How to make the most of one week in Vietnam
If you're like me, you only have rare occasions here and there to do a big one or two week trip. I work full-time in an office and can only take off like that once or twice a year - and I'm quite persistent about travel. So for now, I'm seeing the world two weeks at a time, treating my trips like initial surveys - a location scout of sorts for future, longer getaways.
On my recent trip to Asia, I squeezed both Vietnam and Thailand into two weeks, split pretty equally with about one week in each. While I'm sure there are many out there who would protest such a tight itinerary, I felt it was a good survey. That's my goal: I just want a taste. I know I can only scratch the surface for now, but that's okay. I can always come back for longer if I enjoy it, and there's so much more of the world out there to see.
I returned feeling satisfied with the time I had in Vietnam, but I definitely have an itch to return someday. If you've only got one week to see Vietnam, here's how to have the most well-rounded trip possible and make the most of the experience.
1. Don't stick to just one area - spend time in the north and the south.
The cultural differences between the northern part of Vietnam (most notably, the capital city of Hanoi) and the south (Ho Chi Minh City, formerly - and still locally - known as Saigon) are stark. This has been the case for long before the Vietnam War (known as the American War in Vietnam) and has only continued since then. At first it may seem subtle - but from the architecture of the cities to the food and the general countenance and attitudes of the people, the variations are distinct enough to warrant time in both parts of the country. After speaking to several Vietnamese people from various regions, I can confirm this isn't just an outsider's hunch. This variation is important if you really want to feel like you've gotten a good sense of Vietnam; not like you've spent a month there, necessarily -- but like you've done more than left the airport.
2. Balance your city experience with a smaller town outside of the major hubs.
The same could be said of the urban versus rural Vietnamese experience. As you'd expect, being in a bustling Vietnamese city is very different from taking in the bucolic smaller towns, many of which are strewn along coastline and dotted by rice paddies.
The good news is that all three - the north, south, and a small town - are doable in a week if you're being efficient with your time and comfortable with a relatively fast pace. In one week in Vietnam, my husband and I visited Hanoi, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City. We flew into Hanoi, arriving pretty late on a Saturday night (having left early on a Friday morning from Dallas - ouch!). By Tuesday, we'd moved onto Hoi An, a tiny town and UNESCO World Heritage site, where we spent two nights, which we both felt was enough. On Thursday we made our way to Ho Chi Minh City, where we stayed until Sunday.
Hoi An is far from your only option for seeing the smaller towns of Vietnam, even if you prefer to stick to well-traveled paths. A quick search will tell you about the many other sites and beautiful small towns worth visiting in Vietnam. Hoi An was a little more touristy than I expected, but this is the price to be paid for a place that was relatively easy to get to, a factor that can be critically important for a shorter trip.
For what it's worth, the food in Hoi An was outstanding. We actually decided to visit simply because Mariana, our tour guide (and chef) from Club Tengo Hambre in Mexico City, spoke about Hoi An's food with a glow on her cheeks once she learned we would be visiting Vietnam. She was right to rave. And the tourists didn't hinder my experience - just gave me a different kind of people watching to enjoy.
3. Fly between each destination - flights were about US $25-40 each.
Yeah, there's a train between Hanoi and cities further south. And some say it's a lovely and picturesque journey. But I'm quite wary of 'picturesque' train journeys - unless it's a very nice train, the shower and toilet situation can be quite dubious, for one thing. More importantly, however, if you only have a week, you really don't have time for that. Get on a cheap Vietnamese flight instead. We found ours by searching on Kayak and then booking directly on the low-cost carriers' websites.
4. Do not miss the history museums.
There's no better, more efficient way to get perspective on the conflicts that have defined this small country than to visit its museums - and it's not possible to get a well-rounded glimpse of this country without doing so, either. A trip to Vietnam is all at once beautiful, gluttonous (the food! we're getting to that), fascinating, exciting and sobering - in a good way. Visiting Vietnam feels like travel should, like the difference between capital-T Travel and just a vacation - an experience that opens your eyes and makes you see the world differently, not just relaxes you. If you skip the museums, you'll miss out on that experience.
Hoa Lo Prison Museum, Hanoi. Known during the Vietnam War by Americans as the "Hanoi Hilton," where American prisoners of war were held, this tour of (what's left of) the Hoa Lo Prison is actually much more about its conflicts with the French colonialists than the Americans. Only at the very end of the tour do you see where John McCain and the other American POWs were held, in an intriguing exhibit filled with some pretty shameless propaganda, making it seem like they must have had the time of their lives there, always playing cards and sports and whatnot. *insert eye roll emoji*
War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. This will be probably the most difficult museum to visit, with gruesome images on display depicting the many horrors of the war. It's also, of course, incredibly one-sided, with the entire purpose being to expose the 'war crimes' of the U.S. - and conveniently omitting the Communists' own crimes against the South Vietnamese people. It may be grim, but it's still interesting to visit and should be a mandatory part of any first-timer's visit to Ho Chi Minh City.
Reunification Palace (Independence Palace) in Ho Chi Minh City. Mid-century modern enthusiasts will delight at this frozen-in-time gem. Ever since the Communist tanks famously rolled onto the lawn of this building in 1975, ending the war, this government building has remained unchanged. It's fascinating for the architecture, design, history -- and the secret bunker underneath.
5. Go on a food tour early in each destination.
I have long believed that food tours are the best way to get to know a new place - especially street food tours. They're the most efficient way to get an overview of the best dishes that are specific to the area you're visiting, which is why visiting early in your trip is crucial - that way, you can return to the dishes, restaurants and food stalls you loved. And if your tour is a good one, you'll get a more authentic experience than you would even if you DIY'd this whole tour business with plenty of individual research. Either way, it'll certainly be more genuine than if you simply followed the top 10 restaurant recommendations you found on TripAdvisor, which is what most people do.
We breezed and zipped through the chaos of Saigon on the backs of motorbikes thanks to XO Tours, a motorbike food tour company featuring all-female guides. It was one of the pricier food tours we've done, but given the ground we covered thanks to the motorbikes (most food tours are walking, so you can only visit so many neighborhoods) and the unique food we were able to try, it was worth it.
In Hoi An, the foodie heaven recommended to us by our Mexico City tour guide, we didn't need a tour - we pretty quickly found what we liked and ate there several times over the course of our two nights. But Hoi An's unique like that.
Like many intriguing destinations around the world, a single week is not enough to get a deep experience of any destination. But that doesn't mean you can't get a solid 101 course to inform further exploring.
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