Well well… Looks like you are in luck! We have done 3 month in Vietnam not long ago and we are big fans of the Phong Nha Ke Bang national park where Son Doong Cave is located!
In your trip we can easily book you in some adventure in Dalat (Canyoning, is that your kind of thing?), bring you to some nice party beaches in Nha Trang before sending you on the amazing Ho Chi Minh trail with easy riders before a stop in Phong Nha where you’ll see some awesome caves, not as big as Son Doong but really impressive! Of course we will add some culture with some time in Hoi An and Hue. Depending if you are flying in Hanoi or Saigon we could find you some good home stay and awesome markets around Sapa! So if you are interested well… Let me know! I’ve enclosed for you a picture of Paradise Cave too! As for the 50$ budget: not a problem!
Day One- Hanoi
Arrive in Hanoi, Vietnam’s bustling capital city. The cab ride from the airport to your hotel will take around thirty minutes and will grant you your first glimpse at the seething mass of chaos that passes for traffic within the city. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is an ideal place to begin your adventure, though it’s hardly a gentle introduction. The area is one of the most noisy and crowded districts of Hanoi, but also one of it’s most vibrant, with a wealth of interesting shops and a magnificent street food scene, not to mention the huge array of restaurants offering quality (and cheap) cuisine, both local and international.
Once safely checked in to your hotel, it’s time to take the plunge. It might be a good idea to seek out a guided tour aboard one of the city’s many cycle rickshaws before heading out to the sights further afield. Cycle rickshaws can be found on every street within the old quarter, so shop around a little to find a well informed guide who speaks good English. Expect to pay around $5 for a one hour tour.
– Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: It can only be seen on the outside but the site is impressive. A real testimony of communism in Hanoi
– Water Puppet Theatre: A real art in Vietnam, people make their puppets dance on water and it is a sight you want to experience. Entrance: $8 Camera: $2
– Hoan Kiem Lake: The lake of the legend of the turtle. Wonder what I mean? It’s all explained in the pagoda in the middle of the lake. Nice and quiet, it’s close to the city center and contain an amazing legend.
-Mot Cot Pagoda: Hanoi’s most popular Pagoda: the Lotus Pagoda is known to be in wood and on only one pillar. You can now see the replica near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
-Museums (Vietnamese Women’s Museum, Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology): If you like museums those 2 are people’s favourites! Feel free to include them in your visit!
– One of our favourites for delicious Vietnamese food is the ’69 Restaurant & Bar’ – No. 69 Ma May St in the Old Quarter. Dinner and drinks for two should cost around $10 to $15.
– An interesting alternative is a guided street food tour, wherein an experienced local will take you and a group of others on a two to three hour walk around town, in the course of which you’ll get to witness streetside cooking techniques and sample countless local snack foods, desserts and drinks. These tours are operated daily, and the tour price (around $10) includes all food and drink. Your hotel will be able to arrange.
– Some of Hanoi’s budget hotels can be a little grim, we had a pleasant experience with Serenity Hotel (1B Cua Dong Street, Hoan Kiem District – Old Quarter). $18 per night for a large comfortable double room with Aircon, free WiFi and breakfast included.
Day 2 – Halong Bay
Ha Long Bay is an essential part of any visit to Vietnam, a staggeringly impressive maze of over 2000 jungle-covered limestone ‘karsts’ jutting up from the blue waters of the bay. Two day (one night) cruises are available through dozens of different companies, starting at around $80 per person. We would recommend spending a little more for a really good experience; the Emeraude is a replica of a 19th century paddle steamer, with superb plush cabins and excellent gourmet food. Tickets are around $180 per person for a two day cruise, which includes all meals, activities and minibus transfers to and from Hanoi.
The minibus leaves Hanoi at around 8am, and you’ll be on board the ship by Midday. The tour of the bay includes visits to caves, a floating pearl farm, and kayaking opportunities. On board ship there are cooking classes, Tai Chi sessions, and even the chance to fish for squid by night from the stern of the ship (just ask reception for the material to do so)
Day 3 – Halong – Hanoi
If you can prise yourself from the sumptuous bed early, you can head up to the sun deck where a member of the crew teaches a Tai Chi class as the sun rises over the bay. Or if you’re not feeling that energetic, you can sit back and greet the dawn from a comfortable chair with a steaming mug of coffee.
After a buffet breakfast, the boat cruises back to harbour around noon, and the minibus transfer will have you back in Hanoi for 4pm. Grab a bite to eat before setting out on the overnight journey to the mountain town of Sapa.
Tickets to Sapa can be booked at any of the travel outlets in Hanoi. The overnight train costs $35 per person for an air-conditioned soft sleeper cabin, the sleeper buses are cheaper at around $18 per person, but significantly less comfortable.
Day 4 – Sapa
Sapa is the mountainous North Western region of Vietnam, home to spectacular scenery and numerous minority hill tribes such as the H’mong and Red Dao, it’s an ideal place for trekking expeditions. We would recommend a two day trek that includes an overnight stopoff in a mountain home-stay. These home-stays are generally quite basic in terms of amenities, but have a nice homely feel, as you’ll be spending the evening eating and drinking around an open fire with the family. We booked our Sapa trip through Aurora Travel in Hanoi and paid $65 per person for a two day trek including all meals, accommodation, entry fees, transfer buses and a local guide, but there are countless other companies dotting Hanoi’s Old Quarter that offer similar packages ranging from $50 to $120 per person, depending on the level of trekking you want and the quality of hotel/home-stay included. A few other travel companies we’ve heard good things about are: Sapa O’Chau and Sapa Sisters.
A typical trip will involve around 12km of walking per day, beginning in Sapa town at around 9am, with breaks for breakfast and lunch before delivering you to your home-stay location around 4-5pm. On the trek you’ll encounter many waterfalls and isolated villages, and you’ll have great opportunities to photograph the local rice farmers as they drive their teams of water buffalo up and down the lush green rice terraces that blanket the hillside landscape.
You’ll also undoubtedly be offered ‘snake wine’. Don’t be deceived by the word “wine”, this drink is actually a terrifyingly potent whiskey, made from distilled rice with the addition of snake venom (often the bottle will contain an entire pickled cobra!). It’s safe to drink, as the venom is neutralised by the alcohol, and it’s believed locally to be a cure for all manner of ills, but I wouldn’t advise having more than three or you might have trouble getting up for your second day of trekking.
Day 5 – Sapa trekking
The second day of trekking will carry you deeper into the hills, and further from civilisation. On our trek we followed the course of gorge up the mountain side, offering fantastic views of the valley and river below, however the walk was muddy and slippery, so either bring good walking shoes with you, or rent a pair ($2 per day) in Sapa before setting out on the trek. By mid afternoon you’ll have finished walking and a bus will be waiting to carry you back to Sapa town and to your chosen hotel.
Assuming the trek that you booked doesn’t include the second night’s hotel (ours didn’t but some others do) you’ll have quite a few choices of quality establishments around the town. Our favourite was Cat Cat Twilight(45 Fansipang (Cat Cat Road ), Sapa) at $20 for a good comfy room with hot shower, a terrace overlooking the valley, and a real wood-burning fireplace in the room (this was worth it’s weight in gold-plated saffron for us, as we visited in late December and the temperature dropped to 2°C in the evenings. For your planned journey in April you can expect a more balmy 10 – 20°C but even so, a wood fire in your hotel room is a romantic and beautiful luxury that you won’t find in many places).
After two days of trekking you might also want to try the ‘H’mong traditional herbal bath’, soak yourself for an hour in a big wooden tub filled with hot water and local herbs, available at most of the spas around Sapa for about $5.
Day 6 -Bac Ha market
Sapa is famous for it’s bustling and colourful markets, where the minority tribes gather to trade produce, handicrafts and livestock, and the biggest market of them all is Bac Ha. This market takes place every Sunday and you can book a minibus from any travel outlet in town for around $8 per person (return). Try to get the earliest bus available, as the market is at it’s peak from the hours of 8am until 11am.
Here you’ll get to sample an array of local cuisine not found anywhere else in the world, you’ll see the hill tribe ladies garbed in outrageously coloured traditional outfits, and you’ll watch in bewildered awe as the frenzied bidding kicks off at the buffalo and cattle auction. Just try not to buy a puppy. Yes they’re adorable and yes, there’s hundreds of them on sale for as little as $10, but you’ll never get it in your hand luggage for your flight home!
The minibus will collect you from the market usually just after noon, and many will include in the fare a stop at a minority village, and at the Chinese border post Lao Chai, before delivering you either back to Sapa, or to the train station in Lao Cai, depending on whether you’re taking the overnight train or the sleeper bus back to Hanoi (whichever you choose, it’s best to book the return journey at the same time as you book the outgoing trip, as these tickets can often be fully booked a day or two in advance, especially at weekends)
Day 7 – To Dong Hoi
The bus or train should have you back in Hanoi for around 7am, at this point you can either get straight on to the day train to Dong Hoi, your gateway to the fantastic caves at Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park (there is no direct train from Sapa to Dong Hoi, as they’re different train companies so you’ll have to change at Hanoi), or you can spend the day in Hanoi itself to visit some of the sights that you missed on arrival day, and take the overnight sleeper train to Dong Hoi instead.
If you choose to take the day train (presumably because, understandably, you’d like to spend the night in a proper hotel bed, rather than a second consecutive night on a sleeper train) the only option will be the SE5 which leaves Hanoi at 9am and arrives in Dong Hoi at 7pm. The sleeper train is the SE19, leaving Hanoi at 19:35 and arriving the following morning at 6am. Both trains are $20 per person for the soft bed, air-conditioned cabins. As with all trains in Vietnam, you can book at travel agencies in town, at the station directly or online at Vietnam Railway.
Failing that, if you’re feeling flush and you’ve had enough of trains, you can get a direct flight to cover the 550km from Hanoi to Dong Hoi, which takes about 1 hour 30 minutes, compared to the train’s 10 hours. We checked online and saw several flights on this date starting at about $110 per person. (** If your budget can stretch to this let us know, because then you’ll be able to get to Phong Nha Ke Bang one day ahead of schedule and we can adjust the plan for the second week to give you an extra day somewhere nice**)
If you’re spending the night in Dong Hoi, the Sunshine Hotel is cheap and cheerful at $11 per night and has a nice local restaurant next door.
Day 8 – Phong Nha Ke Bang
Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is the second of the big three World Heritage Sites that you will be visiting in Vietnam (the first being Ha Long). Located about 40km Northwest of Dong Hoi, it’s a large area of near-untouched evergreen rainforest, covering the same type of jagged limestone karst mountains as you’ll have witnessed in Ha Long Bay. The park is home to some mind blowing cavern systems, including the largest cave in the world – Son Doong. Sadly, as this mammoth cave was only discovered recently, it isn’t yet open to the public. The government currently issues only 220 visitor passes per year, and the cost of getting your name on one of these is a cool $3000 per person. But do not be down-heartened, several other cave systems are open and easily accessible, and no less staggering.
Local buses run to the town of Phong Nha from Dong Hoi twice a day at 6am and 2pm, but it’s easier to just book a taxi from the train station/hotel/airport (depending on which method you chose to get there). A private taxi will cost you around $25 and takes 45 minutes.
As the town is just opening up to tourism, there are limited choices for hotels. We used Song Son Hotel (+84 52 367 7241 ), which is basic but clean, and a double room with private bathroom is just $10 including free wifi. If you can manage to get one of the rooms at the rear of the building, these have excellent views over the mountains. Another popular place on the main street is Easy Tiger Hostel ([email protected]), they only offer dormitory accommodation but this is the place to come to book a variety of cave tours and to eat some great food. Drop them an email for a full list of the various tours and adventure trips they offer.
On your arrival day we’d suggest starting out with a boat tour of the original Phong Nha Cave (which was the big attraction locally, until the last few years when others like Paradise, Son Doong and Dark Cave were discovered). The tour takes around three hours, much of which is done by boat. But once deep inside, the boat will drop you off and you can walk back to the cave entrance through the caverns. The cave is large and well lit so you won’t need a flashlight, but you will need a camera to capture the beautiful multicoloured stalactites and turquoise lagoons of the cave’s interior.
Afterwards, head back in to town for some good food and cold beer at either the Easy Tiger Hostel or The Cavern Bar (just next to the boat jetty), and prepare for a big day.
Day 9 – Paradise & Dark cave
Today is the day to visit some of the park’s more distant caves, and there are several ways to do this. At the time we visited, both Easy Tiger and the Phong Nha Farmstay offered organised jeep/minibus tours of the national park, which include visits to both Paradise Cave and Dark Cave as well as some smaller sites for around $40 per person. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can do the tour yourselves by motorbike. Automatic scooters are easy to ride and are available to rent throughout the town for around $5 per day, and it’s a great way to see the park in your own time. If you choose this option, just ask at the hostel or your hotel for a free map of the area.
Paradise Cave is so named for good reason. Discovered in 2005, this is Asia’s longest dry cave at well over 30km, and one of our favourite places in Vietnam. The steep climb you’ll have to undertake to reach the entrance might leave you a little short of breath, but it’s no comparison for how breathless you’ll be once you enter the main cavern. The ceiling is 150m above you, and the cave is so wide that it could easily accommodate an entire football stadium, lengthways. Stalactites and stalagmites the size of buildings, and bizarre & beautiful rock formations surround you. If you listen carefully you can even hear the musical chiming of water droplets falling from the roof into hundreds of shallow pools. It’s a magnificent and magical place. Try to get there early before the tour buses arrive from Dong Hoi, and you’ll have it all to yourselves.
Next, to the polar opposite caving experience; Dark Cave. As it’s name would suggest, this cave is not artificially illuminated, and what natural light there is does not extend far beyond the mouth of the cave. To get to this one, you’ll have to get wet and dirty. The entrance fee of $15 includes a kayak, waterproof torch and a life jacket, because it’s only accessible from the river. And once inside, you’ll be knee deep and more in mud and water. Luckily, when you’re done you can clean off with a swim in the crystal clear water of the river.
Day 10 – To Hue through the DMZ
The DMZ Bus leaves every day from the Phong Nha Farmstay, and will carry you to the former Imperial Capital of Hue, via the scenic route. This includes a drive along the still bomb-crater strewn Ho Chi Minh trail, and the chance to crawl around in the subterranean labyrinth that is the Vinh Moc Tunnels.
The bus arrives in Hue in mid-afternoon which should leave you plenty of time to take in the vast Imperial Citadel, and some of the surrounding tombs and monuments such as Minh Mang (the largest) & Tu Duc.
A nice and cheap hotel in the tourist district is Minh Tam (7/4 Chu Van An, Hue )
Day 11 – Easyrider Hue to Prao
For a nice break away from public transport, we’d suggest you book yourselves on an Easy-Rider adventure tour from Hue to Hoi An, via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We did this same trip in the opposite direction, and it was just fantastic in every way.
The ‘Easy-Riders’ are a group of motorcycle guides who’ll carry you and your luggage aboard their trusty Honda motorcycles to see all of the remote and hard to reach places that you’d never find or never get to via public transport.
The first day of the tour will take you along the fabled Ho Chi Minh Trail from Hue, right the across the country to P’rao, on the border with Laos. On the way you’ll traverse everything from lush lowland jungle to misty mountain peaks. The guides are knowledgeable and enormously experienced. They know the history, they know where all the good food is to be found and they’ll introduce you to the to countless villages, minority tribes, and hidden gems of culture along the way.
On arrival in P’rao you will stay in a comfortable mountain home-stay with hot water and wifi. And you’ll drink long in to the night, exchanging stories with your guides and their local friends.
The Easy-Riders website states the fees as $75 per day including accommodation, gear and entrance fees (and obviously, you’ll need two), but by approaching Chau directly (he’s the guide we used, drop him an email at [email protected] in advance) the fees are more like $40 – $50.
Day 12 – Prao to Hoi An
The second day of the tour will bring you down from the mountains, stopping at waterfalls, a tea plantation, some natural hot springs, and craft workshops along the way. By early afternoon, you will reach the coast and you’ll have the opportunity to see Marble Mountain, and the great beach at My Khe.
I’d also suggest that you ask your guide to include My Son (pronounced mee-sun) on this day of the tour. It’s a ruined Cham era temple city in the jungle south of Hoi An, it’s a great place for photos and it’s an even better place for pretending to be Indiana Jones. My Son isn’t far from the road you’ll be travelling on and your guide won’t mind at all calling there for an hour or so.
Finally, as the sun goes down, you’ll arrive in World Heritage Site number three: Hoi An.
You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to good hotels here, and doubtless your Easy-Rider guides will have their own recommendations. Our favourite (and we stayed in a few) was Thanh Binh III. For $20 per night you can get a swish ground-floor double room with a big bathtub, the best bed that we encountered in three months in Vietnam, and a private enclosed garden and sitting area. The price even includes a great buffet breakfast.
Day Thirteen – Hoi An
The Ancient Town of Hoi An itself really comes to life in the evenings, when thousands of coloured lanterns are lit around the town, and countless floating candles are set adrift on the river.
During the day time, we’d suggest you hire bicycles (for as little as $2 per day), and take in the town at your leisure, maybe get some clothes made at one of Hoi An’s many great tailoring shops. If you want activities, a local chap called ‘Mr Trung’ offers a tour of his home village outside of town. This includes trying your hand at pottery making and fishing, with guidance from the villagers who do this for a living, and also includes an excellent cooking lesson from Mr Trung and his wife back at their home (you can get your hands on his secret recipe for the best spring rolls I’ve ever had, and I’ve spent several years of my life in Asia!). The tour can be done by bicycle, or if you prefer, Mr Trung at [email protected] can also arrange motorcycle transport. ($8 pp or you can find him every evening at the Seafood Garden Restaurant in Hoi An).
Otherwise, if you want to spend your last day relaxing, there is the lovely An Bahn beach just 5km from town. It’s a nice bike ride there, and there’s many a decent bar, restaurant and spa located along the beach front.
Also unmissable is Hoi An is the ‘Bia Hoi’ culture, literally translated as ‘Fresh Beer’. These are locally produced micro-brew ales offered in most of the town restaurants and bars for as little as 2000 vnd each (less than 10 US cents). A one-dollar bar crawl is perfectly feasible.
Day Fourteen – Home time
The best way to get back to Hanoi from Hoi An is a direct flight from nearby Da Nang Airport. Internal flights are regular and cheap (we saw several on this date for around $60 each) and should have you back in the capital in under two hours. Depending on the time of your flight home, this might leave you enough time to go souvenir shopping in either Hanoi or Hoi An before you leave. Be aware that many items, especially things made from wood or animal products (including the Snake Wine) will be confiscated by customs in your own country. This is certainly true of customs in the EU, but check the regulations for your own country before splashing out on expensive gifts that you may not be allowed to bring home.
** We’ve tried to include a bit of everything in this itinerary, but obviously in a big country like Vietnam, there are a lot more things to see and do than we could cram in to a 14 day schedule. If there is something you really want to do that we haven’t included, let us know and I’ll be happy to reshuffle a little to try and accommodate. Likewise, if we’ve suggested something that doesn’t interest you, again, we can change things around and maybe fit in something else instead. Whatever you do, have a great time. Bon Voyage!
Book in advance! That day we would advice you to book couple of things in advance: Book the Water Puppet Theater show as soon as you get there (shows can be sold quickly). Book your cruise if not already done in Hanoi. Book your train for Sapa for day 3.