I spent a few days in Hanoi before joining an “Explore” group through Vietnam so I was limited to a degree by the itinerary we followed. The hotels we stayed in on the trip were mostly pretty average to say the least but teh list below includes stuff to do and see as well as to eat. I did splash out on one fabulous night in Hanoi and a couple in Ho Chi Minh – Hanoi I stayed at the Metropole (now owned by Sofitel) which is THE classic old hotel. Really fab and beautiful, and worth splashing out on. In Ho Chi Minh I stayed at the Park Hyatt – modern but had a pool and needed some luxury after slumming it a bit on a group trip! In terms of my itinerary I went to:
Ha Long Bay
Overnight train to Hue
Danang (China Beach and Marble Mountains)
Ho Chi Minh
Cai Be and Mekong Delta homestay
Ho Chi Minh and Cu Chi Tunnels
Hanoi is really cool, take some time to wander through all the crazy old streets, a rickshaw tour is almost certainly worth it.
There are two places that are great for food there. You will find travellers in both, but the food is still really authentic:
Cha Ca La Vong in the old quarter (on Cha Ca street which is named after the restaurant) it does one dish but it does it fantastically well. The staff are incredibly rude, it’s in a rickety old building and they cram people in, but for fish and noodles you can't eat better. Slightly irritatingly, Rick Stein just featured it in the Vietnam episode of his Far Eastern Cookery series.
For dinner, definitely head to Quan an Ngon. There’s a branch in Saigon too, but make sure you go to the one in Hanoi. Basically they’ve gathered together all the best street food sellers in one place and you walk round the courtyard pointing to the food you want, and pay for it all on one bill. We ate AMAZINGLY well here, and went back the following night. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Whilst the town by Ha Long is a bit shitty and the hotels and food are pretty average, I really enjoyed our boat ride into the bay. It was misty when we were there but still incredibly beautiful, the boats are in keeping with the original style so it hasn’t been ruined, and the caves are pretty cool. I’m really pleased we went. If you stay overnight on a boat, the advice I was given was to pay for best boat you can afford as some can be very leaky and a bit shabby.
The overnight train to Hue was cool but like all traveller train journeys, it is pretty basic. If you do it, buy snacks and alcohol beforehand to keep you going, but I also managed to have one of the best bowls of Pho (soup and noodles) for breakfast onboard the next morning, - trust me, I wouldn’t do this on an English train!
Hue is ok, as its halfway down the country it gets a lot of visitors but I though there were more beautiful places elsewhere and I wouldn’t stay for long. Hue is famous amongst other things for its citadel which is fairly interesting and its “Royal” more spicy food. The weather here tends to be a bit crap. Do go somewhere for a traditional Hue feast. I can’t remember the place we ate at but we definitely ate well.
China Beach is wide and long. Again, its not the paradise type with powder sand, but its good all the same. Very quiet when we were there. Big waves, atmospheric becuase of the war association, and a reasonable little museum nearby. There were also wonderful coracles for fishing all along the beach which are a must for anyone who's after arty pics.
Hoi An was my favourite. I made sure that we coincided our trip with the monthly full moon festival. If there’s any chance of being there at that time (I think you can find details online) make sure you are. Everything is lit by lanterns that evening, people dress up in traditional costume (not as cheesy as it sounds) there’s loads of dancing and performing and they float little candles down the river. I really enjoyed Hoi An. It’s got loads of places to eat (if you’re going to do a cookery morning or afternoon this is also the place I’d do it. There’s a brilliant half day one at the Red Bridge cooking school, where they take you out on their boat to their property, give you a great demo, you then make the food after, and eat for lunch). Hoi An is also a good place to hire a bike. I went to the beach from here one afternoon. It’s not the most beautiful beach in the world, but has great little “shacks” with seafood. You can buy fruit from sellers wandering down the sand, but definitely get some fresh fish for lunch at one of the stalls. If you do go, BE CAREFUL about the current. Tragically when I was there a Vietnamese schoolgirl drowned in the water even though there were dozens of people around. It can be really treacherous even though it looks quite tame.
Ho Chi Minh is a lot less funky than Hanoi. Far more built up and modern, and personally I thought there were less interesting things to see. Although it’s touristy, when you’re there, I’d say its worth a trip to see the Cu Chi Tunnels, this part of the country is where you get to see the most war-related stuff and the war museum itself its also worth a visit though pretty harrowing.
Mekong Delta was fun (take insect repellent!!) and again, we ate really good food where we stayed. The quieter and narrower parts of the river are beautiful and I’d imagine cycling round here could be fab.
At one stage I was going to travel independently and looked into beach accommodation, though as you can see it didn’t feature on this trip. The beaches in Vietnam are nothing compared to places like Thailand, so do set your expectations accordingly.
The advice I received at the time (I think we were looking at going around March or April) was as follows:
For climatic reasons : Phan Thiet and Phu Quoc are the surest solutions Phan Thiet and Mui Ne beach are cool, but the sea is not great.
Victoria is the nicest hotel in Phan Thiet.
Whatever hotel you choose, take a good one if you go to Phan thiet as the sea is quite agitated and windy, you 'll be happy hanging around the swimming pool with the sea view.
What's great about Phan thiet is also the surroundings, some pretty nice dunes and renting a moped to get lost in the sand dunes is really cool.
You can also eat lobsters at Envy in fabulous Nuoc Mam sauce.
The city of Phan thiet is charming as well with colourful fishing boats.
I’ve heard Nha Trang is more over-run with tourists than the other beach options, but it’s definitely popular, and I think all around there now there are some quite fancy hotels as well as the standard traveller places.
Vietnam is a wonderful country. Great people and of course AMAZING food. Eat street food wherever possible, you won’t regret it in my experience