This year 2016 has brought a good opportunity for some European citizens to visit Vietnam. Do you know why? Free visa! Where’s the problem? It’s only for 15 days… We had to check it out, is it actually possible to enjoy Vietnam and have a global view of the country in such a short amount of time? Let’s see the result!
Planning an itinerary for Vietnam
Let’s start with some good news! The shape of the country, a narrow S extending from north to south, makes it really easy to plan an itinerary throughout it. There are basically two options, to start from the south and go all the way up to the north, or the other way around, to start from the north and go all the way down to the south. [Please, click on the map for a bigger view].
I chose the second option, so Hanoi, the capital city located in the north of the country, was my starting point. If I had to choose a word to describe Hanoi, it would definitely be CHAOTIC.
Hundreds of motorbikes going in every possible direction, apparently following no traffic rules (surely they must have their own codes…), street markets and vendors scattered around the city and a bustling city center with plenty of eating cheap and delicious food places make of Hanoi a chaotic but charming place. One thing is sure, Hanoi won’t leave anyone indifferent!
HA LONG BAY
Probably the most famous place in Vietnam, Ha Long Bay is a must-see IF you haven’t visited Thailand karst. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Thailand ones are better than Ha Long Bay ones! The point is that with only 15 days, you’ll probably prefer to see new things, and Vietnam has plenty of beautiful places to enjoy. In fact, we’d love to hear your opinion on which one is better! 😉
For those who haven’t been to Thailand, don’t miss it out! Ha Long Bay offers really stunning views. Sailing between some of the more than one thousand islands and sharp islets that emerge from the sea really made me feel like a pirate looking for adventures. 🙂
Unfortunately, visiting such amazing place “requires” hiring an organized tour, which can make you feel a little bit like cattle if you’re used to travel on your own. But it’s definitely worth it! The organized tours vary from 1 day to 3 days tour. For a 15 days trip, the 2 days one should be enough (I wouldn’t recommend the 1 day tour, unless you really want to squeeze a lot of destinations in your trip).
If I had to choose just one place to go in Vietnam, SA PA WOULD DEFINITELY BE THE ONE! Walking around the terrace rice fields, visiting the small villages where local ethnic minority people live is something that can’t be easily forgotten!
I could spend hundreds of words describing this fabulous place and the feelings I had when visiting it and it wouldn’t be enough. Instead, check it by yourself 😉 (a picture is worth a thousand words, right?).
Being a seasonal color changing place, Sa Pa looks gorgeous even when it’s not rice season. But beware of weather conditions and don’t forget to bring a coat with you, it can’t get reaaaally cold up there!
The tricky part
Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa. It’s impossible to go wrong choosing these three destinations when visiting the north of Vietnam. However, the choice gets harder when moving south towards the middle part of the country. And yes, you’ll probably have to choose if you only have 15 days! So, where to go? Well, that’s a matter of personal preference… But hey! don’t worry, we’re going to help you. Here comes a list with some of the places you may want to visit:
PHONG NHA CAVES
Let’s start with the one that we chose! Although Vietnam is home of the world’s biggest cave, Son Doong Cave, it wasn’t this cave the one I visited. Why? The price is insane!! Fortunately, Phong Nha Cave’s subterranean river (main entrance!), Paradise Cave’s stalactites (and immensity!) and Dark Cave’s mud baths (no gravity?!) relieved our grieve (and saved us $3000…) 😉
If you don’t feel like visiting caves, keep reading and check out the following places. Although unfortunately I didn’t visit them, in my trip I met a lot of travellers who did. That’s what they told me:
If imperial cities full of history are your thing, Hue is definitely your city! Its temples, palaces and tombs are definitely a must-see for any first-timer in Asia. For those who have visited countries like China or Japan before, you may want to skip this one 😉
Honestly, I couldn’t find a unanimous opinion about this small former fishermen town. Some people loved it. Some people didn’t like it that much. “Picturesque and lovely city” vs “Too touristic, it has lost its charm”. Anyway, I have the feeling it’s still well worth a visit… Want to help us? You’re comments are very welcome!
Tip: My Son Sanctuary Hindu ruins are located really close to Hoi An, being the perfect complement to a visit to the town. You may skip it if you’ve been or plan to go to Cambodia. This article written by Michael Turtle from Time Travel Turtle will help you make the decision. 😉
Did you miss a beach city in the article? Here you are! Da Nang is the perfect bet for those willing to spend some relaxing days in a Vietnamese beach. Not a beach lover? No problem! Attractions like the Lady Buddha or the fire breathing Dragon Bridge will still make the visit worth it.
Ah! And don’t forget to visit the Marble Mountains, they’re just a few steps away!
Reaching the south
So few days and so many things to see and do… Hard decisions to make, we know it. And on top of that, still need to save some days for the South! Aarrghh! :S Calm down, no more struggling with decisions. Just keep reading and enjoy your last days in Vietnam 🙂
HO CHI MINH CITY
Markets, motorbikes, charming chaos… does it sound familiar? Since we’re running out of days and the article is already quite long, let’s keep it simple and go to my favorite part: Cu Chi Tunnels! A short bus ride away from the center and I found myself in the heart of Vietnam War, where the Viet Cong used a network of tunnels to fight the American troops. Nothing funny about war, that’s true, but visiting these super small and narrow tunnels is something really, really impressive. Shouldn’t miss this one!
Tip: I almost forgot, when visiting Bitexco Financial Tower, don’t go to the observation deck. Instead, go to the cafeteria. Same views, “free” coffee. 😉
“I’m starving, I’m gonna buy some fruit.”
“Watch out for crocodiles!”
Okey, maybe you’ll be more likely to be “attacked” by some coffee or coconut vendor rather than a crocodile, but what is certain is that you’ll have to get into a boat to enjoy the Floating Market and its wholesale trading!
Even though it’s not the best option to enjoy the beauty and authenticity of Mekong Delta, the truth is that an organized tour will save you time and money. A lot of similar tour options ranging from 1 day to 4 days can be found in Ho Chi Minh City.
Stops at honey or candy shops and other tourist traps (and craps) left me with a bittersweet feeling… Still, I got lots of good memories and photos!
THE FINAL VERDICT
Vietnam is a country with a huge variety of interesting places to visit and stay for a while. Still, having only 15 days to visit the country might be enough to appreciate its beauty and variety from north to south (or vice versa) if well organized. Catching overnight buses and trains definitely makes the difference, as it saves precious time (6 to 8 hours of travel time between Hanoi and Sa Pa, Hanoi to the middle of the country, etc.).
So, let’s go for the million dollar question: how to allocate these 15 days in order to see as much as possible without actually being in such a big rush?
Something like 2 days in Ha Noi, 2 days in Ha Long Bay, 3 days in Sa Pa, 3 days in the middle part of the country, 2 days in Ho Chi Minh city and 2 days in the Mekong Delta should satisfy the needs of those wishing to experience the great variety of the country in such a short time. 😉
Prices in Vietnam
Concerned about the budget? Better worry about how to get a good airplane fare! Paying $1.5 for a meal, $5 for a dorm room or $5 for renting a motorbike the whole day should let you save enough money to pay $50 or $35 for the two days tour in Ha Long Bay and the Mekong Delta. Visiting the caves might be a little bit expensive ($11 each cave), but much cheaper entrance fees in other places ($3 for visiting the tunnels, for example) will make you forget about that!
Buses and trains connect most of the cities in Vietnam, so both are a very convenient way of moving from city to city. Open Tour buses, cheap touristic buses crossing the country from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (or the other way around), are a very popular option ($50 for a sleeper bus with many stops). Although I covered most of the distance hitchhiking (Vietnamese people are really nice :)) I did take some trains. For instance, $15 for a sleeping train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (nearest city to Sa Pa) or $10 for a sitting one from Hanoi to Dong Hoi (nearest city to Phong Nha) should serve as a reference for prices.
So, that’s all from me, I hope you’ve enjoyed the article and found it useful. Now it’s your turn: take advantage of your free visa, use it as an excuse to visit the country or simply go enjoy your 15-days holiday in such a wonderful place. No free visa for you? Come oooon, go anyway! The effort will be greatly rewarded!
Have you ever been to Vietnam before? Do you agree with our verdict? If you don’t want to miss next great destinations drop your email below and we’ll keep you posted! 😉