Vietnam. The name holds very different meanings to different people. Some think of the war, that awful time from 1965-1975 in which over 1.3 million Vietnamese and over 58,000 Americans perished in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. For those of us born after the war, Vietnam is a place of intrigue, a country that only really opened its border for tourists in the late 80s.
While Vietnam is firmly a part of the Southeast Asian backpacker trail, it’s still a place that can be difficult to travel through on your own. Scams are common, the language barrier can be an issue, and arranging transportation from city to city can be trying.
As someone with limited time off each year, I didn’t want to go to Vietnam feeling stressed. I wanted to experience the food, the culture, the scenery, and the people of Vietnam without all of the stress and hassle of having to figure out everything on our own. We had a really great time in 2016 on our 2 weeks in Kenya and Tanzania with G Adventures, so we decided to sign up for another trip through G Adventures, this time for 10 days in Vietnam. We couldn’t have been happier with our decision! If you’re thinking about traveling through Vietnam, especially with G Adventures, I would highly recommend the G Adventures trip we took on our 10 days in Vietnam.
Even if you aren’t into the idea of doing a tour, this is still an excellent itinerary to follow for your own 10 days in Vietnam.
Days 1-2: Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi is the capitol of Vietnam, and a great place to start your Vietnamese travels. It’s hectic, frenetic, buzzing with energy, and home to the best bun cha in the world. We had a free day in Hanoi before our G Adventures tour began, so we found the restaurant that Anthony Bourdain and President Obama ate at together on Parts Unknown last season. The restaurant, Bun Cha Huong Lien, wasn’t difficult to find (Bun Cha Huong Lien address: 24 Le Van Huu Hanoi 10000) and the food was hands down the best we had in Vietnam. You can’t go wrong with the Combo Obama! Our only regret from our trip was that we didn’t eat here twice.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening exploring the city, strolling around Hoan Kiem Lake, sampling Vietnamese coffees when we got too hot (we drank a LOT of Vietnamese coffee that day!). Make sure to try the egg coffee, which is a Hanoi specialty! You can also visit the museum at Hoa Lo Prison aka the Hanoi Hilton if you’re interested in the Vietnam War. We chose not to visit as we knew we’d be seeing other Vietnam War sites on our trip.
Days 2-3: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Day 2 started early with a 3 hour bus ride east to the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site of Ha Long Bay. A lot of tours offer only half day trips to Ha Long Bay, so it was important when we booked our trip to go with a tour that did an overnight cruise. The boat was beautiful and each room had its own shower and air conditioner, which was turned on at night only.
Sailing through Ha Long Bay is a surreal experience. Thousands of karst mountains jut out from the bay, some rocky, some covered with greenery, some shrouded in clouds. The cruise takes several hours to get to your base for your Ha Long Bay adventures. We chose to rent kayaks for an hour and explore the karsts up close. One had a small cave you could paddle under. On the other side is a lagoon, surrounded by towering rock faces and greenery. It was so beautiful I cried.
After kayaking, you’ll be taken to Titov Island, where you can swim at the beach or hike to the top of the karst for an amazing view of the bay.
In the morning, we visited the Surprise Cave, with huge stalagtites hanging from the ceiling and illuminated by colorful lights. The best part about the cave was that it was so cool inside. It was a rude awakening to exit the cave back into the heat and humidity. Once the cave tour is complete, the junk boat heads back to shore where the van is waiting to take you back to Hanoi.
Overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue, Vietnam
I was extremely nervous about the sleeper train. I’ve read some horror stories about sleeper trains, from filthy mattresses to roach and rodent infested cabins. So I was pleasantly, pleasantly surprised when we got on the train and found our bunks in a clean, cool, and thankfully vermin free room. The journey takes 13 hours, and we slept well. The bathrooms were a different story. Try not to drink too much before the trip…
Days 4-5: Hue, Vietnam
We arrived in Hue around 8 am. The afternoon tour of the Citadel and Forbidden City wasn’t until 1 pm, so we had the morning free for exploration. Hue was a really neat little city, probably the most ‘Vietnamese’ city we visited. We found a pho shop and ate pho ga for breakfast ($1.50!) and explored the local neighborhood street market.
In the afternoon we took a tour of the Imperial City of Hue, which is a giant palace that reminded me a lot of the Forbidden City in Beijing. It is full of temples and palaces and was used by the Emperors throughout the centuries.
Afterwards, we visited the Thien Mu Pagoda, which is the oldest and tallest pagoda in the country and overlooks the Perfume River.
Before heading back to the hotel for the night, we stopped at the Minh Mang Tomb, which was situated in the misty hills on the outskirts of the city. It was gorgeous!
The next morning our group signed up for a guided motorbike tour. We weren’t allowed to drive the motorbikes solo, so each of us had our own driver. There are about 40 million motorbikes in Vietnam, and driving laws are extremely lax, to say the least, so I was not at all unhappy about having to be chauffeured instead of driving myself.
The motorbike tour took us all over the Hue countryside. We visited a cultural center, markets, an incense making demonstration, visited Bunker Hill overlooking the Perfume River and the mountains of bordering Laos, then we finished the trip with a delicious and huge lunch at a Buddhist nunnery.
When trying to decide whether to go on the G Adventures tour or travel Vietnam independently, my husband and I both said we didn’t really care to go to Hue and would have skipped it if we had gone alone. However, both of us liked Hue the most of any city we visited in Vietnam. It’s a place I know we will re-visit someday.
Days 5-8: Hoi An, Vietnam
After we cleaned up from our motorbike tour, we boarded a shuttle bus that took us to Hoi An, Vietnam. Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Town and is famous for the colorful lanterns that are hung from every building, bush, tree, window, and roof. It really was spectacular. You have to buy a pass to enter Hoi An Ancient Town (where all of the sights are) but it’s fairly cheap, less than $10, and good for several days. With the pass you are able to visit 5 of the main attractions, including temples, ancient houses, and gardens. Sometimes the people who are supposed to be checking your pass aren’t there, so you can see a few extra attractions that way.
A popular day trip in Hoi An is a countryside biking tour. It’s a great way to see rural Vietnam up close. Our tour took us through lush rice paddies, to the home of farmers, to a rice wine distillery (at somone’s pig farm) and then we made a pit stop to take a bamboo boat ride. Our group opted to take the motorboat back to Hoi An (6+ hours of biking on mostly dirt paths does a number on your butt!), so we relaxed and enjoyed a river sunset before arriving back in Hoi An Ancient Town.
Another popular activity in Hoi An is having clothes custom made. Literally every other store in the town is a tailor! I ended up getting two dresses custom made at Yaly Couture. I went in at 10 am, had my fabrics and designs picked out by 1040, came back for my fitting at 3, and then both of my dresses were delivered to the hotel a little after 8pm!
Days 8-10: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
We took an early morning flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. The traffic in Saigon is insane, so getting in and out of the city takes a while. Our group had planned to take a cyclo tour of the city in the afternoon (basically a bicycle rickshaw), but we were rained out. Instead, we spent the day walking around the city, ducking in and out of bars and coffee shops in between storms. Saigon is a big, culturally rich city with markets, an entire street food bazaar, modern and historical architecture, and red, white, and blue pigeons.
The next day we drove about an hour outside of the city to the Cu Chi Tunnels. During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong dug a massive network of tunnels throughout the country and used them to hide and get around undetected. At the Cu Chi Tunnels you have the opportunity to go down one of the trap doors into a tunnel. The entrance is really narrow, so none of the men in the group wanted to go down, but I did and I just barely fit.
There is also a section of the Tunnels that you can walk through, but it is not for the claustrophobic. You are unable to stand, it’s dark, and extremely hot and humid, but it was a once in a lifetime experience, so try not to let your fears stop you.
Upon our return to HCMC, we spent the afternoon at the War Remnants Museum, which chronicles the entirety of the Vietnam War and the effects that are still being experienced today. The entry fee was only 15,000 dong and it took us a couple hours to go through. It’s an important place to visit if you’re in Vietnam, but it’s a very grim, depressing reminder of the horrors of war.
Day 10 was our final morning in Vietnam and we left the country wanting to stay much longer. Go to Vietnam, you’ll be happy you did. 10 days in Vietnam doesn’t seem like much, but it’s enough time to sample the best of Vietnam and whet your appetite for a return visit someday.