A Beginner's Travel Guide to Vietnam (If You Are Short on Time)

By Cristina Ng, January 20, 2020

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With pretty beaches, ancient towns, tree-covered limestone islands and buzzing cities all within an easy travel distance, it’s easy to see why so many people flock to Vietnam for holidays. Not to mention the food – banh mi, pho, banh xeo, mi quang – and that’s just the beginning.

Conduct a quick internet search of ‘top travel destinations in Vietnam’ and Ha Long Bay, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Hoi An are the top results. If you only have a few days to spare, start with a relaxing cruise of Ha Long Bay followed by quick flights to Da Nang (a short drive from Hoi An) and Ho Chi Minh City.

Ha Long Bay

Paradise Elegance Cruise

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Image courtesy of Paradise Vietnam

This elegant and modern steel boat with Vietnamese design features is one of seven ships in the Paradise Vietnam fleet. The 31 gorgeous cabins all have private balconies providing first-hand views of the magical bay. The trip would be amazing if you stayed aboard the whole time, but there’s also a full itinerary of excursion options.

Sung Sot Cave

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Image courtesy of Paradise Vietnam

After a buffet lunch of local and international delicacies, head out to a limestone karst grotto that was discovered by the French in 1901. You’ll work off all those lunch calories as you climb 50 steps to the cave’s mouth. Within the structure’s naturally eroded walls are two impressive chambers filled with flowstones, stalactites, stalagmites and columns.

Kayaking

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Image by Cristina Ng/That's

Take a short respite onboard the Elegance, then join a group trip to Tung Sau Pearl Farm, which cultivates pearls using the Mikimoto technique. You can learn about that or hop onto a kayak. The latter is the best way to experience the serenity that Ha Long Bay has to offer.

Cooking Demonstration

Hit L’Odyssee Sundeck just in time for happy hour G&Ts and a spring roll cooking demonstration. Eat the delicious fruits of your labor while pausing to snap the glorious sunset, before heading to Le Parfum spa for a pre-dinner traditional Vietnamese massage.

Wine & Dine

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The famous Halong squid cakes. Image by Cristina Ng/That's

At Le Marin Restaurant, the a la carte dinner menu allows you to mix and match a feast of Eastern and Western food choices, from stir-fried Australian beef with black pepper and Dalat capsicum to smoked salmon with black caviar. Get the Vietnamese appetizer platter with fried Ha Long squid cake, seafood spring rolls and green papaya salad. The former – also called Halong cha muc – is a must-try local specialty.

After dinner, unwind further over cocktails with the Filipino house band at Le Piano Bar. They might even invite you up to sing; just remember to get sleep for the next day’s early excursion.

Ti Top Island

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Image courtesy of Paradise Vietnam

It’s well worth the 6.30am wakeup call once you reach the top of Ti Top Mountain. After a few hundred fairly steep steps, impressive panoramic views await. While it might be tempting to spend the rest of your time taking photos, nothing feels better than descending to the beach for a quick dip. When you get back on the boat, grab a bowl of chicken pho and enjoy the trip back to land as you pass Tien Cung, Dau Go Cave and the Fighting Cock Islet.

Hoi An

Wander the UNESCO World-Heritage Ancient Town

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Image by Cristina Ng/That's 

Granted status as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, tourists flock to the town for a glimpse of the decorated temples, wooden merchant houses and assembly halls. Pay VND120,000 (RMB35) to freely roam the streets (plus entrance to five or more historic sites), starting with shops hawking propaganda posters, rice paper, T-shirts and more on the main drag.

You’ll also want to take a look at Phu Kien, a former Chinese merchant assembly hall, presided over by a sea-green goddess. A visit to Tan Ky house, an ancient ancestral home, will give you a glimpse of daily life in old Hanoi. Walk over the beautiful Japanese covered bridge, a 400-year-old faded crimson structure with a wooden pagoda roof.

Snack on Anthony Bourdain Approved Banh Mi

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Image by Cristina Ng/That's

You can’t go wrong at Banh Mi Phuong, but you should still figure out your order well before you reach the front of the line. An assembly line of employees efficiently layer pork, chicken, pork liver pate, homemade mayonnaise, head cheese, pickled papaya, sliced cucumber, tomato, herbs and more onto bread that is exquisitely crisp on the outside and soft within. Make it easy on yourself and go for the special – aka all the meats, pate and vegetables.

Sample Local Chocolate

Nibble on organic chocolate made with Vietnamese spices at Hoi An Organic Chocolatier. There are both dark milk (53%) and dark cocoa (72%) varieties flavored with tropical fruits like noni and durian. We especially liked a curry flavor reminiscent of masala. Pick up a mixed pack for a souvenir.

Take a Farm Tour

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Image by Cristina Ng/That's

If you need to do a lot in a short time, the folks at Tra Que Vegetable Village are incredibly accommodating. We emailed them from the airport asking for a solo 7am tour, and they confirmed hotel pick up with us while we were en route to Hoi An.

The original plan to bike there was waylaid by rain, so the guide picked us up on moto at no additional charge. The ride was a pleasant part of the experience through coconut tree-dotted paths with stops to marvel at rice paddies and photograph water buffalo.

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Image by Cristina Ng/That's

After a stroll through eight hectares of family-farmed organic green onion, coriander, lettuce, green papaya and mint, you get to try your hand at tilling and planting. 

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Image by Cristina Ng/That's

A lovely fresh herb foot soak and massage come before a banh xeo cooking demonstration; cook an egg pancake that you roll in rice paper with mint, lemon basil and lettuce. Breakfast is rounded up with additional cooked greens that they just picked.

Savor Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine in a Historic French Villa

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Images courtesy of HOME Hoi An

HOME Hoi An is just as charming as the rest of the city. The townhouse has been preserved for over a century, so there are plenty of architectural features for history buffs to nerd out on while enjoying a meal of locally sourced ingredients. Make sure to sample mi quang – a central Vietnam dish of wide rice noodles in meaty broth with prawns and roast chicken flavored with black pepper, shallot, garlic, turmeric and fish sauce. As delicious, but less yellow, are cao lau noodles with roast pork. 

Da Nang Detour

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Image courtesy of Ngon Villa Da Nang

Since you fly through Da Nang to visit Hoi An, you might as well set aside some time to walk around the city and catch the sunset from Da Nang Beach. Stroll by French villas and old cathedrals, then stop in at the Son Tra Night Market for some local flavor. Keep an eye out for Dragon Bridge – the country’s longest bridge, which takes the form of a fire-breathing mythical beast. If you are there around 9pm on the weekend, actual fire and water shoot out of the dragon’s mouth. Indulge in central Vietnamese cuisine at Ngon Villa Da Nang, where you can order unlimited small plates of local specialties.

Ho Chi Minh City

History Tour

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Image by Cristina Ng/That's

First-time visitors to HCMC (or Saigon, as the locals still call it) will want to hit up some historical sights. The War Remnants Museum is a rare site devoted to detailing the atrocities of war from the perspective of the victims. Artifacts include antiwar posters, photographs, weapons and more. Visit between 7.30am-6pm.

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Image by Cristina Ng/That's

Next up, the Reunification Palace was taken over by the North on April 30, 1975 – marking the end of the Vietnam War. Make sure to show up between 7.30-11am or 1-4pm unless you prefer to view the stunning example of 1960s architecture through the locked gates. Keep in mind that you’ll be missing out on the sexy mid-century decor within. We’re talking shag carpets, baby.

Coffee Break

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Image by Cristna Ng/That's

Take a much-needed coconut coffee break at the self-described ‘hipster cafe and lounge of Vietnam’ Cong Ca Phe. With retro communism kitsch decor, the army green Ly Tu Trong branch has a great terrace for viewing the city bustle. More of a scoopable dessert than a coffee beverage, their frozen coconut frappe combined with condensed milk-sweetened dark brew is what made them famous.

Go Shopping

If you haven’t picked up souvenirs yet, it’s time for a trip to Ben Thanh Market. Choose from local handicrafts, hawker eats, bulk coffee and more. We walked out with bags of dried mango, Trung Nguyen coffee grounds and a pineapple-shaped woven handbag. Come nightfall, the market moves outdoors and a street food market pops up nearby.

Dine at a Vice Presidential Home

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Image courtesy of Chopsticks Saigon

The Chopsticks Saigon Restaurant is located in the former residence of Mr. Tran Van Huang, the vice president of the Southern Vietnamese Government before 1975. Enter through the original wrought iron gates and a lovely garden to appreciate the gorgeous renovation work within. As historical as its venue, the authentic Vietnamese menu references a rich culinary past. Try the duck braised in tamarind sauce, southern style chargrilled chicken and sweet and sour fish soup.


For more informative travel features and guides, click here.

[Cover image courtesy of Paradise Vietnam]

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