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.
Cham island (Cruising, sightseeing, swimming, snorkeling and enjoying seafood), ☎ 0510.8505605, . Pick up at hotel at 7AM, transfer to Cua Dai beach harbor by an air-conditioned bus. On board at 8AM, we cruise to Cham island by wooden boat for 1+1/4 hours or take a speed boat for 30 minutes. On arrival, we visit Hai Tang pagoda, the boat shelter, a local market at Bai Lang, then keep cruising to Bai Chong for swimming and snorkeling to see the coral reef before having lunch with seafood at a local restaurant on the island. Relax for a while after lunch and get ready for cruising back to Cua Dai beach harbor. Bid a farewell at 3PM and transfer you back to your hotels. For 2 days and 1 night trip, going fishing at night, seafood BBQ on the island, sleeping in a tent, dormitory or homestay experience are included in the program.
Linh Ung Buddhist Temple, Bai But, Son Tra Peninsula - features a stunning view of the sea, the sky and a 67-meter tall statue of "Quan The Am" facing the ocean. The pagoda is built in 2010.
Japanese Covered Bridge (Chua Cau or Lai Vien Kieu), on the west end of Tran Phu Street. The bridge was constructed in the early 1600's by the Japanese community, roughly 40 years before they left the city to return to Japan under the strict policy of sakoku enforced by the Tokugawa Shogunate, and renovated in 1986. Today, it's the symbol of Hoi An. Entry is one coupon, but it's possible to cross back and forth several times without meeting a ticket-checker. If your scruples are bothering you, feel free to leave tribute for the pig statue or the dog statue who stand guard at opposite ends of the bridge.
Quan Cong Temple, 24 Tran Phu Street.
Museum of Folk Culture, 33 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street. Some may be put off by the bizarre-looking plaster sculptures of Vietnamese peasants, but this museum documents the dress and culture of rural Vietnam.
Museum of Trade Ceramics, 80 Tran Phu Street. The dusty, unlabeled displays of broken pottery are eminently forgettable, but the house itself is nice enough, and it provides a better opportunity to explore the shape and layout of an old Hoi An home than you'll find at any of the Old Houses (below).
Hoi An Museum of History and Culture, 7 Nguyen Hue Street. The museum contains some old black and white photos of Hoi An taken in the early 20th century. It also houses an old canon, some two-thousand year old pots from the Sa Huynh period, and a case full of 9th century bricks and tiles from the Champa period.
Museum of Say Huynh Culture, 149 Bach Dang Street. The museum's main collection consists of pottery and urns from the 1st and 2nd centuries. Upstairs is another museum, the Museum of the Revolution. Its main collection consists of pictures from war heroes and a collection of weapons such as grenade launchers, machine guns and AK 47s.
Phung Hung House, 4 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, just west of the Japanese Bridge. Traditional two-story wooden house, inhabited over 100 years by eight generations; and the current one attempts to guide you around in hope of a tip.
Quan Thang House, 77 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street.
Tan Ky House, 101 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street. As above, a younger member of the family will provide a cup of tea and a "tour" that doesn't stray from the front room of the house, as you'd need to step over sleeping members of the older generation to go anywhere else. The design of the house shows how local architecture incorporated Japanese and Chinese influences. Japanese elements include the crab shell-shaped ceiling supported by three beams in the living room. Chinese poems written in mother-of-pearl are hanging from a number of the columns that hold up the roof.
Cantonese Assembly Hall (Quang Dong), 176 Tran Phu Street. Built in 1885, it has a calm courtyard with ornate statuary. Take a peek at the half-hidden back yard and its kitschy pastel dragon statues.
Hokien (Fujian) Meeting Hall (Phuc Kien), 46 Tran Phu Street. Built in 1757.
Chinese All-Community Meeting Hall (Trieu Chau), 157 Nguyen Duy Hieu. Built in 1887. It's near the Fujian hall, also spanning the block.
Hoi An Handicraft Workshop, 9 Bach Dang Street. Folk music performances are offered at 10:15 and 15:15 every day except Monday.
Traditional Theatre, 75 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street.
Swan Boats, On the river (Head for the main river area near the footbridge). Make sure you check out the swan boats on the river. These are literally passenger boats shaped like giant swans whose eyes light up at night and which play 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town' at double speed.
The Hoi An Orphanage is located right next to the Roman Catholic church. Do recognize that children should not be exploited as tourist attractions -- this is not a zoo. If you want to visit and speak with the people who run the orphanage about their work or make a donation, please do. Asking children to pose or be posed for photographs, however, is unsavoury at best and damaging at worst. Even taking candid photographs can be considered questionable and it is best to ask if this woud be acceptable ahead of time by calling ahead.