Tour to Vietnam – why two weeks is not enough!
For some, Vietnam appears on an itinerary as just one short leg on a south east Asian tour of Cambodia and Thailand – with just a couple of days stop. Yet Vietnam is possibly the most fascinating country in all Asia, Steve Carver of the BBC, Sunday Times and Angel Holidays writes. He also tells us why its crucial to get the timing right as to when to go.
Around 12,000 miles long – and only 50 miles wide in places – Vietnam has a distinct culture all of its own where many tour operators only scratch the surface. Going for a just a few days is akin to visiting the sights of London and saying you’ve seen Great Britain and Ireland. A tour to Vietnam needs to be at least two weeks to appreciate its fascinating diversity.
In the north lies the capital Hanoi (or more authentically Ha Noi – as all Vietnamese words have just one syllable). The centre of this lake city has the classic Vietnam in your mindset, women in conical hats fry with woks on the streets, there’s tradition markets everywhere, cyclos (peddled rickshaws) ply the streets as well as thousands of scooter bikes.
Some tours of Vietnam head for Sapa in the northern highlands after that, but in truth this area has become saturated with too much tourism – think big tour buses and hoards of Australians or Chinese – and you’ll get the picture. Sapa is best given a miss – the only Sapa of 30 years ago long gone.
Instead, we recommend a tour of Vietnam should go just south of Hanoi to Ninh Bihn (just 2 or 3 hours) for its extraordinary landscapes – it’s where the 2002 King Kong was shot – and you can even wander through the atmospheric ‘Skull Island.’ This part of your tour to Vietnam can involve cycling in the jungle as well exploring its river caves.
All tours of Vietnam incorporate Halong Bay which is definitely a highlight. Make sure you enjoy an overnight (not just day) cruise here. There’re lessons on Tai Chi on deck at sunset for example and the experience of sleeping out on the Bay is the unique one – with great full board food. Yes, its popular, so on your tour to Vietnam you’ll see lots of other boats doing it, but it still is a ‘must.’
What’s known as the Imperial city of Hue lies further south on a Vietnam tour. It is, in reality, an interesting modern city with the imperial part a short distance away. The best way to see the imperial city is to sail along the perfume river to it, architecturally it is a gem and this mini cruise is divine.
From here it is also possible to take an unusual optional excursion – make sure you use a responsible operator – to see the old DMZ (de militarised zone) where fierce fighting took place in the USA Vietnamese war. Expect, even today, scorched earth from the US Napalm attacks, and left-over US military such as tanks. It’s an eerie experience and you can visit a labyrinth of caves (more interesting than the ‘Cu Chi’ ones in Saigon) where the Vietnamese had underground garrisons and hospitals.
Travelling further south, any tour of Vietnam must take you on the unusual train ride up over the High Van pass and along its coast line all the way to Danang. It’s a real classic, made famous by travel writers such as Paul Theroux and Michael Palin. The pass was also made popular by the BBC’s Top Gear team – it is simply a majestic part of the country with sparkling mountains and a spectacular coast line – where you will travel like a local.
Your tour of Vietnam could incorporate a stay in Danang, but we recommend just an afternoon there and staying a spa hotel in beautiful Hoi An just a few miles away. This was a former colonial Japanese town, along a quaint river and just a couple miles from many good beaches. A stay here is utterly superb, expect lots of Vietnamese and French restaurants where you can sit outside along the river in a traditional town that is lit up by thousands of lanterns by night. You can also cycle out to paddy fields and the beach. Angel Holidays for example gives 2 days free here to enjoy it.
Another new attraction is the Golden Bridge. It’s a good 4 hour drive, but a unique pedestrian bridge held up by sculpted hands over looking a terrific escarpment and jungle.
Whilst no tour of Vietnam should miss Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city), we recommend taking a slight detour first to the beautiful Mekong Delta and a stay in the jungle here. Go by local boat to see traders selling goods, fruits and vegetables from their old barges and enjoy a traditional breakfast by some of the ladies who row up alongside and cook. The best place to stay here is outside of charming Ca Tho.
Finally, your tour of Vietnam will finish in Saigon – 30 million motorcycles and the commercial powerhouse of the country. The city comes in 11 districts plus 4 others that are not numbered, and most travel companies base themselves in District 1, 3 or 7 (which are all close together don’t expect any logic here). However, a good tour operator will also take you outside of these districts in Saigon to see how ordinary people live in this buzzing city.
Long before the late Anthony Bourdain put Vietnamese food on the map, this country has been producing some of the best (and most unusual) food in Asia. You’ll love the street food – a small plastic chair, a can of beer for a dollar, and of course the food in some cases for just a dollar too.
The cuisines are much more sophisticated than Pho (scores of varieties of noodle soup). On any tour of Vietnam we recommend a ‘foodie tour’ to learn about it – it is not just the food but how to eat it! Prawns must be rolled into lettuce with a mixture of particular spices, dumplings dipped into sauces in a certain order and fish or meat cooked yourself on mini woks – I’ve never quite seen a food culture quite like it. To add to this there are great Korean restaurants dotted everywhere too.
A tour of Vietnam should be planned carefully as the climate in the north differs considerably from the south. This makes the window of best weather opportunities quite narrow. Late November to March is quite misty and can be cold in the north which spoils everything, whilst the summer in the country – June to September too hot. In essence the best months to visit are April to May and October into mid November.
Tour to Vietnam The best itinerary
The Angel Holidays itinerary takes in the best Vietnam has to offer. This trip includes two internal flights to maximise your time in the region.
Along this Vietnam tour you’ll travel by private bus, train, cruise boat, traditional boats, cyclos, optional bicycle and internal flights. There’s some free time to explore too, whilst having the support from our team and the friendship from fellow travellers.
This is tour of Vietnam will give you a colourful and varied experience of the country and its people. It’s a lot of fun too, with some vibrant nightlife, lively restaurants and the wonderfully friendly Vietnamese people. Some of the remote locations you’ll visit will be utterly enchanting and stunningly beautiful. Accommodation will be comfortable tourists class. Some hotels with have spas and pools.
We start our tour of Vietnam in the atmospheric capital Hanoi – to see how the modern and traditional cultures collide in this effervescent city. Next, we drive to the coast to enjoy an overnight cruise in Halong Bay – a classic experience featured in all the guide books. We then move south into the uniquely beautiful, and surreal landscapes of Ninh Binh. This is a place used as ‘Skull Island’ for the 2002 King Kong movie. Here, we’ll travel by boat, where the river winds its way through caves.
We then fly to the middle of the country and Hue, with its imperial city. There’s free time here to relax or enjoy optional (chargeable) excursions. You may wish to visit the old citadel, combined with a trip along the Perfume River, or go to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) marking the north/south divide in the Vietnamese/US War; here you can see old battle sites and a hidden underground cave system lived-in by the Vietnamese. We can help arrange this.
Next, we take a train journey (around 3.5 hours) along the coast – facing the South China Sea – and over the beautiful Hi Van pass until we reach the coastal resort of Da Nang. This classic train journey has been featured by travel writers from Paul Theroux to Michael Palin.
From Da Nang we move to the pretty historic town of Hoi An. In Hoi An we’ll take you on a guided walk of the town followed by free time. The pretty historic centre has good restaurants and shopping too. You may wish to spend the afternoon on the beach (just 2 miles way and easy to reach) or cycle around the area with its beautiful paddy fields and ocean beaches. In the evening, along the central river, the old town is lit up by traditional lanterns and is charming.
Next, we fly into Vietnam’s deep south to spend time in the Mekong Delta – a place where the Mekong regularly floods the landscape before entering the South China sea. This area is a mix of mangroves, rivers and canals. They grow a lot here, from mangos, coconuts, exotic fruits to rice. We’ll travel by boat, to see local floating markets and a very different way of life.
Our final leg takes us to lively Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City); a population of 8 million, and an abundance of motorcycles; downtown skyscrapers, colonial buildings and traditional markets. It’s full of life! We’ll enjoy a tour of this exciting city as well as a trip north to visit Cu Chi – a labyrinth of tunnels, hidden chambers and traps used by the Vietnamese against the Americans in the war. There’s also a shooting range here where you can shoot AK47s (at an additional cost)!
A free day in exciting Saigon is followed by our farewell dinner and alas, your flight home.
This wonderful Vietnam tour includes: two internal flights, all accommodation, transport, food and included activities as listed. Meals are a mixture of B&B, Half and Full Board – please see the itinerary. Our tour of Vietnam takes place in high season, when the weather should be perfect and represents excellent value for this time of year.
Background of the author
Steve Carver presents for the BBC and writes for the Sunday Times started the ethical tour company Angel Holidays. They also offer tours to Vietnam. Simply visit www.angelholidays.co.uk/vietnam for details.
Do I need a visa for Vietnam?
For most visitors e.g UK citizens you do not need a visa for a stay up to 15 days. This starts from th day you enter the country. Longer visits need visas
What is the cost of living like for a tourist?
Street food is very cheap, so are many restaurants and for fine dining you can expect around $30. Beers are cheap too, but for wine you’ll expect to pay more.
How to get there
Whilst we recommend an open jaw ticket – where you fly into Hanoi and leave via Saigon – there are numerous airlines that offer this route from the UK. Some fly to Bangkok as a hub first or other transit points such as the middle east. You can also get direct flights at a premium.