From vast mountain ranges in the North to the bright green rice fields in the South, from golden sandy beaches in the East to the hustle and bustle of the big cities – Vietnam has it all. No matter how much or little time you have in Vietnam, this guide will help you plan your ultimate travel route through Vietnam and have an unforgettable journey.
About this guide
Ben and I got to spend a whole month in Vietnam from March 6th to April 7th in 2017. It was quite the adventure as we jumped into it with little to no preparation beforehand. We had our flights booked and a rough list of our must see destinations, but that was it. It certainly brought about some unplanned incidents (good and bad ones) and gave us a lot of spontaneity to stay in the places we liked best and skip those we didn’t.
This guide contains all our collected knowledge from that trip and will advise you not only about when and where to go but will also provide you with more detailed information about the different destinations and valuable insider tips.
Moreover, this guide is meant as a tool to plan your individual trip as opposed to a strict itinerary. I always recommend maintaining the most flexibility when travelling – this will make for a much more rewarding and authentic experience.
Vietnam has a good touristic infrastructure and you will always – Always – find a decent place to stay no matter where you go. So don’t pre-book your whole trip but allow yourself to live day by day and embrace the opportunities that come along.
While we were looking more for a scenic and active kind of trip, you might be up for some sunbathing or historic exploration, so the final route you choose will be entirely up to your interests.
Thus, any suggested destinations below can be left out, swapped with others or travelled to in a different order.
As small as Vietnam might look on the world map, you would be surprised how long it can take you to get from A to B, especially with the local road conditions and means of transportation.
While three to four weeks are sufficient to experience the whole country, with only two weeks or less to discover Vietnam you will probably have to decide on a specific region or use airplanes to cover the distances.
Moreover you will need to think about the time of the year during which you will travel, as there is a dramatic difference in the climate between north and south due to the great length of the country.
Check out the best travelling time for your destination, to make sure you are not caught unawares by the wet season or special holidays that can cause shortage of hotel rooms or closure of sights.
Depending on where you come from you will likely arrive either in Ho-Chi-Minh-City in the South or in Hanoi in the North. As the cheapest airfare from Europe is usually flying in and out of Ho-Chi-Minh-City we decided to travel the country south-to-north and have a connecting flight back to HCMC from Hanoi.
While this gave us optimal weather conditions in almost all regions, you can just as well travel the country top-to-bottom.
Compared to some of its neighboring countries, Vietnam offers a reliable infrastructure to almost all regions. Whether on trains, busses, motorbikes, ships or water buffalo – you will reach your destination.
Check out Getting around in Vietnam for everything you need to know about transportation.
Where to Go
But let’s get to the fun part now.
Below you find a list of all regions of Vietnam with the minimum amount of time you need to fully experience the many things the area has to offer. For more detailed information on each area, follow the respective links.
Note: Some regions don’t have links yet as I am still busy writing all that content for you! Be patient and sign up for my newsletter so you don’t miss out on valuable tips!
Ho-Chi-Minh-City and Hanoi
2 to 3 days each
As most of you will likely arrive and/or leave in one or even both cities, you should schedule around 2 or 3 days for each city.
But even if you only have a layover in Hanoi or Ho-Chi-Minh-City on your way to somewhere else, don’t let your precious time go to waste!
If you are from Germany, France, Spain, UK, Italy or any Scandinavian country and are staying less than 15 days you don’t even need a visa, so head outside the airport and spend a couple of days exploring the city.
Both Ho-Chi-Minh-City and Hanoi are easy to get around and will give you an exciting glimpse into Vietnamese culture.
Read on for more information on what to do in the cities and a detailed itinerary of our visit:
Hanoi (coming soon)
The Mekong Delta – South-Western Region
2 to 4 days
The Mekong meanders 4,350km through six countries from the Tibetan Plateau to the great Delta where it empties into the sea. The river brings fertility to the plains of Southern Vietnam and turns it into the country’s most productive region in agri- and aquaculture.
A paradise for bird watchers, nature enthusiast and people who want to experience local life, the Mekong Delta is a must-see on every trip to the South of Vietnam.
Here you can experience the simplicity of local life through an authentic homestay, maneuver a small barge through the overgrown distributaries of the Mekong, visit traditional coconut candy and rice noodle factories or marvel at the bustling activity at the Floating Markets during sunrise.
As the South of Vietnam is the part of the country with the least developed infrastructure and can only be reached by bus, many travelers opt for a guided tour to the Mekong Delta. Most tour companies operate from Ho-Chi-Minh-City and offer 2- or 3-Day-Tours that include transportation, a boat tour and a visit to the Floating Market. If you only have a couple of days to spare, these are usually good value. Just head to the Backpacker District 1 in HCMC, where you will find countless tour operators and make sure to compare what’s included and check their rating on tripadvisor.
Good news for the more autonomous traveler: you can easily plan a trip to the Mekong yourself! This is not only much cheaper but allows you to do the things you fancy and spares you from being rushed through the sights by crowds of obnoxious tourists.
The South-Central Coast and Central Highlands
5 to 7 days
The South-Central Coast and Central Highlands regions make up almost a third of the country and are probably amongst the most touristy diverse areas in the country, with popular destinations like Phan Thiet, Dalat, Nha Trang and Hoi An.
Phan Thiet with its neighboring fisher town Mui Ne is one of the nicer regions in Vietnam to indulge in some beach vacation. Next to its sandy golden beaches, the area is popular for its majestic white sand dunes, its bustling fishing harbor and the countless high-end beach resorts – and all that with relatively few touristic masses.
Nha Trang has become a popular destination for international travelers over the years, mainly due to its glorious beaches, scuba diving opportunities and the fact that it has one of the best touristic infrastructures in the whole country. If you are looking for a variety of activities, relaxation and entertainment – this is the place for you.
We didn’t visit Dalat but heard from a lot of other travelers that they enjoyed their time spent in this City of Eternal Spring. Seated in a valley encompassed by the mountains of the Central Highlands the city used to be a health resort for the French colonialists – which is still visible in the French architecture prevalent in the town. The unusual temperate weather makes for large pine tree forests and picturesque waterfalls and lakes.
A true must see is the marvelous city of Hoi An. This former trading port dates back to the 15th century and attracts with some of the best preserved ‘old houses’. The true spectacle, however, occurs at night, when the whole city lights up in the flickering shine of a million colorful lanterns. Combined with the versatile surroundings: endless rice fields with grazing water buffalos, golden beaches and the ancient Hindu temple complex My Son close by, this many-faceted destination will leave you in awe.
The North-Central Coast
3 to 5 days
Although this region covers a large percentage of the country, it is one not often travelled to. The two main attractions are the old emperor’s city Hue and the UNESCO World Heritage Site Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park and if you are travelling through this area, you should definitely plan to spent a couple of days here.
We found that Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park is seriously underrated as this was one of our personal highlights of the whole trip, although most guide books only mentioned it as a potential extra stop for a cave tour.
But here is our secret tip: Instead of just staying a day and quickly hopping onto a tour to one of the caves, take some more time to explore the pristine nature of the park.
The best way to get around is by far a motorbike; you can even do a multi-day tour through the picturesque landscape with various stops along the way, like some stunning, lesser-known caves, small streams that invite you to take a swim, traditionally farmed fields and semi-wild animal enclosures.
It is the perfect place for exploring the dense jungle on a hike (and getting horribly lost) and taking a well-deserved break from the fast pace of travelling.
Another worthwhile day trip in the area leads you to Vietnam’s old capital Hue. Here you can go back in time and imagine life as it must have been for emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty and the personnel that lived inside the Imperial city and its thick, protective walls. Several tombs of past emperors and pagodas can also we visited, preferably during a boat trip along the Perfume River.
Those interested in the Vietnam War can moreover arrange a trip to the Demilitarized Zone about 70km north of Hue, the dividing line of North and South Vietnam that was established after the First Indochina War and served as battleground during the Vietnam War.
The Northern Region
5 to 7 days
The North of the country has incredibly many things to offer – from the bustling city of Hanoi, the fabled Halong Bay or the vast mountain ranges in the West.
If you have less than two weeks in Vietnam my recommendation is to visit the North. Period.
It simply is the most scenic part of the country – with stunning landscapes wherever you go.
Probably THE highlight on every Vietnam tour is located in the North-East of the country: the famous Halong Bay. No matter if on a multi-day luxury cruise, a kayaking tour, a visit to Cat Ba Island or a stay in a secluded island resort, this should be on your itinerary.
Tours and transportation can easily be arranged from pretty much anywhere in the country, though it makes the most sense to visit it from Hanoi (if you are travelling North-to-South) or from Ninh Binh (if you are heading North).
If you are travelling from the Northern regions to the South or vice versa you will most likely need to stop in Ninh Binh for a day, as most busses stop here on their way. Famous for its so called Dry Halong Bay, the area can best be explored by boat or bike. Bold rock formations tower over the surrounding rice fields and allow for spectacular views from the winding river Ngo Dong.
Sapa was one of our personal highlights. The small town close to the Chinese border is enclosed by high mountains, amongst them the Fan Si Pan, the highest mountain of Indochina at a height of 3143 m. Here you can still experience the harmonic co-existence of several ethnic minorities and nature – preferably on foot.
The picture-perfect rice terraces, Hmong people in their colorful clothes, pristine mountain ranges – a paradise not only for hikers and mountaineers but a place that should definitely be on your itinerary.
Whew! …you made it through the whole guide!
You are now optimally prepared for your upcoming trip. If not, check out all my other Vietnam related articles.
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