A taxi from Ho Chi Minh’s Tan Son Nhat airport to the city’s centre will take 20 to 30 minutes and will cost no more than $8. Be sure to take Vinasun or Mai Linh, as other brands are notorious cheats.
After checking in to your hotel get out and explore the streets. There is no better way to observe authentic Vietnamese culture than to walk through the madness. Find a curbside plastic stool and enjoy a ca phe sua da with the locals.
Head towards Nguyen Hue, Ho Chi Minh’s walking street and admire the French colonial architecture. The Peoples Committee Building on top of the street is one of the most striking in Vietnam. If you’re up for a drink make your way to the roof of the nearby Rex Hotel.
From Nguyen Hue, hop on one of Ho Chi Minh’s many motorbike taxis and make the short trip to Ben Thanh Market. This sprawling cavern of tightly packed stalls has everything from clothing and accessories, to jewelry and relatively good Vietnamese food. Walk toward the back and grab a bowl of Pho for dinner.
For a glimpse into Saigon’s dizzying nightlife walk over to the Pham Ngu Lao area and find a seat on one of the plastic stools along Bui Vien. Enjoy a $.50 beer and bathe in the neon lights of backpacker mania.
Get up early to catch the shuttle van to your Saigon River speedboat. This hour-and-a-half journey is a terrific way to get to the historic tunnels just outside the city. The rivers give life to Vietnam and there’s no better way to observe them than by boat.
After arriving, join your guide and learn about the role the tunnels played in the war. For those who don’t get claustrophobic, venture down and shimmy your way through 20, 30, 50, or 100 metres of the secretive underground channels. After the tunnel, if you’re up for it, head to the shooting range and pick up an AK-47.
The boat should get you back to Saigon just in time for an evening drink. Head to the Majestic Hotel, just around the corner from Nguyen Hue, and watch the river meander by. For dinner head to Hoa Tuc, and try some of the best contemporary Vietnamese in town.
Leave Ho Chi Minh early so that you have a full day in Hanoi. Once you’ve arrived, head to the Old Quarter and start exploring the city’s culture. This energetic nest of narrow alleys and brick buildings is home to countless merchants and artisans and is a great way to learn about Hanoi’s past.
Make your way down hidden passageways and have lunch at Highway 4. The English-speaking staff will take you on a tour through Vietnam’s culinary history.
After lunch, grab a Xe Om and head to Hoan Kiem Lake. Spend the afternoon lounging under hundred year old trees and let the sounds of the city slip away. For dinner, have an authentic street-side Vietnamese meal. Try a bowl of Bun Bo Hue from any of the vendors nearby.
Get an early start, Ninh Binh province is one of the most beautiful in all of Vietnam, making the two-and-a-half hour ride well worth your time. Spend the day exploring 10th century temples, biking across open rice fields, and floating down the Ngo Dong River into mysterious caves. The towering limestone mountains shooting up thousands of feet enclose Tam Coc in its own little world.
Pack a towel and some sunblock and take a private van to what is Vietnam’s most famous tourist attraction. Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO Heritage Site, is made up of thousands of limestone mounts jutting up from the sea East Sea. There are dozens of different cruises that leave throughout the week from Ha Long City and hostels or hotels in Hanoi often have special deals so check with your front desk before heading out.
Once your boat sets sail, find a seat on deck and watch the stunning rock structures grow before you. On a two-day cruise you’ll have the opportunity to kayak and cliff dive into incredible blue lagoons.
One word of note, due to Halong Bay’s popularity, the area can get quite crowded so it’s important to choose the best cruise. Not all are equal, and some venture off from the well-trodden areas, providing a much better view of the natural beauty surrounding you.
Take a van or bus back to Hanoi to catch your flight out. If you’ve got the time, explore the Temple of Literature and take a look at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.