Mekong Express | Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi in 10 Days!
In July of this year an opportunity for a quick adventure sprung up as I was transitioning from one job to the next here in Sydney.
I had about 9 days to play with and my criteria was: cheap, flexible and adventurous. I toyed with the idea of Vanuatu and Malaysia, but Vietnam stood out as an opportunity to turn up with a very loose plan and not have my spontaneity cost the earth!
I'd visited Vietnam back in 2011, but this time I was eager to see it all through sober eyes, get away from the big cities and explore rural Vietnam. Squeezed into a 9 night trip, with no hostels or transport prior to my arrival, my itinerary ended up looking like this:
- Ho Chi Minh City - 1 night
- Hoi An - 3 nights
- Hanoi - 1 night
- Sapa - 2 nights (+ night bus)
- Hanoi (part II) - 1 night
Whilst Ho Chi Minh & Hanoi are awesome cities steeped in history and buzzing with life, I'd had my eye on Hoi An and Sapa from the off. I whistled through Hoi An on my previous visit and was keen to get back to soak in the relaxed ambience of the ancient town, whilst we had missed Sapa altogether and I'd heard good things! Below, I've captured some top tips for all 4 of my stops, with advice on getting there, where to stay and what do when you're there.
Day 1 | Ho Chi Minh
Arriving into Ho Chi Minh city late, I was guided to the bus stop to grab the yellow 109 bus to take me into the market in the centre of Ho Chi Minh. The bus gets you right in the mix and should only cost you 20,000VND.
I stayed at Town House 23 and was able to walk there easily with the assistance of a kindly old lady in the city, although I was then transported on to Town House 50 by motorbike due to an error in the booking. The accommodation did the trick and I was off to explore the city early the next morning, spending time trekking between:
- Ben Than Markets (pictured above) - a must visit if you're in the city; a surreal immersion that surrounds you with frogs, knock-off football shirts and delicate silks
- Notre Dame Cathedral and the Colonial Post Office (pictured above) - beautiful buildings that start to tell the story the city's history
- Independence Palace (pictured above) - fascinating architecture (re-built in the 1960s) and an even more fascinating history (well worth the paid tour)
- District 1 - the backpacker hub with plenty of food and drink options
I'd also previously visited the war museum and infamous Cu-Chi Tunnels so didn't feel the need to return, they're also well worth a visit though. Spending too much time wandering about, I almost missed my flight so had to splash out 100,000VND on a trip with a random fella and his motorbike to get me back to the airport in time!
Day 2 | Ho Chi Minh to Hoi An
Being short on time and without a super strict budget, a flight was the only real option for me to get up to my next stop, Hoi An, and at around AU$100, the JetStar flight did the trick perfectly.
1 hour flight up to Da Nang and you're a short journey from Hoi An old town but surrounded by blinding neon lights, traffic and traffic. There doesn't seem to be an especially cheap way to travel down to Hoi An by night, although I'm sure local busses would take you in the day, so if you do have a hostel lined up in or around Hoi An, ask them if they're able to provide a shared shuttle. I shared a taxi with a mother and daughter from Perth from my flight, and paid around 150VND for the trip.
| Hoi An
I was keen to experience the quieter surrounds of Hoi An and get exploring by motorbike, so a beachside homestay about 3KM from the town itself seemed like the dream. Vy's Seaside Homestay is the friendliest of places, 2 minutes walk from the largely deserted beach and 10 minute's ride from the old-town, it offers great food and simple accommodation that was right up my street.
Day 3 | Hai Van Pass
Motorbikes and scooters are a must if you want to experience the intricacies of Vietnam at your own pace. The Hoi Van Pass is the perfect example, a stunning coastal road, winding its way between Hoi An and Hue.
If you've got the time, numerous agencies offer the chance to rent a bike at one end and drop it off at the other (whichever way you're headed) - if you've got your own bike, even better!
As I was on a tight schedule and flying out of Da Nang, I drove and over the pass from Hoi An and back comfortably in a day. There are tour guides that offer a guided tour, but I headed up on my own and met a few people along the way.
I had rented a bike for a few days, which cost me around VND100,000 from Vy's Homestay and highly recommend driving up and over the Hai Van Pass! Back to the Homestay in the late afternoon gave plenty of time for a dip in the sea and a trip into the old town for some well-earned food.
Day 4 | Hoi An old town
Despite its enchanting streets being brimming with delicious local food and knock-off gear, Hoi An is famed for its tailors. Beautifully presented shops line the streets of the old town, adorning their store-fronts with suits and elaborate cocktail dresses, willing you in to use their services.
Whatever you have in mind, however obscure or ludicrous is generally doable; whether you want to clone your favourite shorts or splash out on a 100% silk kimono emblazoned with your name (as I did), the tailors of Hoi An have got you covered! This past-time is best pursued in the cooler evenings, but be sure to leave at least 24 hours for them to complete their work, naturally, it can take a little while. As evening falls, you'll also find yourself drifting with the crowds towards the river, which is sparkling with gorgeous lanterns.
Over the river you'll find a stretch of markets selling more clothes, food and lanterns as well as and river-side bars/ restaurants. There are ample food choices to be had around the town as you enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, my favourite for an evening meal was Nữ Eatery, a traditional restaurant just north of the river.
There are endless choices, however, and if you're just after a tea or coffee there are dozens of charming options tucked away - I absolutely loved one particular rooftop coffee shop, called Faifo Cafe, nestled amongst the tailor shops north of the river with a beautiful rooftop view.
Day 5 | Travel to Hanoi
Another day spent exploring the old town, picking up my tailored goodies and enjoying the serenity of the beach-side hostel before I packed up and onto a shuttle to Da Nang airport. The shuttle was easily arrange by Vy and breezed up to Da Nang in about 30 mins.
Another short flight had me arriving into Hanoi late at night, but 30,000VND got a me on a local bus into the city centre and another 30,000VND aboard a moto-taxi to the Old Quarter. I had booked a night in Cocoon Hostel the day before in search of a no-frills yet comfortable place to rest my head and sort out my trip on to Sapa.
Day 6 | Hanoi to Sapa
Traipsing around the ancient town all day fuelled on some delicious baked treats, I stopped by the Women's Museum (just south of the lake) and well worth a visit but was ultimately scoping out options for the trip to Sapa. There are endless tour agencies and I nipped into a few for pricing before stumbling across Lily's Travel Agency in the heart of the Old Quarter, who were able to offer me a 2 night, 3 day trek with a local guide for 1,650,000VND.
The agency staff were friendly and helpful and the tour sounded right up my street and at a competitive price. I booked the trip for the same day and was all locked in for a 9PM hostel pickup to get the night bus up to the Lao Cai Province up north. Happy to have that locked in, I sorted my gear out and left most of it with Cocoon in Hanoi to allow me to travel light. I strolled around the night markets and enjoyed a great noodle dish from a street vendor before I was sent for just after 9PM.
The great thing about Hanoi is that simply immersing yourself in the street life is an experience; it has an amazing ability to completely suck you in and feel a million miles away from home. We picked up a few other backpackers on the way to the bus stop and jumped aboard the sleeper bus, headed for Sapa! The bus is typically squeezed and won't do for light sleepers who treasure comfort, but is ideal if you want to make the most of your time in Vietnam and travel while you sleep!
Day 7 | Trekking the Terraces
Strangely, the bus timetable means you arrive into Sapa at 4am and have 2 hours to doze until departing the bus. The rain was relentless outside and the temperature considerably down on the cities further south and there was a mixture of excitement and confusion in the air.
A swarm of trek operators swarm the alighting backpackers to snap up those without a pre-arranged tour and brandishing signs for those that have. There was no sign of my guide, so I wandered through the rain and huddled under a porch where I was finally greeted by a lady who know my guide and was able to unite the guide and the group in a funny little hotel restaurant.
The town of Sapa itself is a dreary site, not helped by the weather, dotted with tacky looking drinking holes and a fair few Irish bars advertising their latest and greatest happy hour deals. We ate breakfast and patiently waited for the trek out into the wilderness to kick-off.
As the rain showed no sign of relenting, a few of the group (there were 8 of us all in) stocked up in the local mall, which has everything for the ill prepared at a very good price. Some treated themselves to wellies/ gum boots and knock-off North Face great, whilst others splashed out on local head-wear.
We were finally pointed in the direction of our guide, Chinh, and set off in the deluge up what was presumably a path on drier days, but had transformed into a fast-flowing stream. I hadn't bothered with boots and was instead wearing an old pair of trainers, shorts and a rain coat - I was drenched through for the entire day but was happy enough with my choice, there's no need to go overboard with hiking gear for the trek.
On we went in the pouring rain, passing non-existent views (the rain was too heavy to see anything!), angry-looking buffalo and gorgeous rice paddies. Despite the weather, the trek was great, lungs full of fresh air and eyes-full of lush scenery we rocked up to take refuge at lunch, each devouring a steaming bowl of beef noodles (there were other options!). After lunch, we trekked for another 2 or 3 hours and the rain showed glimpses of easing and allowed us to soak in the vast, picturesque valley as the clouds parted occasionally.
We arrived at the homestay at 3:30PM, met the locals, the dogs, the pigs and hung everything up to dry. The homestay is a great glimpse into local life, completely detached from city life and civilisation until recent decades, the locals still go about their business the way they know.
Chinh was great at explaining who they are and what they do as her and the local family got working on dinner! A huuuuge spread of noodles, rice, pork and vegetables was followed by a flow local rice wine as we all huddled around the smokey fire to dry before tucking into our beds for the night.
Comfortable without being elaborate, the whole experience was great and the local homestay extremely hospitable.
Day 8 | Trekking the Terraces
Up and hoping for a bright morning, we were greeted by more mist, but less rain. We wolfed down a breakfast of fruit, omelettes and pancakes and had a chat with more of the locals before setting off on our adventures again. We were returning to the homestay that night so left everything in place, it's worth noting that the tour company transport your bags from Sapa, so you don't need to worry about lugging them around the rice paddies.
The skies cleared up and we got to witness the spectacular scenery of the valley, with tiny Chinh setting a great pace for the tour. A waterfall dip down in the valley and another delightful lunch ensconced in the rolling rice paddies before half the tour (1 nighters) departed for their bus back to Sapa. The remaining trekkers carried on for a couple of hours and meandered back to the homestay for showers, cards and more great food!
Mao, an infectiously enthusiastic relative of Chinh, force-fed rice wine to the group before we all hit the hay.
Day 9 | Sapa to Hanoi
The final day up in Sapa included another 3 or so hours of trekking towards the town of Teh Vanh after another 8+ pancakes.
Teh Vanh is a bit more lively than the retreat we stayed in, without being as tacky as Sapa itself, and we grabbed some lunch in the now booming sunshine on the way through to our return transport to Sapa - passing some hideous hotels topping the valley as we drove down. Luckily, I had to spend minimal time in Sapa itself as I boarded the bus back to Hanoi, which is all part of the package at Lily's Hostel.
Another important note, the buses don't have toilets, so don't drink too much water and use the facilities at the stop-off destinations! Back to Cocoon Hostel and straight into bed via a shower for some well needed sleep!
Day 10 | Home via Ho Chi Minh
I had most of the following day in Hanoi and enjoyed the local streets and eats from Cocoon Hostel before jumping on a moto-taxi and weaving through the insane traffic to the bus stop (outside the Post Office) and went on to the airport from there.
A stop-over in Ho Chi Minh airport and I was on my way back to Sydney. I'd love to hear all about your experience of Vietnam, I know there's lots more to see, so please comment below!