An Awesome Two Week Vietnam Itinerary: Skip the South!
This post was originally published in December 2017 / updated in August 2019
If you asked me a few years ago to suggest a two week Vietnam itinerary I’d have said skip it altogether and go to Thailand or Laos. My first trip to Vietnam was a let down, but I’ve been a few times since and have grown to love this thin sliver of land by the South China Sea. The key to a fulfilling Vietnam itinerary is choosing the right places to spend your time — lucky you stumbled across my travel blog!
Vietnam Itinerary: Skip the South
The first thing to remind yourself when planning to spend two weeks in Vietnam is that there’s no way you’ll see it all. Despite being a relatively small country there is a lot to do — I’ve spent months there, both living and travelling, and there are still popular places I haven’t been to.
So, why skip the south? Saigon (AKA Ho Chi Minh City) is an interesting enough city but Hanoi is better, and chances are you’ll only want to explore one big city if you’re short on time. Between Saigon and Hoi An there are a few popular seaside towns, including Mui Ne and Nha Trang. They’re nice enough but the beaches are nothing special — go to Thailand or Cambodia is you want to laze by a pristine beach for a few days.
My advice — fly straight to Da Nang. There are direct flights from some cities in Asia or you can jump on a local flight once you arrive in Saigon or Hanoi. Leave a few hours between flights though as sorting out visas can take a while.
Hoi An (5 nights)
30 km from Da Nang lies Hoi An, possibly the nicest small city in Southeast Asia. For centuries it was a busy port attracting traders from all over Asia (and later, the French). Much of that heritage remains in Hoi An. It does get crowded, but walk a street or two over from the Japanese Bridge (the unofficial town centre) and you’ll find some peace. Old style yellow houses with wooden interiors abound in the old town, and many have been turned into galleries, museums and shops.
You could (and probably will) spend days wandering the old town. There are heaps of nice restaurants and cafes to check out and it’s a paradise for shoppers. There is plenty to do around Hoi An too, including cycling through the countryside, a beach, a set of ancient ruins and the shrine-filled Marble Mountains.
Hue (1-2 nights)
You may remember Hue as a city in ruins in the movie Full Metal Jacket. It saw fierce fighting during the Vietnam / American War, but these days it’s a convenient stop on the journey from Hoi An to Hanoi (it’s around 3 hours from Hoi An). The main reason to visit Hue is to see the 19th Century Imperial Citadel, as well as the tombs of fallen emperors scattered around the city.
Phong Nha (2-3 nights)
Next up is Phong Nha, a must-visit for nature lovers. The craggy karst mountains conceal some of the world’s largest (and prettiest) caves. You can cycle through the countryside to Paradise Cave (or take a tour as it’s a long ride) and go on a boat ride through Phong Nha Cave. There are other options too, including Son Doong Cave, the largest cave known to man (it’s really expensive though). Another reason to visit Phong Nha is the roasted pork — it’s the local specialty and you get huge portions of crispy pork for very little money. Phong Nha is 4 hours north of Hue and is easily reached by bus.
Hanoi (1-2 nights)
The easiest way to travel from Phong Nha to Hanoi is by sleeper bus, which is definitely an experience. It’ll cost around $10 and you get your own little bed. It can be uncomfortable, and the drivers are generally rude, but you can’t beat the price and convenience. Hanoi is a city full of motorbikes, street side food stalls and small shops full of knockoff gear. It’s hectic to say the least, and after a day or two of temple hopping, shopping, eating and visiting historic sites you’ll likely want to move on.
If you have more than two weeks in Vietnam I recommend stopping in Ninh Binh for a night (it’s a few hours south of Hanoi). It’s similar to Phong Nha (caves, limestone mountains) but different enough to be worth seeing.
Halong Bay (1-2 nights)
Last up on my Vietnam itinerary is Halong Bay. All travel agents (and most hotels) in Hanoi’s old town sell tours to Halong Bay. Most will try and overcharge, so shop around and get good at bargaining. You can visit Halong Bay on a day trip (not recommended) or spend 1-2 nights on a boat. I did a 2 day / 1 night tour and it was just the right amount of time on the water. Halong Bay’s appeal is all to do with the scenery — hundreds of limestone islands sprout from the ocean and there are caves and floating villages to explore.
Two Weeks in Vietnam: How much will it cost?
You can get a room in a locally owned guesthouse for $10 (private bathroom, TV, aircon, possibly a fridge), a meal for a dollar and a 10 hour sleeper bus for $10. It’s one of the best value countries I’ve been to. You can obviously splash out and stay in nicer hotels, but it’ll still be relatively cheap. Hotels in Hoi An and Hanoi are slightly more expensive than usual but if you’re willing to up your rate to $15 you’ll get a good room (or you can wander the streets in search of something cheaper — it might take a while though). Whatever budget you’re on, make sure to eat the local food — it’s cheap and each region has its own unique dishes. Banh mi (French style baguette sandwiches) are everywhere and make for great breakfasts / lunches.
Do you like the look of my Vietnam Itinerary? Let me know in the comments below!
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