Your Plan for Travelling Through Vietnam

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Travelling through Vietnam was perhaps the best trip we’ve ever had (at least by 2015). We want you to enjoy Vietnam as much as we did.

That’s why we’re breaking down how we planned for Vietnam here, and why we tell you the real cost of travelling through Vietnam here.

By the end of this post, you’ll have a decent checklist of everything you need for Vietnam – a checklist designed to maximise fun while saving you money.

We will give you handy hints along the way too!

It’s a detailed post, so use the Contents below to jump to a relevant section if you get bored 😉

How long should you go for?

This is perhaps the most asked question when planning a trip to Vietnam.

On the face of it, Vietnam is a small country. At its narrowest point it is only 50km or so wide.

But no one goes to Vietnam for that small stretch.

Long and narrow Vietnam. Map of the country.
Long and narrow Vietnam

Vietnam is incredibly long at almost 1,600km. While you might be able to drive that over a week or two in any other country, Vietnam isn’t a walk in the park when it comes to travel.

Ideally, if you are taking the crazy challenge of travelling through Vietnam in its entirety, you need at least three weeks.

We had four weeks and it was still a rush at times.

Vietnam is incredibly diverse, in between regions and even towns within a particular region. There’s plenty to do pretty much everywhere.

Here was our schedule:

  • Day 1: Flight to Bangkok. Stay in Bangkok.
  • Day 2: Explore Bangkok
  • Day 3: Explore Bangkok, evening flight to Saigon in S. Vietnam
  • Day 4-7: Saigon and surrounding area. We did NOT visit the Mekong Delta.
  • Day 7/8: Overnight bus to Dalat.
  • Day 8-10: Da Lat and onwards travel to Nha Trang
  • Day 10-11: Nha Trang
  • Day 11/12: Overnight bus to Hoi An
  • Day 12-15: Hoi An and surrounding area, including My Son temples
  • Day 15: Motorbike via Hai Van pass to Hue
  • Day 15-16: Hue
  • Day 16: Night flight to Hanoi, due to time constraints and bad weather
  • Day 17-19: Hanoi
  • Day 19/20: Overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, for onwards trip to Sapa
  • Day 20-22: Travel to and trek in Sapa
  • Day 23: Arrive back in Hanoi following overnight train
  • Day 24-25: Hanoi
  • Day 25: Flight to Bangkok, one night stay
  • Day 26: Flight back to Copenhagen, via Stockholm

Busy trip. And that’s with everything running relatively smoothly.

Always overestimate how long it will take you to see places. Overnight buses take a minimum of six hours for short distances (Saigon to Dalat) and can reach 24hrs (Hue to Hanoi).

The slow, long train network isn't the best way to go all the time
The slow, long train network isn’t the best way to go all the time

Trains are more comfortable but equally as slow, as the train network in many places is single track only, meaning one 1,000 metre-long train goes from A to B for many hours, before turning around and coming back.

And road transport, while cheap and quicker, does not save too much time in the long run. The roads are extremely poor quality, with hazards seemingly popping up from nowhere. If it’s not a cow in the road, it’s a huge crater.

Best bet is to mix all three, overestimate some time, and plan as you go along.

Main towns and cities

Of course how long you spend in Vietnam depends on what you want to see. Saigon or Hanoi could be fine for a week by themselves, for example.

The main settlements you’ll probably hear of and/or come across while travelling through Vietnam are as follows.

Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, one of Hanoi's big attractions
Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, one of Hanoi’s big attractions

 

The capital and second-largest city in Vietnam (behind Ho Chi Minh City). Hanoi is a charming, bustling cacophony of sounds, smells, and sights. Hanoi enjoys a cooler climate than the south and is relatively near the Chinese border (Lao Cai on the border is a seven-hour train ride away).

Served by Hanoi International Airport, Hanoi is the best place to start or end your trip through Vietnam.

Vinh

Small town midway between Hue and Hanoi. Not worth a stop unless you enjoy East German architecture (the rebuild was funded by East Germany), but you might hear about it if you’re travelling to Laos.

Sapa

The main river through the valley and the mountains to the south
The main river through the valley and the mountains to the south

This picturesque old French military outpost is a hotspot for trekking and adventure activities. Just a few kilometres from the Chinese border, you’re effectively trekking in the mountains that form part of the border itself.

Whether in sunshine or rain, Sapa is a beautiful if remote place. Rewind your clock about 70 years (internet notwithstanding) and enjoy really getting away from it all.

Sapa is only reachable via Lao Cai on the Chinese border, which is approximately seven hours from Hanoi. From Lao Cai it’s a one hour bus trip to Sapa town centre, and then however long you need to reach your ultimate trekking destination (could be up to 24hrs of trekking if you are properly up in the mountains).

Read more about our Sapa adventures here.

Halong

Halong Bay as seen from the Alova Cruise boat top deck
Halong Bay as seen from the Alova Cruise boat top deck

A city primarily famed for the (overhyped) Halong Bay. The city is solely industrial, meaning activities and meaningful sites are pretty sparse. Still, it’s a city of three million people, so there is probably something to do other than a cruise to the Bay.

Danang

Danang in the distance. Not the best, but it was taken from a moped!
Danang in the distance. Not the best, but it was taken from a moped!

Cosmopolitan and colourful, Danang is the city where clubbing and chilling go hand in hand.

With a long, beautiful white sand beach, constantly warm temperatures, and a rather modern city centre, Danang is a tourist hotspot but for good reasons.

Perhaps not the most attractive city in terms of ancient attractions, but one worth passing (or partying in, depending on your poison). Main sights include…

Hue

Part of Hue's Imperial Citadel
Part of Hue’s Imperial Citadel

A small and rather quiet city, home to the famed Imperial Citadel. The former capital is Vietnam’s best example of faded glory.

What was perhaps once a rather interesting place is now quite dull and dismal. The backpacker district here is actually worth stopping by though, however don’t expect the rest of the city to be like that. Read more about our experiences here.

Hoi An

Calm and peaceful Hoi An. A wonderful city.
Calm and peaceful Hoi An. A wonderful city.

Perhaps the most expensive city in Vietnam, but also the most memorable.

Everything in Hoi An city centre is old. The houses look like no other you will see while travelling through Vietnam; the streets are quieter too (cars are banned in the city centre) and the colours are brighter than anywhere else.

It’s a quaint, relaxed city of wonder. While the grandiose facade hides a rather touristy culture, Hoi An is a city you can stroll around every day and never really get bored.

We would not advise getting caught up in the thriving tailoring scene though. While impressive to see, garments made here are typically over-priced and of similar quality to anything you would buy in Europe. Perhaps the only exception is leather shoes, which all looked fantastic.

Nha Trang

Nha Trang beach, our stop after a wonderful trip to Dalat
Nha Trang beach, our stop after a wonderful trip to Dalat

This hedonistic beach city is a Russian enclave in Vietnam. No joke, there are more Russians here than anywhere else in Vietnam, so much so that the second language switches from English (as seen in most other places) to Russian.

Nha Trang is great if you want to go to a beach and get a massage (we got an awesome massage here). Other than a couple of decent historical sites, Nha Trang is for partying. Worth stopping for one night perhaps

Dalat

View across Dalat's lake
View across Dalat’s lake

The gem of the central highlands; a paradise for its climate, food, and people.

Dalat is a small town so don’t expect nightlife here to be thriving. However, if you’ve got some activities booked – from cycling to abseiling and more – it’s well worth a trip.

Here is also where we stayed in the most incredibly friendly homestay, a must when travelling through Vietnam.

Mui Ne

Mui Ne beach. (Photo used courtesy of ruben i, under Creative Commons Attribution Licence, Flickr.)
Mui Ne beach. (Photo used courtesy of ruben i, under Creative Commons Attribution Licence, Flickr.)

Known for its beach, its fishing boats, and its palms, Mui Ne also has another attraction: a concrete beach. Yup, a concrete beach is in place to stop erosion.

Quite a few travellers stop in Mui Ne for a relaxing day or two, but little more.

Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

Just a few of Saigon's many towers in the city centre
Just a few of Saigon’s many towers in the city centre

While it’s not the capital, it certainly feels like it should be. Saigon, known through Vietnam as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), is an assault on your sense.

Cars race everywhere; mopeds squeeze through small gaps you didn’t even know a moped could typically fit through; people try to sell you everything from fried chicken to water bottles; every single street has some small local eatery complete with on-the-street cooking and loud locals.

Pho, the legendary Vietnamese soup
Pho, the legendary Vietnamese soup

The backpacker district in HCMC is also one of the best. It’s right in the centre od District 1 which, along with District 3, includes all the major attractions in HCMC.

There’s no way to hide it: HCMC is a city you will love and miss forever more (we do), or one you will detest and be glad to see the back of. It’s perhaps most comparable to Delhi, India, according to a lot of people we met on our travels.

When is the best time to go?

We’ve said it before, but the weather in Vietnam is pretty much never predictable. There might be a 40 degree sunny day ahead, until the skies suddenly open and you’re in dire need of a canoe.

There is really no best time to go, just a worst time. The worst time to travel through Vietnam is undoubtedly during the typhoon season. These aggressive storms, made worse by the fact that Vietnam’s infrastructure struggles with the weather, often kill people. They tend to hit anytime from September to November, and primarily in the central Vietnam region.

During a flash flood, Sapa can look like this
During a flash flood, Sapa can look like this

Vietnam has two seasons: wet and dry. The difference between them is not so cut and dry though, so expect rain during any part of the year.

We were incredibly lucky traveling through Vietnam in September. This is the ‘shoulder’ season, the bridge between wet and dry, and this is where typhoons usually form.

Yet in our case we enjoyed three weeks of solid sunshine and 35+ temperatures. Then in our fourth week in the north, it rained almost every minute of every day.

Lesson: Pack accordingly.

North-south or vice versa?

There’s no real advantage to either direction. With tourists primarily sticking to the coast, there are decent travel links in both directions between all major towns and cities, mainly because there is only one main road that stretches the length of Vietnam (Highway 1, which is a bit like a dirt track at times).

Some people prefer starting in the north where the climate is milder and to be nearer to the sublime Sa Pa on the Chinese border. Others prefer to begin in the south where the hot weather and Saigon bustle smacks you in the face.

A peek into China from Vietnam. This could be your first or last memory, depending which route you take.
A peek into China from Vietnam. This could be your first or last memory, depending which route you take.

It depends on a lot of things. Think about:

  • Where it is cheaper to fly to initially?
  • What parts of the country you actually want to see?
  • What time of year you are going?
    (Dry season in the south can be extremely hot, so you might want to leave that to the end if you are travelling through the entire country in the hope that it cools down)

And, of course, there is no obligation to go through the entire country. Even if you plan to, it might not be possible. The weather in Vietnam is unpredictable so plans might have to change overnight (if a road washes away, for example).

Flying to Vietnam

It’s pretty simple to get to Vietnam. There are three main international airports in Vietnam: Hanoi (in the north), Danang (central Vietnam), and Ho Chi Minh City a.k.a. Saigon (southern Vietnam).

Lots of international carriers serve these airports, often transferring through Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Beijing, Bangkok, Frankfurt and more. Read our blog here on ways to minimise flight costs.

Consider a stopover/transfer

One way we learned to minimise costs is to look for direct flights to Bangkok and then a shorter local flight into Vietnam.

Bangkok International Airport is huge and well-connected to Europe, the US, the Middle East and Asia. Often routes to Bangkok are pretty cheap.

Jo in Bangkok airport
Jo in Bangkok airport

A trip straight to Saigon with Etihad (and partners, changing in Doha) would have cost something like $800 one way per person. By finding a cheap flight to Bangkok ($320), and then a cheap flight to Saigon ($50), we saved around 50%.

Yes, it means you need a night in a hotel in Bangkok, but why not spend a few nights there and add it onto your trip? Thailand is not exactly expensive anyway.

Getting a visa

For many, this can be the most irritating part of the trip. There’s a tonne to remember.

First up, there are two ways to apply for a visa: through and Embassy; or through an agency.

  • An Embassy is the slower, cheaper option. You just need to know where your nearest Vietnamese Embassy is.
  • An agency is the quicker, more expensive option. You apply, you fill out the paperwork, and they sort the rest without any language barriers or delays.

Whether you take the Embassy or broker route, there’s still quite a bit of paperwork to sort through and some hoops to jump through upon arrival in Vietnam.

Ash calm and ready to backpack some more in Hue. You need a visa first to enjoy this though.
All calm in Hue, but a stressful visa process is needed before this.

Practically everyone needs a visa to enter Vietnam. They come in two lengths: one-month or three-month visas.

These two lengths then have different variants: single-entry (you’re only entering and exiting Vietnam once during the time period specified) or multi-entry (you plan to go in and out).

The cheapest is the one-month single entry visa. The most expensive is the three-month multi-entry visa.

A quick summary of how it works regardless of whether you do it through an Embassy or a broker, or whatever visa you choose.

You can arrange your papers up to six months in advance of travelling to Vietnam. Fill the papers out, get some pictures of your face taken, and make a couple of copies of your paperwork.

Vietnamese Visa prices, on a sign in Ho Chi Minh City airport
Vietnamese Visa prices, on a sign in Ho Chi Minh City airport

Once you’ve applied (whether through the Embassy or a broker) the Vietnamese authorities are notified of your arrival, and then you collect your visa-on-arrival (VOA) for a stamping fee at the Vietnamese airport you land in.

Your paperwork should match the details the Vietnamese authorities have. You submit your papers, wait in line, pay some dollars, and hey presto – welcome to Vietnam.

For more information, read our blog post on the costs of Vietnam.

Vaccinations

One thing to remember before going to Vietnam is that you’re likely to need vaccinations.

We talk about this in more detail in our costs of Vietnam blog.

Before you go, be sure to:

  • Check the recommended vaccinations of travel guides (such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guides)
  • Check if your country of origin has any special requirements. There are usually government websites set up for health details like this.
  • Speak to the medical staff offering you the vaccinations.

The best rule is this though: trust your own judgement.

We, or anyone else, do not hold any responsibility for the vaccinations you do or do not receive. It’s up to you.

Equipment

What activities will you be doing? Will you require special equipment?

And if so, have you booked enough excess luggage to carry it all?

Typical equipment needed for travelling through Vietnam includes walking boots, a wide variety of clothes to cope with the weather, a mosquito net, and medicine.

Trekking in places like this requires some special equipment
Trekking in places like this requires some special equipment

The medicine part might be tricky to take – over the counter stuff is fine but make sure to check it in. For anything else, you might need a doctor’s note.

Remember: you could be gone for weeks on end. Take everything you need, but remember to take all you can carry. Don’t go too overboard.

That’s why a golden tip is to ‘trial pack’ a month or two before you go. Ask yourself:

  • Can it all fit?
  • Can you carry the weight?
  • Do you need a new backpack?
  • Will you be alright carrying everything, if the worst comes to the worst?

Travel Insurance for Vietnam

Certainly worth getting. See if you can add it onto your contents insurance or home insurance.

If not, there are a range of policy providers online. Here’s a good cost comparison for you.

Warning on driving in Vietnam

Driving standards in Vietnam vary between horrendous and deadly. While there are plenty of safe drivers, it’s safer to say there are more unsafe drivers.

Typically your travel insurance and/or health insurance WILL NOT cover you if you are injured while driving abroad.

This point is especially true if you are found to be driving without a licence.

Driving without a licence is commonplace for many tourists travelling through Vietnam. While police might take bribes at random checks, it’s not worth it.

Stunning roads, but high risk. Vietnam isn't known for road safety.
Stunning roads, but high risk. Vietnam isn’t known for road safety.

We know one person who bought a moped and rode the entire country unlicensed and uninsured. He was fine. Many are not.

Don’t take the risk. International driving insurance can be pretty cheap for a single trip, or even annually if you drive abroad a lot. Check out the prices here.

And do get an international driving licence. Vietnam did not used to accept these, so you’d have to apply for a Vietnamese licence (see Top Gear for that hilarity). Now the international driving licence is perfectly normal, and inexpensive.

Planning checklist

We have talked about LOTS in this blog post. So let’s sum it up in a checklist.

We hope you found this useful!
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Questions pre-Vietnam

  • How long can I go to Vietnam?
  • What’s my budget?
  • What’s the cheapest way for me to get to Vietnam?
  • Will I travel through Vietnam or pick one region?
  • What direction will I travel through Vietnam (if necessary)?
  • What do I want to see in Vietnam? Top 10
    1.
    2.
    3.
    4.
    5.
    6.
    7.
    8.
    9.
    10.
  • What are my priorities for this trip? Top 3 (e.g. beach, food, nightlife)
    1.
    2.
    3.
  • Are the flights booked?

Preparation

  • What vaccinations do I need? How much do they cost?
  • Do I have a suitable backpack?
  • Can I carry/fit everything I need into my luggage?
  • What equipment do I need for my trip?

In Vietnam

  • Is there anything I want to buy in Vietnam?
  • If I buy things in Vietnam, will I have room in my luggage?
  • What is the best way to travel in Vietnam for me? (e.g. bus for long haul trips)
  • Will I spend any time driving myself? Am I insured?
  • Do I have an emergency contact if things go wrong?
  • Do I have a way to get in touch with people back home, if necessary?
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