Vietnam is like a supermodel during Paris Fashion Week – long, thin and a bit wibbly. To see the best of the country a journey up (or down) the coast is a must and one of the top road (well mostly rail actually) trips to take on your South East Asian adventure.
Here we profile some of the key destinations on the route, how to get from A to B to sea, and pick out some hidden gems along the way. Hold on to your conical hats….
Epic Journeys: Vietnam South to North
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
The largest city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is a quintessential busy South East Asian hub which means careening traffic (you WILL learn how to dodge numerous motor bikes), great bars, night life and more attractions than you can shake a stick at. The War Remnants Museum is a poignant reminder of the horrors of the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as “Resistance War against America”) and essential for a deeper understanding of the history of the country you’re about to travel through.
Ho Chi Minh is also the jump off to visit the fascinating Củ Chi tunnels and for trips down to the Mekong delta before your journey north.
A 7 – 9 hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City takes you to the intriguing in-land town of Da Lat. It’s an odd place which can feel like more of an European alpine centre than a South East Asian town! The mountainous countryside around the city is beautiful – be sure to take the cable car to the Thien Vien Truc Lam monastery and check out the Datanla waterfall.
3 hours from Da Lat by bus (or a 6 – 8 hour train journey from Ho Chi Minh City if you choose to miss out the Vietnamese Alps), the lively seaside town of Nah Trang is a mainstay on the North/South Vietnam route. Kick back and relax on the golden beaches during the day before heading to one of the many friendly bars when the sun goes down to grab a tasty Hanoi or Saigon beer.
If the hubbub of the beach is a bit much for you can jump on a boat to explore the nearby islands or discover the underwater world of the South China Sea on a scuba dive course. You’ll also find quieter stretches of sand further up the coast including the white sands of Doc Let which often ranks as one of Vietnam’s best beaches.
Though the train tracks don’t run directly to Hoi An it’s still by far the fastest way to get to this stunning town (other than flying of course). Take the train to Da Nang (9-10 hours from Nha Trang) and jump on the bus for Hoi An – though worth taking a cab if there are more than 2 of you.
Hoi An is well worth the slight diversion from the tracks. Beautiful and unexpected, walking the winding allies, tiny streets and bridges is like stepping back in time. It’s also THE place to get clothes tailor made for a fraction of western prices. Just think how snappy that silver three piece suit will look on the next night train…
Pronounced “Huway” and known for it’s fascinating history, there are two main ways to get to Hue – direct bus from Hoi An or bus back to Da Nang and the train. The latter is known for being particularly scenic and, after epic 10 hour train marathons, the 4 hour ride will be a walk in the park.
However you decide to get there you’ll be bowled over by this city that’s been shaped by conflict over centuries. Be sure to spend some time in the Imperial Citadel and, if two wheels are your thing, to bike to the Tombs of the Emperors on the banks of the river. Just a short drive up the coast is the Tam Giang Lagoon system which, though off the main trail, is well worth a visit for the stunning views.
Brace yourself for your last long train journey! A meer 12 hours from Hue (though honestly by this point you might consider a flight), the French Colonial capital of Vietnam is where Asia and ye olde Europe collide. Not only is the city itself full of fascinating sights such as Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and Hoan Kiem Lake it’s also the jump off for the beauty of…..
Ha Long Bay
There’s not a lot we can say about Ha Long Bay that’s not implied by the pictures (i.e. it’s bloody beautiful). If you’ve got the time go on a longer expedition and spend a couple of days sailing round the limestone inlets.
Time permitting Sapa is a brilliant addition to any Vietnamese itinerary. It’s no walk in the park to get there (yet another long train journey) but the views, tranquillity and endless photo opportunities are more than worth another night on the move.