Vietnam is a backpacker’s dream. Ancient cities and beautiful sites combine with a favorable exchange rate for cheap lodging and cheap food. Though infrastructure is not as developed as that of nearby Thailand or Malaysia, tourists will find it friendly and easy to get around.
This ten-day itinerary follows the route of the “Reunification Express,” the main rail line between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that joined North and South in 1976.
Before venturing out, take these preliminary steps:
– Buy and register a Vietnamese SIM card on arrival. Cards are cheap, as are 3G and 4G data plans, and WiFi is abundant. A SIM will grant access to Google Maps and Uber – two indispensable services on this journey.
– Though rail tickets are available at the station, they can easily be purchased at hotels or hostels, or at www.baolau.com 60 days prior to any journey. Overnight trains will ultimately save on hotel costs, so consider a first-class sleeper – about $35 USD. These should be booked well in advance. Those on a tighter budget can opt for an air-conditioned “hard sleeper,” which accommodates six rather than four people per cabin, and costs about $5 less. Privately run “Viollete” cars for western travelers are considerably more expensive and offer service not much improved over the soft sleeper cars for the general public. Hotel travel desks will usually book these for Europeans and Americans, so it may be necessary to be precise in requesting tickets.
– Let Uber be the favored ride around town. It works well in both Hanoi and Saigon, and circumvents bartering and the potential for taxi fraud. Pay close attention to number plates, however- “Uber fraud” is becoming more frequent as fraudulent drivers look for passengers who appear to be waiting for Uber.
Acclimate to the time and weather in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city. The tour desk at any hotel or hostel can arrange a one-night overnight cruise of Halong Bay for evening three of this journey. Book it on day one before touring Hanoi.
Visit the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, a UNESCO World Heritage Site convenient to other attractions. A brief walk away is the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, where “Uncle Ho’s” preserved body lies in repose in a glass case that can be visited on most mornings. Leave time for food in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where the streets are packed with scooters, vendors, and bikes, bustling among colonial architecture.
A variety of cruise packages for nearby Halong Bay are offered at different prices and with various amenities. Almost all depart Hanoi in the early morning and return at about 4 PM the following day. Depending on the package selected, they may include kayaking, swimming, village tours, drinks, dinner, early-morning yoga and dancing. The tour desk operator at any hotel or hostel will have more information, when booking is completed on day one.
After returning from cruising Halong bay, there are three overnight train options to Da Nang from Hanoi Station. Train SE1 Departs at 7:30 PM, train SE19 departs at 8:10 and train SE3 Departs at 10:00. SE1 and SE3 are the nicest of the three, with refurbished cars. Meal service is available and prices are reasonable, but it doesn’t hurt to make a run to a mini mart prior to boarding.
Trains reach Da Nang Between 11 AM and 1 PM. Uber is not yet available here. Cabs to historic Hoi An are about $15 USD, but for local flavor at a tenth of the price, take yellow bus 01, which runs every 20 minutes until 5:30 PM. To get to the stop, leave the station and walk on the left side of Hoang Hoa Tham Rd. Turn left on Le Duan Rd., and look for the blue bus sign outside of house 299. The ride to Hoi An is about an hour.
Visiting the Ancient town and the Japanese Bridge are tourist favorites, as is the free Hoi An bike tour on weekends (bike rental and ferry crossing not included). Tours to My Son sanctuary, a nearby ancient Hindu Temple, are readily available. Those tired of travel may simply opt to laze on the beach.
On day 7, Take the 01 bus in the reverse direction, and leave Da Nang on the 1:15 SE3 train. It is by far the best option to Ho Chi Minh City.
The SE3 train arrives at 5:20 AM in Ho Chi Minh City, still known colloquially as Saigon. Don’t be bothered by the early hour- the city will be awake and alive. Uber to a preferred hotel or hostel. Though check-in may be impossible, luggage storage is widely available, and from there tours can be booked.
The Saigon Opera House, Bitexco Tower, and Benthanh Street Food Market should not be missed. The best way to see Saigon is on the back of a scooter, and back-of-scooter tours abound. For those less adventurous, river tours and food tours are concurrently available. Vietnam Photo Adventures (Phone: +84 91 323 68 76), combines sightseeing with advice on how to use your professional camera to take better pictures, and is highly recommended.
Saigon has powerful reminders of “the American War” of the 1960s and ’70s. Military history buffs (but not children) may wish to see the War Remnants Museum, a top-down photographic journey through the hell of the Vietnam War. Day trips to the Cu Chi tunnels – a system of underground caverns where the Viet Cong hid during bombings and planned the Tet Offensive – are also popular. There, tourists can learn about booby traps and fire military weapons for about $2 USD per round.
As time in Vietnam winds down, this ten-day itinerary will have covered its major cities and inspired new ideas for continued journeys from the windows of the Reunification Train. With more time, why not visit Nha Trang or Phu Quoc? The country is vibrant and welcoming, and will be happy to see you again.
By Curt Sembello
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