Planning your first Vietnam itinerary and not sure where to go and what to do? Based on my first trip in 2016 and living in HCMC for 16 months, here’s my full guide!

I distinctly remember being proud of myself after planning my first trip to Vietnam. It was the first time I’d ever had full control of my own itinerary from start to finish, and I was excited to see as much of the country as I could during my winter vacation from teaching in Korea. It didn’t go perfectly (5 days on Cat Ba in February is 4 days too long it turns out), but things went pretty well and we managed to travel as far south as the Mekong Delta and as far north as Hanoi!

I may be a bit biased, but I find this country, at its heart, to be incredibly charming and way easier to travel through than you’d think. Before I visited, it felt like I couldn’t find anything particularly positive about people’s visits. It’s definitely changed now as travel has picked up and more foreigners are staying long term. I’m not saying it’s perfect and not without its frustrations or safety issues, but it’s come a long way in the last decade or two. I’ve even found it significantly easier traveling in 2021 vs 2016.

Anyway, I promise if you follow my itinerary, you won’t be disappointed!

For even more advice, check out my giant list of Vietnam travel tips

Quick Tips for this Vietnam Itinerary

So if you’re starting fresh, I first suggest checking out my guide on how to plan a trip to Vietnam, as that covers all the logistics and gives you a brief overview of the country. I’ll go over some quick points below, though:

Visas in Vietnam

Before you do anything, you’ll want to check your country’s visa requirements for Vietnam. For US citizens, you need to apply for a visa before you leave. I’d give myself a good week before departure to make sure you can apply. I’ve personally always used Vietnam Visa Provider who are lovely and efficient. Once you apply, you’ll need to pay them via Paypal, and they’ll email you your visa letter after 3 business days. Then you’ll need $25 USD for a stamping fee, 2 4x6cm passport photos, and the printed out visa letter for immigration when you arrive.

If for whatever reason the site above isn’t working, iVisa is another super trusted service that’s been featured on sites like the BBC.

Best time to visit Vietnam

Keep in mind while Vietnam is a tropical climate, it does experience seasons. The south has rainy season and dry season while the north gets colder in the winter. I would say the most ideal time to go is late March or November. November and March are still a bit cool up north but you avoid the rainy season down south. I promise I’ll write a whole post breaking all of this down!

Flying in and out

For this specific itinerary you’ll fly into HCMC’s Tan Son Nhat Airport and fly out of Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport. Keep in mind Tan Son Nhat is about 15-20 minutes from District 1 in Saigon while Noi Bai is closer to 45 minutes from Old Quarter in Hanoi.

SIM cards in Vietnam

I highly, highly recommend you get a SIM card so you have a telephone number while here. Most Grab drivers will try calling you, and hotels will want your number for their records. Trust me, it’ll make your life 10x easier. You can just get a SIM card once you get your luggage, but you can also book yours ahead here. As a bonus, if you overuse your data, try adding more via Ding. If for whatever reason it doesn’t work, they’ll automatically refund you.

Getting between cities

Vietnam has sleeper buses, train, and plane options when it comes to getting between major stops. For this itinerary, I mainly recommend planes with some buses or private transfer options. Remember Vietnam is long. Like a flight between Hanoi – HCMC is two hours on its own! That’s like flying between Philly and Orlando. If you want to use trains or buses, you have to allot a lot more time for transfers and probably cut some places out on this list.

Getting around within the cities

You’ll mainly want to use Grab (SE Asia’s version of Uber) to get around or hire private drivers. I’ll go into what to use specifically for each spot below, but for the most part it’s super easy to just have the app on hand to order a ride as needed.

While you can use Grab motorbike or car options, I would say err on the safer side and use the car option or make sure you buy your own helmet. The Grab helmets are pretty trash and will not protect you if your bike crashes.

Safety in Vietnam

Vietnam, over all, is a relatively safe country. The main things you’ll want to worry about is theft and traffic. Keep your phone close and don’t walk with it willy nilly. I’ve had quite a few friends get their phones snatched by a passing motorbike. When it comes to traffic, you’ll notice the bigger cities are quite hectic. However the main tourist spots have crosswalks, and the key to anything is to walk straight and at a steady pace so the motorbikes can anticipate where to drive around you.

For women, it’s the same concerns we have in all the countries we visit. Be vigilant and don’t be afraid to scream if a guy harasses you.

If something happens, I recommend going to your embassy or consulate. For US Citizens, we have a consulate in HCMC and an embassy in Hanoi, and both have emergency hotlines.

Vietnam Itinerary for 2 Weeks

And now for the itinerary! I designed this based on my first trip and living here for over a year and getting to know all these spots even better, so I like to think this is about as thorough as first-time visitor friendly as possible. ;)

Opera House, HCMC, Vietnam

Days 1-3: Ho Chi Minh City

We’re starting in south Vietnam with Ho Chi Minh City. I can’t express how much I love this place! Colloquially known as Saigon, it’s an absolute behemoth of a city with multiple districts spread out and a lot of its own history. I incorporated a lot of lesser known spots so you can really get to know it beyond the main tourist attractions.

Where to Stay in HCMC

The best area to stay is in District 1 or 3 near Nguyen Hue Walking Street. This will put you in easy walking distance from a lot of sights and a short drive from others.

  • Budget – If you’re on a backpacker budget, the popular street is Bui Vien. I first stayed in a private room at Lily’s Hostel, which I loved. It came with a delicious breakfast and the owners were super friendly and helpful. I’ll never forget getting home from the Mekong on the first day, and the owner inviting me to sit down and eat some bánh tét.
  • Midrange – For a midrange option, I recommend the Indochine-inspired Odys Boutique Hotel or the trendy, Instagrammable Hammock Hotel Fine Arts Museum.
  • Luxury – As far as luxury stays go, my first choice would be Hôtel des Artes MGallery Saigon. It’s technically in District 3, but within walking distance of the main sights. I did a staycation here and loved it – the staff is super lovely and breakfast is delicious. Plus you can come back and enjoy their rooftop pool! Some other honorable mentions include Mia Saigon (love but kind of far from the action), Park Hyatt (friends loved it), and Intercontinental Saigon (the spa at least is one of the best in the city its hot stone massage).

Getting in to HCMC

Like I said above, Tan Son Nhat is only 15-20 minutes from District 1. You’ll be fine getting a Grab car, private transfer, or asking your hotel to help you book. Price wise they’re all pretty similar! It might be nice having someone waiting so you don’t deal with all the taxi drivers getting in your face while you wait for Grab.

Getting Around

When it comes to Saigon, the easiest way to get around is via Grab or by foot. Of all the rideshare apps, I’d say Grab is the most trustworthy and available. Other than that you can walk too, just map things out and know it gets humid! Also keep in mind April – September is monsoon season, so it’ll almost always rain in the afternoon.

Day 1: Mekong Delta Day Trip

To kick off this Vietnam itinerary, I think doing one of the Mekong Delta day trip tours is the perfect way to ease yourself into travel here while getting a taste of the country’s most southern region.

The Mekong Delta is made up of 12 provinces in Vietnam, and it’s pretty big. People have been here since prehistoric times, and it’s best known for its agriculture and plant life. Though the day tour only takes you to one area near Mỹ Tho, it does give you a nice little taste!

The day trips usually return around dinner time, and I remember mine returning me to Benh Thanh Market. I’d say head into the market’s food court and grab dinner here! Since they’re used to foreigners visiting, all the food has photos and English translations. I say go for the bún mắm, bánh xèo, and one of the chè drinks!

If you’re not quite ready for plastic seat-style food, then head over to Au Parc or Propaganda (they’re next to each other) near the Notre Dame Cathedral for some restaurant eats. Au Parc’s got the heartiest salads and the duck dish at Propaganda is still a favorite.

Day 2: Walk around HCMC

The nice thing about the main sights of HCMC is that you can pretty much do them all in a day! After breakfast, walk over or get dropped off at Independence Palace. Then walk over to see the Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon Central Post Office (go inside!), HCMC Supreme People’s Court, the People’s Committee of HCMC, the Opera House, and Nguyen Hue Street.

Go into 42 Nugyen Hue to one of the apartment cafes – I like Letter Coffee (either location), Saigon Oi, or Orientea the best. You can also go to EON 51 Cafe in Bitexco to take in the views or go to the skydeck. If you’re staying at MGallery, the rooftop pool and bar have better views, so don’t worry about including it in your itinerary.

For lunch head over to Little Japan. Be aware, restaurants close down at 2 pm before re-opening at night. The alley is pretty cool (and slightly sketchy with some red light district vibes), but the ramen at Mutahiro is delicious!

With how Saigon’s humidity is, you’re probably going to want to pop into your hotel to freshen up a bit before continuing on with your day. Just get a Grab back if you’re not in the mood to walk.

I’d then spend the afternoon at one of the museums. The War Remnants Museum is the most famous, though also the most upsetting so a little trigger warning!

Finally, head over to the pink church, Tanh Dinh Cathedral for sunset. Go to the Cong Caphe and sit out on the roof to enjoy the view. I know it’ll probably be too much caffeine for evening, but you’ve gotta get their cà phê cốt dừa, easily one of the BEST Vietnamese drinks! Then down that alley head to Bánh Xèo 46A for some ginormous bánh xèo for dinner!

Day 3: Off the Beaten Path Day

Okay, so there’s a TON of things you could do to enjoy Saigon! I think it depends on the kind of day you want to have and when you’re leaving the city. The next stop is Huế, which is a flight away, so you can book it either for the evening or the next morning.

I have two options for today – Chợ Lớn or a foodie day. Chợ Lớn is Saigon’s Chinatown and you could spend all day walking around and seeing the temples and churches. I have a whole post to District 5 and Cho Lon if you want to do this, including my recommended walking guide

If you prefer a foodie day, you better come hungry! First, you’re going to skip your hotel breakfast and go right to Banh Mi Hoa Ma in District 3. This is one of the first places in the city that started selling bánh mì. Get either a deconstructed bánh mì or the normal baguette version. Don’t forget to get a cà phê sữa đá as well! Around the corner is Chè chuối nướng Võ Văn Tần where you can try some chè chuối, a banana dessert.

Then walk through Nguyễn Thiện Thuật to take in an old apartment block with bright colors and lots of plants before headed to Cheo Leo Cafe, the oldest cafe in the city! They still use the sock method of filtering their coffee (which I think makes it even tastier), and they’ll happily show you how it’s made if you ask!

Once you’ve relaxed enough, you’ll then want to head over to Hồ Thị Kỷ Market. Half the market is for wholesale flowers and the other half is for all kinds of local food. Walk around the flower stalls before sampling the fun food like súp cua óc heo (pig brain soup). Keep an eye out for this drink that’s chocolate-y and has bánh flan sitting on top.

Warning you that you’ll probably be very full and maybe a little tired by this point! However, if you can keep going, head to Bò Kho Gánh Sài Gòn to try bò kho (a sort of beef stew) and kem dừa (coconut ice cream). And if you’re with a group and still hungry go right around the corner to Chè Mâm Khánh Vy and try their 17 (17!) different kinds of chè.

Then proceed to return to your hotel and fall into a food coma, ha!

How to do Hue in one day

Day 4-5: Huế

Time to leave southern Vietnam behind for central Vietnam! First stop is the historically royal city of Huế. It’s most famously known as the capital of the country under the Nguyễn dynasty, which lasted from 1802 – 1945. Not only is the architecture here incredible, the food is amazing. In a country where I like just about all of the cuisine, this is tied with the Mekong for my favorite place to eat!

Where to Stay in Huế

The thing with Huế is that you’re going to need a motorbike or taxi to get around to most of the places you’ll want to see, so it doesn’t really matter where in the city you stay. Just pick a nice place that’s relatively quiet and close to at least one restaurant you want to try or spot you want to see.

  • Luxury – Azerai La Residence Hue is the gold standard for luxurious hotels. La Residence is set in a historic Art Deco property and absolutely gorgeous. Their pool has the best view of the river and flag tower! If you’re wanting a massage, this is one of the hotels in Vietnam where it’s worth the price.
  • Midrange/Luxury- I also stayed at Pilgrimage Village Resort, which is set a bit south of the river and feels more like a resort. It’s midrange, but definitely still on the luxury side with two pools and a bunch of things to do just on the property itself.
  • Budget – When Alyshia and I came for our whirlwind day in Huế, we opted for the super cute TOVO Hostel south of the river towards the eastern side. It’s decorated like it belongs on a Greek isle and, as a bonus, it’s maybe a block away from a really good restaurant I’ve listed below!

Getting to Hue from Saigon

The best way to Huế from Saigon is to fly. The airport is only 20-30 minutes from the main part of the city and super small, so it’s quick to get in and out.

Getting Around

Most of the places you visit will have a lot of walking within them, so be prepared for that. Otherwise, Huế is really spread out, so you’re basically going to want a private driver for the day or to rent your own motorbikes. We asked a taxi to stay with us for the morning and showed him where we wanted to go and then asked him how much. I want to say for a half day of driving around, it was 500-600K VND. Of course, you can always book a private driver ahead of time, just ask your hotel.

If you’re relying on Grab, know that it’s not really ridesharing here. Instead it’ll link you with a taxi who runs the meter like normal.

Day 4: Huế

So first things first, you’ll want to catch a morning flight to Huế. Even if you can’t check in, you’ll be able to leave your stuff with the front desk and start doing some exploring.

Once you’ve dropped your things off, grab some lunch. A good starting place is at Quán Bánh Khoái Hạnh. It’s a local restaurant that sees a good amount of food tours come through, so they’re familiar with foreigners who don’t know where to start. Get their set menu which will include bánh bèo, bánh khoái, nem lụ, bánh cuốn thịt nướng, and nem rán. Such a good introduction to Huế cuisine!

I would then spend the rest of the afternoon wandering the Imperial City of Huế (also known as the Huế Citadel). It’s pretty massive, and you’ll want to give yourself a few hours to snake through the grounds and see everything. Just know you enter through the Ngọ Môn gate and can only exit through Cửa Hiển Nhơn gate on the left side. They’re not near each other at all. Start walking to the right so you finish on the left!

When it comes to dinner, look for some bánh canh cá lóc. It’s one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. Part of it is that you watch the cook prep the noodles from scratch right in front of you.

After that, just relax the rest of the evening. Enjoy your hotel’s pool or hang out by the river. Tomorrow is also going to be a pretty big adventure day!

Day 5: Huế

Start your morning with some salt coffee! This is Huế’s specialty like egg coffee is Hanoi’s. You most likely can get it at your hotel’s breakfast but if not, grab a taxi over to the original spot, Cà Phê Muối (which, yes, quite literally translates to salt coffee). Make sure you grab something to eat as well because you might have to skip or delay lunch to see all of the spots below in one go!

Now this is the day you’re going to want to have a taxi driver on hand because you’re about to hit up five different spots and four of them involve a good amount of walking. The first and furthest away is the Royal Tomb of Minh Mạng, who was the second Nguyễn emperor. His tomb grounds are nice as the layout is pretty symmetrical and you walk straight back and retrace your steps to leave.

Next on this list is Royal Tomb of Khải Định, which doesn’t look particularly Vietnamese. Khải Định was the 12th Nguyễn emperor and wildly unpopular since he was very much under the France’s colonial thumb. His tomb is quite ornate but much smaller. The only thing to be wary of his the set of stairs to get to the main part!

Next up is a stop at the Thuy Tien Lake Abandoned Water Park to visit the creepy dragon on the lake! Your taxi will drop you off and then it’s a 10 minute walk to the dragon head itself. Sometimes there will be a guard there you need to “tip” to be allowed in. The dragon is pretty cool. Definitely go in and climb up into the mouth!

As your final stop for the day, head over Royal Tomb of Tự Đức, the 4th Nguyễn emperor and the one with the longest reign. His tomb grounds are by the far the biggest since it was also used as an out-of-the-way palace while he was still alive. On your way out, you’ll see the Incense Village. Make sure to stop here as well, especially this specific shop. The owner and her mom are really cute and will show you how the incense sticks are made. They also have different souvenirs as well.

You’re going to be exhausted and hungry by the end of this! If you’re staying at Azerai, book a massage for this evening. Honestly I’d go back to Quán Bánh Khoái Hạnh to eat because it has so much variety. This time add in some bánh bèo and bánh bột lọc! Another good spot is the vegetarian restaurant, Lien Hoa. You can do hot pot there as well as try a bunch of other dishes.

Day 6 – 9: Hoi An

Anyway, moving up along Vietnam’s coast, is the pretty yellow town of Hội An, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reason it’s so unique is that it’s one of the best preserved examples of a Southeast Asian port city.

A few years ago everyone describe it as quaint and a hidden gem, and while I do think the town is still beautiful, it is not hidden by any means. It has become one of the most popular places to visit in Vietnam and will be pretty busy year round. It really is beautiful though, so I wouldn’t skip it. Just know it gets more hectic at night and the sales people are much pushier than anywhere else I’ve ever been in the country.

Where to Stay

Because Hội An is so easy to walk around, I recommend staying near or within walking distance of the main part of Ancient Town.

  • Luxury – On my second trip we stayed at the lovely Anantara Hoi An, which would be my top pick. It’s less than 10 minutes by foot from the busy part of the river. But it’s also tucked away a bit so it’s quiet and the view on the river is beautiful! Another luxury stay is the Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai. It’s kind of out of the way so I wouldn’t stay there if you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing.
  • Midrange – For midrange, checkout The Mansion Hoi An. It’s very cute and Moroccan-inspired with its decor, though it’ll put you an extra 10 minutes from downtown than Anantara.
  • Budget – I remember looking up budget options in Hoi An back when I first visited, and the options with 9+ ratings seemed endless! I looked again and I’d still say it rings pretty true. If I were to pick again, I’d say Truc Loc Villa looks both nice and is in a pretty good location near the main area. Hoian Royal Villa is across the bridge but in a similar area and looks nice and modern!

Getting to Hoi An

Really the only way to get from Hue to Hoi An is on land and the best options are to do some sort of tour or hire a private car. The closest you’ll get for public transport is taking a train from Hue to Da Nang and then getting a taxi from Da Nang to Hoi An.

Getting Around

Like I said above, the best way to get around is on foot! It’s a very easy place to walk around and in fact I find motorbikes clog up the area in a very annoying way unlike elsewhere in Vietnam. Just enjoy walking or renting a bike for slightly farther areas.

Day 6: Tour through Hai Van Pass to Hoi An

This day is dedicated to just getting down to Hoi An from Hue. Lucky you, this is a very pretty drive that takes you through the Hai Van Pass! If you’re feeling up to it, you can book a motorbike tour, and they’ll take care of your luggage. There’s also this private sightseeing tour that I’d actually like to do if I go back.

Depending on what you do, you should arrive in Hoi An anywhere between lunch and early evening. As soon as you arrive and drop off your things, head right over to the tailor. This is so they have as much time as possible to work on the outfits you’ll want! This is by far one of the must-do things in the city, and I personally recommend Izi Wear. Absolute love everything I had made here, and they’re both super nice and family-owned. If you’re staying at Anantara they’re super close by. Just shoot them a DM on Instagram!

After you’ve finished there, walk around the corner to Bánh Mì Phượng. Eat some bánh mì where Anthony Bourdain did! Alyshia also had the cao lầu at this spot and said it was delicious.

If you’ve still got time, plan a sunset dragon boat ride through Anantara. It’s a really peaceful way to cruise the river. Much nicer than the gaudy boat options down in the main area. Another option is to ask about the basket boat rides a bit out of town. I did this on my first trip and loved it. Either way, plan to be on the water at sunset for the most classic Hoi An experience.

For dinner, walk into to town a bit and find a cao lầu spot. There was a guy near our hotel that we went to twice because he had such good cao lầu, cơm gà (Hoi An chicken rice), and cháo vịt (duck soup). If you’re walking around at night, also look for bánh xoài — it’s this delicious powdery dessert.

My Son Sacntuary, Vietnam

Day 7: Hoi An & My Son

Start your morning off with a bike ride to the other side of Hoi An. The town gets, to me, almost unbearably crowded as the day goes on. It’s much nicer to do this bike ride sooner rather than later. Just bike along the river and take in the pretty architecture. Stop by Espresso Station for some fun coffees before going back. Chances are you’ll have to stop by Izi to try on your clothes. When we went, they told us around 10:00 AM, which will give you plenty of time.

Once you’ve tried on your clothes, they’ll either be done or just need a few adjustments. Either way you can take them with or just have them delivered to your hotel later.

There are plenty of random spots to eat at for lunch, so if you haven’t tried cao lầu yet, this is the time! And even if you have, eat it again. It’s just that good, and you can really only get it here. Even as I’m writing this post, I’m wishing I could transport myself back to have a bowl.

I’m going to assume at this point in time, you’re going to be a little tired. This itinerary is pretty packed! Take the rest of the afternoon to hang out at a cafe or lounge by your hotel’s pool.

Afterwards, I’d relax at a cafe or the pool (or both). If you go for a cafe, choose one with rooftop views like 92 Station Coffee.

About an hour before, head over to the incredible Mỹ Sơn to catch it at its prettiest. This cluster of Hindu temples is kind of like Vietnam’s mini version of Angkor Wat and are one of the few examples left of the Champa kingdom. From memory, I think we walked around in around an hour and it takes an hour to get there and back.

For dinner, head back out into town and try any of the foods I’ve listed above!

Dragon Bridge in Da Nang, Vietnam

Days 8-9: Da Nang

If HCMC is the main city for the south, and Hanoi is the main city for the north, then I’d say Da Nang is the main city for central Vietnam. It’s a lot less hectic than those two cities, and seems to have a more relaxed vibe, at least from the few visits I’ve made here and there!

You don’t necessarily need to spend two days in Da Nang, but I built this section in so you have two somewhat relaxing days. If you’re not interesting in relaxing, you could stay in Hoi An and add in different activities like a cooking class, food tour, cycling tour out to the rice fields, etc.

Where to Stay

  • Luxury – The Intercontinental Sun Peninsula Resort has got to be one of my favorite resorts in Vietnam. This is a place you go and stay at. Even just walking the property around is a form of sightseeing. The designs are all done by Bill Bensley who’s known for these super cool, over the top interiors that are bucket list worthy on their own. I remember on my first trip, my friend and I ate at Citron Restaurant and I just knew I’d have to come back one. day when I could afford it. Yay to growing up as I went with my friend, Eunsol, and it lived up to all my expectations!
  • Midrage – Obviously, the Intercontinental is a splurge, and it’s far from the main part of Da Nang. For something more midrange but still nice, I liked what I saw in Salmalia Boutique Hotel & Spa and Minh Boutique.
  • Budget – For those on a budget, the Sen Boutique Hotel looked quite cute!

Getting in to Da Nang

So the way I have this itinerary set-up, you’re going to just want to get a private driver who’s available for about half the day. Just ask your hotel to organize this!

Getting Around

With Da Nang you can pretty much just use Grab or taxis from what I remember. I will say the roads seemed a bit calmer, so those with some motorbike experience should be fine renting one.

Marble Mountains in Da Nang

Day 8: Da Nang

Time to leave Hoi An! Part of why I’d recommend having a private driver for this part is so you can do a little sightseeing in Da Nang before headed to your hotel. I’m mainly thinking of the Dragon Bridge, Marble Mountain, and Linh Ung Pagoda, home to Vietnam’s largest Buddha statue.

First have your driver bring you to the Marble Mountains. When I went, we spent about 90 minutes on Thuy Son mountain, which gives you an idea of their Buddhist history. There are four other mountains. if you want to see even more.

Next have your driver bring you to the Dragon Bridge to check out the 1,864ft long steel dragon. If you get there at the right time, you’ll see it shoot fire.

The last spot to visit is Linh Ung Pagoda. It’s actually on the way to Intercontinental, so the perfect last stop. I wanted to go while we were there, but it was closed. Could still see the Lady Buddha statue see it from afar!

By the time you check out these three spots, it’ll be time to check in. Even if you don’t stay there, try to have lunch at Intercontinental’s Citron Restaurant. I love their outdoor seating. Then spend the rest of the afternoon lounging at the pool or the beach.

Intercontinental Da Nang Sun Peninsula

Day 9: Da Nang

Today is the mandatory rest of your Vietnam itinerary. I can almost guarantee you’re going to need a reset! If you’re staying at the Intercon, you can just take the lift down to the beach and relax or head up to the rooftop pool. Dine at one of their restaurants onsite and just soak it all in.

For those of you staying back in the main part of Da Nang, just head over to the beaches there to relax. One other thing to do, which I’d like to do, is visit one of the markets to try out the seafood.

What to Do in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Day 10-12: Halong Bay – Cat Ba

Named one of the New Seven Natural Wonders in 2012, Ha Long has been a traveler and photographer favorite since it first appeared in the movie, Indochine. The karst formations, dark teal waters, junk boats, and blue fishing boats… It’s easy to see why it’s so popular.

Although the Bay’s reputation has taken a big hit with crazy over tourism and a total lack of environmental protection, I still find it’s worth visiting especially if you’re going outside of peak season. I first went in February when it was actually a quite chilly, so things were actually almost too quiet. I can’t speak for how busy or not busy May is as I went when borders were still closed and none of Vietnam was overtouristed.

Also the way I have your time in Ha Long outlined, you won’t be on a cruise for multiple days, which is the most popular way of see the bay. Hopefully this way will be a bit less crowded regardless!

Where to Stay in Cat Ba

You’re actually going to be based on Cat Ba island for this itinerary, so these picks are all there and not in Ha Long city:

  • Luxury – For luxury, there’s the newly opened MGallery Hotel de Oriente which is supposed to be quite beautiful, though friends told me service wasn’t quite up to par with other MGallery hotels in Vietnam just yet. Another highly rated option is Flamingo Cat Ba Beach Resort.
  • Midrange – When I went to Cat Ba the first time, my friend and I stayed a the Sea Pearl Hotel, which is situated right at the docks you’ll use to go back to the mainland. It’s not a pretty hotel by any means, and if you go in the off season, they’ll probably have half the hotel shut down. But it was nice enough and still seemed the same when I saw it on my last trip.
  • Budget – On my last trip to Cat Ba, I decided to try a stay at Dai Thuy Hotel. It looks very cute in photos, though I will say the photos are cuter than what you see in person, albeit it’s still a nice budget hotel. The manager (who I think is the owner’s brother) is really lovely and incredibly helpful, which I always think makes or breaks a stay!

Getting to Cat Ba

Lucky for you, getting to Halong Bay isn’t the convoluted process it once was! I remember trying to do mental jenga figuring how to get from Da Nang to Cat Ba back in 2016, but it’s very straightforward these days. You’ll want to fly from Da Nang International Airport to Cat Bi International Airport in Hai Phong. From there you should be able to transfer from Hai Phong to Cat Ba with a combination of taxi, ferry, and bus. Basically you need to get to the main port, take one of the ferries to Cat Ba, and then get a taxi to take you to the main part of Cat Ba town.

I’d ask your hotel to guide you because I’ve done the route twice and I’m still kind of fuzzy on the details! Also a warning, you probably won’t have phone signal on the island until you get into town. My hotel told me to call them when I got to Cat Ba but I couldn’t lol. I just took one of the random taxi vans with another group of people and had him drop me off at a restaurant I had saved on my phone.

Getting Around

For getting around, I did a combination of walking or motorbiking! I definitely recommend renting a motorbike or hiring a driver for Cat Ba because otherwise you’ll be stuck in town. And to be honest Cat Ba town isn’t all that nice. Kinda dinghy and the food isn’t amazing.

Day 10: Cat Ba

You’re probably going to spend most of the day transferring over to Cat Ba, sorry. I’d just try to come over as early as possible so you have as much of the day to enjoy as you can.

Once you’re settled, grab your motorbike and drive up to Cannon Fort. If you stay at Dai Thuy Hotel, the entrance is right behind, so if you don’t mind steep, cement roads, you could also hike up to the fort area, which is what I did the first day. Cannon Fort itself is cool to walk around and see the different set-ups!

Below there should be at least one or two restaurants to eat at. I wish I could recommend some, but the three I liked on my visits seemingly no longer exist or say they’re permanent closed!

Halong Bay Cruise, Vietnam

Day 11: A Day Cruise on Halong Bay

Time for the bay to shine! Organize a nice, long day cruise around the bay from Cat Ba. I remember going to a spot right next to the Sea Pearl Hotel with a bunch of signage and booking ours for the next day. A good day trip will last from 8:00 Am all the way through golden hour, so this’ll pretty much be what you do all day. Just hang out on deck, listen to your guide describe the different karst formations and the bay’s history, and enjoy the gorgeous views. If you go in winter, bring a sweater.

Our cruise included lunch, kayaking, and evening swimming!

Tran Quoc Pagoda, Hanoi, Vietnam

Day 12-14: Hanoi

I always mentally liken Hanoi to NYC (and maybe a little bit of Boston too) in my head except that as well as being the country’s cultural center, it’s also Vietnam’s political one. Vietnam traces its history here, dating all the way back to the 3rd century BC with the Âu Lạc Kingdom and, of course, it played a significant role in the many, many wars the country dealt with.

Since Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital, it’s actually a great place to learn more history and especially check out the many museums. This is also, of course, Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place. Definitely stay in and wander around Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. This is a really charming area that has an old school feel that makes travelers prefer it to Saigon.

Fun fact: there’s now a low-rise policy in the Old Quarter after developers wanted to start building high rises and the public didn’t want them!

Where to Stay in Hanoi

You should absolutely stay anywhere in the Old Quarter when figuring out where to stay in Hanoi. I’ve actually been through the city a few times now and stayed at different hotels each time.

  • Luxury – When it comes to luxury in Hanoi, the Metropole is one of the most iconic hotels in the country. If you love Bill Bensley’s work, he just handled the new interiors at Capella. I’ve personally stayed at the newly built Peridot Grand Hotel & Spa, and loved it. Amazing rooftop pool, incredible hot stone massage, and some of the best customer service!
  • Midrange – There are so many cute, midrange boutique hotels, you really can’t go wrong. My personal pick from experience would have to be Acoustic Hotel & Spa. Super cute hotel that seems like it should be more expensive than it is.
  • Budget – Back during my first trip, I stayed at New Vision Palace Hotel. It definitely has gotten a face lift since I stayed as the photos look much nicer. But even then I thought it was a nice budget pick in a good location!

Getting in to Hanoi

I actually wrote a guide about this! Basically, you’ll want to take the ferry from Cat Ba to Tuan Chau Marina in Ha Long City. From there, you should be get a bus to drive the 2-3 hours to Hanoi. The easiest, though, would be to arrange a private transfer that can drop you off at your hotel in Hanoi.

There’s really no point in flying from Hai Phong to Hanoi. It involves even more steps and headaches and costs more to boot!

Getting Around

I would say over all, Hanoi is a pretty walkable city. You’ll definitely need a Grab or a taxi once in a while, but it’s easy to get just like in Saigon. Weirdly, I do find traffic here to feel more unpredictable even though the roads are smaller and there aren’t as many people driving around!

Day 12: Hanoi

This’ll be a big day of transferring and getting into the city and settled. If you get in before you can check in, just drop your bags off and head straight to Bún Bò Nam Bộ Bách Phương to try their bún bò nam bộ. One of my favorite Vietnamese dishes by far.

Once you’ve done that, get a Grab or walk over to Hanoi’s famous railroad street! Get an iced egg coffee from the Railway Cafe and just hang out and relax. There are times on the cafe wall for when the train passes through and you can come nose to nose with a speeding hunk of metal, but it’s nice to hang out even if the times don’t match up! The owner of the cafe is super nice too.

For later, schedule a massage with Peridot, it really was one of the best massages I’ve had in Vietnam. I remember being super achy after being in Mu Cang Chai and dealing with the 8 hour bus transfer both ways. After my massage, I seriously felt brand new.

If you’re still hungry, go to Chả Cá Thăng Long for dinner. The chả cá is so good, and there’s a little English bit to help you out (I needed it lol).

Day 13: Hanoi

Today’s the day to get to know all about Hanoi! Keep in mind if you want to go into any temples or churches, you’ll want to have your shoulders and knees covered.

Basically, what you’re going to do is get a Grab to Tran Quoc Pagoda and make your way back to Hoan Kiem Lake on foot. There’s so much to see, I’d read through my post on what to do in Hanoi and mark locations on Google Maps so you can figure out a walking path.

It’s going to involve a lot of walking, you’ve been warned! I’d say end at the cute Note Coffee. Very cute cafe covered in post it notes with the nicest atmosphere. When you’ve finished and rest a bit, get a Grab over to Bún chả Hương Liên. It’s home to some seriously delicious bún chả and where President Obama and Anthony Bourdain shared a meal (ah simpler times).

Day 14: Hanoi

The very last day of this Vietnam itinerary! Definitely book your flight for a bit later in the day so you can spend the morning enjoying the last bits of Hanoi. If you have time for one thing, head to Cafe Giảng, the place where Hanoi’s egg coffee was first served, and then go next door to Xôi Yến for a sticky rice bowl. And, hey, if you want to get one more coconut iced coffee in, there’s a Cong Caphe next door too!

Then it’s time to leave :(! Hopefully you’re leaving only a little exhausted with a camera full of incredible memories and feeling like you’ve gotten a full introductory experience to one of the coolest countries around.

Dam Trau Beach (the airplane beach), Con Dao, Vietnam

Have More Time in Your Vietnam Itinerary?

Lucky you! For those of you can manage to extend your visit just a bit longer, here are some places I recommend in each region! I’ve either been myself or added it to my own never ending Vietnam bucket list!

South Vietnam

  • Longer in the Mekong – The Mekong Delta region has so many cool spots like Vinh Long, Can Tho, Sa Dec, Chau Doc, and more!
  • Mui Ne & Phan Thiet – The beachy town of Phan Thiet is a super popular spot with Saigonese expats! So much to do in this area, and it’s easy to rent a motorbike to be able to do even more.
  • Con Dao – One of my favorite spots. This island is an easy flight from Saigon or I believe you can do a ferry from Vung Tau. Very relaxed place perfect for motorbiking, beach hopping, and eating all the delicious food!
  • Phu Quoc – A more resort-y island with lots of cool hotels! Good if you want to relax in luxury during your trip.

Central Vietnam

  • Phong Nha – Easily one of the coolest places in Vietnam and known for its massive caves and treks!
  • Da Lat – Quirky mountain city also very popular with Saigonese looking for a heat escape. A bit more kitschy than everywhere else in Vietnam.
  • Dak Lak – Very cool province in the Central Highlands and perfect for some jungle adventure. Yok Don was a fun experience, and I still want to stay at the Dak Lak Tented Camps!

North Vietnam

  • Sapa – Probably the most photographed area in Vietnam! It’s rolling rice fields are synonymous with the country’s image these days. Do some trekking, visit with the ethnic minority tribes, and do a homestay or stay at one of the Topas properties.
  • Ninh Binh – Dying to visit! Absolutely stunning area in the Red River Delta that makes Ha Long look plain or so I’ve heard.
  • Yen Tu – Spiritual mountain near Ha Long and home to Buddhism in Vietnam. There’s an insane hotel, MGallery Yen Tu there and you can take the cable cars up to visit.
  • Mu Cang Chai – much less touristed than Sa Pa, it’s just south and also filled with rolling rice fields and home to a number of ethnic tribes. In fact, sometimes when you think you’re seeing photos of Sa Pa, they’re actually Mu Cang Chai.
  • Ha Giang – Very cool motorbike loop up north and not for the faint of heart!


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