For a pretty small country it offers a great deal to the modern-day traveller.
From trekking with tribes among rolling rice fields, swimming in the UNESCO World Heritage listed Halong Bay to falling in love with the ancient lantern lit town of Hoi An, Vietnam has it all.
We set aside three weeks for this particular trip and chose to start from the top and work our way down the coast of Vietnam and then fly into Cambodia. We met a lot of people who started in the south and headed north. I don’t think it really matters which way you do it.
After arriving in Hanoi, we arranged to meet at a local travel agent’s office Dream Travel Vietnam who I had been corresponding with before we left to finalise our trip to Sapa and Halong Bay. This ensured all our train tickets, accommodation, trekking tours and transfers etc for Sapa and Halong Bay were organised and we could relax (for the next few days at least).
I definitely recommend them and the price was pretty good too. A 3N/2D Sapa and 1N/2D Halong Bay tour cost around $US235pp. If you book separately the train tickets alone will set you back around $40 each way.
We started our adventure by taking the night train to Sapa where over the next couple of days we trekked with tribes through rice padded hills, swam with buffalo, browsed the weird and wonderful at the markets and ate and drank to our hearts content in the many bars and restaurants. I LOVED Sapa and its picture perfect postcard views over rice paddied valleys. No trip to Vietnam should be complete without it.
VIDEO: The first leg of our Vietnam adventure. From Brisbane to Hanoi and then onto Sapa
From Sapa, we again embarked on the overnight train back to Hanoi.
There’s not much you can do about the hard mattresses but you might want to pack ear plugs for the journey as you never know who your cabin buddies may be.
A few hours later we were on a bus bound for our one night Glory Cruise (aka junk boat) on Halong Bay. It wasn’t the biggest or most luxurious in the bay but it was very clean and comfortable and the staff were great.
If you’re tossing up whether to stay more than one night touring Halong Bay, I recommend one night, especially if you’re tight for time. It was great and all but there was quite a bit of smog around when we were there which dulled the normally spectacular vista. It was still very beautiful nonetheless.
We only stayed one more night in Hanoi which after looking around the lake district was more than enough to soak in its city ambience. A flight later (approx $100pp) and we were in Danang which was the nearest (approx 30min) to Hoi An.
In Hoi An we stayed at the Long Life Riverside Hotel which is in a great location to the town centre. Some people choose to stay at the beach which is about a 15min bicycle ride away but having seen both and the distances/atmosphere etc I would recommend staying in town as there is so much more happening, especially as soon as the sun goes down and Hoi An’s charms surface.
Top tips include:
VIDEO: The second leg of our Vietnam adventure. From Sapa to Halong Bay and onto Hoi An.
In Hoi An we booked a night sleeper bus to Nha Trang which really wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. The journey cost around $15 and took about 12 hours. There are many travel agents you can book through in town and the company will arrange to pick you and your luggage up from your hotel on scooter and drop you at the bus station.
Nha Trang has plenty to offer if you want to pull up stumps for a couple of days. It was kind of like a third world Gold Coast with hotels dotted along a big long strip of beach and strangely seemed to be the hot spot favoured by Russians unlike anywhere else in Vietnam.
We hired a scooter to visit the Long Son Pagoda and White Buddha which is a visible feature sitting high above the city skyline. There is also another impressive sleeping buddha there too.
We also checked out Po Nagar, a Cham temple tower founded around 781. We also jumped on a cheap party boat tour ($8) out to the islands for swimming and snorkelling which was a bit of fun and a great way to spend the day.
We caught another bus (this time during the day) to Saigon which cost around $15. It was supposed to take around 9 hours but ended up more like 11 hours. We stayed along Pham Ngu Lao Street in Saigon which is known as the backpacker district but many types of travellers stay here because it’s cheap and pretty central. I won’t recommend the place we stayed as they nearly lost one of our passports and caused us a bit of a headache.
Our tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels was arranged through the hotel. I recommend a half day tour and ask them to drop you off at the museum afterwards. The Cu Chi Tunnels is a must-do experience while in Ho Chi Minh City. There is even a shooting range there if you fancy trying your hand at an AK-47 or other weapons that were used throughout the Vietnam conflict.
We didn’t do the trip to the Mekong as we were tripped out at this stage but we did squeeze in a bit of shopping before heading to Cambodia. Top tip, head to Saigon Square instead of the main tourist markets closest to Pham Ngu Lao as it is a lot cheaper.
I also thoroughly recommend doing a foodie tour of Saigon with XO Tours.
As well as getting to taste some pretty awesome food, you get a personalised motorbike tour of different districts across the city by night. It was a little on the exy side but was well worth it as you’ll see in the video below.
VIDEO: The third leg of our Vietnam adventure. From Hoi An to Nha Trang and onto Ho Chi Minh City.
We then flew to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Cost was roughly $200pp one way which is a little on the expensive side but one hour in the air beats a 12 hour journey across the border when you’re pressed for time.
The main tourist attraction here is Angkor Archeological Park. The 400sq km park is scattered with temples but none more famous than Angkor Wat.
This place will seriously blow your mind at how big it actually is. When you arrive in Siem Reap, haggle with a tuk tuk driver for the amount of days you want to see the park. We got a three-day pass but were pretty templed out after two full days of sightseeing. Passes can be bought at the gate and options include 1 day, 3 day or 7 day tickets that have to be used consecutively. Make sure you see Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Bayon and Terrace of the Elephants at Angkor Thom.
With only a week to see the main sites of Cambodia we were off again within a couple of days to Phnom Penh. We caught a day bus which took around 7 hours including a lunch stop. The cost was about $12.
Prepare to be whacked in the face with a sobering lesson of the country’s brutal and bloody history under the Khmer Rouge when you get to the Phnom Penh particularly if you tour the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The former school turned S-21 Prison is a reminder of the 14,000 people who were murdered or imprisoned there. Both can be visited in one day by Tuk Tuk.
It’s believed the Khmer Rouge were responsible for killing around 2 million people during their four-year reign in the 1970s, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s then population.
VIDEO: Last leg of the trip from Cambodia to Brisbane (inc a stopover in Kuala Lumpur)