Vietnam

Two Weeks to Travel the Best of Vietnam

There’s more to Vietnam than meets the eye.

Visiting Vietnam was a last minute, ‘sure why not visit’ addition to a trip that I planned with great excitement for Thailand, a place I’d been dreaming of visiting for years.

In the end, it was Vietnam that stole the show.

It was love at first sight my first night in Hanoi. The country’s charm snaked its way into heart, and as I explored back streets, mountains, and beaches over the course of a month, I couldn’t deny how hard I was falling for Vietnam.

I call Vietnam my favourite country in Southeast Asia, a title it earned with fierce competition from Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia.

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It’s a place I’d return to live (or visit) without second thought, and genuinely hope I’m able to call Hanoi or Da Nang home (for a while) one day.

What makes Vietnam so great? 

The dreamy yellow buildings, and colonial streets with twinkling lanterns strung overhead in Hoi An.

Banh mi for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the queues that snake around corners for the city’s best.

French colonial architecture, a nod to Vietnam’s tumultuous past, but stunning nonetheless against the modernity of each city.

Street vendors who shout orders to each other, hastily collecting money from patrons, and demanding they sit down in preparation for a feast.

Tiny plastic chairs, the lower the better, and sitting perched in them, drinking bia hoi and watching the world go by.

Knowing the first questions people will ask me before they say a word- Are you married? Why are you alone? What an incredible reminder of the privilege of being born an American with the means to travel.

That coffee is life. Full stop.

The resilience. What atrocious war crimes my nation and others have committed against the country. And, how much the Vietnamese have moved on- it’s inspiring beyond words.

Squatting low to the ground, slurping noodles or taking those greedy first few bites of banh xeo, what glory.

The omnipresent buzz of motorbikes and constant horn honking- everywhere else seems too quiet by comparison.

The horrendous blasting of music and announcements from bikes patrolling the streets.

24-hour flower markets, alive with barter banter and the smell of tropical flowers waiting for their new home.

Tiny fishing villages of Ha Long Bay, and how excited children get to watch you cruise past.

Whizzing through the city grid, whipping around corners on the back of a motorbike, dodging traffic like it’s a level in the latest video game.

The sweet relief of sugarcane juice, the secret to cooling down on humid, unbearably hot days.

How people stack more on a bike than one could ever imagine possible- crates balanced delicately, zipping through narrow streets, proving to the doubters it’s always possible to do more.

But most of all, I love that Vietnam is the kind of place that awakens your senses and pulls you in from all angles.

Vietnam was the place in SE Asia I never knew I needed to visit so badly. I’m painstakingly awaiting my return.

Intrigued enough to consider visiting Vietnam?

Good, keep reading for more inspiration, and trip planning tips.

An Itinerary to Hit Vietnam’s Best Bits in Two Weeks

If you’re planning your first visit to Vietnam, and short on time, the good news is that it’s possible to go from north to south, with a few stops in between to see different parts of the country in relatively little time.

Doing this, seeing different parts of the country, is essential to really getting a feel for Vietnam.

You’ll notice similarities place to place, but also dramatic differences- a wonderful reminder of how much countries around the world have to offer and teach those who visit.

For the purpose of this post, I’m assuming you’ll have ~14 days (not counting international travel), and will likely be venturing to Vietnam from another part of the world, meaning, it’s likely you’ll layover in one of Southeast Asia’s travel hubs.

Assuming you fly in/out of Singapore, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpar, I’d book that part of your trip round-trip, to the States or Europe, for example.

But then, I’d book your flights in and out of Vietnam as one-way flights so you don’t waste time going back and forth. Once you’re in Southeast Asia, booking one way tickets like this is a pretty affordable way to get around, especially if you book in advance.

Once you’re in Vietnam, you can start north (Hanoi) or south (Sai Gon/Ho Chi Minh City). I started north, since I was arriving from Laos and flights into Hanoi were more direct and affordable than starting south.

In this guide, I’ll start north, but this itinerary can easily be reversed to start in Sai Gon if you find a better flight option into the country via the south.

Day 1: Arrive in Hanoi
Day 2: Hanoi
Day 3: Hanoi
Day 4: Sa Pa overnight
Day 5: Sa Pa, return to Hanoi in early evening
Day 6: Ha Long Bay overnight
Day: 7: Return to Hanoi in early afternoon
Day 8: Hanoi (option for day trip to Da Nang)
Day 9: Fly to Da Nang early morning, take a Grab the 35-45 minutes to Hoi An
Day 10:  Hoi An
Day 11: Hoi An
Day 12: Fly to Sai Gon early morning
Day: 13: Sai Gon
Day 14: Sai Gon

Is this itinerary aggressive?
Kind of.

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In order to make the most of your time in Vietnam, I’ve built in a few overnights and day trips to allow you to visit other regions of the country. While it may seem like moving around a lot, it’s actually not that taxing as you’ll likely have shuttles to take you around / won’t need to worry too much about logistics.

You can always cut some of these out, but having done Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay overnights back to back, I can tell you it’s totally doable. On any Ha Long Bay cruise, you’ll have plenty of time to rest on the boat. Plus car rides between Hanoi to each destination are long- meaning, you’ll have plenty of time to rest/read/whatever between explorations.

The other thing I should note about this itinerary, if you haven’t already figured it out, is that this isn’t a ‘relax on the beach and do nothing’ kind of vacation.

Sure, there are beautiful beaches in Vietnam, but for your first trip, I’d advise getting into the heart of the cities, and taking a few trips outside of them to see mountains and sea.

How to Get Around Vietnam

Arriving in Vietnam

It’s likely you’ll fly in / out of either Hanoi or Sai Gon, and work your way down or up the country.

Having flown into both Hanoi Sai Gon’s airports, you should know they’re pretty simple to navigate. I had no issue picking up a SIM in Hanoi’s airport when I first arrived in Vietnam, and at both airports, used Grab to get to my Airbnbs cheaply and easily.

Getting Around Cities

In Hanoi and Sai Gon, if walking where I needed to go was too far, I hopped on the back of a Grab bike. Not travelling solo? Call a Grab car- I prefer Grab to taxis because it eliminates the need to try and communicate where you’re going, or barter on fare.

While in Vietnam, I also walked a lot- in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, all around Hoi An, and throughout Sai Gon’s District 1.

You’ll spot cyclos (tricycles) in some parts of Vietnam (Hanoi, Hoi An), and taking a ride in one of these carriages can be a fun way to get from one part of the city to the other.

Getting Around the Country

If you’re short on time, fly. AirAsia and regional operators offer daily flights throughout the country. Book in advance for the best rates.

When I visited, I flew from Hanoi to Da Nang (Hoi An), and then onto Sai Gon.

There are more eco-friendly night buses that connect various parts of the country, but they take much longer, and won’t be a good option if you’re only in Vietnam for a short trip.

What to See & Do in Each Itinerary Stop

Hanoi (day trips to Sa Pa, Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh)

Just the name of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, conjures images of motorbikes, street food flames rising up from the sidewalk, its infamous train street, French colonial architecture, charming cafes, and chaos- always chaos.

Hanoi is a crazy, chaotic, beautiful, historic place.

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It’s also polarising. Some people love it, others not so much. The general consensus from travellers is that 2-3 days is plenty long enough.

If you’re short on time, I can appreciate that perspective, but really, after two weeks in Hanoi, I felt like I didn’t even scratch the surface. It’s at the tippy top of my ‘re-visit in SE Asia’ list.

KEY SIGHTS

  • Visit Train Street: No visit to Hanoi is complete without a stop at the city’s train street. A narrow street with shops on both sides and tracks in the middle. Several times daily, shopkeepers rush to pack up their tables, chairs and displays in anticipation of the train that roars through. Train times change weekly, and are usually posted at cafes on train street
  • Go on a Street Food Tour: Street food in Hanoi, and really all of Vietnam, is next level. With countless food stalls and a wonderful variety of dishes and flavours, Hanoi is known as one of the top ten cities for street food in Asia. I went on a street food tour with Hanoi Street Food that catered to vegetarians, and LOVED it
  • Admire Hanoi’s Historic Temples and One Stunning Cathedral:
    • Neo-Gothic St. Joseph’s Cathedral: The oldest church in Hanoi is one you have to see for yourself. Resembling the famous Norte Dame, it’s simply beautiful
    • Temple of Literature: Built to honour learning and some of the country’s best scholars, it’s exquisite. Constructed in the 18th century, it’s dedicated to Confucian and Taoist scholars, and the 13th century war hero, Tran Hung Dao, who was renowned for his bravery in the battle against the Yuan Dynasty
    • Tran Quoc Pagoda: One of the oldest temples in Hanoi, take a Grab to see this temple situated over a lake
  • Stroll Hoan Kiem Lake: I enjoyed walking the lake in the morning, but the nighttime bazaar you’ll find on the weekends is also worth seeing. Tons of vendors with food, juices and fruit, and no shortage of entertainers or trinkets for sale
  • Sip a few Beers at Bia Hoi Junction: Widely regarded as the quintessential nightlife spot in Hanoi, the junction is located at the corner of Tien Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen. You’ll know it when you see it- people perched on stools with pints of cheap beer in hand
  • Get a Taste of Hanoian Life at the Quang Bag Flower Market: Most lively between 2-4 am, I came here in the middle of the night. Worth it, absolutely worth it. It’s a wholesale market, which means it’s fascinating to watch people unload the flowers from trucks, and then stack them carefully on the backs of bikes before they whizz away to their destination in the city
  • Wander the Old Quarter: Chances are, you’ll be staying in the Old Quarter, if not nearby. It’s the hub of tourism activity in Hanoi. Also known as Hanoi 36 Streets, this part of Hanoi used to be frequented for shopping. Even now, you’ll find streets where all the vendors seem to sell the same things- spices, kitchenware, party supplies, flowers, coffee. When you find those streets, look for a street sign- these streets are named after what it sells
  • Unwind with an Excellent, Affordable Massage: On a rainy night in Hanoi, I decided to treat myself to a massage. Googling the best places in the Old Quarter turned up suggestions for Mido Spa. I had a wonderful aromatherapy massage, and can’t recommend it enough
  • Hire a Cyclo (tricycle cart) to Whisk You Around the French Quarter: Usually, 150k Dong for an hour, it’s a great (and cooler than walking) way to see more of Hanoi
  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: I didn’t visit this, I know- it’s iconic. But, I’ve also been to Paris more times than I can remember and haven’t been to the Louvre. I’m not sure what that says about me or my travel style, but I don’t always hit-up the ‘must-visits’. In actuality, on the day I’d planned to visit, I felt sick and thought it would be better if I relaxed than fight hundreds of tourists for a chance to see Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body. He’s an important figure in modern Vietnam, integral in the revolution against the French and the war against the Americans, so a visit here is worth it if you’re able to find time for it

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

I ate a lot of street food and banh mi in Hanoi, which is why I don’t have too many restaurant recos. I’d wholeheartedly suggest you do the same.

Also, if you’re new here- I’m a vegetarian, so you’ll have to go elsewhere if you’re looking for the best places to have beef, pork or the like.

  • Banh Mi 25: Controversial opinion, but my favourite banh mi was at Banh Mi 25. I say it’s controversial because Banh Mi 25 is pretty modern- always packed with visitors. Although, I have seen locals grab takeaway, too. I came here almost every day I was in Hanoi after discovering it. There were SIX types of vegetarian banh mi on the menu- egg, egg with cheese, tofu, mushroom, vegetable- it was incredible
  • Vegan Banh Mi: Not my favourite banh mi, but if you’re into meat substitutes, this vegan option for Vietnam’s popular sandwich may be right up your alley
  • Pizza 4P’s: The reality of long-term travel is that sometimes, you just want your favourite Western foods. I’m always on the lookout for exceptional Western food in Asia (there’s isn’t much), but thankfully, this pizza place with locations all over Vietnam is the real deal
  • Hanoi Taco Bar: Speaking of Western food, expats I know who’ve lived in Hanoi spoke highly of this unassuming taco joint, with locations in both the Old and French quarters. When I saw chickpea tacos on the menu, it was a done deal
  • Noodle & Roll: Classic Vietnamese dishes, but vegetarian focus
  • Other veg-friendly restaurants I wanted to check out, but didn’t make it to (because, excellent street food): Aubergine, Luk Lak!, and UU Dam

WHERE TO HAVE COFFEE

Vietnam is a coffee mania. It’s the second largest coffee producing country in the world, so you know they mean business when it comes to brew.

And in Hanoi, you’ll have no shortage of excellent cafes to get your caffeine fix.

  • Giang Cafe: You must try egg coffee in Hanoi, it’s the best place in Vietnam to do so. Why try it at Giang? Simple, it’s run by the son of the man who brought egg coffee to Hanoi. You’ll see many other tourists here, but no one lingers too long, so it rarely feels overly congested
  • Cafe Dinh: More egg coffee. Run by the daughter of the man who brought egg coffee to Hanoi, this place has an entirely different vibe to it than Giang. In fact, until recently, Cafe Dinh was primarily locals only.  Then food companies started including it on their coffee shop tours, and the world of Instagram got to it. Even still, it’s much quieter than Giang and a good mix of locals and tourists
  • Cộng Càphê: No list of coffee shops in Hanoi, or elsewhere in Vietnam is complete without mention of Cộng. Touted as the Starbucks of Vietnam, this communist themed cafe branch is everywhere. It’s hugely popular and for good reason. The coconut coffee here is without question one of the best coffee drinks I’ve ever had
  • The Note Cafe: Known to visitors as, ‘The Note’, this colourful cafe is an Instagram favourite because, you guessed it, it’s covered from top-to-bottom in post-it notes. Its location, with sweeping views of the lake in Old Town, also means it’s a relaxing place to sit down and recover from all that wandering you’re doing
  • Hanoi Social Club: Loves me a quirky cafe with a great brunch. Here, you’ll find fresh smoothie bowls, savoury avocado toast and a whole menu of drinks, including one of the creamiest egg coffees I tried in Vietnam
  • Railway Cafe: Located on Hanoi’s train street, stop here to see the train roll through. While you wait for the train, pull up a low stool at this cafe and sip an iced coconut coffee
  • Maison de Tet Decor: Outside of the Old Quarter, you’ll find this breezy cafe in a French colonial building near Tran Quoc Pagoda. Easy enough to get to with Grab, visiting is worth the effort for this cafe’s garden seating and balcony overlooking one of Hanoi’s lakes

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION 

Stay in the Old Quarter, there are plenty of Airbnbs and hotels to choose from. While Hanoi is a big city with lots to see outside the Old and French Quarters, staying here puts you in the center of action.

Overnights and Day Trips from Hanoi

Take an Overnight Trip to Stunning Sa Pa: Sa Pa, a place in Vietnam that instantly cues visions of emerald rice terraces, hill tribe culture and great trekking.

It’s famous around the world for its ancient rice terraces, carved long ago by ethnic minorities. If that sounds like the kind of place you have to see for yourself, it’s a ~6 hour drive from Hanoi with luxury buses, buses, trains and tours departing regularly. An overnight trip may feel aggressive, but with how much time you have to rest in transit, you likely won’t feel too tired- especially if you take a luxury bus.

Cruise Majestic Ha Long Bay Overnight: Cruising Ha Long Bay for two days with its 1,969 limestone karsts was an unforgettable experience.

I went luxe for my cruise, justifying it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
And it was.

Jaw dropping scenery.
Sailing past small fishing villages.
Sipping fresh watermelon juice and reading in the late afternoon sun.
A gorgeous junk ship with one of the comfiest beds I’ve ever slept in.
Tai chi on the top deck while sunrise happened in the distance.
Soaking in a bathtub with one of the most epic views I’ve ever seen.

Seeing Ha Long Bay for yourself is a must-do if you’ve got the time while in Hanoi. If you’re worried about budget, fear not- there are dozens of cruise operators with options to fit all budgets.

Day trips are also possible if you’re truly tight on time, but it’s so far to travel, I’d recommend making at least an overnight out of it.

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Take a Day Trip to The Gorgeous Ninh Binh Province: Oft called the ‘Ha Long Bay of land’, visiting this part of Vietnam is incredible. About two hours south of Hanoi, most tours include a stop at the King Dinh Temple, and then a boat ride around the Hoang Long River, where you’ll be surrounded by rice paddy fields and limestone mountains.

If your trip is longer, and you can spare a few more days for the region- do it. Photos from hikes I’ve seen look incredible.

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Hoi An

Located along the coast in the central region of Vietnam, Hoi An is a quaint, historic city characterized by its unique blend of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and French architecture.

Hoi An used to be a major trading port between the 15th and 19th century, but has now become one of Vietnam’s most beautiful towns.

Small alleyways.
Dreamy yellow buildings.
Colonial streets.
Twinkling lanterns.

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When its usefulness as a port declined in the 19th century, the once-flourishing city was all but forgotten as Vietnam’s other major cities began to modernize. Because of this, what remains in Hoi An today is a charming, well-preserved time capsule to an influential period in Vietnam’s past.

Comparing it with all the other cities in Vietnam is impossible. In the evening, the town’s center is traffic free, and is oft described as the most romantic place in Southeast Asia.

Hoi An gets a lot of flak from travellers who think it’s become the Disney of Vietnam. Hailed as too touristy, I understand where these travellers are coming from.

It does feel commercial. But, as with any place, to really experience it, you have to be willing to go beyond the main tourist experiences.

Many people come to Hoi An, wander the historic Old Town, complain about the crowds and move onto another place in Vietnam.

I realise I had the luxury of time to explore, but most days, seeing the city early in the morning – before others were even awake – meant I had a relaxed time exploring its lantern-clad nooks and crannies.

And, in the midday heat, when the crowds were the most intense and the sun the harshest, I sought cover in cafes off the beaten path to read or work. At night, I’d re-emerge for dinner and some more wandering before heading home to Netflix and chill.

If you’ve only got one or two days in Hoi An, and try to spend the entirety of each one sightseeing, I understand how you’d leave thinking it was too much.

People come to Hoi An with expectations of empty streets with colorful lanterns swaying overhead. That’s simply not the case.

Yes, there are beautiful, historic buildings painted shades of fading yellow.
Yes, there are gorgeous swaying lanterns.

But, there are also tons of street sellers looking to commercialise off Hoi An’s popularity- ignore them, and you’ll be fine.
Same goes for the big brand stores (hi, Baskin Robbins).

Seek out more local experiences, and I’d be hard pressed to believe you won’t leave even a tiny bit infatuated with Hoi An.

KEY SIGHTS

  • Stroll the Old Town: I enjoyed wandering Old Town early morning before the shops were open and tourists descended. Walk at leisure, there are so many streets to see, but it’s fairly compact so it won’t take you hours. If you’re up early, check out the fruit and veg market- it’s packed with locals on their daily grocery runs
  • Admire the Japanese covered bridge: Best done in the morning, this small bridge is truly an architectural work of art
  • Take a free bike tour, offered by students who need to practice their English
  • Meander the Thu Bon River at night to see lanterns from the other side of town: While you’re on this side of the river, check out the Central Food night market- open every night from 5-11 pm. It’s a great place to stop for traditional Vietnamese dessert or sugarcane juice
  • Get clothes custom made by any of the city’s talented tailors: I can’t recommend the women at Sewing Bee enough, and wrote a detailed review of my experience, as well as a guide for having clothes made in Hoi An here
  • Have a relaxing, silent tea tasting in the garden at Reaching Out Teahouse: As soon as I stepped inside this teahouse, something felt different. The first thing I noticed was the silence. In front of me, I noticed a sign that explained the teahouse employs deaf and hard of hearing employees, as well as those who may have speech impediments. Because of this, they ask their guests to keep conversations low to create a calming atmosphere, and instead, communicate with service staff via writing down their order/request. Loving the mission of this teahouse was one thing, but then sitting in a tranquil garden and sipping green tea from the mountains of Vietnam? Late afternoon perfection
  • Spend a few hours at the beach: Cua Dai is a popular choice with An Bang being a quieter vibe
  • Go shopping: There are plenty of cute boutiques and market stalls to pick up souvenirs to remember your trip to Hoi An. I quite enjoyed the upmarket vibe of Sunday on Tran Phu Street
  • Cool off from the heat with fresh fruit juice: With fruit smoothies being a must-order item across SE Asia, I was delighted to discover Chu Chu (the freshest juices) and Cocobox (local chain, good smoothies)
  • Slow down, chill out: Spent an afternoon people watching at any of Hoi An’s cafes, or reading a good book. This part of Vietnam is easy to relax in, if you let yourself

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

One thing you must eat in Hoi An? Banh mi.

Two places you can’t miss:

  • Banh Mi Phuong: Hailed as Anthony Bourdain’s favourite, there are usually queues down the street. I came late one night (~ 8 pm) and was glad to see the line wasn’t too long. Here, I tried a banh mi with cheese and egg, and it was, as you’d expect, excellent. And, if you eat meat, the real draw here, of course, is the pate banh mi
  • Banh Mi Queen: Ah, my favourite banh mi in Hoi An. The crusty banh mi at Madame Khanh are packed with egg (in my case), veggies and sauce. There was just the right amount of everything to make it deliciously messy. The banh mi queen herself helps make the sandwiches. Even though she’s 80, you’ll spot her serving what I believe is the best banh mi in Hoi An

And, in Hoi An, I didn’t find as much vegetarian street food as I did in larger cities, but it needn’t have mattered, because great restaurants with vegetarian eats were everywhere-

  • Minh Hiên – Quán Chay: A must visit for vegetarians. Here, I had banh xeo (my favourite Vietnamese dish- aside from summer rolls), and cao lau noodles, a speciality in central Vietnam. Highly recommend trying both, and everything else on the menu- it all looked delish!
  • Central Food Night Market: Local to the Quang Nam province, ‘mango cake’ (aka banh xoai) are little balls of sticky rice with crushed peanuts and sesame seeds inside. A lovely, savoury dessert
  • Nữ Eatery: Tofu spring rolls and lemongrass ice cream, just drooling thinking about how great both were at this cute eatery tucked down a side street
  • Morning Glory: With a few locations in Hoi An, this is a great place to sample traditional cooking. I had the tofu coated in young sticky rice and sautéed pumpkin with basil, garlic and peanuts- both were flavourful and excellent
  • And, one non-Vietnamese reco if you’re craving Western food- Hola! Taco is the move. Really good (for Vietnam) tacos, dips and margaritas

WHERE TO HAVE COFFEE

Back in the day, French colonists introduced coffee to the country. But, Vietnamese made it their own by creating drinks with condensed milk, eggs, yogurt and coconut.

You’d be remiss if you didn’t try the different types of coffee in Vietnam, and just went for your standard ‘long black’ or modern flat white / latte order.

Coffee has a strong cultural connection in Vietnam. Trying the different types is just as much of an experience as doing a street food tour, or sightseeing any city’s major attractions.

  • Hoi An Roastery: There are over seven of Hoi An’s namesake roastery cafe locations in town, so chances are you won’t have any trouble finding one. My favourite two are the ones with a terrace that overlooks the busy street below. An excellent place to kick back, sip caphe sua dua and watch the city come alive in the morning
  • The Espresso Station: Tucked down a side street right outside the historic centre, you’ll find this chill, airy outdoor cafe. Why did I love it so much? Well, the coconut coffee is ace, and exactly what you’ll need to cool down after walking here. And, if you come in the morning, you can order cold brew coffee that’s been frozen into ice cubes. It arrives with hot coconut milk (regular and soy options are available) for you to pour over
  • The Hill Station: Wonderfully traditional, The Hill Station is just past the Cloth Market, inside an old building. There’s a wide variety of food and drink on offer, even cheese plates. I stuck to simple caphe sua dua here and didn’t regret it
  • Faifo Coffee: Everyone’s pick for that classic ‘above Hoi An’ shot, the rooftop here is legendary. When it opens and at sunset, the roof is most crowded. Mid-day, it wasn’t too bad. Luckily, there are also two other floors with plenty of seating. I came here twice, trying their fruit smoothies and coconut coffee
  • Rosie’s Cafe: My favourite place in Hoi An for breakfast, Rosie’s is a relaxed, airy cafe with multiple rooms and beautiful details to observe. The food is mostly Western, but healthy and delicious
  • Mon Coffee: Nondescript, it’s easy to walk past Mon. Unless it’s a hot day. Then, you may be drawn in by their lure of air-conditioning (a rarity at cafes in Hoi An). Mon isn’t charming in the way some of the other cafes on this list are. But, their coconut coffee is seriously excellent
  • Cong Caphe: Wherever there’s a Cong Caphe, I’ll find it

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION 

In Hoi An, I stayed at Dong Nguyen Homestay Riverside, which was only an 8 minute walk to the heart of the Old Town.

The homestay is basic, but comfortable, and very affordable if you’re a budget traveller. What’s more, the owners are so kind.

Sai Gon

Sai Gon is Vietnam at its busiest- it’s chaotic, crowded and noisy but so worth exploring.

As the biggest city in Vietnam, many know it as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). When the South lost the war against the North, the city changed its name in 1975.

Despite the name change, many locals still call it Sai Gon, which at times is interpreted as a stand against submission to Communism.

Located on Vietnam’s south coast, Sai Gon is known for its rich history, and not just because it’s the place where the reunification of South and North Vietnam took place.

Activities that mark the Sai Gon’s uniqueness seem endless- for instance, a motorbike street food tour, visit to the Mekong Delta, or underground venture in tunnels used during the war.

Markets abound, along with opportunities to shop.
There’s even an entire street dedicated to bookshops.
Incense swirls at countless, gorgeous temples.
Vivid pink churches pop up in the middle of an unassuming street, leaving you breathless.

Sai Gon’s food scene is incredible, and the cafes I visited were among the best in the country.

KEY SIGHTS

  • Send a postcard from the Central Post Office: Whether you need to send something or not, the Central Post Office is a must see. Its bright yellow exterior and French-inspired architecture makes it a beauty to behold
  • Observe history at the War Remnants Museum: A somber activity, but an important one, the museum showcases the helicopters, tanks and bombs that were used during the war. The photography is vivid and heartbreaking, but serves its purpose in educating about one of the most controversial wars in history
  • Visit the famous Cu Chi Tunnels: Not far from the city, you can visit the tunnels Vietnamese dug to hide from the Americans, and shield themselves from bombs
  • Admire the pink facade of the Tin Dinh Church: Safe to say I’ll be forever smitten with the pink churches of Vietnam
  • See the city from above at the Bitexco Financial Tower: The observation floor on the 49th floor is the place to head for a landscape view of Sai Gon. The city’s skyline is fascinating: new juxtapositioned against old, and buildings of all colours- pastel, metal, neutral. Fitting for a city so diverse and exciting
  • Visit Reunification Palace: The Independence Palace has an eerie presence, but visiting is important to understanding Vietnam’s difficult history.
  • See the Norte Dame Cathedral: Built between 1863 and 1880, today, the cathedral serves as a remembrance of when Vietnam was colonised by France.
  • Visit Book Street, an entire street with nothing but bookshops: Nguyen Van Binh book street is an open space- that’s right, an entire street for bookshops and communal spaces to read. Any book nerd’s fantasy (myself included)
  • Take a day trip to the Mekong Delta: The Mekong Delta is the southernmost region of Vietnam, and contains the Mekong River that flows out into the East Vietnam Sea. Full of fertile land, the delta is the perfect place to see more of the rural side of the country, and take a long-boat ride
  • Browse the stalls of Ben Thanh market: One of the oldest markets in Vietnam, in the early 17th century, local vendors would gather near the river to sell their goods. From this activity, Ben Tanh was born. This market has everything you could need from purses to souvenirs to clothes, and a wide array of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as spices, herbs and dried fruits
  • Wander through Thien Hau Temple: From the moment I walked in, I was mesmerised by the swirl of temple incense. Dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu, the temple is a 15 minute motorbike ride from downtown Sai Gon, but so very worth visiting. Bright, vivid details, and heady incense make the temple a must see
  • Go on a motorbike street food tour: Whizzing through city streets. Whipping around corners. Pulling up curb-side to a street food stall with locals snaked around the corner. This will be nearly the exact scene stop after stop on a motorbike street food tour of Sai Gon. It’s rare to find a tour so well designed for any kind of traveler, but the motorbike food tours are just that. As a solo traveler, I was matched with a guide who drove me around the city over the course of four hours, making five food stops in total. Beyond a chance to try some of the city’s best eats, it’s a chance to talk to the local guides about Vietnam’s culture and cuisine. And, beyond receiving payment, it’s an opportunity for the guides to practice their conversational 1:1 English

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK

  • My Banh Mi: I found this place on my first day in Sai Gon, and came almost every day for their tofu banh mi. If My Banh Mi was my favourite breakfast in Vietnam, then this tofu banh mi was my favourite dinner. A crisp baguette packed with salty-spicy tofu, pickled vegetables, red chili, coriander and mellow cucumber crunch. Would 10/10 visit Sai Gon again just to have this banh mi
  • Banh Mi 24: The reason this banh mi, filled with egg and your usual accompaniments, was so good? The bread is baked 24 hours a day on site. Nothing beats bread fresh from the oven when it comes to banh mi
  • L’usine: Trendy boutique meets modern brunch. Some days you eat bánh mi or
    bánh cuốn for breakfast, and other days, you’re all about the avo toast, eggs and fresh squeezed juice
  • Pizza 4P: As elsewhere in Vietnam, Pizza 4P is the spot for great wood-fired pizzas
  • Bun Cha 145: Awesome spring rolls
  • Hum Restaurant: A bit more upscale than your usual restaurant in Sai Gon, Hum is Vietnamese fusion and insanely delicious. A must visit for vegetarians
  • Bep Me In: Great spot for traditional Vietnamese food- fast and low key
  • Chi Cu: Fantastic vegetarian menu

WHERE TO HAVE COFFEE

Heading to Sai Gon, as my last stop in Vietnam, you’d think I’d be tired, figuratively- not literally- after drinking so much caffeine. How much more could I really drink?

Spoiler: A lot more.

I loved the coffee shops in Sai Gon, especially.

Often on the second or third floor of a building, they’re not always apparent from street level. You usually enter through a covered walkway, then navigate hallways and stairs to find the place you’re after. Sometimes there are signs, other times, you don’t know you’re in the right place until you climb to the right floor. The whole experience makes it feel like you’re discovering hidden gems all over the city.

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  • Cong Caphe: New city, same coffee order. Coconut coffee, please and thank you.
    Tip: The Cong on Lý Tự Trọng, Bến Nghé, Quận has a beautiful balcony, overlooking the chaotic city streets below
  • The Loft: Tucked above the busy streets below, The Loft is next to the Cong location mentioned above. This cafe has become Insta famous for its rustic interiors, huge clock wall and twinkling string lights. There’s no denying it’s a dreamy place to escape the rain or heat for a bit. Here, I had a cà phê đá that was absolute perfection
  • Saigon Coffee Roastery: Like many of Sai Gon’s cafes, this one is hidden down a hallway several levels above the street below. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see a giant clock, and a narrow sipping room with a long, communal table. Here, I tried the iced coconut coffee, which was very different from the coconut coffee I’d grown to love at Cong- instead of frozen, it’s served iced. Less sweet, and a stronger brew. Two thumbs up
  • Goc Ha Noi (Little Hanoi) Egg Coffee: Hidden down an alleyway, this egg coffee is the real deal. The women who run the cafe are from the north, so you know it’s gonna be good. Climb up the narrow ladder, and you’ll find yourself in a tiny room that resembles the living room of a traditional home. Don’t bother asking for a menu here- the only thing you should order is the egg coffee
  • Shin: Legendary. You’ll see tourists from across Asia piling in one of their two locations to snap photos, buy beans, and order pour overs. I’ll admit it: I bought a few bags myself to ship back to the States. I liked Shin so much, I came a few times- twice for egg coffees and once to try their cold brew. Everything was excellent. The egg coffee is a different style than what I had in the north, but still great
  • Cafe Apartment: An entire apartment block of cafes? When can I move in? I spent a morning here, visiting a few cafes and roaming the different floors, but could have easily come back time after time to try new places. My advice? Pay the small fee to take the lift to the top, and then work your way down
  • ID Cafe: Stopped in here one night after dinner for lychee tea. I can’t speak for their coffee, but the menu looked incredible, and the space is seriously great for chilling out or catching up with friends

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION 

I stayed in a budget Airbnb in District 1. It was walking distance to loads of things, but I wouldn’t stay in that exact Airbnb again. I waited until the day before my stay to book, which limited places available.

There are tons of modern, upmarket places to stay in Sai Gon, and as you’d expect, the best places are snatched up first, so book in advance for a good selection.

TIPS FOR ORDERING VEGETARIAN IN VIETNAM

Upmarket places will have menus in English, but on the street, where English will likely be limited, it’s important to know how to communicate you’re a vegetarian, and to know names of a few dishes that are meat-free.

  • Generally, look for the words ‘quan chay’ or ‘com chay’ for vegetarian. ‘Chay’ is pronounced ‘chai’
    • Toi an chay (I am vegetarian)
  • Che is a sweet soup, fresh fruit, coconut milk
  • Nộm hoa chuối: banana flower salad with lime
  • Đậu sốt cà chua: braised tofu in tomato sauce
  • Rau muống xào tỏi: stir-fried morning glory with garlic
  • Bánh xèo chay: savoury rice pancakes with bean sprouts, and mushrooms
  • Cao lầu chay: Hoi An-style noodles in soy dressing with greens
  • Đậu hũ chiên sả ớt: Tofu fried with shredded lemongrass and chili
  • Ca tim xoi mo hanh: Eggplant simmered with green onion

EXTRA VIETNAM TRAVEL TIPS

Visa: Visas are required to enter Vietnam for many countries. 

As an American trying to figure out if I could get a visa on arrival (as many Brits, Aussies and Europeans can do), online forums and government sites weren’t clear. Some said it would be possible in Hanoi or Sai Gon airports, but others said that without having a visa, it was possible I’d be denied entry.

So, I opted for the ‘safe’ route and secured a visa from the Vietnamese embassy in London before departing for my trip to Southeast Asia.

The entire process was simple, and one I’d recommend if you’re going for a short stay visit.

The only downside? I had to indicate set dates for entry, and had to select length of stay when applying. At the time of application, I applied for a month long visa, but would have loved to stay longer if I’d had the flexibility.

Language: Transactional English is widely spoken, especially in areas many tourists visit (e.g. the Old Quarter in Hanoi and District 1 in Sai Gon), and among younger Vietnamese. If you find someone who doesn’t speak English, you’ll likely be fine getting by with gestures and Google translate

Currency: Vietnamese Dong

I withdrew from a bank ATM. Look for Visa and Mastercard images on an ATM- that means it’s global, and only withdraw from a bank one (there’s less of a chance your card will be skimmed). I’d advise carrying cash on you- many purchases are so small, you won’t meet the card minimum if the place you’re at even takes cards

Budget: The cheapest place I visited in SE Asia, only rivalling Myanmar in day-to-day trip cost. You can definitely spend money in Vietnam, if that’s your thing and you’re living the luxe life, but if you’re trying to ball on a budget, you’ll have no problem eating well here, and doing cool activities 

Getting There (flying): Hanoi and Sai Gon have major international airports, which connect outside of Asia, as well as to major hubs- Bangkok, Kuala Lumpar, Singapore. To get from the airport to the city, hop in a Grab car- an easy and affordable way to get around the city 

When to Visit: Vietnam has two seasons, wet and dry. And, they vary in the north and south.

In the north, autumn (September-November) and Spring (March-April) are two best seasons to visit, when the weather is pleasant with milder temperatures.

And in the south, the drier months are December-March.

I visited Vietnam in late April/early May, and for the most part, had good weather.

The only exception?

Visiting Sai Gon the first week of May, I thought, surely it can’t be that rainy just yet?

Wrong.
Not only did it rain every day I was in Sai Gon- it down-poured. The kind of downpours where it’s hard to even see through the sheets of rain, let alone walk or drive in it. The first day, I thought, no big deal, I’m sure this will be over in a few minutes.

Wrong again.
The downpours were especially long- sometimes lasting hours with little relief from the pounding rain. In the first week of the rainy season, I got caught in a flood. Definitely wasn’t expecting that.

The lesson? Either try to visit when ideal seasons overlap (March), or be prepared for torrential downpours.

Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Vietnam, although I’ve seen the practice debated on travel forums. Some upmarket places may add a service charge, and everyone appreciates if you round your Dong up, which is what I normally did 

WiFi Access: Every modern cafe I visited had WiFi, key word here is modern 

SIM Card Options: I bought a 30-day SIM upon arrival at Hanoi’s airport when I entered the country, paying ~$12 USD for an unlimited month’s worth of data. I’d also expect Sai Gon’s airport to have SIM options, or you could get one once you’re in the city

Have you ever been to Vietnam? Is it somewhere you’d like to visit one day?

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