Public service announcement for people who’d otherwise say, “I can’t find the time” to go to Vietnam, a must-see destination in Southeast Asia. You will be surprised what an adventure you can have in just one week! (I do recommend spending 2-3 weeks vacationing if you aren’t pressed for time.)
Here are photos and descriptions of three cities in Vietnam, two of which you can combine into a 1-week trip:
Ho Chi Minh City (aka HCMC, aka Saigon, former capital of the south),
Hoi An (charming beach-side destination), and
Nha Trang (a world-famous beach destination).
Travel tip: Rather than rushing in and out of places, slow down a bit, enjoy the town or city you’re in, and plan to return to see more of a particular place if you love it. Don’t sacrifice quality time to cram a million places into your itinerary!
You can’t see the whole country in one week! This is “what to do if you only have one week”.
There are two 1-week itineraries below- each visiting HCMC plus either Hoi An or Nha Trang.
Leverage your weekends. Plan to arrive in Vietnam on Sunday morning. Fly home the next Saturday evening, leaving Sunday as a rest/laundry day before returning to work!
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) - 3.5 days
Arrive in HCMC on Sunday morning and plan to start your adventure in Vietnam’s biggest city! Dash and dart between motorbikes as you inch closer to the food stalls or marketplace! Bargain and haggle ‘til you’re blue in the face! But never lose sight of the prize: an unforgettable few days in the old capital of South Vietnam!
Transportation: Read up on going-prices for fixed price taxi rides into town- bargain for a suitable price when you arrive at the airport. When in town, take metered taxis (Vinasun or MaiLinh are the only two trustworthy taxi companies) or hop on the back of a motorbike taxi for a $1+ exhilarating zip through traffic!
Lodging: When in HCMC, stay in District 1. It is closest to the Ben Thanh Market and other main attractions.
Day 1: Walk around town. Visit the cathedral, post office, Bến Thành Market, Hotel de Ville, Reunification Palace and riverside. EAT a bánh mi sandwich, pho noodle soup, bún bò Huế noodle soup, and whatever else you see that suits your appetite! DRINK Vietnamese [iced] coffee (cà phê), tapioca, aloe, and fresh fruit smoothies (sinh tố)! When dinner time arrives, find yourself a spot in the bustling night market situated near the roundabout across from Bến Thành Market. The stalls serve up a variety of delicious food- be sure to finish it off with a steaming plate of multi-colored sweet sticky rice from a street vendor!
Day 2: Day trip to the Củ Chi Tunnels and War Museum. For anyone with an interest in learning more about the Vietnam-American War, this is a worthwhile day trip. It is intriguing, yet sobering to be an American, in Củ Chi, an iconic Vietcong stronghold. Learn about war-time strategies and see how the guerrillas lived and fought during the war. Important considerations: it takes a long while (3-hours) to get to the tunnels and when you arrive it’s to watch a short video and take a walking tour. Part of the experience is crawling through a preserved tunnel, which is unforgettable, but cramped and hot. Bring a change of clothes or wear something that can get sweaty and filthy! Note: the museum is in central HCMC so you can do it without visiting the tunnels.
Day 3: 1-Day trip to Mekong Delta & Cai Be Floating Market. Important to know: this makes for a fun day but you will not see the floating market, which operates in the very early hours of the morning. Instead, you will likely have the chance to visit several local spots along the river. On our tour we saw rice paper and candy being made (and had a taste of each), held a honeycomb with live bees, were offered a taste snake and scorpion “wine” (I respectfully declined), went on a relaxing bike ride, and then ate a plate Vietnamese food for lunch. The delta is also a long (3-hour) drive outside of HCMC, so plan accordingly.
Nightly: Visit the night market and then head to September 23rd Park (công viên 23 Tháng 9), which is across from the Bến Thành Market roundabout. Walk around, indulge in street food and to do as the locals do. People watch from nearby restaurants, or from within the park, as teens giggle with their friends atop endless motorbikes and adults get their exercise through Latin dance!
Now that you’ve made your way through HCMC, it’s time to make a choice!
You can either go to Hoi An (my recommendation), or Nha Trang (a lovely, world famous beach destination thanks to Miss Universe 2008). Here’s some information about Hoi An, followed by that of Nha Trang.
Hoi An, Vietnam - 2.5 days
Fly from HCMC to Da Nang (DAD) on Wednesday afternoon and take 45 min taxi ride to Hoi An. Use the remainder of your week to relax on the beach, take in the charm of old town or visit ancient ruins! Return to HCMC Saturday afternoon (via Da Nang) for your evening flight back to the US.
Transportation: Hoi An is accessible from the Da Nang (DAD) Airport. Read up on going rates and then bargain at the taxi line just out to the front-left of the terminal. Relax for the 45-minute ride into town. While in Hoi An, walk around. It’s small and charming, and you can cover lots of ground this way! Going between town and the beach is a pleasant 20-minute bike ride (or shorter by taxi). Bikes can be rented for $1 per day. I do not recommend renting a motorbike in Hoi An- it is small and can get congested- but rates are roughly $3-5 per day.
Lodging: If you want the beach to be your primary focus, stay on Cua Dai Beach! If you’d prefer to stay in town and wander off to the beach at some point, then stay near the Ancient Town. Cab or bike it to the other when you’re ready to visit the town or feel some sand between your toes!
Day 1: Cook and explore. EAT! Start your day at the Morning Glory Cooking School by taking a 1-day cooking class (roughly 8am-2pm)! Shopping at the local market and creating delicious dishes will leave you inspired for the remainder of the day. If you still have room for dessert, head across the street to Cargo Restaurant for some refreshing lemongrass ice cream! Sugar cone in hand, you can continue the afternoon by heading back to the central market. Stroll through the stalls at your own pace and then cross the river to walk around and get food for your afternoon snack. Tip: cross to the Nguyen Phuc Chu side of Hoi An to find a covered outdoor area with authentic food stalls and picnic tables! End your night at Before and Now, a great bar that’s filled with young, vibrant tourists and unforgettable, politically-charged artwork!
Day 2: Option 1: Head to Cua Dai Beach! Cua Dai is a beautiful beach that attracts locals and vacationers and isn’t overrun by tourists. There are jet ski rentals and other activities available. Hotel guests will find lounge chairs lining the beach for your comfort and bamboo mats are available to sit on under the palm trees, free of charge. I biked from town on two occasions- it is about a 20 minute bike ride down Cua Dai Road in each direction and you can catch a beautiful sunset on your way back to town.
Day 2: Option 2: Take a trip to My Son. I recommend taking a half-day trip to visit the My Son ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and victim of the Vietnam-American War. Although My Son is amazing, it is small and does not require a full day of your time. There are plenty of tours to choose from- you can even hire a private car- I recommend going early so you can get back to enjoy town to enjoy the city or beach afterward. :)
Food tips: Eat bánh xèo and cao lầu! They make these the best in Hoi An. Ask the bánh xèo place to show you how to eat it. :) You basically assemble a wrap. As for the cao lầu, you can be the judge. Folklore has it that the dish is best here because it is made with special well water!
Nightly: Take an easy stroll around town. Get lost on streets you haven’t already wandered. Venture across the Cam Nam Bridge (Cầu Cẩm Nam) to explore yet another part of town!
Nha Trang, Vietnam - 2.5 days
Fly from HCMC to Nha Trang (NHA) on Wednesday afternoon and hop into a taxi for the 40 minute ride into town. Spend the next couple days playing on the beach or wandering the local food stalls and market! Return to HCMC Saturday afternoon for your evening flight back to the US.
Transportation: When you arrive at the airport, walk straight out of the terminal and past the initial swarm of taxi drivers to the parking lot where taxis are queued up and ready to take you to town. Make sure you’ve researched reasonable fares and then find a driver that’ll take you for an agreeable amount. It’s a long ride into town so make sure on the return trip you allow yourself a good 45-minutes for the ride alone. For the experienced rider, Nha Trang is more plausible for scooter rentals once you arrive in town.
Lodging: The Michelia Hotel is a nice hotel with a good restaurant, comfortable rooms and a decent sized pool. It is within a 4-5 minute walk to the beach and near plenty of local eateries.
Day 1: Go to the beach! Stroll down to Nha Trang Beach and catch some sun! That’s why you’re in Nha Trang, afterall! Relax, rent a jet ski, or walk the promenade until your heart is content. EAT dinner where the locals do- visit Lac Canh BBQ! This is a MUST DO for beef eaters! With a personal coal BBQ on your table, you cook up your favorite selection of meet and extras- ordered raw and cooked, by you, to perfection. :) Very tasty. For those who want a drink or to dance, end the night at the Sailing Club. This is the one dance club that visitors seem to talk about and enjoy. Otherwise, head back to your hotel and catch some zzz’s.
Day 2: Soak up some Vietnamese culture. Start your day by visiting the Po Nagar Cham Towers, accessible by taxi or motorbike. The temple and towers were built by the Cham People, the same people who built My Son. The site is small but plan to spend 45 minutes to an hour so that you can watch a traditional dance, stroll through the photo gallery, and look out over the Nha Trang Bay. After Po Nagar, make your way back to the Nha Trang market (Dam Market). Sift through handicrafts and sample local foods as you circle the stalls and wander down endless alleys! EAT bánh bao đặc biệt (steamed pork bun with egg) as a morning or afternoon snack- the market is a great place to find it. When you finish, hire a taxi or take your motorbike up to see the other popular temple, Long Sơn Pagoda. You will be finished in 20 minutes or so and can head back to town. Caution: you will be asked to pay for entrance- do not pay! The pagoda is free to visit and those posing as students are scammers.
Nightly: Nha Trang is a sleepy town. If you are in the mood to dance, visit one of the local clubs, such as the Sailing Club mentioned above. Otherwise, make plans to get cozy in your room, have drinks at a comfy spot like the Paramount Cafe, or listen to the waves crash on Nha Trang Beach. Relax before heading home!
Additional transportation tips:
Domestic flights between HCMC and Hoi An or Nha Trang are most cost effective on Vietnam Airlines and Jetstar (as of Feb. 2012).
Only take reliable taxi companies Vinasun and/or MaiLinh. Be willing to negotiate prices. Always!
Hotel shuttles from the airport are overpriced. You’re paying more than necessary for the sake of convenience if you pre-pay through an agency or your hotel.
If you take an organized tour in Vietnam you will inevitably be taken to craft shops and encouraged to spend money. Accept the obligatory half-hour as your payment. Don’t buy anything! If you like something, buy it for a fraction of the price back in town.