1 month in Vietnam

Vietnam was the first country I visited in my 6 month South East Asia trip and after having visited quite a few Asian countries I can easily say that Vietnam is still the most chaotic, loud and crazy country I’ve been in. Once I got over the initial shock I fell in love with the country’s many colours and smells, beautiful scenery and fascinating history.

If you want to be overwhelmed by all the flavours and smells Asia has to offer, Vietnam is a great country to do so. You can probably get the most bang for your buck from all South East Asian countries in Vietnam. It’s cheap, easy to travel and there is enough to see and do to keep you busy exploring for months. I spend a full month in the country, but if you’re pressed for time you could follow a similar itinerary to mine in about 3 weeks.

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Hanoi and around

Pretty much everyone who travels in Vietnam takes one of two routes, they either travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi or the other way round. I decided to start my trip in Hanoi, and for a first destination in Asia I was immediately hit with everything that makes Asia great and Awful at the same time. Hanoi is busy, it smells, it’s dirty, it’s loud, the people can be obnoxious, crossing the road is an art form and perhaps worst of all, it’s so hot that it’s almost impossible to do anything.

At the same time Hanoi is also fascinating, it has several beautiful temples (like the temple of literature and the temple of the jade mountain), lively markets where you can buy almost anything you can think of, it has an exiting backpackers scene with plenty of opportunities for partying and meeting fellow travellers. There are also several fascinating museums like the Hoa Lo prison museum and the museum of Vietnamese History.

It’s also worth taking a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda, a complex of Buddhist temples build in and around the Huong Tich mountains. You have to take a small row boat up the river to get to the complex and take a cable car up the mountain (or climb up, which is not the best idea in the crazy heat of Vietnamese summer) to get to the main cave temple. If you’re lucky there will be a ceremony going on inside the cave.

I spend about a week in the Hanoi area but 3 or 4 days is more than enough to get a feel for the city and see most of the interesting sites.

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Sa Pa and the North

The north of Vietnam is home to many Ethnic tribes like the Thai, Hmong and Muong peoples. It’s also one of the most scenic areas in the country with high mountains and ancient rice terraces. The best way to discover this area is by trekking in the mountains and staying with local families in one of the villages.

I did a two day guided trek from Sa Pa passing through beautiful villages and great mountain scenery on the way. The views of the massive rice paddy fields is particularly impressive. Unfortunately the minority tribes are all to used to tourists and there is not an authentic cultural experience to be found here. The locals will force all kinds of souvenirs on you, they will help the tourists with the more difficult parts of the trekking, showing interest in them and their travels, only to turn into vultures later almost forcing any tourist to pay them for services no one asked for.

The whole experience was a bit disappointing, but it’s still worth coming here for the beautiful scenery alone. My advice, if you have more time don’t go to Sa Pa and explore some of the lesser known and more authentic areas instead, I hear very good things about a region called Ha Giang.

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Ha Long Bay

For many tourists, especially the Chinese, Ha Long bay is the main reason to visit Vietnam. For once reality lives up to the expectations. More than 2000 bizarrely shaped limestone mountains rising out of the sea, hidden coves and caves everywhere, that’s Ha Long bay.

I explored this fantastic region by two day boat cruise. Sitting on the deck watching the amazing views, kayaking to hidden coves, swimming and jumping off the deck, and of course night time is party time. My cruise also included one night on a deserted island where I swam with glowing plankton in the night.

In Hanoi you can find hundreds of boat tours, there are booze cruises, relaxing cruises, honeymoon cruises, family cruises, there’s a cruise to suit every travellers needs. I would suggest to not go with the ultra cheap cruises though, since stories of food poisoning, rats on board and even boats sinking are not uncommon.

You can also go to Cat Ba island, the bay’s biggest island, and explore the area from there. From here you can also arrange boat trips and there are also great beaches and a national park on the island itself.

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Phong Nha

Phong Nha was a quiet, poor and war torn region until a couple of years ago. They found some of the largest caves in the world in the area and very soon the tourists came and now it’s the up and coming destination in the country. You can visit the largest cave in the world, the Son Doong Cave, here. But unless you want to spend days hiking through the jungle and spend thousands of dollars on a permit, you might want to stick to some of the smaller caves instead.

In the Phong Nha cave you hire a boatman to row you through several kilometres of a flooded cave passage. Everything is illuminated with lights in various colours, giving the whole experience a magical and otherworldly feel. Another highlight is Paradise Cave, a massive cave passage high in the mountains. You have to climb quite a few stairs to get to it, but it’s worth every drop of sweat. I was blown away by the size of this cave, the entrance is tiny but before you know it you’re standing in a chamber that could fit several Boing 747s.

The most fun can be had in the dark cave. So named because unlike the other caves open to the public this one is not illuminated so you have to go in with a head torch. This may not be the most impressive cave but that’s not why you come here, you come for the experience. First you have to climb a tower, from there you have to zip-line across the river to the entrance of the cave. Then you have to jump into the river and swim into the cave. You proceed by climbing over rocks and squeezing through small passages that become more and more muddy as you continue. Finally you end up in a giant pool of mud that’s so dense that you can float on top of it. And the best part, you do all this in the dark.

Even though the caves are the reason for the tourists to come here, there is also plenty to see above the ground. The Phong Nha Keban National Park has some stunning limestone mountains, I rented a motorbike and drove around the area visiting several caves on the way. Make sure to find a good spot to watch one of the sunsets the region is famous for.

You could see all the main caves in one day if you have to, but it’s worth spending some more time here and explore the surrounding countryside as well.

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From Hue to Hoi Ann

Hue is a big city in the centre of Vietnam and it is, in all honesty, a little bit boring. Although you can visit what’s left of the citadel and it’s palaces, from here the Nguyen emperors used to rule their vast empire.

The most bizarre sight near Hue, and a good way to get off the tourist trail, is the abandoned waterpark a few kilometres out of the city. This park was closed in 2004 and today nature is reclaiming it. If you ever wanted to see what the world would look like like if humanity were to suddenly vanish you should come here.

Hue is also the starting point, or finishing point if you’re traveling in the opposite direction, of one of Vietnam’s best motorbike trips: the Hai Van Pass. The road from Hue to Hoi Ann takes you through some beautiful small villages, rugged coastline and the Hai Van Pass itself, a dangerous and windy mountain road with the views of the mountains on one side and the pacific ocean on the other. Unfortunately I got a flat tire on the way and didn’t get to the Pass until after dark, so I didn’t get to enjoy any of the famous views but it was still one hell of a ride.

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Hoi Ann

Hoi Ann is easily my favourite place in Vietnam. This small port was once one of the most important harbours in Asia attracting ships from all over the world. This created a unique mix of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and European influences in the architecture and culture of the place. The old centre was left undisturbed during the war and today it still very much looks like what it must have looked hundreds of years ago.

I spend several days here wandering the small streets, enjoying meals in some of Vietnams best, and surprisingly affordable, restaurants. I also rented a bike and biked to some of the nearby villages, each with their own specialties like carpentry, pottery or fruit farming. Hoi Ann is also home to some of Vietnam’s best beaches, and surprisingly there are not to many tourists here.

You can easily spend a week in Hoi Ann, like I did. There are countless activities you can do in the area, like boat trips, cooking classes, visiting ancient ruins, swimming, snorkelling and more. Hoi Ann also has a lively night life with many nice bars and a few places to dance.

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Da Lat

Da Lat is a breath of fresh air, quite literally. Having spend weeks in plus 35˚C I finally arrived in Vietnam’s main mountain town where the temperature was far more forgiving. For that reason alone it’s worth making a stop here. There are also many French Colonial buildings, excellent hostels and the most bizarre bar you’ll ever see here.

But the main reason to come here is for outdoor adventures. I spend an entire day riding a motorbike around the area and visiting many great sights. For example a weasel poop coffee farm (yes, that’s a thing), a cricket farm (yes, they eat them, and I tried a few) and more impressively some awesome viewpoints and waterfalls.

For a truly unforgettable experience join a canyoning trip. There are many rivers and waterfalls in the region where you can do repelling, jumping, sliding and other fun water activities. Most famous is the washing machine, where you descent into an abyss and get swung around by a powerful waterfall. Scary but so much fun.

I spend three days in the Da Lat area.

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Ho Chi Minh City 

Ho Chi Minh City doesn’t exist, at least not according to most of the inhabitants of Saigon, the old name for the city most people still use. Saigon is a more streamlined and modern city than Hanoi and in my opinion a little bit boring, but there is still enough to see and do here to keep you occupied for a few days.

The city is very interesting if you like Vietnam war history, or as they call it here ‘the American war’. There are many museums and landmarks in and around the city. Particularly interesting is the ‘war remnants museum’ a museum all about the horror and pointlessness of war. Not a very happy place, but the photographs and items on display give you a good idea of how the war affected and still affects the country.

Outside the city I visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, one of the most famous war landmarks. Here the Vietcong held off the americans for years. They fought their famous guerrilla battles around this area, using all kinds of nasty traps that killed the enemy in the most horrific ways. The tunnels themselves were once home to hundreds of people and crawling through them was one of the most claustrophobic experiences of my life.

I also went south for two days to explore the Mekong Delta but I was left very disappointed by this experience. I expected to see floating markets and small, charming villages. Instead what I saw was mainly a tourist show. Perhaps the area can be more interesting if you take your time to explore a little further.

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What else

I barely scratched the surface of all there is to see in Vietnam, you could easily spend months here and see something new every day. You could visit the famous beach towns of Nha Thrang and Mui Ne or find some of the hidden unspoiled beaches in between. You can marvel at the wonderfull limestone formations in Ninh Binh, look for gibbons in the Cat Tien National parks or you can do as many backpackers do and buy your own motorbike and have absolute freedom to explore areas off the beaten path. Whatever you do, Vietnam will surely surprise you like it did me.

How and when to travel in Vietnam

Travelling in Vietnam is a breeze. Public transport will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go. Night busses are surprisingly comfortable and extremely cheap. You can cross the entire country from north to south for less than $50. All places on the main tourist trails have a great selection of excellent hostels, many costing less than $5 and including breakfast. Most activities can be booked through your hostel or in one of the many travel shops, do some research online before you commit to anything though because it’s not uncommon to be scammed.

There is really no ideal time to travel in Vietnam. Unlike it’s fellow South East Asian countries, like Thailand and Cambodia, which have distinct wet and dry seasons, Vietnam has a far more complicated climate. Each region has a slightly different climate. Extreme heat, torrential rains, typhoons, snow, you can encounter all this in different places in different times of the year. In general the best time to visit the country might be april and may. The north is mainly dry, the centre has ideal beach weather and the south has minimal rain in this time. Just be prepared for extreme temperatures ranging from 35˚C to 42˚C.

Take notice that you need a visa to enter Vietnam. You can go to your local embassy or any embassy in South East Asia to arrange a visa. Alternatively you can apply for a visa on arrival for which you need an official approval letter.