Exploring as much as you can in 2 weeks
Explore as much as you can in 2 weeks in Vietnam, a country in Southeast Asia that has a lot to offer. We decided to explore as much as we could while there.
Inspiration: Vietnam History and Landscapes
The journey starts with the idea of where you want to go. Planning is key as it will make the rest easier, especially if you don’t have so much time or are working full time, as it is our case. When deciding on the destination, we chose Vietnam for different reasons. As a country, it has been through a lot and the country’s ability to improvise on a day-to-day basis, given the circumstances, is impressive.
If you think about it, Vietnam has a fascinating history of being invaded and ruled by countries like China, Mongolia, France, Japan and US. All that history combined with an impressive nature and a wide variety of ethnicities present in the country, make it a must place to visit. Vietnam has a bit of everything, and either you spend a whole month or more visiting the country, or you need to visit it multiple times.
From beautiful islands to the famous rice fields, to mountains and waterfalls, to paradise type places like Ha Long bay, Vietnam includes varied landscapes of food, nature and people.
Research and Planning
We first looked at flight prices from Dublin, in Ireland, where we are based. Skyscanner is one of the biggest search engines, where you can find price comparison from different airlines and combine it with the time of the year you want to go (e.g. cheapest month option). Find the link here: www.skyscanner.com
Research about the country and what to see was another obvious step. For that, we watched documentaries, read blogs and talked with friends that went there as well. Although nowadays, everybody has been everywhere and places like Vietnam are very popular, you can always make a trip your own and there is nothing more pleasurable and exciting than to plan and go on a trip organised by yourself.
When to go?
After we came up with where to go and took down notes, we started planning what to do each day. We had 2 weeks, including the long flight days, and we were going in November (Winter and dry season) with temperatures ranging between 17ºC-30ºC. That said, we caught some very cold temperatures in the north that we weren’t expecting.
What to do?
As we don’t speak the language and we had little time, we decided to split the trip between: going on our own and check what to do when we would get there, but also to pre-book some organised trips. The latter has to do with the fact that places like for e.g. Ha Long Bay, cannot be visited without being part of an organised tour.
We booked two trips with a guy named Max, who’s the owner of Kangaroo Cafe (based in Hanoi), an Australian that has been living for a long time in Hanoi and that speaks Vietnamese fluently. He is super friendly and he gave us some good tips on what to bring and what to expect. We ended up focusing on 2 main cities (Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh), and used them as our base to go around and visit nearby places.
Itinerary – 2 weeks
Day 1- Hanoi
We spent the first day in Hanoi, walking around and exploring the city. Hanoi is a very charming town, and more walkable than Ho Chi Minh. At night, we walked around the city’s lively streets, headed one of its main streets called Pub street, where we enjoyed live music, and found a cosy place to eat and drink. Here, you find a mix of locals and foreigners, it is a hub for eating and drinking. As these places are quite popular, it is inevitable to bump almost constantly into foreigners.
Day 2 & 3 – Sapa
We went on two trips organised by the Kangaroo cafe. For prices check the Budget section.
What did we do in Sapa?
On our first trip, we went to Sapa and saw the famous rice fields. Sapa is a very small village, it has several treks to check and the biggest attraction are the rice fields. This was a 2-day trip that included: 2 overnight trains (Pumpkin Express Train from Hanoi to Lao Cai/Bus from Lao Cai to Sapa) with return the same way; 1-night stay in a local hotel with breakfast included; guided tour by a local guide; lunch in a local village. We went in November and weren’t prepared for how cold and rainy it was there. We ended up having to buy warm jackets, which by the way are very cheap (North Face, Columbia, etc.), if you bargain well.
Our tour guide for Sapa was a Hmong native. The Hmong tribe have a very interesting history that you should definitely read about. The tour itself took us through a very touristy village that supposedly exhibits the history of the Hmongs, their traditions and way of life. We stopped for lunch in a nearby town and after that we went back to Sapa. Have some cash with you and be prepared to be flooded with locals trying to sell you all sorts of handmade gifts. These are very cheap and quite unique as well, e.g. indigo colour scarfs. People don’t really speak English, but the guide does, and they are all very friendly and a bit annoying sometimes as well. But that’s how they survive, the Hmong have become heavily reliant on tourism for survival.
Day 4,5 & 6 – Ha Long Bay & Cat Ba Island
On our second trip, we went to Ha Long Bay & Cat Ba Island – 3 days and 2 nights. This trip included: 1 night in a Hotel, 1 night in a boat in Ha Long Bay, all transportation in between places, lunch on the first day in a boat, kayaking and bike hire. We were, all together, a group of 6 people.
Cat Ba Island
We first went to Cat Ba via car and boat. We explored the island by bike and by walking. On our way there, we had lunch in a small boat while observing floating boats and small villages along the way. We also saw the Canon fort, which you reach by walking uphill and pay an entrance fee (quite cheap). At the top, there’s very good views of the whole island, being a good photo spot. After our stay there, we left for Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long Bay in comparison to Cat Ba is much more crowded with several boats floating around the bay. Apparently, the number of boats has increased a lot in the past few years, due to the rise of tourism in the country. So, don’t count on being alone there. Cat Ba was way quieter and more peaceful, perhaps also because we weren’t there during the high season. In Ha Long Bay, we slept on a boat, which included: breakfast, lunch, dinner, 1 cooking class of Vietnamese food and Tai chi on the deck. We saw the famous Luon cave, with its amazing rock formations (supposedly animal shapes).
Ha Long Bay
On our way back to Hanoi, we stopped in a big outlet type warehouse/store that employs people with health problems derived from “Agent Orange”, that was heavily used by the US army during the Vietnam war. This chemical not only affected the people that were directly impacted by it, but also the next generation that was born. They were born with different types of cancer or other health problems that hinders them in one way or another.
We stayed the night in Hanoi and had a problem with the hotel we booked, since they changed us last minute. Be aware that this is common, or at least it happened twice to us. Next day, we flew to Ho Chi Minh.
Day 9,10, 11 – Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
In total, we spent 5 days In Ho Chi Minh.
The first day, we arrived late afternoon and explored the city. We did a local street food tour with a student group called Saigon Hot Pot (it’s free, you only pay for their meal). This was a great introduction to Vietnamese food and the city of Ho Chi Minh itself. We tried some really nice local dishes like: rice noodles in a shrimp soup, a kind of frittata with pork. All very cheap and tasty.
On day 10, unfortunately, Joana twisted her ankle. Because of that, we were limited in how much we could walk around the city. This happened early afternoon, so we had the chance to walk around a bit before that. Ho Chi Minh as a city is very busy, polluted, hot and humid. In comparison, Hanoi is much nicer to walk around, there’s less traffic and, although the streets are also packed, it doesn’t have that feeling of a big city. At night, we went to a very nice place to eat called Chi Cafe that was recommended by Max from Hanoi. It is a nice, cosy cafe close to the “backpackers’ quarter”. The owner Chi, is very friendly and helpful, she gave us some tips on what to see in the city.
Walking around Ho Chi Minh
On day 11, as it was quite warm and while waiting for Joana to recover from her injury, we relaxed by a nearby hotel that had an outdoor swimming pool. In the afternoon, we enjoyed the view in the Bitexco Financial Tower, where there’s a rooftop bar. Here, you are basically paying for the view. We drank a 7€ cappuccino each and after taking some pictures, we checked out the War Remnants Museum. The Museum gives you a very detailed historical overview of the Vietnam War and the impact it had on the Vietnamese people.
Day 12 – Cu Chi Tunnels & Mekong River
On day 12, we went on an organised day tour to the Cu Chi tunnels and to the Mekong river delta. This was organised by one of the many local travel agencies (Trung Nam Travel). You have to be careful not to be ripped off, and ending up in the same place as all the others that paid less. It is hard to distinguish between the Agencies though; which ones are ripping you off and which ones aren’t. Since we had little time and didn’t know what was a good price for these tours, we went with Trung, which was more expensive than it should’ve been.
We paid more when compared to other people that went with us. The tour included a bus ride to the Cu Chi tunnels area (check out the history behind the tunnels and the Cu chi people during the Vietnam war, it is quite interesting), entrance fee, guided tour in English (in a group of 15 or more), and you can choose to pay extra if you want to shoot an M16 (for the experience), which we decided not to.
After Cu Chi, we went for a boat tour in the Mekong river and stopped in a small island for lunch, where we watched a local band play traditional music. We saw how a local Coconut production business is making coconut-based products such as: sweets, body cream, shampoo, etc. completely pesticide and preservatives free, which you can buy to bring with you if you want. We were driven back on a carriage pulled by horses and sat on small canoe type boats and were guided back to the boat.
Day 13 – Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
During our last day in the country, we visited some local markets, enjoyed the busy street and bought some souvenirs for friends and family.
Visa, Currency & Vaccines
Make sure to check Visa entry conditions and if you need vaccines, given Vietnam’s tropical climate. We bought the visa online via the embassy based in London and we also took vaccines against yellow fever, tetanus and Hepatitis A. Currency in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong. We took some US dollars with us, since they accept it as well. Other than that, we withdrew money in local ATMs and we had no problems.
Where To Stay
Where to stay is all about personal preference and budget. We took a look at the usual websites: www.booking.com, www.hostelworld.com. You can also use places like www.couchsurfing.com and www.airbnb.com, if you’re looking for other type of experiences. You can also choose to stay with a local family (home stays). It’s all about what do you think fits better your needs and what kind of experience you’re looking for.
Hotels in Vietnam don’t have the same standards as hotels in Europe. It also happened to us that when we booked 1 or 2 nights, the hotels changed us last minute to a “sister” hotel next door, that had poorer conditions but still we had to pay the same price. Excuses included double booking and that they didn’t have the time to inform us before we arrived (we had booked the rooms something like a month in advance). We stayed in 3 and 4-star hotels for very reasonable prices, their breakfast was quite good and the rooms were clean.
Vietnam is a cheap country to visit if you are living in Europe. Food and accommodation are relatively affordable and there is no need to save too much before going. For 2 weeks, we spent roughly for 2 people:
Hotels – 259.78€
Flights – 1378.63 € +161.22 USD = 1522.29€
Trips – 59.36€ (Cu Chi and Mekong) + 295.79 € (Sapa & Ha Long Bay)
Food – 73€ (mix of street food and restaurants)
Visa – 75.29 €
Total estimate cost 2 persons = 2284.54€
This budget does not include day to day costs that you may spend in coffees, inner transportations, etc. So always keep some extra on the side for these things.
Suggestions to where to eat or look for places to eat
Maybe you already know about this App – Foursquare, it is a great app to find places to eat around the world. So far, all the places we’ve been to by using this app, have been quite good. In Vietnam, we also reached out to a non-profit group that organises street food and cooking tours for free (Saigon Hotspot). Also, please try the Vietnamese coffee to see what you think. The other “exotic” drinks made out of snakes, etc. were not our cup of tea, and we decided not to try.
What to bring?
Pack light and bring a nice camera. Vietnam has great colours, so take a good camera (phone or otherwise) with you, one with a lot of memory space. We had very good shot opportunities, either in nature or in the city. We brought the DSLR with us and we had our smartphone cameras as well. We brought two backpacks and a smaller bag for each, nothing too heavy. Also, always bring a small First Aid kit with you, in case accidents happen. We also took with us, an insect repellent just in case.
What we could’ve done but didn’t do
Vietnam is a huge country and it has a lot to see – it offers different landscapes, food and people cultures and historical legacies. Places we would’ve liked to go but didn’t have a chance to, include: Hoi An, Cai Be – Vinh Long (Floating market) close to Ho Chi Minh, Nam Cat Tien National Park, Hue, Nha Trang, Phú Quốc Island, among others.
Vietnam is a safe country to travel to. During our trip, we were never scared and had no problems. Just take the usual precautions as you would in any other place.
For further tips check out article on Tips for Vietnam.