The Best Itinerary for Vietnam

Hanoi/Oyster

With ancient temples, shimmering beaches, jaw-dropping mountain landscapes, world-famous street food, and a fascinating history, Vietnam is justifiably high on the radar of many travelers. Throw in wallet-friendly prices and a fairly developed tourist infrastructure and you have an escape for travelers of all stripes. However, you shouldn't come to the country thinking you're going to see it all at once. With that in mind, we've broken things down for travelers who only have 10 days to spare as well as for those who have two weeks (or a bit longer). From beaches to buzzing cities, we've got you covered. Read on for the perfect Vietnam itinerary. 

Days 1 and 2: Hanoi

Temple of Literature/Oyster

Vietnam's cities aren't for the faint of heart, but of its two main hubs, Hanoi is the more user-friendly. Start your Vietnam adventure here and get a crash course in the country's history, both ancient and contemporary. Grab a reasonably priced hotel in the city's Old Quarter, which is its beating tourist heart. If you're in town during the weekend, the entire area around Hoan Kiem Lake -- a leafy oasis in the middle of the chaos -- becomes a lively pedestrian area with music, dancing, street food, and a night market. 

Most hotels will offer a Western-style breakfast, but if you want to do as the locals do, simply head outside first thing in the morning. Nearly every sidewalk will be packed with Vietnamese families and friends posted up on the city's iconic plastic stools tucking into steaming bowls of pho, Vietnamese-style omelets, and other various savory bites. 

Once you've fueled up, start your first day with a visit to Uncle Ho. The leader of Vietnam's independence and Communist struggles is enshrined in a mausoleum that's modeled after Lenin's tomb. It sits within a sprawling complex, and there are strict rules while attending (one must dress modestly, check any bags, and refrain from photos inside the mausoleum). Follow the rules and make sure you visit in the morning, as the complex closes by 11 a.m. From there, head to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, which is one of the few surviving historic palaces within the city. If you're lucky, you'll catch one of the many wedding photo shoots that take place there.

Several mom-and-pop cafes sit along the road to the east of the citadel, so grab a sweet-and-strong iced coffee at spots like Tiny Cafe. Light bites are also available. From there, head to the stunning Temple of Literature, an ancient Confucian temple devoted to learning and knowledge. In addition to a fascinating story, it's packed with picturesque scenery and the smell of incense amid leafy courtyards make for a peaceful reprieve from the hectic city. In the evening, head back to the Old Quarter for dinner, and take a stroll to see Hoan Kiem Lake lit up at night. Walking east from the south end of the lake, you'll reach Hanoi's stunning opera house. Weekend markets spring up to the north of there. 

On your second day, make time to visit Hoa Lo Prison, which Americans know as the Hanoi Hilton (where John McCain was imprisoned as a POW). The history of the prison during Vietnam's struggle for independence from the French is brutal and horrifying. The museum is a much-needed refresher on the terrors that French imperialists wrought upon the local Vietnamese population. Continue exploring Vietnam's history by snagging a GrabCar (Vietnam's version of Uber) and checking out the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which offers amazing displays about the nation's many indigenous groups. 

Days 3 and 4: Halong Bay

Halong Bay; Andrew Oliver/Flickr

While you'll find plenty of tour guides willing to take you on a day trip to Halong Bay, you'd be making a big mistake if you signed up for one. One of the world's most majestic landscapes -- albeit far more crowded than you might imagine -- the bay is best experienced by an overnight cruise. Otherwise, you'll be trapped in a bus or van for four hours each way, with just a few hours to take in the most crowded parts of the UNESCO World Heritage site. By opting for an overnight cruise, you'll not only be spoiled with lavish meals and service, but you're far more likely to visit tranquil parts of the bay.

The natural scenery is hard to top: Improbably steep karst mountains jut out of the blue-green sea, as a mix of cruises and junk boats ply the waters in between. The best cruises will get you close to the outlying caves and grottos, which are perfect for exploring by kayak. And a swim in these waters is nothing short of magical.

Keep in mind that while Vietnam is generally a budget-traveler's paradise, Halong Bay will be pricey. But you do get what you pay for here, and that can mean big discrepancies in quality. It can be tempting to book a cruise from one of the countless agents in the Old Quarter, and most hotels will offer booking services, too. Do your research ahead of time to see just how reliable these services are. There are numerous forums online, as well as online booking engines that will break down each cruise.

Days 5 to 7: Hoi An and Central Vietnam

Hoi An; Anthony Tong Lee/Flickr

You'll maximize your ability to get around Vietnam, if you rely on domestic flights. Overland buses will not only raise your blood pressure (we've heard lots of horror stories, though only some are justified), but eat up your vacation time. A flight from Hanoi to Da Nang (an hour north of Hoi An) takes little more than an hour. 

Hoi An is a picturesque historic town that many visitors to Vietnam consider a highlight of their trip. It's quite touristy, so don't come expecting an authentic atmosphere, but the scenery makes for a convincing step back in time. It was once famous for its tailors, and handmade suits from Hoi An are still a major souvenir (though you'll need a few days to get one fitted and made). 

These days, it's the low-key colonial bungalows and antique shophouses, combined with a tranquil and pedestrian-friendly Old Quarter, that make this one of the more romantic towns in central Vietnam. At night, lanterns are spectacularly lit as locals and tourists make their way to quaint cafes and restaurants.

Most travelers are content with strolling the town for a couple of days, but there are some worthy day trips nearby. Those include easy-to-reach beaches, like An Bang. The most famous sandy stretch is Lang Co, a 90-minute drive north. It's easy to bundle a trip through Hai Van Pass with a visit to Lang Co, where the coastal vistas are stunning. On your way back, many tour guides will add a stop at the Marble Mountains, a series of stunning and sacred karsts amid Da Nang's sprawl. 

Days 8 to 10: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Saigon Post Office; Anne and David/Flickr

After a few quiet days in one of Vietnam's more peaceful cities, it's time to undo any Zen vibes: Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City. The locals still call it Saigon, and you can feel free to do the same. Don't come here expecting any quaint tourist-ready neighborhoods, or respites from what is undoubtedly one of southeast Asia's busiest cities. Do come here for culture that runs deep, fascinating insight into Vietnam's colonial, post-colonial, and post-war history, and a buzzing indie vibe that feels young and cutting-edge.

For starters, this is a city, and while GrabCars and taxis are incredibly cheap, it helps to know where to base yourself. If you want to be right in the heart of the more tourist-friendly action, District 1 is your spot. If you'd prefer to be in a local area with trendy boutiques and restaurants, but still within easy walking distance of District 1, opt for District 3. No matter where you are, though, there will always be a cafe a short walk away. In fact, Saigon might just be the most cafe-mad city in the world, with everything from artisanal roasters to no-frills Vietnamese iced coffee joints, where packs of smokers pass the time on the patio while watching mopeds speed past. For first-time visitors, crossing the street is a right of passage in and of itself -- most major thoroughfares have traffic signals, but they aren't always obeyed.

The pleasures here are decidedly urban: art galleries, trendy malls, shopping, and a diverse dining scene that swings from banh mi on the street to fine-dining establishments. Strolling around is a great way to see the city, though it is steamy for most of the year (and stays far warmer than Hanoi in the winter months). Walking between Districts 1 and 3 is easy enough, with destinations taking 15 to 30 minutes to reach. Colonial relics like the Saigon Opera House, Post Office, and City Hall are found in District 1, as is the fascinating Independence Palace -- an important modernist relic and significant historical site. Busy Ben Thanh Market also calls District 1 home. District 3 is home to the sobering War Remnants Museum, which is a must-visit for a less Western-skewed perspective on the Vietnam War. 

While this is a modern metropolis through and through, the city's historic temples are definitely worth a visit as well. The Temple of the Jade Emperor (at the extreme east end of District 1) is arguably the coolest in town, with its cramped and dazzling incense-filled interiors. However, if you make the long car journey out to Cho Lon, Saigon's Chinatown, the rewards are aplenty. Here, streets are packed with vendors selling fabric, fruit, meat, car parts, and live roosters, while Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples, as well as a Catholic church, rise out of the melee. Ba Thien Hau is the most famous of Cho Lon's temples, though Ong Bon Pagoda is a fitting place to stop, too. There are also plenty bakeries and places to grab a quick bite out here.

Nightlife is pretty wild in Ho Chi Minh City, and you'd do well to head to the Bitexco Financial Tower around sunset for epic city views and cocktails. Nightlife tends to be most lively in Districts 1 and 3, as well as the expat enclave across the river, District 2. Some nightclubs will have a dress code, but many are quite informal. There are even a few LGBT events if you're in town on the right weekend (we liked Gender Funk in mid-2018). If you'd prefer indulging a little during the day, check out the apartment-blocks-slash-indie-designer-incubators. The block at 42 Ton That Thiep is particularly worth perusing -- while families have their lunch in the corridors, you can slide in and out of funky boutiques.

Of course, some people are content with ticking the boxes of the major sights in one day, and then making a beeline for the Cu Chi Tunnels. These relics of the country's independence struggle and its war with the United States have become one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Southeast Asia. Tours take nearly all day, as the tunnels are a couple of hours away by car. It's worth noting that travelers with any shred of claustrophobia should skip this. Alternatively, day trips along the Mekong Delta are available. 

If You Have Two Weeks or More

Phu Quoc/Oyster

In 10 days, you can see a lot of Vietnam, but it will be a busy trip. There are also ways to modify the above itinerary by focusing only on Hanoi and Saigon. A two-day trip to Tam Coc from Hanoi -- often referred to as Halong Bay on Land -- is easily worth the train fare, while Can Tho on the Mekong Delta can be added to a Saigon stay for a couple days as well. However, if you're able to push your trip to a full two-week haul (or more), you'll have even more flexibility in what you see and do.

What you add to your itinerary, if you have four or five more days, depends on your travel style. If it's beaches that you're after, Phu Quoc Island or Nha Trang are must-dos. Both are short flights from Saigon. Alternatively, if you're seeking less of a buzzing beachside city and more of a relaxed, away-from-it-all beach holiday, hop a bus from Saigon to Mui Ne (five hours or so), where the famous sand dunes alone are enough to transport you to a different headspace.

If you'd prefer to stay in northern Vietnam, Sapa is one of the most famous destinations, though it does require some work to reach and is best handled on longer trips. Here, the terraced rice fields and treks through the emerald hills are the main draws. Most travelers opt for the train to Lao Cai and then a taxi to Sapa. The overnight trip takes about nine to 10 hours. Alternatively, the bus ride is around six slightly more harrowing hours. 

There are also other fascinating cities to explore in Vietnam, like Hue, which includes some of the country's most well-preserved historic sights and is still partially off-the-radar for many travelers. It was the former imperial capital and pairs its antique monuments with a buzzing food-and-dining scene that feels far less touristy than Hoi An (only about three hours away by car). Those who would like to escape Vietnam's intense urban landscapes should plan to spend several days on the Mekong Delta (Can Tho serves as the hub here, near the famous -- if dwindling -- floating markets). Alternatively, Ha Giang, in Vietnam's extreme north, is one of those see-it-to-believe-it landscapes. It's populated by several of Vietnam's indigenous groups who gather on weekends in small market towns. Budget at least five to six days to tour Ha Giang, and three to four days for the Mekong Delta.

Hotel Picks

The Olympic Pool at Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai/Oyster

Vietnam offers even better hotel bargains than Indonesia and Thailand -- its two biggest rivals for tourists in Southeast Asia. In Hanoi, travelers should bed down in the Old Quarter, which is packed with budget-friendly mid-range hotels. For travelers watching their wallets, the Golden Sun Villa Hotel or the Serene Premier Hotel are great picks. If you have a bigger budget, opt for the posh Sofitel Legend Metropole, which adds perks like a pool, spa, and butlers, and is near the Hanoi Opera House.

In Hue, the Jade Hotel is a solid budget option, while La Residence Hue Hotel & Spa is your best bet on the luxury end. In Hoi An, we love the Little Hoian Boutique Hotel & Spa, which is adjacent to the Old Quarter. If you'd prefer to be near the beach, opt for the Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai, Hoi An. Beach seekers heading to Phu Quoc should try the Cassia Cottage, which has excellent on-site dining and a beachside setting. 

As Vietnam's business and expat hub, Saigon has a massive stock of hotels to choose from. For sharp quarters close to the buzz of Districts 1 and 3, Le Meridien is a handsome contemporary choice, while the Rex Hotel offers landmark status right in the city center. If you want a more local vibe, The Alcove Library Hotel is an awesome boutique option, though it's removed from the major sights in the city center.

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