Here we are with a nice handy post for organizing your two-week trip to Vietnam. I wrote it thinking of all the information that I wanted to find me while I was organizing (and I have not found). In this post you will find the complete itinerary and even divided by areas (south, center, north) and the description of our days.
The first impact is always from behind a window by air, car, train or bus. This time, in particular the van from the airport in Ho Chi Minh City brings us to the Mekong Delta. It's a strange feeling that is very different from the Vietnam I had imagined. We cross the outskirts of HCMC and all that I have before my eyes are houses that are quite modern but poorly maintained, always developed upwards and so many scooters so as to remain hypnotized.
Then the city slowly starts to thin out and we enter in the countryside. At the roadside we see girls in bike with fluttering clothes and conical hats. Next to us a woman is pulling a cart with a load of packages that will be ten times bigger than her. Suddenly we find ourselves on a bridge over one of the arms of the Mekong Delta. It is powerful, calm, almost threatening, exactly as I had imagined.
We arrived in Vietnam and I'm happy. Do not run absolutely! Do not make any sudden and unexpected movements! Do not stop! Do not change speed! Simply start walking slowly and keep going straight ahead and keep the same rhythm and the same speed. These are the words of a Vietnamese girl! In Vietnam scooters are a plague. There are 90 million inhabitants and 40 million motorbikes.
And each of those 40 million scooters is used every day, constantly, producing a quantity of exhaust gas of unspeakable traffic. The peculiar thing is that no one whizzes, all go as per plan, moving fluidly in this sea of people, always with a leg ready to lean on the ground, with the mask and the bowl-shaped helmet. All have a helmet, huh. Unbelievable.
The horn sounds can be heard every two seconds, but only to let the other know its presence. They are ready to stop, to slow down. They are attentive. I think in their head is like playing one of those video games whereever you go on without be able to stop and you have to get to the bottom while avoiding obstacles that you face. So you have to play their game, satisfy this madness and get a view that works well in Vietnam. You have to trust them.
You just have to find the strength to get off the sidewalk and make that first step towards moving the inextricable web of scooters. One step after another, always at the same speed. One by one they will pass by harmoniously, like a waltz, and then go back to the tangle of scooters. So the golden rule for any traveler to cross the road in Vietnam is to be slow and steady and brave.
In front of the Halong Bay, islands emerge from the sea suddenly, one after the other, and behind another hundred. In front of the rice fields in Sapa, which are all green and the world seem a picture of a talented painter and perhaps actually have a picture of a talented painter.
Those overlooking the islands, those rice paddies in the mountains, you see them with your eyes, but as you go inside they take you into the puzzle, adding new colors to your modest palette like when you finally uncork your nose when you have a cold, like when at the end of an incomprehensible film is the final recap and you understand everything and when you find something you were looking for a long time.
Vietnam is the country of the smiles and you'd expect to get in there and find all these happy men with a smile from thousands of teeth from morning to night. In fact, when you meet them on the street they will also look a bit confused and pull forward. Then at some point he smiles and everything changes. On their faces check a full smile, the kind that change also the expression of the eyes and forehead wrinkles. So I started to smile at streets, markets, hotels. And when I got back so many smiles I felt light!
For me it is a beautiful thing. One of the things that impressed me most about this trip is the distinct cultural divide between North and South, and particularly between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that everyone still called Saigon. Hanoi is the tradition, communism, backwardness, the Chinese influence, the old quarter with a trade for each route. Ho Chi Minh City is progress, capitalism, development, Western influence, the business district where there are ugly and gleaming skyscrapers.
While in Ho Chi Minh City people have food in the Big Mac, in Hanoi, the Vietnamese drink coffee sitting on tiny little chairs on the roadside. In Ho Chi Minh City you are just a tourist, someone who has money to spend and people will want to sell at all costs something, while in Hanoi you are just another person like so many around the city, and people will pass by and smile at you.
In Hanoi, the war is something distant and dormant. The real star is Ho Chi Minh, where it is almost revered. In Hanoi, the eyes are almond-shaped, the skin is sallow, the cheekbones are high with hard features while in Ho Chi Minh City eyes are larger with clearer skin, more plump and round faces. You can see the western genes. Two different worlds, fascinating and probably irreconcilable. The only thing in common in both the cities is the rats on the street.
I loved Hanoi with all my heart, who kidnapped me with smiles, colors and traditions. It is the best way that I can think of to explain these weeks in Vietnam. The variety of places, people and experiences is what impressed me the most. In Vietnam there are many small Vietnam's that are the same and they are all like so many beautiful pearls that together form the most beautiful necklace in the world.
There is the Mekong Delta with the dark water as far as the eye goes and the exuberant vegetation. There is the Hội An with its colorful lanterns reflected in the river when night falls. There is the Cham Island where the jungle comes out of the sea and descends on a lovely beach. There is Hue, the imperial capital, with the citadel which tells the splendors of ancient Vietnam.
There is the Halong Bay that surrounds you with its 1960 islands overlooking the sea. There is the Trang An with the boats on the river and caves they touch his head. There is the Sapa rice fields with the mountains, the colors of the people living in the villages, fresh air. There is Hanoi with its character and its traditions and there is Ho Chi Minh City with the future in its hands.
Day 1 : HCMC (1), Can Tho (2)> night in Can Tho
Day 2 : Can Tho (2), Hoi An (3)> night in Hoi An
Day 3 : Hoi An (3), Cham Island> night in Hoi An
Day 4 : Hoi An (3), Hue (4)> night in Hue
Day 5: Hue (4)> night in Hue
Day 6 : Hue (4), Hanoi (5)> night in Hanoi
Day 7 : Hanoi (5), Halong Bay (6)> cruise night on Halong Bay
Day 8 : Halong Bay (6), Hanoi (5)> night in Hanoi
Day 9 : Hanoi (5), Ninh Binh (7), Hanoi (5)> night on the overnight train to Lao Cai
Day 10 : Lao Cai, Sapa (8)> night in Sapa
Day 11 : Sapa (8), Lao Cai> night on the overnight train back to Hanoi
Day 12 : Hanoi (5)> night in Hanoi
Day 13 : Hanoi (5), Ho Chi Minh City (1)> night in HCMC
Day 14 : Ho Chi Minh City (1), the evening return flight
Day 1: HCMC (1), Can Tho (2)> night in Can Tho
Arrival in Ho Chi Minh City after many flights and many adventures. At the airport we take a private transfer that from Ho Chi Minh City leads us to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. The journey takes about three hours. After
arriving in Can Tho we take a shower and go out for a ride in the town. We have a dinner of crispy noodles at the restaurant.
Day 2: Can Tho (2), Hoi An (3)> night in Hoi An
Early in the morning (7:30 am) we meet with our English speaking guide and depart for the boat ride on the Mekong Delta between the floating market. Just go to the pier and take a boat. I think with the guide, however, it makes more sense. From the floating market we move into a factory of rice noodles, a very nice place where we follow the entire production of rice noodles till drying.
Then in the third stage we get to a beautiful fruit garden on the Mekong where we tasted all kinds of Vietnamese fruits of course washed down with the water of the Mekong. The last stop was at a rice processing factory where it was interesting to see the whole process. In the afternoon we take the van for the transfer from Can Tho airport to Ho Chi Minh City. We take a flight from HCMC to Da Nang and then a taxi from Da Nang to Hoi An towards a guest house.
Day 3: Hoi An (3), Cham Island> night in Hoi An
The next morning we were picked up at the guest house by a van for the excursion to Cham Island. If you are not snorkelers you can find some very nice beaches also in Hoi An for an excursion without spending money. We started in the morning and returned in the late afternoon. It takes an hour by boat to reach the island and get back. We stopped twice for snorkeling which was nice but nothing exciting. Do not expect to swim in the middle of a rainbow of tropical fish here.
Then we arrived on the island that was really beautiful, which looked like a piece of jungle from the sea. And the beach was fantastic. We would have wanted to stay much longer. On the island there are also one or two guest houses embedded into the forest. If you have time you can stay one night. And that early morning beach I think it's the dream of anyone.
We came back as it was now late afternoon. We took the free bikes that was offered by the guest house and we went to the center of Hoi An.
Day 4: Hoi An (3), Hue (4)> night in Hue
In the morning we did a cycling tour in Hoi An. The bike ride was spectacular. Our guide took us to the house of a family that prepares handmade noodles, and then to an old man who grows soybeans and then a pair of gentlemen who have a small herb garden, all smiling and full of life, and it was really beautiful. On the way back we spent a few hours exploring the old part of Hoi An, with its old houses and fuchsia bougainvillea.
In the afternoon we came to take the van to take us from Hoi An to Hue. We chose to go through Hai Van Pass which is the scenic road in the mountains along the coast and the alternative would have been the Hai Van Tunnel. We arrived in Hue in the evening at the hotel. The staff was extremely available, always nice and smiling. It's a place where you feel good. Remember to ask specifically to have no rooms on the ground floor. For dinner we had the Golden Rice, I especially liked and spent little.
Day 5: Hue (4)> night in Hue
The next morning we went down the perfume river to reach the Citadel on foot. A thousand little women stuck us and convinced us to take the boat that would take us off the river in all the interesting places of Hue. We have been to the Thien Mu Pagoda, the Imperial Tomb of Tu Duc and the Citadel.
Day 6: Hue (4), Hanoi (5)> night in Hanoi
The next morning we left early to take the plane from Hue to Hanoi and arrive in the capital at lunchtime. We stayed at a hostel. In the afternoon we were wandering through the old quarters of Hanoi, where every street has the name of the trade that takes place. We drove up to the Hoan Kiem Lake and entered the Ngoc Son temple on the islet in the middle of the lake connected by the red bridge.
For dinner we tasted the noodle soup, meat, bean sprouts, vegetables with all hardcore street food in the most famous places in Hanoi. From there we moved on the streets to Lương Ngọc Quyen and Ta Hien, the center of Vietnamese nightlife. Even there, we had street food and bia hoi beer.
Day 7: Hanoi (5), Halong Bay (6)> cruise night on Halong Bay
In the morning on the van after 4 hours and a broken back, we finally got off the devil's van in Halong Bay, one of those views that makes you take a clicking in your head. We hopped on the boat, had lunch with fish mostly for two days, cooked in Vietnamese style and in the meantime we started navigating. After a few hours lost in the midst of the beautiful islands we went to visit the caves of Sung Sot and a wonderful lagoon that we reached with the kayak. In the evening we listen to music and chatter on top of the boat deck.
Day 8: Halong Bay (6), Hanoi (5)> night in Hanoi
The next morning we made an excursion on an island that has a vantage point from which you can see very well, and the bay with a small beach for swimming. Back in the boat we had a mini Vietnamese cooking course to learn how to cook the fresh spring rolls and after lunch we went down to the ground. For the next 4 hours we were on the devils van back to Hanoi. In the afternoon and evening we go out exploring the city.
Day 9: Hanoi (5), Ninh Binh (7), Hanoi (5)> night on the overnight train to Lao Cai
We spend the day in Ninh Binh, nicknamed the terrestrial Halong Bay. For the first stop we go to Bái Dinh Temple, a spectacular venue, with golden Buddha statues. The walk back up to the top is accompanied by 500 Arhat statues, large Buddhist characters. It is a historic landmark, that was built in 2003. However, it was really impressive.
In the second stage we go to the caves and the river Trang An. Here we spent two hours immersed in the silent nature aboard a wooden rowing boat with a strong Vietnamese woman who helped us to move the boat forward. It goes through caves, very low rock tunnels and amazing scenery. Apart from the typical lunch at Trang An, we eat lamb meat and rice. In the evening we come back to Hanoi to the hotel to prepare the backpack for Sapa and go to the station to catch the night train.
Day 10: Lao Cai, Sapa (8)> night in Sapa
In the morning at 4 am we arrived at the station in Lao Cai. To get to Sapa it takes an hour by car. Here we move to the hotel, with a terrace over the mountains and rice fields. After breakfast we leave for the first trek between the villages of Cat Cat and Y Ling Ho and home to the H'mong. Without doubt it was one of the best experiences of my life.
We returned to Sapa in the afternoon and went for a ride to the craft market and the food market of frogs, worms, live fish, and so on. In the evening we walk, have dinner and then a few beers at one of the many places that offer happy hour around the country.
Day 11: Sapa (8), Lao Cai> night on the overnight train back to Hanoi
In the second day of our trekking, this time we have less nature and more villages. We have been to the villages of Lao Chai and Ta Van. We met owners of a homestay. We have seen how women weave hemp and made friends with a tiny baby. We learned to pound the rice and had a close encounter with a water buffalo. By mid-afternoon we left to go from Sapa to Lao Cai to take the night train in the evening to return to Hanoi.
Day 12: Hanoi (5)> night in Hanoi
After a sleepless night on the train from Sapa, we stayed at the Temple of Literature where we took the first real holiday downpour that made us lose all morning and did not allow us to get in time to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh that is open only in the morning. We then went to see it only from the outside and we went to the house of Ho Chi Minh and Pagoda in one column which was redone because it was destroyed by the French. We walk around the town in the French Quarter and then rest.
Day 13: Hanoi (5), Ho Chi Minh City (1)> night in HCMC
The next morning at 9:30 flight from Hanoi we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at 11:30. We arrived at the hotel. The hotel also offers the chance to sleep in the capsules, but the one we chose was a double room. Our first stop of the day was Bến Thành Market, a huge market, almost suffocating, a giant warehouse with all stuck banchette and very pushy people. Then through the walking route recommended by Lonely Planet we see the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Post Office, the Reunification Palace and the Turtle Lake and beautiful cupcakes shop!
Day 14: Ho Chi Minh City (1), the evening return flight
Here I had planned to go to the Cu Chi tunnels, the ones that used to protect the Viet Cong during the war, but in the end I thought better. I've read that for a few dollars at the exit of the tunnel they make you try to shoot and have widened the tunnels for tourists. We took a walk through the whole center of Ho Chi Minh City to reach the Pagoda of Jade Emperor that I loved.
From there we went back to the Reunification Palace and we continued towards the Remnants of War Museum. This museum is very heavy, but it's worth a lot, and should be mandatory for every tourist who set foot in Vietnam. From there we took taxis, planes, trains and all possible means, and we went back home.