10 days in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi

Travelling through Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Hanoi is a well-trodden backpacking route, and it was one we were both thoroughly looking forward to embarking on. I’d only heard good things.

Once under Chinese domination for over 1,000 years, Vietnam is renown for its coffee, floating markets, motorbikes (two-thirds of households across the country own at least one), nón lá hats and rice terraces.

With much longer drives and flights far cheaper than in Cambodia, we opted to fly everywhere. It was no surprise that we bumped into people we had already met in Thailand and Cambodia along the way.

The Giant Ibis coaches we got across Cambodia culminated when we made the seven hour journey across the border from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City, formally Saigon. One of the first things we discovered was that Saigon is more commonly used by Vietnamese nationals.

Vietnam was once two different countries, but following the conclusion of the North winning the Vietnam War, the country became unified in 1976. Mr Ho Chi Minh was leader of the North Vietnam and as a homage they changed the name of the Capital of the South to his name.

To put this into context, North Vietnam was supported by the Soviet Union, China and other communist states, while South Vietnam was supported by the U.S and other anti-communist allies.

Day One: Củ Chi Tunnels & Mekong Delta River Cruise – Ho Chi Minh City

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Saigon is undoubtedly the Củ Chi Tunnels. We combined this with a Mekong River Delta Cruise near Gò Công on an 11-hour day trip costing £46 p/p with a company called KIM TRAVEL.

Learning about the military techniques the Vietcong used to bamboozle and fight off the Americans was fascinating. The extensive underground tunnel systems that stretch all the way to the Cambodian border were genius. They didn’t stand a chance!

The sound of tourists firing gunshots from either an AK47, Carbine, K54, M16, M30 or M60 on the firing range was deafening. I would have liked to have sprayed a round, but there wasn’t enough time.

Crawling 100m through a tiny segment of the Củ Chi Tunnel was the highlight of the day. If you were claustrophobic, then this wasn’t for you!

From bayonets, pistols and sub machine guns to grenades, mines and bazooka rocket launchers, the arsenal of weapons on display was like imagining what it was like to be playing in a real life game of Call of Duty.

Mekong Delta

It was nearly a three hour drive to reach the Mekong Delta at Gò Công. The world’s twelfth longest river meanders through seven countries, starting in China, then through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before flowing into the South China Sea in Vietnam.

Over the next couple of hours, we explored several islands and villages on the Mekong River – one of the most polluted rivers in the world. On one island, we were shown how coconuts are opened and how they make sweets before being offered gecko and snake wine. No thanks!

Later, we sampled local fruit and listened to a music performance before being rowed in a traditional sampan to a honey farm.

Day Two: Sightseeing in Saigon

Saigon doesn’t have an abundance of sights but there’s a few that are worth visiting.

This afternoon we snapped a picture of the (under reconstruction) Notre-Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office and Bến Thành Market before examining the exhibits relating to the First Indochina War and the Vietnam War at the War Remnants Museum.

The museum primarily documents the American War, but the French-colonial period and conflicts with China are also featured. As soon as you walk through the gates, you’re greeted with US armoured vehicles including tanks and fighter jets, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons.

Inside the museum itself is three stories of extremely in-depth information on the First Indochina War and Vietnam War including about Agent Orange, a tactical herbicide/defoliant barbarically used by the U.S. military to clear leaves and vegetation for military operations.

It’s reported 400,000 people either died or were maimed as a result of the exposure with half a million babies being born with birth defects.

Day Three: Ba Na Hills, Đà Nẵng

Just a few hours after falling asleep, our alarm sounded at 04:00 AM. Eventually, we mustered up the energy to move. We’d booked the earliest possible flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Đà Nẵng, just an hours flight away so we could make the most of the day at SunWorld in the Ba Na Hills.

We were really looking forward to seeing the Golden Bridge, but we hadn’t factored in the weather! At nearly 1500m above sea level, the conditions were awful. It was so unbelievably foggy, we couldn’t see more than 50m ahead.

Nevertheless, we made the most of the far from ideal weather conditions. However, we spent most of the afternoon enjoying the small theme park and simulator rides.

We were staying overnight in the colonial French village in the Ba Na Hills, so I took a nap around 17:00 PM and then later headed out with Em to have a more detailed look around the village.

By now the mist had lifted which gave the village a particularly spooky Halloween vibe. It would have been the perfect setting to shoot a horror film.

Day Four: Hội An

Continuing our adventure along the east coast of Vietnam, we actually went back on ourselves slightly to spend the night in Hội An.

Em had researched that there were wooden spinning coconut boats in the area. They were incredibly good fun! At one point, I was elbowed in the face by the man spinning the boat. You really had to hold on!

In the evening, we took another trip in a canoe along the river. We bartered the price down to 200,000 VND / £7 and bought two lanterns to let go for an additional 20,000 VND / 70p.

Day Five: Marble Mountains & Hải Vân Pass

We paid for a private transfer to take us from Hội An to Phu Bai International Airport in Huế (pronounced Hway) via the Hải Vân Pass because we were flying 500 miles north to the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi later in the afternoon.

Along the way, we stopped at the Marble Mountains and Lady Buddah because we’d missed seeing any of Đà Nẵng when we went up to the Ba Na Hills.

We were collared by locals trying to flog us marble pieces outside, but I really enjoyed the hour we had looking at the pagodas and temples in the Marble Mountains. Without realising, we climbed through a hole in a cave which led to a rather unspectacular viewpoint.

Our next stop was the Lady Buddha overlooking Đà Nẵng. Our driver then headed for the Hải Vân Pass – a 21km stretch of road separating the provinces of Đà Nẵng and Thừa Thiên–Huế.

The best mode of transport would have been a motorbike, but that wouldn’t have been possible with our huge 80 litre rucksacks.

Top Gear did a special episode here in 2009 which I imagine has made this even more popular with Western tourists over the years. Jeremy Clarkson quoted that the Hải Vân Pass was:

“a deserted ribbon of perfection—one of the best coast roads in the world.”

(and he was right).

By 16:00, we were sat twiddling our thumbs in the airport because our flight wasn’t scheduled until 21:20 PM. Luckily, we managed to change to one an hour earlier. Absolutely exhausted, we touched down at Noi Bai International Airport at 22:30 PM and were at our hotel in Hanoi by midnight.

Day Six: Hanoi Sightseeing (Part I)

Hanoi was the final stop for our last five nights. An ideal amount of time to do day trips to Ninh Binh & Hạ Long Bay as well as having enough time to explore around the city.

It had been a hectic few days, so we decided to have more of a chilled out afternoon. To begin with, we had a walk around the perimeter of the Hoàn Kiếm Lake and then walked over to Hỏa Lò Prison – one of the biggest and highest security prisons in Indochina.

We then walked down Train Street. Initially an obnoxious security guard wouldn’t let us past the barrier, but when we gestured that we would buy a coffee at one of the street-side cafes, he soon changed his tune. It was blatantly obvious they didn’t like tourists walking over the tracks.

The train passing was admittedly a little underwhelming but it’s not like you can experience anything like this at home.

Day Seven: Ninh Binh

My favourite day in Vietnam. We were up early for another 11-hour day trip to Ninh Binh – a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam.

Despite not having the best weather, we were still able to appreciate the limestone karsts and surreal landscapes. What would have been beautiful green rice fields in a few months time were surrounded by cloud and mist. The 10th century Dinh King and Le King temples were our first port of call.

We then cycled for 45 minutes around the local Tam Cốc villages. I opted to go back out for another hour when Em and the rest of the group went to lunch. I couldn’t get enough of the beautiful scenery.

A local guide then rowed us down the Ngo Dong River in a sampan go (a traditional river boat). The technique of rowing with his feet wasn’t dissimilar to the man in the boat beside us. It was an unusual one!

There is a tipping culture in Vietnam. A small amount of money for us goes a long way for them.

At the end of the canal a woman forced us to buy our guide a drink, fruit and a snack for 100,000 Dong / £3.50 and then when we got back to the wharf, he then asked for a tip himself. I duly obliged because he’d worked his bollocks off for the last 90 minutes.

Before heading back to Hanoi, we climbed 500 steps to take in the panoramic views of the countryside and Ngo Dong River. I’m nowhere near as fit as I was when we left in April.

Day Eight: Hạ Long Bay

One of the go-to attractions in Vietnam is UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hạ Long Bay -renown for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rainforests.

We debated doing an overnight cruise but decided on a 13-hour day tour with a company called DragonflyCruise.com because the check-out time was ridiculously early the next morning. I didn’t think it was particularly good value for money.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature wasn’t on our side today either. There was extremely heavy mist and typically, it was the rainiest day of our time in Vietnam. I didn’t mind that too much though because it gave the islands an eery, mysterious feel.

It was a three hour coach journey over to Tuan Chau Island pier where we were given a seafood lunch on what was apparently a five star luxurious vessel. Em had the vegetarian option and I picked at some french fries.

We then set sail to Ti Top Island passing by coves, limestone islands with rock arches and sheer cliffs, which we could just about make out.

After climbing 400 steps to reach the Ti Top Island Lookout, we then enjoyed 30-minutes kayaking around an open cave. I’ve become better at kayaking since my disastrous first time in Canada.

Before heading back to the pier, we explored Thien Cung Cave (Heavenly Palace Grotto) with huge chambers adorned with stalactites and stalagmites. Pretty impressive.

Day Nine: Hanoi Sightseeing (Part II)

To cap off an incredible time in Vietnam, we spent our last full day checking out the remaining attractions in the city, namely the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Quán Thánh Temple, Trấn Quốc Pagoda and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hanoi.

In the evening, we headed to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre to see the evening show. We didn’t understand a great deal of what was going on because it was all performed in Vietnamese, but I’m glad we had the experience.

Day 10 – Flying to Vientiane, Laos

I’ve loved every minute of our time exploring Vietnam and wish we had a bit longer to visit Nha Trang, Phú Quốc and Sa Pa as well as possibly doing the Ha Giang Loop, but that will have to wait for another time.

Our next stop is a whistle-stop one week tour of Laos where we’ll be spending three nights in the capital, Vientiane before flying to Luang Prabang.

As always, if you’d like to keep up-to-date with our adventure, you can either enter your email at the bottom of this article to receive instant notifications every time I post a new blog; click the Follow ‘Al’ Around The World link, or drop me a follow on Twitter at @AlecW95 or on Instagram at @AlecW95 or @alatw95.

Alternatively, you can follow Emily on her travelling TikTok account at @emstraveladventure.

Thanks for reading, until the next time…

Al

Published by alatw95

26 | Freelance Journalist | Travelling the World 🌏

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