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.
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.
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)
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)
Just Drive Around
Because Phong Nha National Park is so remote and rural, this is an excellent spot to try scooting around for the first time (for those of you like me who were too scared to try in Hanoi). The scenery along the highways here are really something stunning, with open rice fields all around and big, jutting limestone rocks on the horizon. You can really just spend a day riding from waterfall to waterfall and feel like you accomplished a lot.
Days 8-10: Hoi An
No, you’re not seeing double...Hoi An is its own city. Though it may be just a word scramble away from Hanoi, Hoi An has a culture and aesthetic all its own that separates it from all other cities in Vietnam. Take the 8.5 hour bus ride from Phong Nha to Hoi An (with a stopover in Hue), and settle into your hostel before heading out to see what this city has to offer.
Located on the scenic Thu Bon River, Hoi An is yet another one of Vietnam’s numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and you’ll understand why almost immediately. It has its very own pre-colonial vibe that extends from its beautiful pastel architecture to its traditional cuisine (Hoi An is said to have the best banh-mi in Vietnam). It’s easy to get lost here in all the souvenir shops and riverside cafes, so let’s get down to business.
What to do in Hoi An
Tour the Old Town
Hoi An is most famous for its Old Town, notably because it escaped the destruction of the Vietnam War. Nowadays, many of these buildings house street vendors, but some are still protected and have been turned into living museums. They surmise that some of these buildings have been around for up to 2,000 years, so take a day to walk through this historic heritage site, and make sure to hit up the Japanese Covered Bridge on your way over.
Check out My Son Sanctuary
Just an hour scooter ride from Hoi An’s city center, My Son Sanctuary is a complex of ancient Hindu ruins built anywhere between the 4th and 13th centuries, and they make a fantastic day trip on a sunny day. Spend the day touring the grounds and learning about the ancient Hindu practices that shaped pre-colonial Vietnamese culture. They’re incredibly well-kept and some of them can even be walked on, so they make for a really interactive and educational day.
Have a beach day at An Bang Beach
Just a 10 minute drive from Hoi An’s Old Town is An Bang beach, an east-facing stretch of sand lined with resorts and palm trees. It’s much less crowded than other beaches in the area, and has all sorts of restaurants and cafes along the edge of it. Apparently, this is a beach the locals recommend, and you know how much I love local recommendations.
I know, I know. I hate when "what to do" articles suggest you shop. However, Hoi An is widely regarded for its unique and quaint markets that sell anything from lanterns to souvenirs to fully-tailored suits. If you were waiting around to buy souvenirs for your family and friends, this is the place to pick them up. And make sure to head over to the lantern vendors at night to see them in full display.
Spend a day Banh Mi Hopping
Anthony Bourdain once said that Hoi An has the best banh mi’s in all of Vietnam, and I can’t disagree. I literally spend an entire day walking from vendor to vendor sampling these French-Vietnamese sandwiches. Each spot makes them a completely different way, so whether you decide to take a day for this or weave it into other plans, grab one to go and enjoy.
Days 11-13: Dalat
After you stuff your belly full of banh mis, catch the 14 hour bus ride to Dalat. I know...it’s the longest bus of the trip so far, but believe me when I say that it’ll be worth it. Dalat can be considered the adventure capital of Vietnam, specifically because of its huge canyoning industry. Dalat is known as the city of eternal spring because of its temperate climate and huge array of waterfalls, canyons, forests and springs. It’s a really cool city for a lot of reasons, and it’s an absolute must-see place on your way down the coast of the country.
What to do in Dalat
Explore the Crazy House
Somewhere between Alice and Wonderland and a live-action Tim Burton Movie, the Crazy House is an architectural masterpiece designed by Vietnamese architect and designer Viet Nga in the 1990’s. She created this quirky and strange house with all sorts of materials and natural themes in mind, making it look like something that belongs in a Disney theme park. Those willing to spend a pretty penny can stay overnight in any of 10 plant or animal-themed bedrooms, but for those of us who don’t have thousands of dollars to spend, we can just pay a small entrance fee and have a look around. It’s a really fun and strange way to spend a day in Dalat.
Do a Combined Day Trip to Elephant Falls & Linh An Tu Pagoda
If you’re looking to head outside the city on a day trip, take a ride over to Elephant Falls (or as it’s known in Vienamese, Lieng Rewoa Waterfall). This waterfall system is farther out and harder to get to than most other nearby waterfalls, meaning it’ll be quieter and less crowded than more tourist-friendly ones. Combine this with a trip to the Linh An Tu Pagoda to see pretty much the largest and happiest statue of Buddha you’ve ever seen in your life.
Play Hide & Seek at the 100 Roofs Cafe
Cafe by day and bar by night, you’ll notice that this strange spot is weirdly reminiscent of the Crazy House, and I guarantee you’ve never been to a bar like it before. This 5 story building looks more like a Lord of the Rings-style maze than a place to drink, complete with a fake jungle, tribe masks and way more. Tourists love to play a game of hide & seek with $1 whiskey here, so grab a group of friends, a flashflight, and get ready for a trippy and fun night out. Other than canyoning, this is at the top of my list for things to do in Dalat.
Have you ever told yourself you’d never try something insane and dangerous, but then got caught up in the groupthink and wound up doing it yourself, only to ask yourself midway down a waterfall why you decided to do something so insane and dangerous? Well, that’s exactly what happened to me on the Dalat canyoning tour. I had no intentions of actually doing this when I got here, but wound up getting pulled into it, and boy am I glad I did.
The canyoning tour here is special because Dalat is located right by dozens of waterfalls and cliffs, all stunning and all ripe for the climbing. Book a tour and canyon down 2-4 waterfalls with your group, wade through rivers and trek up the beautiful forests that surround the city. It was genuinely one of the scariest (but very safe) experiences of my life. I have a major fear of heights and I’d still do it again. I really urge anyone to try it.
Day 14: Ho Chi Minh City
When you finish up in Dalat, catch the 7-hour bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City. This city (formerly known as Saigon) was hugely important during the north & south conflict in Vietnam, and was seen as the reunification point for the country in 1975. Nowadays, it has a very interesting vibe that blends together a heavily political history with the developing future of the city. You can find old military museums here a block away from pub streets filled with western restaurants and bars. You won’t have much time in Ho Chi Minh City, what with the 7-hour bus ride and the flight the next day, but I think it’s plenty considering what you’re already experienced in the north of the country.
What to do in Ho Chi Minh City
Do a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels
If you’re not crippled with claustrophobia, check out these historic tunnels that Vietnamese guerilla soldiers used back in 1968 during the Tet Offensive. They’re really well-preserved, immersive, and one-of-a-kind, so they’re definitely worth the visit.
See the Mekong Delta
The Mekong River snakes through all of Southeast Asia and is a central water source for not only Vietnam, but also for Laos, and Cambodia. The Delta is where this river empties out into the ocean, and therefore is tremendously important for the locals that live near it. You can take a scooter out to the delta and explore its floating markets in a day trip.
Spend your last night out on Pham Ngu Lao Street
Just like Bangkok has Khaosan Road, Ho Chi Minh City has Pham Ngu Lao Street, its version of a nightlife walking street. Whether you want to spend your last night in Vietnam at a club, bar, or just drinking with some friends on plastic stools in the street, Pham Ngu Lao Street has it all. Cheers some Saigon beer with your friends and enjoy the night out!
Learn some history at the War Remnants Museum
Because Ho Chi Minh City is so significant in Vietnamese history, the city would naturally have museums that dictate the story of its role in both the Vietnam and Indochina Wars. Spend a half-day exploring this museum to get a real sense of this city’s role in not only the country’s history in international history.
Day 15: Fly Home
At this point we’ve come to the end of our two weeks in Vietnam, and hopefully by now you’ll feel that you’ve seen the majority of the country’s highlights. I know it may have felt rushed, but I really don’t think you could experience so much of Vietnam in any time shorter than this. Hopefully you’ll feel like you scratched that Vietnam itch, but if not, that just means you’ll have to come back soon!
If you’re interested in seeing other parts of the world (or more of Southeast Asia), you can always check out my other itineraries right here. Happy travels, my friends!