Traveling across Vietnam - From Saigon to Hanoi
Itinerary and travel tips
Ho Chi Minh, Mui Ne, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi, Ninh Binh
28. 7 – 2. 8 HUE (5 nights)
Hue was one of the great disappointments, as opposed to the guides vividly describing this city as the center of Nguyen dynasty empire and later the capital of the whole country, there is not much to see in the town itself. If you go northwest from the city center past the Perfume River, you find the devastated Imperial City (UNESCO) hidden behind the mighty brick walls. In 1968, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War took place in Hue. The besieging of the Citadel with bombs and napalm took its toll and ended in the demolished Imperial Palace. Reconstruction of buildings is ongoing, and it is up to you whether you want to pay expensive admission for a few exposed pillars. In the vicinity of the city, you can visit the tombs of the deceased rulers.
Cheap hotels are located west of the stadium, between Pham Ngu Lao and Chu Van An. We recommend multi-story Ngoc Hung Hotel 60m away from the junction of Chu Van An and Vo Thi Sau. For 250K we got a spacious room with AC, small TV, refrigerator, fast WiFi and private bathroom with bathtub! After taking only showers, I had to fill the bath at least four times during our stay.
Unfortunately, we have not discovered any restaurant where we could eat well and cheaply. Nevertheless, if you a breakfast type, I have a great tip for you. Pamper yourself with an All You Can Eat Breakfast at Midtown Hotel on 29 Doi Cung Street. The quality of the buffet is high and substantially higher than that of the breakfast buffets in Ho Chi Minh. They offer you a lot: coffee, tea, juices, milk, yogurt, desserts, spring rolls, egg variations, sausages, cheeses, jam, pancakes, baguettes, Pho, fried noodles, pasta, roasted chicken, baked tomatoes, gnocchi, fruits. For a price of 100K per person, you'll eat like a king!
For a wide selection of cheap food, head to the Big C Shopping Center (KFC, food court) at Hung Vuong and Ba Trieu junction. You can get some culture on the top floor of the same complex - go to the movies (80K) at the Lotte Cinema.
To go from Hue to Hanoi, we used Sinh Tourist services again. We got a ticket for 269,000 VND (15h).
3. 8 – 8. 8 HANOI (5 nights)
Chaotic and dirty Hanoi did not impress us at all. Even though we have spent over a week here, I can't say that I would have really enjoyed the capital of Vietnam.
Backpackers area located in Old Quarter provides many hotels and hostels options of all price categories. We enjoyed some luxury in the deluxe room at Hotel Gate (Hotel Daisy) situated in the curve of Thanh Ha Street. For 15 USD we had a small but beautifully equipped room with city views, AC, refrigerator, TV, new bathroom, WiFi and breakfast included (eggs, toast, jam, fruit, coffee). The Old Quarter is one giant maze, a mixture of narrow aisles, in which rumbling traffic circulates unceasingly, and street vendors vehemently try to sell their goods. Be careful, watch out for passing vehicles before crossing the street! - That applies to all of Hanoi. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh were the worst cities in terms of traffic.
In these alleys, you can buy everything and nothing at all at the same time. You may not want to buy a tombstone like a souvenir, and you won't have a fried dog or cat for lunch either. Yes, we saw a whole roasted dog and a cat displayed for further consumption. Normal and delicious meals you will get at the crossroad of Dao Day Tu Street and Ngo Dao Duy Tu. In the evening, you have to sit down on one of the many plastic micro chairs on Ma May Street near Hanoi Backpackers Hostel and drink a few rounds of draft beer (5K). Beer goes very well together with an excellent kebab from the stall across the street (30K) That's a great combination indeed.
Near the Old Quarter, you can relax at Ho Hoan Kiem Lake, as long as you don't mind crowds of people flowing all around. Occasionally you'll be asked by a shy student if she/he can speak in English with you (to practice for free). In Hanoi just like in Saigon, you come across groups of random geeks or students who, as soon as they spot a white tourist walking in the park, try to make a quick conversation. If you allow them to have some interaction with you, later on, it might be hard to get rid of them. They kind of expect you to ask them questions and entertain them, which doesn't apply vice-versa.
If you feel like seeing a Russian-style park, check out the Lenin larger-than-life-size statue in Lenin Park.
In Hanoi, you'll have a chance to visit countless museums: French prison Hoa Lo Prison, Ho Chi Minh Museum (25K) - sort of a parody of modern art, the embalmed leader Ho Chi Minh in Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (free of charge), One Pillar Pagoda on the Mausoleum premises, have some rest in the shade of the Botanical Gardens (2K) 500m north of Ho Chi Minh Museum, National Museum of Vietnamese History (40K including entrance to the Museum of Revolution), Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution. Reserve yourself a few hours for viewing the interesting indoor and outdoor exhibitions of the Museum of Ethnology (40K). You will love the beautiful St. Joseph Cathedral west of Ho Hoan Kiem Lake on Nha Tho Street.
As in Saigon, you can also here use cheap public transport (7K). Google Maps tell you where exactly you'll find the bus stop.
8. 8 – 11. 8 NINH BINH (3 nights)
As an alternative to touristy Sapa, instead, we chose this panoramic landscape of rice fields, majestic forest-covered limestone hills, and clear rivers. There is not much to see in the town itself. But once you take the scooter and head off a few miles away west of the city, your jaw is going to drop. You will need an entire afternoon to drive through these unique natural amazing formations.
In the village of Tam Coc, the arrogant locals try really hard to get some money out of you. They will blatantly lie that it's not allowed driving further on the field road (where the lake/canal starts) and the only way to proceed is taking the boat. They basically forcing tourists to pay for parking, then for a boat ride and some entrance fee on top of that (I have no idea why to pay some entrance fee). If you don't fall for a scenic boat ride on water canals (with a local guy paddling), I recommend hopping on the scooter and continuing on the field road regardless. You can ride through without a problem (don't mind the comments of these scammers), all the temples in the area are for free, and you will see literally the same as from the boat. Do not forget your sombrero. The sun shines here like crazy.
The cheapest way how to get from Hanoi to Ninh Binh is by local train. Trains departure from Hanoi Station regularly throughout the day. You can buy the tickets on the day of departure at the train station.
The ride lasts 2.5 hours, and the third class costs 55K per person (hard seats, no AC).
9. 7 – 20. 7 HO CHI MINH (Saigon, 11 nights)
We arrive at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Hanoi around 8 AM. Everything goes smoothly. Prior to passing through the immigration check, we must first apply for a Vietnamese tourist visa (VOA). An approval letter from a certified agency (15 USD for 3 months per person) is required to grant a tourist visa to Vietnam. Learn how to get a visa approval letter here. The actual issuance of the visa is only a matter of minutes. You need to fill out the application form, accompanied by passport photographs and an approval letter. A single entry 3-month visa costs 25 USD. You can pay either in USD or VND - all in cash.
We walk smoothly through immigration and enter the arrival hall. Compared to the Airport in Jakarta, the hall has a clean and modern look. What a change!
Now, there is nothing to prevent you from traveling to the city center.
TIP The cheapest local transport option from the airport to the city center (Pham Ngu Lao)
Don't take a taxi, take a public bus instead. The air-conditioned bus n. 152 is relatively comfy, fast and cheap! In comparison to 300,000 VND for a taxi, you only pay 5,000 VND (0.22 USD) per bus. Bus number 152 will take you directly to the backpacker's ghetto around Pham Ngu Lao Street. The fare is 5K (plus 5k VND per bag depending on the driver's mood). The drivers usually don't have change or just simply can't be bothered to return you back to your 100k bill from the ATM. Get some change in advance at Burger King or nearby booths.
Look for the bus stop by the main road just a few meters away from Burger King. Bus 152 usually waits here, if not, will come shortly. If you arrive late at night, the only safe option is to take a taxi. Buses circulate until sunset (6-7 PM). Bus 152 will take you to the District 1, where you will get off at Ben Thanh Market (at the bus terminal next to the roundabout south of the market).
From the market, head west on Pham Ngu Lao Street. There is a bunch of guest houses and hotels in the neighboring streets. I recommend walking on Pham Ngu Lao Street to the end of the park. At the crossroad, turn left and walk around the two-story Pho Quynh Restaurant (perfect Pho soups!) onto Do Quang Dau Street. Here you'll find a wide variety of accommodation. Prices range from 12-17 USD per double room with attached bathroom, AC and WiFi.
We stayed at Ms. Thu guesthouse at the beginning of Hem 26 Do Quang Dau Street. It's a multi-family-run business with Mrs. Thu in the lead. This short and very energetic elderly lady has everything under control. She informed us about the traps and dangers of Saigon, helped us to get a cheap bus ticket to Mui Ne, and even gave us some bananas and baguettes for the trip. We chose a spacious room with TV, WiFi, refrigerator and AC on the top floor of the building for $ 12 per night. We shared the bathroom with another room, and the roof terrace was fully available. We enjoyed our stay so much that we stayed 11 nights in the end.
Surely you've gotten hungry during all this traveling.
So where to go to get good cheap food?
There is no need to go far - surroundings of Pham Ngu Lao and Do Quang Dau offer several attractive options. Pho soup is served all day long, you can have it for breakfast or lunch or both, it's up to you. In the restaurant Pho Quynh at the corner, you will struggle to choose one from the wide selection of Pho. The variety is great and, most importantly, for a reasonable 50,000 VND, you will get a nice big bowl of proper broth with noodles, loaded with meat and/or dumplings and a tray with different herbs, Thai basil, bamboo sprouts, lime, and chili peppers. Try once, and you wanna go for another bowl!
To start the day like at home, have an excellent All U Can Eat Breakfast at Hotel Liberty 4 (116K VND) or Elios Hotel (115K VND) - both on Pham Ngu Lao. On the top floor of the Elios Hotel, we got served precisely what we needed. Do not expect any exciting dishes, but for 5.60 USD you will get an excellent breakfast. You can choose from coffee, tea, juice, egg variations, salami, cheese, cakes, roasted chicken, pasta and fruits.
Paying 115K VND for this kind of buffet is not bad at all, but it's not for free either. If you need to have a saving day, you can visit the cheap Café Thuy Linh, 50 meters away from Pho Quynh, on Do Quang Dau. Fresh chicken baguette for 15K, ice coffee for 15K, or refreshing smoothie for 20K.
The best baguette in the city you get nearby. On Pham Van Trang, look for a small bakery on the right side at the very end of this street, 20 meters from the Le Thi Rieng junction. For a few Dongs, you will get a perfectly fresh and crunchy baguette filled with delicious grilled meat. Pork is my number one choice. Regardless, I had to remove coriander - not a big fan of it.
Supermarket COOP on Cong Quynh is also worth mentioning. If you are looking for a cheap and well-equipped mall with all the necessary goods - you won't be disappointed.
Vietnamese cuisine is absolutely stunning - honestly, I could praise their food to infinity. However, when you manage to escape from the endless culinary excursions around Saigon, it is time to see something from the history of the city too. In this regard, Saigon has a lot to offer, and if you have a few days in the city, there is always something worth visiting. You will not be bored, that's for sure!
Among the architectural jewels, I have to include the basilica from the 19th century - Notre-Dame, the Main Post Office (the largest post office in Vietnam), the Communist Independence Palace (30K VND) surrounded by a large park, Saigon Opera House and Ho Chi Minh City Hall. Have a walk from the City Hall down the square towards the River and admire some of Saigon's most modern buildings, such as the Bitexco Financial Tower. If you like to visit museums and galleries, you will have more than enough opportunities around Saigon.
The entrance fee to the Museums is a symbolic charge, and the variety of museum is excellent - from the history of the city and the country, through culture and ethnology, to the war against America in the 60s-80s of the last century. The complex of three Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museums (10K VND) is worth seeing too.
For shopping go to Ben Thanh market or even better to China Town (Cho Binh Tay market). On this occasion, explore the Chinese Quarter thoroughly and take a look at the ubiquitous Oriental temples and pagodas. You can also buy some electronics in Ho Chi Minh.
TIP FOR TRANSPORT
Last advice at the end. An extensive public transport network is available throughout the city, buses are cheap (7K per person), and they really take you everywhere you need. Google maps tell you exactly where to find a specific bus stop, route, fare, total travel time and estimated bus arrival time to the stop.
Interestingly, we did not have much chance to use the local, long-distance transport in Vietnam. Specifically, in Ho Chi Minh, public long-distance buses are just as expensive (or more expensive) as tourist buses taking you directly from Pham Ngu Lao Street. High concentration of travel agencies and, therefore, high competition sets prices down significantly. And like so it was in all of Vietnam. In some places, local public connections were even unavailable. Even though it's convenient to use the buses for tourists, go around several travel agencies and ask for a price. Surely you'll get some nice deal.
For our bus Ho Chi Minh - Mui Ne we paid 120,000 per person (5h).
20. 7 – 25.7 MUI NE (4 nights)
Most accommodation options are scattered in the bay connecting Phan Thiet and Mui Ne, along the road Nguyen Dinh Chieu. When we were passing through Mui Ne, we were surprised by the number of luxury resorts that we saw through the bus window. We were losing hope to be able to find some affordable accommodation. But after 10 minutes of searching, we were already sitting in a bungalow with a fan and TV at the beach for 200K. It was Hong Di Bungalows, located between Rach Dua Resort and Sunrise Resort. The bungalows were spacious, clean, the garden was well-maintained and with direct access to the mini beach.
Halfway between Hong Di and Sun Shine Beach resort, each day a lovely lady was selling her delicacies at the street stall. She offered perfect char-grilled baguettes filled with grilled meat, fresh and pickled vegetables and sprinkled with peanut crumble for 15K. For the same money, she was also selling fried noodles with meat. Good quality meals at the best prices in the neighborhood you can enjoy at Nha Hang Lam Tong Restaurant. This outdoor restaurant with a terrace and direct sea views, preparing fish and seafood specialties, is located 20 meters behind Muine Backpackers Resort. In general, you won't have any issues to find a seafood-fish restaurant in Mui Ne. There are dozens there, most of them illegally built as a "shack" along the main road.
Don't expect any action in Mui Ne. People seek here rather relaxation and tranquility - i.e., eat well, get tanned and sleep loads. The only adrenaline options are limited to the popular Kiteboarding or a trip to nearby sand dunes.
Dancing scene and crowds of young partying people you will find in Nha Trang, a 5- hour ride away.
Although many people go from Mui Ne to Nha Trang first, we continued to Hoi An right away. In case you buy a bus ticket Mui Ne - Hoi An, do not trust the vendors' claims that this is a direct route. In any case, you will need to change the bus in Nha Trang for a night bus to Hoi An.
The total journey time is 17.5h, and the ticket costs 300.000 VND.
25. 7 – 28.7 HOI AN (3 nights)
Out of all the places we've visited in Vietnam so far, I would definitely place Hoi An in the first place - as the most beautiful and charismatic city of all.
Hoi An, throughout the history holding its title as the prosperous strategic port city of Southeast Asia (in the 1st century, even the largest), has always attracted many nations for the purposes of mutual trade (spice, ceramics, textiles). Merchants came, settled in Hoi An, and now the influence of these different cultures is clearly visible on the character of the city. It feels unreal to explore the well-preserved historical center of the town (UNESCO) and to admire the unique traditional Vietnamese architecture accompanied mainly by the influence of Japanese, French and Chinese cultures. In one place, you can find Vietnamese buildings decorated with ornaments, Chinese wooden merchant storehouses and temples, colorful French colonial buildings, and a Japanese bridge with a pagoda serving as a gateway to the Japanese quarter in the 16th century.
The city's gem is the Old Town concentrating all the major sights in one place. Go through it thoroughly, even several times. Especially in the evening, the glow of colorful lanterns gives the city center its specific charm. Tickets are available for 120,000 VND, including entry to 5 sights of your choice. Five is not much, but I have a tip for you. During the lunch break, around 1 PM, most guards are having a nap, and you can easily sneak in for free. We got into several buildings without anyone checking on us at the entrance.
During your excursion around the city, stop at one of the pubs on the riverbank near the market (or at the Japanese bridge by the river to the right where you can sit on plastic chairs outside - but pay less) and order a local specialty: Cao Lau (25 - 40K) broth with wide noodles, herbs, pieces of meat and crackers. Delicacy! Beneath the everywhere advertised term White Rose (35K), imagine filled cooked dumplings.
Well, and because it's so hot outside, you might not want to refuse a glass of chilled freshly-drawn Bia Hoi beer for unbelievable 5K.
We booked a bus ticket Hoi An-Hue (3h) via Sinh Tourist for 89K. We were pleased with the service. Their new buses run timely, at a fantastic price, and the staff is more kind than other companies.
11. 8 – 15. 8 HANOI (4 nights)