When you go from travelling the remote, quiet and calm places in Aus, what do you do when you leave???
Go to one of the most hectic and chaotic Countries and Cities in the world as your first stop. Right from getting a car at the airport, through to the streets, the restaurants and the attractions Ho Chi Minh was chaos. It was a bustling start to any Vietnam adventure. Welcome to 3 wonderful weeks of family focused travel in Vietnam.
We have planned a 3 week trip to some of Vietnam’s Highlights. There is so much history, culture and nature to see and we don’t have time for it all, but we will do our best to share an awesome 3 week adventure that you could do too!
Day 1-3: Ho Chi Minh City
We spent our days wandering around Ho Chi Minh City checking out the main attractions such as: Cafe Apartments, Bui Vien Walking Street, Independence Palace, Ben Than Markets, Notre Dame Cathedral, Book Street and loads more. We also ate some delicious food especially at Workshop Coffee and consumed plenty of Phó!! The pool in the apartment complex was a welcome reprieve each day both from the busy surrounds and the heat.
‘Vietnam Day’ celebrations occurred while we were here, which meant we saw the fireworks display from our balcony, couldn’t have planned it any better! (We arrived on April 28, so if you are heading to Vietnam around then, maybe research the dates!). There is only one set of fireworks, so unless you research and plan for it, you may not get to see them.
Where we stayed: Rivergate D4 – this is in District 4 and we found it to be a nice location to explore the main attractions from not too far, plus the local area. This is a basic 2 bedroom AirBNB Apartment with a pool and swipe access which makes it really easy. https://www.airbnb.com.au/rooms/608104622124023053
Days 4 – 5: Hoi An
A quick midday flight to our next destination, Hoi An and which is a much quieter and smaller part of Vietnam.
The popular activities to do in Hoi An:
~ Bike riding around Hoi An – an experience that requires picking the right time of day, peak hour still exists here, which we learnt the hard way. We borrowed bikes from our hotel and rode through the rice paddies across from our hotel which allowed us to watch the local people harvest and dry the rice, right on the road and paths and you simply just walk, ride or drive over it. We saw a creative buffalo made from rice stalks too which is super clever! We rode along a couple of main streets and got a further understanding of the ways of life here. This isn’t for the faint hearted, you need to be confident on a pushbike and very aware of what is going on around you.
~ The Coconut Forest, also known as Bay Mau – a beautiful green oasis surrounded by four rivers and canals. It is home to many coconut palms that provide shade, food and materials for the villagers. The best way to enjoy the scenery is by taking a basket boat ride through the waterways. A basket boat is a traditional round boat made of bamboo and waterproofed with tar. It looks like a giant basket and can fit up to four people. We booked a tour with a local guide who picked us up from our hotel and drove us to the Coconut Forest, just 5km away. The basket boat ride was so much fun, the local villagers really created a vibe of calm serenity at times, then group fun with music and fast basket spinning. The tour including driver cost approx. $40 total including the transport to and from the hotel, a coconut water and Aria’s spinning ride. The Coconut Forest was one of the highlights of our time in Hoi An. It was a great way to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy nature and culture. We highly recommend it to anyone who visits this charming town. You won’t regret it!
Book it here: https://www.viator.com/tours/Hoi-An/Tin-Basket-Boat-Tour-basket-boat-visit-water-coconut-forest-fishing-crab/d5229-198145P4?pid=P00059753&mcid=42383&medium=link&campaign=HoiAnCoconutforest
~ Hoi An Lantern Festival – a must do bucket list attraction for Hoi An and we planned our entire venture through Vietnam around the dates of the festival (which happens on the full moon each month). It can get very hectic busy and there are lots of local venders trying to get you to buy things, but the lantern boat on the river was just something else. There’s markets in the old town, there’s food stalls and restaurants, music and history.
We chose not to light our own lantern to place in the river as we could not be guaranteed where the waxed paper and candle remains went after they extinguish and there was already enough rubbish and pollution around, we just didn’t feel right adding to it. It also didn’t detract from the experience, we still had the most magical time.
Others: You can also visit the beaches here, plus wander the Ancient town including the Japanese Covered Bridge and visit a tailor for some unique clothes.
Where we stayed: Lasenta Boutique Hotel in Hoi An, Vietnam. The hotel is beautiful, cozy and relaxing, a pool with a stunning views and the staff were very friendly and helpful. The best part is the view over the rice paddies from our balcony with the Da Nang City and Mountains in the distance.
Day 6-7 : Da Nang
Marble Mountain and Chùa linh ứng Temple via private car transfer on the way from leaving the wonderful Hoi An to our next stop Da Nang.
The Temple was the highlight, such beautiful grounds, quiet and peaceful, with no local vendors constantly at you, along with seeing the monkeys along the side of the road and the views from the Peninsula. I think Marble Mountain was about $10 each and the private transfer and attractions was about $50.
Side note: Marble Mountain was interesting, I mean how often do you walk a mountain made of marble and see temples in all nooks? But it was stinking hot (45°) which made it hard to enjoy, a gazillion people and we were hassled abruptly by a local vendor (beyond the normal) which made us uncomfortable. It is worth the visit if you have the time and the right weather.
Book it here (not a private tour but small group): https://www.viator.com/en-GB/tours/Hoi-An/Marble-Mountain-and-Linh-Ung-Pagoda-Half-Day/d5229-11793P28?pid=P00059753&mcid=42383&medium=link&campaign=MarbleMountainLinhUngPagoda
Day 2 in De Nang we suggest you catch the world’s LONGEST non-stop cable car with to Ba Na Hills – a place you have to see to believe. You’ll need to organise a driver or bus to get you there first though, but there are so many that this won’t be hard to do!
A French village, castle and palace created ‘theme park’ as such at the top of a huge mountain, which is only accessible by sky rail/cable car. We spent over 7 hours here and still didn’t see and do it all. We enjoyed the Golden Bridge, the 4D ride, the performances and the castles themselves and highly recommending budgeting (time and money) for this while in Vietnam!
Book the Ba Na Hills Tickets here: https://www.viator.com/en-GB/tours/Da-Nang/Vietnam-SUN-WORLD-BA-NA-HILLS-Cable-Car-Ticket/d4680-57373P408?pid=P00059753&mcid=42383&medium=link&campaign=CableCarBaNaHills
Where we stayed: We stayed in a skyscraper hotel this time, Haian Beach Hotel and Spa, right up high on the 19th floor with beach views. We enjoyed 2 for 1 happy hour at the roof top bar and pool, enjoyed some down time and watched the city come to life at sunset.
Day 8-10: Hue
We had the hottest days so far here and this then made our exploring a little more difficult. So damn hot! A feels like temp of 53°.
Getting here from Da Nang first though, we suggest organising a private car for the day to take you along the Hai Van Pass from Da Nang to Hue. The views along the pass and the Lagoon were beautiful and we highly recommend the Mango juice from The Lagoon Cafeteria.
Book it here:
Being 50+ deg we spent our day hiding in the aircon, we found a local cafe with aircon and then checked into our accommodation. We then rode out multiple power outages via cold showers until the evening when it was bearable to venture outside. We found a super delicious restaurant just outside the citadel with water views “N. Cafe & Food”. We then wandered back to our accommodation, via the ‘Walking Street’ which happens on Friday and Saturday nights. This ended up being such an awesome experience with the locals having a street of fun, kids playing traditional games, teens practising dance routines, a band and adults just relaxing in it all. Aria had 2 bunches of Vietnamese kids run up to her, asking her if they could chat with her to practise their English, they then invited her to play some games. She thought it was the best ever!! We definitely recommend trying to time your days here to experience the walking street.
Highlight #2 of Hue – The Imperial City
We suggest being up early to be there for opening to beat the heat (and the crowds) as this is one of Vietnam’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a must see when in Hue, along with everyone else.
Hue Ancient Citadel was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945 and was once the capital of Vietnam. It consists of a walled citadel and an inner enclosure called the Imperial City, where the royal family and mandarins lived and worked. The citadel was heavily influenced by Chinese architecture and culture, and it contains many palaces, temples, gardens and monuments. There is so much history here and a lot is written in English or you can do the audio tour so you can learn about this special piece of Vietnam’s ancient history.
We only spent about 1.5 hours here as it was just starting to get too hot to enjoy but definitely could have spent longer so allow a bit more time if you can.
Where we stayed: We actually changed hotels after our first night due to the constant power outages. We couldn’t sleep the first night and didn’t want to go through that again for the 2nd. We moved to EMM Hotel, Hue and it was lovely,
We booked the Overnight Train to Tam Coc and the EMM Hotel let us have our room until 12noon, hang out in the aircon lobby and the pool in 50+ heat, while we waited the remainder of the day and evening for our overnight sleeper train.
Overnight Sleeper Train
So why did we put ourselves through the train – I don’t know now haha, jk. In the original planning we thought, rather than spending a day getting to/from airports, flying and then vehicle transfer to Tam Coc, we would have an extra day exploring at Hue and save a night’s accommodation and travel at the same time as sleeping, makes sense right! But it was too hot for a day of exploring in Hue and so could have just spent the day travelling but we can’t predict the weather that far in advance.
We went from Hue to Tam Coc, departing at 9pm. It definitely could have been worse, and it actually was ok, but would we do it again, probably not! If we did, we would probably do it differently. Do we recommend you do it when in Vietnam, yes, it’s part of the experience. 😂
Where we went wrong was we paid for only 2 beds, in a 4 birth cabin hoping there would be a spare for Aria but that wasn’t the case so she shared with me as Dan literally filled his entire bed himself. There also was no room for luggage so that made things interesting with our 2 suitcases and 3 backpacks! However, it was clean, it was small and we had broken sleep but we survived. Aria made friends with the little Vietnamese girl staying in the same cabin and we communicated through google translate and they played light hand puppets together. Again, definitely recommend doing it, just maybe think about paying for enough beds/the whole cabin.
Day 11-12: Tam Coc/Ninh Binh
What we have been waiting for in Vietnam and our favourite village in Vietnam! Some nature, less chaos, and adventure!
Attractions/Things to Do:
First adventure riding yourselves in the local Vietnamese way, by scooter, to Trang An, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is here you get taken on a boat tour through the river system amongst the limestone cliffs. We went through caves, we awed at the green mountainous cliffs and the incredibly detailed artistry work of the temples. We absolutely loved this experience and totally recommend this if you are visiting Vietnam. We know of 2 other similar tours in Tam Coc, but this one is the only one with temples and structured organisation so you pay the set price and don’t get hassled for extra money, attractions, etc. Dan was given the helmet hat in the caves as he was taller than the rower was so he said Dan would probably need it more than him The cost was approximately $15aud per adult and $12 per child (plus parking costs of about $1). We spent a good 2-3 hours here and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at our hotel’s pool after this.
Day 2: Would you climb over 500 steps to sit up here?
Absolutely, is what I am hearing you say! This is the walk up Lying Dragon Mountain at Mua Caves, Tam Coc. Make sure you check the weather as in 40deg heat and 100% humidity, we almost died! You also need to do it before it rains as the steps can get very slippery and dangerous. It was so worth the effort and thankfully the commercialism at the bottom helped us with cold drinks, ice-creams and fans to cool down once we returned to the bottom.
In the same area, you can explore a cave and beautiful lotus gardens. There is a $6.50 entry fee pp plus a 65c fee to park your scooter. This is also where we were scammed by a local, dressed in a police uniform, demanding in Vietnamese (no English) for us to park where he said to and pointing to his badge etc (which was fake btw). We were a little confused and went along with it and it was fine in the end, as we didn’t pay more or anything, just had to walk further. We thought it was that the parking ahead was full, but no, just a scammer!! So be aware and just keep riding past, even if they jump out at you, there’s plenty of parking at the entry gate.
Afternoon Day 2 – Wander just a few hundred metres from Lion Kings Hotel to Bich Dong Pagoda which was interesting to see. Then explore the streets around the hotel as they are full of rice fields. while Aria and I danced in the fields, Dan sent the drone up for a birds eye view. From here make your way into the town centre for some dinner. We absolutely recommend Minh Khoi Restaurant, we ate here 3 times and everything was delicious and well priced.
Where we stayed: We stayed at Lion Kings Hotel and they were super lovely. We stopped in after our early arrival by train to ask to leave our luggage there and then go an explore. They did better than that though, they offered us breakfast at the buffet, and while we ate they got our room ready. And what a beautiful room it was! Look at the view! The hotel also has a stunning pool, beautiful gardens and a pond with stunning garden lights at night! Highly recommend this hotel in Tam Coc!
Day 13 – 15: Hanoi
Prearrange a private driver for the day to take you to Hanoi, Vietnam’s Capital. We spent 4 nights here, just relaxing, wandering and taking in the sites. We visited the Botanic Gardens, Hoàn Kiếm Lake, wandered the old town and the French Quarter, stopped by the Ho Chi Minh Memorial and wandered around some more. We enjoyed sunset at a roof top bar too, because, well why not!
We also attended the Lotus Water Puppet show, which Aria absolutely loved and we found really enjoyable. We chose this one (out of the 2 near the lake) as there is a screen with a basic English write up before each scene to briefly describe what it is about and this really helped! We also suggest taking/wearing mozzie repellent to the show as they are thick and on the attack!
Train Street V2! This is a MUST experience!
The original train street is very overrun and commercial now. There is security, you have to been invited in by cafe owners, you have a set time allowed, with overpriced food and drink. We did our own research and found Train Street V2 which is a little further away, but the more authentic experience we were after. We took a grab to get as close as possible and then made our way along the train tracks to Railway 65 Cafe at about 3pm to get a seat and drink, ready for the 3:30pm train.
What an awesome experience, something that really makes you wonder how it is allowed. It does look scary, but the locals have got it down and are very clear with how far back the tables and chairs, & how far back you need to be so you are definitely safe to sit, watch and feel the train go past! Head here to see the video – https://www.instagram.com/reel/CuNkKbYLkAr/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==
Where we stayed: E Central Hotel, Hanoi. Great location, fantastic staff and excellent Bahn Mi and restaurant next door, juice and coffee at the end of the street.
Day 16-17: Ha Long Bay Cruise
What a unique part of this country and the world! You HAVE to do this! We booked a fabulous 2 night, 3 day luxury cruise around Ha Long Bay through AuCo. We had a limousine mini bus pick us up from the hotel in the morning and drop us to the boat. This is probably the most expensive cruise of Ha Long Bay you could do and there are definitely cheaper out there but this was our ‘splurge’ and ‘last hoorah’ of Vietnam. We had heard great reviews so just did it.
We were welcomed on board, settled into our room and served a delicious lunch. We cruised through the bay, admiring the limestone casts and arrived at the largest island of the group, Cat Ba Island. We took a bike ride through the village and learnt about the island way of life, growing produce and raising children etc. We also learnt about the filming of King Kong that took place here and saw some water buffalo up close.
Back on board, we cruised through sunset to the mooring for the night, whilst also enjoying happy hour and a few laughs with the fellow passengers on board. We also we given a cooking demonstration of the traditional way to make spring rolls and had a go at making them ourselves. Aria was nominated as the judge and her scoring system left the other guests in fits of laughter.
Day 2 – After a buffet breakfast, we cruised to a fishing village in Ha Long Bay. We got to learn about the way of life and the history of the village. We then kayaked around, for a closer look before heading back to the ship. Today also included some nice down time on the boat, where we could use the spa, take a tour of the engine room at Captains Bridge. We then stopped in a small bay for another kayak adventure. I went on a solo mission for this one as Aria really needed a nap and she had finally agreed to the idea about 5 minutes before this adventure was to begin. After a 1 hour kayak, Dan and Aria joined the next explore, which was a cave walk through to a beach.
Day 3 of our Ha Long Bay cruise – the morning was an early one, with an early breakfast of Bahn Mi, before a walk through Surprise Cave – the largest cave in the region. It has 3 chambers with the 3rd being the largest, and it was huge!! I’ll let the photos show you, but I’m not sure they quite show the scale of this cave. We then sailed back to port while having a 2nd buffet breakfast and our limousine mini-bus was waiting to return us to Hanoi. If you haven’t realised already, this is a must in Vietnam. It is worth the extra to do 2 nights and 3 days on the cruise as you can really enjoy it and get to know the place more.
In the interest in keeping it real, and I will probably be roasted for this, it is so unfortunate that the amount of rubbish and pollution here. It is so beyond imaginable, that we didn’t feel comfortable even having a swim. Most photos you see don’t show you the rubbish and pollution (& that is not on purpose), but I have never seen so much waste in a body of water in my life. I was actually and still am quite depressed about it to be honest. And don’t get me wrong, it is an absolutely beautiful place on Earth, you should definitely visit, but you need to constantly look past the rubbish, and well it really shouldn’t be the case. It feels like everything we do in Aus is wasted and we as a human race need to do something about this!
There are plenty of different Ha Long Bay cruise options, but this is a run down of the one we did and we couldn’t fault it.
Book one here: https://www.viator.com/en-GB/tours/Hanoi/Lan-Ha-Bay-Viet-Hai-Village-Dark-and-Bright-Cave-3D2N-on-La-Pinta-5-star-Cruise/d351-105554P30?pid=P00059753&mcid=42383&medium=link&campaign=HaLongBayCruises
Day 18: Hanoi
Hanoi, this is another chance to return to your favourite locations or things you may have missed such as Beer Street in Hanoi. You arrive back from Ha Long Bay just after lunch so you have the afternoon and evening to explore.
Day 20 – 21: Ho Chi Minh
We went back to Ho Chi Minh on a mid morning flight as we are continuing on to Europe and this is where we depart on our flights. We didn’t do much here, we just recouped and prepared ourselves for a 13 hour overnight flight. We did however head to a Gluten-Free Cafe and it was fab! Plus hit an ice skating rink in a shopping centre for something fun to do. We were going to do a day trip to MeKong River Markets, but we didn’t feel we had enough time. This and the War Tunnels are probably two day trips we have heard are wonderful and would recommend adding in if you have the time and also feel it is appropriate for your kids (if you’re travelling with them). You could also end your trip in Hanoi and fly back home or to your next destination from there, or we have heard Sapa and the region around there is stunning too, so if you have the time you could head that way.
The days were HOT for us, even for Aussies who’ve chased the sun for the past 2.5yrs in Australia. The humidity is also beyond what we had when living in Darwin for 6 years, again we visited in April and May so keep that in mind when booking your trip.
Pollution is bad – the photos and videos don’t show it up, even I was surprised with my own photos and videos when I looked at them after taking them, I didn’t plan to not have it show, the camera just doesn’t capture it/it blends in. Don’t let this put you off going, but also be aware and prepared to see it/smell it/breathe it. Vietnam is still beautiful, has some lovely people and food and it really worth the visit!
We flew Vietnam Airlines direct from Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh City. It was 7hours. I believe they do direct from Sydney too. Even our domestic flights in Vietnam were with Vietnam Airlines and they were fab (except we had a Viet Air booked code-share flight with Pacific Air when my suitcase was broken into). We found the airports quite good and easy to navigate and arrived at the airports 2 hours before scheduled departure to get through the process (domestic, 2.5hours for international). I wouldn’t suggest any less time as we needed the whole 2/2.5 hours once there (so add on travel time to get to the airport too). How we find the best deals on flights, we use the search on here: skyscanner.pxf.io/eKErrr . You can really expand your dates and cities out to find the best prices if you are flexible in either of those!
Top 10 Tips for Travelling Vietnam
- Get a travel card for money and get an e-sim that covers your destination! -Bank Card – we use Citibank to withdraw cash and 28 Degrees for Card payments. Cash is used the most here still so consider your withdrawal fees etc. E-Sim – this is so that you can always can stay in touch, get directions, book transfers, research etc without chasing WIFI. MobiMatter was the best value for money and heaps better value than roaming with your Australian carrier. Even better is that it is done online and downloaded to your phone, you don’t need to locate a store for a physical sim card, risking losing your Aus one in the process! We have a code for you too for MobiMatter – DANIE24483!! https://mobimatter.com/
- Download the Grab App. Book most of your transport through here. You know you are being charged a set rate and not be over charged. You can also check what the cost should be roughly on the app before getting in a random taxi on the street. It’s also a safe way to communicate, you can track your route to know you’re going where you planned and there is a safety feature in the app so if you feel unsafe at all you can raise alarm. We never felt the need for this though. Longer distances can be up to 50% cheaper through a private driver than Grab (see point 4. For this).
- Don’t drink the water, nor use it for your teeth or face washing etc. We did have ice in our drinks at restaurants etc. We bought large 5L-10L water bottles (it’s cheap enough) and used baby wipes.
- Join the Vietnam Travellers Facebook group. We got extra advice on here plus were able to get a local driver, in a private car for our long stint transfers we needed for really great prices. Also can ask for English speaking for extra local knowledge along the way. Also agree on the inclusions and price of the trip before you confirm the booking.
- Take your own sunscreen, it is hot and sunscreen is hard to find and when you do it’s expensive.
- We used the ‘coke index’ to judge if we were getting value for money at a restaurant. A small bottle costs 12000vnd at a supermarket, 18000vnd at a convenience store, and restaurants charged anywhere from 18000vnd to 60000vnd for the same bottle. It is a great way to judge the value of the restaurant because anywhere that is overcharging for a bottle of coke is probably overcharging for everything else.
- Google Maps Reviews are the most reliable reviews, however they are still hit and miss. Take note of when they were posted and how many reviews were posted at the same day/time. This will give you an idea of they are fake reviews.
- If you want to see a large amount of the country, be prepared to fly. It takes a long time to get anywhere by road or train so if you’re on a time restriction flights are the quickest way. Flights are generally cheapish.
- Pickpockets are around, so watch your bags and pockets. It is mainly in the extremely touristy jammed areas that you’ll have a higher risk, and Dan was almost done, but I luckily caught glimpse and could push the hand away before it was too late. On this note, don’t carry too much cash with you at any one time (leave it in your hotel room safe) and don’t carry any unnecessary valuables (we didn’t carry passports etc but obviously did have phones, cameras etc). Dan felt much more comfortable wearing a money belt and not have to continually protect his pockets. We left spare credit cards in the hotel just as a back up if anything was to happen.
- Make sure you use the correct Government VISA website. There are a lot of fake ones. The fake ones look polished but charge extra fees, the gov site looks a bit less organised but legit.
Facts and Figures for our trip:
- Number of Nights: 21
- Cost of Flights: $250ea
- Cost of Accommodation (not including Ha Long Bay Cruise): $2162
- Cost of Ha Long Bay Cruise: $1988
- Cost of Overnight Train: $74
- Spending Money – Food, attractions, transfers: $1800
- Taxi’s (Grab) – $114
- Total Cost for 3 weeks: ~$7000
You can also check out https://expedia.com/affiliate/txAfPGl for flights, attractions and accommodation.
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