We first stepped into Vietnam not sure what to expect. We’d heard a mixed bag of tales of travel treasures and woes. Follow our guide to Vietnam as we traveled all over the country as a couple.
The Border Crossing
We came into Hue, Vietnam from Vientiane, Laos. We split this travel excursion into 2 days. From Vientiane, we took a bus down south to a town called Savannakhet. This trip took about 11 hours. We stayed at the bus motel across the street. For 60,000 kip, that will get you a bed, bathroom, fan, and a lot of mosquitos but it’s only for a night. The next morning, around 8am, we walked back to the bus station and picked up tickets for a 9am bus to Hue. This trip took 9 hours. Word of advice, pack as many snacks as you can and keep some toilet paper and cash in your pocket in case the bus takes a random potty break. At the border, women will ask if you want to exchange any of your money, if you don’t already have dong, you can get rid of any extra kip you might have. I’ve read you can’t exchange your kip anywhere else other than Laos. The exchange rate will not be in your favor but losing $1 won’t hurt either.
Note: We got our visas for Vietnam processed in Vientiane for $80, which I found to be very expensive considering in Sihanoukville, Cambodia I was seeing signs advertised for about half this price. If you can get your visas processed somewhere for cheaper than $80 and know your arrival date in Vietnam, do it there!
Getting There: The bus will drive through the city center and take you to the bus station. From there you can take a taxi to your guest house. I negotiated a price before that I thought was reasonable and we settled in 50,000 dong, a little over $2.
Where to Stay: We stayed at Binh Duong 3 for $6 per person. Our room came with AC, fan, french doors to a balcony, a dry bathroom, wifi in the room, free coffee or tea, and a very helpful reception desk. There are also plenty of delicious and cheap places to eat nearby. We highly recommend staying here.
What to Do: First day we decided to do a walking tour of the city and visit the Imperial Palace (entry fee 110,000 dong) and Hue’s outdoor market (free). Second day, we took a tour with our guest house. The tour included going to the Garden House Village (20,000 dong), Thien Mu Pagoda (free), Minh Mang Tomb, Khai Dinh Tomb, and Tu Duc Tomb (each tomb was 80,000 dong). In between tombs we visited a small incense making shop. At the end of the tour we took a “Dragon” boat back to the city center. A delicious buffet lunch was included. All of this, not including the entry fees was about $7 per person.
Getting There: We took a big bus from our guest house. It made a few stops along the way but the ride was scenic and comfortable. This cost us $4 per person. When we arrived at the bus station, we each hopped on a motorbike taxi and headed for our guest house. This cost us 40,000 dong each.
Where to Stay: We stayed in the city center at Thanh Binh 1. The first night we paid on Agoda.com, but after deciding to stay a few more days, they upped the price by a dollar to $17 a night. The room was comfortable and came with a fan and AC, hot water, and a window. It’s not as beautiful as the one we stayed in while exploring Hue, but the location is terrific!
What to Do: The first day we explored Walking Street and made our way to Bale Well for dinner. It’s a set menu so just sit and wait for all the food to come out. One of the women working will come by your table to show you exactly how to create a magical wrap of meat and delicious, fresh veggies. It will cost you 110,000 dong per person, not including drinks. You won’t regret it!
Second day, we rented bikes and did the loop from the city center, to the pagoda, around the rice fields, and through the herb gardens. You can negotiate bike rental prices, but try to stay close to 20,000 dong. We rented 2 bikes for 50,000 and kept them overnight. This day, we also tried a lot of different Hoi An foods. I recommend visiting Karma Waters for an awesome vegan meal. The shredded tofu and mint salad is the best thing we’ve eaten in a long time. For dinner, we ate a 2 different food stalls and got Cau Lau, Hoi An specific noodles. OMG, so freakin’ good. Enjoy a couple beers and take a walk to the other side of the city by crossing the Japanese Bridge.
Getting There: So, how did we get to Hanoi? There were a few options we looked into. There’s the 13 hour night bus. This is the cheapest option and I’ve heard it’s quite comfortable. It would save you a night in a hostel or hotel and a day once you arrive in Hanoi. There’s the train, which is also 13 hours. It’s expensive, it’s actually the most expensive option. Melissa and I chose to FLY. Our first domestic flight! We booked with Jetstar Airlines and it cost us $60 per person. We left early in the morning and arrived in Hanoi one hour later! We were able to spend our day walking through the city and it was actually very nice to be on a plane.
Where to Stay: Our first arrival in Hanoi we took the recommendation to stay on the outskirts of the Old Quarter, in order to avoid traffic, noise pollution, and scammers. We booked online at Anh Hotel on Chau Long. The hotel was nice and we got terrific sleep there. The service was great, our room was cleaned, and the wifi was awesome. However, everyday we had to bite the bullet and make the long walk into the city. This meant that dinner time was usually spent somewhere close to our hotel and there weren’t many options. Although reception was wonderful, they lacked in English skills. Which meant having to do a lot of research on our own.
What to Do: We did a walking tour! This got us acquainted with the city and took up most of the day. Melissa used the map that came in our Lonely Planet to map out the parts of the tour, tracing our steps with a pen before we took off. When we arrived at each destination we read a little bit of history and then headed to the next spot. Taking pictures along the way, we enjoyed people watching and some street food.
NOTE: Reading blogs on the internet, I’m sure you’ve also run across articles about phone and bag snatching and scams. If you are interested in how we survived Vietnam’s dark side, check out this post!
Getting There: Take the bus. We booked with Dao’s Travel Agency. We heard about them through a friend and walked into their office located in the backpacker’s district. It’s affordable, only $28 per person ROUND TRIP. The bus picks up at 7am and arrives in Sapa around 1:30pm. The ride was smooth and only took about 5.5 hours AND included 2 rest stops. Even better, the bus drops off IN Sapa. Apparently, four months ago, you had to make a shuttle transfer in Lao Cai. The bus was comfortable, had plenty of empty seats and the agent at Dao was super helpful, honest, and best of all, she wasn’t pushy. This travel agency offers tours and other bus trips. Do as you wish, just remember, Sapa is cold and rainy. Booking your treks when you get here might be a better option, giving you an idea of what kind of weather to expect. We were lucky to not be in the middle of a village during an all day downpour.
Where to Stay: Anywhere. Sapa is known to have 1000 guest houses. Take your pick. When you get off the bus, there will be people to greet you and start offering their best price for a comfortable room. If this makes you uncomfortable, the bus station is located at the city center and every which way you turn is a guest house. Take a look around and see which price is good for you. We stayed at Lotus Hotel for $12 a night. The room was standard, no terrific views or anything but running hot water and wifi in the rooms.
What to Do: We got off the bus, checked into our hotel, and got some lunch. We immediately set off for Cat Cat Village. It’s about a 2km stroll and will cost you 40,000 dong per person to enter the village. You’ll see traditional houses, rice terraces, local hill tribes, and piglets! Sapa is a great place to rent a motorbike and explore the highlands. The traffic is sparse and the roads aren’t too bad. Just be careful driving through the curves and turns, make sure you honk your horn to signal you are on the other side. I would also advise NOT taking a motorbiking trip if it’s raining. The roads get slick and the visibility alone could cause a major accident. While we were there, we weren’t able to take any day long treks because of the rain. We hear great things about their guided tours, so shop around for the best price and go for it! Also, no worries if you’ve packed nothing but beach wear. There are a ton of places where you can either BUY CHEAP mountaineering gear or RENT for the day.
Getting There: We booked our tour with Dao Travel Agency because our bus to Sapa was comfortable and speedy. Unfortunately, the van that took us to Halong Bay was not as comfy. The ride was only 3.5 hours but it was cramped, too hot, too cold, and in general, exhausting. This seemed to be the way people were getting to Halong Bay no matter which tour company you went with.
What to Do: When you book this trip through a travel agency, your schedule is filled for you. We arrived at our boat and each person was assigned their room. Be sure you let them know you want to share a double bed, if not, you could be coupled with a stranger. We ate lunch, headed to Sung Sot Cave, one of the largest caves in Vietnam. As crowded as it was, we had a great time. We then had some hang out time on the boat before leaving for the Halong Bay kayak experience. Melissa and I did our best to kayak as much as possible with the 45 minutes they gave us. Afterward, we headed back for some dinner and “squid fishing.” Fishing for squid isn’t a year round occasion, so make sure it’s squid season so you can enjoy this part of the trip. Then it was karaoke time, which sounds alright if you’ve had a few beers but everyone was stone cold sober. Luckily, the remote was busted and that was no longer an option. A few of us stayed up late on the boat and drank beers late into the night. If I had to make a suggestion, it would be to bring your own bottle of liquor or buy beers from the women riding around in the boats. The drinks on the boat were expensive. BEWARE: If you are caught with your own alcohol, you’ll have to pay a 20% fee.
I would recommend staying on the boat overnight. We had a good time, a lot of that may be attributed to the people on our boat. So if you can get a larger group together, you guys could take over the boat and have a great time.
Back to Hanoi: From Halong Bay, we ended up going back to Hanoi to plan the rest of our trip. Having already explored the center and the north, we needed to plan how to get down south. There are three choices: bus, train, plane. Jetstar offers cheap flights so we went with flying to save time. Keep in mind, this was also the tail end of our 4.5 month long trip and we had been on plenty of buses and trains.
Where to Stay: This time we stayed in the backpackers district. For $18 a night we stayed at Box Hotel. I know what you’re thinking, $18 is a bit steep but a full breakfast AND coffee are included in that price. You also get air conditioning, wifi, and your room serviced with bottled water daily. The night life in the backpackers district is also more lively and we rarely found ourselves bored or hungry.
Getting There: Fly. If you choose to take the bus or train, you are looking at 30+ hours of travel time. Flying takes a couple of hours and the cost is comparable to a train ride.
Where to Stay: We stayed with Khoi Hostel which located in the backpackers district of Ho Chi Min City. Although we were centrally located, places aren’t has compact as Hanoi. We found we were walking A LOT from place to place.
What to Do:
1. Visit the War Remnants Museum. It will take a you a couple hours, if not more to get through the entire museum and it’s super cheap.
2. Go on a walking tour. We saw the Saigon Opera House, Central Post Office, Reunification Palace, Dong Khoi Street, and Notre Dame Cathedral.
3. Eat at Propaganda. The prices are higher but the food is amazing. Try their salads and their noodles. They are also connected to the restaurant next to it that has an entire menu of western style foods. Delicious!
4. Do your last minute shopping at Cho Ben Thanh Market. Melis and I bought all of our weasel coffee here. It’s also a great place to have a cheap authentic lunch!
Mui Ne –
Getting There: We booked with our hostel and the cost ended up being $7 a person. We took a 5 hour sleeper bus which allowed us to catch up on some sleep, read, and relax. The buses in Vietnam are pretty amazing.
Where to Stay: We stayed a couple nights at Backpacker Village. I don’t know why you’d want to stay anywhere else. This place is quiet, has cheap tasty food, AND A POOL. Mui Ne is hot, y’all and the ocean is not a place you want to swim in this town. Melissa and I spent HOURS by the pool, reading and getting ready to head home. The pool made it all worth it.
What to Do: We were only in Mui Ne for a couple days. Most of the people staying in the hostel were motorbike travelers. They didn’t seem to be in any rush to get on their bikes to head up north. We rented a couple of bikes and visited the Red Sand Dunes. If you ride passed the dunes, you will come to a fishing village. Just be sure to wear plenty of sunscreen and bring extra water. Afterward, we headed straight for the pool…again. We also ate seafood. This little town is known for their fresh sea food. And if by seafood you mean crocodile, then yes we ate that, too. No worries, we passed on the shark and other tropical fish.
Vietnam ended up being our favorite country on this tour. Hard to believe it could beat Thailand considering their is no beach life like Thai beach life. Melis and I preferred the cities in Vietnam and the mountainous country living. The air was fresh and the people were fantastic. We also preferred the delicious Vietnamese cuisine. There was always something to do, something to look at, and something to eat. Vietnam also had the best accommodations for the money. It was a great country to end our trip in and we definitely have plans to visit again.