Before deciding to move to Ho Chi Minh City in 2019, we spent a significant amount of time exploring Vietnam. We traveled all around Northern Vietnam – trekking our way through Sapa, sailing around Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay, motorbike cruising around Ninh Binh, and exploring the best of Hanoi.
From there, we headed south to the caves of Phong Nha and the imperial city of Hue, we explored the beaches and mountains of Danang and loved visiting the cute little town of Hoi An. We’ve checked out Vietnam’s best beaches – from An Bang to Mui Ne to Phu Quoc. And finally, in southern Vietnam, we’ve enjoyed taking weekend trips to the Mekong Delta from our home in Saigon.
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Preparing for Vietnam
Things to Know Before You Go
Did you know that you’ll need to arrange a visa ahead of time to visit Vietnam? Or that you should use the Grab ride-sharing app instead of a taxi? Or that motorbikes seem to have the right-of-way on the streets AND on the sidewalks? Read all about the 15 things we think you should know before visiting Vietnam to help you prepare for your trip!
North to South? Or Vice Versa?
Wondering whether you should fly into Saigon and then travel north, or if you should fly into Hanoi and head south? You should check the weather prior to making that decision to avoid the chilly winter months in the northern cities or the blisteringly hot summer temperatures in central and southern Vietnam. The spring and summer months generally have the most pleasant temperatures across the country.
Getting Around Vietnam
The country of Vietnam is incredibly long so the distances between Northern, Central, and Southern Vietnam are quite large. You can take the train but you have a very long and uncomfortable journey (albeit with some pretty lovely views along the way).
The best way to book train and bus tickets in Vietnam is on Bookaway.com. You’ll get the best prices and can see all of the different bus and train options in one place. We recommend avoiding the local travel agencies in Vietnam – we have just had too many bad experiences when we try to book tours or transportation this way.
Luckily Vietnam has quite a few low-cost airlines, including Vietnam Airlines, VietJet, and Jetstar that offer flights around the country for less than $50 each way. Just keep in mind that both VietJet and Jetstar notoriously run late so keep your schedule flexible and your expectations low.
Vietnam Itinerary: 2 Weeks to Explore the Highlights of the Country
Hanoi: 2 Nights
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and the second-largest city in the country. It’s also the jumping-off point for exploring the spectacular scenery around Northern Vietnam. Two days in Hanoi should be enough to see the highlights of the city but if you do plan to spend more time here, there are plenty of things to do to fill your days.
Things to do in Hanoi
The real charm of Hanoi is the bustling Old Quarter in the center of the city. Here you’ll find countless souvenir shops selling lacquerware, silk robes, paintings, wooden carvings, designer knockoffs, and everything in between. And tucked between the shops are quaint coffee shops and yummy restaurants offering amazing Vietnamese food. As long as you choose a hotel near Hanoi’s Old Quarter you can pretty much walk to all of the top tourist attractions.
During your time in Hanoi, you must visit the infamous “Hilton Hanoi”, Hỏa Lò Prison, where John McCain was imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam-American War. The propaganda videos that describe how incredibly well prisoners of war were treated during their stay in Hoa Lo Prison are rather entertaining, especially if you know a bit about what life was really like for American soldiers here.
We would also highly recommend that you visit the Temple of Literature and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum during your stay. You should spend an evening drinking beer on the lively “beer corner” (Tạ Hiện street) and shop in the popular weekend night market which takes place every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night from 6 pm until about 11 pm.
And if you have some extra time and a stomach of steel, we would highly recommend that you eat a snake in the nearby town of Le Mat snake village. You can even drink a raw snake heart in a shot glass full of rice wine if you’re so inclined.
Check out our complete list of the best things to do in Hanoi here!
Getting to Hanoi
Nội Bài International Airport (HAN) is a large airport in Hanoi with many airlines offering direct flights from all over the world. If you are traveling within Vietnam, several low-cost carriers like VietJet, Jetstar, and Vietnam Airlines offer daily flights to various popular destinations.
Getting Around Hanoi
The best way to get around Hanoi is to use Grab – it’s the Uber of SE Asia. You’ll need Wi-Fi to use it so we would suggest unlocking your phone prior to arriving in Vietnam and then investing in a Viettel SIM card when you arrive at the airport.
Grab has several options for getting around Hanoi – cars and bikes. The cheapest option is to take a Grab bike which involves zigzagging through traffic on the back of a stranger’s motorbike. The drivers will always be wearing Grab jackets and helmets, and they should always have a helmet for you to wear as well (it’s the law in Vietnam!).
Where to Stay in Hanoi
If you really want to treat yourself during your stay in Hanoi, then you’ll want to book a few nights at the Sofitel Legend Metropole. This majestic 5-star hotel has been a historic landmark since 1901 and is conveniently located right near the Old Quarter. The rooms are spacious and beautifully decorated and you’ll definitely want to take advantage of the spa, the pool, and the fitness classes.
O’Gallery Majestic Hotel & Spa is another great choice of hotel in Hanoi. You’ll love relaxing in the pristine rooftop pool or enjoying the peaceful garden or spa. Rooms feature colonial-style decor with dark wooden furnishings, lush fabrics, and big windows. The beds are so comfortable that you may want to spend your entire trip in them!
La Siesta Premium Hang Be is a strikingly beautiful hotel located in the heart of the Old Quarter. You’ll feel like this is a quiet, peaceful oasis, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The personalized service that you’ll receive here will make you feel right at home. Plus you’ll love the spectacular city views from the lively rooftop bar!
Sapa: 3 Nights
Sapa is a region in Northern Vietnam, near the China border, that is home to several ethnic tribes. Tourists typically flock to Sapa because of the spectacularly breathtaking landscape. From where the town of Sapa sits, high over the valley, you can look down on the bright green terraced rice paddies.
Life is a little slower in Sapa, where the economy relies primarily on small agriculture and tourism. The town of Sapa is small and easy to navigate, with few taxis and minimal car traffic.
Many of the ethnic tribes live in poverty and make their living hustling tourists to purchase their wares or hire them for trekking services. As soon as you get off the bus in Sapa, you will be approached by friendly but pushy Hmong women and if you show even an iota of interest in what they are selling, they’ll follow you around until you finally relent and buy.
Sapa is an absolute must for your 2-week Vietnam itinerary, as long as the weather is good. If you visit during the winter months of December and January, it will likely be incredibly cold and foggy so you won’t have any views of the rice terraces.
Things to do in Sapa
By far the most popular thing to do in Sapa is to go hilltribe trekking. When tourists first started trekking in Sapa, it was really the only way to reach some of these tribal villages. These days it’s relatively easy to visit them by car or motorbike as the roads have been greatly improved, so the trekking is more for the views and the experience than necessity.
You can easily trek to Cat Cat Village on your own as you’ll just need to follow one road that is well-signed. But if you want a longer trekking adventure to a more remote village, you’ll want to hire an experienced trekking guide. It’s easy to book ahead of time through GetYourGuide, or you can simply wait until you arrive and enlist the services of one of the many Hmong women wandering around town.
If you want to trek with our favorite Hmong trekking guide, A Hang Thi, you can contact her via her Facebook page, on WhatsApp at +84 94 736 0557. Once you have a local Vietnamese SIM card you can also call or text her at +84 38 886 5878.
We would also highly recommend that you take the cable car to the top of Fansipan Mountain which is the highest mountain in the Indochinese Peninsula. This activity is weather-dependent as it isn’t worth spending the money if the weather isn’t clear. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can take the road less traveled and trek to the top of Fansipan on a guided 2-day trek.
Getting to Sapa
The Sapa region is located about 200 miles north of Hanoi and is not serviced by an airport. To get there, you’ll need to take a bus, take the sleeper train, or hire a private driver. We would recommend the bus option as it is quite comfortable and affordable and always leaves on time.
It’s best to purchase tickets ahead of time because Sapa is an incredibly popular tourist attraction, especially during high season. It’s easy to book bus or train tickets online in advance through Bookaway. Our preferred bus company is the Sapa Express and we would recommend the seated bus (called the “Limousine Bus”) over the sleeper seats as it is much more comfortable.
Plan on your bus to Sapa taking about 7 hours each way including a few bathroom breaks.
Getting Around Sapa
If you stay in Sapa town, it’s relatively easy to walk to all of the shops and restaurants (although it’s quite hilly so even short distances can be difficult). There are also a few taxis around town in case you want to drive to smaller nearby villages but you’ll want to negotiate the price with them upfront (and they tend to be pricey).
And if you do a self-guided hike to Cat Cat Village but don’t want to do the strenuous walk back into town, there are plenty of motorbikes near the bottom that would be happy to drive you back for a fee. Prices are set and posted on a large sign, but we’ve yet to find a driver who honors them. Some haggling will almost certainly be required on your part.
Where to Stay in Sapa
If you’re looking for a more relaxing stay in Sapa and don’t mind staying a bit out of town, Topas Ecolodge is a great choice! The rooms at the resort are absolutely stunning with unbelievably plush beds and enormous bathrooms. You’ll love the breathtaking views over the valley from the amazing pool – you may never want to leave the pool or the resort!
Sapa is full of modestly priced guesthouses where you’ll get a basic bed and basic amenities. But if you’re looking for a more pampering experience, then you’ll want to book a few nights at the Aira Boutique Sapa Hotel & Spa! The views of the valley here are absolutely breathtaking. Plus, they offer a beautiful outdoor pool, a gym, and lovely rooms.
Another great, but slightly more budget-friendly hotel in Sapa is Sapa Horizon Hotel. Rooms are spacious and incredibly clean and the beds are ultra-plush, a rarity in SE Asia. You’ll love the simple but classic decor and the incredible views of the valley below. It’s a wonderful value for the price!
Hanoi: 1 Night
Even though you only have 2 weeks in Vietnam, we recommend spending a night or two in Hanoi between your trips to Sapa and Halong Bay only to break up your long travel day. Sapa is a 7-hour bus ride from Hanoi, and Halong Bay takes 2.5 – 4 hours depending on the boat you choose (some take the longer route to avoid the toll fee) so it’s tough to do both on the same day. Plus, the cruises want to pick you up early in the morning.
This is also a good time to do any of the activities that you missed during your first trip to Vietnam’s capital city!
Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay: 2 Nights
Halong Bay and Sapa are the two most popular areas to visit in Vietnam, and for good reason. Sapa has incredible valleys full of rice terraces and Halong Bay has massive limestone cliffs rising out of the water in every direction. Both are quite touristy and for good reason. Neither should be missed during your vacation in Vietnam, regardless of the crowds.
But there are alternatives to Halong Bay that offer a more enjoyable experience, away from the tourist crowds. We’ve done several tours in the area and find the neighboring Lan Ha Bay to be far less crowded than Halong Bay. There are also fewer boats competing to offer the lowest price so the cruises tend to be more luxurious and offer more amenities.
Regardless of the bay that you choose, this is a must-visit destination in Vietnam that should absolutely be included in your two-week itinerary!
Things to do in Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay
During your cruise in Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay, you’ll enjoy sailing around the water on your luxury junk boat with towering limestone cliffs rising on all sides. Relaxing on your boat and enjoying the scenery is what most visitors would agree is the best thing to do. But if you are looking for more adventure, there’s plenty of that as well.
Most tours offer daily excursions to various attractions in the area. Whether it’s biking to a remote village, climbing to a lookout point, exploring a cave, or kayaking to a secluded beach, you’ll have daily activities that you can opt-in, or out of.
We find the daily excursions in Halong Bay to be significantly more crowded than those in Lan Ha Bay. Nearly every junk boat makes a stop at Ti Top Island where there is a nice viewpoint at the top of a steep set of stairs as well as a small beach. But you’ll be sharing the island with the passengers from probably 20 different boats at the same time.
And Sung Sot Cave (Surprise Cave) is massive and fascinating to explore, but there is a steady stream of visitors walking around it at all hours of the day. You’ll find that you have most sites and experiences to yourself if you choose a cruise in Lan Ha Bay.
Getting to Halong Bay
Most junk boat cruises for either bay offer transportation to and from your hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. And if you stay outside of the Old Quarter, many offer a pick-up in front of the Hanoi Opera House.
There are two roads to get to the port where cruise boats depart – one is a toll road and is significantly faster than the other. If your boat company takes the toll road, it should take about 2.5 hours. And if they don’t, you can expect the trip to take closer to four hours. Budget junk boat companies generally opt to avoid the toll to save money.
Getting Around Halong Bay
Once you arrive at the pier you won’t have to worry about transportation at all during your time in Halong or Lan Ha Bay. Your tour boat company will have smaller boats to transfer you to and from any excursions for the day. You can focus on relaxing on the boat and enjoying the beautiful surroundings.
Best Cruises in Halong Bay
Era Cruises Halong is a luxurious cruise boat where you’ll be treated like royalty by the amazing staff. Here you can soak in the views of the surrounding nature while actually soaking in your own private tub. Rooms are quite spacious, comfortable, and elegantly decorated – you’ll forget you’re on a boat! You can also enjoy the fitness center and spa for some onboard pampering.
Athena Royal Cruise is a newer 5-star cruise operating in Halong Bay. You’ll love the amazing staff that will pamper you during your stay and who will guide you to all the well-organized daily activities. Rooms are large and gorgeously decorated with red wooden floors and dark wood furniture. The lounge chairs and sauna on the boat deck are the perfect places to relax in the evening. And you’ll appreciate their no single-use plastic policy!
Best Cruises in Lan Ha Bay
Ylang Cruise by Heritage Line is a brand new luxury ship operating in Lan Ha Bay. With just 10 rooms onboard, your cruising experience will be personalized and intimate. The suites are enormous and absolutely stunningly decorated. You’ll love the comfortable seating area, the big bathtub, and your own private balcony. The beds are also large and amazingly comfortable with soft bedding and fluffy pillows.
Rosy Cruises offers both 2 day/1 night and 3 day/2 night excursions around Lan Ha Bay. It provides a 5-star cruising experience around Lan Ha Bay. Rooms are large and comfortable with a large patio for enjoying the striking views all around you. Be sure to take advantage of the jacuzzi and the spa during your time onboard!
Ninh Binh: 2 Nights
Of all the amazing places to visit in Vietnam, Ninh Binh is by far our favorite. It’s like a less touristy version of Halong Bay but the impressive limestone cliffs are on land rather than in the water. The town is small, the guesthouses are inexpensive, and the locals go out of their way to make you feel welcome.
Here you’ll have a chance to enjoy the Vietnamese countryside without battling crowds or pushy entrepreneurs trying to sell their wares. It’s the perfect escape during your 2-week Vietnam itinerary.
Spend a few nights in Ninh Binh and you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped back in time!
Things to do in Ninh Binh
One of the best things to do in Ninh Binh is to rent a motorbike and cruise around while enjoying the spectacular views. But there are plenty of other activities in the region to keep you occupied for a few days.
Boat tours are the most popular activity in the Ninh Binh region, especially for day-trippers from Hanoi. Private boat tours depart frequently throughout the day from Tam Coc, Trang An, and Linh Coc. These small rowboats will guide you through the scenic countryside and through several caves (depending on water levels). Many of the boat drivers are skilled enough to row with their feet!
Other popular activities in the Ninh Binh region include hiking to the top of Mua Caves and visiting the Bich Dong Pagoda. Many of the guesthouses in the Ninh Binh region are set amongst the rice paddies and limestone cliffs, so simply relaxing on your patio and enjoying the peace and quiet will probably be your favorite activity of all!
Getting to Ninh Binh
The Ninh Binh region is just about 60 miles south of Hanoi and easily accessible by tourist bus, luxury minivan, or private car. Tickets are easy to book in advance on Bookaway and buses and minivans leave at various times throughout the day.
It is also possible to visit Ninh Binh as a day tour from Hanoi, although we would argue that it’s worth spending at least a few days exploring the area. If you’re short on time, Get Your Guide offers a full-day tour that will allow you to enjoy some of the highlights of Ninh Binh.
Getting Around Ninh Binh
You’ll want to provide your guesthouse with your approximate arrival time so they can pick you up from the center of town. And most guesthouses in the area have motorbikes available for you to rent during your stay. Due to the condition of the roads and the lack of taxis, a motorbike is the best way to get around Ninh Binh.
Where to Stay in Ninh Binh
Tam Coc Horizon Bungalow has a truly spectacular location, being right at the base of a massive limestone cliff. The rooms are simple but comfortable and clean. And since the property is partially located in a cave, the outdoor showers are a unique touch. And most of all you’ll love the super friendly owners who go out of their way to make you feel at home. Be sure to book in advance, it’s a popular hotel!
Tam Coc Sunshine Homestay is a great place to stay if you’re looking for inexpensive accommodation where you will be treated just like family. These cute bungalows are located in the middle of a rice paddy field at the base of a massive limestone cliff. So the views from your room are incredible! Rooms are quite simple but are equipped with air-conditioning, coffee-making facilities, and comfortable beds. And the complimentary daily breakfast is delicious!
Hoi An: 4 Nights
This 2-week Vietnam itinerary saves the best stop for last! Hoi An is the cutest little town in central Vietnam that is an absolute must-visit during your trip. Hoi An is famous for its yellow French colonial-style buildings and colorful cloth lanterns that line the streets. Every evening the Old Town is turned into a pedestrian-only zone and the tourists wander the streets, shopping for souvenirs and admiring the vibrant lanterns.
And if the touristy Old Town sounds too crowded for your liking, you may want to consider staying at An Bang beach, just a 10-minute drive away. This beach town has lovely beachfront resorts, delicious restaurants, a few lively bars, and a peaceful sandy beach for lounging. It’s where we stay when we visit Hoi An.
Things to do in Hoi An
The most popular things to do in Hoi An include taking a cooking class, enjoying a boat ride at sunset, getting a suit tailored, biking through the countryside, and shopping in the night market. We would highly recommend taking a day trip to My Son ruins if you have enough time. And there are ancient houses and temples to explore in town that are included in the Old Town entrance ticket.
The shopping in Hoi An is incredible! It will be hard for you to resist picking up a few treasures. Leather shops with gorgeous bags, shoes, and belts line the Old Town and custom dress shops are on every corner. Plus, it’s nearly impossible not to take at least a few colorful lanterns home with you – they are so cheap and pack down to fit in your luggage.
It is also quite popular to take a day trip to the nearby An Bang beach to spend a warm afternoon lounging on the sand. An Bang is a quaint little town with several restaurants, resorts, and even several beach clubs where you can enjoy the pool for a small fee.
You can also consider a day trip north from Hoi An to Danang to see its fire-breathing dragon bridge or ride the cable car up to Sun World Ba Na Hills where you can walk across the famous Golden Hands Bridge.
We love to wander around the Old Town in the early mornings, admiring the beautiful yellow buildings before it becomes too hot and overrun by tourists. In the afternoons, we usually borrow bicycles from our hotel and cruise around the miles of rice paddies or sip cold beers on the beach. And in the evenings it’s back to the Old Town to shop in the boutiques and stroll through the lively night market. Many of the local bars offer happy hour specials and live music in the evenings after dark.
Getting to Hoi An
The closest airport to Hoi An is in Danang which is just a short, 45-minute drive south of town. Most people choose to fly into Danang and then hire a private driver to get to Hoi An. There are counters at the airport offering transfers or you can pre-book a bus, minivan, or private driver online on Bookaway.
Getting Around Hoi An
If you book a hotel in the Old Town of Hoi An, it’s easy enough to walk to the main tourist sites. If you choose to stay at An Bang beach (as we normally do), it’s about a 10-minute drive to get into town. You can rent a motorbike, call a Grab (the Uber of SE Asia), or borrow a bicycle from your hotel and pedal there yourself.
Where to Stay in Hoi An
Ann Retreat Resort and Spa (formally Hoi An River Town Hotel) is located right on the river and just a short walk to Hoi An’s Old Town. When temperatures peak in the mid-afternoon, you’ll be happy to have two beautiful pools to lounge in! Rooms are large, comfortable, and clean with gorgeous decor and comfortable beds. It’s one of the best hotels in the city!
Hoi An Odyssey Hotel is a 15-minute walk from the Old Town, but you’ll appreciate that it’s a bit removed from the crowds. You can take advantage of the pristine pool or take the free shuttle to the hotel’s own private beach. Rooms are comfortable, clean, and well-appointed. And you’ll love the super friendly and helpful staff members who will assist with anything you need!
If the busy Old Town of Hoi An seems too crowded for your taste, consider spending a few nights at Dai An Phu Villa in An Bang Beach. This beautiful and peaceful property has a gorgeous pool surrounded by lush gardens. Rooms are large and airy with lots of natural light and lots of amenities. You’ll never want to leave!
If You Have More Than 2 Weeks in Vietnam…
And if you have additional time to spare during your vacation in Vietnam, you should consider spending a few days in Ho Chi Minh City, learning to kiteboard in Mui Ne, or visiting the island of Phu Quoc.
Saigon has some of the best restaurants and breweries in the country so you’ll love eating and drinking your way through this big, bustling metropolis. And Phu Quoc has the best beaches in the country – a perfect tropical paradise!
We hope you have a wonderful two weeks in Vietnam!
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