One of the most common questions other travellers ask me is “I’ve got X amount of time in X country – what should I see and do?” Most recently I’ve been asked a lot about Vietnam, so have decided to put together this post outlining what I got up to in the four weeks that I was there.
My adventures in Vietnam started with a flight from Bangkok to Hanoi (costing around $60 with Air Asia) and I slowly made my way south to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) using a hop-on, hop-off bus pass.
During these four weeks I visited nine destinations, but if you like to travel at a faster pace then you could definitely squeeze in a few more places and activities along the way.
But for anyone planning a trip to Vietnam for a similar length of time, this rough itinerary should help give you a good starting point.
Days 1 to 2 – Hanoi
Hanoi is a great base for exploring parts of Northern Vietnam, where it’s easy to book short excursions from the city to places like Halong Bay and Mai Chau (more on those places below). Hanoi itself is a wonderfully chaotic city bursting with history, food and culture – overall a great introduction to Vietnam. The best thing to do is grab a map from your hostel and explore the city by foot.
Things to do…
- Escape the hustle and bustle of the city and walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake to the Ngoc Son Temple
- Explore The Old Quarter – a labyrinth of ancient roads each lined with an array of shops and markets specialising in a particular trade or craft
- Street food walking tour – the hostel I stayed at provided us with a free tour, taking us to some of the best spots around The Old Quarter, while seeing a few historic sites along the way
- Temple hopping – from the One Pilla Pagoda to the Temple of Literature, the city is filled with beautifully ornate temples that each tell their own story
- Visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, where you can witness Ho’s preserved body in a glass case and learn about his life and how he founded “Modern Vietnam”.
- Go to the famous Water Puppet Show, a traditional puppetry art show that dates back to the 11th century.
If you do visit any museums, make sure you check the opening times. I made the mistake of turning up at a couple on the days they were closed.
Accommodation – Hanoi Backpackers Hostel
Days 2 to 5 – Halong Bay (with one night on Cat Ba Island)
A lot of people wonder whether Halong Bay is worth all the hype, and I have to tell you YES! While it is very touristy, cruising around the mystical wonders of the huge limestone karsts completely overshadows this and are well worth seeing. Legend has it that its 2,000 islets were formed by a dragon plunging into the sea.
Things to do…
- Kayak around some of the caves, witnessing monkeys and other wildlife in their natural habitat
- Delve deep into Sungsot Cave, one of the largest and most impressive grottoes in Halong Bay
- Trek to the highest peak of Cat Ba National Park (even though I am terribly unfit and it was a very challenging hike, the incredible views of green furry-topped mountains made it all worthwhile)
- Vietnamese cooking class on the boat (even if I couldn’t master the art of making a simple spring roll)
- Simply cruising around for hours at a time, taking in the peaceful sounds and stunning views of the karsts
- Instead of booking a tour from Hanoi, I wished I’d made my own way to Cat Ba and booked a day/night trip around Halong Bay from there. While it would have been slightly more expensive, I would have liked to have spent more time on Cat Ba
- Avoid the Monkey Island tour on Cat Ba – unfortunately I saw first-hand how these animals are badly affected by tourism
Accommodation – There are loads of travel agents dotted around Hanoi that offer various packages for trips to Halong Bay. My suggestion is to book one that includes one night on a junk boat and at least one night on Cat Ba. I booked through Anna’s Travel (next to Hanoi Backpackers Hostel) and found them to be really helpful in finding me a tour that suited my budget.
Days 6 – Day trip to Ninh Binh
I headed back to Hanoi for a night’s rest before embarking on a day trip to Ninh Binh province. Surrounded by mountains of limestone, Ninh Binh offers some truly stunning scenery. Home to Hoa Lu, the ancient capital, and Tam Coc (otherwise known as the “Halong Bay on Land”) it’s an interesting stop for anyone looking for a mix of nature, history and culture.
Things to do…
- Tour around Hoa Lu – or “the capital built of stone” once covered an area of 3 sq km, but sadly most of it has been destroyed. Walking around you can see a multitude of temples, shrines, and pagodas from years gone by.
- Sample some goat, which is a speciality in the region. And you only have to look up at the mountains where many of the animals reside to see why!
- A bamboo boat trip (rowed by local people…with their feet!) down the murky waters of the Ngo Dong River to see the Tam Coc (three caves)
Days 7 to 10 – Mai Chau
I ended up heading here after poor weather conditions meant trekking in Sapa was out of the question. And it turned out to be a pretty good decision! Mai Chau – often referred to as “Little Sapa” – is a great alternative for those wanting a rural escape and a taste of the “real Vietnam.”
Things to do…
- Cycle around the villages, rice paddy fields and valleys surrounded by rolling green hills
- Trek the surrounding hills and farmlands and see first-hand how the local minority villages live
- Eat dinner with your host family, followed by a night of rice wine and a traditional dance show
As I was originally planning to go to Sapa, it made sense to go back to Hanoi after Ninh Binh. However if you decide to visit Mai Chau then it makes more sense geographically to go there before Ninh Binh and make your way south from there.
Accommodation – Many of the families in Mai Chau have joined a homestay initiative, meaning you can get a fairly “authentic” experience living in a traditional stilt house with a Vietnamese family. Again I booked through Anna’s Travels.
Days 11 to 14 – Hanoi
This is where I lost a lot of travelling time. Just as I was about to hop on the overnight bus to Hoi An, I fell extremely ill with food poisoning. Lucky for me, my body decided to tell me I was ill before I got on the bus – otherwise it would have been a horrendous 24 hours of bumpy roads and no toilet on board to quietly die in!
Days 16 to 20 – Hoi An (with quick stopover in Hue)
If there is one place I would say you HAVE to go to in Vietnam, then it is the ancient town of Hoi An – also known as the “Venice of Vietnam.” Once a major trading port, where Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Indian merchants once settled, the town boasts boldly coloured architecture influenced by a mix of these different cultures.
Things to do…
- Spend hours (literally HOURS) in tailor shops getting dozens of clothes designed and tailormade in less than a day. Every girl’s dream right?
- Cycle around the old town and further out to some of its blissful beaches
- Morning Glory Cooking Class – a great way to learn about local street food by the acclaimed Trinh Diem Vy who owns several popular restaurants in the town
- Lantern Festival – on the 14th day of every lunar month, the old town switches off its lights and the streets are lit up by candlelight and lanterns. It’s a time for the locals to celebrate their ancestors with food, music and games
On the bus journey from Hanoi, we had a five hour stopover in Hue, which meant I got to see some of the sights, like the Imperial City. However had I not been in such a rush to get to Hoi An in time for their Lantern Festival, then I would have perhaps spent at least a couple of nights there.
Accommodation – Hoa Binh Hotel
Days 20 – 21 – Nha Trang
I decided to make a quick stop here on my way to Dalat so I could squeeze in some beach time, but it turned out to be a huge disappointment. Nha Trang was my least favourite place simply because it didn’t feel like I was in Vietnam. Surrounded by high-rise buildings and overrun by tourists, I could have been on any large beach resort in Europe. If there’s anywhere on this list that I would suggest missing out then it’s definitely here.
Accommodation – Not even worth mentioning as it was such a dive!
Days 21 to 24 – Dalat
Surrounded by strawberry and flower farms, Dalat is a charming town located in the mountains of Central Vietnam. Apparently it’s a popular honeymoon destination for locals, and you only have to look around at its picturesque setting amongst waterfalls and pretty gardens to see why.
Things to do…
- Easy Rider Motorcycle Tour – explore the countryside of the stunning Central Highlands on a guided motorcycle tour, with heaps of fun activities to do on the way – from visiting temples, and various types of farms, to finding out how the famous “shit coffee” is made
- Try and book a tour with some hiking opportunities, as there are some amazing views of Dalat from the hilltops
- There are loads of activities for adrenaline junkies here, from canyoning to climbing and mountain biking. I was struck with food poisoning again so had to miss my canyoning trip, but I hear it’s pretty awesome!
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you can splurge an extra $200 do the Easy Rider tour from Dalat to Saigon. Definitely something I wish I had budgeted for!
Accommodation – Tiny Tigers Hostel
Days 25 to 30 – Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon)
I have to admit I didn’t really connect with Saigon and preferred Hanoi as far as the big cities go. It is definitely a city pulsating with energy, and there is a lot of fun to be had here. However by the time I’d arrived, I was starting to feel a little “citied-out”, was recovering from another bout of food poisoning, and was in need of some down-time. As a result I was extremely lazy during my stay here, however I did manage to fit in the following.
Things to do…
- Explore District 1– a popular place for backpackers, buzzing with hawkers, street food stalls, massage parlours, crazy bars and so much more
- Book a half-day trip to the Chu Chi Tunnels and in the afternoon check out the War Remnants Museum to gain a deeper understanding of the Vietnam War from their point of view
- Take a stroll and marvel at some of the city’s architectural masterpieces such as the Notre Dame and Central Post Office
While I had a lot of fun in Saigon, if you’re short on time then I’d probably only suggest a few days here.
Accommodation – Hideout Hostel
Other places I wanted to add to my 1 month Vietnam itinerary
On the whole I am pretty happy with the places I got to explore, however I am one of those travellers who always leaves questioning whether I could have done more. There’s never enough time right?
However if I did it all over again (and hadn’t lost so many days to being sick) I would have liked to have fitted in the following places:
- Phu Quoc Island – As someone who loves sea, sand and cocktails, I am disappointed I didn’t get the chance to fit in the tranquil and idyllic beaches of Phu Quoc
- Mekong Delta – With its meandering waterways and floating markets, this was something I really wanted to tick off my Vietnam checklist. However a dozen beers later, I regretfully stumbled in way past the time my bus had left for my day trip from Saigon. OOPS!
- Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park – A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this national park is said to be the home to hundreds of huge cave systems, which are apparently some of the oldest in Asia
And if you need more inspiration, then definitely check out Journalist on the Run’s great article on 50 Unique Things To Do In Vietnam.
Other useful information you need to know
- Visas are mostly required in advance. I got mine online via the Vietnam Visa Centre. If travelling by plane, make sure you have the correct amount of money in US dollars for your visa before landing in Vietnam otherwise you could face issues at the airport.
- The local currency is Vietnamese Dong, and overall it’s a great place for the budget backpacker. I found a few dollars could go a lot further here than in some of its neighbouring countries.
- Prepay mobile sim cards are available here for a few dollars and well worth investing in if you’re going to spend a month here
- The transport system is (mostly) reliable in Vietnam and you can get about in a number of different ways – sleeper buses, rail, flights…you could even rent a motorcycle if you’re feeling brave enough! It’s also worth researching how long journeys take to allow time for travel
- Avoid the tap water, but definitely sample the street food – it’s to die for! Yes I may have gotten myself sick a few times, but I think that’s an inevitable part of travel. As a rule of thumb try and eat at places that are popular with the locals and always check your food is cooked thoroughly (but I’d suggest that anywhere in the world!)
Have you ever been to Vietnam? Are there any other places you think I should have added to my one month itinerary?
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