Vietnam Me: Rails Edition
December 24, 2017 9:30 AM   Subscribe

I'll be flying my family to Vietnam in late March (so after the lunar New Year celebrations). I need your recommendations.

We'll either be flying into HCMC and training up to Hanoi or the other way around. The plan is to spend 2+ days in each city at the front and back end, and split up the train journey with one overnight ~halfway in between (Hoi An or Da Nang?). No plan to rent a car.

Five people, kids from 7-15. We've traveled extensively as a family, and love trekking around cities on foot, visiting markets, temples/churches, fresh food, awesome scenery. We are emphatically not resort or package tour people at all. What areas to stay in? What would you see? Where would you break up the rail journey? What mustn't we miss? What should I know about VN that I wouldn't be able to intuit or suss out, having traveled elsewhere in the region and having a pretty good store of travel-to-unusual-places resources I consult on the regular?

posted by Emperor SnooKloze to Travel & Transportation around Vietnam (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I loved, loved, loved Hoi An, and I think I am not alone. It is just outside Da Nang, but you might as well stay in Hoi An. I stayed at the Essence Hoi An, which was recommended to me by a Vietnamese friend who lives in HCMC and was very concerned that I have the best possible experiences. There's lots to do around there - riding bicycles around the fields, ruins to visit, nearby An Bang beach, lots of restaurants in Hoi An.

My one piece of advice would be, don't be shy about hiring a tour guide for day trips. I hired a guide to take me to the My Son ruins near Hoi An and he was brilliant.

Rusty Compass was far and away the best travel guide (besides my friend and his wife). Every bit of advice I took from that site was spot on.
posted by maggiemaggie at 12:51 PM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

My friends and I took the train from HCMC to Hoi An, stayed in the Red House Homestay which was more B&Bish than hotelish. The place was lovely, and the folks running it were super friendly and fun. The train, on the other hand, was not great, though that could be because were trying to sleep on the train and we all had colds.
posted by aubilenon at 1:21 PM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you are at all into art then I highly highly highly recommend Sophie's Art Tour. It's a half day tour of small galleries, private collections and the museum that gives you a really great historical overview of Vietnamese history through its art.

I also did a half-day bike tour with Grasshopper and loved the experience.
posted by brookeb at 2:34 PM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding Sophie's Art Tour (HCMC)! It was definitely one of the highlights of my trip.
posted by maggiemaggie at 4:28 PM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hmm I've been to hoi an twice (the last time two days ago!) , and I'm not crazy about it. It's super super touristy - you will see more tourists than residents there. Consequently, it's also just about the most expensive place in the country.

You will get cheaper and better accommodation in Danang, where there is fierce competition, and I personally feel there's more to do.

You can easily access hoi am as a day trip from danang. I also recommend the my son ruins, the son tra mountain. Skip ba na hills, but consider an afternoon evening in Asia Park. Fifteen dollars gets your entry into a theme park with basically no queues. I walked straight onto the roller coaster ride, pretty darn good fun.

Pay to upgrade to sleeper carriages if you can, they are much nicer and still very affordable. I nth hiring day trip guides. Make sure you try regional cuisine wherever you go, pho in saigon is different from Hanoi. Mi quang in the middle of the country etc.

I have a real affinity for the more hilly areas of Vietnam, the closest you can get via train is Lao Cai near the border with China.

Have a great trip.
posted by smoke at 5:50 PM on December 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers so far; I deeply appreciate your taking time on Christmas Eve (whether you celebrate or no). I love the bike & art tours ideas.

MaggieMaggie - thanks for the note on hiring daytrip guides. It's not something I'm wont to do, but it's something I know I should be more willing to undertake. My time in Cambodia was made by the guide who ushered me around Siem Reap and Angkor (lo these many years ago).

Smoke - I'm definitely interested in what you're saying about both Da Nang and Lao Cai: if you're of a mind, I'd love to hear anything you might share.

You guys rock. Happy Christmas and keep it coming.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 8:31 PM on December 24, 2017

I’m going to put in a plug for Hue. It’s beautiful, less touristy than Hoi An, and has amazing and interesting local food. I very much enjoyed wandering around the former royal palace and the river. I rode a motorbike out to the huge cemetery outside of town which was really beautiful and eerie.

I also like Dalat if you’re interested in a Vietnamese mountain/hill town.
posted by faineg at 6:03 AM on December 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I did a similar trip last year! I spent zero time in HCMC or Saigon, catching the train the same night I arrived in HCMC, and taking a taxi straight from Ninh Binh to the Hanoi airport, so I have nothing to add with regards to the big cities.

I'll start by seconding the advice to pay for a sleeper car on the train. You should be able to get a private one all to yourselves. The nicer ones have 4 beds each, and I think some have 6? (Check out for all the info you could want about train travel)

I cannot recommend Hoi An - I found it way too touristy. I wish I hadn't spent as long there. However, nearby My Son was definitely worth a trip (bomb craters from the Vietnam War overlaying phenomenal ruins), so if you're only staying for one day, I guess you could combine My Son with a bike ride around the countryside.

I was only in Hue for 2 nights, but I lucked out and managed to visit the imperial city when it was almost empty -- I found it magical to have some of the gardens almost all to myself. If I'd had more time, I would have biked along the river to visit more of the temples. While there was still a strong tourist presence, Hue felt like more of a real city.

I spent the last few days of my trip in a hotel outside of Ninh Binh. The geology of the area was awesome - incredibly steep spires rising out of perfectly flat plains. It is admittedly somewhat touristy (especially if you go for a rowboat tour - there are rivers that flow into and back out of caves, which I thought was worth the time and $$ to see), but I had a lot of fun biking between the sights.

You may notice that biking features heavily in all my comments =) As a 30-something woman traveling alone, I felt safe enough to explore by bike, and all hotel/hostel staff seemed to encourage this.
posted by Metasyntactic at 8:19 PM on December 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

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