Vietnam is an intriguing country with a unique (and at times, painful) past. It is also a country of scenic diversity, incredible food and warm souls.
It’s a magical place and one that we unreservedly recommend paying a visit to!
In this post, we’ve bundled up our two week itinerary through Vietnam and all of the key information you’ll need to help organise your visit.
Our Vietnam Itinerary – Two Weeks:
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
When we began planning we’d been told the HCMC didn’t really hold much appeal. We’ve learned for ourselves that going into places with low expectations can result in pleasant surprises though and that’s exactly what happened!
Whether you refer to it as Saigon (as the locals do) or by its ‘new’ name, Ho Chi Minh City, it’s a worthwhile stop on your Vietnamese itinerary.
Accommodation: 2 nights at Chez Mimosa Boutique Corner. Well located, with an incredibly friendly team and great restaurant, we were delighted with our stay at Chez Mimosa Boutique Corner!
What We Did:
- XO Tours – Foodie Tour. An amazing combination of food, culture and the iconic Vietnamese motorbike – definitely a HCMC must-do!
- War Remnants Museum
- Ben Thanh Market – easily the best market we visited in Vietnam.
Additional Activities on Offer from HCMC:
- Chi Chi Tunnels
- Mekong Delta
- Cao Dai Temple
- Bitexco Tower and Sky Deck – perfect for sunset drinks
Onwards Travel: Taxi to HCMC airport (SGN) and then a flight with Jetstar to Dong Hoi (VDH). Onwards travel in a taxi to Phong Nha – negotiated to VND400,000 (USD17.15/NZD25.65).
A world away from the hustle and bustle of Saigon and Hanoi, Phong Nha is known for its beautiful national parks, wild jungles and world-class caving. If you’re looking for adventure in Vietnam, this is where you’ll find it.
Accommodation: 1 night at the Jungle Boss Homestay before our hike and another afterwards. This beautiful little homestay offers fresh, home-cooked meals (served family-style) and has a brand new swimming pool nestled in amongst lush fields – it’s the perfect place to relax after a jungle adventure! 4 nights in total.
What We Did:
- A 3-day/2-night jungle hiking/caving adventure with Jungle Boss. These were amongst the hardest days of my life but what an amazing challenge!
Additional Activities on Offer from Phong Nha:
- Alternative caving trips (from 1 day on)
- Cave kayaking
Onwards travel: Another taxi ride back to Dong Hoi (CND400,000/USD17.15/NZD25.65) and then a train ride from Dong Hoi to Da Nang with another transfer.
Hội An is, in our opinion, the most beautiful city in all of Vietnam and an absolute must-see. Located centrally between Saigon and Hanoi, it’s accessed through Da Nang. This stunning city is best known for its well-preserved Old Town and flowing canals. Whatever you do, allow yourself plenty of time in Hội An!
Accommodation: 2 nights at the stunning Allegro Hoi An: Little Luxury Hotel & Spa (the pool is out-of-this-world!)
What We Did:
- Lune Production: AO Show
- Cooking class
- Photography tour of local farmland
- Old Quarter tour including a visit to the Japanese Covered Bridge and canals
- Chàm Islands
Additional Activities on Offer from Hoi An:
- A visit to the pottery village
Onwards travel: Another transfer to Da Nang Airport before flying to Hanoi.
Another lovely Vietnamese city, Hanoi has strong French roots and is often a favourite amongst travellers. It is also the jumping-off point for Halong and Bai Tu Long Bay, some of the most striking waterways in the country.
Accommodation: 3 nights before our Bai Tu Long Bay cruise at the Hanoi Chic Boutique Hotel. (it was meant to be 2 but a storm in Halong Bay delayed our cruise). Followed by 1 night at the Hanoi Chic Hotel upon returning to Hanoi. Both hotels were comfortable but if returning, we’d stay in the Hanoi Chic Hotel as it was recently (and beautifully) refurbished. 4 nights in total.
What We Did:
- Visit the Train Street
- A side trip to Bay Tu Long Bay/Halong Bay (including a water puppet show)
- Stroll around the beautiful lakes
- Night markets
Additional Activities on Offer from Hanoi:
- Water puppet show
Onwards travel: We were collected from our hotel by Indochina Junk and taken directly to Bai Tu Long Bay for our cruise. Too easy!
Bai Tu Long Bay
A real Vietnamese must! If you have the time, book in a sailing. If you don’t have the time, reorganise your itinerary so you do!
Accommodation: What was meant to be 2 nights aboard the Dragon’s Pearl was cut back to 1 night due to storms out on the bay.
What We Did:
- A short walk to caves
- Lots of eating and relaxing!
Onwards Travel: We returned to Hanoi after our cruise (using the included luxury transfer) and after relaxing in the city, we flew onwards to New Zealand with AirAsia.
Visa Requirements for Vietnam
Everyone wanting to enter Vietnam as a tourist is required to have a minimum of six months validity on their passport (beyond your planned stay), a minimum of one blank passport page and, most importantly, either a visa or pre-approval for one.
Having read online that visas were granted on arrival, we very nearly got caught out.
Further research leading up to our visit made it clear that although visas are indeed granted on arrival, they require a pre-approval letter which does need to be applied for in advance.
It is not possible to enter Vietnam and simply expect to get a visa on arrival without having completed the necessary steps from your home country first.
Before departing from your home country, visitors have two options regarding visas.
Visa on Arrival
This was the option that we took, opting to organise a pre-approval visa letter from New Zealand to then be issued our final visa upon arrival in Vietnam. Without doubt, this is the cheapest option, but it’s never the fastest.
We used Visa to Vietnam and, as the website promised, were quickly granted the required paperwork with which to get our visa at Saigon airport (at a cost of USD13 per person). At the airport, we had to complete a form each, supply a passport photo and pay an additional stamping fee of USD25 each (for a single entry visa).
Once you’ve been issued your approval letter, you’re a shoe-in for entry.
Visa in Advance
If you’re short on time but money isn’t an issue, it is possible to organise a visa in advance for Vietnam. You’ll need to apply a number of weeks in advance from New Zealand, be willing to submit your passport and pay the additional fees.
The price of this visa isn’t clear but my research beforehand suggested it cost more than NZD100 per person so we elected to apply in person on arrival.
If you would prefer to organise yourself ahead of time, you can find more information about advance visas online.
Currency: Getting Your Head Around the Dong
Exchange rates will change of course but, based on current rates, the following applies.
100,000 Dong (VND) =
- $6.40 New Zealand Dollars (NZD)
- $4.30 US Dollars (USD)
- €3.70 Euro (EUR)
- £3.35 Pounds Stirling (GBP)
Transport Within Vietnam
Taxis are plentiful and well-priced in Vietnam. We found them to be incredibly honest everywhere we travelled with on clear exception – Hanoi. Taxi fares shouldn’t cost you more than a dollar or two for a pretty reasonable distance but on a number of occasions, we got in taxis in Hanoi to find the fare suddenly jumped up! We’re not talking just a little difference either – in some cases, they tried charging up the same fare that we paid for an hour-long taxi ride (when in reality, we’d been in their car for less than 5 minutes).
Once you’ve got a good handle on what taxis should cost, stand your ground should anyone try to cheat you. If in doubt, either ask your hotel to organise a taxi for you or ask for a price estimate from them.
Trains are a comfortable, safe and reasonably affordable way to travel around Vietnam. To book directly with the train company, you’ll need to have a Vietnamese credit card (unlikely!) or be able to get to a Vietnamese post office quick-smart. There is one website though that will allow you to book your train online using an international credit card (yay!) or, if you’d rather, you can ask your hotel to organise your tickets when you arrive.
If you want to be 100% sure of a particular train though, it can’t hurt to book in advance (and you will need to allow at least a fews notice if using the aforementioned site).
A roads in Vietnam are fairly windy, it’s a lot faster to fly than to travel by road. Check out Jetstar Pacific and VietJet (if you’re after low-cost carriers) along with Vietnam Airlines (for full-service). We flew all of the longer distances to give us as much time as possible at each destination.
Buses are an affordable way to travel but with prices that are similar to trains and much longer travel times, we didn’t bother jumping on a long-distance coach.
Though we could have spent much more than two weeks in the country, it was a fantastic introduction to the region.
Beautiful, interesting, affordable and vibrant, Vietnam is such a worthwhile stop in South East Asia, regardless of how much time you have.
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Caving photo: Justin Del Boulter