Exotic, Otherworldly Vietnam vacation itinerary

Day 0: Odds are, you are in San Francisco, waiting to board a 747 bound for either Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, or Bangkok. From there you will connect to Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport. Take this opportunity to intake some choice American food and possibly a strong beer or two; it’ll be the last chance to have a taste of home for a while. I recommend pizza.

Day 1 -airport: After an average of about 20 hours spent in the air plus waiting for connections, you will finally be in Saigon. Traverse the immigration stations with their grim faced guards scrutinizing your passport with quiet calm, there should be no trouble as long as your visa is in order. No bribes needed for these guys nor for customs anymore.

The airport will be curiously devoid of people save for recently arrived passengers and employees. Be prepared for chaos at baggage claim, where the Vietnamese crowd around, push and shove, and try to lift in vain overly-large suitcases meant for a forklift. Be patient, grab your bags, then head for customs. Baggage carts are free, make use of one. Declare nothing, and zip through the x-ray machine.

Upon your exit from the airport, you’ll discover 2 things: heat & humidity. It will hit you like a belly flop. Oh, and also you’ll find out where all the people are. A sea of humanity stretches out before you -friends and family of arriving travelers are not allowed in the airport, and so they crowd around the door. You may be struck with a pretty major impression that you aren’t in Kansas anymore; you are in a different land, another world, an alternate dimension. But, this is the reason why you are here, it is so exotic a place that all the senses are aroused.

Day 1 -Saigon: dive into that sea of humanity and feel like Moses as you part the crowds with your luggage cart. Like fish swimming up from the depths, hawkers will immediately set upon you offering cigarettes, water, taxis. Take a taxi guy up on his offer and ask to be taken to the Rex Hotel, where you have reservations. It’s your first day, let’s ease into the place. The Rex Hotel is located in District 1, 7 km from the airport. It is the heart of downtown Saigon, close to shopping and historical landmarks. Expect clean, modern rooms, hot water, air conditioning, and an assortment of hotel restaurants offering Vietnamese and Western cuisine, even sushi. Not a bad place to sleep off the jet lag.

Day 2 -Saigon: after breakfast in the hotel, you’re off to the Ben Thanh Market (say “ben tawn,” rhymes with “lawn”). Down the street on Le Loi Blvd, it is within walking distance of the hotel. An enormous, hangar-like building built by the French in colonial days, Ben Thanh is put to use today as a giant, enclosed swap meet. Sellers of souvenirs, watches, clothes, bags, jewelry, shoes, and collectibles have partitioned the floor into tiny stalls, each one more aggressive than the next. Many speak very passable English. Bargaining is a must. It is a national custom in Vietnam to automatically double their prices for a foreigner, and triple them for Americans. Also, most items are probably fakes; Vietnam operates outside of the WTO. Stone carved statues, wood carved figurines, paintings, and other hand made items are worth it after you’ve talked ’em down in price.

For lunch, head across the street to Pho 2000 and get a bowl of pho, the traditional noodle soup dish unique to Vietnam. President Clinton ate pho at this very place in 2000; there are pictures of him all over. Ask to see the table he sat at upstairs. Snap a pic, then back to shopping.

For dinner, a series of outdoor seafood “restaurants” appears at dusk as if from nowhere in one of the streets next to Ben Thanh. Choose one for a steamy meal out at night, and feel the hum of the city actually increase when the sun goes down. Grab a ride from a cyclo driver (a 3-wheeled half bike, half chair) back to the hotel to complete your intro to the city

Day 3 -Saigon: Time for sight-seeing. Have the front desk point you towards the historical sites:

-Reunification Hall (Dinh Th?ng Nh?t) where the communists stormed during the fall of Saigon

-City Hall (Uy ban Nhan dan) snap a photo of the statue of Ho Chi Minh out front

-Municipal Theatre (Nha hat Thanh pho) you see this building in movies a lot

-Post Office (Buu dien Thanh Pho) built by the French, a good example of colonial architecture

-Notre Dame Cathedral (Nha th? đ?c Ba) also built by the French

-U.S. Consulate (on Le Duan Blvd) the site of the U.S.’s exodus from Vietnam during the war

75% of all traffic in Vietnam seems to be motorbike. At times, it seems as if you’ve stumbled into a parallel universe where the invention of the automobile never occurred.

Day 4 -transit to Hue: 3 choices here: bus, train, plane

-plane: a short 90 minute flight

-train: a long 20 hour overnight ordeal

-bus: another long, overnight ordeal

The train offers views of the jungle, the highlands, the rugged coastline and a bed if you’ve purchased a sleeper compartment. It’s OK to do once, but beware the bathrooms… which become literal horror shows of sloshing liquid on the floors. But then, you can brag that you experienced a toilet that empties out right onto the tracks below. The long bus ride is not recommended.

Day 5 -Hue: after arriving, it’s time to find accommodations. To make your budget stretch, check in to a “guest house,” the Hung Thinh house is nice, on Phan Chu Trinh road. Check-in, then grab a taxi to the Sinh Cafe office, at 07 Nguyen Tri Phuong street. This place is a tourism and travel service, offering bus travel, tours, maps, hotel packages, and motorbike rental. Arrange a hotel & bus trip to Hoi An [set to leave 3 days from today] and also arrange a hotel & bus trip from Hoi An to Nha Trang [a night bus set to leave 2 days after your arrival there]. Pick your choice of tours of Hue, or go it alone by renting a motorbike if you’re up for piloting that beast in that chaotic traffic.

First stop, the Citadel (Dai Noi) in central Hue, a World Heritage site. It’s hard to miss, there’s usually a giant red flag of Vietnam out front. You’ll have to cross the river to get there; admire the Truong Tien bridge as you cross it, then make a left. The Citadel is several square miles of centuries-old palace architecture complete with some museum-grade displays of imperial age clothing, art, altars, and statuary. You could spend several hours wandering around here; take lots of pictures.

After the Citadel, head to the Dong Ba Market for some lunch and more souvenir shopping. Across the street from Dong Ba, along the row of shops there, near the far right hand end you’ll find a small shop selling western-brand foods. Buy some Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (made in Thailand) and some packets of Vina-milk (doesn’t require refrigeration). This will keep your sanity in check in the morning while the Vietnamese all around you eat boiling hot noodles for breakfast in the 90 degree heat. For dinner, partake of those boiling hot noodles and go for the Hue specialty Bun Bo Hue, a spicy noodle soup dish, available at numerous vendors throughout the city.

Day 6 -Hue: The tombs await. After those godsend cornflakes, get the tour bus or your rented motorbike to these 3 tombs: Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, Tu Duc. These are really extraordinary and beautiful collections of unique dragon-encrusted Asian-style architectural buildings and grounds devoted to 3 of Vietnam’s past kings.

Spend half a day with the tombs then make your way to the Thien Mu Pagoda, on the Perfume River. Either take the road next to the river to get there, or rent a dragon boat for the 30 minute trip up the river. The Thien Mu Pagoda is a functioning Buddhist monastery with a unique tiered tower featured in many pieces of art you see around. Beautiful landscaping, gardens and bonsai trees await your camera.

For dinner, try to find some Banh Loc, or Banh Nam, or Banh Khoai, all specialties of Hue, and have a weak Huda beer.

Day 7 -Lang Co Beach: Take a bus from Hue to Lang Co beach, about an hour away. Spend the day, the beach has food, bathrooms, lounge chair rental, palm trees and crashing surf. Rest easy.

Day 8 -transit to Hoi An, stop at Marble Mountain: take that tour bus you arranged 3 days earlier to Hoi An, an ancient trading port city of the 16th and 17th centuries. Frequented by the Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Dutch, and Spanish traders of the day, the sailors left their indelible mark upon the architecture of the city. Travel the narrow alleyways and imagine that you are back in time in the 1600s and admire the varied styles of buildings around you. Explore the many temples available here.

Along the way, you’ll stop for an hour at Marble Mountain. Lots of ornate stone carved boxes, figurines, statues, and statuettes await your bargaining pleasure.

When the bus arrives, hopefully you’ve chosen the Thanh Binh #3 hotel, fabulous wood carvings throughout the hotel. The bus will probably drop you off right in front. Have grilled pork + vermicelli noodles for dinner: Bun Thit Nuong, available a short walk down the street from the hotel (ask the desk to point you the way).

At night, stroll down the streets of “Old Towne,” a World Heritage site. Admire the colored lanterns that are lit up at night in the lantern shops (a Hoi An specialty). Also, be sure to check out the silk embroidery shop called “Diem Tham Quan – XQ Hoi An” for magnificent pieces of framed art ‘paintings’ that are 100% hand stitched silk thread.

Day 9 -Cua Dai beach: only 7 km away from Hoi An. Rent a motorbike and spend the day at the beach. Return at dusk, stroll down again to Old Towne, admire the Japanese covered bridge, the lanterns, and catch some dinner at one of the many restaurants along the main street. Try out “banh bao banh vac” (white rose) dumplings.

Day 10 -transit to Nha Trang. The bus leaves at 7pm, you have one more day to explore Hoi An and taste the living history. The night bus will arrive in Nha Trang, a beach city, around 6am. Good luck sleeping. Wake to find the Vietnamese here all walking the streets and doing Tai Chi in masses at 6am.

Day 11 -Nha Trang: Check in to your hotel: 52 Tran Phu Hotel -it has Discovery Channel in English and rooms that face the ocean. Relish it. Walk the beach. Find the Sinh Cafe office here and arrange a boat tour of the islands for tomorrow, and a bus ride to Da Lat plus hotel, leaving 2 days from today. Rent a motorbike, search out the Long Son Pagoda at one end of the city and the Bao Dai summer retreat at the other end. The Pagoda has a big seated Buddha statue on the hilltop, great photo op. The Bao Dai place itself sucks, but the hill it occupies affords some of the best views of the city and the bay. For dinner, eat cheap lobster down the street from the hotel at the corner restaurant where you can pick your seafood out and watch them grill it. Drink Tiger beer and a coconut or two.

Day 12 -Nha Trang islands: you’ve arranged a boat tour for the day, or perhaps you’ve arranged for diving or snorkeling (both plentiful here). Breakfast is horded corn flakes, or a complimentary bowl of steaming hot noodles at the hotel. The boat leaves early in the morning, floats around, stops off at an island where they let you snorkel. Lunch is provided (Vietnamese food + fruit), and entertainment is via the crew singing to you. Another island where they jump into the water and offer you a floating bar and another where they let you off to lay around on the beach for a while. Before heading in, they stop at a fishing village, where one can rent a ride in a floating bamboo basket, rowed by the women of the village. They row you over to the floating platforms that serve as their homes and holds their nets filled with squid, lobster, and fish. Dinner tonight is more fresh seafood at another restaurant within walking distance of the hotel.

Day 13 -transit to Da Lat: bus leaves early in the morning, but arrives in Da Lat around 2-3pm. The hotel is the Sinh Cafe operated one, or maybe you’ve chosen one of the many family-run “mini-hotels” here: Viet Thanh Mini-hotel is nice. You have enough time to eat dinner at the central marketplace, within walking distance. The Bun Thit Nuong (grilled pork + noodles) is made differently here, try it out. Peruse the many varieties of fruits & vegetables and flowers here at this market, a Da Lat specialty. Da Lat is known as the agricultural heart of Vietnam and is a nice vacation spot due to its high elevation and cooler temperatures.

Day 14 -Da Lat: hire a car + driver (through Sinh Cafe) to see the sites:

-Chicken Village, an ethnic minority village that does weaving by hand

-Pongour waterfall

-Prenn waterfall

-Datanlat waterfall

-Bao Dai Palace, a last glimpse of the imperial remnants of Vietnam. You can dress up like Bao Dai and get your picture taken for a buck!

-Truc Lam Zen monastery and Tuyen Lam lake

-aerial cable car ride, next door to the monastery

Day 15 -return to Saigon: take the bus back to Saigon (~10 hour ride). Spend another day here perhaps, or go straight to the airport and hop a 747 back to the West.

exchange rate: $1 US =~ 15,000 dong

best place to exchange money: jewelry shops in Saigon near Ben Thanh

Prices (these are rough estimates, prices fluctuate over there):

motorbike rental: $3-5 / day

gasoline: $0.50 per liter (you only need 1-2 liters per day)

Rex Hotel (Saigon): $80-100 / day

guest house room (Hue): $10 / day

hotel (Hoi An): $25 / day

hotel (Nha Trang): $35 / day

hotel (Da Lat): $15 / day

train from Saigon to Hue: $30 per person

plane from Saigon to Hue: ~$75 per person

bus from Hue to Hoi An to Nha Trang: $30 per person

bus from Nha Trang to Da Lat to Saigon: $25 per person

dragon boat (Hue): $10 per ride round trip to pagoda

boat trip (in Nha Trang): ~$10 per person

car & driver for hire (Da Lat): $35 for the day

food: anywhere from $2 to $20 per person per meal

seafood: $15 per person per meal

beer: $1 each

bottled water: $0.30 / liter

coconut: $0.30 each

entrance fees to tombs, Citadel (Hue): $1-4 per person per site

dress up like emperor Bao Dai (Da Lat): $1

internet cafe (Saigon): $0.20 per hour

post card stamp to U.S.: $0.60

taxi: $0.50 per km, $0.80 per km if a long trip

Some pointers:

-bird flu is not too prevalent recently, still, avoid chicken & eggs

-get your shots updated before you go

-take along anti-diarrhea pills in case you are hit with the runs

-bring 100% deet mosquito spray, the mosquitoes there are stealthy, silent and deadly

-do NOT eat anything uncooked or pickled, no raw vegetables. Fruits are OK.

-do NOT drink the tap water in Vietnam, avoid ice made of non-boiled water

-beer is your friend, it helps settle your stomach, fresh coconut juice, too

-don’t bring jeans, you’ll melt in the heat. There’s a reason why you see Vietnamese wear pajamas in movies a lot, because it’s freakin’ hot in Saigon!

-tips are not expected anywhere, except for big restaurants in Saigon

PS- I have original pictures if needed and more details about street addresses, etc for the hotels, etc

-mike (entry 22 in the 2006 summer vacation plan writing contest. No new entries are being considered but stay tuned for the Witer vacation writing contest coming up).

Filed Under: 2006 Summer vacation plan writing contest entries

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Comments (4)

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  1. Rachel Wright says:


    Thank you for the informative and fascinating writing; it made me feel as though I was there.

  2. jim pope says:

    thinking about going this fall. jim

  3. James Trotta says:

    Don’t thank me (except for coming up with the brilliant contest idea) because I didn’t write this. It was one of the great articles we had entered into the 1,000 dollar writing contest.

  4. Angela Wised says:

    A very detail-oriented and fascinating writing. It brought back so many good memories I had during my recent visit to Vietnam.

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