The Ultimate 3 Month Guide to Experiencing Southeast Asia

Say the words, ‘Southeast Asia‘ and you’ll draw mental imagery of long-tail boats, white sand beaches, lazy rivers and rolling mountains, gorgeous temples, flaming street food, scooters on every corner, thundering waterfalls, lush rainforests, and ruins of civilisations past.

It’s a part of the world that can overwhelm first time visitors with how much there is to see and experience. The warm weather, wealth of attractions, natural beauty, and the captivating culture of each country makes it (as a region) the perfect holiday destination.

During my nine months bouncing around Southeast (SE) Asia in 2019, I visited Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, The Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. On my trip, I had the luxury of time, largely because I worked remotely, which allowed me to travel for months on end, while balancing adventuring with digital consulting and teaching English.

This post is a build upon a two week, ‘see and do as much as possible’ itinerary I created for first time visits to Southeast Asia. Much of the advice here will be the same, with location and travel advice expanded.

Where to Start With Planning

There are guidebooks galore, but to keep my travel load light, I favor Instagram (bookmark posts; save them to folders), Pinterest, and online travel resources when it comes to trip planning.

Typically, before any trip, I start a Google sheet, where I track details about a place, things I want to do, reservations, logistics (hotel/hostel info, flight details, arranged transportation, booked tours, etc.). Having everything in one place makes it simple to access or add to on the go via my phone, as well as easy to share with family and friends so they know what I’m up to.

Before I left for my trip to SE Asia, I looked up key bits about every country I wanted to visit to help me roughly outline where I wanted to go, and how long I may want to spend in each place. I’ve provided a sample itinerary below, but there’s so much to do in every country, your own research will help you figure out which places are the most interesting to you.

If you’re feeling stressed about planning so much in advance, don’t. Plan the first few weeks, and then look things up as you go. Chances are, you’ll befriend other travellers, and they always have the best advice.

While there are things that make every part of SE Asia special, don’t feel pressured to see and do everything. Take your time when you need it, rest along the way, appreciate the journey above anything else.

Essential bits to make sure you look up and have taken care of before leaving: 

  • International driver’s license (if you plan on renting a motorbike)
  • Understanding of which countries you need a visa to enter (based on your passport)
  • Extra copies of your passport photo for visas^^ (I brought six to have extras, just in case)
  • Copies of your credit cards/bank cards/passport (digital and one printed version)
  • Travel insurance (while I travelled SE Asia, I was insured through World Nomads, and then Safety Wing)
  • 1-2x digital bank cards (in addition to a debit card and credit card – easier to replace; less risk in having your funds hacked)
  • Travel vaccinations (consult with your GP before leaving)

How Much to Save for Backpacking SE Asia

When I ventured around SE Asia, I worked as a digital consultant and English teacher, but was between ‘9-5 jobs’. However, because I had steady cash flow on the road, I often paid a bit more to stay at places with stable, high speed wifi and was able to treat myself to splurges at nice hotels, as well as experiences that I may not have been able to afford if backpacking on a slim budget in my early 20s.

If your budget is limited, you’ll likely want to travel much slower to get the most out of each destination.

In terms of actual budget, range can vary significantly. I know people who’ve travelled on less than $2,000 for three months, and others who spent +$2,000 a month. I tracked my expenses with Trail Wallet to help me understand how much I was spending in different places. Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand were notably cheaper to travel than Singapore and Indonesia (specifically, Bali).

Key Expenses to Account For In Your Budget ($, USD): 

  • Flights/buses/trains to get to/from Southeast Asia, as well as around: Buses are usually under $10 for 5-6 hour rides, and flights are often $20-50 for domestic travel, and +$30 for international (cost varies widely internationally, depending on the distance travelled, but is still far less than you’d pay for a flight in the US)
  • Baggage fees: You pay by weight, not necessarily number of bags. I usually ended up paying $6-12 per flight for 15-20 kg of baggage. Book before you’re at the airport for the best rates
  • Visa entrance fees: Usually between $30-50 when required. As an American, I paid visa fees to enter Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Everywhere else I visited was free to enter on a short stay (sans Indonesia, which I paid for because of the length of time I stayed)
  • Accommodation: Shared hostel rooms may be found for as low as $3-5 or under $20, it varies widely depending on where you are. As a general rule of thumb, islands will always cost more than cities and there’ll be less availability, so it’s usually better to book in advance than elsewhere if your dates aren’t flexible and you care about quality of stay. I stayed in private hostel rooms or my own Airbnb (with decent internet), to have privacy to work, and averaged $15-50 per night. A few times, I treated myself to nice hotel stays in Bangkok and Bali for $100-130 per night
  • Tours: Depends on the length and country. A 3-4 hour food tour in Hanoi was under $15, whereas twice, I spent $60-80 on day trips in Indonesia with custom itineraries and private transportation
  • Food: Again, this’ll vary widely. I’m partial to upmarket cafes for great coffee and ‘get work done’ vibes, but also love street food, both for its flavour and cost efficiency. A mix of both is usually how I like to see and experience a place. Either way, as long as you’re not eating every meal out at upscale places, this is the budget area where you can likely flex the most – easy to scale up or down, depending on your needs
    • To give you a sense of how far your money can go, while in Indonesia and staying in trendy Canggu, I put myself on a $15-20 per day food budget, which often covered 1-2 nice coffees, a smoothie bowl, plus vegetarian lunch and dinners at nice cafes. I could have definitely done Canggu on less, but loved the abundance of fresh, healthy eats and treated myself daily

More than any specific budget guidance I can provide here, where you go, how you travel and how long you travel will depend how much money you need. And, if your travel timings are more flexible, consider working from the road. Teaching English is a great way to earn a bit of cash on your own schedule with little experience (aside from a college degree) needed.

If you really need to cut costs, look up walking tours and other free activities, eat street food, stay in hostels, do your own laundry. There are tons of ways to save on the road.

When to Visit SE Asia

Do your research before booking. SE Asia is composed of islands, mountains, countryside and buzzing cities- each country experiences different weather throughout the year.

I started travelling Southeast Asia in mid-March, which meant I had ideal weather conditions in many of my destinations. There were a few missteps, such as visiting Cambodia at the end of their dry season when it was unbearably warm, and visiting Ho Chi Minh City at the start of their rainy season, but overall, I planned things well.

If you’re curious about how I timed things, see below. But, note, my trip evolved a lot as I went, and if I planned it again from the beginning, I’d follow more of a ‘route’, rather than doubling back through some places.

March: Singapore; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Thailand
April: Cambodia; Laos; Vietnam
May: Vietnam; Penang, Malaysia; (& South Korea and Taiwan)
June: Indonesia
July: Indonesia
[August: Australia & New Zealand] 
September: Singapore; Indonesia
October: Indonesia
November: Malaysia; Myanmar

When your’e planning your trip, also consider holidays. Visiting Thailand and Laos during Songkran and the New Year was intentional, but also a water filled couple of days. I loved it, but being doused in water all day may not be for everyone.

How to Get Around Southeast Asia

If you want to see as much as possible in the time you have and have the budget for it, fly. An abundance of air carriers, like Air Asia, make doing so easy peasy. You’ll find flights usually aren’t that expensive, but if you’re on a budget, overland travel (trains, buses) may be more your style. Plan on ferrying between islands in Thailand, and flying between the Andaman and Gulf sides.

Not sure about the best route to take, per the time you have and available budget? Google your question. Loads of travellers have come before you, take their advice.

Once you reach a place, grab a taxi to your hotel/hostel if you’re trying to save time, or look into public transit options. In some places, like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, there’ll be plenty of public transit options available.

Things You Must Pack

First and foremast, pack light. When you’re on the move,  you don’t want to cart around a ton of baggage. Plan on doing laundry once a week, and leave room for things you want to bring home. Even if you’re not a souvenir person, as I’m not, you may find yourself excited to bring things like coffee from Thailand or custom tailored clothes from Vietnam back with you.

If you’re struggling to pare down clothes, keep in mind you’ll find international chains, like H&M, in big cities (Bangkok, Singapore, Hanoi), in addition to boutiques and local market stalls just about everywhere, so it’s simple to pick up items while travelling.

This is the full list of everything I packed to backpack the world through different climates for a year- all of which, fit into a 55L Osprey backpack.

5 ‘Can’t Forget’ to Pack Items:

  • Sunscreen / aloe vera
  • Mosquito spray
  • Luggage locks
  • Global charger
  • Light, breezy casual clothing, and a scarf or sarong to cover legs or shoulders at temples

Ladies, consider wearing sports bras only. Seriously, it’s so hot and humid, I can’t even imagine wearing a normal bra. Low impact sports bras are where it’s at- the last thing you want are things chafing and sticking.

While we’re talking about sports bras, women, you’ll need to cover your legs past your knees, and shoulders/upper arms when entering temples. I usually wore a midi / maxi dress or trousers and brought a scarf to ensure I was covered on top. If you forget, many temples let you rent items for a small fee. Always check a temple’s rules before visiting- if they don’t have a website, try TripAdvisor for tips from others who have visited.

And, always carry local currency. Most places, unless they’re upmarket, are cash only. And, even if they do accept card- there’s likely a minimum spend. No need to exchange at an airport- just withdraw from an ATM, I use global digital banking cards like Revoult so there are no foreign transaction fees.

One last thing to keep in mind when it comes to packing- if you’re on the move a lot, you’ll spend a decent amount of time in airports- don’t spend even more time in them by checking luggage or waiting for it to arrive. Carrying on translates to ease of travel throughout your trip.

Key Advice to Know Before You Leave for Your Trip

Before you travel, research whether you’ll need visas to enter each country you intend to enter. Of the ones I’ve listed here, visas are required for American travellers visiting both Cambodia and Vietnam- others are visa exempt for short stays.

If you’re able, bring an unlocked phone. You’ll find wifi at most upmarket places (cafes, hotels, hostels, restaurants), but the benefits to having service to call a tuk tuk or taxi, check currency conversions or language translations, or even look up directions or opening hours for something are endless. If you’re only in each country for a few days, pick up a SIM at the airport when you land- you’ll be surprised by how affordable they are.

Download a few apps to help make your travel plans and time in each country easier.

Research how to say basic greetings in the primary language of each country you’ll visit, as well as key cultural customs to know. While many people you’ll encounter will speak at least transactional English, don’t expect everyone to. Google Translate is my go-to when I need help communicating.

// 21 Things I Wish I Knew Before Travelling to Thailand //

Don’t do anything in a temple you wouldn’t do in a church (or other place of worship). Temples are a place of worship. Be respectful with photography or video and in observing anyone who is worshipping.

If taking a taxi, insist the metre be turned on ahead of getting in.

Bring hand sanitizer and tissues. Sometimes, there won’t be toilet paper in public bathrooms (cue the tissues). And, in public bathrooms and cities, I find having hand sanitizer critical. Especially if eating street food while wandering.

Whether you’re coming from the United States or not, withdraw $50-100 USD. You never know when having USD will come in handy- especially in places like Cambodia which use USD flexibly alongside their own currency, and where you’ll want it to cover visa fees. I also like to keep a few small bills ($5, $10) handy in a second wallet in case I ever run into ‘trouble’ and need a ‘bribe’.

Make sure you understand the rules of renting a motorbike, as well as the potential risks before doing so. And, if you need it, be sure to arrange an international license before you travel.

Places You Can’t Miss: A Sample, Jam Packed Itinerary

If you’re backpacking SE Asia on a set timeframe, it’s likely because you’re travelling only for the amount of money you’ve saved, or you’ve taken a sabbatical from work and/or are taking a break to travel in between jobs.

Whatever the reason to travel, I’d recommend planning to spend time in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia.

I’ve left off the Philippines, as the islands are notably more expensive than other places in SE Asia, and the transit infrastructure isn’t as developed as other places (e.g. Thai islands), so it can take a bit longer to get from island to island.

It was also a conscious decision to leave Myanmar off this itinerary, given ongoing political distress (read: a military coup and genocide) occurring in the country. You’ll also notice Timor-Lester and Brunei aren’t on this SE Asia itinerary, both because they can be more expensive to travel to, and because I haven’t been to either.

I’m providing an outline of roughly how much time to spend in each country, and key stops to make, but also would only plan the first couple of weeks if you’re starting off on a longer trip to SE Asia.

I traveled the region for over nine months, and I planned the first six weeks too much and regretted not having more flexibility to spend another day or two in places that really appealed to me. For the rest of my trip, I didn’t book exit flights/plans until I was in a destination and understood just how much time I wanted to spend there. That decision led to some beautiful, unplanned adventures to places I never imagined I’d visit on my trip as a result of flight deals (Taiwan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, India).

While it’s good to have a general plan, and do a bit of research for each place before you your trip starts, don’t over-pace yourself or over plan. You’ll meet people along the way and will appreciate having the flexibility to switch things up at leisure.

The below day allotments are only recommendations, flex up or down based on what appeals to you in each place, and how your trip goes as you’re on it. Generally, the below route follows an upward and over progression, but you could switch it up based on flight deals, or any other factor.

In some places, like Luang Prabang, I’ve suggested a few more days than you ‘need’ to see the key sights because, some spots are magical places to slow down and chill out.

Singapore: Start your trip here– 4 days (+1-2 days more than you ‘need’ to account for jet lag)
Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Langkawi – 10 days
Thailand: Andaman Islands, Gulf Islands, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Bangkok- 23 days
Cambodia: Siem Reap, Phnom Penh- 6 days (more if you’re heading to the islands, e.g. Koh Rong or Koh Rong Sanloem)
Laos: Luang Prabang- 5 days
Vietnam: Hanoi, Sa Pa, Ha Long Bay, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City- 26 days
Indonesia: Bali, Flores, Gili Islands- 19 days

The Best Things to Do in Each Destination

SINGAPORE:
10 Things You Must See, Do & Eat in Singapore
The Caffeine Lovers Guide to Singapore
A Whirlwind Day in Singapore

MALAYSIA:
Everything You Must See & Do in Penang, Malaysia
8 Cafes You Can’t Miss in Penang, Malaysia
The Best Street Art in SE Asia, Found in Penang
Three Places to Find Excellent Coffee in Kuala Lumpar
Off the Tourist Track: Visiting the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpar
5 Things You Must Do in Kuala Lumpar

THAILAND:
Two Weeks to Travel the Best of Thailand
Finding Serenity in Bangkok, A Review of the Banyan Tree Hotel
Living Luxuriously in Bangkok: Five Star Hotels On a Budget
21 Things to Know Before Traveling to Thailand
Finding Floating Markets in Thailand
Three Temples You Can’t Miss in Bangkok
Four Cafes in Bangkok Worth Your Baht
Chiang Rai, Thailand: A Sleepy Mountain Town with Stunning Scenery
Three Temples You Can’t Miss in Chiang Rai, Thailand
The Best Cafes in Chiang Rai
Visiting an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
Why You Should Try a Gong Bath in Thailand
Getting on Island Time: 48 Hours in Koh Tao
The Best Places to Watch the Sun Set in Koh Tao, Thailand
Affordable Island Luxury at the Charming Fox in Koh Samui
Discovering Pristine Island Paradise on Koh Nang Yuan
Cafes You Can’t Miss in Chiang Mai
Three Temples You Must Visit in Chiang Mai, Thailand
The Best Places to Eat in Chiang Mai for Vegetarians
The Ultimate Guide to 3 Days in Chiang Mai
Dramatic Limestone Cliffs + Lush Jungle in Railay, Thailand
A Thai Island Day Trip That’ll Leave You Speechless: Hong Island
Relaxing in the Maldives of Thailand, Koh Lipe
The Most Beautiful Day Tour in the Thai Islands: Snorkelling, Caving & Idyllic Beaches
3 Reasons Koh Lanta is My Favourite Thai Island
The Case for Visiting Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands
A Ranking of the Thai Islands: ‘Must Visit’ to ‘Okay to Skip’
The Complete Guide to Ferrying Between the Thai Islands
Celebrating the Water Festival, Songkran, in Bangkok
4 Places I Still Want to Visit in Thailand

CAMBODIA:
A Two Day Guide to Seeing the Best of Angkor Wat
Four Cute Cafes in Siem Reap You Can’t Miss
Four Things to Do Your First Time in Siem Reap
A  Magical Sunrise in SE Asia: Angkor Wat at Dawn

LAOS:
How Luang Prabang in Laos Stole My Heart in 3 Days
Cruising the Mekong River at Sunset
Three Beautiful, Chill Cafes You Can’t Miss in Luang Prabang
Observing an Ancient Ritual in Luang Prabang, Almsgiving
The Most Beautiful Waterfall I’ve Ever Seen, Kuang Si Falls in Laos

VIETNAM:
Two Weeks to Travel the Best of Vietnam
A Love Letter to Vietnam
Discovering Coffee Mania in Sai Gon
The Ultimate Guide to Sai Gon, Vietnam
The Only Tour You Need to Take in Sai Gon: A Motorbike Street Food Tour
Every Kind of Coffee You Must Try in Vietnam
The Best Vegetarian Banh Mi I Ate in Vietnam
How Da Nang Stole my Heart and Became One of my Favourite Places in SE Asia
Slowing Down in Hoi An: Why I Loved Fell For This Historic Slice of Vietnam
A Guide to Getting Clothes Custom Made in Hoi An, Vietnam
Charming Cafes to Visit in Hoi An, Vietnam
A Night Cruising Vietnam’s Stunning Ha Long Bay
Why You Should Consider Visiting Sa Pa in Vietnam
The Ultimate Guide to Hanoi: Must Do’s & Can’t Misses
Pho Cocktails? Where to Find this Unique Drink in Vietnam
Eating Hanoi, Vegetarian Street Food Style
A Coffee Lover’s Guide to Hanoi

INDONESIA:
Why You Need to Visit the Gili Islands on your Bali Holiday
The Ultimate Guide to 3 Days in the Gili Islands
The Ultimate Guide to 72 Hours in Labuan Bajo, Flores
The Best Day Trip to Take in Indonesia
The Ultimate Bali Planning Guide
The Ultimate Guide to Jungle Paradise in Ubud
Every Cafe You Must Visit in Ubud
Chasing Waterfalls Near Ubud
10 Things You Can’t Miss in Canggu, Bali
15 Cafes in Canggu for Your Smoothie Bowl & Latte Fix
5 Spas in Bali I Loved Enough to Return to Time After Time
5 Sights in East Bali That’ll Take Your Breath Away
The Best Places to Workout & Zen Out in Bali
A Magic Day in the Mountains of Munduk
The Best of Uluwatu in One Day
A Night at Munduk Moding: An Eco-Luxe Hotel With One of Bali’s Best Infinity Pools
Going Off the Beaten Path in Bali, Finding Serenity in Seririt
Seeing the Best of Breathtaking Nusa Penida on a Day Trip from Bali
Three Luxury Hotels in Bali That’ll Take Your Breath Away

Have you ever travelled Southeast Asia? Where would you go on a long trip to explore the region? 

Other Posts You May Enjoy

An Unforgettable Two Weeks Exploring Southeast Asia

Say the words, ‘Southeast Asia‘ and you’ll draw mental imagery of long-tail boats, white sand beaches, lazy rivers, rolling mountains, gorgeous temples, flaming street food, scooters on every corner, thundering waterfalls, lush rainforests, and ruins of civilisations past.

It’s a part of the world that can overwhelm first time visitors with how much there is to see and experience. The warm weather, wealth of attractions, natural beauty, and the captivating culture of each country makes it (as a region) the perfect holiday destination.

During my nine months bouncing around Southeast (SE) Asia in 2019, I visited Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, The Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. On my trip, I had the luxury of time, largely because I worked remotely, which allowed me to travel for months on end, while balancing adventuring with digital consulting and teaching English.

Although I had time, I also moved around a lot- keen to see and experience as much as possible. It was my first visit to this part of the world, but it won’t be the last. Since returning, I’ve had many ask about ‘two week itineraries’ for SE Asia. Even with the pandemic, many are looking forward to a time when they’ll be able to travel again.

Why two weeks?
Often, that’s the amount of time most can take off from corporate jobs without preparing for a longer period of leave, or using too many/all of their allocated vacation days. That said, the longer you have, the better. There’s so much to see and do in each country far beyond what’s represented here. For a first taste of Southeast Asia though, this guide is designed to maximize your experience.

Every place in Southeast Asia has something special to offer, no place is the same- even within a country, things vary significantly from north to south. I’ve included Thai islands, but not an entire week lounging at the beach. You’ll move around a lot, so if that’s not your preferred travel style, consider spending more time in a place. But, if you’re keen to see as much as possible, this guide may be right up your ally.

Where to Visit in Southeast Asia?

Narrowing down places to highlight was difficult. In some ways, this guide is controversial. Often, recommendations for first time visitors to SE Asia center in picking one country and exploring one or two places. While that’s a fine way to travel, I also tend to oscillate between trips where I see and do a lot, and others where I travel slow, spending more time in a single place.

If visiting SE Asia for the first time, I’d definitely want to experience as much as I could. There are 11 countries in SE Asia- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Lester, and Vietnam.

If you’re short on time and out to see as much as possible, I’d recommend venturing to 4-5 of my favorite countries, and picking one place to see in each- Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

In Singapore, spend time seeing the city.
In Malaysia, soak up the sights of Kuala Lumpar.
In Thailand, go island hopping.
In Cambodia, visit the ancient ruins of civilizations past.
And in Vietnam, eat all the street food. Seriously, all of it.

Will you see and do a lot in a short span of time?
Absolutely.

Will it be a relaxing, rejuvenating vacation?
Perhaps not. But you’ll learn a lot, see a lot and experience a lot. Which, for me, always sparks joy in the moment and long after I’ve returned home.

I’ll also say this- if you’ve haven’t travelled much, this is not the itinerary for you. You may do better visiting one or two places vs. bouncing from spot to spot. But if you’ve travelled quite a bit, enjoy fast paced trips and aren’t bothered by repacking or being on the go, this adventure packed itinerary may be of interest to you.

When to Visit in Southeast Asia

Do your research before booking. SE Asia is composed of islands, mountains, countryside and buzzing cities- each country experiences different weather throughout the year.

I visited Singapore, the Andaman Islands in Thailand, Bangkok, Siem Reap and Hanoi in late March / early-mid April, and would recommend that as an optimal time to visit. Siem Reap will be at the end of the dry season, and it may be unbelievably hot, but it’s tolerable for a short period of time, and much better than visiting in the rainy season.

How to Get Around Southeast Asia

If you’re short on time, fly. An abundance of air carriers, like Air Asia, make doing so easy, peasy and affordable.

Once you reach a place, plan on taxing a Grab or taxi to your hotel/hostel, again, to save time (and stress of navigating a new place). And, depending on where you are, plan on either walking places or using ride sharing (Grab & Go Jek are the ‘Uber’ of SE Asia) to save time and allow you to see more with the time you have.

Must Bring Packing Essentials for Southeast Asia

First and foremast, pack light. When you’re on the move throughout your holiday, you don’t want to cart around a ton of baggage. Trust you’ll be able to either do your own laundry or send out at least once during your trip, and leave room for things you want to bring home. Even if you’re not a souvenir person, as I’m not, you may find yourself excited to bring things, like coffee from Vietnam back with you.

This is the full list of everything I packed to backpack the world through different climates for a year- all of which, fit into a 55L Osprey backpack. If you’re only spending two weeks in SE Asia, pack clothes you can mix and match.

5 Must Pack Items:

  • Sunscreen / aloe vera
  • Mosquito spray
  • Luggage locks
  • Global charger
  • Light, breezy casual clothing, and a scarf or sarong to cover legs or shoulders at temples

Ladies, consider wearing sports bras only. Seriously, it’s so hot and humid, I can’t even imagine wearing a normal bra. Low impact sports bras are where it’s at- the last thing you want are things chafing and sticking.

While we’re talking about sports bras, women, you’ll need to cover your legs past your knees, and shoulders/upper arms when entering temples. I usually wore a midi / maxi dress or trousers and brought a scarf to ensure I was covered on top. If you forget, many temples let you rent items for a small fee. Always check a temple’s rules before visiting- if they don’t have a website, try TripAdvisor for tips from others who have visited.

And, always carry local currency. Most places, unless they’re upmarket, are cash only. And, even if they do accept card- there’s likely a minimum spend. No need to exchange at an airport- just withdraw from an ATM, I use global digital banking cards like Revoult to minimize foreign transaction fees.

One last thing to keep in mind when it comes to packing- if you’re on the move a lot, you’ll spend a decent amount of time in airports- don’t spend even more time in them by needing to check luggage or wait for it to arrive. Carrying on equates to ease of travel throughout your trip.

Key Things to Know About Visiting Southeast Asia

Before you travel, research whether you’ll need visas to enter each country you intend to enter. Of the ones I’ve listed here, visas are required for American travellers visiting both Cambodia and Vietnam- others are visa exempt for short stays.

If you’re able, bring an unlocked phone. You’ll find wifi most upmarket places (cafes, hotels, hostels, restaurants), but the benefits to having wifi to call a tuk tuk or taxi, check currency conversions or language translations, or even look up directions or opening hours for something are endless. If you’re only in each country for a few days, pick up a SIM at the airport when you land- you’ll be surprised by how affordable all are.

Download a few apps to help make your travel plans and time in each country easier.

Research how to say basic greetings in the primary language of each country you’ll visit, as well as key cultural customs to know. While many people you’ll encounter will speak at least transactional English, don’t expect everyone to. Google Translate is my go-to when I need help communicating.

// 21 Things I Wish I Knew Before Travelling to Thailand //

Don’t do anything in a temple you wouldn’t do in a church (or other place of worship). Temples are a place of worship. Be respectful with photography or video and in observing anyone who is worshipping.

If taking a taxi, insist the metre be turned on ahead of getting in.

Bring hand sanitizer and tissues. Sometimes, there won’t be toilet paper in public bathrooms (cue the tissues). And, in public bathrooms and cities, I find having hand sanitizer critical. Especially if eating street food while wandering.

Whether you’re coming from the United States or not, withdraw $50-100 USD to carry throughout your trip. You never know when having USD will come in handy- especially in places like Cambodia, which use USD flexibly alongside their own currency, and where you’ll want it to cover visa fees. I also like to keep a few small bills ($5, $10) handy in a second wallet in case I ever run into ‘trouble’ and need a ‘bribe’.

Finally, make sure you understand the rules of renting a motorbike, as well as the potential risks before doing so.

A Sample, Jam Packed Itinerary

For the purpose of outlining an itinerary, I’ve started the trip in Bangkok. Based on where you’re originating, you may find it’s better to fly in Singapore or Kuala Lumpar and start there. If you do that, then you could easily switch up this itinerary- all three are cities with major international airports. There’s plenty to see and do in each, but if you only have a day in one or two of them, you can still hit up some of the highlights.

Growing up it the US, it was usually advised to book return flights when traveling, but if you’re trying to see and do as much as possible in SE Asia, I’d book one way there and back (price pending, of course). Doing so gives you more flexibility in where you visit, and how much you’re able to see.

One more note about the below- it’ll look like a lot of travel days, but in reality, you’ll likely only need to block a quarter or half day to do things like flying from Phuket to Siem Reap, or Siem Reap to Hanoi. The reason I’ve blocked the day as a travel one is to give you flexibility, but depending on your flight times, you’ll be able to use part of those days to sightsee as well.

Day 1: Fly into Bangkok
Day 2: See Bangkok
Day 3: Fly to Krabi
Days 4-6: Spend 2-3 days in Railay or Ao Nang; Ferry to Phuket to depart Thailand
Day 7: Fly to Siem Reap
Day 8: Explore Siem Reap
Day 9: Fly to Hanoi
Days 10-11: Explore Hanoi
Days 12-14: Fly to Singapore or KL
Day 13: Explore Singapore or KL
Day 14: Transit home

Where to Stay in Each Place

Where you stay should reflect both what you plan on doing (proximity for ease of adventuring), as well as your budget. I’ve made recommendations in every post I’ve linked for each destination below, but Booking.com and Airbnb are great places to check, based on your schedule. Before booking, be sure to read the reviews on their sites, as well as Google- they’re always telling.

Must-See Highlights in Each Place

BANGKOK

Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, is a bustling metropolis- to say the least. The intense, constant grid lock is enough to cause sensation overload in even the most seasoned traveller. Mix in the dozens of beautiful temples, vibrant street markets, hundreds of restaurants and cafes, and infamous nightlife, and you’ve got a city with more to see and do than anyone could possibly find the time for.

  • Favorite things to do: Visit Khao San Road; Have sunset drinks at one of the city’s swank hotel rooftops
  • Favorite place to eat: Chinatown for great street food
  • Favorite places for coffee: Bangkok’s cafe scene is worth your baht. Toby’s, Not Just Another Cup, and Rocket Coffeebar are a few of my favorites
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Temple hopping: The Grand Palace; Wat Arun; Wat Pho

// Two Weeks to Travel the Best of Thailand //

RAILAY / AO NANG

The soaring cliffs and pristine beaches of Railay, Thailand have hovered near the top of my travel ‘wish list’ for years.

Every time I saw photos, I couldn’t believe it was a real place.
It appeared to be actual paradise.

Many people actually think Railay is an island, but it’s actually part of mainland Thailand. It is, however, difficult to reach. Because of the cliffs and dense jungle, you can only access Railay East or West by taking a long tail boat. The isolated location lends an island feel, which manifests as secluded relaxation.

If Railay is too tough to get to in the time you have, you could stay in adjacent Ao Nang to be more central with the benefit of proximity to exploring Railay.

  • Favorite things to do: Go for a morning walk on Railay Beach; Do two day trips to Hong Island, Four Islands, or Koh Phi Phi. Day trips often start early (8/9 am) and return mid-afternoon (3 pm), so you’ll still have time to hang around when you return
  • Favorite place to eat: The food scene didn’t impress me too much in Railay, but I also need to be overtly careful, because of my food allergies
  • Favorite places for coffee: Coffee Station

// Dramatic Limestone Cliffs + Lush Jungle in Railay, Thailand //

SIEM REAP

Siem Reap is a gateway to the ancient world.

With history dating back to the year 802, it’s somewhat hard to believe Siem Reap was a sleepy town in the Cambodian countryside until the world found out about Angkor Wat. If you’re visiting Siem Reap, chances are you’re there to see Angkor, and by extension, Angkor Wat. And, while the ancient temples should be at the very top of your sightseeing list, there’s plenty more to do in Siem Reap.

  • Favorite things to do: Sunrise at Angkor Wat (you’ll need to get temple tickets the day prior); Get a Khmer massage; Wander Siem Reap’s markets
  • Favorite place to eat: New Leaf for Khmer curry and Khmer noodle soup; The night market
  • Favorite places for coffee: Little Red Fox
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Angkor

// Four Things to Do Your First Time in Siem Reap //

HANOI

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. Vietnam is the kind of place that awakens your sense and pulls you in from all angles. The country’s capital, Hanoi, best illustrates this- it’s a crazy, beautiful, historic place.

You could say it was love at first sight my first night in Hanoi. The city’s charm snaked its way into heart, and as I explored back streets over the course of a few weeks, I couldn’t deny how hard I was falling for Hanoi. I call Vietnam my favourite country in Southeast Asia, a title it earned but not without fierce competition from Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia.

  • Favorite things to do: Vegetarian street food tour; Sipping beers at Bia Hoi junction; Wandering the old quarter
  • Favorite place to eat: Banh Mi 25 (best vegetarian banh mi)
  • Favorite places for coffee: Cafe Dinh (egg coffee, old school style); Cong Caphe (frozen coconut coffee)
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Temple of Literature

// The Ultimate Guide to Hanoi //
// Two Weeks to Travel the Best of Vietnam //

SINGAPORE

Ah, Singapore- the clean, futuristic, cultural city has a lot to interest travellers. With Sing’s airport being a major international hub for connecting flights around Asia, there are often flight deals to be found, with long layovers to see a bit of the city.

  • Favorite things to do: Gardens by the Bay (Supertree Grove and Cloud Tree Forest, in particular); Nightly light show at Marina Bay Sands; Wander colorful Kampong Glam and Koon Seng Road
  • Favorite place to eat: Hawker Centres, in particular Tekka in Little India
  • Favorite places for coffee: Free the Robot; % Arabica; Common Man. Coffee not your thing? Try cheese foam fruit tea at Hey Tea
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): ArtScience Museum

// 10 Things You Must See, Eat & Do in Singapore //

KUALA LUMPAR

Famed for its skyscrapers and shopping malls, Kuala Lumpar (KL) is the capital of Malaysia. It’s a melting pot of culture with a vibrant mix of Malay, Indian, Thai and Chinese. The food is fantastic and there’s no shortage of things to do.

  • Favorite things to do: Climb to the top of Batu Caves (free); Gawk at some seriously good street art; Watch the sunset or sunrise at a rooftop pool
  • Favorite place to eat: Merchant’s Lane for brunch; Connaught Night Market or Bangsar Baru Night Market (more touristy) for nasi lemak, satay and roti canai
  • Favorite places for coffee: VCR; Pulp by Papa Palheta; Feeka Coffee Roasters; Lim Kim Cafe
  • Favorite cultural site (museum; temple): Admire Thean Hou Temple

// 5 Things You Must Do in Kuala Lumpar //

A Final Note

Know your plans may not work out. As with travel anywhere, things can go wrong.

If you need a long tail boat to get to a resort but it’s storming, you may have to spend a night on the mainland. It’s just how it goes, and why travel insurance is so important- I always use Safety Wing or  World Nomads. Remember, you’re experiencing a new country, full of unfamiliar sights, sounds and things. It’s okay if everything doesn’t work out exactly ‘to plan’- you never know what you’ll discover, sometimes it may be even better than what had imagined.

Have you ever been to Southeast Asia? Where would you recommend people visit on their first time in this part of the world? 

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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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The Ultimate Guide to Sai Gon, Vietnam

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.

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

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.

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.

And while there’s a certain craziness to Sai Gon, it felt less frantic (to me) than Hanoi. Many of the main sights short stay visitors want to see are located in District 1 and accessible on foot.

Whether you have a few days or a few weeks in the city, it’s a wonderful place to wander- to see modern Vietnamese culture mingle with practices of the past.

In many ways, Sai Gon feels as though it couldn’t be more different to Hanoi, but at the same time, you’ll find yourself surprised at how similar the two cities- at opposite ends of the country- are.

The Ultimate Guide to Sai Gon

WHAT TO DO

Send a postcard from the Central Post Office: Or, you can send bags of coffee home if you’re like me and obsessed with Vietnamese roasts. 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. Take note, the war is called the American War in Vietnam.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

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.

Processed with VSCO with au5 preset

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.

Processed with VSCO with c3 preset

Visit Book Street, an entire street with nothing but bookshops: Nguyen Van Binh book street is an open space- a street with loads of book shops and communal seats to allow people to enjoy and appreciate reading in public.

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.

On my food tour, we tried the traditional savoury crispy pancake, banh mi, sugarcane juice, kumquat tea, banana chips, noodle and fried wonton-esque dishes, and a tofu boba dessert that was absolutely to-die-for. Without question, one of my favourite experiences the entire time I was in Vietnam.