Hanoi - Halong Bay - Hoi An - Ho Chi Min City - Phu Quoc
To cover such a vast country in 10 days, yet feel like you've done more than just scratch the surface, is definitely ambitious. However, with some careful planning, it can be done.
There are many airlines that fly London to Vietnam and many stopover choices, including Europe, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. So it’s really down to personal preference. However, in December 2011 Vietnam Airlines started flying direct from London Gatwick to Hanoi and Ho Chi Min City. Vietnam Airlines also operates all the internal flights, so booking with them makes organising your complete trip far easier.
I started in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital; 1000 years of history and the most intoxicating blend of Viet culture, Chinese-inspired monuments and French colonial architecture. Depending on what time your flight arrives into Hanoi either jump straight into the tours and do everything in an afternoon, staying just one night, or split it over a day and a half, staying two nights. One of the main sights is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (closed October, November, every Monday and Friday afternoons). Behind the Mausoleum is Ho Chi Minh's house and the One Pillar Pagoda. For an insight into Vietnam's turbulent past visit Hoa Lo prison, known by the American inmates as the 'Hanoi Hilton'. I’d recommend getting a guide to take you between the various sights as the traffic is beyond hectic. Just crossing the road involves a leap of faith. Slowing the pace for a while, a personal cyclo tour is a great way to take in the old part of the city, often referred to as “36 streets”.
I stayed overnight in the Sofitel Metropole. It’s a beautiful colonial building with three restaurants. It’s split across two wings, my preference being the Opera wing as I feel it has more of the French colonial atmosphere. If you want to venture out for food then I’d recommend the Wild Rice Restaurant (www.wildrice.com/vn) for fantastic Vietnamese cuisine, or the Press Club located just across the street from the Metropole Hotel.
From Hanoi it’s a 3.5 hour drive to Halong Bay. You need to leave your hotel around 8am as all the boats leave Halong at 12.45pm. The drive is slow due to the volume of traffic but well worth it. As one of the new ‘seven wonders of the world’ this really should be on your itinerary; a truly stunning yet tranquil setting.
The boats usually arrive back into harbour at 10.45am. Plan to head straight to Hanoi airport and fly to Da Nang. Most of the upmarket resorts are close to Da Nang and about 20-25 minutes from Hoi An. Lots of the hotels offer shuttle buses so transfers aren’t an issue. I loved Fusion Maia, a fairly new spa-style resort where all the standard rooms have their own pool. You get two treatments per day included in the price – pure unadulterated indulgence! Make the most of this but there’s also plenty to do in Hoi An so I would recommend three nights here. Ms Vy’s cooking course (as featured on Gordon Ramsay's “Gordon's Great Escape”, May 2011) is fantastic. It lasts six hours but the time flies by as it includes a tour of the local market, starting at 8.30am. This is a real eye-opener and helps you understand and appreciate all the local produce. The cooking itself is fascinating and you get to eat everything you cook (www.restaurant-hoian.com). Ms Vy’s courses sell out in advance so it’s best to book before you fly. Another really good outing is the Hoi An countryside bicycle tour, which shows you another side to the town, including the beautiful Japanese Covered Bridge where The Quiet American (starring Michael Caine) was filmed. Every second shop is a tailors so this is definitely the place to refresh your wardrobe. Yaly tailors is by far the best and there is a reason why they are more expensive than the others: they only promise what they can actually deliver! The end results are excellent. It’s a good idea to take pictures of dresses or suits with you. The more information you give them, the better the results (www.yalycouture.com).
Hoi An really comes to life at night. The lantern-lined streets look magical. There are so many good restaurants but two of my favourites were Mango Mango (45 Nguyen Phuc Chu +845103911863) and Cargo Bar (www.restaurant-hoian.com). If you want somewhere cool but fun for just a drink then head to Q Bar (94 Nguyen Thai Hoc, +845103911964, www.qbarsaigon.com).
Ho Chi Min City was my next stop after Da Nang, with Vietnam Airlines again. The locals still refer to it as Saigon. It’s a lot more westernised than Hanoi and, for me, didn’t hold quite the same level of cultural interest, so I felt two days and one night was enough. I would recommend going straight to the Cu Chi tunnels, flight times permitting. If you go on an organised tour it can take up to five hours so I would recommend a private guide if you like to go at your own pace. It’s an hour’s drive from the airport and then 1.5 hours back to Saigon. The tunnels certainly aren't for the claustrophobic. I’m not into guns, but I took up the offer to shoot an AK47 whilst there, and have to admit it was an interesting experience.
The main sights in Saigon are the former Presidential Palace, now called Reunification Hall, the War Remnants Museum, which includes some horrific scenes, and the Colonial Post Office. Once again a cyclo tour is a very good way to see the city but make sure you stop off to walk through the fantastic Ben Thanh Market.
The area either side of the Opera House is the best place to stay. This is where you’ll find the Caravalle and Park Hyatt hotels. The executive club lounge at the Caravelle has lots to offer but the bedrooms aren't as luxurious as at the Park Hyatt. However, they’re still really comfortable and combined with a great pool, gym and all the added extras of the club lounge, the Caravelle is a very good hotel choice. Don’t forget to have a drink in the famous Saigon Saigon bar on the 9th floor.
You are of course spoilt for choice for dining out in Saigon. Two of my favourites were Nam Phan (34 Vo Van Tan St, District +84839333636), serving the most exquisite Vietnamese dishes, and Xu Restaurant, very conveniently located just round the corner from the Caravalle (www.xusaigon.com).
After the travelling frenzy between and in these bustling cities it’s a great idea to end your trip with three to four days of utter peace and relaxation. The island of Phu Quoc is a one hour flight south of Saigon. It’s gorgeous! The Chen Sea Centara Resort, 20 minutes north of the airport but away from the busy Long Beach) has only 36 villas and is really tranquil. Opt for a jacuzzi villa but, as tempting as it is to just soak up your wonderful surroundings, do venture out one more time to see vibrant night market.
So, ambitious but ‘do-able’! An excellent 10 day Vietnam experience that I know you’ll really enjoy.
(I would recommend the following split: Hanoi - 1night / Halong Bay - 2 nights / Da Nang & Hoi An - 3 nights/ Saigon – 1 night / Phu Quoc - 3nights.