A First Timer’s Guide to Travelling Vietnam

Growing in popularity on the Southeast Asia backpacking scene, Vietnam has so much to offer. Aside from the horrific ‘American War’ (as it’s called in Vietnam because well, what else would you call it?), there is so much history to explore as well as seriously fun cities and more coastline than most Asian countries (and no one to be seen for miles as locals don’t like to tan).

If you’re a first time visitor, here’s my advice for making the most of your trip.

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a-first-timers-guide-to-vietnam

Getting in

All visitors to Vietnam will need to check their individual visa requirements with their embassy, but for UK visitors, you are currently allowed to enter the country visa-free for up to 15 days. For any stays above this time, you’ll need to apply for a tourist visa which will normally allow you up to 30 days’ stay.

You must apply for your visa before you arrive in Vietnam, and there are a number of companies who can help you do this for a small fee. Some are more trustworthy than others but I recommend Vietnam Visa who can turn your application around in a couple of days.

If you’re planning to exit the country and then re-enter then you must apply for a multiple entry visa.

noodle lady vietnamese market

Getting around

Vietnam is a long, narrow country with most of the tourist locations spread quite evenly down the spine of the country. As it is very well set up for tourism, there are plenty of ways to get around.

The cheapest way by far is by bus, but in my experience it isn’t all that nice. Buses are overcrowded, with drivers letting people sleep in the aisles, forcing foreigners to the back (by the toilets) and generally the staff on buses have a reputation for being rude and unhelpful. I witnessed one bus leaving from a rest stop 5 minutes early without one of the passengers on board, and all of her stuff was still on the bus.

If you can afford it, then train travel is much more comfortable. There is a great detailed guide to train travel in Vietnam on Seat 61, one of my favourite blogs for getting to the nitty gritty. It’s also really popular to hire a motorcycle to drive the whole length of the country. My friend Paula did this and has a brilliant guide to motorbiking Vietnam on her blog.

hue easy rider motorbike

If you’re short on time, then you can fly from A to B. The main airports are Hanoi in the north, Danang in the centre and Ho Chi Minh City in the South. Vietnam Airlines and Air Asia are great places to start for cheap domestic flights.

Trip Length

How Long Should You Go For? Well, how long is a piece of string? You could spend months criss-crossing Vietnam, exploring its miles of deserted beaches and untouched national parks, however most people stay between 2 and 4 weeks (in line with the visa restrictions).

I would say that a 2 week trip will feel a bit rushed and you will miss a few spots which are well worth seeing, but if you can only take 2 weeks away from work then Vietnam is a great country to explore in this time.

Halong Bay

Highlights

Below I’ve listed the main areas to visit and what there is to see there, along with a suggested time for each. Most buses and trains will stop in or nearby these locations.

Hanoi (2-3 days) – My favourite city in Vietnam, the old quarter is filled with amazing street food and a really cool bar scene. Check out the post I wrote for The Travel Hack about spending the perfect 24 hours in Hanoi.

Sapa (3-4 days) – I spent about 9 days here in the end, such is Sapa’s charm and lure. A cute mountain town where you can hike into the valleys with the local H’mong people. Check out my post to find out more.

sapa valley view

Halong Bay (2 days) – Explore the karst limestone islands of Halon Bay and beyond on a boat trip around the bay. Want to do it on a budget? Check out my post on how to do the whole trip on way less than $100.

Hue (2-3 days) – Head south to Hue (pronounced Hway), where there is TONS of history for you to explore, especially around the ‘American War’. Why not take a motorbike trip to get a bit deeper into the story of Vietnam.

hue easy rider rice paddies

Danang (1-2 days) – A relatively sleepy city on an AMAZING beach. Not too much to do apart from seeing the Lady Buddha, but still a nice place to stop for a couple of days.

Hoi An (2-3 days) – I would HIGHLY recommend a few days in Hoi An, famous for its amazing food, pretty riverside bars and cafes, lanterns and tailor made suits.

hoi an lanterns

Nha Trang (2 days) – If you’re short on time then you can skip this but I enjoyed riding the cable car to a nearby theme park on an island.

Mui Ne (Phan Thiet) (1-2 days) – Famous for kite surfing, this sleepy little fisherman’s village has a cool hostel called the Mui Ne Hills and their pool is a great place to hang out and meet other travellers.

Ho Chi Minh City (3-4 days) – Previously Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is a massive sprawling city with crazy traffic and a buzzing nightlife. LOVED it, so stay a few days and soak in the buzz.

Mekong Delta (1-2 days) – You can do this as a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City, or spend a few days exploring the delta of the Mekong river in the south.

Mekong Delta boat trip

Phu Quoc Island (2-3 days) – If you have any time left then chill out on the beach on Phu Quoc Island before you finish your trip through Vietnam.

For a whole host of tours throughout the country, check out Vietnam Discovery.

Top Tips

Always keep a positive attitude. Vietnam can be harder work then neighbouring Cambodia or Thailand in terms of locals’ view of foreigners. It’s not that you’re not welcome, but don’t expect everyone to be your best friend, especially if they work in the tourism industry.

Watch out for taxi scams, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. If you suspect your taxi meter is running too fast or your driver is taking you the wrong way, don’t be afraid to speak up and if necessary (and it’s safe), get out of the taxi and find another one.

Be sure to double check your money before handing it over. 10,000 Dong looks a lot like 100,000 Dong, and 50,000 Dong looks quite like 500,000 Dong – Don’t pay 10 times the cost just because you didn’t check – your lucky recipient will not alert you to your mistake!

Enjoying being a millionaire in Vietnam, with two million Dong (about £62)

Enjoying being a millionaire in Vietnam, with two million Dong (about £62)

Most of all, relax and enjoy the pace of life in Vietnam. If you have any other questions please let me know in the comments below!

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Hayley is the author behind A Life of More, a travel and lifestyle blog with the goal of helping you to live a happier and more fulfilled life, whether you're currently travelling or happily settled.

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Comments 5

  1. Post
    Author
    Hayley Griffiths

    Hey Mark, I would suggest concentrating your time in the north, as you’ll find a lot of variety here. A couple of days in Hanoi to get your bearings and enjoy some awesome food, a couple of days (at least 1 overnight) in Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay to see the coast, and then a couple of days up in the mountains in Sapa. Have a wonderful time!

  2. Trisha

    Hi there! thank you for this blog! Great info.

    My husband I will be visiting Vietnam in April and we’re taking our 4yr old. We fly into Saigon at 2am. Should we hire a private walking tour/walking food tour that day? Really nervous about navigating the country and hoping to get some tips from a private tour the first day. It’ll be our first time in SEA. We’ll be in Saigon 2 days, Hoi An 4 days, and Siem Reap for 3 days. We really want to see Hoi An & Angkor this trip and save Hanoi for next year. Thanks so much! Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  3. Post
    Author
    Hayley Griffiths

    Hi Trisha. Great trip you’ve got planned there!

    With the amount of time you have in each place, I would definitely recommend a tour to help you get your bearings, as Ho Chi Minh City can be hectic for newcomers, especially if you haven’t visited Southeast Asia before. I booked a food tour with a company called Withlocals whilst I was in Vietnam and found it to be excellent. Not only because you get to meet real local people who are your guides, but also because I found tours to be much cheaper than booking through big companies. Try https://www.withlocals.com/ and see if you can find some tours for your trip. Leave some time to explore by yourself though!

    With a little one in tow I would recommend flying between the locations as from memory the bus from HCMC to Hoi An is about 12 hours. You can fly from Ho Chi Minh City (SGN) to Danang (DAD) in just over an hour, and then get a taxi from the airport which will take about half an hour I think.

    Getting from Hoi An to Siem Reap will need a flight connection in SGN. There are no direct buses or trains that do this route to my knowledge.

    As an alternative, you could connect your 2am flight straight up to Danang and start your trip in Hoi An. There are plenty of flights daily, starting at about 6am. Do a google search for ‘flights from Ho Chi Minh to Danang’ and you’ll see what I mean. That would be a softer landing culture-wise as Hoi An is much more laid-back, and you could have your 4 days there to relax and find your feet, then fly to HCMC, spend a couple of days and then fly on to Siem Reap, or you can even get the bus from here but it takes about 8 hours and is a bit of a schlep to cross the border.

    Hope this has been helpful! Let me know what you decide! Hayley x

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