“Adventure is worthwhile.” – Aesop
PRINT & GO
Before your departure, do not forget to check/bring with you :
– Boarding Pass and Hotel Reservation
– Visa (if applicable)
DAY 1: HO CHI MINH
Vietnam is surely one of the most beautiful and authentic country in Asia. Although its constant development, the country still manages to keep its authenticity, very visible in its nature and architecture. The cities are a mix of modern touch and historical signs, the countryside includes wild forests, beaches, fantastic temples. A visit to the whole country would require at least 2 weeks time, but I managed to have a general view in 1 week time. During this week, I had the chance to explore the south and the north of the country (too bad I missed the central part, which apparently it is the best one). The south and the north are completely different, from a architectural, historical, nature, weather, and people perspective…explore both of them will give you the impression to visit two different countries.
I started my week in Vietnam in the South, namely in Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon. I used the city as base to move outside and have day excursions in the region, nevertheless it is normal to spend at least one day exploring the city itself. And I must say one day for Saigon is more than enough. In my life I have had the chance to visit many cities, but I think this one is one of the ugliest I have ever seen. Saigon is unfortunately what we call a urban jungle: big and old buildings everywhere, no greenery, some monuments that are not extremely well maintained, a huge traffic with no rules, motorbikes everywhere and no traffic lights…a festival of chaos and concrete. Walking in the street might be a challenge: sidewalks occupied by motorbikes, noisy streets occupied by motorbikes, pollution at its top, no public transportation. I don’t want to give a horrible picture of HCMC, just trying to get you ready for the craziness. That being said, a day there is a must because there are still things to enjoy: first of all the Behn Tahn Market, in order to experience one of the best things of Vietnam, its food. You can start your day there, having a tour among the hundreds stands selling clothes, souvenirs, and food. Once you finish your tour at the market, just have a walk in the streets around, the whole city center is an interesting place.
From the market, you can take any street behind and after a while you will arrive at a beautiful square surrounded by Notre Dame church ( a beautiful French style church ) and the Post Office (a classical building with beautiful paintings and decorations inside).
In the central area you will also find the Town Hall, a beautiful building in French style facing a long pedestrian street (the only one in the city). This promenade street is enjoyable especially at night, when it gets crowded of people and street artists, painters, musicians. The pedestrian street will make you pass near the Opera (another beautiful building with French influences) and end near the Bitexco Financial Tower, a huge skyscraper that you can access to have a complete view of the city. The area around this tower is full of stores, restaurants, malls, so you can have a tour and do some shopping if you wish.
A little further from the center (if you are sporty you can have a walk along the riverside to get there, otherwise take a taxi) you will arrive in the Zoo and Botanical Garden, an enjoyable place for kids and adults.
After this long day, you need to get some energy for the nightlife. Saigon is indeed not the best city, but definitely it is an amazing place for nightlife. During the night, the streets get crowded of people enjoying their time till very late. Everywhere you go in the center you will find restaurants, street food, clubs, everything you need. A very important tip that I give and that is valid for the entire trip is to enjoy the Vietnamese food at its best. You can taste a different thing every day and I can assure you that everything will be delicious. Try to avoid extremely touristic places and find something more local, not only the food will be better but ridiculously cheap. Afterwards enjoy your night by drinking some local beer, the Saigon beer for instance is not bad at all! For Europeans and Americans, Vietnam is very cheap, so it would be a pity not to enjoy every single thing that this country can offer.
DAY 2: MEKONG RIVER
After a day visiting HCMC it is time to get out from the city and discover the beauty of the nature. One of the best places to visit outside HCMC is the Mekong delta river. There are several tour operators in the city offering very affordable one day or two-days package to go there. With around 15 euros you can have an interesting one-day tour, accompanied by a tour guide who will take you to several interesting places. The journey to the Mekong river takes around 1h30m (roads in Vietnam are quite bad and with a very low speed limit, so even a 40km trip will take you long time). During this trip you will be taken to a village to see some local production and from there you will be embarked on a little boat to go along the river. The area is rich in lush green vegetation and the pace of life is relaxing, the setting natural and serene.
On the way back to HCMC, we stopped also to visit one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples in the area.
DAY 3: CAO DAI TEMPLE AND CU CHI TUNNELS
The second excursion outside HCMC can be dedicated to the visit of the Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels. The sites are on the same road, although to reach the temple it will take you 3hrs. Cao Dai is a syncretist Vietnamese religious movement that incorporates aspect of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and even Catholicism. The tour guide will explain you in details the main concept of this religion, while visiting their main church, full of colorful and fantastic architectural details. If you get there by midday you will also be able to assist to the main ceremony, with preying and music.
After the visit to the Cao Dai Temple, you will be taken to the Cu Chi tunnels. This is probably one of the most insightful and emotional visit that I have done. The Cu Chi Tunnels are an elaborate underground community made up of 250 km of tunnels and chambers below the city. The tunnels were dug with simple tools and bare hands during the French occupation in the 1940s, and further expanded during the Vietnam War in the 1960s to provide refuge and a defensive advantage over the American soldiers. Despite all the bombings in their town, the Cu Chi people were able to continue their lives beneath the soil, where they slept, ate, planned attacks, healed their sick, and taught their young. Some even wed and gave birth underground, but over 10,000 lost their lives here. During the visit to the tunnels you will watch some videos on the Vietnam war and you will see some traps and weapons that were used. Plus you will be able to experience the tunnels by crossing a small part of those. Visiting these places and having all the information about the war will leave you with a strong bitterness and shock towards what you hear and what you see. I suggest this visit to everyone to understand the difficulty and the big tragedy that the Vietnam war has caused and I hope you will not take it as a theme park (like unfortunately most of tourists do there).
DAY 4: CAN GIO ISLAND
On the 4th day in South Vietnam, I decided to have a one-day excursion in a special island, known as a relaxing destination for Vietnamese people: Can Gio Island. This island is located at 1h30-2h distance from Saigon and it is definitely worth a visit.
Differently from the other sites visited so far, Can Gio island is not very touristic, so you will really be able to enjoy the calm, the silence, and the contact with the nature. Can Gio is famous among Vietnamese for two special reasons: its mangrove forest and its monkeys. The forest is absolutely beautiful, you will explore it via boat and on foot. In the past, during the war, it was another refuge, hence the still present constructions made by the local population. In some parts of the forest you will be able to enjoy the company of cute and sweet monkeys who will be very nice and come to you in exchange of some peanuts.
On the way back from Can Gio island, you will stop in a nice side on the sea side to have lunch. This way you will be able to have delicious food while enjoying the view of the sea.
You will be back from this amazing visit at around 5pm, so in order to save some time try to book a late evening flight to Hanoi or Hoi An. If you have more time than a week I would suggest you to do a stop in Central Vietnam and visit wonderful place such as Hoi An and Hue. In my case unfortunately I didn’t have the time so I went straight to the capital.
DAY 5: HANOI
As much as Saigon, Hanoi is also victim of the chaos, noise, traffic, and pollution. Nevertheless the style of the city is more historical and elegant, and with a little more greenery. The style of Hanoi recalls the French one in many ways: the center is composed of narrow streets, elegant classical buildings, a big lake with a nice pedestrian walk all around. Compared to HCMC, Hanoi is more livable and enjoyable. The public transportation is also almost absent (just a few buses), but you can easily move on foot or use very cheap taxis. The visit of the city can easily be done in one day.
The ideal is to start your tour from the main lake in the center. This is a beautiful place during the day and the night to have a walk, relax, eat something, enjoy the street artists.
The streets around the lake will take you to the main attractions. On one side, you will reach the Opera and the haute couture shopping area, on the other side you will get to Notre Dame basilica, a beautiful church recalling the French style.
Following the route, after a long walk you will arrive to the elegant institutional area, where you will see the President house, the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, and the one-pillar pagoda.
On the north side of the lake is the old town, a beautiful neighborhood full of narrow busy streets, with souvenir shops, bars, and restaurants. You can visit this area at night, when it gets extremely busy. You can have a walk there, enjoy the night market, a great dinner, and some good drinks.
DAY 6: HALONG BAY
If you say Northern Vietnam the name of Halong Bay comes directly in your mind. This is the must-see site, a wonderful UNESCO site along the coast, at around 3hrs from Hanoi. As for the other sites so far, Halong Bay can be reached through organized 1-day or 2-days trips organized by tour operators. You will see plenty of agencies in Hanoi proposing you interesting packages at very good prices. I booked the 1-day trip and it cost me 30 euros meals included (although I strongly suggest the 2-days trip, which will allow you to spend the night over there). The tour will take care of taking you to the main harbor by bus, driving you to the bay by boat (in which you will have lunch) and once there to make you explore the bay in small boats of 2 -3 people each. The experience is unforgettable: you will enjoy the magic nature around you, the sea and the huge rocks rising from it.
During this trip, you will be also taken to a magnificent cave full of amazing stalagmites and stalactites, ending with a wonderful view on the bay.
DAY 7: HOA LU – TAM COC
After a tour along the coast it is time for a tour in another wonderful place: Tam Coc. Personally, this was my favorite tour, a mix of culture and beautiful nature.
Hoa Lu and Tam Coc is a paradisiac place located at 2hrs from Hanoi. After a visit to a beautiful temple, you will arrive in the so called “innerland of Ha Long”. You will be embarked on a 2hrs boat ride river around stones, rice paddies, caves, floating markets.
After this unique ride, I decided to enjoy the place more by renting a bike and having a tour in the surroundings: beautiful scenery, absolutely quiet, wonderful nature…something that can be understandable only by being there.
DAY 8: MAI CHAU
I wanted to leave Vietnam with a last great memory and I decided to have an excursion in another beautiful place, less touristic than the others: Mai Chau. Mai Chau is located in the north of Hanoi, at 2hrs from the capital. The area is known for the minorities leaving there: you will be able to learn more about their traditions, their lifestyle still dependent on agriculture. From there I rented a bike and had an amazing tour among the forests, the rice paddies, and the other natural wonders in the area. One of the best ways to end this unforgettable trip to Vietnam!