1. FIRST THINGS FIRST, BE MINDFUL TRAVELING AROUND TET
Vietnam has a few holidays throughout the year, but by far the most important is Tet, aka Lunar New Year! When you visit during this time, be prepared for sold out trains, flight prices being much more expensive, and some intense city pollution in the days leading up to the holiday! When I first visited, I made the horrible mistake of booking hard sleepers in our train from HCMC – Da Nang but when I tried to switch to soft sleepers, they were totally booked out. We did manage to at least get some soft seaters, but definitely not a fun journey!
On the flip side, if you do visit Hanoi or Saigon during the actual holiday, it’s pretty much the quietest and cleanest those cities will be all year round! Nguyen Hue Street and a lot of nearby spots are fully decked out for Tet, and the traffic is next to nothing as everyone has gone to their hometowns!
2. SHOULD YOU BOOK A TOUR OR DIY?
I think tours can make things incredibly easy (which is why I’m roughly planning some TSGA tours for 2023 ;)!). However, Vietnam is a lot easier to visit than it gets credit for. It’s definitely not the breeziest country to visit (Korea and Taiwan are tied for that!), but it’s not some jungle of a country that’s hoping to get back at the imperialist Americans your parents are probably imagining either.
Part of why I believe Vietnam gets SUCH a bad wrap is that in the early ages of travel blogging, pretty much every budget backpacker wrote about it negatively and their posts are what people found. Even when I went in 2016, I remember reading post after post to be wary of scams and how scary the traffic can be. Frankly a lot has changed and in the last decade, and I’d take any post written before 2015 with a grain of salt.
However, Vietnam is very doable to DIY even if you want to go to the more remote areas. I’d say it’s even possible to do solo as a female traveler! As with any country, keep your wits about you, be smart, and find guesthouses and hotels where you can lean on the owners for advice.
3. WHERE TO GO IF YOU HAVE…
While you could squeeze in a pretty hectic trip from north to south in a week, you’ll really only skim the surface of Vietnam. You’ll probably have time for Ha Noi, Ha Long or Hoi An/Da Nang, and then some time in HCMC and the Mekong. I would instead pick between northern, central, and southern and explore from there.
For northern Vietnam, try to include Ha Noi, Ha Long, Ninh Binh, and Sa Pa. In central Vietnam, do Da Nang, Hoi An, and Hue. If you’re feeling extra adventurous try going between Hue and Phong Nha, which is where the old DMZ is! In southern Vietnam, enjoy the hustle of Saigon, go down to the Mekong Delta, and enjoy one of the beaches areas in Phu Quoc, Mui Ne, or Con Dao.
This is much more doable for a full country trip and what I did on my first trip. Start in Hanoi or HCMC and fly out of the opposite. Include HCMC, the Mekong, Hoi An, Ha Long, and Hanoi. We spent too long in both Hoi An and Ha Long, so you could probably squeeze in Ninh Binh or Sa Pa in that same time frame!
4 Weeks / 1 Month
Here’s where you can really enjoy Vietnam! Though if you’re anything like me and the people I met, the longer you stay, the more you wind up adding to your list of places to see. I would say one month gives you a lot of time to really enjoy the country and lets you slow travel a bit!
I say first start in the north as the top things to do and see are more active and might have you hiking or trekking. Hit up Sa Pa, Ha Noi, Ninh Binh, and Ha Long. If you want to see more, try Ha Giang Pass (on my list!) or Yen Tu and Binh Lieu, two areas in the same province as Ha Long.
If you want to try riding a motorbike (or can drive one!), then here’s how I’d recommend doing central Vietnam. Fly into Dong Hoi to see Phong Nha. Talk to the owner of Phong Nha Farmstay about doing a motorbike tour from there down to Hue where you’ll stop over at the DMZ. Then check out Vietnam’s royal history in Hue before going to the very picturesque Hoi An. Take a moment to enjoy Da Nang and fly out from here to HCMC.
In HCMC, check out the many things to do (at least one day for the main sites and one day for temple hopping in Cho Lon) before making your way to the Mekong Delta. Most people do a day trip which shows you one area, but if you don’t mind staying overnight, check out Vinh Long or Can Tho. To end your trip, pick either Mui Ne, Con Dao, or Phu Quoc for a little beach getaway!