Guide to Vietnam – Itinerary, costs, visa and tips for first timers

Travelogues Vietnam
Hoi An, Vietnam

Guide to Vietnam – Itinerary, costs, visa and tips for first timers

Vietnam is located in the northern hemisphere with China, Laos and Cambodia as its neighbour. Though the land area is not very huge; it is located vertically along the longitude. Because of this, the weather patterns in north and south Vietnam vary greatly. While north Vietnam witnesses snowfall during winters, the temperature is hardly below 25 ° C in Ho Chi Minh City in south.

How many days are good for Vietnam?

It is because of the diversity and distances that exploring Vietnam in a week or 10 days does not do justice to the country. I will recommend a minimum of 2 weeks if you would want to explore most of the country.

However, we had only a week in Vietnam and this was our itinerary:

Day 1: Reach Hanoi in the morning. Explore Hanoi
Day 2: Full day in Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi
Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi

Day 3: Proceed to Halong Bay for 1N / 2D cruise

Breathtaking view from the top
Breathtaking view from the top of Titop island

Day 4: Checkout of the cruise and spend overnight at Tuan Chau island

Tuan Chau beach
Tuan Chau beach

Day 5: Explore Tuan Chau island / evening flight to Danang
Day 6: BaNa hills, Danang

Cable car ride to Bana hills
Cable car ride to Bana hills – loved the view
Dragon Bridge at Bana hills on a rainy day
Dragon Bridge at Bana hills on a misty day

Day 7: Hoi An / late night flight to Hanoi

Hoi An
Hoi An

Day 8: Fly out of Vietnam

If you are booking your flights on Vietjet, keep enough margin for reschedules and cancellation. Both of flights from Haiphong to Danang and Danang to Hanoi were cancelled and we were given option to reschedule. 

Vietnam tourist visa:

Indian passport holders need to get a tourist visa to enter Vietnam, weather they are entering for a day or a month. There is a common misconception that this can be done only through a travel agent. However, one can apply for single entry tourist visa online without the help of any travel agent. This not only saves time & effort; but also the commission one has to pay to the agent. Read my post https://coveringmiles.com/vietnam-tourist-visa-for-indians-how-to-apply-for-e-visa-online-directly/ to know the detailed procedure of how to apply yourself.

The process of getting visa is same for citizens of all countries that are eligible for Vietnam eVISA. The list is available on List of countries for which Vietnam eVisa is allowed.

What is the best time to visit Vietnam?

Best time to visit Vietnam depends on which side you are visiting and what activities interest you.

Best time to visit North Vietnam:

Most popular destinations in north Vietnam are Halong Bay, Sapa and Hanoi. Best time to visit these areas is between March to May and then between September and November. The rice fields in Sapa are in full bloom during March to May and Halong Bay is very popular at this time because of clear skies and good visibility. June to August is peak summer and November to January are extremely cold in these areas. It also rains heavily on many days during this time.

Best time to visit South Vietnam:

Central and South Vietnam have destinations like Danang, Hoi An, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City. These areas are much closer to equator and therefore do not experience heavy winters. It rains heavily in October to December and May and August are very hot. Ideal time to visit South Vietnam would be January to August. Also note that Hoi An has lantern festival 14th of each lunar month. The town is lit up with thousands of candles and lanterns on this night. There are lantern making classes, traditional music and dance etc. You can easily spend a couple of nights at Hoi An during this time.

Last 2 years saw Hoi An and Danang getting flooded on some days in November and December due to heavy rains. I have to mention though that we went to Danang and Hoi An less than a week after flooding and there was absolutely no sign of any flooding or destruction caused by it. We were very impressed with the flood management of the cities.

Accommodation / Hotels in Vietnam:

Day 1 and 2, Hanoi: Antique Legend Hotel. This is one of the top-rated mid-range hotel in Hanoi. Though its a small boutique hotel, the service is at par with 5-star hotels. Read my review of Hanoi Antique Legend Hotel.

Day 3: On-board Halong Lavender Cruise. Though the services at the cruise were good, we were disappointed with the fact that we were allotted doubles rooms instead of the triple room that we booked. You can read my review of the cruise on TripAdvisor.

Click here to read my post of What to expect in 1N / 2D Halong Bay Cruise.

Day 4: Moon Bay Hotel, Tuan Chau: Moon Bay hotel is located along the bay and the panoramic view rooms have fantastic views of the Halong Bay. The sky wasn’t very clear when we stayed and I can only imagine what the view would be on a clear day!

Read how you can spend a day at Tuan Chau island

Day 5 and 6, Danang: Sofia Boutique Hotel. Located few mins away from the popular My Khe beach; Sofia boutique is another mid-range hotel with excellent service. Read my review of the Sofia Boutique hotel.

Day 7, Hanoi: Chio Hotel. Hanoi city is around 25 kms from the airport and we booked Chio hotel because of its proximity to the airport. We had an overnight transit and the hotel was hardly a few kms away. I will write about it soon.

Currency in Vietnam:

Vietnamese Dong (VND) is the official currency of Vietnam. Most of the hotels are happy accepting USD too. USD also gets the best exchange rate. The currency rate as of March 2019 is:

1 USD to VND ~ 23149
1 INR to VND ~ 330

The smallest currency note is 1000 VND (approx Rs.3). There are no coins used in Vietnam.

There are ATMs in most of the cities in Vietnam and you can carry prepaid forex cards instead of cash. Most of the ATMs dispense 4 million dong (40,00,000) at a time. Banks like Citibank and HSBC have higher withdrawal limit (~8 million VND), but they are present only in larger cities. The withdrawal charge varies from 30,000 VND to 50,000 VND.

Tips on carrying and using money in Vietnam:

Vietnam is known for currency scams and crimes related to money. As a tourist, you need to be careful. A few tips to ensure a safe travel:

  • Be careful because of the higher denominations of notes in VND. Count money in front of the exchange counter before leaving.
  • 5,00,000 VND and 20,000 VND look very similar. Check before accepting / dispensing money.
  • One of the popular scams in money exchange is to short change because of the higher denominations. Make sure you do the math before accepting money to make sure you are being given the right amount.
  • Exchange in bank or authorized money exchangers. Ask your hotel / read posts from other travellers on where you can get the best exchange rate depending on the area you are in. It is common for gold shop etc to do money exchange in Vietnam. However, they may deal with fake currency. Surprisingly, we got the best exchange rate at Hanoi airport!
  • Bigger notes get better exchange rates than smaller. Most of the money exchangers give lesser rates for USD 1, 10. So if you find someone offering the same rate for all notes, get your smaller notes exchanged first.
  • Fix fare before boarding a cyclo / taxi. A cyclo driver saying 5 could mean 5 USD or 5000 VND. Clarify before getting in.
  • Use apps like Grab or Mai Linh to book taxi. We relied on Grab most of the time because Mai Linh app was in Vietnamese and we could not figure it out.
  • Use reliable tour operators recommended by travellers on TripAdvisor or Thorn Tree or book taxi through your hotel. Compare them to see which is better. Our hotel in Danang gave us a very comparable quote for both BaNa hills and Hoi An trip and we booked our tours through them. There are many stories on the internet about taxi drivers fleecing foreign tourists and its good to be safe.
  • If tour operator prices are too good to be true, check with them if they are licences, have a website, online reviews, working phone numbers etc. Find out about the final price you will need to pay and if there are any hidden charges.
  • Beware of pickpockets and keep your valuables safe in the hotel safe. You do not need to carry passport with you in Vietnam. Keep passport in the safe and carry a photocopy and carry cash only as much required.
  • Street vendors: We had a fruit vendor approach us asking us to take a photo with her. After the photo, she started asking us to buy fruits from her. We strongly said no and moved on. We realized that she was sitting on the pavement and got up as soon as she saw tourists to do the same with others. Beware of such vendors, book sellers and fake beggars.
  • If you are planning to rent a motorbike / bicycle, ask your hotel for rental agency or do it through the hotel. Also, take pictures and video of the bike to make sure you are not blamed later for any scratches / dents. Also, clarify the charges before you rent. Needless to say, never give your original passport to anyone for these rentals.

All these tips may make Vietnam sound like a very unsafe country. It is possible to get tricked here but I will suggest go with common sense and your intuition and you will find it to be safe and love the beautiful place!

Getting around Vietnam:

Cyclos and taxis are the most convenient modes of transport inside cities in Vietnam. Tourists can also rent motorbike or bicycles. Self-driving car is not permitted because international driving licence doesn’t work in Vietnam. However, driving in Vietnam looks like a nightmare (this coming from someone living in India 😀 ). Traffic rules are not followed, 2 wheelers drive very fast and drivers honk a lot. If you are in Hanoi, Sapa or Hoi An; consider renting bicycles to explore the places.

Most popular taxi companies in Vietnam: Grab, Mai Linh, Vinasun are the most popular taxi services in Vietnam. Grab and Mai Linh have their own apps too; but Mai Linh’s app is in Vietnamese so difficult to use without any local help.

Food in Vietnam:

Meat is an important ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine. Although finding pure vegetarian food is not impossible, it is difficult because egg is considered part of vegetarian food. There are decent Indian restaurants in Hanoi and Danang which offer variety of veg options. Halong Bay cruises can also arrange for vegetarian food; if informed in advance. We had a very good dining experience with Halong Lavender cruises. Finding veg food in Tuan Chau was difficult and we had to do with pizza and pasta.

Read my detailed blog on food in Vietnam!

Connectivity in Vietnam:

I will highly recommend taking a local SIM when in Vietnam. Mobile data is quite affordable and comes in good use. We purchased a Vinaphone Prepaid Simcard from klook before we left for Vietnam. It had 2 GB data per day and was valid for 30 days. It also had 50 mins of domestic calls which was more than enough for us. We paid Rs.459 for this card and collected it at Hanoi airport from the Klook counter when we landed.

The deal was a steal because the price at the airport is usually double of this if you get it directly through Vinaphone. Get the staff to change the SIM and get it activated at the same time to avoid any fleecing.The reasons I recommend a SIM card are:

  • Booking taxi
  • Google Maps: We always download offline maps before we go to any new place. However, offline maps does not show walking directions; and there is a decent amount of walking in Hanoi, Hoi An and even Tuan Chau. It helps to have map handy!
  • Communicating with taxi drivers / restaurant waiters: This is something that we found extremely helpful. Most of the taxi drivers and waiters do not understand English; even though they are educated. Download Google translate app and show them the translated word. You can even speak to them in their language 🙂 You can even make them speak in Vietnamese and listen to the translated version in English.
  • Reading the sign boards: While most of the tourist places have signboards / instructions in English along with Vietnamese, there are some exceptions. With the help of Google Translate, we could easily translate and ensure we got the correct information.
  • Understanding restaurant menus: If you have any specific diet choices (like vegetarian or allergy to some ingredient), it helps to translate the detailed instructions on items before ordering. I also suggest you get your hotel staff to write it down for you on a piece of paper and show it to the waiter before ordering.

Budget for 1 week trip to Vietnam:

(This is for 2 adults and 1 child of 8 yrs. Room charges are for triple rooms / family rooms at all the hotels)

Spent in INR Spent in USD Spent in VND
Flight HYD-HANOI 74500
Flight HANOI – DANANG 13500
Visa – Vietnam 75
Travel Insurance 1800
Hotel@Hanoi (Antique Legend, 2 nights) 140
Hotel@Hanoi (Chio Hotel, 1 night) 40
Hotel@DaNang (2 nights, Sofia Boutique) 2054396
Hotel@Halong Bay (Moon Bay, 1 night) 3000
Halong Lavender Cruise 300
Car to Bana Hills 700000
Car to Hai An enroute Marble Mountain & drop to airport 900000
My Village show in Hanoi 189000
Ticket to Ba Na hills 1950000
Attraction tickets 1910000
Food 4402000
Local transport@Hanoi 346000
Local transport@Tuan Chau 331000
Local transport@Danang 76000
Airport transfer @Hanoi 18
Airport transfer @Danang 10
Grab Airport transfer @ Hai Phong 538000
Tips & Misc 3 472000
TOTAL 92800 586 13868396
Total in INR 92800 40900 41800
Total Cost of trip in INR 175500

Travelling abroad for the first time? Check out my post on things to take care of when travelling abroad for the first time.

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