A 3 week itinerary for the highlights of Vietnam

Nature
The wow factor for nature - does it show nature at its best? Doesn't need to be the wilder-beast migration or diving with hundreds of hammerheads. Rather make you pause as you realise just how awesome the natural world can be
8
Culture
How much does this experience showcase some of the better and finer things that us humans can offer? Sure, it can be ancient ruins and renaissance churches, but it can also be festivals or soaking up some of the great modern cities of the world
8
Fun factor/activity
Very simple - was it fun? This is usually linked in with doing some kind of activity - i mean, walking along some cliffs is nice, but paragliding from them, now that is fun. Its a vastly underrated factor in a truly great experience
7
Avoid the crowds
Big tour groups and being surrounded by loud fellow tourists can sap the life out of even the greatest of travel experiences. This score is to reflect just how much you can avoid this. But. . . The score also takes into account if the crowds actually add to the experience, such as with a party town or a bustling food market
5
World famous
How world famous is the experience?
8
unique
How hard is it to have a similar experience in other places round the world?
7
Overall Score
The highest score of nature or culture, + fun factor, + avoid the crowds, + the highest score of world famous or unique. Then turned into a score out of 100. More details at the bottom of the page
70 *What the scores mean and where do they come from
continent
Asia
country
Vietnam
Length of time
2-4 weeks
Rough cost
Obviously people have different tastes, so this will depend on those tastes, but this is a rough idea of price of the whole experience based on 2 people able to split the accommodation costs and excluding travel there and back
$ 2,000
Time of year visited
July
Primary Tags
Click on any of the tags to see all travel experiences with the same tag
RANKING
How this travel experience ranks compared to all the other experiences on this site
114th/334 This travel experience's ranking compared to all the other experiences on this site
Top 40% SUMMARY RATING: Superb

Summary

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

highlights

#1 Wandering through the old bridges and lantern spots of the UNESCO-listed historic old town of Hoi An

#2 Drifting by on a traditional junk boat through one of the Natural Wonders of the World in HaLong Bay

#3 Cycling between the lush green patchwork of rice fields in the stunning valley setting of Mai Chau

#4 Catching the views of the nearby mountains when you get a break in the clouds as you zip by on your motorbike through the hills of Sapa

#5 Pulling up one of those small plastic seats and grabbing one of the fresh Vietnamese beers as you watch the mayhem go by from “Bia Hoi Junction” in the Old Town of Hanoi

#6 Taking a boat trip through the Mekong Delta to see the way people work, eat, sleep and live all on the river

#7 Seeing the sunset from Hoi An's An Bang beach with its gorgeous bay setting

#8 Enjoying the buzz and energy of Ho Chi Minh City, encapsulated perfectly in crossing the street as thousands of motorbikes swerve and swarm impossibly round you

#9 Kayaking in HaLong Bay to to find some of the slightly hidden bays amongst the giant karst cliffs with passage ways too short for the boats to enter

#10 Soaking up the whole winding-streets-with-vines-hanging-over-as-motorbikes-go-zipping-past of it all in Hanoi's Old Town

#11 Watching as locals work the rice fields all across the still traditional Mai Chau valley

Checking out some of the giant cave grottos dotted all throughout HaLong Bay

#13 Visiting the UNESCO World Heritage-listed ancient Cham Empire ruins of My Son, within an hours drive of Hoi An

#14 Chilling out along the 20km / 12miles of palm-fringed beachfront of Mui Ne Beach, one of the standard stops on the north-south route through Vietnam

#15 Roaming around the old Citadel and UNESCO World Heritage site of Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam . . . and maybe spotting one of the local elephants

Heading down into the Cu Chi Tunnels to see just how claustrophobic it must have been for the Vietcong fighters in the Vietnam War

The Route - get used to a lot of bus rides!

Rough itinerary

Day 1-4 – Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta.  You’ll want the first couple of days to settle in, get your first bites of the wonderful Vietnamese food and head out to soak up the energy of the city as the thousands of motorbikes swerve impossibly round you as you cross the street.  Give Day 3 and 4 to head out to spend the night on a boat as you check out the Mekong Delta as people work, eat and sleep on the river.  Give yourself a bit of time as well to check out the Cu Chi Tunnels to see how claustrophobic it must have been for the Vietcong fighters

Day 5-7 – make your way via the day / night buses up to Hoi An.  On the way, many people stop off at Nah Trang but I’d avoid it – it was no doubt beautiful before the unobstructed development kicked in and  there are a few things to get up to, like the mud baths, the various boat trips and general partying / getting on the lash, but super touristy and below par from the rest of Vietnam.  Instead consider stopping off at Mui Ne beach, with its beautiful long beach and reputation as the premier water sports hub, or in Dalat, the atmospheric old French hill station

Day 8-10 – Hoi An.  A UNESCO-listed historic old town of lanterns and bridges that miraculously avoided destruction in the war, the world class An Bang beach with its gorgeous bay setting, the 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

Day 10-11- take the night bus  up to Hanoi, stopping off for a morning or afternoon for former imperial capital to roam around the relics of the old Citadel and Imperial Enclosure in what is a UNESCO World Heritage site

Day 12 – Hanoi.  Pull up a small plastic chair on Bia Hoi Junction amongst the maze of lanes in the Old Town and watch the mayhem go by before heading to one of the water puppet shows.  Brief travel entry here –Getting lost in the Hanoi Old Town

Day 13-14 – HaLong Bay.  With 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.  Take an overnight boat trip (easily arranged from Hanoi), including kayaking, to get a good look at the bays and caves that make this so famous.  Brief travel entry here – An overnight boat trip through HaLong Bay – The Bay of the Descending Dragon

Day 15-17 – Mai Chau.  Travel back to Hanoi and on to Mai Chau to the west.  Stay one night in this beautiful valley that looks straight from a movie set and spend the day riding a bike around the patchwork of lush green rice fields to see the locals working in the fields and the surrounding  views of the mountains.  Brief travel entry here –Cycling through the patchwork rice fields of Mai Chau

Day 18-20 – Sapa.  You’ll most likely need to head back into Hanoi to take an overnight train up to the hill town of Sapa.  Spend one night in this town perched high in the mountains with it’s stunning vistas, hill tribes and fast-flowing rivers all around .  Make sure to rent a motorbike (with driver if needed) and let the scenery zip you by in true Vietnamese style.  Brief travel entry here –Sapa – taking a motorbike around the mountain scenery and hilltop villages

Day 21 – Fly out from Hanoi

Travel Tips

  • The food – wow. Enjoy!
  • The Buses – unless flying, you’ll want to use the long-distance buses as you main way of getting from each of the main sites.  They are super easy to arrange – it makes sense to go with one of the major firms so you can effectively hop on and off on your way up the country – Mai Linh Express is good – and surprisingly comfortable.  I did a few sleeper buses and was impressed by the them for the long journeys.  Just a couple of things to bear in mind: 1. Because of the sheer number of motorbikes and often animals on the roads, nothing moves that fast in Vietnam, so expect the progress to be slower than the highways you may be used to.  2. The bus companies seem to think that high end luxury equals TVs with the volume on full and blaring 24/7, so bring ear plugs and an eye mask
  • The people – mass generalisation, but they can get a little fiery.  If you’re Caucasian, many will still see you simply as “American” and the associations that come with it.  99% of your interactions will no doubt be neutral / positive, but just something to be aware of
  • Be careful when riding anywhere near a main road – the driving can be a bit dodgy, especially with trucks that don’t really seem to care what comes in front of them
  • The people – lovely, but can get a little fiery and you’ll probably hear endless stories of trouble in Vietnam.  As always, starting off with a smile and being courteous will 99% of the time lead to a neutral / positive experience with no flare ups.  Plus, be aware that if you’re Caucasian, many will still see you simply as “American” which, on rare occasions, can lead to a negative reaction considering the war was in many people in Vietnam’s lifetimes
  • Vietnam Context – as with all countries, you will get a hell of a lot more out of the trip if you do a bit of reading on the history and context of the country.  A quick scan through wikipedia should give you the history and its worth it if you are not familiar.  Books though will give you more of the story, plus help you with those long bus rides.  In all of the main tourist sites you will see people selling copies of a bunch of usual books.  The key ones worth reading:
    • The Girl in the Photo – the true story of Kim Phuc who was severely burned by napalm in the war and her running along the streets screaming became an iconic image.  The book tells the story of how she became an well respected figure within the communist countries as she was sent throughout the likes of Cuba and Russia to tell her story
    • The Quiet American – depicts the breakdown of French colonialism in Vietnam and early American involvement in the Vietnam War
    • Saigon (my main recommendation)– a historical fiction book that follows the lives of three families, one American, one French, and the other Vietnamese, from the French colonial era in the early 1920s until the last helicopter left Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War
  • For details specifically on the Vietnam War, its very difficult to look beyond The Vietnam War miniseries on Netflix.  Superb, if a bit long
  • The above itinerary needs 3 weeks.  If shorter on time, I’d suggest focusing on the north.  Not because North Vietnam is any more attractive than the South or the Centre, its just that it has 3 superb experiences all within a short bus ride / overnight train from Hanoi, whereas South and Central have less concentration

Experiences nearby

The below map shows experiences nearby with a colour that reflect the Overall Score of those experiences

Score Detail

Background - how many times have you asked someone what a travel experience was like and the response was "amazing" or "awesome"?  That response is nice to know, but it makes it hard to differentiate that experience compared to others.  That is exactly what these scores are trying to do - differentiate the experience by giving a score out of 10 based on 6 categories and then giving an overall experience score

This overall experience score is calculated by:  take the highest of the "Culture" or "Nature" score (1-10) + "Fun factor" (1-10) + "Avoiding the crowds" (1-10) + highest of the "Unique" or "World Famous score" (1-10).  Then convert into a score out of 100

Extra detail - the logic being that I find all of the 6 individual scores important, but I don't want to mark an experience down just because it doesn't cover both "Culture" and "Nature", or because it isn't both "World Famous" and "Unique".  Take the examples of Safari in The Serengeti and walking through Rome - they both appeal at opposite ends of the nature / culture spectrum, and you can have a fantastic time without needing to appeal to both sides.  So, their overall scores aren't penalized for their lack of one or the other, and I've done the same for "World Famous" vs "Unique".  But . . . I do think that the "Fun factor" of an experience is important, irrelevant of other factors, and so is "Avoiding the Crowds" (or where there are crowds that add to the experience).  So, both of these scores are standalone