Vietnam is a country that had forever been on my hit list. It had enticed me over with promises of delicious Pho noodle soup, silken tailoring and epic landmarks, such as, Halong Bay. After studying the Vietnam War, I knew it had a harrowing history that was both deep and tragic, but when I finally stepped off the plane, I was quickly immersed in Vietnam’s beautiful culture that still retained its old charm.

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The thing which really got me though was how diverse the landscape was! I know that seems like such a cliché to say, but I literally had NO idea that Vietnam had rolling sand dunes, rainforest, winding craggy mountains and never ending coastlines of sandy beach.

It was not hard to get off the beaten path, however there were definitely times where things got a bit hairy by leaving the safe tourist groups. Some experiences left us shaken and reminded me that it wasn’t as easy a place to travel blindly, like Thailand or Malaysia, but it definitely woke me up that travelling isn’t always going to be all roses and daisies.

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I was over in Vietnam for a solid month and managed to tick a lot off my bucket list, including eating authentic Pho at a roadside cafe, pretending to be a desert gypsy in deep sand dunes and driving a scooter for my first time.

Golly gosh, there was so much to see and do, it was pretty exhausting! Let me give you my itinerary of how to see Vietnam in a month and a few things you can add to your Bucket List (if they’re not already on it!).

Fly into Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) – Adjust and learn:

When you head to Vietnam, you have two choices of airport: Hanoi in the North or Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the South. We chose the South as we wanted to work our way up, finishing with the incredible Halong Bay, but whichever you choose you’ll experience the same factors.

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Top things that will hit you in the face when first arriving in Vietnam is the culture shock, the humidity and the traffic. My top ways to adjust is to wander the streets, eat Pho at roadside cafes (never fear street food! YUM) and have a Saigon beer while taking it all in! Not exactly rocket science, but it will also give you a chance to figure out the crazy traffic.

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The roads in the cities of Vietnam are pure chaos, but there is slight method in the madness. The roads are metallic rivers of scooters that are honking, weaving, dodging and diving, and getting across them takes a large gulp of Dutch courage. Wait for an opportune moment and just start walking. Be slow and deliberate, never stop or turn back and they’ll adjust to flow around you.

HCMC is a sprawling network of alleyways that intertwine between these large streams of traffic, and hostels are usually tucked down them. Once you’ve navigated the traffic and soaked up some Vietnamese heat, grab a taxi to the Reunification Palace. You can either go with slightly expensive air-con taxis or haggle with a motorbike taxi, but either way always check the price before jumping in/on!

See The Reunification Palace (also known as the Independence Palace), where the first Communist tanks arrived during the fall of the city back in 1975. There’s a chopper on the roof and a tank out the front, but don’t forget to see the creepy basement full of twisting tunnels and secret war rooms.

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Two blocks away, the harrowing War Museum lies. It’s controversial as many tourists are sickened by its contents, but I believe the museum presents a very balanced and in-depth coverage of the Vietnam War. It’s important to understand the painful history of this country, and whilst it may be awful and gruesome, you need to understand its past and the war crimes that ravaged its people.

Whilst being in HCMC, take advantage of other sights that you can visit to understand the impact of the war. One such place is the Cu Chi tunnels. You can organise day trips through your hostel to the site that lies about 4 hours outside the city.

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It’s an area of relatively young forest that’s still growing back to its former natural state from the intense bombing. 16,000 lived underground here, but only 600 survived.

The soldiers fought on the 3m deep level, supplies were kept on the 6m level, and women, children and the elderly hid 9m deep. You get to go down in the tunnels but I would highly recommend any who suffer from panic attacks and claustrophobia to not go underground. I could barely go 50 yards without freaking the hell out.

My Tho – Have an escape route:

After HCMC’s epic sightseeing, you may wish to go slightly further south to see the authentic Vietnamese village of My Tho. This place is popular as it is in the Mekong Delta and has lovely islands that you can boat to and explore.

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Many take a day trip with a tour… we decided to hitch a lift down there with a coach to explore for two days, but this proved to bring muchos problemos. Once you’re down there you’re pretty much stuck.

It was an interesting 40 hours of briefly visiting the islands, getting scammed and struggling to communicate as no one spoke English (apart from a 14-year-old school boy). To cut a long story short, it was definitely character building and we managed to chase a bus down on scooters to get out. If you do choose to visit the Mekong Delta, do a quick day trip from HCMC.

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Mui Ne – Bum on the beach & roll in the dunes:

Sweet coastal relief! It sure takes it out of you when you have to deal with the heat of ‘Nam, so to arrive at a coastal town that is refreshed by fast winds is a breath of fresh air. Literally.

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The high winds whip the beach, making it an opportune spot for windsurfing fanatics. It’s set up for tourism as there are plenty of beachside companies who will teach you to windsurf and there are plenty of delicious sea food restaurants that serve up affordable and fresh dishes!

Despite the area strangely being a hotspot of Russians, it was a cooling relief to be out of the bustling city and surrounded by relaxed locals. Make sure you go to the sand dunes as these will blow your mind.

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I had no idea that Vietnam would contain rolling sand dunes, but when we turned up just before sunset on the back of our motorbike taxis, it stole our breath. The red dunes dip and dive over expansive land, giving you a great workout when you climb up (and roll down!) the steep ridges.

Avoid the abundance of kids trying to flog you plastic sheets for sledging and really take in as much walking as you can to get top views and hidden spots. We ventured far and found an abandoned cemetery, but made sure we were back at the high peaks to catch the electrifying sunset. You’ll feel like a desert gypsy, a wandering nomad, and you’ll feel the call to lead a desert life.

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Dalat – Explore as far as your fuel can take you!

This was personally one of my highlights of the trip. In hustling cities and touristy areas, you can be prone to scams. Travel smart, don’t take things for face value and haggle. However, in mountainous Dalat, you feel like you can immerse yourself in Vietnamese life and explore for days.

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Dalat is a short minibus ride from Mui Ne, and the journey is so pretty – so stay awake! The light is bright and the air is pure up in Dalat. It’s a buzzing place where the Vietnamese go about their everyday lives and it doesn’t have an overly touristy pressure despite being a top Vietnamese honeymoon destination.

Riding scooters is pretty dangerous (especially in Vietnam), but it is the BEST way to explore as you can strike out by yourself without relying on tours, discovering hidden spots that you would have NEVER found if you were on a coach. On a scooter, be cautious, wear a helmet, overuse your horn button and keep to quieter roads.

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Once you’ve rented a bike, take off and explore the surrounding mountains and hills. Take in fantastic views of the greenhouses that cover the hillsides like multi-coloured patchwork blankets, find the cable car to hover over the expansive land and head to the waterfall for a bit of serenity.

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Cruise along the snaking roads that cut into the mountains and discover hidden temple. Follow long motorways to quiet areas where locals squat and fish, and you may be intensely lucky and spot an elephant. I’m guessing the one we saw was a pet, not a wild one.

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Dalat has HUGE markets which come alive at night. Sure, exotic foods are available… but when night falls the vintage clothing comes out on display. It gets very cold at night here, but you can easily pick up a coat for a mere $3! The vintage array is so incredible I nearly wept at the sight of all the plaid, silk, leather and wool.

Hoi An – Get new threads and EAT!

We skipped Nha Trang, but I would highly recommend this place if you want huge expansive beaches and nightlife. We were in Vietnam for culture and minimal partying, so thought to leave out Nha Trang and all it’s monstrous resorts.

It took a 17 hour night bus to drive up to Hoi An, and you’re soon spoilt for choice of beautiful hostels. Hoi An means ‘peaceful meeting place’ and peaceful truly describes it.

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The streets of Hoi An are fun to explore as they are inundated with tailors, good-looking street food and lovely handcrafted lanterns. It’s famed for its light festival and the bridges are festooned with glittering decor, which you can walk over (battling through the crowd).

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The tailors are quite overwhelming due to the sheer amount there are. If you want something made, do put in the leg work and go into at least 4 different ones to compare prices. And haggle. I took in my favourite dress EVER and got it made in 4 different materials and lengths for about $120. Money well spent!

The beach is about 40 minutes walk, or a quick 10 minute scooter ride away, and you can dip in the sea and lounge on the soft sand. Hit the main road and drive for a further 40 minutes and you’ve got MASSIVE expansive beaches where you are literally the only ones there.

And lastly, the food. O the food! We stayed opposite the most delicious Pho roadside cafe and up the road from a stall that did baked egg breakfasts – they rivalled the quality of Melbourne cafes!

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My Son Temples – Feel like a mini Indiana Jones:

Outside of Hoi An, along winding roads and long highways, you’ll find yourself in the middle of nowhere at some gated park. Pay a cheap ticket to park your scooter or motorbike, and wander amongst the green and quiet woods. You stumble across the ruins of My Son.

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These small, but beautiful, Hindu temples were built in the 4th Century AD to honour Shiva. It’s a long drive, about 50km, and do NOT go too late or you’ll be in the dark on a pretty intense highway. But do check it out as it makes for a great explore!

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Hue – See imperial beauty:

As Hue lies very close to the border of the north and south of Vietnam, it got hit real bad during the war. A lot of the city was destroyed, but historical aspects still remain in incredible glory. The Imperial City lies beside the Perfume River, encircled by a majestic wall and moat. Walk the circumference then pop inside to see some imperial Vietnamese decor. We loved the motifs and decor on the outside walls.

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Zigzag through the old citadel and explore the numerous vegetarian restaurants available. Markets bustle besides the Perfume River, but bizarrely there are bright neon adverts lining the river. During the heat of the day, the river is a lot more serene and you can take a boat ride up the river to rest from the stifling heat.

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Ninh Binh/Tam Coc – Explore beautiful Kasts:

Journeying up to Ninh Binh was an adventure, but totally a story for another time (O the joys of night buses haha). Ninh Binh is a grimy polluted town, where there’s not much to do but to treat it as a base to launch out to the countryside to see the beautiful natural landscape.

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Tam Coc has gorgeous karsts, similar to Halong Bay, that spring out of the ground towering hugely. It really hits home how incredible the Vietnamese countryside is and how shockingly stunning it is. Explore with a motorbike or scooter, and take a boat trip along the river to get the best views.Tam Coc

Day trips can be organised from Hanoi, but there is a train station in Ninh Binh, which makes it a ton easier to get in and out.

Hanoi:

And you’re now back at another bustling main city of Vietnam! Hanoi is the hub of the north where you can fly in/out and fill your belly with your last round of noodle soup. It’s intricately woven with small streets that are packed to the brim with motorbikes, street cafes, juice bars.

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The backpacker quarters have streets small and packed, with no pavements. Like HCMC, it’s hectic and crazed with street cafes lining the streets meaning you have to dodge the oncoming motorbikes when negotiating the streets. It sounds a bit loco, but that’s Vietnam! A broiling pot of action that you get to sneak away from and relax in the odd pocket of serenity.

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Everything packs up by 1am, meaning you’ll find backpackers loitering in the darkness, a bit unsure of what to do next. But Vietnam makes for a more culture focused trip than the party hotspots of it’s SE Asian neighbour, Thailand.

Halong Bay (Feel small at this beauty):

We didn’t have long in Hanoi as we booked a day trip to Halong Bay; the ultimate drawing force to getting me to Vietnam.

The Vietnamese waterway is on the Gulf of Tonkin in the Quang Ninh Province and is a World Heritage Site. It is a collection of islands that are dotted with wind and wave eroded caves and nooks to explore. The limestone cliffs, like mystical islands, spring from the deep as a result of 500 million years of natural formation.

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We took a long, hungover 4 hour mini bus over to Halong Town to jump on a Junk (old Chinese boat) to chug out to the Bay. Between February to April, the weather tends to be misty here, but the drizzly fog makes the scene more enigmatic.

Most people say “It’s smaller than I imagined” when they see a landmark for the first time, but this was a mammoth spectacle that had us gaping, slowly raising our hands to take a snap. See the Floating Village and perhaps indulge in a spot of kayaking in the caves before lunch!

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With most tours, they take you to the largest grotto, Hang Dau Go. It has three large chambers with numerous impressive stalactites and stalagmites which you can walk around. If your budget can afford it, do an overnight trip like Annika did, but no matter how you see it just make sure you get there!!

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So that was my trip in a month. We ran out of time to see Sapa (I’ve heard it’s amazing though!), but the trip was a whirlwind of intense history, chaos and serenity. I preferred the countryside parts where the landscape naturally took my breath away as opposed to the polluted cities that smothered my breath.

But I can say this: Travelling Vietnam was certainly character building and fulfilling, and I now know that if I can survive a 24 hour night bus ride where the driver hides in the luggage compartment after we breakdown, I can take on anything. Almost.

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*All photographs by Sophie Saint, apart from images 27 wikimedia  and 33 wikimedia.

Sophie Saint was one of the original travelettes, from 2009 – 2017. After fleeing the UK with ink barely dry on her graduation certificate, she traversed the world with a backpack and spent a few years living in Melbourne – one of her favourite cities in the world.

She finally returned to the UK after a few years where she now whiles time away zipping off for European escapes, crocheting and daydreaming of owning her own hostel somewhere hot to live out eternal summers. See what she’s up to over on her blog saintsonaplane.com and instagram: @saintsonaplane