Vietnam is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating travel destinations anywhere in the world. The country’s diversity makes it feel like multiple holidays in one, with soaring mountains and terraced rice fields in the north, sun-drenched beaches all along a coastline that stretches more than 3,000 km, and on down to the colorful floating markets in the Mekong Delta in the country’s far south.
And we haven’t even begun to talk about the superb street food scene or the country’s intriguing history mixing influences from 1,000 years of Chinese rule, 100 years of French colonization, not to mention various kingdoms that have risen and fallen in various parts of the country through the ages.
For those reasons and more, Vietnam can be an incredibly rewarding destination, either on its own, or as part of a longer trip to Southeast Asia.
To make the most of your Vietnam holiday, however, there are a few things to consider. Here are our top 5 tips for planning an epic trip to Vietnam.
1. Decide on whether you want to focus on one part of the country or try to see everything.
Vietnam is a long “S” shape, from the northern tip that borders China, to the very south where the country meets the Gulf of Thailand. There is definitely no shortage to the many places worthy of a visit including the 15th-century port town of Hoi An or the cool highlands of Dalat. It’s tempting to want to include all the major cities in a whirlwind tour, and with Vietnam’s good transportation infrastructure including budget and national airlines, public and private trains, as well as an extensive network of bus routes, it’s certainly do-able.
That said, there’s also wisdom to focusing on just one part of the country. For instance, you could easily spend a week or more exploring just northern Vietnam, from hiking the terraced rice fields of Sapa and interacting with its many hill tribe groups to traveling back in time in Hanoi, getting to know its 1,000-year-old history by walking the charming streets of its Old Quarter. Throw in a cruise to the UNESCO-listed islands of Halong Bay and you’ve got a great itinerary right there without having to spend a lot of time go and from airports.
2. Learning a little of the language can go far.
Vietnamese is notoriously difficult to learn. There are five accents (and one neutral tone), and pronunciation varies from the North to Central Vietnam to the South.
Outside the travel industry (ie. large hotels, restaurants aimed at tourists, airports, etc.), you won’t find many people who speak even a little bit of English. Yes, Vietnamese children all learn English at public schools, but most have never had a chance to interact with real native-English speakers, meaning their speaking and listening skills are underdeveloped.
Parks and other public places, especially around universities, are a good place to meet students eager to practice their English, but Vietnamese people are in general quite shy, and authentic connections are not easily made. Learning a few words like “cám ơn” (pronounced “gaam ern”, meaning “thank you”), “tạm biệt” (“daam bee-uht”, meaning “good bye”) and “xin chào” (“sin jow”, meaning “hello”) can go a long way in breaking the ice. Outside the tourist centers, menus are also rarely in English, so if you can identify the main words for beef, chicken, and fish (thịt bò, thịt gà, cá, respectively) that’s a great starting point.
3. Add needed splurges into your budget.
Vietnam is the land of cheap street food where a meat-filled baguette or a plate of grilled pork and rice can cost less than US$1. There are also plentiful local buses where a short trip usually costs a quarter, as well as a wide selection of hostels (especially in tourist cities). All this means that you can see Vietnam on a shoestring budget. On the flip side, the presence of many international 5-star hotels and fine dining establishments (especially French and Japanese) means you can also travel like a king.
If you don’t have unlimited funds, the key to a great Vietnam trip is getting value for money and knowing when to splurge and when to save. While it’s cheap to travel by overnight bus (saving a night’s hotel stay and travel time), if you can’t get a good night’s sleep (which most taller passengers struggle to do because the semi-flat beds are small) or wake up too tired to sightsee the next day, is the savings really worth it? Because any kind of travel is tiring, sometimes it’s actually a good idea to splurge on worthy items like a plane ticket or a relaxing massage. There are also unique experiences that are worth the extra spend like a bucket-list scenic seaplane flight when in Halong Bay!
4. Seek out authentic experiences.
Because of the language barrier and the proliferation of cheap cookie-cutter tours where you’re basically only around other tourists, it’s a challenge to uncover authentic experiences that go beyond the surface. A trip to Vietnam that only takes in pretty heritage buildings or lazing around on beaches, however, would be a bit of a waste, as there’s so much to discover beyond the obvious.
Search for “free walking tours” in the city where you plan to be, often led by university students (many studying Hospitality or Tourism) where you can ask more in-depth questions. Finding cool Instagram accounts from where you’re visiting is another good way of uncovering local gems not found in guidebooks. Above all, don’t be afraid to reach out to the locals. A smile and a few words in Vietnamese may be all that’s needed to make a new friend over a cup of Vietnamese iced coffee!
5. Weigh the pros and cons of tours versus DIY (Do It Yourself) travel.
If you’re sticking to the main tourist hubs of Saigon, Hanoi, Hoi An and Nha Trang, it’s relatively easy to DIY your entire trip. There’s plenty to keep you busy for at least a few days in each of those well-established locations. However, even on the main tourist trail, sometimes going on a tour makes more sense, for instance joining a boat to the islands in Nha Trang versus hiring your own boat. There’s also the hassle of navigating more local forms of transportation (eg. moto taxis or local buses) where little to no English is spoken. If you do book a tour or an entire tour package, you’ll also need to do your homework on the tour provider. In most cases, it’s “get what you pay for” as cheap tours skimp on food quality, accommodations and often include money-making and time-consuming shopping stops.
There’s also the issue of safety. While Vietnam has very few violent crimes (guns are illegal), the snatching of bags, phones, and jewelry is a concern. There’s something to be said for traveling with an experienced local guide who can help you avoid unpleasant experiences and help you get the most of your trip, instead of having your head buried in a guidebook.
For the best of all worlds, Victoria Voyages puts together curated itineraries showcasing the best of Vietnam. What makes Victoria Voyages unique is that we use our own in-house network of services across Vietnam & Laos. Everything is owned and operated by the same parent company, TMG, from boutique 4-star hotels, traditional sampans, and vintage train carriages to premium coaches, classic sidecars, and even scenic seaplanes and classic cruises, which leads to excellent value for money (no third-party tour operators to pay) and you’ll experience the same, superb level of service throughout your entire trip.
Our packages are also private, meaning you’ll never have to wait for others or make any unwanted stops. In addition, our all-inclusive packages free you from having to worry about the little details, leaving you to focus on enjoying all that Vietnam has to offer. As a bonus, you’ll also have access to exclusive benefits such as complimentary dining, spa treatments, and room upgrades to help strike that perfect balance between exploration and relaxation.
Victoria Voyages offers four distinct tours, focusing on specific regions (Northern Vietnam and the Mekong Delta) for those wanting to travel low and slow, as well as epic journeys that span the length and breadth of Vietnam.
So weigh all the pros and cons outlined above, and enjoy your journey through Vietnam, one of the most beautiful countries in the world.