There are those who zoom through Vietnam in only a week or two, and others who spend months in a single city. I was enthralled by the idea of this largely low-key and extremely diverse country, so we decided to dedicate a bit more time here than the usual Southeast Asian backpacker itinerary, and we were rewarded. The food is delicious, the scenery breathtaking, and the locals, by and large, extremely welcoming. Here’s how we spent just under 3 weeks in Vietnam.
What to see in Vietnam
I feel the best way to see this country is by bus, traveling from one end to the other. We went south to north, but you could easily reverse this itinerary. (Don’t forget to read all the way to the end to see how I’d recommend changing things!)
- Days 1-4: Saigon. I think Ho Chi Minh City (called Saigon by just about everyone in Vietnam) is the perfect place to start your travels in Vietnam. There’s an abundance of delicious food from all over the country, along with markets and some of the nation’s best museums and monuments. Be sure to visit the War Remnants Museum — it’s grim, but an essential introduction to the Vietnamese (and much of the rest of the world’s) perspective on the American War. (Spend 4 nights in Saigon.)
- Days 5-6: Mui Ne. This dusty beach town is home to not one but two picturesque sights revolving around sand dunes. As with most beach towns in Vietnam, it is mostly composed of resorts, but there are a few guesthouses, and a bike will get you to pretty beaches and the perfect sleepy bars for drinking a fresh coconut and watching the surf. (Spend 2 nights in Mui Ne.)
- Days 7-8: Da Lat. Da Lat was a delightful surprise on our Vietnam travels. This mountain town feels almost like an Alpine village, and offers sights ranging from scenic (the cable car to Truc Lam temple) to totally bizarre (Crazy House). Relax here and enjoy the cooler weather for a couple days. (Spend 2 nights in Da Lat.)
- Days 9-10: Nha Trang. Nha Trang is the yang to Mui Ne’s yin, offering more beachfront resorts, but this time in a bustling urban environment. It’s also famous for its mud baths, which are the perfect way to prepare both body and mind for the coming overnight bus trip. (Spend 1 night in Nha Trang, and then leave on the overnight bus.)
- Days 11-14: Hoi An. Hoi An’s old town is positively enchanting — you could easily spend weeks sipping a cool drink, watching candles floating down the river, and listening to local musicians performing on the street. We spent a little longer here than we had to, but took the opportunity to catch up on work and enjoy the beautiful (you guessed it!) beach. (Spend 4 nights in Hoi An.)
- Days 15-16: Hue. As Alex explained in this post, we were surprised by how much we enjoyed Hue. Its citadel is so much more than just another temple-trekking stop in Southeast Asia. The food is also totally distinctive and delicious. (Spend 2 nights in Hue and then take the overnight bus to Hanoi.)
- Days 17-19: Halong Bay. After arriving via night bus in Hanoi, hop onto a bus to Halong Bay as described here. You’ll spend half a day traveling on either side, but you’ll at least get one full day in Halong Bay, which is more than many of the Hanoi-based tours offer. (Spend 2 nights on Cat Ba Island.)
- Day 20: Depart from Hanoi. By far the biggest flaw in our Vietnam itinerary was not leaving enough time for both Halong Bay and Hanoi. We arrived in the late afternoon on day 19 and departed on day 20. See below for what I’d do to avoid this truncated visit.
What I would change in our Vietnam itinerary
If you had the exact same amount of time we did, I would budget more of it for Hanoi, and less for the Southern beach towns. I’d recommend choosing between Nha Trang and Mui Ne, which buys you 1-2 extra nights in Hanoi, and then cutting down Hoi An by 1 night. You could even squeeze in one more night by spending only one night in Hue. Since you need to take a night bus to Hanoi anyway, you could easily arrive in Hue, spend one night, see the citadel on the second day, and leave in the evening.
How to cut down this Vietnam itinerary
I think you could tackle all of Vietnam — north and south — in as little as 2 weeks with the following adjustments:
- Choose between Mui Ne and Nha Trang: As mentioned above, these two towns aren’t that different, so you’re better off truly relaxing at one of them rather than hopping between the two. In fact, you could even skip both if you needed to, and spend an extra night in Hoi An if you’re dying to laze in the sand.
- Spend 1 less night in Saigon: We spent almost a full day of our time in Saigon visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, which I found to be distasteful and not at all worth our time. While I would gladly have swapped that for more time exploring the city, we did still get a good amount of sightseeing done in just 3 days.
- Skip either Da Lat or Hue and fly: I really loved both of these cities, but if you absolutely had to, you could skip one of them, which would enable you to fly either Saigon to Hoi An or Hoi An to Hanoi.
How to extend this Vietnam itinerary
While I would change a few things about this itinerary if we only had three weeks, if we had longer, I would keep it exactly the same and add one or more of these stops at the beginning or end:
- Visit the Mekong delta: There are numerous tours that visit the Mekong delta region south of Saigon, ranging from daytrips to three-night tours. This is by far one of the most untouched areas in Vietnam and offers a glimpse into pre-war Vietnam.
- Extend your stay in Hanoi: Our Hanoi scheduling snafu could easily be remedied by simply adding two or three nights to the end of our itinerary.
- Check out Sapa: Sapa, to the north of Hanoi, is supposed to be absolutely beautiful. By the time we reached Hanoi, we were done with the cold, damp weather of the north, but if you’re there at a warmer time of year, you could definitely book yourself onto one of the many tours departing from Hanoi, or go it alone.