The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Southeast Asia: Andrea Ross of Journeys Within.
During the ten years she lived in Cambodia, Andrea founded Journeys Within (as well as the nonprofit Journeys Within Our Community, which operates education and poverty relief initiatives in the region). Though now living stateside, she and colleague April have traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia, and the company has offices in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar. Their network keeps them up-to-date on the newest can’t-miss accommodations, restaurants, and experiences, and their close relationships with the region’s hotels ensure that clients get the best rates and the best care, regardless of their travel budget; Andrea meets with each of her guides every two years to ensure that they offer the highest caliber of service. Andrea specializes in family travel, while April is the beach and island expert—and a master at crafting affordable yet extravagant honeymoons. Both women are committed to philanthropic travel, weaving volunteer work into many itineraries.
Where to Stay and Eat
Hotels worth the splurge
In Saigon: the Caravelle Saigon. The Heritage Wing has been renovated, and the Signature rooms—which include access to a private lounge for breakfast, afternoon tea, cocktails, and evening canapés—make a big hotel feel much more intimate and personal.
In Hanoi: The Sofitel Metropole is a wonderful escape from the craziness of the city’s traffic and noise.
In Hoi An, the Nam Hai beachside resort is the height of luxury—if you’re going, splurge for a pool villa—but for a more cultural experience, I love the Anantara Hoi An. This resort has all the amenities, including free bike rentals and a great spa, and it’s just on the outskirts of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Quarter. Book a river-view room.
Best bang-for-your-buck hotels
In Hanoi: For prime value, I love two boutique properties in the Old Quarter—the Essence Hanoi and La Siesta both have ideal locations and offer great service. Make sure to request a room on one of the higher floors to get away from the street noise, and insist on a window (yes, some rooms don’t have them). These hotels don’t tend to come with great views, but the value for money makes up for it.
In Hue, consider Villa Hue, a small training hotel where local students learn the hospitality trade. They have big rooms, and a staff eager to help!
Restaurants the locals love
Narrowing down restaurants in Vietnam is almost impossible—the food is amazing and there are so many great places to eat. In Hanoi, I love Banh Cuon Viet, where you can get Vietnamese steamed rice rolls cooked right in front of you…if you’re brave, you can try to make one yourself.
In Hoi An, check out Streets; it’s run by an organization that provides housing and job training for disadvantaged youth, and they serve all my favorite Central Vietnam specialties, such as spring rolls, white rose dumplings, and pomelo salad. Both the Western and the Vietnamese dishes are delicious at the Cargo Club, but the real draw is the array of patisserie-inspired chocolate desserts—hard to find elsewhere in Asia.
When your kids are asking for comfort food, head to Jaspas for burgers and pasta (there are outlets in Hanoi and Saigon). The service is fantastic and the food is very good. I’ve been known to enjoy their mango daiquiris too!
You shouldn’t miss Hue pancakes. The best ones are served on the city’s streets—the vendor will give you bowls of vegetables, meat, and sauce, which you mix to taste inside a thin rice pancake.
What to See and Do
Dalat is a pretty, hillside town popular with Vietnamese vacationers. Sure, it’s a little kitschy—you can pose for a photo astride a pony standing next to a waterfall—but it has some great museums and gorgeous scenery (not to mention some of the most exciting mountain biking in Vietnam). Kids love the strawberry farms and the sky tram, and everyone enjoys the cooler weather.
I love the outskirts of Hanoi…take a bike ride along the Red River, visit rice paddies, or enjoy a home-cooked meal in a local village. You’re close to the city, but life has a completely different pace and appearance than downtown!
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is underwhelming; the long lines for just a quick view of embalmed Uncle Ho make it a bit of a letdown. Halong Bay can also be disappointing—unless you plan properly. To avoid the crowds and trash, book a private boat, or a tour that goes instead to Bai Tu Long Bay.
A city tour by motorcycle; it’s such a fun way to see a place as the locals so often do, and also to avoid spending another day in a van! Saigon and Hue are both good options for this; don’t do it in Hanoi, where the traffic is terrifying.
Tour the Cu Chi Tunnels (secret corridors used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War) with a Vietnamese veteran, followed by dinner in his home. You’ll hear all about what it was like to help build—and then live inside—this elaborate tunnel system.
The best place in Vietnam for downtime is Hoi An, on the central coast. Rent a bike and head to Cargo Club for breakfast, then ride to the beach and enjoy some time by the ocean. After lunch, bike back to town for some shopping, or take a boat to An Island and ride your bike around the rice paddies and local homes. In the evening, catch a free cultural performance in the Old Town’s main square.
Best for thrill-seekers
Oxalis Adventure Tours organizes expeditions into the world’s largest cave, with multi-day excursions that include camping in the caves, trekking, spelunking, and a farm stay.
Since the monsoons hit northern, central, and southern Vietnam at different times, weather across Vietnam varies widely; if you plan on traveling throughout the country, the driest months to visit are March and October. In the north, the best weather happens during March and April. For Hoi An, Hue, and the central coast, the optimal time is February, March, and April; October, November, and December are ideal for Ho Chi Minh City and the south.
During the Tet Festival, or Vietnamese New Year (it falls in late January or early February, coinciding with the Chinese New Year), the country comes to a halt as everyone returns to their hometowns to celebrate. Also avoid July and August, which are very hot.
Being anxious! Vietnam’s history with the U.S. can make American travelers nervous before they visit, and then once they arrive, the traffic and constant movement can be overwhelming. Vietnam is an incredibly busy place, but the people are lovely and bear no hard feelings toward Americans. Don’t let the history and the horns unnerve you!
Often, travelers don’t want to be rude or appear to undervalue a product or service by bargaining—but in Vietnam it’s an essential part of life. A bit of back-and-forth can often save you 20 percent to 50 percent off the original price, and everyone will walk away happy.
People are sometimes surprised at the level of tipping in Southeast Asia, but as life in the cities has gotten more expensive, guides and drivers increasingly depend on tips. We recommend $10 to $20 a day for a guide and about half that for the driver. For hotel staff, we recommend $1 or $2 for porters, and the same per day for room staff.
There are three ways to get your Vietnam visa. You can apply through the consulate in your home country; this usually costs about $100 and requires that you either mail in or drop off your passport. It’s cheaper to apply online for a Visa on Arrival, but you might still have to wait in line or pay additional fees at the airport. Most of our clients opt for a VIP Visa on Arrival: For about $200, an immigration official whisks you to the head of the visa line, then helps you collect your luggage and find your tour guide.
A beach ball! They’re cheap and easy to pack; blow them up on the beach in Hoi An or Halong Bay and you’ll make instant friends of the local kids.
Despite the rapid development in Vietnam, the conical hats still worn by many locals are a truly iconic symbol of the country. Whether on the pho seller crossing the street in Hanoi or the rice farmer in the fields around Hoi An, these hats are a beautiful tribute to Vietnam.
I love Vietnamese lacquerware—trays that I bought years ago are still in perfect condition. You can find lovely pieces on Lacquer Street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, or in Hoi An and Saigon. You also can get clothes made at bargain prices; bring your favorite items for a tailor to copy, or choose among the western and Vietnamese designs in each shop’s catalogs. In Hoi An, I love Ms. Trang at 47 Trang Hung Dao Street; she’s been making clothes for my kids and me for years and has great fabrics and pricing.