Advice on first time Vietnam Itinerary

Feb 27th, 2012, 03:33 AM
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Advice on first time Vietnam Itinerary

To all my trusty Fodorites, well you have helped me with my trips through Brittany, Eastern Europe and Japan so now it is time for Vietnam.

My husband and I are intending to go to Vietnam for the first time in May, with probably 14 days, excluding travelling to and from. I know that a bit earlier would be better weather wise but May is the earliest we could go.

We are in our mid-50's, are not interested in lying on the beach all day, love Vietnamese food and do not intend to rush around and see as much as we can in two weeks. We would prefer to go to fewer places and have the time to get to know them. Strolling around the little lanes, alleyways, visiting something cultural, seeing the old areas of the towns, having a coffee and watching the world go by is more our thing. I definitely want to do one, possibly two, cooking classes at some point in the trip.

I am thinking of four nights in Hanoi, a one or two night cruise on Halong Bay, fly to Danang and have four nights at both Hue and Hoi An. From there it would be fly back to Australia.

I love the idea of going to Sapa but feel that is just making things rather rushed if we fit that in as well and as it is starting to move into the wet season, it may not be very pleasant. Also my arthritic knees wouldn't be able to cope with any serious trekking. I can manage going uphill, slowly as I not particularly fit, but coming downhill is a killer on my knees.

I'm leaving Saigon out altogether in the expectation that one day we can fit that in with a trip to Angkor Wat.

Questions include -

1. Is 4 nights in Hanoi too long. It seems to be longer than most people spend there but is that because they want to keep on the move or there isn't enough to see/do there to warrant the 4 nights. In Hanoi I would be looking at booking one of the Hanoi Elegance Group hotels.

2. In terms of the cruise in Halong Bay, logistically would it be better to do it on , say night 3 (and possibly 4 ) and then return to Hanoi for a couple of more nights. I am concerned that going to Halong Bay at the end of the Hanoi section, returning there and then immediately flying down to Danang will prove rather messy.

I would also welcome your thoughts on a one night versus two night cruise. The one night really works out to only be 24 hours. For those who have done it did you wish you had booked a second night or, conversely, those who have done the two nights thought they would have been just as happy with one night? I have read a plethora of reviews on which boat to get but haven't given serious consideration to which boat yet so recommendations won't go amiss either.

3. Should we give Hoi An and Hue equal time. From what I have read, in some respects, it seems that the two towns are rather similar in style and feel so perhaps it should only be 3 mights in each. Am I wrong in thinking this, are they quite different?

For accommodation I am thinking of the Life Heritage Resort for Hoi An and La Residendce in Hue. As mentioned before, we are not interested in a resort which is beach side. We would rather be in town.

Any recommendations for day trips from Hanoi, Hue and Hoi An are welcome but need to map out how much time in each place first.
shandy is offline  
Feb 27th, 2012, 04:39 AM
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Good choice! Easy traveling and good food.

1. No, if anything Hanoi deserves more than four days, not less. Don't short change your time there.

2. I thought one night was enough for Halong Bay, especially if you're not planing to kayak.

3. Four days each is way too long for both Hue and Hoi An. Especially Hoi An, unless you're a shopper. BTW, are you counting nights or full days? I.e. is your four days five nights? Personally, one full day would be enough for me for Hoi An, and I'd spend the early morning at My Son, not in town. You could easily do Hue in two full days, so you could do one and two, or two and two, or two and three. Also, try to see the Champa museum on your way through Danang.

4. Don't write off Sapa because of your knees. The markets are interesting and flat, the mountains are beautiful when visible, and the trekking I did was not demanding. Getting round town might be your biggest challenge as it's not flat. The worst part was the night train, I'm a big train fan, but that was almost my worst night train, even in the "tourist" section.

5. I much prefer Hanoi to Saigon, but if you cut back on Hue and Hoi An, and don't want to do Sapa, you have time for Saigon. Even if you fly from Hanoi, consider going overland further south.
thursdaysd is offline  
Feb 27th, 2012, 05:25 AM
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We are at the end of a three and helf week trip to VN.
We did five nights in Hanoi and didn't think it was too much. We did four nights and then went to Halong Bay and came back for a final evening/night. We were on Dragon Pearl III and it was very nice

We did not have good weather in Halong Bay so one night was plenty. I am not a beach person, but I think if the weather is nice two nights in Halong might be really nice. first it would be an escape from the heat.

we stayed at Elegance Diamond in Hanoi and liked it. If u can, stay in a Jr. Suite as the room is nicer. as we walked around town we kept running across other Elegance hotels including their newest Elegance Essense and liked the Diamond the best.

Hoi An and Hue r very different. We spent three nights in each town. Hoi An is cute and I enjoyed walking the streets and sitting in the cafes. not a shopper but enjoyed window shopping. really good food. We stayed in town and went out to the beach just to,check it out. we could have cut a day from Hue. we did a full day with Hue Riders and felt we saw all we wanted to c in that day. It was 95 our thrid day and not coducive to wander around. we didn't stay at La Residence but did go out there and had dinner. fabulous deco hotel. Try to get a room with a river view. we went to My Son and it was ok. It's an ok 3-4 hour trip.

We only had a few hours in Sapa in the sun. It is a charming town. we did some walking to,villages in the surrounding areas and it was steep, but can't speak to the villages u can go to from Sapa. agree that the train trip was awful.

I was surprised to like Saigon. It's very different from Hanoi and a nice city with wide boulevards and French colonial bldgs . Lots of new modern buildings too.
yestravel is offline  
Feb 27th, 2012, 06:28 AM
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I loved Halong Bay. We only had 1 night there (on Dragon Pearl 1)and definitely would have opted for another night had we been able to, mainly just to relax on the boat, enjoy more conversations with fellow passengers, kayak some more, and soak in the beautiful scenery. The weather was perfect (sunny and warm), so that made it really nice--in bad weather one night would be enough, I think. We went directly from Halong Bay to Hanoi Airport to catch our flight to Danang. Had some wait time but it was tolerable.

As yes says, Hue and Hoian are not similar in style, though both are situated on a river. Hue has the Citadel and the emperors' tombs a little outside the city--interesting, serene places. Hoian is a commercial beehive. We enjoyed our stay at the Hoian Hotel, a short walk to the main tourist section with its restaurants and shops. I agree with thursdaysd--a couple of days in each would probably be enough. Seeing Son La out of Hoian will take a morning and is worthwhile. We also enjoyed our hour at the Champa museum on the drive from Hue to Hoian.

If you take the days from Hue and Hoian, you should consider at least an overnight in Mai Chau, just a couple of hours from Hanoi. The villages sit right on the edge of beautiful rice fields, and many of the households do weaving in their spare time. You can do a homestay in a stilt house--very organized, geared to tourists, meals included--a fun experience.
aprillilacs is offline  
Feb 27th, 2012, 06:41 AM
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Yes, loved Mai Chau! U can walk to villages and it is flat. Lovely area and wondeful people. We stayed at Mai Chau Lodge which was nice.

also thought the champa musuem was quite interesting. Surprisingly even liked Marble Mountain with its beautiful views. We had the place practically to ourselves so that may have helped. We pretty much ignored all the goings on at the bottom.
yestravel is offline  
Feb 27th, 2012, 06:50 AM
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We spent 3 1/2 weeks in vn in may and it was extremely hot. You will need to take things slowly and be prepared to nap or rest mid day. That being said, like you, it was the only time we could go and we did not regret it.

We spent 5 days in Hanoi and loved it. I think 4 days will be fine. We did a 2 night cruise on Halong bay and while we loved it, we didn't really think that the 2nd day added to our experience. It was extremely hot even on the water and we had difficulty finding relief from the heat.

We absolutely loved sapa and loved the fact that it was much cooler and comfortable in the mountains. I also have bad knees and found easy hikes that were not too difficult. The train was noisy but we managed to get a private first class cabin which we got through Tonkin and we managed to sleep.
Sapa was a major highlight for us. If you can manage to be there over the weekend, either arriving or returning on a Sunday, you should go to the bac ha market.

We spent 3 days in hoi an, but 2 would be sufficient. The town can be seen in one day. Hue sites can also be seen in 2 days. Both are very different and we loved each. II would not be adverse to spending 3 days in each location, but I think I would prefer the time added to sapa.

Saigon was my least favorite destination and I agree that you can save it to be paired up with a trip to Cambodia. Whatever you do though, you will love vn. We stayed in an elegance hotel and I can't speak highly enough about the hotel and it's staff. Enjoy your trip and I look forward to your trip report when you return.
dgunbug is offline  
Feb 27th, 2012, 09:28 AM
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We spent a week in Hanoi (with just one full day out of town) and found plenty to keep us busy. So four days is certainly not too much!
Kathie is offline  
Feb 27th, 2012, 10:24 AM
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La Residence in Hues is a great hotel. A little way out of the centre of town but still one of my favourite hotels in Asia. All very Art deco and French Colonial - the river view rooms are excellent

How much time to devote to Hoi An and Hue is largely down to your likes and dislikes - Hoi An is very quaint and picturesque (on of the most photogenic towns in Vietnam (at least it would be if it wasn't for all the tourists!). Hue is lest pretty but more authentic Vietnam with great food and lots of history and monuments.

Sapa is not worth the trip if you are not trekking. As others have suggested, Mai Chau is a much better, flatter, alternative and is much closer to Hanoi.

Hanoi itself is worth at least a week IMHO so 4 days is not too much.

I am not keen on Ha long bay - way to over commercialised these days - Bai Tu Long islands a little way to the east is every bit as spectacular and the waters far less crowded. I think there is a company called Red Dragon that does upmarket cruises there.
crellston is offline  
Feb 27th, 2012, 10:39 AM
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i think the trip as you have laid it out would be fine... hanoi is fabulous and i would return there for a 3rd time easily... we also loved hoi an.. totally different, more modern in many ways but with vn charm...

we stayed all nights in 3* vietamese owned hotels and really liked them...
rhkkmk is offline  
Feb 27th, 2012, 02:32 PM
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Lots of choices. We just finished a 5 week trip to the region. Four days in Hanoi would be too long for me. We stayed there many nights but only as a jumping off spot for other journeys. Halong Bay was great, but one night is likely enough if you have good weather. The Dragon Pearl or any of its fleet are great. They go to quiet less touristy places and their food is GREAT. I would prefer Ho An to Hue. and opt for more time in Hoi An. If you do go to Hue eat at the Saignon Morin and tell the waiters you want to try a hotpot and/or the rice crepes in the very small dishes. If they know you like food and want to experiment they will hepl and have fin doing it. In Hoi An the seafood platter at the Heritage Life Resort is very good.

You can see our blog at (click on Older Posts to seel it all). THe Meking Delta can be seen in two days and was a highlight. Sapa was very interesting but if you have weak knees avoid the hikes. It is two nights round trip on a train and probably not worth it for a short trip.

TravelsMonicaJoe is offline  
Feb 27th, 2012, 06:42 PM
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I'd also support Mai Chau. You can walk to nearby villages but its flat as opposed to Sapa. I don't think 4 days in Hanoi is too long.
silverwool is offline  
Feb 27th, 2012, 10:44 PM
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Thank you so much for your responses. Any further suggestions are eagerly awaited.

I wasn't even aware of Mai Chau and this sounds like exactly what I want, so am definitely intending to shorten the Hoi An/Hue section of the trip and do at least one night at Mai Chau instead. I love the idea of staying in one of the stilt houses. From the pictures it looks very similar to the set up in the Japanese minshukus. However, I will have to convince my husband. He would rather go 5 star if given half a chance.

In relation to Halong Bay I certainly had my eye on Red Dragon tours as going to the less touristy areas of the bay. I will also check out Dragon Pearl as well. I have pretty well decided to go with just one night on the boat.
shandy is offline  
Feb 28th, 2012, 12:03 AM
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A home stay in Mai Chau is great fun and a great way to meet the people but they are relatively basic and not really up to the standard of Minshukus in Japan. Most have shared facilities (our was spotless) and the "beds" are usually either a foam mattress on the floor or a pile of quilts. The food was excellent as was the hospitality - we were invited to a party which had been laid on for a party of political science students from Hanoi Uni. Much singing, dancing and drinking of rice wine (still rates as one of my top experiences in Asia!). Walking out along the valley through the villages in the early morning was magical.

A few photos on our blog:

If your husband would like 5* comforts then is an option. Personally I would go for the homestay.
crellston is offline  
Feb 28th, 2012, 06:28 AM
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Mai Chau lodge is defintiely not a five star lodging...nice and Comfortable place but not five star.

I believe Red Dragon and Dragon Pearl junks are from the same company and go to the same area. Dragon Pearl III is about a year and half old and has 11 cabins. It was fun being with a group of people for the two days. Red Dragon is smaller and accommodates less people.
yestravel is offline  
Feb 28th, 2012, 11:01 AM
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Mai Chau lodge looks like a lovely place to stay, and it would put you allow you to visit the villages and rice fields while staying in comfort. But I think you would be missing out on one of the neatest parts of a Mai Chau trip if you forgo the home stay. The stilt house we stayed in was very clean and the hosts were very accommodating. They cater to tourists, so although the sleeping arrangements are basic (we slept on thickly padded mattreses on the floor of the stilt house, under mosquito nets), they were quite comfortable. The bathroom facilities are also basic but we had flush toilets and a simple shower. The owners provided tasty meals with local ingredients, as well as evening entertainment (local dancers). I hope you can convince your husband to give it a try. Not much to lose--you can stay in a nice hotel almost anywhere in Vietnam (and the rest of the world), but how often are you going to stay in an ethnic stilt house? It was a highlight of our trip.
aprillilacs is offline  
Feb 28th, 2012, 11:30 AM
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Just remember that it will be very hot in may. Do the homestays include air conditioned accommodations? In this same light, we went on the Paloma junk on Halong bay and while it was terrific, the only air conditioned areas were the cabins. Be sure that the boat you decide on has air conditioning in the common areas (dining room).
dgunbug is offline  
Feb 28th, 2012, 02:08 PM
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1. No. 4 days is fine. More would be better, IMO.

2. We found 1 night on the boat to be sufficient, but we did enjoy the experience a lot.

3. I don't know.

We have a Hanoi/HaLong Bay trip report that might help. Just click on my name if you'd like to find it.
mr_go is offline  
Feb 29th, 2012, 07:58 AM
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My husband and I did a similar two weeks trip to Vietnam last December.
1.I think 2-3 days in Hanoi is fine if you go on a more relaxed way.
2. We did the one night-two day cruise on board the Red Dragon Junk. Great experience, excellent service and fantastic food. Driving from Hanoi to Ha Long to get the junk is tiring as you do 170km for a bit over 4 hours (!), and that was via a private car with a driver. We thought driving this way (instead of the tour bus) would be faster, but it was not. If you decide to drive from HaLong to Hanoi and then fly to Danang same day you will be exhausted. We are in mid 40's and if we had done the cruise in one day we would not have enjoyed it at all.

3. We did both, Hue and Hoi An for three nights each. Hue was nice and historically very interesting but weather was not on our side. I think one and half days (Ok maybe two) is enough to visit the forbidden city, the pagoda and two of the most impressive tombs. We stayed at La Residence (see my review at Trip Advisor under SophiaK). Hoi An is a great place to walk around, visit the market, do some excellent shopping and generally sit, gaze at the crowds and enjoy maybe the best food in Vietnam. I did a cooking class at Ms. Vy's Morning Glory Restaurant and was absolutely excellent. We also stayed at the Life Resort Hotel (also see review).
scousoula is offline  
Feb 29th, 2012, 09:23 AM
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We had 4 full days in Hanoi and even though we loved Hanoi, we felt that was enough, and for a first "survey" trip, even 3 would have been fine.


We were in Hue for 2 nights, which translated to 1-1/2 days, of which one full day (8+ hours) was spent touring with Hue Riders (on the back of a motorcycle -- great fun), also at La Residence (a really lovely place). We were able to see all the sights in that time -- as the last poster said, the Forbidden City, two of the tombs/summer palaces, the working monastery (which was one of our favorite things to see in all of VN) and the Perfume Pagoda, as well as a drive out to the countryside to the Japanese bridge and the "rice museum".

Then we were in HoiAn for 3 nights, and were supposed to have 3 full days. HoiAn is a charming city, with fun shopping, people-watching, great restaurants, a few sights, but mostly just a fun place to 'be'. We spent our days at the pool/beach and didn't go into town until late each afternoon. We ended up cutting our visit short because on the last day it was storming (we had had perfect beach weather up to then) so we changed our flight and went to HCMC earlier than planned. I think two days in HoiAn is perfect, especialy if you're not there for the beach.
sf7307 is offline  
Feb 29th, 2012, 01:26 PM
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We've travelled extensively worldwide as independent travelers, and it was with trepidation that we signed up to do Vietnam with Overseas Adventure Travel. We did their Vietnam trip plus a post-trip extension to Cambodia (mainly Angkor). My advice to you is that you can't even begin to touch the experiences that we had by being an independent traveler. The food was awesome; the hotels were great; the people we met and spent time with were priceless. Sign up now, and hope that you get Vu as your Vietnamese trip leader.
clairewilson is offline  

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