Vietnam enlivens the spirit and overloads the senses. One week is not nearly enough, and many visitors faced with seven days often feel they have to choose between the north and the south. However, between the climate, the culture and their respective views on history, there are some excellent reasons to visit both areas. One week is enough to skim across the country and summarize the major points, and it’s definitely enough to start planning a return trip.
Day 1: Coconut monks and low-speed chases in Ho Chi Minh City
There’s no time to waste on your first day in Vietnam. Wake up at 5am, grab a condensed milk-soaked iced coffee and hire a boat to head down the Mekong. Get off at the pagoda off Phoenix Island, where the Coconut Monk, a French-educated engineer and founder of the Coconut religion named Nguyễn Thành Nam, lived and supposedly subsisted solely on coconuts after a failed bid for President of South Vietnam and a thwarted attempted to bike to Hanoi in the name of peace. At its height, the religion, which was based upon Buddhist and Christian beliefs, had around 4,000 followers. Lucky visitors may see a nonagenarian disciple happy to chatter in Vietnamese and share photos about her history with the religion. Other nearby islands feature a crocodile farm and canoe rides down narrow canals.
In the evening, hop on the back of a motorbike and experience the low-speed chase that is HCMC traffic. Many of the main tourist spots are quite close to each other, including the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Saigon Central Post Office, War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace. Although intimidating, crossing the street in Saigon has two simple rules: Don’t stop, and don’t run. This delicate dance has the motorbikes taking the lead. Trust them to go around you.
Day 2: Bike the city in Hue
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hue will please history buffs, foodies and those simply looking for some R&R. Hue is located roughly in the center of the country along the Perfume River. Once the former religious, cultural and political capital, Hue is an exceptionally well-preserved example of feudal city zoning. Walk and ride through the four citadels, several pagodas, the tombs of the Nguyen dynasty and the ruins and foundations of the Forbidden Purple City. In between, go vegetarian for the day and test spicy dishes at the plethora of veggie restaurants in town. For those more interested in recent history, it’s easy to go on a day trip to several war sites at the nearby Demilitarized Zone.
The fastest and easiest way to reach Hue from Ho Chi Minh City is to fly, as internal flights in Vietnam are relatively inexpensive and readily available.
Day 3: Relax on the beaches near Da Nang
After all that sightseeing in Hue, spend a day relaxing near Da Nang on Vietnam’s most beautiful beaches. This area is rapidly being developed by resorts, but the beaches still maintain a quiet, serene atmosphere perfect for doing nothing. Lush emerald forests bleed into the azure water at Lang Co Beach, which is about 70 km south of Hue. Non Nuoc beach is great for surfing and sits at the foot of the steep Marble Mountains, which visitors can climb for spectacular, unspoiled views – go early to beat the tour groups. Son Tra Peninsula, just minutes away from Da Nang, is a national park home to several endangered species and boasts excellent coral reefs where visitors can snorkel.
Day 4: Experience a cultural melting pot in Hoi An
Once a bustling port town, Hoi An grew rich from the spice trade during the 7th-10th centuries. Ancient Town preserves the various Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Dutch architectural influences during its 15th-19th century economic boom. Two local museums focus on ceramics from the Middle East, South Asia and other locales dating from the 8th-18th centuries, exposing just how important Hoi An was in its heyday. Tourism has once again brought in a steady flow of money, and Hoi An is now one of Vietnam’s wealthiest cities. Even with the stream of tourists, Hoi An is absolutely worth the visit, as heavy traffic and pollution have yet to reach this nirvana. Spend the morning wandering around the various temples and Japanese covered bridge before hitching a ride on a motorbike through the back roads. End the day with a foot massage and facial.
Days 5-6: The past comes alive in Hanoi
Two days is a short time in Hanoi, but the Old Quarter is a prime place to stay, as most of the sights are within walking distance. The Temple of Literature (only a few years younger than the millennium-old city) is near a much newer but no less commanding sight: The Hanoi Hilton. Obviously, many sites focus around Ho Chi Minh, including his stilt house on the Presidential Palace ground, his namesake museum, and the mausoleum of Uncle Ho himself.
The next day, take it easy with a morning walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, and then proceed to eat and drink your way through the city. Cha ca (fish sautéed with dill and turmeric and served over vermicelli) and nam cua be (eggrolls stuffed with crabmeat) are excellent choices. In between food binges, take a seat on the low stools on nearly every corner and people-watch while sipping a bia hoy. Catch a performance of the renowned Thang Long Water Puppet show in the evening and cap off the night at one of the many jazz bars that have popped up in town recently.
Day 7: A peaceful last day in Tam Coc
Finish off the whirlwind tour with a peaceful trip to Tam Coc, which means “three caves.” This little slice of heaven is home to one of Vietnam’s most spectacular landscapes. A day here includes curving down the Ngo Dong River, lulled into tranquility by the quiet beat of the waves against the rowboat. Rice paddies run from the river straight to the base of the soaring karst mountains. The boat ride includes a tranquil sail through three caves, the largest of which is 125 meters long.