Vietnam is the jewel of Southeast Asia, a country thousands of years old. Its official name is "The Socialist Republic of Vietnam". Vietnam has been invaded and colonized many times throughout history. Americans and Australians will receive little overt animosity in Vietnam despite the Vietnam War. The only political party in Vietnam is the Communist Party. Vietnam has a 5% return rate on tourists visiting the country - a much lower rate than neighbouring Thailand. There is a sizable Chinese population living in Vietnam. Buddhism is the major religion. Tet is Vietnam's biggest holiday, kind of like if you rolled Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's all into one. Tet occurs between late January and March. Fortunately, almost all of Vietnam's major tourist attractions can be visited by traveling south from the capital, Hanoi, to the largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, (commonly called by its old name, Saigon).
This itinerary can actually be started from either Hanoi, Vietnam's capital city, or Ho Chi Minh City, its largest city.
Hanoi's major airport is Noi Bai International Airport, 35 km north of the city. 25 airlines have direct flights to Hanoi. Taxis, public buses, shuttle buses, and hotel pickups can all get you into Hanoi's city centre.
The trains from Nanning and Beijing, China arrive in Gia Lam station. (All others arrive in Hanoi station). The train from Nanning departs at 18:20 daily and arrives in Hanoi at 04:45 the next day. An overnight bus+train combo runs from Kunming, China.
Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat airport is Vietnam's largest. It has two terminals: a rundown domestic one and a shiny new international one. Taxis and minibuses run from the airport to Ho Chi Minh City's city centre.
The Reunification Express runs from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, with five daily departures from Hanoi. The trip takes about 30 hours and ends at Ho Chi Minh City's Ga Sài Gòn train station, northwest of the city centre.
Several bus companies run buses from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Saigon. However, a Vietnamese visa 'cannot be obtained at the border, so you must arrane one in advance. Buses also depart from most major cities in Vietnam, arriving at one of these four stations:
Cho Ben Thanh Bus Station. This is right in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City, within walking distance of accommodation options and tourist sights.
Mien Dong Bus Station. Buses heading north arrive and leave from here. You can take bus No. 19 from Cho Ben Thanh Bus station to this station.
Mien Tay Bus Station. Take bus No. 139 from Tran Hung Dao Street to get here.
Arrange a 3 day/2 night cruise of Ha Long Bay. Several companies offer various cruises, ranging from $75-$600. 2 nights is enough time to see Ha Long Bay and several of its sites, most of which the cruises stop at.
Ground transportation from Hanoi is included in the purchase price of most cruises, usually by means of a private bus departing Hanoi at around 07:30. If not, a bus from Hanoi to Ha Long City costs about $10.
Spend the night on your cruise boat.
Spend the night on your cruise boat.
Most Ha Long Bay cruises arrive back in Ha Long City at about 12:00.
Take the 13:00 bus to Haiphong, departing from Mien Tay bus station.
Arrive in Haiphong at 14:30. Cost: $2
Spend the night in Haiphong.
Take the 09:00 bus to Ninh Binh, departing from the Niem Nghia bus station.
Arrive in Ninh Binh at 11:30. Cost: $8
Hire a taxi driver for the rest of the day. It will be about $10. First, tell him to drive the 30-minute journey to Van Long Nature Reserve.
Arrive at Van Long Nature Reserve at 12:30.
The entrance fee to the reserve is $1.
Rent a sampan (bamboo boat) for a 90-minute journey through the reserve, often described as "Ha Long Bay on land". Cost: $3
Next, have your driver take you to Bai Dinh, an old Buddhist temple.
Arrive in Bai Dinh at 14:40.
After exploring the temple, ask your driver to go to Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam.
Arrive at the Hoa Lu complex at 15:30.
After viewing the ancient ruins, drive to the Hang Mua pagoda for a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside.
Arrive at Hang Mua at 16:40.
Head back to Ninh Binh after taking in the view at Hang Mua.
You will enter Ninh Binh at about 17:15.
Spend the night in Ninh Binh.
Take the sleeper train to Hué, departing at 21:39.
Arrive in Hué at 09:55. Cost: $34 for an air-conditioned lower-berth soft sleeper.
Naval Museum, 353 Street, Anh Dung Commune, Kien Thuy District, ☎ +84 31 3814 788.
Military Zone III Musuem (254 Le Duan Street, Kien An District), (5km southwest of town.), ☎ +84 93 196 93 88.
Hai Phong City Museum (Bảo tàng Hải Phòng), 11 Đinh Tiên Hoàng Quận Hồng Bàng. Mornings, and afternoons from 2PM. Closed all saturday. Open late evening Tuesday and Sunday..
Hai Phong Brewery (Hia Phong Local Beer), 16 Lach Tray, Ngo Quyen, Hai Phong, ☎ 0313640681. Bia Hoi, fresh from the brewery that is situated directly behind this location. Many stands selling beer here. Look for the joint on the right of the alley where motor bikes are carrying yellow kegs in and out of the brew works. Decent food in a open kitchen. 10,000 for a tall glass (500 ml), 4,000 for a regular. The beer is pleasant with a slightly sweet aftertaste. Way better than Hanoi beer! Arguably best beer in Vietnam. A MUST visit if you are in town and thirsty. (March 2012)4000.
Tam Coc, (9 km south of Ninh Binh, along Hwy 1). One of Vietnam's most spectacular sights. A boat can be hired that will take you through the waterways. Vast limestone cliffs rise out of the rice paddies. The area is somewhat similar to Halong Bay, but more accessible and much less touristy.Beware, the floating drink sellers can be very persistent. They are located after the third cave. Most will ask if you would like to buy a drink for the rower. This is usually sold back immediately for half price. To get a boat for 2 persons you pay 140,000 dong(?). Rowers earn 80,000 dong per trip. They can usually row with their feet as well as their hands, which makes quite an interest sight.Possibly the best time to go is in the morning or late afternoon, when its quieter and cooler with more shade. Also the drink sellers will be tiring and might be more prepared to sell you a cold drink cheaper if you need one. Last boats start out about 5:30PM in the summer and 4:30PM in the winter. Its an easy bicycle ride here from Ninh Binh, with no hills.When leaving (motor)bike to the harbor, beware of scamming thieves (such as removing a mirror while the moto is parked then selling it back to you for 100,000 dong) and look for official parking areas to avoid such scams. When you catch the boat from the harbor, don't accept a boat that is loaded with some boxes upon departure. They are filled with handicrafts (you can check it), and are meant for you to buy. During the return trip the rowers might suddenly turn from friendly rowers to pushy sellers. Don't ruin your experience by allowing this. Demand a rower/boat without handicraft/souvenir boxes. The area around Tam Coc is equally beautiful, and is best viewed from the back of a motorbike or by bicycle. There is also a temple atop one of the hills which provides incredible views.80,000 dong per boat, maximum 2 foreigners per boat (plus entrance 30,000 per person).
Trang An Grottoes, (7 km from Ninh Binh). An easy bicycle ride away, Trang An Grottoes is similar to Tam Coc but with many more caves to pass through. Most caves have been widened in order for the boats to pass through and as result their natural beauty has been compromised. The first two caves are the most natural and beautiful but are also tight in places, so watch your head. Lots of concrete structures are being built all over the place and rice paddies are disappearing fast but hopefully this area will not lose its splendor. It might be worth bringing a torch in case the power fails and the lights go out, some of the tunnels are quite long and your rower may have forgotten their backup torch, as was the case for the boat in front of us and had to wait for our boat to provide light for them to navigate the last cave.
Cuc Phuong National Park, (45km from Ninh Binh), . A well preserved rainforest with an Endangered Primates Rescue Centre near the entrance. You can only visit the centre with a park guide, which costs an extra 20,000 dong per person and doesn't take long. There are about 150 primates here being prepared for release back in the wild. Most are from other parts of Vietnam and any releases will be from where they originally came from. There is also a Botanical Garden near the entrance. Note that as at feb 23rd 2013, these gardens have no animals, but you are told that at the visitor centre so you can decide whether to proceed.Animals will be re-introduced when it gets warmer.From the entrance you can drive, motorbike or cycle a further 20 km along a densely rainforested paved road, from which several bypaths lead you through the jungle to prehistoric trees and caves. Cycling is probably the most rewarding way to travel this 20 km of often steeply inclined paved road and mountain bikes can be hired at the park entrance. The road ends at the Park Centre (Bong), from where there are several forest walks. The Park Centre has a restaurant and a place to buy snacks. The best chance to see any animals here is at night. Guided night tours for overnight stayers are available. There are other points of interest along the narrow 20 km road such as a cave, ancient trees and walking trails. One of the amazing things about this drive is the 1000's upon 1000's of colourful butterflies filling the roadway. Peak time for butterflies apparently is during April and May but in later months there may still many to be seen. It is especially enjoyable to touch the thousand-year-old cho xanh (parashrea stellata) and sau (Dracontomelum Duperranum or Dancorra Edulis) trees, 50-70 m high. The park is also suitable to watch birds, butterflies and orchid flowers. They are more concentrated than in a typical butterfly farm enclosure. A limited amount of overnight accommodation is available in either a detached bungalow or a stilt house. 20,000 dong.