2-Week Vietnam Itinerary
Vietnam is an absolutely beautiful country with a complicated history and a somewhat tragic 20th century. The influence from the Vietnam War has shaped this country into one with some baggage and hardships, but Vietnam is strong and stoic, and has managed to maintain its pre-colonial identity despite it all. The nature here, other than being stunning, is widely varied, from expansive rice terraces in the north, to deep and winding caves in the center, to subtropical beaches in the south. I know I say it all the time but Vietnam really does have something for everyone. Whether you’re a foodie, a beach bum or an adventurous rock climber, you can find your niche in this affordable and navigable country. So let’s get started.
$1 USD = 23,235.50 Dong (as of March 2020)
GMT +7 hours (Indochina Time)
Dry Season: November - April; Rainy Season: May - October
Food & Drinks to try in Vietnam
Pho- A Vietnamese staple. Different in the north and the south, so try it in both parts of the country!
Bun Cha- Rice noodles, grilled pork patties with vinegar sauce. Great street food.
Banh Mi- French baguette sandwiches with pate and pickled veggies.
Summer Rolls- Fresh, uncooked rice paper wrapped veggies (and occasionally shrimp).
Spring Rolls- Deep-fried versions of summer rolls.
Banh Bao- Steamed pork buns. Occasionally have a surprise egg inside.
Rambutan- Spiky red fruits that look like lychee. Very sweet and tart.
Tamarind- Better in a sauce than raw.
Vietnamese Coffee- Coffee swirled with a mixture of egg yolk and sweetened condensed milk.
Saigon Beer- Most popular beer in Vietnam.
Safety in Vietnam
Much like it’s popular neighbor Thailand, Vietnam is a very safe country. Social structure and etiquette in Vietnam hold high ranking, meaning that crimes, even miniscule ones like bag snatching and pickpocketing, are minimal. Obviously, like any other country, there are scams and inflated tourist prices to watch out for, but other than that, you should run into very few, if any, safety issues while traveling here.
2-Week Vietnam Itinerary
Visas in Vietnam
Of all the countries I’ve visited in Southeast Asia, Vietnam is the only one that requires a pre-approved visa prior to entry. What this means is that rather than just arrive with your passport and go through immigration, you’ll need to arrange your visa status ahead of time. Check out any of the dozens of E-Visa websites for step-by-step instructions on how to get yours. Note: a lot of the sites look spammy and suspicious, but they’re usually legitimate. As part of the process, you’ll need to send in copies of your passport along with a few passport-sized photos, both of which you’ll want to bring with you when you land. Make sure to review everything the site says so you don’t arrive and forget something.
But don’t worry! My packing checklist covers all the visa documents you’ll need so you can come prepared.
Open Bus Ticket in Vietnam
Because this trip is so fast-paced, you’ll want to make sure you streamline your travel process. The open bus ticket is truly an incredible, all-inclusive system that allows you to travel all the way up or down the coast of Vietnam with as many stops in between as you’d like. Just head to a travel agency in your origin city (Hanoi in this case) and ask for an open bus ticket. It’ll probably cost you somewhere in the realm of $50 USD, and you’ll have full access to all cities within the 1-month period that the ticket is active. These buses are overall fairly clean and comfortable and come with little (and I mean little) bed pods, functioning bathrooms and occasional (but weak) WiFi. They’re really the best way to see the country, especially when you’re on a time crunch and looking to save some money
Days 1-2: Hanoi
Depending on which direction you’re going on your trip (either South-->North or North-->South), chances are you’ll fly into either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. Hanoi is a wonderful place to start your two-week trip in Vietnam because it will look both very familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Intensely modern and technologically advanced, Hanoi is one of those surprise cities you don’t expect to find so far away. It’s a bustling metropolis that weaves together beautifully pre-colonial Vietnamese architecture in its ruins and temples with imposing, modern buildings. It’s not uncommon to walk down the street here and find yourself shaded by both brand-new skyscrapers and hundred-year-old trees. But keep your eyes on the road, because traffic doesn’t stop for anybody here.
What to do in Hanoi
Explore the Museums (National Museum of Vientnamese History, Military History Museum & Fine Arts Museum)
Vietnam has an extensive and checkered history, so why not check out spend a day learning a bit of it? The museum is very well kept, and the displays easily explain the history of this great country, beginning in pre-colonial times, through French occupation and after the war.
Check out the Imperial Citadel
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site (what isn’t these days), the Imperial Citadel is a fortress-like building in the center of town and once held enormous importance during the formation of Hanoi. You can walk around the grounds, climb up the citadel itself and check out some of the old weapons and military maps in the artifact exhibition.
Catch a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Apparently created in rural Vietnam as a way for farmers to entertain themselves during the wet season, these puppet shows feature puppets made to look like they’re dancing on the water. They’re operated by puppeteers in waist-deep water who control the characters with long bamboo sticks. I didn’t see this while I was in Hanoi and I really wish I did.
Stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake
If you’ve ever done a google search of Hanoi, chances are this lake came up. Located in the center of Hanoi’s historical district, this lake is said to contain a mythical turtle that’s the hero of legends. However, you’re much more likely to see the Ngoc Son Pagoda on an island right in the center of the lake. This spot is a lovely place to take a break from the frenetic hustle & bustle of the city, and is located near some excellent restaurants.
Munch your way through the city
As the largest city in Vietnam, Hanoi has an enormous and delicious food scene. You could easily spend a day hopping from restaurant to restaurant or food cart to food cart sampling some of the best northern Vietnamese food the city has to offer (northern & southern cuisine is very different!). I recommend looking for small-scale spots that are packed with locals. You may notice that they’re just tiny storefronts with plastic stools on the sidewalk, They’re generally the cheapest and most authentic places to eat, and because it’s crowded, you can be sure that the food safety is up to code.
Wondering where to stay in Hanoi? Check out AZ Hanoi Hostel
Days 3-5: Sa Pa OR Ha Long Bay
Okay, folks. It’s time to make a tricky decision. In the two-week timeframe, you won’t really have time to visit both Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay, so you’ll have to pick which you’d rather see. Each one of them has distinct pros and cons, but if it were up to me, I’d suggest opting for Sa Pa. Let me explain them both below, but if you don't feel like ready it all, then heres my advice:
Looking for hiking & adventure? Go to Sa Pa
Looking for sun & swimming? Go to Ha Long Bay
About 6 hours from Hanoi, Sa Pa is a chilly town nestled neatly between the rolling mountains of northern Vietnam. It’s an insanely picturesque and one-of-a-kind region of the country, but the main reason tourists come here is to do a homestay trek. I’d recommend taking a night bus from Hanoi (to save a bit on accommodation & sleep through the ride), and booking your homestay the morning you arrive. You’ll be taken down into the rice terraces and valleys of Sa Pa by local tribes women, who will lead you to a specially designed homestay to rest that night, complete with a traditional home cooked meal and (if you’re lucky) some home-brewed rice wine. It’s a really fun (and wet) hike, with foggy mountain peaks, Banteng herds (Southeast Asian cattle), and hills that almost remind you of Ireland. Sa Pa is, in my opinion, totally worth the trek, and was a real highlight of my trip, so I’d recommend you do some research if you’re having difficulty deciding between this and Ha Long Bay.
Homestay Trek Difficulty Level: 2/5 (not a leisurely stroll but not super intense either)
Wondering where to stay in Sa Pa? I recommend Go Sapa Hostel
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is so synonymous with Vietnam that images of it are actually printed on the currency. You’ve definitely seen pictures of it on your instagram feed, and during the dry season, you may notice that it’s vaguely reminiscent of the tropical Thai Islands. Ha Long Bay boat tours generally include an overnight stay on the boat, full meals & drinks, swimming, cave exploring and kayaking. However, I went on a rainy day and on a boat tour that was geared towards people who were….let’s say not my age. So I personally didn’t like Ha Long Bay. However, I’ve heard from almost everyone else that they had a blast there and felt it was a total must-see while in the country, so the decision is up to you. There are really all sorts of boat tours in Ha Long Bay, from party-geared booze cruises to relaxing & luxury five-star yachts. My advice? Before booking your tour, do a lot of research to see if your tour company caters more towards millennials or older folks. And look online. The tour agents will say anything you want to hear to sell you on their particular company, so check online reviews to see what their comapny boats are really like. I can imagine this experience would have been much more fun with people my age and a better tour.
Days 6-7: Phong Nha National Park
Once you finish up your Sa Pa or Ha Long Bay experience, head back to Hanoi, spend the day exploring what you haven’t yet seen in the city, and catch the night bus to Phong Nha National Park. The trip takes about 10 hours, so you’ll definitely want to use this as an opportunity to catch up on some sleep. Once you arrive (very early in the morning), you’ll want to drop your stuff off at your hostel (it’ll be too early to check in) and head out to see what Phong Nha has to offer.
Phong Nha town is something like 15-buildings long. It’s very tiny and is used primarily as a way for tourists to explore the surrounding nature, and in particular the UNESCO-status caves in the region. Rent a scooter and spend your time here exploring the open fields around town. You can genuinely just do that and still see why Phong Nha is such a wonderful off-the-beaten-path spot to visit.
What to do in Phong Nha National Park
Go Spelunking! (Paradise Cave, Phong Nha Cave & Dark Cave)
Phong Nha National Park is known for one thing and one thing only...its caves. Home to the largest cave in the world (Hang Son Doong), this area of the country is strategically located above a hotbed of winding cave systems, many of which are accessible to tourists. While Hang Son Doong is only available by reservation (months in advance) and is incredibly pricey, its lesser known neighbors are cheap and available year-round for entry. Check out Dark Cave for a really unique experience swimming in mud pools that feels like you’re wading in soft serve ice cream. Many of these cave tours come with included ziplining and swimming experiences as well, so you can satisfy all your adventurous itches in one.
Explore the Botanic Gardens
Just 12km from Phong Nha town center, the Botanic Gardens are a protected plot of land with three different treks and hundreds of different types of flora and fauna. Depending on which path you take, you can make this into a half-day or a full-day activity.
Path 1: Just a trek to the Gio waterfall (about 40 minutes)
Path 2: A trek to a small swimming lake and to the Gio Waterfall (about 1.5 hours)
Path 3: an extension of Path 2 with a more extensive jungle trek (about 3 hours)