How to Experience Vietnam
in two weeks

The standard visa entry period for Vietnam usually seems to be a fortnight, so before traveling I contacted a freelance guide and asked for some advice on how to maximize my time.

“Two weeks in Hanoi or two weeks in Ho Chi Minh City?” he replied, clearly genuinely laughing through his emoji.

Like so many Vietnamese, Jim was both an ambassador and an enthusiast for his country. He assured me we could cover the main points of the country in a fortnight, but “you won’t see everything.”

This prompted me to be bold. “Show me the best of everything – show me Hanoi, show me Ho Chi Minh City, and let’s try and do the middle bit of the  country too if we can.”

So that was the outline, and that was the mission: north to south in two weeks, with highlights of each.

From JIm’s detailed response and itinerary, ten days to a fortnight was definitely enough to get a proper flavour of Vietnam. And quite clearly, bearing in mind the visa rules, he had delivered a multi-centre trip many times.

In fact, in 2019 over eighteen million tourists visited Vietnam. That’s almost a four-fold increase in twenty years. From once being an occasional destination for South-East Asian completists only, Vietnam is now very firmly a mainstream destination.

A lot of this growth is down to marketing, but more seems to be to do with word of mouth. Because Vietnam is one of those countries that, once visited, you never really stop talking about.

So what makes this once-closed away Communist nation such a magnetic attraction? The answer is basically that Vietnam may look small on the map, but it is big in the rich variety of tourism opportunities that it offers.

So here are highlights of the main parts of the fascinating and friendly Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Hanoi Highlights

Everything about the Vietnamese capital is bigger than you’d expect it to be. If you’re familiar with Bangkok, that’s the city it most resembles in terms of skyline and energy. Hanoi is home to between four and eight million people, depending on where you draw its boundaries, and is both modern and geared to tourism. You’ll also soon get used to seeing half the population driving the city on motorbikes!

First, a word about the airport. It’s very big, very modern and very efficient. It’s also very far from the city, so don’t be alarmed if your taxi ride to the city centre seems to go on forever. Just go with the flow, just like a Vietnamese person would.

When you reach central Hanoi, to get your orientation, check out the Sky Bar restaurant. As the name suggests, it provides a great panorama, and the clientele is a sophisticated mix of tourists and locals. Yes, the locals don’t get tired of the view and the food there either!

Probably the most visited spot in the city is the old French Quarter and there’s a reason for that – it’s absolutely enchanting. These tall and thin houses were built in that way to reduce the tax that could be levied on them, and it all helps to give a very distinctive feel.

If you’re familiar with France then you’ll certainly acknowledge why the area gets its name – the French left a big impact here, not least the huge cathedral that they built in the style of Notre Dame!

Another thing that leaps out to you about Hanoi is how green the city is. There are several sizable parks, and you can easily take in a few of them if you have a few days. The most touristy is Hoan Kiem Lake next to the old city, a bustling central point plagued by the ubiquitous motorcycles. An old temple provides some great photo opportunities if you cut out the hordes of other tourists. But since Hoan Kiem is a huge twelve hectares, this shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve!

If you like the greenery, then make sure you also catch the grounds of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum too. Yes, like the Russians did to Lenin in Moscow, so the Vietnamese did to their revered Communist leader and an embalmed Ho Chi Minh is on display. The mausoleum is open most days and is easily accessible providing you are dressed respectfully.

This political element is absolutely integral to understanding both Hanoi and Vietnam more generally, and several museums present distinctive aspects of history and culture.  The Women’s Museum, with its celebration and recognition of the role of women as a bedrock of Vietnamese society, including their role as revolutionaries, is definitely a must-see.

But there’s more to Hanoi than politics – history didn’t begin with Ho Chi Minh and the Communists – and there’s plenty of much older culture to take in.

Try and experience the impressive  Ethnographic Museum.  It’s an airy, well laid-out space that really teaches you about the number and depth of the different religious groups in Vietnam. Outside the museum is a large outdoor exhibition of buildings from all around Vietnam, ranging from family homes to meeting houses to funeral tombs decorated with mournful faces. You’ll have to be open-minded too, because much of the decoration on them is sexual, intended to demonstrate the journey of life.

Don’t leave without experiencing a lakeside display of the unique Vietnamese art of water puppetry. It is so skillful and evocative; it’s impossible to be anything other than transfixed. When you watch this traditional display, your biggest wonder will be why only the Vietnamese have ever adopted this beautiful form of storytelling.

For more authentically Vietnamese buildings, try and do a longer walking tour and take in the temple complex at Thang Long and also visit the Temple of Literature. Both of these are really close to each other and are over a thousand years old.

Head to Halong Bay

Few tourists leave northern Vietnam without experiencing the beauty of Halong Bay. A lot of tourist operators cover Halong as a day trip from Hanoi, but taking that option might mean you spend more than half of your day on the road. A much better option is to break your journey and stay in Halong for a night or two. There’s plenty of accommodation available to meet a range of budgets.

The attraction of Halong Bay is the myriad of small islands to visit, and there is a range of cruise opportunities that you can design to suit your time and budget. Some people even stay on a boat for a few days. With more than 1500 small islands to navigate, try and allow yourself plenty of time, and make sure you take in the sunrise if you can get up that early – it’s definitely worth it.

When at Halong, you’ll understand immediately why it’s not only one of Vietnam’s top tourism destinations, but also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a jewel of not just Vietnam but the whole of South-East Asia.

 

Hue, Halfway Down

Lots of travelers use the Reunification Express to get between the two vibrant centers of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The rail line is over a thousand miles long and there are different seating options depending on your budget and inclination.

There are also plenty of flights every day too, but if you have the time and the inclination try and journey between them by road. It’s a long one though – over thirty hours of driving – but it can be the real highlight of your trip if you break the journey a few times. There are certainly plenty of attractions to take in!

Perhaps the most famous is the ancient city of Hue, the old pre-French capital of Vietnam, which is roughly halfway down coastal Vietnam. The Imperial City at Hue is an enchanting walled palace that can take a full day if you do it properly and visit the many gardens and temples.

While in Hue, why not try a Vietnamese cookery lesson too? This region is the culinary centre of the country and there’s plenty of choice of cooking schools. If you’ve never tried Vietnamese cuisine, doing a lesson is a great introduction. The food is not spicy but it is distinctive, natural and extremely tasty.

A little further south of Hue is the growing tourist spot of Da Nang, which is a vibrant town that combines culture, cuisine and chillaxing. Fringed by beautiful beaches and offering some excellent hotels, Da Nang is the type of place you’ll decide to break your journey for a night but send up staying three! Perhaps the place where Vietnam is the most conventionally touristic, if sea and sand is your desire, then Da Nang won’t disappoint.

If you have time on your journey, try and take in the next city southward too and spend some time at Hoi Ann. It’s famed for its tailors but it also has some stunning beaches and really quaint places to eat and stay.

Hitting Ho Chi Minh City

When you reach Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), you’ll struggle to work out whether it’s like Hanoi or not. The cities are about the same size, have the same ubiquitous motorbikes, the same splashes of French architecture, and the same abundance of street food and enticing markets. There’s even another set of sky bars and panorama views to experience.

But Ho Chi Minh City has its own style and atmosphere too. There are more nightclubs and the nightlife is generally that bit more vibrant. Pham Ngu Lao Street is the very centre of this and you’ll be swept up in its energy and enthusiasm when you wander down after sundown. You might even be quite surprised by the number of tourists who flock there. There’s also a wider range of hotels to choose from.

If you think you’ve ‘done the politics’ by the time you get to Ho Chi Minh City, then revise your opinion. The impressive Reunification Palace tells the whole story of the Vietnam War and takes you back to 1975 when the North Vietnamese took the city and brought the two parts of the country back together. Try and cover the Palace along with the War Remnants Museum as part of the same day of tourism. They compliment each other and give you a really full appreciation of the Vietnam War (or the ‘American War’ as the Vietnamese call it!)

If that’s still not enough war tourism, you can also take a day trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This intricate and unique network was used by both civilians and also the Southern Vietnamese Army during the same conflict. Local guides who lived through the war give the whole experience a really powerful impact, but don’t even think about trying to cover all two hundred kilometers of tunnel!

If you want natural history rather than war history, make a  trip to the Mekong Delta, which is only a few hours from the city. Where this amazing river empties into the sea has hundreds of different types of fish, and plenty of guides offering tour boat experiences.

If you still haven’t used up all your time in Vietnam, try and spend a night at the Delta and experience a different sort of ambience and adventure. There are plenty of small boutique hotels to choose from.


A country of two halves?

North and South Vietnam may once have been separate countries, but there is much more that unites them than divides them. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are as different as they are “same same” (as some locals insist on saying when describing many things!).

That’s why it’s worth talking in both of them as well as Halong Bay, Hue and the Mekong Delta too. Each of these experiences is distinctive and memorable.

Add them all together and you’ll get the whole impact of vibrant Vietnam – a proud country with a distinctive culture and a lot to smile about.

Stay Gold.

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