Most people think of Vietnam as being separated into North and South due to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh being the two major cities – but don’t underestimate the center of the country! Vietnam is a surprisingly long country (you’ll figure this out quickly if you travel from one end to the other by bus) and there are some great cities that should also get some attention.
Duration: ~1 week
Season: Dry season (February/March, 2018)
- Day 0: Night bus from Ninh Binh to Phong Nha
- Day 1: Arrive early in the morning; explore Phong Nha
- Day 2: Bus to Hue
- Day 3: Explore Hue
- Day 4: Scooter the Hai Van Pass from Hue to Hoi An
- Days 5-10: Explore Hoi An **
I was in Hoi An for much longer than is necessary, so you can cut your time here shorter!
Phong Nha is most famous for its caves and there are options for everyone no matter your time or budget constraints. The Hang Son Doong Cave is the largest (discovered) cave in the world but will set you back $3,000 and only a handful of people can visit its remote location at a time. More affordable are Dark Cave (requires ziplining in and a swim), Paradise Cave, and Phong Nha Cave.
Things to Do:
- Paradise Cave: Paradise Cave is one of the most popular caves and can easily be visited on your own without a group tour. The cave extends for 31km but visitors are only allowed access to the first 1km, with wooden walkways and staircases to keep visitors from getting lost or ruining the formations. The cave is enormous and impressive but the touristy vibe and artificial lighting took away from the grandness of the cave for me – be prepared for it to be very busy during peak times! To get to the caves you can walk the 1.6km path (or opt for a buggy ride for an additional cost) but you will still be required to climb some stairs and a steep path to reach the cave entrance so wear proper footwear.
Cost: 250,000 Dong
- The Duck Stop: This is a quirky but hilariously fun thing to do – but come prepared to get dirty! You’ll have to make your way down a dirt road (or a very muddy road if it has rained recently) and if you’re on a motorbike make sure you’re wearing shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty. Once you arrive you’ll get the opportunity to enjoy a cold beer and peanuts, feed some ducks and have them chase you around (this is more fun than it sounds, I promise), get a duck foot massage, select a duck to toss into the lake for good luck, ride a water buffalo named Donald Trump, and then end your visit with a delicious Vietnamese pancake.
Cost: 150,000 Dong
If I had more time….
- Dark Cave (Hang Toi) is one of the highlights but to visit you need to go through an organized tour company which will set you back some money compared to the caves you can visit on your own. To enter the cave you have to zip line in, and at one point you’ll have to do some swimming! Be prepared to get dirty, and avoid if you are claustrophobic.
- Getting in and out: I took a sleeper bus from Tam Coc to Phong Nha and arrived very early in the morning (between 4:30-5:00am, cost 290,000 Dong/$12.76.) Let your accommodations know you’ll be arriving early (some will let you check in early if the room is open, or you can ask to sleep in their lobby once you arrive).
- Where to stay: I was traveling with a friend so we stayed in a private room as it was more affordable than paying for two beds in a dorm. The two most popular hostels are Easy Tiger (you need to email them to book, they aren’t online, and they fill up sometimes during busy season!) and Gecko. When I arrived early in the morning someone from Gecko was outside offering beds for people to check in to early!
I think that Hue is a city that you either love or hate. I wasn’t a big fan of the city, but this may have been because I “did the city wrong.” I stayed in an area that was grimy, felt unsafe, and had little food options around it (I would recommend staying near the river in the main backpacking area). Other people I met loved it here!
Things to Do:
Imperial City: The main tourist attraction is the Imperial City – the old imperial capital of Vietnam. The citadel is walled and is currently being restored, and is quite lovely to walk around. There are some exhibits and drawings that depict what the city looked like before the bombings during the Vietnam War.
Cost: 150,000 Dong ($6.60)
If I had more time…
- Abandoned Water Park: I had a number of friends who visited and really enjoyed it! Tours are available or you can arrange your own transportation.
- Getting in and out: Hue is a common destination from many cities by bus. From Ninh Binh it was 140,000 Dong ($6.16). If you’re going South, Hue is a common starting point for one-way scooter rental to Hoi An via the Hai Van Pass.
Hai Van Pass
The Hai Van Pass is a stretch of highway between Hue and Hoi An that has incredible views through the mountains with a handful of attractions along the way for you to stop at. This can be done in a 3-4 hours if you’re rushing through it, but can take an entire day if you want to stop along the way to enjoy it.
Things to see:
- Elephant Falls: Coming from the North your first stop will be at Elephant Falls – named after the elephant looking rock that stands guard over the waterfalls. Make sure you pack (or wear) your bathing suit since this is a popular swimming hole! There are changing rooms and bathrooms available as well as some places to buy food.
Once you pay to enter there will be a small parking area with a temple. You can park here and walk around – the grounds are quite nice – and then you can hop back on your bike to reach the Elephant Falls parking.
Cost: 17,000 Dong ($0.75) entrance and parking
- Lang Co Beach: This small fishing village doesn’t have too much to offer (and the beach isn’t too impressive or clean) but it is a good stop for lunch! There are a number of stalls along the ocean where you can order some fresh seafood.
Cost: 80,000 Dong/$3.50 for noodles with mixed seafood
- Viewpoints: Along the way there are a number of scenic viewpoints where you can pull over to snap some pictures and take in the beautiful scenery around you. If going North-South there is a nice viewpoint of Lang Co right after you leave and start up the pass, and when you get to the top of the pass you’ll see cars parked for a viewpoint and an old fort. If you can’t get a good picture here continue along where there will be one more viewpoint along a corner for a beautiful view of the ocean and Da Nang. As always use caution when pulling over along the side of the road.
- Marble Mountain: The final stop in Da Nang is Mable Mountain – aptly named for the mountains that the caves and temples are built in to. Come ready to climb stairs (it is called a mountain for a reason!) There are a number of caves that you can explore as well as some view points that will give a good view over Da Nang.
Cost: 40,000 Dong ($1.75)
- One-way scooter rental: There are a number of companies, in both Hue and Hoi An, that offer one-way scooter rentals so that you can drive the pass on your own. It’s more expensive than a normal scooter rental, but worth it to save the time driving back to where you started. They will also transfer your luggage to your hotel in your destination so you can ride with just a day pack!
Cost: 300,000 Dong ($13.20)
- Easy Rider: If you’re not comfortable riding a scooter or if the weather isn’t supposed to be great and riding on winding roads makes you hesitant, you can always hire an easy rider. An easy rider is a local who will drive you (and your bag) with stops along the way where ever you want. This will allow you to enjoy taking in all the scenery, and if you’re lucky your rider will be able to share some information about the area! I’m not sure the current going rate, but it should be easy to find information and book once you arrive in Hue/Hoi An.
Hoi An is a quiet town that can be seen in a day or two if you’re tight on time, or can be home for a week if you’re looking to slow down and enjoy Vietnam. No matter the case, I highly recommend putting Hoi An on your Vietnam itinerary.
Things to do:
- Old City: One of the highlights of Hoi An is walking around the picturesque Old City. Colorful buildings full of cute shops and cafes, flower boxes overflowing with colorful flowers, a river full of boats and floating lanterns, and people happily wandering through the streets will great you daily. Grab a map to see the Old City attractions, or spend your day popping into leather shops and custom tailors! Be sure to visit during the evening as well as during the day as both are enchanting.
- Tailored Clothes: As you’re walking around you’ll notice an abundance of shops advertising tailored clothes, and if you have extra room in your backpack you should stop in and check them out! Hoi An is well known for its hand-tailored clothing, with shops available for any budget. I went to Yaly (one of the more expensive options, but known for its high quality products) and I had an amazing experience! The longer you are in town, the more fittings they can fit in. I was able to go in FIVE times, and I am very happy with all of my items!
Cost: $238 for 4 items (black cocktail dress $80, black jump suit $80, romper $60, crop top $18)
- River: The river is lovely to stroll along during both day and night. If you go at night be sure to look for the colorful floating candles!
- Banh Mi Queen: You MUST get at least one banh mi while you’re in Hoi An, and you MUST get at least one from the Banh Mi Queen. I’m not sure what she does, but it is by far the best one that I had my entire time in Vietnam. She’s called the banh mi queen for a reason!
Cost: 20,000 Dong ($0.88) regular banh mi with all the fixin’s
- Bike the rice fields: This was one of my highlights of Hoi An! Rent a bike and head out of the old city and head towards the beach and you can get lost in a sea of rice fields.
Cost: Prices vary based on where you rent from (many accommodations have bikes available) but it shouldn’t be more than a couple bucks!
If I had more time…
- Enjoy a beach day at Cua Dai or An Bang. I’m not sure how I didn’t make a proper trip to the beach in all my time in Hoi An, but on a hot day it’s a great activity!
- Visit Da Nang if you didn’t get to stop here for the Hai Van Pass! This city is only 20-30 minutes North and is hustling and bustling compared to it’s quieter neighbor.
- Cham Island can be reached by public boat and allows you to see the life of fisherman and go snorkeling. Arrange your own transport or book a day tour to save the hassle.
- My Son is a collection of ruined Hindu temples only an hour from town. Since I visited Ayuttaya and Sukhothai in Thailand I pushed this out of my itinerary due to time, but others that I met who went really enjoyed it!