How to Take the Ultimate Vietnam Road Trip
These are the top stops to make on a journey through Vietnam.
Vietnam—this country has a soundtrack. For more than 1,000 miles, it crackles and pops over the din of cities clogged with motorbikes and farmlands chocked with water. The sound seems to rise straight out of a 1960s newsreel, but it’s not the voice Dylan or Hendrix or Fogerty—it’s the thump, thump, thump of tiny, wooden boats.
From north to south, their clamoring outboard motors provide a backdrop to the breathtaking landscape of Vietnam. And while the country is bound by water, one of the best ways to get to know Vietnam is to hit the road and see it for yourself. Here’s how to take the ultimate Vietnam road trip:
1. Soak Up Saigon
The country’s best backpacker hostels are located in each of Vietnam’s largest cities, Hanoi and Saigon. If you’re planning a Vietnamese road trip of your own, you can’t go wrong by following the dusty—sometimes pungent—trail of backpackers. Though it’s acceptable to start in either city, I recommend Saigon for a leisurely introduction to Vietnamese culture. Plan to spend two or three days in the old capital of South Vietnam, taking in the sites like Ben Thanh Market, Independence Palace, rooftop bars, the Cu Chi Tunnels and a Mekong River cruise.
From Saigon, you can hire a van to make the 260-mile drive to the beach resorts of Nha Trang, or hop a cheap flight to Central Vietnamese city of Da Nang. Either method should cost you less than $100.
2. Suit Up in the Ancient City of Hoi An
If you opt to fly straight to Da Nang, you’ll touch down at Da Nang International Airport, where a modern passenger terminal stands adjacent to the sea of jungle-encrusted military hangers of the old Da Nang Airbase. A 45-minute drive south of town will put you in the ancient city of Hoi An.
Hoi An’s ancient, walled city is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site, but also a scenic backdrop to the town’s nightly lantern festival, where depending on the time of year, dozens or thousands of lanterns are set aflame at the city’s heart along the Thu Bồn River.
There’s no roughing it in Hoi An. This town is stocked with luxury hotels like The Almanity, which serves up local cocktails (try the purple “welcome drink”) and packages spa sessions with stays. While you’re in town, take advantage of Hoi An’s signature clothing industry by visiting one of the dozens of custom tailors in town. Depending on your taste and budget, you can score custom-fit clothing for between $20 and $200.
3. Take the Hai Van Pass to Hue
Once you’ve secured fresh threads in Hoi An, it’s time to hit the highway to Vietnam’s ancient capital city, Hue. While you could hop a four-hour flight to Hue from Da Nang, you’d be missing out on some of the most spectacular scenery in Southeast Asia—National Route 1A and the Hai Van Pass. This 13-mile stretch of mountainous highway borders the East Vietnam Sea, and on a clear day, offers one of the most breathtaking views in the world. Road warriors can rent a van from Hoi An or, better yet, a motorbike. The journey from Hoi An to Hue takes about half a day, allowing for stops on the Hai Van Pass and a short climb up to the Buddhist Temple atop Marble Mountain outside of Da Nang.
Start early. Take your time. Soak in the scenery, and amble in to Hue in the afternoon for dinner and a few local brews.
Hue is an adventure in its own right. Tour the ancient citadel, home to the old imperial palace, the emperor’s cannabis garden, a labyrinth of elegant pools and some of the fiercest fighting of the Vietnam War. As in Hoi An, you’ll have your pick of affordable hotels in Hue. Most serve morning breakfast complete with Vietnamese coffee, which you’ll need after a long night at the DMZ Bar.
4. Hike in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bang National Park
If you’ve still got your motorbike, now is the time to put it to use. If not, a hired van can run you up highway QL1A towards the city of Dong Hoi—your basecamp into and out of Phong Nha-Kẻ Bang National Park. Nestled beside the Laotian border, this national park is home to some of the world’s largest caves. Oxalis Adventures offers guided, overnight hikes into the massive Hang En (pictured above), Son Doong and Tu Long cave systems.
Inside, you’ll be able to swim, hike and climb through one of the Earth’s most untouched (for now) and jaw-dropping cave systems. Be warned: You’ll have to earn the view by hiking through a legitimate jungle filled with dangerous plants, poisonous snakes and the occasional tiger.
Tip: Waterproof hiking boots will only weigh you down here. Your feet are going to get wet on these trails and there’s no way around it. Opt for the rented “Cambodian Jungle Boots” which are basically camouflage Chuck Taylor high tops. Due to unexploded ordnance, the trails here can be dangerous so follow your guides and don’t pick up anything metal on the ground.
5. Night Train to Hanoi
After a few days in the jungle you should be ready for dry land again. Thankfully, Oxalis can provide you with a hot shower before you make your way back to Dong Hoi’s train station. It’s here that you’ll want to hop aboard for a northbound train to Hanoi. The ride is a long one (about eight hours), and booking a night trip in a sleeper car is recommended. With any luck, you’ll ride the rickety rails to sleep and wake up just in time for sunrise in the elegant modern city of Hanoi.
In Hanoi, you can get your fill of Vietnamese egg coffee at Giang Cafe, and enjoy some of the finest hospitality in the hotel industry at the O’Gallery Hotel. Hanoi is a perfectly walkable city filled with picturesque lakes, parks and temples. Get your fill of street food just about anywhere, and don’t forget to stock up on banh mi and pho while you’re in town. Don’t skip an evening stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake.
6. Overnight in Ha Long Bay
From Hanoi, the end of your journey is nigh. Thankfully, by starting in Saigon, you’ve saved the best for last—Ha Long Bay.
One hundred miles to the east of Hanoi, you’ll find a ferry from Halong City to Cat Ba Island. This is your gateway to a dramatic Vietnam road trip finale. Thanks to an extremely favorable, 22,000 to 1 conversion rate, you should have a few dollars left to splurge on Cat Ba. And the best way to do so is by booking an overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay.
Here, thousands of limestone cliffs jut out from the seafloor in a utopian archipelago unlike anywhere else on Earth. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a can’t miss for anyone visiting Vietnam, and plentiful options abound for semi-private cruises aboard wooden ships. Most cruises allow you to disembark for swimming and kayaking in the bay. They’ll even cook you dinner to the soundtrack of those tiny, wooden boats.
Get your visa early. U.S. citizens traveling to Vietnam need to apply for a visa via the Vietnamese embassy in Washington D.C. Be sure to grab yours at least 45 days before you plan to leave.
Know your cash! Cab drivers in Vietnam are easy to barter with, but some will try to take advantage of an ignorant tourist. You shouldn’t be paying more than $5 for most cab rides in town.
Scope out Sa Pa. If you have extra time, head north from Ha Long Bay to the mountain terraces of Sa Pa. They’re one of Vietnam’s most beautiful attractions, but require extra time to get in and out of the remote area.
Brew breakdown. 333, Saigon, Hanoi and La Rue are all excellent, cheap local beers. In most cities you’ll be paying less than $1 per beer. You may want to bring your own if you overnight in Ha Long Bay, as cruise companies can upcharge you for drinks and may not advise you beforehand.
From seasoned road tripper Mike Shubic to founder and CEO of RoadTrippers.com James Fisher, meet the panel of advisors behind Travel’s Best Road Trips 2015.