The Ultimate Vietnam Itinerary: From Hanoi to Phu Quoc Island
Whether you're exploring limestone islands in Halong Bay, munching on Banh Mi in Hoi An or navigating the buzzy markets in Ho Cho Minh City, Vietnam is one of the most vibrant and culturally rich countries in Southeast Asia. Andrew Skwarek puts together the ultimate itinerary.
Originally published in April 2016
Kick off your tour of Vietnam in the capital city of Hanoi. Spend your days eating standout pho (the street food here is out-of-this world) and getting lost in the city’s Old Quarter. The must-dos: Hoa Lo Prison (first operated by the French colonists housing political prisoners and later used to hold American POWs during the Vietnam War); Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the embalmed body of the country's first president rests; and Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi's answer to Central Park's reservoir. If you need a libation post sight-seeing, head to Lantern Lounge (leave your shoes at the door!) for a local 333 beer, and a round of chess.
From Hanoi head north on the overnight train to Lao Cai and transfer to the quaint mountain town of Sapa. At nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, the climate here is a lot cooler than the rest of Vietnam, but the jaw-on-the-floor views at nearly every turn are well worth the $20 you might have to shell out for a knock-off Northface jacket (seriously, it can get that cold in Sapa). Book a 2-day trek with Sapa Sisters (you'll overnight with a local family) and hike down into the valley, past rice terraces, and through the bamboo forest. Tip: It can get very muddy and slippery, so it's best to rent boots in town before heading out on your hike.
Embark on a two-day cruise on the Imperial Legend; you'll sail past the gigantic limestone islands (more than 1,600 of them), which comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The best spot on the boat? Right below the wheelhouse at the bow of the ship, where you can dangle your feet over the edge—but the roof deck during a morning tai chi session is a close second. Set meal times make it easy to mingle with other passengers, and if you're looking to show off your set of pipes, don't miss the karaoke at night.
After Halong Bay, make your way down the coast to Hoi An in Central Vietnam, a charming fishing village bisected by the Thu Bon River. Start your day with a mouthwatering sandwich from Banh Mi Phuong (Anthony Bourdain dubbed this place the best version of the country's famous sandwich) before carving out a day to hop from one cozy cafe to another (a stop at Dive Bar is a must). Also on the itinerary? A visit to a tailor (Hoi An is well-known for custom-fitted threads) to get measured for a new suit, dress, or to pick up a leather messenger bag. Schedule a morning cooking class with Red Bridge Cooking School and then cycle to Hidden Beach (just about four kilometers away) for an afternoon of sand and surf. Come nighttime, Hoi An's famous lantern-lined streets create a magical riverside setting; buy a floating candle from one of the local Vietnamese women and lower it into the river before heading over to the night market on Nguyen Hoang Street.
Ho Chi Minh City
Continue heading south to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s bustling metropolis with a population of close to eight million people (and almost just as many motorbikes!). Learn about the Vietnam War at the War Museum, shop for goods at Ben Thanh Market, and wash down your fried rice with a Bia Saigon lager at Tiny's Cafe, down a side alley. If you're craving a taste of Western food, beeline it to Pizza 4P's (order the burrata prosciutto pizza) or Quan Ut Ut for Vietnam's take on American barbecue. Continue your history lesson of the Vietnam War with a day trip to the Chu Chi Tunnels, a labyrinth underground network over 250 kilometers long, used as protection from the aerial bombings. End your stay in Ho Chi Minh whizzing through traffic (beep, beep!) with a nighttime ride on the back of a motorbike. (We recommend the Back of the Bike Tours outfitter.) During the four-hour trip, you'll taste some of the city's gastronomic delights such as goi du du bo ho and bun thit nuong.
Slow the pace down with a two-day trip to the Mekong Delta. Stop at Ben Tre to meander the palm-lined waterways in a dugout canoe, and visit Coconut Island to try the namesake candy. Then, make your way to Can Tho (your homebase for the night). The next morning, cruise to the traditional floating market to buy some fruit or let the minibar boat come to you (beer, anyone?). Round out your Mekong Delta trip with a bicycle ride around a banana farm before transferring back to Can Tho to catch your flight to Phu Quoc Island.
Phu Quoc Island
Finish your Vietnam vacation by spending two or three nights on idyllic Phu Quoc Island, in the Gulf of Thailand, just 50 kilometers from the mainland. Days here are meant to be lazy: tan, swim, drink, repeat. It’s best to rent a motorbike (don’t worry, there will be virtually no traffic), to explore the island’s beaches. Our favorite picks? Scoot to Rach Vem Beach on the northern part of the island for its seclusion and starfish, Ganh Dau Beach (also on the northern tip) for its cerulean waters, and Bai Sao Beach on the southern end for its palm-tree-lined sugary sand (the latter is a little more crowded than the northern stretches of coastline). After a day on the beach, mosey on over to The Pepper Tree Restaurant for cocktails, and as the sun dips below the horizon, raise your glass to the life-changing adventure.
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