7/8 week itinerary for the highlights of South East Asia

South East Asia has to be the premier world traveling region.  A big call?  For sure, but consider what genuinely world class offerings it can provide:


  • World class beaches and coastal areas – think of THAT beach in Ko Phi Phi and HaLong Bay, one of the Natural Wonders of the World
  • World class food – think Thai, Vietnamese, Malay and the genuine fusion into the mix with the large established Indian and Chinese communities
  • World class ancient sites and history – think of the temples of the “8th Wonder of the World” of Angkor Wat, and the breathtaking site of the pagodas stretching across the plain in Bagan
  • World class cities and party locations – think of Singapore as the city of the future and the Full Moon Parties on Ko Pha-Ngan


And all this in a place that is super safe, outrageously friendly, easy and cheap to travel in.  A must for any keen traveler and the below itinerary will give you the highlights – enjoy!

An overnight boat trip through HaLong Bay – The Bay of the Descending Dragon

Over 2,000 islands of sheer vertical karst limestone peaks bursting from the waters of a huge tropical bay, you can see why HaLong Bay literally means “the bay of the descending dragon”, why it is categorised as a Wonder of the Natural World and why it is consistently seen as one of the highlights of Vietnam


Its only downside is it is super busy in places and with the classic Asian approach to mass commercialised tourism somewhat stripping the place of the magic feel you’re most likely hoping for.  So, some high level tips to help you have a better experience:

  • Aim for a one night stay on one of the boats.  You can easily make HaLong Bay a day trip (and I have done this before and had a great time as we rented a boat to ourselves as a large group, which I appreciate isn’t an option for everyone), but there is something super nice about sitting for the sunrise / sunset and seeing the wonderful change in colour around the various karst towers
  • Your choice of tour operator is going to be crucial.  It pays to do a bit of research on the best recommended one and, remember, you get what you pay for – be very wary of the rock bottom operators offering USD80 from one of the stalls in Hanoi.  Ball park you’re looking at USD125 and upwards.  Aim ideally for one of the old-school luxury Chinese-style junks
  • The highlight is drifting past the sheer cliff faces through the tropical waters . . . so do make sure to find a god spot and just watch this Natural Wonder of the World go by
  • Kayaking around the bay is kind of par for the course and good fun.  Make sure this is included in your trip
  • Try to spend as little time in HaLong City as possible.  Its not what you’re in the region for
  • The caves are worth checking out and will be in all boat itineraries
  • Looking back, if I had a little more time and had booked long enough ahead, I would have aimed to go for Lan Ha Bay, near Cat Ba Island further to the south.  Seems to be off the standard tourist boat route and with similar scenery
  • To see how HaLong Bay can fit into an itinerary for experiencing the highlights of Vietnam see this entry for more ideas – A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

Getting lost in Hanoi’s Old Town

Hanoi gets a bit of a poor reputation, mainly because it has so many dour old communist concrete buildings on the outskirts and plays #2 to the vibrancy of Ho Chi Minh City.  But the Old Town of Hanoi is a place that should definitely feature on an itinerary of Vietnam with its maze of lanes and what seems like endless places to pull up a small plastic chair, order a beer and just watch the mayhem go by.  Might just be the most “classically Asian” spot I’ve seen


Top tips:

  • Make sure you have some of the fresh beer at “Bia Hoi Junction” at the corner of P Ta Hien and P Luong Ngoc Quyen in the centre of the Old Quarter.  It’s know as fresh beer because it’s made without preservative and supposed to be drunk straight away . . . so when in Rome
  • Its worth heading over to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex
  • Be sure to check out the evening water puppet show, which is a little touristy but still fun
  • To see how Hanoi can fit into an itinerary for experiencing the highlights of Vietnam see this entry for more ideas – A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

Cycling and views around Tam Coc

Just outside of Ninh Binh there are series of lookout points and caves that take advantage of the surrounding karst landscape as the cliffs loom impossibly steeply out from the flat lush valley floor.  The Huang Mua area has a tourist spot where you can climb up one of the hills and get great views around the UNESCO World Heritage listed landscape, and just to the West there are some small roads that allow you to cycle through the area


Its definitely worth checking out if you are passing nearby as it at times gives that classic picture-perfect karst towers view, but overall its a little touristy and, if you have the choice, I’d recommend Mai Chau to the north east which is a bit more atmospheric and less touristy.  For details of this experience see Cycling through the patchwork rice fields of Mai Chau


And for ideas on how a trip to Tam Coc can fit into an itinerary for experiencing the highlights of Vietnam, see this entry A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

Cycling through the patchwork rice fields of Mai Chau

A bit like a valley out of a movie set – a patchwork of lush green rice fields set in a valley surrounded by misty-ringed mountains.  Jump on a bike and  head off along the various paths as you pass by locals at work in the fields or in their traditional stilt houses.  Whilst there are spots that are a little touristy, its a far cry from the other spots on the tourist trail of Vietnam and will get you close to that feeling of “real Vietnam”


For ideas on how a trip to Mai Chau can fit into an itinerary for experiencing the highlights of Vietnam, see this entry A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

Vietnam is a wonderful country to spend 3 weeks working your way through.  Hill tribes tucked in misty mountains surrounded by emerald green rice terraces and long palm-lined beaches; vibrant cities riding the wave of a country booming alongside idyllic small towns miraculously unaffected by the Vietnam War or commercialisation; and several truly world-class experiences within picture perfect landscapes that look like they were carved from a fairy tale.  Its also still super cheap and easy to travel through based on its long thin shape and the established bus routes that make hoping on and off sleeper buses simple


The below itinerary will allow you to see the highlights of Vietnam over 3 weeks using the bus network, without being super rushed and without having to double back on yourself other than using Hanoi as a hub for the experiences in the north

Sapa – taking a motorbike around the mountain scenery and hilltop villages

There is so much about this trip that should place it high on anyone’s itinerary for Vietnam – the misty rice terraces around Sapa with stunning vistas of just about every shade of green imaginable; the hill tribes that are very distinct from the rest of Vietnam and even mountain to mountain; the train journey up through the mountains that gives a break from the usual tourist buses that form the backbone of any Vietnam trip; and the access to this pure mountainous jungle that surrounds you at all times


My biggest tip is to jump on a motorbike (if you can’t ride, it is super easy to arrange for someone to take you) and head off across the valleys to see all of this.  Having the rice terraces and mountains zip by amongst the small hill villages on a motorbike is the most “Vietnam” experience I felt in all of my trips there and is not to be missed


Smaller tips:

  • I went in July time, which was still fun but be aware that it is likely to be hammering it down at this time of year which restricts the views and the hikes you can do
  • Sapa is nice enough and it’s lovely to see the various hill tribe outfits and the pride that the local people have in them, but the real highlight is heading into the valleys and mountains to see the villages and natural scenery
  • Renting a motorbike or a driver to go with you should be super cheap – USD5 a day
  • To get to Sapa its a no-brainer to take the overnight train, rather than the bus which takes up to 10 hours.  Just make sure to book the best cabins – the basic cabins / seats in trains in Vietnam may not meet your expectations of comfort (or cleanliness)
  • And for ideas on how a trip to Sapa can fit into an itinerary for experiencing the highlights of Vietnam, see this entry A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

Hoi An’s Old Town, An Bang Beach and the ruins of My Son

I found Hoi An and its surrounding area the highlight of Vietnam.  It has a UNESCO-listed historic old town that miraculously avoided destruction in the war and even more miraculously has still largely avoided the over commercialisation of the modern day; its An Bang beach is beautiful and has a truly gorgeous bay setting; there are 500+ master tailors ready to make anything you want cheap as chips; and the other UNESCO-listed ancient Cham ruins of My Son within an hours drive
Make sure to give yourself at least 2 days, ideally 3 to really enjoy this place
And for ideas on how a trip to Hoi An can fit into an itinerary for experiencing the highlights of Vietnam, see this entry A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

A day for the former Vietnamese Capital of Hue

Hue is the former capital of Vietnam where the emperors used to rein and where you can now roam around the relics of the old Citadel and Imperial Enclosure in what is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Whilst many people rave about its tranquility and range of things to see, it can come across as a bit dull.  Maybe it’s the difficulty to bring to life the context of what it must have been like, and maybe the sheer scale of the bombing in the Vietnam War had unfortunately destroyed too many of the old buildings, but either way I think some of the other sights in Vietnam are in a different league
Nice to see the elephants wandering around the old ruins though
For ideas on how a trip to Hue can fit into an itinerary for experiencing the highlights of Vietnam, see this entry A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

Tacky Nha Trang

Nah Trang was no doubt beautiful before the unobstructed development kicked in, but, now that it has, I’d suggest avoiding.  Whilst there are quite a few things to get up to, like the mud baths, the various boat trips and general partying / getting on the lash, its just that is super touristy and below par from the rest of wonderful experiences you can have in Vietnam


For ideas on how to get the best out of Vietnam, see this entry for a 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam