Below is my suggested Vietnam itinerary for people who want to get beyond the tourist traps. Vietnam is full of stunning nature, historical sights and helpful locals. Let’s get going…
Getting around Vietnam:
It’s sooo easy! You can access the first point on this itinerary from Hanoi (Vietnam’s capital city) by direct bus. You can always book night or day buses directly from your accommodation to your next stop. It is honestly the easiest country I have ever travelled in, and accommodations are used to speaking English to tourists.
Whilst visiting each stop, you can rent a scooter or hire an easyrider (a Vietnamese guy who’ll take round on his motorbike – great fun). Many places also had bicycles to rent or borrow – and of course, you can walk too!
The Alternative Vietnam Itinerary…
- Ninh Binh
- Phong Na
- the Hoi Van Pass
- Hoi An
About Ninh Binh:
Ninh Binh is also known as ‘Halong Bay on land’ but with way less tourists (though I suspect that’ll change soon). You access Ninh Binh on a direct bus from Hanoi or Halong Bay. It’s recommended you stay in Tam Coc or Trang Na – don’t stay in Ninh Binh city, it doesn’t have the same gorgeous scenery. From your accommodation you will able to rent a bicycle or scooter – or you can walk like me!
NOT TO BE MISSED:
HANG MUA CAVES
Tipped as the best view in Vietnam, and who am I to argue? Easily accessed by bike or walking, it’s an amazing attraction with a stunning staircase carved into the looming mountains. There are almost 500 steps so e prepared, but it’s totally worth it.
Other things to see in Ninh Binh:
BICH DONG PAGODA
An ancient pagoda. It was flooded when I went, but I felt that this only added to the experience and made it extra unique.
TAM COC BOAT TOUR
If you’re keen to see the mountains looming out of the water, go on a boat ride where the locals row with their feet! Or an alternative is also the TRANG AN GROTTOES TOUR.
EXPLORE THE DIRT ROADS AND FARMS TRACKS
Ninh Binh is a natural wonder best enjoyed at your own pace. Since I can’t ride a bicycle, I found myself walking 20km the second day, armed only with a playlist, and loved every minute of it. For those cycling, check out the Homestay Loop – ask your accommodation as many provide maps, or look on google maps. Honestly on the dirt tracks I saw NO ONE else. Very tranquil.
About Phong Nha:
Phong Nha was one of the most heavily bombed areas during the Vietnam War because it was part of the supply route from North to South Vietnam. People hid in caves during the day and did all the work at night, even farming.
Hiring an easyrider in Phong Na for one day was 11 pounds. You can rent your own for less, or borrow a bicycle from your hostel.
NOT TO BE MISSED:
The cave was discovered in 2005 by the British cave association. 1km of the massive 36km cave is open to tourists – if you add any cave on to your Vietnam itinerary, make it this one!
This place has to be seen to believed. I’ve seen a LOT of caves while travelling and frankly? This one ruined all the others for me! It really is like walking into another planet – the most otherworldly place I’ve experienced. Unfortunately, I found it very hard to photograph – the scale of it is beyond what my camera can take in.
The limestone formations loom all around you, and the artificial lighting creates a mystical effect.
Other Things to do in Phong Na:
PHONG NA CAVES BOAT TOUR
It was strange to think of people hiding in the caves during the war, whilst bombers outside targeted the entrance to the cave. They even had to bring the supply bridges inside the cave during the daytime! The stalactites and stalagmites were incredible, like giant ominous jellyfish.
A more ‘activity-based’ cave experience in which you zipline into the cave and walk through deep, deep mud wearing a headlamp. Apparently all that mud is good for your skin though, who knows. They say only bring clothes you don’t mind getting ruined!
There’s a waterfall you can swim in but we just went to the viewpoint – it was so pretty.
Easy Tiger is a great hostel in the heart of Phong Na – and you can take advantage of it even if you don’t stay there. For people staying, it had a jungle theme and pool and loads of food options on sight. But best of all, every morning at around 09:15 they do a talk about everything there is to do in Phong Na – and everyone is welcome! They encourage backpackers to share costs together, which made it easy for me as a solo. They will tell you all the activities, how to get to them, and provide maps along with the best places to hire scooters or bicycles.
A lot of people don’t rate Hue but I think this is down to the sights there being lesser known (except perhaps the highlight below). It is home to the Imperial City – part of its vast, 19th century citadel, full of shrines and palaces – and also the Forbidden Purple City. Despite so many beautiful attractions, it was disturbingly also where the Battle of Hue took place – in 1968, thousands of people were killed here.
NOT TO BE MISSED:
THE ABANDONED WATERPARK
Whilst there are loads of tales of people sneaking into the park and dodging security, I found it very easy to enter the park! I think because I had hired a local guide for the day (along with his scooter) it was super easy to get there.
They spent 3 million US dollars to create the waterpark for families, yet now I was wandering around over barbed wire and broken glass. Although it’s not officially open to the public, everyone goes… A must do unique experience for your Vietnam itinerary.
Other things to do in Hue
VONG CANH HILL LOOKOUT
Who doesn’t love a viewpoint? This one overlooks the river.
TU DUC TOMB
Tu Duc is sometimes considered the last emperor of Vietnam and died in 1883. He had no children but 104 wives and even more concubines… sounds stressful, right?
PAGODA OF THE CELESTIAL LADY / THIEN MU PAGODA
The perfect way to end a day exploring Hue. My local guide (aka scooter driver) told me all about the folklore surrounding the temple.
HOI VAN PASS
I hired an easy rider for around $35 USD to take me on the 137km journey from Hue to Hoi An. This local guide was so friendly and made the day really enjoyable. Since the whole day was a highlight, I will simply list the stops in order:
- ELEPHANT SPRINGS
A real-life gorgeous waterfall with man-made pools underneath. It was great to relax here for a bit, despite being very crowded, as it was such a hot day. There is a bizarre elephant statue cut into the rock and so many different pools of different sizes stretching up the mountain. Very touristy but bizarrely pretty fun!
2. LANG CO BEACH
Although it was mostly seafood option, I found a veggie option. There wasn’t much there but the beach was pretty and sandy. I was keen to move on though because the next stop was…
3. THE HOI VAN PASS
This 21km mountain pass was the highlight of the day, of course! The views were incredible and it felt great to feel the wind rushing past us as the bike scaled the winding roads.
4. MARBLE MOUNTAINS
After a refreshing ice cream break, I explored the inside of the mountain. There are creepy figures carved into the mountain that get more and more disturbing as you walk further in. Quite an experience.
This was my last stop in Vietnam! I flew from here to Singapore.
In Hoi An you can:
- eat outdoors on the bustling streets, admiring the lanterns. There are many cute cafes and both local and western-style restaurants to choose from.
- get clothes tailored! I got a couple of dresses made here and it was so much fun.
- go for a Vietnamese massage – honestly so cheap
- visit the old quarter
- See the Japanese bridge
- Try egg coffee – way nicer than I expected!
- Take a cooking class or cooking tour – my hostel held tours three times a week!
- cycle to the beach or take a boat trip to the highly recommended Cham Island
Visit MY SON CHAMPA RUINS – HOI AN
The Champa city of My Son was occupied from the 4th to 13th century. It was a dominant city for Cham people due to its defensible location and was an important Hindu temple complex. The area was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War in 1969 and now just 18 of approximately 70 structures originally documented remain. It’s likely landmines remain in the surrounding area – beautiful but dangerous, and a reminder of this country’s tragic past.
How to tie this into a longer itinerary:
GO NORTH: Those on a longer trip can still do easily access Sapa (to hike the rice fields), Halong Bay, motorcycle around Ha Giang or explore Hanoi before embarking on the following itinerary. I personally did Sapa, Hanoi and Halong Bay, and was unable to go to Ha Giang.
GO SOUTH: This itinerary ends in Hoi An, and from there you can easily go South to Ho Chi Min City. Add Mui Ne to your Vietnam itinerary if you’re after something unique (it has red sand dunes!) or Dalat if you love nature.