Vietnam is a long narrow country. Most likely, you will be starting from Hanoi and travelling your way down, or starting from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and going up. Flights are cheap and connect the main cities well.
If the food doesn’t win you over, the history – the country has been ruled by the Chinese, French and other powers – and the natural beauty will. This 2-weeks Vietnam itinerary is at a relaxed pace for travellers who want a mix of top sights, culture, food with enough time for relaxing on the beach and doing adventure activities.
Two-weeks Vietnam itinerary overview –
Hanoi (1 night) – Ha long bay (1 night) – Danang (5 nights covering Hue and HoiAn) – Ho Chi Minh City (2 nights) – Con Dao island (4 nights) – Ho Chi Minh City (1 night)
Day 1: Hanoi
We took an overnight flight to Hanoi via Bangkok; there are no direct flights between India and Vietnam.
Tired as we were, I still wanted to make use of the half-day that we had in Hanoi. I had got in touch with HanoiKids earlier and two students were waiting at the scheduled time in the hotel lobby. This is a group of university kids who take you to see places in their city, all for the chance to practice their English and to get some insight into your culture. I can’t recommend them enough! It is best to email them at email@example.com to set up a date, time and places to visit.
We first visited The Temple of Literature with them. This is really interesting – a place where Confucius is worshiped and also the place of the first university in Vietnam. But the hot and humid weather of June sapped our energy within an hour and we canceled our next stop to the Ho Chi Minh Palace. Instead, we strolled around in the shaded bylanes in the Old Quarter.
We then meandered through the French quarters, saw the Opera House and other beautiful buildings. After the mini-tour with HanoiKids, we treated ourselves to a tea at the stately Hotel Metropole.
In hindsight, spending just half a day in Vietnam’s capital is a shame. This city demands a couple of days to be explored at leisure – all the history that reveals French and Chinese occupation, the evolving art scene, the stately buildings in the French Quarter and the wild and wonderful craziness of the Old Quarter.
Day 2-3: Halong Bay
Halong bay is a spectacular scatter of limestone karsts and isles topped with rainforests, in emerald waters.
This UNESCO Heritage site is a popular tourist destination.
We had booked an overnight cruise – Dragon Legend – with a local company. This included pick-up from the hotel and drop-off at the airport the next day. The 4-hour ride from Hanoi to Halong bay goes through some not-so-scenic and dilapidated areas so I wouldn’t recommend a day trip at all.
The only way to experience this UNESCO heritage site is spending a night or two in a junk – you go much further, the bay is serene when the day trippers leave.
There was an optional kayaking tour that we enjoyed. We all got a quick theory session on dos and don’ts and a stern warning about the presence of jellyfish in some parts of the water. We kayaked to a small beach – a super-fun destination for swimming close to the shore, making sandcastles and relaxing. There was an option to kayak back or take a catamaran to the junk.
Day 4 – 7: Danang, Hue, Hoi An
We had taken an evening flight from Hanoi to Danang the day before and checked into the Four Seasons Nam Hai – boasting of a kilometer-long stretch of one of Forbes “best beaches in the world”.
This made for a good base for several areas – visiting the historic town of Hoi An, exploring the imperial city of Hue as a day trip, taking a leisurely cycling trip to experience the village life and paddy fields and lazying around at the resort pool and the beach.
For an itinerary and activities in and around Hoi An, Hue and Da nang, do read: Beach + History + Food + Nature: 4 awesome reasons to visit Central Vietnam
Day 8 – 9: Ho Chi Minh city
We took a morning flight from Danang to Ho Chi Minh city. My first impression was that of a large metropolis, a financial hub, with people hurrying around with their life. We were staying with friends, and used the afternoon to explore the central district, checking out several art galleries, boutiques and a quirky cafe.
We decided to skip the war museum in HCMC as friends suggested that some of the exhibits displayed would be too gory for a 5-year-old. But we did do a day trip to Cu Chi Tunnels.
The next day was a visit to Cu Chi tunnels, about 2 hours drive from the city. It is good to carry some water and snacks with you for the trip, although there is a restaurant on the site. Friends had generously given us their car and driver for the trip to Cu Chi tunnels, but there are several tour companies that provide this as a day trip option from Ho Chi Minh city.
The jungle, though largely sanitized for tourists, is dense. It boggles the mind to imagine a guerrilla war being carried out there. There is a good documentary film shown and a model on display that shows the various tunnels at various levels. There are well-informed guides available at the ticket-counter who take you through a well-marked path.
One highlight for those who are not claustrophobic is to experience the thrill of going through a short or a long tunnel.
Day 10 – 13: Con Dao islands
As with most of our holidays, the kid is happiest with a relaxed stay featuring a beach. We had researched on the Vietnam islands and stumbled upon Con Dao. Na Trang is for party goers and Phu Quoc for both couples and families, but this sleepy island where nothing much happens suited us perfectly.
Con Dao islands have been protected for decades as a national and marine park. There are thick forests on these islands, as well as lovely beaches, bays and coral reefs. Our stay was at Six Senses, located on Con Son, the largest island in this chain. There is a direct 45-minute flight from HCMC to Con Son daily.
Read my review on Six Senses Con Dao
Con Son is perfect for mountain biking and scuba diving and we tried both. Pristine as it is now, it is difficult to imagine Con Son as ‘hell on earth’ – thousands of prisoners were confined in jails during the French rule (many visitors today take the Prison tour). After exposing the 5-year-old to the Cu Chi tunnels, we decided to give the prison tour a miss.
Day 13: Flight back to HCMC, buying gifts and taking the evening flight back home.
Vietnam is not a natural choice for a lot of Indian families. Most people from our circle of friends and acquaintances haven’t visited this country.
And after the trip, we kept wondering – why not? Good beaches, pristine scenery, fresh food, great resorts and no crazy crowds, unlike its neighbours – whats not to like?
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Have you visited Vietnam? What has your been your favourite destination or experience there?
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