Vietnam surprised and delighted me far more than I expected. We began this trip with the intent that it would be our one and only visit here, but by the time we left we promised ourselves we’d return someday. It’s a wonderful country to explore.
It’s funny that we enjoyed Vietnam so much, as we never would have planned a visit here had it not been for friends of ours. When we toured Thailand and Angkor Wat in 2006, our very large group included a couple from California who talked about visiting Vietnam someday. We enjoyed traveling with them enough to promise to join them on that future trip.
After several near misses, “someday” was supposed to be now.
Unfortunately, our friends had to cancel shortly after Lane and I booked our plane tickets. So what was supposed to be a two-week tour of Vietnam with friends combined with two-weeks in northern Vietnam and Laos on our own became a month-long tour the two countries on our own. . . complete with drivers and guides for most of the trip.
You can view a slideshow of the entire trip here:
The largest single chunk of our time — and the best part of our trip — was spent in far northern Vietnam.
Our entire itinerary is below.
We generally traveled from south to north. To maximize our time, we flew between Saigon and Da Nang and between Hue and Hanoi. We took the train from Lao Cai back to Hanoi after our road trip through the north.
For those with less time, I developed an itinerary for exploring northern Vietnam in 10 days.
Days 1, 2 and 4: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon to everyone except the government and a few young people) is a huge place (population 10 million) that vibrates with energy.
While we saw most of the significant “tourist” sights in Saigon, we really didn’t have enough time to get to know the city. We arrived late on “Day 1” so getting to our hotel to get some sleep was all we had planned. The next day our scheduled full-day city tour took us to a few tourist highlights before jet lag did us in. (Conveniently timed to ensure we were back in our room napping when a huge rainstorm hit.) Fortunately our guide was flexible and offered to finish our sightseeing tour when we returned to the city again in a couple of days. In addition, the centrally-located Au Lac Hotel 2 made it easy to explore the old city center on our own – once we got the hang of crossing streets on our own!
Day 1: Late arrival and check into the Au Lac Hotel 2
Day 2: Touring Saigon
- Cantonese pagoda
- Wholesale market
- Presidential Palace
- Chai tea at NYDC Dessert Coffee – the only place I found in Vietnam that had chai
- Post office, Continental Hotel, Opera House, Majestic Hotel
- Retail market
- Dinner at Temple Club
Day 4: Back in Saigon
- History museum
- Dinner at l’essentiel
Days 3 & 4: Mekong Delta
Even though it lies only a short distance from Saigon, the Mekong Delta feels very, very far away. Even the drive down felt like entering a different world as the sprawl of Saigon gave way to a watery landscape of rice paddies. Our river cruise was pleasant and the tour of a floating market was a lot of fun. Mostly I just really loved just being on the water and could have spent many more days on deck watching life on and around the Mekong.
Two days in the Mekong Delta
- Drive to Cai Be
- Life in the Mekong Delta
- Drive to Saigon
Days 5 – 8: Hoi An and the ruins of My Son
An ancient trading town, the historic center of Hoi An is now a lively and charming World Heritage Site. While our guided tour of the city ended up lasting only a couple of hours, our itinerary left us with a reasonable amount of free time for exploring and our pretty hotel was close enough to the historic center to make walking back and forth a breeze. I loved Hoi An.
The nearby My Son Sanctuary is also a World Heritage Site. It too is a captivating place, although the damage done by American bombs during the war destroyed far too much of this incredible site.
Around Hoi An
- Japanese Bridge
- Magical evenings
- Ha An Hotel
Day trip to My Son
- My Son Sanctuary
- Tra Kieu (Simhapura) – the Lion Citadel
Day 8: Transfer between Hoi An and Hue
The route between Hoi An and Danang is famous for stunning beaches (this is the China Beach American solders knew). North of Danang a dramatic pass carries travelers over the mountains and down to a picturesque fishing village before continuing on to Hue.
Driving between Hoi An and Hue
Days 9 – 10: Hue
Hue is the former imperial capital of Vietnam. Despite significant damage during the war, the old buildings and pedestrian paths along the river make it a pleasant place to roam. There are also several significant tourist sites here, including the remains of the citadel and the royal tombs just outside the city.
Day 1 with a guide
- The Citadel
- Cyclo tour
- Thien Mu (Celestial Lady) Pagoda
- Tomb of Minh Mang
- Tomb of Khai Dinh
- Dinner at Nina’s Café
- Park View Hote
Day 2 on our own
- Tomb of Tu Duc Tomb
- Museum of Royal Antiquities
- Le Ba Dang Art Museum
- Mobile Fabric Shop
- Dining at Ancient Town
Day 11 – 13 Hanoi and around
Big, bustling Hanoi makes Saigon look relaxed, and our hotel was right in the heart of the action in the Old Quarter. While we were a short of time for exploring the city, day trips out of the city take us ethereal Tam Coc and fascinating Duong Lam ancient village.
- Almost ready for business
- Basket shop
- Ethnology Museum
- Water puppets
- Inside the Temple of Literature
- Nighttime in the neighborhood
Days 14 – 20 Northern Vietnam
The far north of Vietnam is a land of rugged mountains and terraced fields; it is a place of tremendous beauty. It is also the home of many of Vietnam’s 53 ethnic minority groups.
We toured northern Vietnam with our own (excellent) guide and driver. Their skill and knowledge made it possible to visit villages far off the tourist trail. Our wonderful guide Hoang knows the area well and speaks enough of a variety of local languages to take us to hidden villages and local markets we never would have discovered otherwise.
Hanoi to Ba Be Lake
Our first day of our northern Vietnam road trip ends up being a 12 hour, 150 mile journey over what seem like terrible roads. However, the scenery along the way is nice and we make stops to visit the Thai Nguyen Museum of Ethnology, an ethnic Tay family, a small market, and beautiful Ba Be Lake before settling in for the night at a very basic guesthouse along the lakeshore.
- Thai Nguyen Museum of Ethnology
- Na Pac area
- Visiting a Tay family
- End of the day at Ba Be Lake
- Pac Ngoi village homestay
Ba Be Lake to Meo Vac
The second day of our northern Vietnam road trip starts quietly along the peaceful shores of Ba Be Lake. With about 150 miles of mountain roads between Ba Be Lake and Meo Vac, we are expecting a long, but scenic day on the road. We are not expecting to ford streams or wait for tire repair, but that does add to the adventure on what becomes another 10 or 12 hour day on the road.
- Above the lake
- Rough roads
Meo Vac to Yen Minh
The third day of our northern Vietnam road trip takes us to the majestic Ma Pi Leng Pass, bustling Xa Phin market, a Hmong palace, a National Geographic-worthy encounter with a group of rice wine drinking Dao women, and a beautiful Hmong jacket.
- Ma Pi Leng Pass
- Na Khe Village
- Market and historical site of the Vuong family palace
- Lung Tam commune – fabric/clothing workshop
Yen Minh to Hoang Su Phi
Day four of our northern Vietnam road trip includes villages tucked into valleys far off the tourist trail, a local market, a plywood supplier, and a wealth of splendid mountain scenery.
- Yen Minh Pass
- Bo Y village
- Me Village (palm leaf village)
- Black Dao village
Hoang Su Phi to Bac Ha
Day five road trip begins at the lovely resort where we spent the night. It continues as we wander through nearby terraces. Most of the day is filled with spectacular scenery as we drive through the mountains toward Bac Ha, with only one stop to visit a Flower Hmong village.
- Walk into the rice fields
- Grang Ha village and Giang Thulding villages (Black and Red Yao)
- Bao Phu village flower Hmong
Bac Ha to Sapa
We begin the day at the wildly colorful market in Bac Ha. Then, after a morning at the market, we continue past beautiful terraces on the last leg of our northern Vietnam road trip to Sapa.
Bac Ha market
Our final day in northern Vietnam is a bit less off the tourist trail because we are now in Sapa. This northern hill town has become the trekking capital of Vietnam, making it much more touristy than anywhere else we have been this week. But even here it isn’t that hard to glimpse an older, more traditional way of life.
- Ma Cha and Ta Phin villages
- Night train to Hanoi
Days 21 – 23 Halong Bay
With 1,600 islands and islets, the Halong Bay World Heritage site is best seen from the water. Fortunately, we booked a cruise that gave us a couple of days to get a taste of this wonderland of rock and water.
- On board the Pelican I
- A promising start to the day
- Further into the islands
We spent a few days exploring Luang Prabang, the Plain of Jars, and Vientiane.
Days 30 – 31: Back to Saigon
We had an evening and a day to explore Saigon on our own at the end of our trip. Fortunately we were back at the Au Lac 2 Hotel, so it was an easy walk from our hotel to the post office, shopping, restaurants, and to the Bitexco Financial Tower’s high-rise views of the city. After a month on the road, Saigon felt surprisingly familiar and comfortable. It was a good place to end our trip.