Is Vietnam on the top of your travel bucket list? If it’s not, well then it should be! We had never thought of visiting Vietnam either until we saw an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” & instantly fell in love with it. It also happens to be one of Bourdain’s favorite places. We’re avid Anthony Bourdain fans, so if he loves a place, then it has to be good!
If you’re an American like us, then there are a few important things you need to know in order to be able to enter the country: they require a Visa. Don’t worry, the word Visa is not as scary as it sounds – it’s pretty easy, quick and inexpensive to get, but we suggest getting it beforehand to avoid any delays to your travel experience, however there is also an option to get your Visa On Arrival, as you arrive at the airport. We did not do that option, so we cannot comment on it.
The Visa requirements have changed since we went, so please make sure you check the website for the Vietnam Consulate or Embassy in your nearest city to find out costs and how to obtain it.
Once you have your Visa sticker, which will be affixed into your passport, you’re all ready to embark on your exciting journey to the picturesque country of Vietnam!
What’s the best way to do 2 weeks of Vietnam? Well, that’s up to you! It would be pretty tough to see the entire country in 2 weeks, so we picked and chose the places we wanted to see most. We started our journey in Hanoi (3 days), then did Ha Long Bay (3 days), then Sapa (3 days), followed by Hoi An (3 days) & ended in Ho Chi Minh / Mekong Delta (2 days).
Days 1-3: HANOI
We spent 3 days exploring the city, which we shortly learned was exceptionally diverse and just tons of fun! There was a vast array of things to see, people to meet and foods to try.
Highlights Of Hanoi:
- Beer Corner – Yup, you guessed it, Beer Corner is just that- a street full of bars, alluring your liver inside for some delicious imbibing. The specialty beer served there is ‘Bia Hoi’, which is a delicious & inexpensive beer found virtually everywhere. Grab a little plastic chair outside any bar on the street and enjoy all the cold ones you can to your heart’s content!
- Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake Of The Restored Sword) – This lake is a beautiful lake in the heart of Hanoi, near the backpackers district. At night the bridge lights up in red and there’s a temple to walk through and explore! This lake is one of the major scenic spots in the city.
- West Lake – If you get out of the city center a bit, you’ll find West Lake, a gorgeous lake with a beautiful pagoda and temple that is definitely a worth a check-out. It’s about a 15 or 20 minute walk from the city center or of course you can jump in one of the many cabs found around the city. We did not use any cabs in Hanoi but the recommended ones are VinaSun and Mai Linh.
- Spas & Massages – Definitely take advantage of spas and massages during your two weeks in Vietnam, as amazing treatments can be found very cheaply. We got mud wraps that cost $12 each! Any kind of spa treatment you want will probably be a fraction of the price of what you would pay to get it back at home. The particular spa we went to was called Midori Spa on Ngo Huyen in the backpackers district. This particular spa participates in a program where all their masseuses are blind. It is part of a larger Vietnam initiative to ensure blind people are able to generate incomes that allow them independence. This spa was amazing and the initiative helping blind people was largely part of the reason we chose them over other spas in the area. There are tons of spas though, so if that’s something you’re interested in, the demand is definitely there & they do an amazing job!
- Food Stalls – The array of food choices in Hanoi will not disappoint, we can promise you that! Admittedly, we had quite a large list of foods we wanted to eat prior to our arrival, so we ran around the city checking off all the foods as we ate them. People will run makeshift cafes on the sidewalks and set up little plastic tables & chairs for you to sit down and enjoy. A warm delicious bowl of Pho from a street stall will run you about 20,000-25,000 VND, which is a little less than an American dollar. Everything is warm and tasty so make sure you take advantage of the vast variety of street foods Hanoi has to offer! (More information on the specific foods we ate and what we recommend most can be found in our ‘Top 10 Foods in Vietnam’ blog, so be sure to check that out!)
Hanoi Old Quarter Homestay – 39 Ngo Huyen Street Hoan Kiem District, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, Vietnam
Book it here
This was a lovely little homestay consisting of 8 rooms, located in the backpackers district on Ngo Huyen Street. It is run by a man named Luan and his family. One night he cooked dinner for us and we ate with his family and some of the other guests. This hotel is accessible to Hoan Kiem Lake as well as many other Hanoi attractions. A great little find if you’re on a budget, but there are many other hostels & hotels to be found around the city at various price points.
We enjoyed 3 days of amazing food & sights in Hanoi but then it was time to say goodbye and head out to the wondrous Ha Long Bay!
Days 4-6: HA LONG BAY
After a few days of food and exploring around Hanoi, we headed on over to Ha Long Bay, complete with emerald green waters and thousands of towering limestone islands. Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe this place; it’s even considered to be one of the new ‘7 Natural Wonders of the World’ as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The absolute best way to see this natural phenomenon is by boat, and thankfully there are quite a few different options depending on your preference.
We chose to tour with Vietnam Backpackers Hostel, specifically the ‘Castaway & Ha Long Bay 3 day/2 night package’. It is basically 2 half-days partying on their private island & 1 full day cruising around the bay on a junk boat. Activities on the island consist of laying on the beach, kayaking, beach volleyball, tubing & hanging out with other travelers. For the most part, we enjoyed this tour, but there were a few setbacks. The accommodations on this tour were pretty bare, and although we knew about this beforehand, it took some getting used to — no Wi-Fi, limited electricity, limited hot water & sandy bunks! Also, traveling as a couple, we were not able to get our own room. Instead we ended up shacking up with 2 cool Aussies & an another American. It was definitely doable, but don’t expect luxury by any means. In addition, it appeared as this tour catered for those in the younger crowd (18-mid 20s). Being in our early-mid 30’s, we were two of the oldest members on this excursion. This was not necessarily a negative perhaps, but we definitely felt our age! We did, however, get a lot of recommendations from the others on our tour and spontaneously booked airfare and accommodations to an additional destination (Hoi An – read on!) because of their expertise. An important thing to remember while on the island: don’t drink with your right hand! If you do, people will call ‘buffalo’ on you and you must chug what you are drinking at that moment. You definitely do not want to be buffalo’d, so watch your hands as you’re partaking!
You might like this tour if you’re into the partying & social scene, but if you’re digging something a little more laid-back there are plenty of options for those kinds of travelers as well.
Book the Castaways tour (& more!) here
Day 7-9: SAPA
After 3 amazing days in Ha Long Bay, we boarded the overnight train back in Hanoi for our trip to Sapa, near Vietnam’s Northern border with China.
Flying to Sapa is not available so there are 2 options in terms of getting there, the overnight bus or the overnight train. We traveled via the overnight ‘Violette’ train through Vietnam National Railways. We booked a soft-sleeper berth & the beds are bunkbed style. There will likely be 2 others sharing the berth with you as well so if you’re not comfortable with those arrangements, private sleeping quarters are also available.
So how comfortable are the beds, you ask? It was actually surprisingly one of the better nights sleeps we got in Vietnam! The berth also supplied bottles of water, a kitkat, wet-naps & phone chargers free of charge. We shacked up with 2 nice ladies from Germany. It was a really cool, fun & unique experience.
We only traveled via the train, not the bus so we cannot comment on the bus but the train is a shorter & supposedly safer journey.
The train drops you off in a town called Lao Cai. From there it is about a 30 minute ride on the bus to the town of Sapa. When you get to Sapa, you can either stay in a hotel or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can do a homestay. There are plenty of Black Hmong & Red Dao women swarming the streets, looking for people to come and stay with them in their village. We had pre-arranged our homestay from the States before getting into Sapa so we waited at a restaurant for our host to pick us up.
Our host was a lovely woman named May who runs the May Kieu Homestay in Ta Phin. She and her friend picked us up in Sapa town on their motorbikes and brought us to May’s homestay in the village. Make sure that if you stay with May or any other ladies in Ta Phin that you have cash on you (Vietnamese Dong) as you need to purchase a ticket to get into the Ta Phin village & they don’t take cards of any sort. May is part of the Red Dao tribe and Ta Phin is home to 3,000 villagers. It’s a very pretty village!
May’s home, though bare and much different than we’re used to in America, was warm and inviting. She did have electricity, running water and a modern bathroom, however, there was no stove, TV, or even couches to sit on. All hot meals were cooked over fireplace and the furniture was rather basic, with just a wooden table and some chairs. The homes are made of wood and have concrete floors. Her husband Lua was always smiling and made us his delicious rice wine along with dinner every night. May & Lua had 2 beautiful children named Dee & Tay. It was an amazing experience enjoying meals with May & her family and telling her about our lives in New York. We were impressed by how well she spoke English and how much, though worlds away, we really did have in common!
By far the best experience when staying with May was the herbal bath. The Red Dao people are known for these sensual baths. The day we had the baths we ventured into the fields with May, donning wicker baskets to gather the herbs. She knew just exactly how many of each type of herb to get. Many cows and chickens inhabited the village and we also got to get ‘up close & personal’ with them, as May owned a few chickens of her own. Once back from the fields, the herbs are then cooked and placed into hot water in a bucket that you sit in. Our skin felt so nice and rejuvenated after soaking for a bit, which was more than welcome after traveling on the train for so long the day prior!
After an exciting 3 days in Sapa it was once again aboard the overnight train and heading back to Hanoi.
Book May Kieu Homestay here
Days 10-12: HOI AN
When we arrived back in Hanoi, we went to board our flight on Vietjet to Hoi An, via Da Nang. Hoi An does not have an airport for direct travel, so one must go to Da Nang and take a 30 minute cab ride to Hoi An. This destination was not originally on our itinerary but upon talking to some fellow travelers on our Ha Long Bay tour, we decided to spontaneously book a few days in this ancient city – and boy are we glad we did!
Upon arrival in Hoi An, our eyes feasted on many sites: beautiful beaches, colorful lanterns adorning the city and a pristine blue river. We rented bicycles from our hotel and took a ride down to the beach. It was beautiful 5km (3 mile) ride. The water was not too cold and there were bars and restaurants along the beach to enjoy any kind of food to satisfy your cravings. When we got back from the beach, we walked around the covered bridge and the ‘walking street’ area of the city.
At night we got dinner and did a riverboat ride. Some ladies were selling a small paper boat with a candle inside that you could float down the river (similar to the Loy Krathong holiday tradition in Thailand – read more about that in our 7 Days in ‘The Land Of Smiles’ blog). We bought 2 boats and happily floated away our troubles.
The next day we decided to rent the motorbike from the hotel and cruise approximately 40km to the ancient ruins of My Son. This was a very scenic ride through the countryside.
An Hoi Hotel – 69 Duong Nguyen Phuc Chu, Hoi An, Quang Nam-Da Nang, Vietnam 7000
Book it here
Days 13-14: HO CHI MINH CITY / MEKONG DELTA
After an an amazing time in Hoi An, we flew to our final destination, Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon).
While Hanoi is known for its shopping & culture, Ho Chi Minh City shines in its variety of food choices and nightlife. Just about anything you want to eat in Ho Chi Minh City is available – from Starbucks, to KFC, to Mexican, to Indian… HCMC really has it all! We stopped into a delicious French bakery where you could get any kind of colored pastry you want.
For lunch, went to KFC, as it was Thanksgiving, and we were missing turkey and our families so KFC was the closest thing to an American Thanksgiving we could find! We also spent the day walking around Ben Thanh Market and sampling all the delicious fruits they had to offer. (Read more about these fruits in our ‘Top 10 Foods In Vietnam’ blog).
At night it was my birthday, so we celebrated at a Mexican restaurant (owned by an American from Maine & surprisingly really good!) and afterward visited one of the many rooftop bars HCMC offers. The bar we visited was called Air 360, and like the name suggests, we were treated to an amazing 360 degree view of the city.
Our last day consisted of a tour of the Mekong Delta. We got picked up from our hotel and traveled about 3 hours for a boat ride down the Mekong River. We stopped at a little tea shop in a village and sampled some of the tea made from the royal jelly and some homemade coconut flavored candy.
Bali Boutique Hotel – 82 Bui Vien, Pham Ngu Lao, Quan 1, Ho Chi Minh Vietnam
Book it here
After an amazing 2 weeks in Vietnam, it was time to get back to our friends, families, puppy & day jobs in New York. 😦
We definitely left a part of our hearts in Vietnam. The people were so welcoming, the sights were so breathtaking and the food was mouth-watering. We have so many more places we want to see but Vietnam is definitely a place we hope to be able to come back to.
Have you been to somewhere in Vietnam that we haven’t? If so, let us know where you think we should go next!