Day One: Get Lost in Hanoi
The first thing you notice about Hanoi is that everyone is moving at a manic clip, rushing by bicycle, moped, motorcycle, or (more rarely) car — and you’re just trying not to get run over. Such is the pace of life in Vietnam’s second most populated urban area, where chaos is the norm and humans are rushing by, all day. It may seem hokey at first, but a ride in a cyclo (a pedal-driven, modern-day chariot) is a must-do. Try some of the street food, if your stomach can handle it, and don’t miss out on a hot bowl of pho before the first day is up.
Day Two: Explore the Red River Delta
The drive from the metropolis of Hanoi to the countryside elapses in just about two hours, leaving you plenty of time to explore the natural wonder that is the complete opposite of Vietnam’s congested cities. Ninh Binh’s Tam Coc River is a must. Snag a seat on a rowboat (where skilled rowers scull with their feet), and sail into a relatively untouched, lush landscape. Entrepreneurial coxswains spend the day floating up and down the river with beers, which you’re encouraged to purchase. Kick back with a cold one and stay to watch the sunset illuminate the region in vibrant pinks, purples, and reds. Make friends with some locals and be sure to down a couple of shots of “happy water,” aka Vietnamese rice wine.
Day Three: Drive to Ho Chi Minh’s Home
It’ll take some time to get from Ninh Binh to the city of Vinh, the birthplace of Vietnam’s revered leader, so you might as well enjoy the ride. Spend some time exploring the Red River Delta ahead of the drive back to urban life. Some people dismiss Vinh as no more than a truck stop. Pay them no attention; it’s a vibrant city that feels as busy as Hanoi but less crowded. In Vinh’s outskirts is the birthplace of Ho Chih Minh, a humble house that’s surrounded today by information for visitors and a memorial. Stick to Tiger beers, not happy water, as the overnight scene in Vinh is less exciting — and the next day involves a lot of time on the road.
Day Four: On to the Imperial City
It is a day’s driving from Vinh to the historic city of Hue, but the coastal route is worth it. Along the way, stop at untouched beaches, mountain pass overlooks, and at least one roadside coffee shop. With a couple of cups of hot or iced Vietnamese coffee, a strong blend of steeped coffee and sweetened condensed milk, the journey is far from tiresome. You’ll likely arrive in the dark, so settle in and have a cocktail or two at the historic La Residence hotel, which once served as a colonial French domicile, before hitting Hue’s bustling bar scene.
Day Five: Sightseeing and Jetting to Ho Tram
The most significant attractions in Hue, a former capital city of Vietnam, are architectural: a citadel that dates back hundreds of years, and the Imperial City that lies within its borders, surrounded by a moat. (An English-speaking guide is a must here, if you want to absorb any of the history of the place beyond the decorations and sculptures.) When you’re finished playing tourist, grab a taxi to Hue’s Phu Bai airport and catch a short, 90-minute flight to Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. Before you’ve had your afternoon coffee, hire a local guide and head straight for Ho Tram, the beach town that wishes it were Las Vegas.
Day Six: Hit the Beach
When you wake up in Ho Tram, located about two hours southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll wonder why you didn’t find this piece of paradise sooner. Do as the locals do, and spend the day eating seafood, drinking local beer, and taking in the sun. Most of Ho Tram is still undeveloped, making it something of a hidden gem. If you can, find a guide who will take you off-roading in the lush, beachfront terrain, as well as the nearby dunes. Spend the night in the seaside area of Vung Tau, a vacation town popular with Russian tourists, and take in the view from a high point, ahead of a final day in Ho Chi Minh City.
Day Seven: Ho Chi Minh City
Wade through the traffic thick with two-wheelers back to Ho Chi Minh City for a day of adventure within the sprawling metropolis. Once you’ve established a base of operations, grab something to eat and begin to wander through the city’s alleyways and boulevards. You don’t have to look hard to see French influence on architecture, food, and daily routine; it may feel as densely packed as Hanoi, but the way of life is far less stressful and chaotic. Cap off the day, and the journey, with a drink at the Caravelle Hotel: a popular place for foreign journalists stationed in Saigon during the Vietnam War.