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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!