My dad has been my adventure buddy for as long as I can remember. I became a Junior Open Water Scuba diver as soon as I turned 12. My first open water dive happened in the Florida Keys, not long after a hurricane. I remember asking my dad (and dive buddy) if the 5-foot waves and people being sick off the side of the boat was a normal thing in scuba diving. (Thankfully, it’s not.) When we decided to plan a dad/daughter trip, our non-negotiables were adventure and good food. While a few countries were thrown around, we landed on spending 2 weeks in Vietnam. In our attempt to cover Vietnam in two weeks, we knew we needed to employ an expert.
We chose TransOcean Tourist to help us plan our bespoke 14 days in Vietnam. Vu Tran was born and raised in Ho Chi Minh City and moved to Arkansas when he was 14. His experience in both cultures uniquely positioned him to bridge the culture gap – offering first class service at Southeast Asia rates. If you’re planning to visit Vietnam, give Vu a call and tell him I sent you!
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Vietnam itinerary: 2 weeks from North to South
The perfect route for 2 weeks in Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City > Nha Trang > Hanoi > Sapa > Hanoi > Da Nang > Hoi An > Ho Chi Minh City
Day 1: Ho Chi Minh City
Before visiting Vietnam, you’re likely to hear that the food is delicious and the traffic is insane. There are 8.6 million residents of Ho Chi Minh City and up to 8.5 million motorbikes zip through the streets on a daily basis. The thought of crossing the street is daunting and I wouldn’t dream of driving on it. But the bikes aren’t going away and if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Join a Back of the Bike Food Tour
Hop on someone else’s bike to explore Ho Chi Minh City with a Back of the Bike Food Tour. When I took the tour, I was met at my hotel by Tinh, tour guide and expert motorbike driver, and Thien, the fearless photographer, and off we went!
Traverse through Ho Chi Minh City’s districts in search of the most authentic and delicious street food on a Back of the Bike Food Tour.
Eat green mango salad from a woman who’s been making it in that location for 30 years, earning enough money to send her children to school in the US. Try the most amazing dish of noodles, crispy spring rolls, pork shoulder and sausage, made by a woman who’s been doing this for 40 years in front of a private home. The “rent” she pays for the space? Making breakfast for the family each morning.
Don’t forget to try the little shrimp pancakes wrapped in fresh herbs, and a noodle soup with crab. Last, but not least, taste three different desserts and a plate full of exotic fruit. I’d never heard of Vietnamese cherry (which tastes like apple), and loved eating my favorite fruit -soursop- which isn’t easily available in the US.
Tinh and Thien were friendly and knowledgable and I can’t imagine a better way to start a trip to Vietnam.
Day 2: Cu Chi Tunnels
Being an American, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I visited Vietnam. Would the locals carry a grudge against me for my country’s invasion nearly 50 years ago? In my experience with Vietnam, the answer is no. The Vietnamese locals I met are kind and welcoming to the extreme!
I believe the best way to plan for the future is to understand the past, so hop into your chauffeured SUV with your driver/guide and head for the Cu Chi Tunnels. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, just look out the window! Watch as motorbikes swerve past the car, some loaded with products to sell, others carrying a self-sufficient restaurant!
Disabled War Victims Arts and Crafts Factory
Stop along the way for a visit to the Disabled War Victims Arts and Crafts Factory. This factory is staffed by men and women who were affected by Agent Orange, a chemical used to remove leaves during the Vietnam War with devastating effects on the civilians in the area. Watch as egg shells and seashells are cracked and ground into tiny pieces. Then, learn how these ordinary objects are used to create beautiful mosaics. This is a great spot to pick up souvenirs to take home. The products are unique, handmade and it’s a great way to support disabled artists.
This is also a great place to try the first of many Vietnamese coffees. The beans are roasted in butter to achieve a chocolatey flavor and the coffee is mixed with sweetened condensed milk. Between the sugar and the caffeine, you’ll be buzzing all day!
Cu Chi Tunnels
At the Cu Chi Tunnels, what was once a bloody killing ground is now an educational outdoor museum. The network of tunnels were built over a period of 25 years and are most well known as the hideout for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War (or American War if you’re in Vietnam). Your driver/ guide will take you around and explain the method of building the tunnels and camouflaging their entrances and you’ll even see replicas of traps used during the war. It’s a bit unsettling to walk the woods to the sounds of AK-47 and M30 shells being fired at the onsite shooting range, but it lends to the atmosphere and soon you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped back in history. Near the gun range, a woman makes rice paper as a cat lounges at her feet, oblivious to the popping sound of bullets.
Crawl through the claustrophobic tunnels (expanded 2x for tourists) and lower yourself into a sniper hole. It’s a somber experience, but one that is important to experience as an American. I recommend “The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick,” if you’re interested in learning more about the Vietnam War.
Lunch in Ho Chi Minh City
Today’s tour concludes with lunch at a hidden restaurant. Climb several flights of stairs to reach this hole in the wall with authentic cuisine. Once you experience the flavor combinations in Vietnam, you’ll have a hard time going back to “real life” where meals aren’t always a flavor explosion in your mouth.
Enjoy the Five O’Clock Follies at The Rex Hotel’s rooftop bar
Say goodbye to your driver/guide when he drops you off at the hotel for the evening. Continue the Vietnam War era- day at The Rex Hotel. The hotel was the site of the CIA press briefings, nicknamed the Five O’Clock Follies, during the Vietnam War. Today, it offers great views of Ho Chi Minh City Hall Square and fun cocktails and snacks like these spring rolls in a carved pineapple.
Rest up, because tomorrow you’re headed to the Mekong Delta!
Day 3: Mekong Delta
At The Palace Hotel, breakfast is authentically Vietnamese. Sure, your Western tastebuds will find something suitable… but why not branch out and try chicken feet or glutinous rice. Or are you too chicken? After filling your belly, it’s time for a 50-mile drive in a private, chauffered car to the Mekong Delta! While it’s absolutely possible to travel in Vietnam on your own, TransOcean Tourist’s attention to detail meant we didn’t have to worry about a single thing!
Visit the Vĩnh Tràng Pagoda
On arrival into Mỹ Tho, stop at the Vĩnh Tràng Pagoda, the largest temple in Tien Giang Province. This pagoda is a stunning example of East-meets-West, and you’ll notice Renaissance, Roman, Vietnamese and Japanese architecture and patterns melding seamlessly in the pagoda. While you’re here, be sure to check out each of the three Buddhas: Amitabha Buddha, Laughing Buddha and reclining Buddha.
Enjoy a boat ride in the Mekong Delta
After leaving the pagoda, head for the port, where you’ll board a slow boat to Unicorn Island. The boat ride is downwind from a fish sauce factory, and like my cooking instructor in Chiang Mai once told me: it tastes like heaven but smells like hell.
Enjoy a tropical fruit tasting
Once you’re on Unicorn Island (spoiler alert: there are no unicorns on this island), you’ll be treated to a tropical fruit tasting and local music. We even got a rendition of “If you’re happy and you know it.”
Try local honey
Walk through the village to a local bee farm where you can learn all about honey collection and try it in tea with kumquat and bee pollen.
Will you BEE brave enough to hold a frame full of bees?
Enjoy a paddle boat ride
Take a carriage ride through the village and get settled into a row boat for a trip down the river. I am absolutely in awe of the women who paddle up and down the river all day!
The boat ride ends at a shop where you can watch how coconut candy is made and take some home. Don’t ruin your appetite, though! There’s a traditional lunch in store for you soon!
Learn how to make spring rolls
A whole fish arrives at the table and the server teaches you how to construct the perfect spring roll. After a fresh and filling lunch, it’s back to the slow boat and your driver will take you back to Ho Chi Minh City and drop you off at the Palace Hotel.
Have afternoon tea at a 6-star hotel
Just down the street from the Palace Hotel is the 6-star hotel, The Reverie Saigon. For less than $30, you can have afternoon tea on the 6th floor that rivals some of the best afternoon teas I’ve ever had! The treats keep coming, so afternoon tea was a great dinner for us!
Tomorrow’s a travel day, so pack up and get some rest!
Day 4: Ho Chi Minh > Nha Trang
This morning, meet your driver for a trip to the airport. There, you’ll board a flight bound for the island of Nha Trang. Even before your flight lands, you’ll be in awe of the mountains that seem to rise up out of the sea.
As you travel from the airport to your hotel in Nha Trang, you’ll pass dozens of buildings under construction. Someone let the cat out of the bag… and Nha Trang has made its mark on the map. Get there soon before it’s even more overrun with tourists.
Visit Lanterns Restaurant
After dropping your bags at the Green World Hotel, you’ve got a free afternoon! I recommend you make your way to Lanterns Restaurant. It’s owned by an Australian man living in Melbourne, but was created to give back to the Nha Trang community. The food is delicious and reasonably priced, and the restaurant supports local schools and orphanages with its profits.
Stuff yourself with a seafood hotpot ($12 for two people), where you can watch your dinner cook right in front of you. Save room for dessert, though, because the rolled ice cream is a perfectly sweet end to the meal. I recommend the chocolate with fresh mint!
Day 5: Nha Trang
Scuba dive in Nha Trang
Rise and shine! Eat a good breakfast, because it’s time to go scuba diving! Rainbow Divers’ pick up is scheduled for 7am and then it’s straight to the marina with a bus full of excited snorkelers and divers! The crew gives instructions and provides wet suits because the water can be quite chilly! Enjoy one or two dives, where you’ll have the chance to see vibrant pink and green coral, nudibranchs, lion fish, sea urchins and box fish.
Prefer snorkeling to scuba diving? You can snorkel in Nha Trang, too!
Street food tour
After scuba diving, the afternoon is yours to explore! I recommend heading back to Lanterns for a street food tour. I’m an adventurous eater… as long as I know where and what to eat. The staff at Lanterns has put together an incredible tour that will take you through hidden alleyways and to shops inside family homes. Learn all about the local street food and you may even get a chance to try your hand at cooking, too!
Plus, you can feel good about the tour because 100% of the proceeds go to the staff. There are no admin fees, so the staff member is able to invest in their own business and reap the rewards!
Day 6: Nha Trang > Hanoi
This morning, meet your driver for a ride back to the airport where you’ll say goodbye to Nha Trang and board a flight to Hanoi. Upon arrival into Hanoi, you’ll be met by a driver who will transfer you to the Hanoi train station. Are you starting to see just how nice it is to have everything taken care of?
Hanoi water puppet theater
With time to kill before your train departs, you can store your luggage at the train station and head off to explore Hanoi. Water puppet theater is a famous art in Vietnam, and one of the most famous theaters is here in Hanoi!
Pay a visit to the Thăng Long or Lotus Water Puppet Theatre, where you’ll have the opportunity to witness a 1,000 year old art form in motion. Water puppetry originated in flooded rice paddy fields in the villages of the Red River Delta in the 11th century. Today, the performance is held in a pool of water, where up to eight puppeteers control wooden puppets weighing up to 33 pounds. The puppeteers reenact local legends, folklore and historical accounts, set to the sounds of an orchestra playing traditional music. The Vietnamese orchestra employs vocals, percussion, wooden bells, horns, Đàn bầu (a one-stringed stick zither), gongs, and bamboo flutes to tell their stories.
Overnight train to Sapa
Duck into a restaurant for dinner before heading back to the train station. If you’re a late-night snacker, I recommend getting some snacks before boarding the overnight train to Sapa. I was a little nervous about an overnight train and its potential for a lack of sleep. But sign me up for an overnight train any day! The rocking on the tracks lulled me to sleep almost immediately, and being woken up just prior to arrival with hot coffee is something I could get used to!
Day 7: Sapa
Good morning! I hope you slept well, because it’s a big day today! Meet your driver at the Lao Cai station and transfer through the Hoang Lien Son mountains to Sapa. Once you arrive in the adorable mountain village, have breakfast with an incredible view and drop your bags off at the Sapa Charm Hotel. Of our 14 days in Vietnam, this day was my absolute favorite.
Trekking in Sapa
After breakfast, you’ll meet your guide for a trek through the terraced rice fields and incredible scenery that have made this region famous. Our guide is a local whose bubbly attitude and wealth of knowledge made the 7+mile trip seem easy peasy.
Women from the local hill tribes joined us along the path as well. I loved learning about their lives and they were eager to ask me about mine. One Dzay Minority young mother did the whole trek to Ta Van village with a baby on her back and sandals on her feet, offering a hand to us as we slipped and slid through the mud. (If it’s at all muddy, I recommend renting the mud boots to save your shoes. Men, you’re probably on your own here. Most of the shoes are sized for tiny Vietnamese feet, so plan accordingly.) When the women who have joined your group reach their village, they’ll say goodbye, but not before showing off their handmade bracelets and purses. If you enjoyed learning about their lives and spending time with them, this souvenir is a great way to remember the women.
DYE-ing to learn about the indigo plant
Along the way, your guide will point out local plants and you may even get the chance to experience the magic of indigo. I volunteered to show everyone the process and at some point during the 10 minutes of mashing the leaves between my palms, I asked our guide how long this would last. Her response? “*Giggle, giggle, giggle* I’ll tell you when you’re done.” I couldn’t help but sing “I’m blue, da ba dee da ba dye” every time I looked at my hands after the dye set. You’ll remember this trek for days to come, because the answer to my question was three days!
Enjoy lunch with a local family, where you’ll have the chance to observe daily life and get a taste of the culture. After the trek is over, ride in air conditioned luxury back to your hotel for a well-deserved shower and rest.
A warning about outdoor gear
Sapa is full of outdoor shops where Nike and Northface are sold at “too good to be true” prices. And, of course, they are too good to be true. If you’re going to do some shopping here, be sure to thoroughly inspect your item before purchase, lest you end up with a pair of NKIEs. (Not gonna tell you how I know that.)
Dinner at a local restaurant is included tonight, so there’s no thinking necessary on your part… only eating!
Day 8: Sapa > HaNoi
RICE and shine! It’s time for another beautiful day in Sapa!
Visit Cat Cat Village
After breakfast, join a tour group for a walk to the Cat Cat village of the Black H’Mong. The Black H’Mong minority group is the largest ethnic minority group in the region. They first arrived from China around 300 years ago and are best known for making hemp fabric, which they decorate with indigo batiks. I loved watching an artisan use beeswax to decorate a piece of fabric, which would remain unstained when she dipped the fabric into indigo dye. A wash in hot water melted the wax and the fabric was ready for use.
While you’re in the Cat Cat village, watch a traditional dance performance, visit a local family, check out the old, French-commissioned hydro-electric power station and take photos of the stunning waterfall!
Continue your trek up into the mountains, where you can hydrate with sugar cane juice for the trek back to Sapa (or hop in a very affordable taxi). We opted for this choice so we’d have time to shower before catching a ride back to the train station for another overnight journey.
Tuck yourself into your bunk and prepare for a great night’s sleep as you rock back and forth on the train tracks toward Hanoi.
Day 9: Hanoi to Ha Long Bay
Wake up to fresh-brewed coffee as your train pulls into Hanoi. There, a driver will pick you up and take you to the O’Gallery Premier hotel for breakfast. Leave your big bags here, and pack an overnight bag with the essentials for Ha Long Bay. (In your minimalist state, don’t forget extra camera batteries and chargers… you’re going to want plenty of photographs here!)
Cruise on Ha Long Bay
Hop into a shuttle bus for a trip through the countryside toward Ha Long Bay. Board the Pelican cruise and prepare for luxury as you cruise past some of the nearly 2,000 limestone islets jutting out of the emerald water.
The secret’s definitely out about Ha Long Bay, and despite the overwhelming amount of tourists, there’s a surprising sense of serenity all around. Onboard the boat, you can participate in cooking demonstrations, watch a movie or go fishing. Or, take an excursion to a floating pearl farm and kayak around the limestone karsts, getting a true feel for just how magnificent they are. Another excursion offers the opportunity to hike to the top of Titov Peak and cool off with a swim afterwards.
Dinner is a lively occasion, and offers a few special surprises along with fresh, local food. After today’s activities, you’ll be asleep in no time!
Day 10: Ha Long Bay > Ha Noi
Ha Long did you sleep last night? If you’re an early riser, join a Tai Chi lesson on the sundeck to start your day off right!
Have a light breakfast before setting off for more explorations! A small entrance belies the magnificent grotto that’s earned the name “The Surprise Cave.” Be sure to stop by the lucky turtle rock formation. Some believe that leaving a donation here ensures luck and longevity.
After visiting the cave, it’s time to eat second breakfast and say goodbye to the friendly crew. On the shuttle ride back to Hanoi, you can expect a stop in the Hai Duong province to visit a ceramics workshop and stretch your legs a bit.
On arrival at the O’Gallery Premier, sit and relax with a welcome drink and welcome candy! Now THAT’s a great welcome! The special treatment doesn’t stop there… rose petals on the bed add an extra touch of luxury!
This evening, you’ve got free time to go explore Hanoi. This town is full of hidden gems, so your biggest issue will be what to choose!
Visit the famous Train Street in Hanoi
I recommend visiting the famous Train Street, where a full-sized train comes through a narrow residential neighborhood. Hanging laundry is folded away and life is pushed to the sides of the street. At the time of my visit, you could see the train pass on the weekends at 8:45am, 9:17am, 11:25am, 3:20pm, 5:30pm, 6:15pm, 7:10pm or 9:10pm and on the weekdays at 6:00am, 6:15am, 7:10pm and 9:10pm. If you arrive early, you can grab a seat at the Railway Homestay and Coffee to watch the train go by.
Now, you’ve got a couple options: Food legend or fun fad?
Eat noodles like Anthony Bourdain and Obama
Anthony Bourdain and President Barack Obama enjoyed noodles and beer at Bún chả Hương Liên. You’ll know you’re in the right location when you see the enshrined table where the two men shared a meal. In Parts Unknown, Bourdain talked about what it was like to share a meal with the President: “He seemed to enjoy himself sitting on a low plastic stool eating noodles and pork bits with chopsticks.”
Dress up at the Unicorn Kafe
If you’re a little less presidential and a little more unicorn princess (or prince), the Unicorn Kafe is a great choice! Here, you can dress up in unicorn onesies and order rainbow-themed, sugary treats. I love visiting unicorn cafes around the world, so this was the obvious choice!
Whether you’ve chosen food coma or sugar coma, you’re sure to sleep well tonight!
Day 11: Ha Noi – Da Nang
Good morning, Vietnam! There’s no time to sleep in because you’ve got one more quintessentially Hanoi experience to tick off your bucket list before heading to the airport! Type Giảng Cafe into Google Maps, and set off in search of their famous egg coffee (cà phê trứng). Be sure you’re walking into the right building (#39) as some of the neighboring establishments attempt to draw in tourists. Order a traditional egg coffee, or go crazy and order the egg with chocolate. The traditional egg coffee is made by beating an egg yolk with sweetened condensed milk until it’s fluffy. Then, hot or cold coffee is poured over the mixture. It’s a decadent treat, and a perfect, sweet goodbye to the capital city.
Back at the hotel, your driver will take you to the airport to catch a flight to Da Nang. Once you’ve dropped off your bags at the Brilliant Hotel, the rest of the day is yours to explore. I loved discovering the foodie side of the city with coconut coffee, street food and chè. (A word of warning: stay away from the durian chè unless you know what you’re getting into! I’ve tried it a few times now… and I still haven’t acquired that taste!)
Check out the Dragon Bridge
If you’re lucky to be in Da Nang on a weekend, head for the rooftop bar of your hotel this evening to watch the Dragon Bridge light up and spit fire. It’s a quick display at 9pm, though, so have your camera ready!
Day 12: Da Nang – Hoi An
So far, you’ve seen a lot of natural beauty on this trip, now it’s time for cultural and historical beauty. Today, your driver will take you 45 minutes south to visit the charming city of Hoi An. The Ancient Town is quaint and well-preserved and a guided walk through the town will give you a glimpse into the lives of residents past and present.
Visit a silk factory, where you’ll see the entire process- from worm to weave. You can have high-quality clothing tailor-made for you for a fraction of the price elsewhere, which will be delivered to your hotel before your departure.
On your tour, visit the town’s Ancient Houses, the Japanese covered bridge and a performance of traditional music and dance. The performance ends with a round of “bai choi,” which is similar to Bingo.
After your tour, it’s check in time at Hoi An Waterway Resort. And while it’s tempting to stay at the pool all day, the town is yours to explore! I recommend heading back into town just before nightfall for dinner. The Old Town comes alive with tourists and paper lanterns. To observe, but avoid the crowds, get a table at a restaurant along the river with outdoor seating for a great view!
Day 13: Cham Island
Put on your swimsuit this morning… it’s another water day! Your driver will pick you up from the resort and transfer you to the Cua Dai harbor to catch your boat to the Chàm Islands. The water is crystal clear and full of colorful coral and fish, so put on your mask, fins and snorkel and jump in!
After your fun in the water is through, head for the beach, where you’ll enjoy a lunch of fresh seafood and time to get your tan on before heading back to Hoi An.
One of the famous foods of Hoi An is the white rose dumpling. The recipe for these shrimp or pork-filled dumplings folded to look like a rose is a secret. Tran Tuan Ngai is a third-generation secret keeper and fulfills the orders for all restaurants serving this specialty in Hoi An. Want to go to the original? Go to the aptly named White Rose Restaurant at 533 Hai Ba Trung Street.
Day 14: Hoi An > Da Nang > Ho Chi Minh City
The trip is coming to an end, and you deserve some time to relax! Book a massage at the resort or hang out by the pool, or head back into the Ancient Town for your last chance to buy souvenirs.
This afternoon, your driver will pick you up and take you to the airport in Da Nang for a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. From there, it’s time to say goodbye to this incredible country. One year later, I’m still telling stories about the overwhelming kindness of the Vietnamese people, missing the flavorful food, and stunning scenery.
I have just one question for you … Ha Long are you gonna wait before you book your trip to Vietnam?!
If you’re interested in using a travel agency like my dad and I did, I cannot recommend TransOcean Tourist highly enough. I don’t get to sit back and just enjoy the trip often, but the bespoke experiences and careful planning offered a true holiday experience. Whether you’re a family traveling to Vietnam or just want the help of a local to put together the best possible 14 days in Vietnam, Vu at TransOcean Tourist is your man! Be sure to tell him I sent you!
Note: TransOcean Tourist sponsored this post. All opinions are my own and I wouldn’t recommend them to you if I didn’t have an incredible time! TransOcean Tourist greatly enriched my time in Vietnam and I know they’ll provide excellent service for you, too!
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