My desire to visit Vietnam was ignited the first time I glimpsed a photograph of Halong Bay. It countered the image of Vietnam I had conjured in my head; the one where chaotic streets are overcrowded with motorbikes and stifled with pollution. The picture of Halong Bay showed a different scene entirely – one of tree-covered karst mountains rising from an azure sea. I was intent on traveling to Vietnam just to see Halong Bay with my own eyes. I didn’t know it then, but my expectations would be surpassed when we actually experienced the UNESCO World Heritage site on a 2-night Halong Bay cruise.
Vietnam ranks as one of the most fascinating countries we have ever visited. For a country half the size of Texas, it packs a punch with buzzing cities, natural wonders, historic temples, mountain retreats and beach island getaways. If you are limited on time, but intent on getting a sweeping view of Vietnam, our 2-week Vietnam Itinerary is for you.
Our 2-week Vietnam Itinerary swiftly moves through the country from north to south. It starts in the lively city of Hanoi, then sets sail on Halong Bay before heading south to the historic city of Hoi An. Next, escape to the mountains with a stop in Dalat and end your time in Vietnam relaxing seaside on Phu Quoc Island.
Sticking to our budget is key for traveling long term, so we’ve limited ourselves to an average of $100 per day for accommodation, food, drinks, public transportation and any miscellaneous costs that pop up (and they always do). The only thing that takes precedence over the budget is whether or not we’re enjoying the journey. After compiling our Southeast Asia travel budget report, we can report that we are excelling in both categories.
After our lengthy stay in New Zealand and Australia, we pushed our daily average above our target, but two months in Southeast Asia put it right back on track. In 62 days, we visited Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand and came out on the budget just slightly higher than we anticipated (clearly a trend), but not even close to our $100 per day allowance.
Vietnam, as a country, is affordable. At least more affordable than any other country we have traveled to so far on our journey. We weren’t sure what to budget for Phu Quoc, Vietnam – an island off the southern tip of the country. We were pleased to find it wasn’t only affordable, but offered luxuries we haven’t been able to indulge in recently…and we took advantage that we could afford them now.
Budget for Phu Quoc, Vietnam: Beachfront Accommodations
The island has endured a boom of sorts in recent years with resorts popping up on the entire two-mile stretch of Long Beach, the beach closest to the largest town on the island. ‘Resort’ is a multifaceted word in Vietnam and seems to include anything from aging guesthouses to brand-new sprawling properties and prices to match.
“What’s that noise?” I ask Kris. “Nothing,” he tells me. Nothing but the gentle waves rolling onto the beach just outside our front door and the occasional fishing boat chugging by. Those are the only pre-dawn noises we heard on Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam.
We feel like we’ve raced through Vietnam, but are thankful we booked a relaxing week beachside where we are back to making simple decisions like, “Should we walk north or south on the beach today?” We eat our meals with our feet in the sand, bob in the water when we get too hot, sway in the hammock in the late afternoons, watch incredible sunsets steps from our bungalow and stretch out on beach chairs to gaze at the stars.
When we chose a four-day stopover in Dalat as part of our three-week journey through Vietnam, we did it based on a single reason: the promise of cool, mountain weather. We didn’t care about the sights or tours or food, we just wanted to escape the heat. We endured a typical mountain rainstorm on the way from the airport to the town and by the time we arrived at our hotel, the temperatures had dropped to the point we were actually chilly. I have never been happier slipping on a jacket. With the cooler weather, we were looking forward to sightseeing in Dalat, Vietnam.
The next stop on our tour of Vietnam’s Central Highlands was visiting a Vietnam village; the one our guide grew up in. We turned off the main road and bounced and bumped our way along the narrow path until simple, shack homes came into view. We made a few more turns and wove our way deeper into the village. In the small space between the front of the houses and the dirt road only wide enough for one car, women chatted while small children played, but there were no men or older kids around. Pigs, roosters and geese roamed free, traveling in herds and squawking.
When the first stop while touring Vietnam’s Central Highlands was at a ‘cricket farm’ for a taste of the fried critters, it clearly set the tone for the day. As promised, this was not going to be like any other tour in Vietnam.
Our day was filled with Vietnam life rather than sites and we met no other tourists along the way as we were led by a local man through small-town markets and the village he grew up in in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Set up through our hotel as more of an experience than a tour, our small group of seven people set off bright and early for an adventure with only a vague itinerary (“You will see a waterfall and a village.”) and promises of a unique journey into real-life Vietnam that most tourists never see.
Just off the coast of Hoi An, Vietnam are the Cham Islands, which are made up of eight islands. Only the largest, Hon Lao, is inhabited with people. Motorboats race tourists across the nine miles of choppy water for a day trip to the Cham Islands. The itinerary included a quick look around the town, snorkeling, lunch and swimming.
Day trip to the Cham Islands: Hon Lao
On our day trip to the Cham Islands, we took the seats in the front of the boat for the view and got a wild, exhilarating, bumpy ride as a result. From the main harbor, we walked through the closely built houses of the fishing village, much of which now caters to tourists rather than fishing. Resources are scarce on the island; drinking water comes from a well in the center of town and generators are the primary source of electricity.
Hoi An sits pretty on a lazy river full of fishing boats; historic, fading yellow houses with red-tiled rooftops line the streets of the UNESCO World Heritage city, which is quite the contrast from buzzing Hanoi. Motorbikes still zip through the lanes, but not nearly as many and the vibe is much calmer, overall. These are our first impressions of Hoi An, Vietnam.
First impressions of Hoi An, Vietnam: Shopping
Unlike Hanoi, where we were mostly ignored by locals who were busy doing business, in Hoi An, tourists are the business. “Madam, buy from me;” “Lady, look in my shop. I have all colors, all sizes;” “What you looking for, Miss? I have everything, I show you.”