite places in Vietnam that would require a little shifting of your itinerary: Ha Giang.
Because of its distant location with serpentine roads that go up the mountains, traveling to Ha Giang is a bit difficult compared to other destinations in the country. A one-way trip from Ha Noi to Ha Giang often lasts four to six hours, not to mention that the distance from the center of Ha Giang to Lung Cu (the main attraction) is also an additional 150 kilometers. Language barriers and costs are also a challenge, therefore, booking a tour to Ha Giang is more convenient for tourists. However, if you do crave an adventure, you can go to My Dinh bus station and find a sleeper bus to Ha Giang for the price of around 250,000 VND.
Ha Giang is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful provinces of the country. All year round, Ha Giang welcomes its lovely visitors with a wide diversity of natural highlights, from the spectacular buckwheat flowers that bloom during its season to immense terraced fields that are beautiful all year round. All you need is one day to fall in love with Ha Giang and all it offers. Most travelers describe it as heaven on earth with a perfect combination of rivers, mountains, forests, and clouds. I highly recommend renting a motorbike and completing even a part of the Ha Giang loop before you leave Vietnam.
Dong Van Old Quarter
Located right in the middle of countless rocky mountains, this old town was formed during the early 20th century with only a few ethnic families. Until now, Dong Van old town has around 40 houses of different minority groups and attracts more and more visitors every year thanks to its unique architectural and cultural beauty. The old town looks like a skillful masterpiece of various colors and tones varying from time to time, from the sparkling gold of sun rays in the morning to the vintage gray of tiled roofs at sunset. You should definitely not miss out on this experience. And if you’re interested in doing the loop, this is one of your stops.
Now you have to pick and choose where to spend the most time! I believe that, after your days here, what stays in your heart is surely more than places, but the pace of life and the love of the people in this small beautiful country. Do stay in the country longer if you have time. Working in a modern coffee shop is the norm of this country and the above cities provide you great cafés for work! Check out our blog for more interesting information about places across the country if you wish to, we cover them all. I hope you enjoy this place as much as we do!