After evaluating multiple options in South East Asia, we decided to spend almost three weeks in Vietnam. Our decision was based on many recommendations comprising diverse aspects such as culture, street food and coffee, nature and more.
After careful consideration and planning, we present our great itinerary for exploring Vietnam in ~16 days.
- You will probably need to get an online visa here if you are going to stay more than 15 days.
- It will be important to get a 4G chip from the most reliable company, Vettel. We bought them in Klook and picked them up from the airport, great service overall.
- Key words to learn in Vietnamese:
- Thank you = Cảm ơn
- Hello = Xin chào
- 1 beer = một ly bia
- 1 coffee = một ly cà phê
- Please = Xin vui lòng
- We used the Grab app extensively for transportation. It’s the Asian Uber, it works super well and it is very cheap. Most intercity trips cost 1 to 3 USD.
- We started and finished our trip to Hong Kong. This worked out very well not only because it is a fantastic place but also because it was logistically convenient due to the number of flights from/to London. Hong Kong’s airport is huge and busy but serves many flights, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it is more convenient than most European countries and the USA.
- We remotely worked from Ho Chi Min City for 4 days. If you are going to do the same, I recommend one of the biggest cities to do this because:
- You’d probably have a more reliable Internet connection.
- Bigger cities let you enjoy more stuff at different times of the day.
- Mind the time zone. For instance, if you need to do GMT time (or a few hours of overlap) you may need to work in the afternoon/evening.
The Best Itinerary To Discover Vietnam
Day 1 to 4. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly named and still known as Saigon) is one of those cities that seems like the capital of a country, but it’s not. There are many examples of this kind of city like Sydney, New York City, Istambul, Toronto and more.
It is a major centre for finance, media, technology, education and transportation in Vietnam, generating nearly a quarter of the country’s total GDP. Its airport is also the busiest in the country attracting more tourists than any other.
So Ho Chi Minh City is a modern and vibrant 8M-population city. Expect to see tall buildings and many cultural institutions, which include historic landmarks, walking streets, museums, galleries and markets.
We stayed at Mayla Saigon Downtown Rooftop Pool and it just did the job. We wanted to stay in a flat with a good Internet connection to work and some basic amenities (kitchen, washing machine), and it covered those plus a gym and swimming pool. However; it is on the other side of the canal so we had to walk +15 minutes or take a grab to get to the city centre.
Top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City
- Mekong Delta. This is one of the most popular activities in Saigon. It often takes a full day and it’s better to hire a tour. It’s a vast network of rivers and canals that offer a glimpse into rural Vietnam. The experience includes a boat tour, a visit to local villages and to Cai Rang and Phong Dien floating markets.
- Cu Chi Tunnels. Another very popular attraction, comprising a network of underground tunnels located on the outskirts of Saigon. You will be able to get into the tunnels while getting an insight into the tactics used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. You can go by bus or taxi on your own, or hire a tour.
- Food tour in District 4. Street food in Vietnam is delicious and also a popular activity for tourists. There are many stalls and markets to explore. District 4, known as the “red-light district” has now become a vibrant and diverse neighbourhood with a rich mix of residential and commercial areas. If you prefer you can take a food tour, so you don’t have to search for places or learn difficult words on your own. If you want to know more about neighbourhoods, see this post.
- Ben Thanh Market is the most popular one, offering fresh food, souvenirs and more. We recommend trying some local dishes such as grilled shrimp on sugarcane skewers, Goi Cuon (summer rolls) or Banh Beo (steamed rice cakes).
- Nha Rong Wharf Market in District 4 is another great market which is known for its fresh seafood. And because it’s next to Saigon River it also provides stunning views of the city skyline.
- Dong Khoi Area. Located in District 1, it’s a great mix of history and modernity. Expect to see some of the city’s most famous landmarks, including the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, the Saigon Central Post Office, Book Street and the Saigon Opera House. The area is also known for its luxury shopping and dining options.
- Thao Dien (District 2). It is considered the expats quarter and the coolest neighbourhood in the city. It is a 20-minute drive from the city centre, but it is worth a visit if you have time. It really looks and feels like another city within Saigon, and has a prominent future as the new (in the making) metro line will get there. It also has the most healthy eateries in town. We recommend walking on Xuân Thủy Street and visiting places like Pure Bowls, BiaCraft and BLOQ.
- Botanical Gardens. It’s Vietnam’s largest zoo and botanical garden. Expect to see animals, exotic plants and flowers from all over the world.
- War Remnants Museum. If your museum limit is a maximum of 1, this should be it. The museum displays a collection of artefacts, photographs, and documents that give visitors an overview of the war and its impact on the Vietnamese people. And although the focus is on the American War, there is also material about the French-colonial period and conflicts with China.
- Fine Arts Museum. A three three-floor building hosting a collection of Vietnamese artworks in sculpture, oil, silk painting, lacquer painting, ceramics and a collection of ancient Buddhist art.
- History Museum. Displays a collection of artefacts illustrating the evolution of the cultures of Vietnam, from the Bronze Age Dong Son civilisation.
- Reunification Palace. Formerly the Presidential Palace, it’s a museum showcasing the building’s history and a variety of historical artefacts.
- Crescent Lake (Ho Ban Nguyet).
- Restaurants. Visit our post Best Traditional Food in Vietnam. Delicious and Diverse for a list of the best Vietnamese dishes, including a list of recommendations per city.
- For craft beer, visit Heart of Darkness, BiaCraft or Rogue Saigon.
- Rooftop bars: Saigon Saigon Bar, Chill Skybar, Broma Not A Bar, The View Rooftop Bar, Thương and Shri Restaurant & Lounge.
- Street food ghetto. We first read about food ghettos in this blog. One of them is in an area called Nguyen Thien Thuat apartments. This is a place totally off the beaten path if that’s what you are looking for. It could be a great place to try Banh Trang Nuong (crispy pancakes), rolls and snails.
Day 4 to 6. Nha Trang
Nha Trang is well known for its beaches and scuba diving and has developed into a popular destination for international tourists, attracting large numbers of backpackers and travellers doing the Southeast Asia circuit. It is already very popular with Vietnamese tourists, as it is considered a high-energy beach resort with one of the world’s most beautiful bays.
A huge bay with an endless beach of white sand and calm water, backed by an impressive promenade, makes Nha Trang a great place to spend at least a couple of days. Just an important note here: Vietnam’s beaches are not paradisiac as some in Thailand or other neighbours.
You will also notice many Russians all over the place and even some menus in their language. It turns out that from 1978 to 2002 Cam Ranh port was leased to USSR and later the Russian Navy to use as their naval base, so many people moved there and created a community.
Nha Trang worked very well for our itinerary as we wanted to stay somewhere between Saigon and Quy Nhon. We took an hour’s flight which was quite smooth, as we also wanted to avoid some distance by bus or train.
We stayed at BNI Panorama Luxury Apartments. Great apartments with all the amenities needed, including a gym, an outdoor swimming pool, a garden, a shared lounge, a terrace and a bar. And it is in the middle of the bay, metres away from its main beach. Totally recommended!
Top things to do in Nha Trang
- Nha Trang Beach. The town is known for its stunning beaches, and the main beach is a popular spot for swimming, sunbathing, and water sports. Just opposite the city centre,
- Hon Mun Island. It is home to some of the best snorkelling and diving sites in Vietnam, with colourful coral reefs and a diverse array of marine life. There are many boat tours available which include equipment and lunch.
- Po Nagar Cham Towers. Ancient towers date back to the 7th century and are a testament to the Cham civilization that once thrived in the region. They are still actively used for worship.
- Hot Springs and Mud Bathing. Mud baths and hot springs are available in many spas in the city, which are believed to have therapeutic properties for the skin and body. Thap Ba Mud Bath is a recommended place for both.
- Long Son Pagoda. A Buddhist temple that features a 14-meter-tall white Buddha statue that is a popular attraction.
- Seafood. Nha Trang is known for its seafood, and there are many restaurants and street food vendors that offer fresh and delicious seafood. Some of them are:
Day 6 to 7. Quy Nhon
Quy Nhon, located on the central coast of Vietnam, is a picturesque seaside town that hasn’t been fully discovered and conquered by tourists. Historically, the commercial activities of the city focused on agriculture and fishing; however, there has been a significant shift towards tourism.
It’s still a very relaxing getaway from the hustle of more popular tourist destinations. Expect to find long sandy beaches, delicious local cuisine, and some historic landmarks as well.
To travel from Nha Trang to Quy Nhon we took a ~4h train. The only trick here is that the train station serving this route is close but not in Quy Nhon and it is called Dieu Tri. You can use 12go or Baolau for the ticket (see our post for more info).
In terms of accommodation, we stayed at Grand Hyams Hotel and it was also a great choice. It’s a 5 stars hotel facing the beachfront with all the amenities needed, including free bikes, a fitness centre, a garden, a restaurant with stunning views, a kids’ club, a currency exchange service and an indoor pool. It is brand new so the price is still affordable.
An important clarification here! Even though we liked Quy Nhon and it was a great middle stop, we also considered it the first place to take out from this itinerary if we have to skip a place. We simply were expecting a bit more.
Top things to do in Quy Nhon
- Beaches. Quy Nhon is famous for its beautiful beaches, and there are plenty to choose from. Some of the best ones include Bai Xep, Bai Dai, and Ghenh Rang. Expect to see clear blue waters, white sand and plenty of space for sunbathing and swimming.
- Ky Co, Eo Gio and Hon Kho Island. These are two other areas with beautiful beaches plus an island nearby. You’d need to cross Thi Nai Bridge with a length of nearly 2.5km. Taking a tour to do all this could be a great choice.
- Thap Doi Cham Towers. 11th-century towers are a stunning example of Cham architecture. Another famous historical site is the Long Khanh Pagoda, which is the largest pagoda in Quy Nhon.
- Fishing Villages. Besides being a fishing village itself (at least in the past), there are many others around Quy Nhon. The most popular one is Bai Xep.
- Local Markets. It has several local markets that are worth visiting, being Cho Dam Market the main one.
- Bike Ride. One of the best ways to explore the city. There are plenty of bike rental shops in town, and you can take a ride along the coast or through the countryside.
- Day tours. If you have enough time for a full-day tour, there are two great alternatives:
- Seafood. It is known for its seafood, some of the best restaurants are:
Day 7 to 9. Da Nang
Da Nang is one of Vietnam’s most important port cities, and it also attracts thousands of tourists every year. It is very convenient to visit Da Nang because of its location in the centre of the country but also because it is close to two other very popular cities like Hoi An and Hue, and also My Son ruins.
Whether you’re interested in history, culture, nature, or nightlife, Da Nang has something for everyone. In terms of food, Da Nang is famous for its flavorful dishes, such as Mì Quảng, Bún chả cá (fish ball noodle soup), Bánh tráng cuốn thịt heo (dry pancake roll with pork), Banh xeo (Crispy pancake), Nem lui (Lemongrass Pork Skewers).
We took another train, this time from Dieu Tri, to Da Nang., which takes between 5 and 6 hours depending on the service. You can use 12go or Baolau for the ticket (see our post for more info).
We stayed for 2 nights and we wanted to stay more. Many people use it simply as a hub for Hoi An or Hue, but it is really more than that. Its beaches are relaxing and super nice, some of the best we experienced on our trip. The area of An Thuong is amazing and I would stay there if I go again. A super relaxing and laid-back atmosphere that feels like a modern and diverse beach town within the city.
So Da Nang was one of the greatest surprises of the trip, one of those places you want to go back to. We stayed at Minh Boutique Hotel, not far from An Thuong and very close to the beach. It was one of our favourite hotels. The rooms were a bit small, but the architecture was very special, all wooden and a lot of vegetation. It also has a good pool on the top floor and a modest breakfast. And the staff were super nice.
We also decided to not visit Ba Na Hills. There are contradicting opinions about it. But we chose to spend more time visiting the city and its beaches, and reducing the amount of travel and money spent. Take into consideration that takes 1.5 hs each trip, plus waiting time for queuing, and the ticket costs ~39 USD.
Top things to do in Da Nang
- Marble Mountains. A group of five limestone hills where visitors can explore the caves and tunnels within the mountains and enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding countryside from the top. Mt. Thuy Son is the largest and most beautiful mountain; its top can be reached by stairs or elevators.
- My Khe Beach. Da Nang’s most popular and visited beach, right next to the city, next to a long promenade with sand and blue waters. Pham Van Dong and Non-Nuoc are other recommended beaches nearby.
- Dragon Bridge. 666-meter-long steel dragon that breathes fire, offering six lanes for vehicles and two lanes for pedestrians crossing the Han River. There are also a few more bridges worth visiting like Thuan Phuoc and Tran Thi Ly.
- Ba Na Hills and Golden Bridge. A beautiful mountain range located just 42 km outside Da Nang. Visitors can take a cable car up to the top of the hills to enjoy panoramic views of the city and the Golden Bridge’s main attraction. The amusement park also includes a mini European-style civilisation. This is one of the most popular tours from Da Nang, you can either buy a ticket and go on your own or hire a tour which includes transportation. Tickets are also available on the official website.
- Lady Buda (Sơn Trà Mountain). Only 10km from the city and at 693m high above sea level live the Lady Buddha, an immense white statue with stunning views of the sea en maintains.
- Han Market. A busy and vibrant multi-level indoor market with vendors selling food, clothing, fabrics and housewares.
- Son Tra and Helio. These are two night markets offering different types of souvenirs and food.
- An Thuong. This is the main nightlife district, with a wide variety of bars, clubs, restaurants and a good night market with the same name.
- For craft beer, visit East West Brewing Co, 7 Bridges Brewing Company, Nháy Craft beer & Coffee
- Rooftop bars: Brilliant Top Bar, Sky36 (feels more like a club, but the views are stunning)
Day 9 to 12. Hoi An
Hoi An is one of the most popular central coastal towns in Vietnam, known for its well-preserved houses, streets and canals. The former port was operating in full from the 15th to the 19th century, and today its main activity is tourism. Its architecture and street plan reflect a blend of indigenous and foreign influences, from wooden Chinese shophouses and temples to colourful French colonial buildings and ornate Vietnamese tube houses.
Its name translates as “peaceful meeting place” from Sino-Vietnamese. And although it still feels like a calm place, tourism is growing fast every year, and in 2019, Hoi An was listed as one of Vietnam’s key culture-based tourist areas where rampant tourism growth ‘threatens the sustainability”. It is also noted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.
In terms of transportation, there is no train station in Hoi An, as it is a small town. We took a taxi from Da Nang, which is a very common way to get there. It takes around 45 minutes and costs between 16-18 USD (350,000-450,000 VND). Most hotels offer this service as soon as you book, but you can also take one on the street or use Grab or 12go or Baolau.
Alternatively, GetYourGuide offers a private shuttle service between Da Nang Airport and Hoi An for USD 5.50 per person.
This time we stayed at Lasenta Boutique Hotel and we enjoyed our stay a lot. The location is the most controversial aspect of the hotel, as it is a 15-20 minute walk to the ancient town. However; there are 3 shuttle services per day to the ancient town and to the beach. But the view of the rice fields from the outdoor pool is superb. The room was spacious and the breakfast was quite good.
Top things to do in Hoi An
- Ancient Town and Cau Temple. The ancient town is best explored on foot, expect to see narrow streets and alleyways with beautiful architecture, including Chinese temples, Japanese bridges, and French colonial buildings. The main temple is Chùa Cầu, which is on top of a footbridge.
- An Bang Beach. Its most famous and beautiful beach includes facilities such as palapas, lounge chairs, water sports equipment and places to eat. Cua Dai Beach is an alternative also with crystal clear waters and soft white sand.
- Markets. Several markets are definitely worth a visit
- Central Market. The largest and most popular market in Hoi An, selling everything from fresh produce and seafood to textiles, souvenirs, and handmade crafts.
- Night Market. As the name suggests, this market is open in the evenings and is a great place to experience the town’s nightlife. Expect to find street food and souvenirs, as well as live music and entertainment.
- An Hoi Market. This market is located on the An Hoi Peninsula, just across the river from Hoi An’s ancient town. It’s a quieter and more laid-back market than the others.
- Boat tour and cooking class. Both these activities are very common in Hoi An. There are many options for the former, which is enjoyed more during the night with its typical lanterns. However; we did this tour which combines a boat tour, a cooking class and a visit to a market, and it was great. But you can book all of them separately if you prefer.
- My Son Sanctuary. A cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples was constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries. You can get there on your own or take a guided tour (or this one) which includes transportation and makes your life easier. It takes around an hour from Hoi An.
- Fujian (Phuc Kien) Assembly Hall. A historic building from the 17th century that features stunning Chinese-style architecture, with ornate decorations and intricate carvings.
- Water Puppet Show. A traditional Vietnamese form of entertainment originated in the rice paddies of the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam, which involves puppeteers standing waist-deep in water, controlling the movements of wooden puppets with long bamboo poles. In Hoi An it takes place at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater.
- Lantern Full Moon Festival. It takes place every full moon cycle, and people exchange flowers, lanterns, candles, and fruits for prosperity and good fortune.
- Hội An Lune Center for the Performing Arts. A cultural centre known for its spectacular shows featuring a range of performers, from acrobats and contortionists to dancers and musicians, all of whom come together to create a truly unforgettable experience. Tickets are available online.
Day 12 to 13. Ninh Bình
Ninh Binh is a province (and a city) in northern Vietnam, known for its stunning natural beauty, rich history, and cultural heritage. It is located about 90 kilometres south of Hanoi and is easily accessible by road or train.
It is home to several famous attractions, including the Tam Coc-Bich Dong complex, also known as the “Halong Bay on land.” This area features a series of limestone caves and karst formations, surrounded by lush green rice paddies and winding rivers. Visitors can take a boat tour through the caves and enjoy the stunning scenery.
Even though Ninh Binh is easily accessible by road or train, we decided to take a tour. So from Hoi An we took a taxi to De Nang airport and we flew to Hanoi. You can book a taxi with your hotel or a shuttle online for this.
The tour we chose was 3-Day Luxury Ninh Binh & Ha Long Bay 5-Star Cruise. It made our life much easier as it included hotel pickup and drop-off, the main attractions in Ninh Binh such as the boat tour, a bicycle tour and a visit to Hoa Lu, overnight in Trang An Ecolodge in Ninh Binh, and a night at a luxury cruise in Ha Long Bay. It was also the final days of the trip in Vietnam so when we wanted to think less.
Top things to do in Ninh Bình
- Tam Coc-Bich Dong complex. A boat ride through “Halong Bay on land” is a must. Expect to see several caves and karst formations surrounded by rice paddies and winding rivers.
- Hoa Lu. It was the political and cultural centre of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries. Explore the temples and pagodas dedicated to the Dinh and Le dynasties.
- Trang An Grottoes. A UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring a series of caves, valleys, and limestone formations.
- Mua Cave. The most beautiful viewpoint in Ninh Binh. It is right next to Tam Coc. The attraction includes a cave, but the main reason to go there is to walk up 500 steps to get to the highest point and enjoy the stunning views.
- Bai Dinh Pagoda. One of the largest Buddhist complexes in Southeast Asia, featuring several temples, pagodas, and statues. The complex is located on a hill and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside.
- Cuc Phuong National Park. The oldest national park in Vietnam, home to a diverse range of flora and fauna. Go hiking or biking through the park and spot rare species such as the Delacour’s langur and the Owston’s civet.
Day 13 to 16. Hanoi and Hạ Long Bay
Hanoi is the capital and second-largest city in Vietnam, after Ho Chi Minh. It is considered a major tourist destination and offers well-preserved French colonial architecture, religious sites dedicated to Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism and Taoism, several historical landmarks of Vietnamese imperial periods, and a large number of museums.
Hanoi can trace its history back to the third century BCE when a portion of the modern-day city served as the capital of the historic Vietnamese nation of Âu Lạc. As such, in comparison with Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is a more traditional and ancient city, with a crowded but picturesque Old Quarter and many more museums and attractions.
In terms of weather, Hanoi is much cooler and it does have 4 seasons. In the South of the country, as we heard from locals, they have only two: hot and super hot seasons (with a dry period as well) 🙂
Hạ Long Bay is arguably the most popular attraction in the country, which is a 2.5 hs drive from Hanoi, and nobody wants to miss it. However; many people do not find it as special as they say or read online. You will probably read good and bad reviews. Our opinion/conclusion is that we would have avoided staying overnight, as you spend a lot of time travelling and maybe a full-day tour was enough. But it is a matter of taste in the end.
The other common destination from Hanoi is Sa Pa, which we left out of the itinerary mostly due to time constraints. We simply chose to spend more time in Hanoi, Hong Kong and other places. But it is worth visiting if you have the time. It is recommended to stay two nights. And it can be done via a private tour from Hanoi as well.
Top things to do in Hanoi
- Old Quarter. A labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys that have been around for centuries. Take a walk through the area to experience the bustling markets, and traditional houses, and taste Vietnam’s world-famous street food.
- Hoan Kiem Lake. Located in the heart of Hanoi, this picturesque lake is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. It is surrounded by shops and also hosts the iconic red bridge leading to Ngoc Son Temple.
- St Joseph Cathedral. Hanoi’s cathedral is beautiful as well, and the square next to it is also surrounded by shops. If you are up for craft beer don’t miss Pasteur Brewing around the corner.
- Hạ Long Bay. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Vietnam’s most famous natural wonders. Take a boat trip to explore the limestone cliffs, hidden caves, and crystal-clear waters. Different types of private tours are available from Hanoi:
- Train Street. A very unsafe but picturesque street where Vietnam’s main train line passes. It has become one of Hanoi’s top attractions.
- Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. An imponent building and final resting place of Vietnam’s beloved leader, Ho Chi Minh. Visitors can pay their respects and see the embalmed body of the man who led Vietnam to independence, free of charge.
- Note: There is plenty of security and visitors are required to cover legs and shoulders. A mask is not required, be aware of people trying to sell at the door.
- Presidential Palace. An elegant building that was once the home of the French Governor-General of Indochina and later the President of South Vietnam.
- Museum of Ethnology. Showcases the diverse cultures of Vietnam’s many ethnic groups, including traditional costumes, tools, and artefacts, as well as interactive displays.
- Fine Arts Museum.
- Hoa Lo Prison Relic. A war museum where it used to be a real one during the Vietnam War.
- Military History Museum.
- Temple of Literature. An ancient temple built in the 11th century and the country’s first university. It is a beautiful example of traditional Vietnamese architecture and a must-visit for history lovers.
- Water Puppet Show. This traditional art form has been performed in Vietnam for over 1,000 years. The puppets are controlled by skilled puppeteers who stand waist-deep in water.
- Dong Xuan Market. A huge indoor market offering souvenirs, clothes, and household items. Bargaining is expected, so don’t be afraid to haggle for a good price.
The following map illustrates the route of the itinerary as if we had driven all the way. We didn’t drive at all, but it is helpful to see the location and the order.