Is it possible to visit all the main highlights of Vietnam in just over a week?
Yes, as long as you enjoy lots of different forms of travel, whether it is by aeroplane, car, minibus, scooter, ox cart, sampan, fishing boat, junk, bicycle and on foot!
This is a summary of my trip with a small group in May 2015:
Day 1 – Arrival into Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Many international flights will bring you into Saigon in the morning, allowing you the rest of the day to acclimatise to the sultry heat of Indochina and explore the bustling streets, colourful markets & historical buildings on foot. The Caravelle Hotel overlooks the old Opera House and is within easy reach of the river, as well as famous institutions from the time of the Vietnam War such as the Rex & Continental Hotels.
Day 2 – Cu Chi Tunnels, War Museum & Vespa Tour
Driving north out of Saigon brings you to a land of rice paddies and rubber tree plantations, also the site of the remarkable complex of underground tunnels used by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War. It is possible to enter parts of the hideouts and shelters (not for the claustrophobic though).
After lunch at a canal side restaurant return to central Saigon for a sobering reminder of the horrors of war in the War Remnants Museum and a tour of the former Presidential Palace.
One of the most exciting and fun excursions in Vietnam is an evening Vespa tour through the streets of Saigon, seated on the back of an original 1950s scooter and being driven to several roadside bars and restaurants – hold on tight!
Day 3 – Mekong Delta Cruise
To the south of Saigon the Mekong river spreads out into a lattice work of smaller rivers and channels, carving the rural landscape into a scene of flooded rice paddies grazed by water buffalo, giant conical hay bales, lush green banana plantations and coconut palms. A short journey by ox cart takes you to the waterfront where you board a traditional sampan for a river cruise, stopping at a coconut factory, brick works and rice noodle factory, and cycling through the local villages. A smaller boat allows you to negotiate the narrower channels of the Delta. One of the delicacies of this region are the wonderfully delicious shrimps!
Day 4 – Hue
A short flight from Saigon brings you to Hue in central Vietnam, home to probably the most important historical site in the country. The Hue Citadel and Royal Complex of the ancient Imperial City are located on the north bank of the wonderfully named Perfume River, and are composed of a series of colourful gates, enclosures and stone buildings (and even a replica English telephone box!).
The peaceful Tu Doc Royal Tomb is situated near a large lake dotted with blue lilies and surrounded by fragrant frangipani trees.
Stay at the Best Western Indochine Palace in town or La Residence Hue near the river.
Day 5 – Danang & Hoi An
A 3 hours’ drive on Highway One, over the Hai Van Pass with spectacular mountain and coastal views, brings you to the modern town of Danang and wide stretches of white sandy beach.
A bit further south lies the ancient town of Hoi An: this is a lovely place to wander or cycle through at your own pace, its old buildings restored and converted to boutique shops, cafes and restaurants. At night the town is lit by lanterns and a street market is set up along the Hoai River.
The beaches on the coast at Hoi An are some of the best in central Vietnam, which makes this area a great base for both sightseeing and relaxation.
Day 6 – Hoi An cookery class & Hanoi
A Vietnamese cookery class usually involves more than just cooking and a shopping trip through the vibrant Hoi An market is a delight. A boat ride takes you out of town to a large cookery school and restaurant where you learn how to prepare noodle soup and shrimp wrapped in banana leaves, amongst other delicacies.
Day 7 – Halong Bay
A 4 hours’ drive from Hanoi, the dock at Halong Bay is the launch point for an overnight cruise into the iconic coastal waters of the Gulf of Tonkin which are studded with remarkable limestone outcrops. The Heritage Jasmine boat provides spacious living and sleeping space over several decks, and the views across the sea and islands is nothing short of breathtaking.
Afternoon visits to the Tien Ong Cave and a floating village allow you to explore the area on foot and by bamboo boat, as well as by kayak. Moored at night in a sheltered bay, the lights of fishing boats twinkle on the horizon.
Day 8 – Hanoi
A pre-breakfast Tai Chi session on the top deck is the ideal way to start the day! A walk to the summit of Ti Top Island and a swim off the island’s beach are also great options if you are feeling energetic, before the drive back to Hanoi.
Explore the streets of Hanoi with your guide, ranging from the cafes and restaurants of the colonial centre to the maze of narrow alleys and streets of the Old Quarter. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum also provides a glimpse of the country’s revered leader lying in state.
The Apricot Hotel overlooks the legendary Hoan Kiem Lake on the edge of the Old Quarter, whilst the Sofitel Legend Metropole is an historical ‘grande dame’ situated in the heart of the city.