Vietnam was on our bucket list ever since we have traveled to Cambodia. At that time we had to skip its neighboring country, however we made a promise to ourselves that we would come back for another adventure. It would take us 2 years to keep this promise.
When the day finally arrived, we booked flights and applied for a 3-month visa, giving us enough time to explore the country without being in a rush. Our decision to travel in winter (December to February) proved to be a advantageous as we could ditch the big crowds of tourists. There was not much heat so the weather was manageable but there was heavy rainfall – in some places causing floods – and the skies were mostly foggy and grey.
In this guide we reflect on our memories of our Vietnam adventure. We want to introduce you to the most spectacular places as seen through our eyes and experiences. If you are a budget traveler like us, make sure to check out our comprehensive Budget Guide to Vietnam.
Hanoi was our first stop on our itinerary. Make sure to pick a hostel in the Old Quarter district as this will give you access to all attractions within walking reach. There are plenty of restaurants in all price categories.
Get lost in the many alleys of the Old Quarter. Inches away from people’s homes, a train regularly passes through narrow streets, with travelers lining up to watch this unique scene. Don’t miss out on this baffling attraction. The railroad tracks can provide some really mind-blowing shots.
Did you know that the world’s largest mosaic wall is located in Hanoi? According to Guinness Book of World Records it is 6,5 km (or 4 miles) long. We only saw a glimpse of it but it was worthwhile. The mosaic wall starts at the ramp to the highway near the Opera House. Enjoy the artworks showing traditional Vietnamese figures and historical scenes.
We were also able to spot some cool street art.
There are many places in Hanoi to book your transfer to Cát Bà island, like in the hostel we stayed at. The fare includes a bus and boat transfer to the island. A trip to Cát Bà island is the cheaper alternative to a cruise around Halong Bay. Either way, you will be able to see the picturesque limestone islands that create an out-of-this-world scenery.
You will have no trouble finding tour operators offering boat tours. There is quite some construction going on what can spoil a day on the beach. We expect many more resorts to pop up in the near future. When we were there, in January, the beaches were mostly abandoned creating a Robinson Crusoe flair.
Rent a motorbike if you can, and make a trip to Dinh Kim Giao, the island’s national park. There are several trekking paths with different degrees of difficulty. We chose the easiest and quickest route. Once you reach the top of the mountain, there is a marvelous view waiting for you.
And if you have more time to spare on the island, plan a motorbike ride through the countryside.
Tam Coc, Ninh Bình
If you can’t get enough of the magical Karst mountains, take a look at Ninh Bình. Once you made it to this little paradise, you will never want to leave again. The best place to stay is around the Tam Coc River. The town of Ninh Bình itself is not very spectacular.
Ninh Bình is the perfect place to relax after some buzzing days in the capital. You will encounter farmers walking their cattle.
A visit to the ancient imperial capital lets you travel back in time. Take a look behind the walls of the fortress with its many temples, pagodas and tombs. The Thien Mu Pagoda is the symbol of Hue. In the back is a beautiful garden with statues and places to rest. Monks can be spotted all over the place.
Hue is located close to the seaside with beaches that are nearly abandoned. Make sure to check out Thuan An after finishing your tour around the ancient city. Take a long beach walk.
If you plan to visit Hoi An, we can recommend staying in Da Nang. Not only is it cheaper, but also less touristic. The city is famous for its iconic bridges, like the Dragon Bridge and the relatively new Golden Hand Bridge.
A visit to the largest and most impressive pagoda of the city is a must. Linh Ung Pagoda can be easily recognized by the giant statue of the Lady Buddha guarding the entrance. There is also one in sleeping state.
And if you are heading that way, there is the steep Monkey Road a little further ahead. As the name suggests, there are monkeys living in the forests surrounding this narrow road. It is only accessible by motorbike, but make sure your motorbike is powerful enough to make the steep roads – our motorbike couldn’t make it if the two of us were sharing a motorbike.
If you need some relaxation, give Nha Trang a try but be aware that there is not much to do here. We spent most our days on the beach and driving around on the motorbike.
Make a trip to Hon Chong. This stretch on the coastline is popular for its peculiar rocks. It looks nicer from a distance – no need to climb them.
Unfortunately, Nha Trang is mostly taken over by Russian vacationers. Restaurants and street signs are translated to Russian and even street vendors are familiar with basic Russian words. There are many hotels, restaurants, shops, diving schools and clubs that are owned by Russians. Be aware that Russian people are generally very rude, so don’t be too surprised of the strange, gloomy atmosphere and indifferent service.
Like Nha Trang, the coastal town of Mũi Né is mostly occupied by Russians. Once a fishermen’s town, Mũi Né is now becoming a chill-out beach getaway.
For more tips continue to our guide to Mui Ne.
Located in the Vietnamese highlands, the vibe in Đà Lạt is quite different than in the rest of the country. If possible, rent a motorbike and cruise around the beautiful jungle-like mountainous landscapes. The lushness of the countryside is enchanting, colorful flower fields are spread out along the roads. Make sure to stop on your way to soak up the amazing views.
There is no place as peaceful and inspiring as Trúc Lâm Temple and Monastery. There are some great viewpoints around here.
Until recently, Phú Quốc was mostly an unknown island, but since the influx of low-cost flights, it is more and more becoming a popular island for people to relax. Although the island officially belongs to Cambodia, there are no visa requirements and its proximity to Vietnam makes it feel as if you are still in Vietnam. Prices here are much higher than in Vietnam or Cambodia.
Long Beach is the island’s most visited beach and it’s full of resorts that claim large stretches of beach to themselves. Ong Lang Beach and Vai Bung Beach are slightly quieter and wilder.
Overall we spent 2 and a half wonderful months in Vietnam. The longest we have ever stayed in one place. It just felt right to be here despite the floods in some parts of the country. We stayed mostly in homestays, where we got all the help we needed. We didn’t even have to look around for motorbike rentals, as we could rent one on the spot.
As budget travelers we focus on keeping our expenses low while experiencing all the charms a place has to offer. Instead of booking an expensive cruise to Halong Bay, we traveled to Cat Ba from where we were able to see the famous limestone karst islands. And then there is Tam Coc, also called the Halong Bay on land. Visiting both places was still cheaper than booking one of the tour packages.
If you want to read upon our detailed budget, you are invited to check our Budget Guide to Vietnam.