- Day 1 – Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City
- Day 2 – Explore Ho Chi Minh City
- Day 3 – Hanoi
- Day 4 – Hanoi or Halong Bay
- Day 5 – Siem Reap
- Day 6 – Angkor Wat
- Day 7 – On to your next adventure!
When I was in Southeast Asia for the first time, I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew I wanted to go from Vietnam to Cambodia but I wasn’t sure where to stop, how much time to allot, and if I was missing out by choosing one city over another. Having been, I can say if I had to do it again, this is the itinerary I’d go with.
Day 1 – Arrive in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City
Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City are the same and you’ll often hear them referred to by either name. Since the airport code for Ho Chi Minh city is SGN, it’s often easier to refer to it as Saigon but just know people will refer to it in either form.
Arriving at HCMC is definitely an eye opening experience. Make sure you have your visa before arriving (if you need one). It’s become much easier to visit now that Vietnam has eVisas available so just have it ready to avoid any delays or problems at the airport. US citizens must have a visa to visit the country. Although it is possible to get a visa on arrival, it’s only available if you travel by air.
Once outside, you’ll be bombarded by people coming up to you offering you a taxi. Just ignore them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it that bad outside of an airport than at SGN. They see tourists coming out of the arrivals hall and see walking dollar signs. As of 2019, Uber no longer works in Vietnam so stick with the Mai Linh taxis (they’re green) when traveling. However, make sure it’s an actual Mai Linh taxi and not an imposter. To be completely safe, you might want to just arrange a pick up from your hotel.
One thing to note. In Vietnam, I noticed that “on time” usually meant about 15 to 30 mins late. There were certainly times when I thought the shuttle had forgotten and I was about to arrange another ride. Also, if you think I’m being overly critical, just sit outside the arrivals hall and watch the others waiting for their rides as well. It’s not a happy group.
When choosing your hotel, I’d suggest either going with a brand you know or a well recommended hostel. I would NOT recommend going off the pictures you might see on a booking website. The pictures are almost always old and look nothing like it in real life. I made that mistake when I went and I was so creeped out by the hotel, I thought about just leaving and moving to another hotel.
Also, try to get a hotel near the Ben Thanh market or Notre Dame cathedral if it fits your budget. Those are really central to the area and since there is no metro in HCMC, you’ll be either walking or taking a cab everywhere. Obviously Vietnam is really inexpensive compared to the dollar but I don’t like taxis since it’s just a constant battle of not knowing if you’re getting ripped off or not. I’d rather just walk and enjoy the outdoors. I’m also more likely to stumble across something that I otherwise wouldn’t have if I were in a car.
Once at your hotel, get acclimated to the heat and humidity and walk around to get your bearings. If you have time, go to Ben Thanh market and walk around. It’s a huge market and you can get everything there from custom made suits to random gifts to food. Of course, you’ll have to saddle up to one of the many food stalls and get a bowl of pho. I don’t know why but there is something satisfying about eating a hot bowl of pho on a hot day.
After, I really recommend just walking around some more just to get used to the traffic and noise. Drivers in Vietnam don’t really care about the street signals and they’re basically treated as decorations more than anything. Also, don’t be alarmed if you see motorcycles and mopeds driving down the sidewalk. You’ll learn to have your head on a swivel. When it’s time to cross the street, just wait for someone else to cross with you…that’s what I did.
Day 2 – Independence Hall, Notre Dame, Post Office, Ben Thanh Market
Your sightseeing day begins at Independence Hall. You’ll want to visit early to avoid the crowds and the tour buses and to walk around with a little peace. The building is actually fairly large and has a lot of rooms you can see.
Next, take a stroll down the main boulevard and go to Notre Dame Cathedral. You can’t miss it because the park in front of Independence Hall leads straight to the cathedral. Outside you’ll find a few coffee shops and vendors selling food but you’ll also see people taking their wedding photos out there. I think I saw about ten couples getting their photos taken when I was there, all trying to get that perfect shot somehow through all the people.
Then, walk across the street and visit the post office. The story is that the building was designed by Eiffel, the same man who designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris. That’s the story at least. The interior is grand and definitely worth the stop. It’s also pretty cool to send your friends and family a postcard from there since…well why not? The post office is packed with people and you can buy postcards there that are completely overpriced or you can just walk around to one of the many shops surrounding the post office and buy better postcards for cheaper.
Finally, walk or hop in a cab to get back to where you started (if your hotel is in that area) and check out Ben Thanh Market if you didn’t get a chance the other day. Even if you did, you’ll know that there is so much food to try that it’s a great place to stop for a late lunch.
If you wanted, you could take an afternoon trip out to the Cu Chi tunnels as well. The site is about 2 hours away from the city so you may want to do that first but then you may not make it back in time for the other sites around the city. Depending on your speed, it’s definitely possible.
For dinner, check out Banh Mi Huynh Hoa. There was a line out front (which is always a good sign) and the sandwiches were incredibly good. I ate one, got back in line and bought another one so I could eat it back at the hotel. Yeah, it was really good. Also, there might be a long line outside but it moves quickly. The only choice you make is how many you want to buy. No menu, no options, just quantity so it’s pretty simple ordering.
Day 3 – Depart for Hanoi
We’ve got to keep moving and if HCMC isn’t your cup of tea (I didn’t like the city too much) we’re moving on to Hanoi. Getting to Hanoi is easy since there are multiple flights a day that will connect the two cities. However, try to get an early flight since it’ll take about an hour to get from the airport to the city.
Getting to the city, you can either take an airport shuttle or a taxi. There are a few airport shuttles that will take you into town that are run by the airlines. You don’t need to be a passenger on the airline (except for maybe Jetstar) so check before if you’re unsure.
When choosing your hotel, you’ll want to figure out if you want to stay in the Old Quarter or the French Quarter. Both are within walking distance of each other but the vibes are drastically different. The French quarter is certainly nicer and is where you’ll find the opera house, cafes, and high end retail stores. The Old Quarter is more of a traditional area that has street markets, motorcycles, and tight alleys and streets. Depending on what you prefer, you’ll get a drastically different experience.
Staying in the Old Quarter makes walking around and trying all the different little street food places more convenient. However, this is also where a lot of the tourists will stay so beware of scams. The two I commonly saw are ladies selling “donuts” and charging outrageous prices for them but will practically force feed you one to “try”. Of course they’ll say it isn’t free or try to get you to buy a bag of them. There are locals who sell donuts and walk around but you’ll also notice other locals flock to them like bees to honey. You’ll KNOW when they’re real because you’re hoping they don’t sell out while you’re waiting (there’s only so many they can carry).
The other scam is to see people carrying fruit or some goods in a traditional hat. They’ll offer to let you pose for a photo with their hat and you carrying the goods and then ask for money afterwards. It wouldn’t be a scam so much if you were the one asking to see if they’ll allow you to do but they pretty much force it on you and then demand money. My advice is to keep walking and just say no to everything.
Outside of the scammers, Hanoi is a wonderful place to visit and I enjoyed it way more than HCMC. The vibe is different and the food is as well. It’s amazing how many different food stalls are around each selling variations of one dish. A banh mi shop will sell different variations of the banh mi but that’s it. A pho place will have different toppings and variations of pho but that’s it.
Walk around Hanoi and explore the city. It’s bustling and wonderful and there’s so much food to try that you’ll amaze yourself as to how much you can eat. You’ll think you’re full but then you’ll pass by another packed shop and you’ll have to try it. At least that’s how it went for me.
Day 4 – Hanoi or Halong Bay
Wake up and decide if you want to explore the rest of Hanoi and go to the different sites like the Hanoi Hilton, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the opera house, walk around the lake, etc. There’s certainly plenty to do to keep you busy for the whole day.
If you want, you can take a day trip to Halong Bay. The journey by a private transfer car will be about 3-4 hours so you need to get up early and go. Many tours will have an option where they’ll provide the shuttle to the bay, the boat ride around, and the shuttle back. Since you’re short on time, I’d strongly recommend this route. Going about it separately might save you a few dollars but I don’t think it’s worth miniscule savings.
This UNESCO site is certainly worth visiting and although there are 1 night cruises available that you might think are worth it, I don’t really think it is. Unless if you have some sort of private tour of the bay with your own boat, all the boats pretty much go to the same islands and take the same route. Also, if you were on a 1 night cruise, you’re pretty much just paying for the bed since the boat doesn’t go anywhere overnight. Sure, you might see more of the bay but after a while, it’ll all blur together. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful but you don’t need more than a full day.
If you do go to Halong bay, you’ll have an early start and a late finish. You probably won’t be back until about 9pm so doing anything afterwards is pretty much out of the question.
Day 5 – Siem Reap (Angkor Wat)
You’ll more than likely have a somewhat easy morning since most departures from Hanoi to Siem Reap depart in the afternoon. You’ll need a visa when going to Siem Reap but you can get one on arrival at Siem Reap. However, remember that most people on your flight will probably be getting a visa on arrival as well so it might take time if you don’t have one before you land.
Once you arrive, you’ll have to get a tuk tuk to your hotel. You can have your hotel arrange a pick up for you since there are only a limited number of tuk tuks out in front of the airport. Or, you can just snag one once you’re outside. They’ll usually quote you something for the ride but try and get to the driver. He will definitely ask if you need a driver for Siem Reap the next day. If you feel like he’s reasonable and you like the vibe, I’d recommend asking him to be your driver or your stay. He’ll more than likely be willing to make a deal for the entire trip. If I remember correctly, I paid the guy $20 USD for the day to Siem Reap and although he offered to take me back to the airport for free the next day, I tipped him an extra $10 because he was so great.
If you’re there early enough, try to get your visitor’s pass for Angkor Wat for the next day the night before. You can only purchase these after 5pm but if you’re there after 5pm, you can walk around the park for free with that pass so can see some of the sites the evening before. What’s also great is that this way, you won’t be waiting in the massive lines the next morning to purchase your ticket. There is a sense of sly achievement as you drive past all the people standing in line to purchase their ticket in the morning.
Day 6 – Angkor Wat
Spend the full day (or as much energy as you have) exploring Angkor Wat. The park is massive so don’t expect to see everything in just one day. It won’t happen.
However, you do want to get there early so you can avoid all the crowds. Now MOST people will tell you to get there early to watch the sunrise. What they won’t tell you is that EVERY TOUR BUS also comes at that time. If you think you’re going to get the perfect photo, it won’t happen.
I didn’t go to see the sunrise but I did get there at sunrise only so I could go visit the other temples while no one was there. Since all the attention is at the main site, you just have to go to one of the numerous other temples to visit and just come back to the main temple later in the day. If you come back a little after sunrise, all the tour busses will be gone since they usually go back to their hotels to sleep and then come back later in the day.
It’s impossible to say which temples to visit because I don’t remember all the names but suffice it to say one day will probably be plenty for most people. The site is huge, it’ll be hot and humid, in some places there will be tons of people, and you’ll be pretty exhausted from climbing all the temples (tip: getting up the temple is the easy part…coming down is the dangerous part). I lasted until the afternoon and then I was ready to call it a day since I was so tired.
At night, head over to pub street and enjoy the $1 beers and the food. Siem Reap is a town that wouldn’t exist without tourism so the whole town is geared toward tourists. That said, resist the urge to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe and walk around a bit. There are definitely a few places to eat Khmer cuisine and if in doubt, just ask your tuk tuk driver. If you’re in the area early enough, you can even go to the market (a little hidden but you’ll find it) and eat there. Just remember it’s a working market and there is no refrigeration so the smell can be a little challenging.
Day 7 – On to the next adventure!
Wake up and fly out of Siem Reap to your next adventure! A lot of international airlines fly to Siem Reap so getting a flight home is not going to be a problem.
So there is your guide to Vietnam and Cambodia in 7 days. Sure you won’t see everything but you’ll get a look and taste for what both countries have to offer and see the world famous UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat as well. You’ll also get to try the culinary differences in northern and southern Vietnam. This 7 day itinerary will showcase the highlights as well as get you thinking about your next trip back.