The first two days we were in Hanoi, we couldn’t work out why people weren’t approaching us or yelling out to us to come into their shops, as normally happens in places like Bangkok and Bali. When I asked one of the local women who worked at our hotel about this, she told me the locals here wouldn’t do any of those things as they wouldn’t want to disrupt us on our holiday. That moment was the first of many that made me fall in love with Vietnam.
Each part of Vietnam is different, but one thing remains the same; the people are welcoming, peaceful, respectful and polite. If you’ve ever visited the hustle and bustle of Bangkok or Bali, you’ll notice a distinct difference when you visit Vietnam. There’s still the roar of a thousand scooters and the smell of delicious food, but the sounds of locals singing out to you are missing.
Last year we spent just over a week working our way from the north to the south of Vietnam. Planning the trip, we were unsure where to visit and how long to spend in each place. What’s worth visiting and what’s worth missing can be hard to determine before you travel. If you’re thinking of taking a Halong Bay Cruise, take a look at my guide to choosing a great cruise here.
To help you make your own travel plans, or even just inspire you to visit beautiful Vietnam, I’ve put together this guide. Whether you’re visiting for a few days or a few weeks, this guide can help you decide the best places for you to visit and how long to spend in each place.
Overall, my advice is to spend more time in the coastal towns like Hoi An and Nga Trang and minimise the time you spend in big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.
Hanoi is a beautiful, intricate maze of streets which trickle into tiny lanes and ally-ways. Women set up their kitchens in doorways, preparing food to sell while talking and laughing with their friends. Men congregate at local coffee shops or watch each other work at their roadside stall or shop. It’s a social way of living, where everything is played out on the street and everything is shared. Hanoi is worth visiting because the people, the buildings and the food are all beautiful. Two to three days is a good amount of time to stay in Hanoi.
What to do
Strap on some comfortable shoes and just start walking, wander through the old French Quarter, stroll around the myriad of little streets and immerse yourself in the city. There are so many shops to visit and they tend to be organised by district, meaning you can visit a street dedicated entirely to glasses and have bifocals made off your existing prescription for $40AU. Find a cafe or restaurant that is a few floors above street-level, settle in and watch the buzz of life on the street below. For me, Hanoi was more about experiencing the city than seeing iconic places.
Where to eat
The Gourmet Corner Restaurant – Delicious Vietnamese food with a fantastic view! The restaurant is perched on top of a hotel in the Old Quarter and has excellent views of Hanoi. The menu includes some non-Vietnamese items, but I definitely recommend trying the local dishes as they are fantastic. The service here is excellent and, best of all, it’s very affordable.
Quan An Ngon – With a beautiful outdoor setting, it’s hard to go past the hustle and bustle of Quan An Ngon. This place has a street food market feel to it and serves a wide selection of traditional Vietnamese foods and drinks. Any cab driver will know the place by name and it’s easy to get to. It’s not as cosy and personal as Gourmet Corner, but it’s still a fantastic food experience.
Where to stay
Hanoi Elegance Ruby – I cannot recommend this sweet little hotel enough. It is one of the best and most affordable hotel experiences I’ve ever had! The rooms are small but very comfortable and cosy, they’re clean and well looked after and have everything you could need for your stay. Most importantly, the staff that work here provide exceptional customer service and make you feel so happy and comfortable while you’re there.
2. Hoi An
Hoi An is an elegant fairytale town straight out of your dreams. The fusion of French architecture with the simple, resourceful lifestyle of the Vietnamese people makes for beautiful streets lined with bright lights, pretty trinkets and inviting cafes and restaurants. It’s a slower pace of life, compared to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh but in no way is it less communal. Hoi An is worth visiting because the streets are beautiful and unlike anything you’ll see elsewhere and because it shows a slower, relaxed side to Vietnam. Three to four days is a good amount of time to stay in Hoi An.
What to do
Hoi An is a playground for photography lovers, so make sure you pack your best camera equipment and go exploring. You can hire a bicycle or scooter and explore the town, wander through the local wet markets or take a boat ride. Enjoy a cooking class (then feast!), meander through the night market, float pretty lanterns down the river and, of course, have clothing custom made my a skilled local tailor.
Where to eat
The Cargo Club – The perfect place to watch the world go by and eat great food. The menu here includes local and western favourites, so it’s perfect for those moments when your tummy feels a little crazy and you need some familiar food. Cargo Club also has an amazing selection of delicious cakes and treats, loads of comfortable seating and offers great service.
Reaching Out TeaHouse – Established to empower people with disabilities, Reaching Out is a unique tea house well worth visiting. The tea house is a haven of peace and silence as it is run by the hearing impaired. Servers communicate using big smiles and instructional cards, creating a warm, welcoming and soulful space perfect for relaxing and stilling yourself over a cup of tea and sweet treats.
Where to stay
Essence Hoi An Hotel & Spa – Sister hotel of the Elegance Ruby in Hanoi, you can rest assured the same level of customer service is carried across to the Essence Hotel too. Close walking distance to the Old Town with simple, comfortable rooms containing everything you need, the hotel also has delicious breakfasts and a lovely pool to cool off in.
3.Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh is a city with a pulse, constantly buzzing and moving. It’s noise and life, community and history all mixed together to create a place of movement and soul. It has that ‘big city’ feel to it, but the locals retain the same friendly, welcoming nature of the small towns. Ho Chi Minh is worth visiting because it’s noisy, busy, rich in history and is a mix of old and new that will boggle your mind. Two days is a good amount of time to spend in Ho Chi Minh.
What to do
Sign yourself up for a tour with XO Tours, it’s the best way to see as much as possible in a short amount of time and it’s the best way to enjoy spending time with locals and getting a real feel for the people. XO Tours run a wide range of scooter tours and all the drivers are women who have been riding scooters longer than you and I have been walking, probably. The tour leaders are fun, knowledgeable, engaging and will show you things you never would have seen otherwise. On another note, take some time to consider whether or not you feel comfortable visiting the War Museum. It’s confronting and not suitable for children, if you’re a person who soaks up emotion easily, carefully consider if it’s right for you to visit.
Where to eat
XO Tours Foodie Tour – This is a must-do for anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh! It is the best way to see the city and try a LOT of different local foods, foods you wouldn’t find otherwise. Don’t eat before you go on the tour or you’ll have a series case of ‘food envy’ when everyone else is still eating and you’re stuffed!
Where to stay
Hotel Nikko Saigon – An absolutely beautiful, luxurious hotel that will make you feel like the King or Queen of Saigon! The team at Hotel Nikko provide excellent service to guests. Rooms are large, modern and completely indulgent. It’s a luxury hotel, but worth spending the money for a few nights if your budget allows. The beds are so comfortable and you’re treated so well during your stay.
Watch the TVC’s
I filmed two television commercials for Hanoi Tourism and CNN. They’re being aired globally, broadcast to millions! I gotta tell ya, when I quit my job a few years ago I’d hoped for opportunities like this one but never really thought it was possible. I’m so thankful. I’d love to know which one of the two TVC’s is your favourite, so watch em both and lemme know what ya think. All love and credit to the amazing team at Propagandeur – Adrian, Hillian and Hugo, who filmed, edited and did all the many other things involved in creating these awesome TVC’s. A huge thank you also to Hanoi Tourism, Vietnam Tourism and CNN.
Phoebe Lee is a travel writer and award-winning blogger with a love for storytelling. Phoebe creates practical, fun and engaging written content designed to inspire and energise travel-lovers and dreamers. Follow her and Matt’s adventures at home and around the world, right here on Little Grey Box and through Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.