Let’s start with a disclaimer. This is in no way an official route, but simply a recollection of how I visited Vietnam from South to North.
Why did I start in the South? Well, flights into Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) were cheaper than those for Hanoi. It was as easy as that. However, it turned out to be quite a lucky strike for me. See, I like nature, I’ll always prefer village life over city life, and Vietnam differs a lot from South to North. The South is the more commercialized side of the country so starting from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh and ending in the peace and quite of the mountains of SaPa was a good way of touring the country.
You might also want to read Central and North Vietnam Route
Here’s the circular route I took in the South of Vietnam. Buses around the country are pretty efficient and comfortable. I got an open ticket with 4 destinations to use up over a period of a month. You don’t have to have fixed dates. They give you the contacts of the agencies they work with in the places you’ll visit, and when you decide you’re done with a place and want to make your next move, you just inform the local agency and they will provide you with a ticket for the next day.
Ho Chi Minh
People warn you about the invasion of motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh. Believe them. The buzzing of the 2-wheeled devils is a constant, as if you had just shaken a tree with a beehive and the whole swarm is now out in the open. Crossing roads is hard, as even though you might get a green light for pedestrians, and traffic has stopped from one side, you might find, half way through your crossing, that some other lane has been opened towards your zebra, despite the fact that you got a green. So just a friendly advise – check the road at 360°!
Other than that the city is a splendour – I walked around it for 8 hours non-stop on my first day there. It was the first time I saw people actually wearing the Vietnamese hats as daily attire, and this fascinated me.
I ate Pho for the first time – a soup with pasta, that you can find both in gourmet restaurants, but better still on the street from women, who sell it from the early hours of the morning – Vietnamese people eat it for breakfast.
I stopped at food stalls and got myself Banh Mi – a soft crusted baguette with egg (for vegetarians like me) or meat and then a stick of cucumber, sauces, cilantro and chilies.
The parks are pretty, the University area has many price-friendly cafeterias and if you walk away from the main tourist area and into the alleys, you can find women cooking meals in little shops full of locals – my favourite kind of eating place.
All in all, a good start to Vietnam.
I got lucky with Mui Ne. I booked into a 12-bed dorm room and landed myself a stay at a hotel up in the hills. Even though I was in the budget section, I was ‘allowed’ to go to the pool area, including beach towel and read away, lying on a sunbed under the shade of a big umbrella, during the so horridly hot afternoon hours.
What’s more, the long stretch of white sand beach in Mui Ne is lined up with resorts, that block public entrance to the beach, unless you go through them, but then I always had the feeling that I had to consume something.
But there is one, sneaky path to the beach – why did I call it sneaky? I believe the beach is a natural, free to all luxury – but in any case, just down the hill and a little to the left, from the hotel I was staying in, there is this narrow alley that leads you to the beach where many locals come at sunset for a swim, while the tides out.
I used to love sitting there and watch as the fishermen went out, in their giant bowl like boats and come in with their catch, then take the fish one by one out of the net, to the amusement of the curious eyes of the people surrounding the boat once it reaches the safety of the sand.
Mopeds in this area cost between $2-3 a day – if you can drive one, I think it’s worth it. If not, do like me and take a sunrise or sunset tour to the sand dunes – it’s still relatively cheap and beautiful to see the desert at such close proximity – it almost feels as if you’ve driven to another part of the world, but really, it’s just round the corner.
Off I went from the blistering heat of Mui Ne to the cool mountains of Dalat. I was welcomed with an afternoon of rain, but then again, it was June, aka rainy season.
Regardless, the lake in the middle of the city brings a calm I appreciated. The market street, just beside it, with the flowers, vegetables, clothes and giant avocados on sale, is always full of life and interesting people and also a few places with good-priced food where locals eat.
The cable car across the valley and up to the temple, the walk down to the waterfalls, the visit to the Crazy House and the 100 Roofs Cafe, where you have to find your way through a labyrinth in weirdly shaped rocks to get to the bar or leave, for that matter – were all worth the time and the dime.
In Dalat, most hostels offer a family dinner where you book your spot in the morning and then at the stated time, all the guests come down to have dinner altogether in an almost buffet like manner. Loads of food is set on the table and everyone starts digging in, while sharing travel stories and plans.
The best part of Dalat, according to many, is taking the Easy Rider Tour around for a day, or even cross to other villages over 3 days or so. You get assigned a driver, who will take you over through the highlands to enjoy the nature you would otherwise miss out on, if you, like me, were pretty much scared of riding motorbikes. If you don’t good on you – go ahead – everyone highly recommends it!
If I have to be honest? Don’t bother. I put Nha Trang on my list cause the open bus ticket didn’t cost that much more to include it. But when I got there, it was just a city with a long beach, full of sunbeds and way too touristy and non-Vietnamese for me. Then again, cause of my instant non-affinity with the place, I only stayed one night and left the following afternoon, so it might be my fault for not giving it a chance.
In the end, I completed the circuit going back to Ho Chi Minh for one single reason. I had seen that you could get from Vietnam to Cambodia by boat on the Mekong Delta River and it seemed like a good variant to the many bus trips I take. So I got back to Ho Chi Minh, secured myself a ticket for the next day, stayed the night and left in the early morning.
Crossing over to Cambodia
Let’s end with another disclaimer, shall we? I don’t usually take planned tours and this 3-day tour from Vietnam to Cambodia, cost as much as 2 nights somewhere and a bus to Cambodia, so I went ahead and bought it.
The first 2 days of the tour, you’re in Vietnam, doing mostly touristic stuff – going to the floating market, to an island where they produce so much stuff out of coconut, or rice, a temple – all pretty much interesting, accomodation is included and they throw in a couple of lunches too.
However, the 3rd day, when you transit into Cambodia, was tricky. Most of our tour buddies headed back to Ho Chi Minh and although I mostly travel alone, I was glad there was at least one other person with me.
Why? Well, it’s definitely an experience to go on a boat for hours through the Mekong Delta’s narrow channels, past river villages and houses on stilts, but even though I travel mostly alone, I think I would have felt uncomfortable being the only one in the boat, more or less in the middle of nowhere, just with the boat captain and the ‘guide’ who takes care of your papers.
When we reached the Cambodian border, the guide crossed the border with our passports and left us to wait at the floating river station with a stern-looking guard for good part of an hour. Then the boat captain, got a call and told us all was okay with our papers and we could cross. So we walked up the stairs up to firm land, crossed the border on foot, past a Cambodian soldier that didn’t even bother asking for papers and were told to walk to a white van at the end of the road.
Crossing a border without your passport in hand can make you feel a bit uneasy.
When we reached the van, our guide passed our passports to his Cambodian equivalent it appears, who’d take care of our Visas he assured us. The driver drove off and into a narrow unpaved road through trees, which looked as if we were nosing into the jungle. Turned out the immigration office was inside there, past those trees and all turned well, but again – had I been alone, I might have felt a little stressed. So, just a heads up!
The route of the rest of Vietnam continues here – Central and North Vietnam Route