Good morning Vietnam! It’s a cliched phrase from a great movie, but it’s also something we said for over a month as we travelled between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) recently. Having spent 30 days travelling the breadth of the country, we believe we can provide you with a real tried and tested itinerary for your holiday or to add into your travels; the ideal 3 week Vietnam itinerary!
Now your first question is probably how could you possibly fit all the amazing places that Vietnam has to offer into just 3 weeks? And you’re right, it’s really tough – unless you want to spend most of your time on coaches, trains and planes. So we have omitted a few places that we weren’t as enamoured with. But fear not, we also have some additional options if you are a super fast paced traveller or able to extend your time in Vietnam to make it a 4 week itinerary.
So if you’re already entirely set on spending 3 weeks in Vietnam (or maybe longer) you’ve made a great decision. But just in case you still needed a little bit of persuasion as to why dedicate 3 weeks to Vietnam, we’ve highlighted a few of the key reasons why you have to choose Vietnam as a travel destination.
- Alongside Thailand, it is probably the easiest place to travel. It has great infrastructure – many travellers journey up and down the country so you are bound to meet many fellow travellers on your journey. And being geared towards tourism, most of the industry speaks great English, so if you’re as bad at languages as us, it’s a bit of a relief. We’ve also left some handy phrases at the end, so make sure you jot them down…
- There is a wide variety of things to keep you entertained. From the hills in the north, to the UNESCO world heritage site of Ha Long Bay, the beaches in the middle to the vibrant cities, there is something to suit everyone.
- And let’s not forget about the food – Vietnamese is one of our favourite cuisines and there are so many Vietnamese dishes you have to eat. So you are in for a treat, particularly with the Vietnamese desserts!
- Travelling while needing access to the web? No problem! Many of the larger cities are meccas for digital nomads. And it’s not too shabby in between those places either.
- And finally but by no means least: it’s still super cheap. You’ll get more bang for buck here than in Thailand. But the quality is at least the same…
- Days 1 to 3 – Hanoi
- Days 4 to 6 – Sapa
- Days 7 to 9 – Ha Long Bay & Bai Tu Long Bay
- Days 10 to 12 – Ninh Binh & Tam Coc
- Days 13 & 14 – Hue
- Day 15 – The Hai Van Pass
- Days 16 & 17 – Hoi An
- Day 18 – Da Nang
- Days 19 to 21 – Ho Chi Minh
The capital of the country, and arguably the most vibrant city, Hanoi is THE place to start your trip. With a rich mix of Southeast Asian, French and Chinese influences, the city is as exciting as they come. Our favourite part, the Old Quarter, is a place you can get lost in for days. Small winding streets teeming with Vietnamese life in a chaotic but somehow also orderly fashion.
Major tip: The traffic is madness. Make sure you look both ways before you cross. Don’t assume that a green man means go. Apparently, red, amber and green lights don’t mean much and mopeds just zip through. Crossing the street isn’t the easiest, you just shuffle across and mopeds will avoid you. It’s very counter-intuitive but it does work! If in doubt, get close to a local and do exactly what they do…
And no worries if you are actually starting in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Sai Gon or Saigon) you can just do this in reverse and leave on a bang with Hanoi!
Where to stay
Budget: Most travellers seem to agree that Little Charm Hanoi Hostel is the perfect choice if you want a central location, but yet backpacking comforts like personal lockers, clean beds and a front desk that can organize great tours. We unfortunately stayed at another hostel that we would NOT recommend, so please do choose wisely.
Mid-range: In a great location in the Old Quarter, we like Hanoi Trendy Hotel and Spa. You get good bang for your buck here: well-sized, air-conditioned, nicely decorated rooms but at an affordable price.
Luxury: You probably already know the brand, but staying at the Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake is by no means a standard stay. This hotel provides a welcome respite from the crazy streets of Hanoi and they even have ‘over-water rooms’ on the lake. Their sunset bar is set on it’s own island on the lake, really an incredible experience.
Getting from Hanoi International Airport (Noi Bai International)
By shuttle: Definitely our preferred option, and also the cheapest way to get from the airport is to use the shuttle bus, that goes to the Old Quarter. When you leave the airport you’ll find a kiosk advertising tickets which costs 40,000 VND (about 1 GBP/person). It drops you near to Hoan Kiem Lake, taking about 45 mins (maybe longer if there is heavy traffic). It wasn’t 100% obvious but we believe the buses depart every 30 to 45 minutes.
By taxi: So the simplest way to get from Noi Bai International Airport to the city centre is by taxi. Or even easier still use the Grab App (SE Asia’s equivalent to Uber). It’s pretty expensive, costing about 400,000 VND (approx. 10 GBP). If you are taking a taxi, make sure they use the meter or at worst agree the fee upfront!
Day 1 Hanoi
Explore the Old Quarter
There is nothing like pounding the streets of a new city after a long haul flight to blow out those cobwebs, so that is our first recommendation for the day. As soon as you’ve dropped your luggage at your accommodation, get straight back out to explore the Old Quarter. You will be able to get yourself lost in and amongst the stores and cafes.
If you’re needing refreshment, we’d recommend heading into Cong Caphe. It is a chain, but also your first chance to experience Coconut Coffee, an almost life-changing experience. And, if you don’t like coffee, they do a coconut milk with green rice smoothie which is absolutely delicious. Handily, there is a branch directly opposite our next stop: St Joseph’s Cathedral.
St Joseph’s Cathedral
This late 19th-century Gothic Revival Cathedral is definitely worth a visit. Built in the late 1800’s to resemble Notre Dame, this imposing building feels quite out of place in Hanoi. You’re able to enter the cathedral for free, just head to the right-hand side of the building where you will see the entrance.
Location: Nha Tho Street, Hoàn Kiếm District, Hanoi
Secret tip: If you take the street to the right of the cathedral, about 200m down you will find two wall murals that are perfect for an Instagram shot. You’ll have to be quite lucky as there are often cars parked right in front of them.
Eat a Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich)
You probably already know that Vietnamese food is delicious. But what you may not know is that they also combine French baguettes with Vietnamese flavours to create our favourite local dish: the Banh Mi. We’d highly recommend that you try them at An Cafe along with one of their signature milkshakes. Trust us: we ate here about 5 times in a week!
Location: 15 Phủ Doãn, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
Open: Daily 7am to 11pm
Shopping – Made in Vietnam
After your lunch it’s time to continue walking the old town and looking for some bargains. Many stores are called ‘Made in Vietnam’ where you can get some pretty great deals on items, particularly for brands like North Face. If you’re looking for more boutique options, head to Hang Gai street, which is the ‘Silk Street’. You’ll definitely find a gorgeous dress (or two).
Day 2 Hanoi
One of the most bizarre streets in the world, and made famous by Instagram. The Hanoi Train Street is a working railway line, which you are able to saunter along, with residents selling everything from fruit, to souvenirs and a number of cafes to sit and relax. Just head over, take your photos and sit down with a mango smoothie and watch the world (and hopefully the train) go by.
Note: If you’re keen to see the train go through the street it only runs a few times a day.
- Weekdays at 7.00 pm, 7.45 pm, 8.30 pm and 10.00 pm
- Weekends at 6.00 am, 9.00 am, 11.20 am, 3.20 pm, 5.30 pm, 6.00 pm, 7.00 pm, 7.45 pm, 8.30 pm, 9.00 pm and 11.00 pm
Location: Trần Phú, Hàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
Phung Hung – Mural Street
Located not too far from the train street is Phung Hung Street, also known as the Hanoi Mural Street. Once a street that was famous for selling motorbikes (there’s an old motorbike as part of the art), it is now is a great location to get some street art photos. So if you are keen on street art, this is a great place to explore.
Location: Phùng HưngHoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
Dong Xuan Market
And if you didn’t get enough shopping on day one, we suggest that you next head over to the Dong Xuan Market, about a 10 minute walk from the mural street. This is Hanoi’s largest indoor market and here you can get everything from fresh fruit to souvenirs, clothing to electronics. Generally at very low prices, but just make sure you haggle a little…!
Location: Đồng Xuân, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi
Open: Friday, Saturday and Sunday – 7.00am to midnight, Monday to Thursday – 7.00am to 6.00pm
Day 3 Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
This morning head on down to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the resting place of former Vietnam leader Ho Chi Minh. It’s worth getting here early as it gets very busy, not too surprising as it is a hugely important place for the Vietnamese people. Inside you’ll see Ho’s body in a glass sarcophagus. The embalmed body is very well preserved. You will have to hand over bags and cameras before entering the mausoleum, so best to leave as much behind as you can.
Note: The Mausoleum is closed for a couple of months for maintenance each year, so make sure you check beforehand. And there is a strict dress code, so make sure you’re well covered up if you want to enter!
Location: 2 Hùng Vương, Điện Bàn, Ba Đình, Hà Nội
Open: Tuesday to Sunday – 8.00am to 5.00pm, Monday – 8.00am to 11.15am
The next stop for the day is to refuel with some coffee and croissants at what is without doubt our favourite café. Ever. The Note Café is a coffee shop located near to Hoan Lake, and quite unlike any café we have ever visited. As soon as you enter you’ll realise why. Every bit of wall space, ceiling, door and furniture is covered in post it notes, all written by other guests. And you are encouraged to write your own messages and stick them wherever you find a space. You can spend ages here reading all the words of wisdom and funny anecdotes dotted around – we particularly enjoyed talking to other patrons and swapping note stories with them.
Location: 64 Lương Văn Can, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
Open: Daily 6.30am to 11.00pm
Hoàn Kiếm Lake
And for the final evening in Hanoi, we’d suggest you take a stroll around Hoan Kiem lake. At around 6.00pm it really comes alive with locals doing everything from running and Tai Chi to dance class. We were encouraged to join in some of the dancing which is really great fun. By the time the sun has set, you are rewarded with the best views in the city, the bright lights bounce off the darkened lake to create a mystical place. Take your camera for some fantastic night shots.
Insider Tip: One of the lesser-known ways to traverse Hanoi is via bicycle! Channel old-world Vietnam by taking a Hanoi Highlights tour of the city, led by a local guide. At time of writing, the tour cost 29 USD (24 GBP).
Overlooking the terraced rice fields of the Muong Hoa Valley, Sapa is a must-see during your 3 weeks in Vietnam. The town in the north west of the country is best-known as a popular base for hikers and trekkers, as well as having several hill tribes to visit in the area. If you love the great outdoors, Sapa (or Sa Pa) is definitely for you.
Where to stay
Luxury: Named by National Geographic as one of the most unique lodges in the world, Topas Ecolodge is THE luxury stay while in Sapa. It’s 25 bungalows jut out across the valley, offering sweeping views.
Mid–range: The Grand Blue comes recommended by many travellers, who advise you splash out for a room with a view of the surrounding mountains. Wifi is strong, the rooms have large baths and it’s a quick walk into town
Budget: The best options to be found are homestays, of which they are plenty. Our pick? Sapa Orange Homestay, which gets rave reviews from their guests.
How to get from Hanoi to Sapa
By train (and bus): The train takes about 9 hours in total and doesn’t go directly to Sapa. You have to take this to Lao Cai and then change onto a bus to Sapa (about 45 mins away). However, although a slightly more expensive option at around 600,000 VND all in (15 GBP), the trains depart in the evening and arrives in the early morning, so it can save you money by also acting as your accommodation for the evening.
By bus: The bus from Hanoi to Sapa takes about 6 hrs, so the faster option. And there are a couple of good providers to choose from and costs around 400,000 VND (10 GBP). Although generally the options leave early in the morning getting you into Sapa in the afternoon. Or in the evening, arriving into Sapa in the middle of the night (not sure why anyone would take that option).
Day 4 Sapa
Go on a hike
Like it’s Southern counterpart, Da Lat, the town of Sapa is a picturesque hill station that during colonial times was used by expats and the wealthy to escape the oppressive heat. The scenery is breathtaking: rolling mountains, powerful waterfalls, green valleys; making Sapa a fantastic place to go hiking for it’s countryside but also it’s much cooler temperatures.
Hiking is THE thing to do in Sapa so you’ll find heaps of guided tours and hikes or, if you are looking for a bit of adventure, go sans a guide but please don’t ever hike alone here.
Boat trip on Lake Sapa
Take a look at Sapa from a different perspective by getting out onto the lake. It’s just 5 minutes away from the main church and a pretty popular thing to do, especially full of local families come Saturday or Sunday. Rent a small pedal boat and spend an hour or so sailing across the lake’s surface. The boats, like the ones in Da Lat, are a bit kitsch since shaped like swans but still worth a few dong for a great experience – it costs 40, 000 VND (1 GBP) for 30 minutes.
Location: 22 Ngũ Chỉ Sơn, TT. Sa Pa, Sa Pa, Lào Cai, Vietnam
Day 5 Sapa
Tram Ton Pass
At 2, 000 metres above sea level, the Tram Ton Pass is the ‘highest’ road in the country of Vietnam, which of course means it offers up spectacular views. Head for the Lai Chau road which turns into the Tram Ton pass and find one of the number of lookout points. You’ll be rewarded with panoramic views across Sapa, plus it’s near to the Silver Waterfall; our next stop on this itinerary.
Tip: If you’re taking a motorbike up the pass (rather than hiring a taxi or shuttle), please just drive carefully. Vans and busses take the pass roads at lightning speed and come quickly (and unexpectedly) around the corners. The roads also aren’t in the best condition, so take it easy.
The Thac Bac (or Silver) Waterfall is about 30 minutes north of Sapa, and best combined with the trip (above) to the Tram Ton Pass. Unfortunately you can’t swim at this waterfall but you can marvel at the 200 metres of gushing water, falling down the side of the sheer rock cliff of the Ham Rong mountain.
Entrance is 20, 000 VND (0.5 GBP)
Day 6 Sapa
Muong Hoa Valley
Dissected by the gushing Hoa river, this stunning valley is the gem of Sapa and what attracts many hikers and travellers to the area. Nestled between Sapa itself and the Tonkinese Alps, there are countless trails, rice terraces and villages to visit in your hike in this valley, as well as stone paintings dating back over 3, 000 years. Walk down the valley towards the river and take in the local life including schoolkids riding bicycles, water buffalo pulling across the rice paddies and women weaving. The hike takes about five hours and you need to ensure you dress modestly (ideally long trousers and covered shoulders) since you’ll be interacting with villagers there.
What to say about Ha Long Bay that hasn’t already been said? Limestone karsts rising from the ocean depths, brilliant blue water and the opportunity to sail or kayak in some of the most spectacular scenery known to man. Yes, Ha Long Bay is a must on your 3 week Vietnam itinerary.
Of course, with fame comes tourism and Ha Long is suffering from a bit of an over-tourism backlash. For that reason, our itinerary takes you to Ha Long itself for a day but we then suggest a Bai Tu Long Bay (it’s quieter cousin) cruise instead. If you want to debate the finer points of which bay to choose, we’ve got a full article on choosing Ha Long or Bai Tu Long bay here.
Where to stay
Luxury: Best of the bunch is Halong Boutique Hotel. It’s a 4 star property but beautifully decorated with a lovely atmosphere
Mid-range: The best option in town for mid-range is definitely Starlight Hotel. It’s probably on the cheaper side of the range, but has nice rooms and an affordable price.
Budget: Honestly there aren’t many backpacker hostels in Ha Long but Nhat Anh Hotel is a good choice if you want cheap as chips.
Getting from Sapa to Ha Long bay
Sleeper Bus: Taking between 8-9 hours is a relatively comfortable sleeper bus operated by Phuc Xuyen bus company. It departs three times a day (8.00am, 11.00am and 16.00pm) and costs about 350, 000 VND (13 GBP)
Train (and bus): The train actually departs from Lao Cai, which is 33km from Sapa; reachable either by local bus or shuttle. The train costs between 150, 000 and 900, 000 VND (5.50 – 32 GBP) depending on the train and carriage you choose and can be done on a budget or in relative luxury. The journey takes 8.5 hours and departs at various times – there are both daytime and night trains available.
Alternatively, travel back to Hanoi since most Ha Long/Bai Tu Long Bay companies offer you included transport for your tour between Hanoi and Ha Long.
Day 7 Halong Bay
The town of Ha Long itself has become more popular as a stopover before the tours the bay has become known for. You’ll notice a ferris wheel, and a cable car: both signs of tourism and investment, plus a number of high-end hotels sprouting along the coastline. For today, just take it easy with a short hike and a stroll across the bridge.
Bai Tho Mountain
It’s the view of Ha Long Bay made famous by Instagrammers, and notoriously difficult to find. Many will say that the Bai Tho (Peace Mountain) viewpoint is closed, or that you have to bribe someone to access it. Regardless of rumours, the viewpoint is open although you might need to be a little enterprising! Don’t trust us, but follow this comprehensive guide from Diana Miaus that dispels all the myths!
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Bai Chay Bridge
To get a glittering view of Ha Long at night, take a walk across this suspension bridge that connects the city and the bay area. On your stroll you’ll see the lights of the city before you.
Day 8 & 9 Bai Tu Long Bay
So after a day in Halong Bay, we’d suggest that you actually head now to the northeast towards Bai Tu Long bay. Bai Tu Long bay is part of the Ha Long archipelago, but nowhere near as crowded as Ha Long Bay. So instead of sharing the beauty of this incredible place with 200 other cruise boats, you’ll only be around a handful.
For the next two days you should take a cruise – check out our full review of the two day tour here. We provide you with a full overview of the best operators and what to expect. This is definitely not an experience to be missed!
When we were planning our Vietnam trip, Ninh Binh (or more specifically, Tam Coc) wasn’t at the top of the list. However, after recommendations from a few travellers, we added it to our 3 week Vietnam itinerary and it ended up being our favourite stop of the entire trip. If you haven’t heard of Ninh Binh, it’s a town located about 100km southeast of Hanoi and is jampacked with rivers, ancient pagodas, rice paddies and some of the friendliest people we encountered. Our experiences in Ninh Binh – particularly the Trang An boat tour – were so entirely unexpected and magical that if we only had a few days in Vietnam, we would include Tam Coc.
When travelling here, you’ll arrive into Ninh Binh and, on the face of it, this town is a little ugly: full of mobile phone repair shops and potholed roads and flashing neon lights for karaoke. That’s why you’ll immediately want to get a Grab or a taxi over to Tam Coc, the smaller village about 15 minutes drive away. Tam Coc, which means ‘three grottoes’ is also sometimes called ‘Ha Long Bay on Land’, and this small little village full of homestays packs a punch.
Where to stay
When visiting the area we strongly recommend you stay in Tam Coc over Ninh Binh. The town is particularly known for homestays which are incredibly cheap yet clean and welcoming but you can find a luxury option or two if you so wish.
Budget: We stayed at Anh Huong Homestay but of course any homestay in the town seems to be a good choice. We loved this homestay because of the wonderful family who were so accommodating, organized all our travel for us and cooked Asia’s most delicious sweet and sour pork!
Mid-range: Mua Caves Ecolodge – This sustainable lodge is literally on the doorstep of the Mua Caves, which means you get easy access for your sunrise hike up to the viewpoint and the caves. That does mean it’s a little out of the centre of Tam Coc but you’ll be wanting to rent a motorbike or bicycle for your time in Tam Coc anyway.
Luxury: Definitely the plushest place to stay in Tam Coc, the Ninh Binh Hidden Charm resort is close enough to town to walk but feels secluded and peaceful. The rooms are beautifully appointed and if you find the budget, definitely opt for the suite.
Getting from Ha Long Bay to Ninh Binh
There are quite a few options but we’d recommend the following. For prices check out 12go Asia.
Private car/Mini bus + Train: If you are taking a two day cruise, you’ll almost definitely be with a provider who will organise transfers back to Hanoi for you. These are often VIP style minibuses and take around 4 hours. There were also several others on our cruise who opted for private car, it’s best to shop around to find the cheapest option. The cruise operators will often throw in the transfers if you negotiate on price.
After you are dropped back into Hanoi (usually by 5.30pm from a cruise), you’ll have ample time to get either of the following train options to Ninh Binh. From our experience, the 2nd class AC seats are absolutely fine for the 2 hr 15 min journey. The cost of the train is 240,000 VND (about 6 GBP)
- SE3: departs at 7.30pm
- SE19: departs at 8.10pm
Day 10 Tam Coc
Tam Coc Boat Tour
So for your first morning in Tam Coc, we’d suggest that you get a bicycle to explore areas near to Tam Coc village, and so the following options are all very much reachable while pottering around on a bike. First stop for the day, pretty much bang in the middle of town is the Tam Coc Boat Tour.
This boat tour lasts a couple of hours, and takes you along the Ngo Dong river. During the boat tour, you’ll cruise through 3 caves that have been carved out by the river, and separated by rice fields and surrounded by stunning limestone cliff scenery.
The river tour costs 390,000 VND based on two people (approx. 10 GBP).
Location: Đội 2 văn lâm, Ninh Hải, Hoa Lư, Ninh Bình, Vietnam
Open: Daily from 8.00 am to 6.00 pm
Thai Vi Temple
After getting back onto dry land, jump back into the saddle and head to the Thai Vi temple – a pretty ancient pagoda that was built in 1258. The start of the road towards the temple is located right next to the Tam Coc Boat Tour start/finish area, so you can’t miss it. You’ll cycle about 10 minutes and reach the temple, which has its own pretty cool setting in the middle of rice fields and limestone karsts. Entrance to the temple is free.
Location: Ninh Hải, Hoa Lư District, Ninh Bình Province
Open: 7.00 am to 6.00 pm
Bich Dong Pagoda
About 3km outside of Tam Coc you’ll arrive at Bich Dong temple, and you’ll quickly realise why it’s on the list. Surrounded at the front by a lake frothing with waterlilies, and with towering cliffs to the back, this place is magical. It is a set of three cave temples set into the mountainside, you walk up some steps and through the temples and the caves, only to find yourself at an incredible viewpoint, looking out at the valley and rice fields below.
Entrance to the temple is free.
Location: Ninh Hải, Hoa Lư District, Ninh Bình Province 430000
Day 11 Tam Coc
This morning it’s worth getting up early, renting a moped and heading out to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Trang An for another boat tour. Located about 15 km outside of Tam Coc, near the southern margin of the Red River Delta, Trang An is another fantastic example of the limestone karst cliffs. If you’ve only got time to do one boat tour while in Ninh Binh/Tam Coc, this must be the one.
There are three tour options that you can take (Routes 1,2 and 3) – with Route 1 being the longest (taking 3 to 4 hours) and Route 2 the most popular as it is only 2 hours. The longest takes you through 9 caves that have been carved out by the river and even though it was long, it was really worthwhile. Cost for the boat trip is 200,000 VND (5 GBP) per person and they make sure each boat has 4 people on it. So if you’d like the boat to yourself, expect to pay 800k VND (28 GBP).
It’s important to note that it can get very busy, so good to get here early to avoid the crowds.
Location: Tràng An, Ninh Xuân, Hoa Lư, Ninh Bình 431995
Open: 7.00am to 4.00pm daily
On the way back to town, and if you haven’t found it already, make sure you stop in at Chookies. It’s a bit of a Tam Coc institution and the pizzas are great. it’s a very chilled place where you can relax in a hammock and rest out the heat of the afternoon. If you like dessert pizza, you must try the banana and Nutella pizza!
Location: Ninh Hải, Hoa Lư District, Ninh Bình Province
Open: Daily from 9.00 am to 10.00 pm
Day 12 Tam Coc
Hang Mua viewpoint and caves
For your final day in Tam Coc, we’d suggest heading to the Hang Mua viewpoint, for the best views of the area. Located between Trang An and Tam Coc, you could also add this into the day before to free up some time. However, we did both in the same day and were pretty shattered by the end. We like to think because it was steaming hot the late morning that we walked up to the two viewpoints, rather than a lack of fitness!
But, depending on the time of year, it would be worthwhile trying to do the hike early to avoid the heat. Although friends of ours have also done the same in fleeces! So make sure you are prepared depending on what time of year you come.
The walk up to viewpoint is not too strenuous, and there is a café handily placed halfway up if you need to refuel and rest. But at the summit you are rewarded with iconic photo opportunities. There is an entrance fee of 100, 000 VND (2.5 GBP)
Location: Thôn Khê Đầu Hạ, Hoa Lư District, Ninh Bình Province
Open: 6.00 am to 7.00 pm
After the viewpoint, head back to your accommodation for a change and pack, as tonight you’ll be travelling from Ninh Binh to Hue.
The former capital of Vietnam, Hue is a must visit city as part of any 3 week Vietnam itinerary. Teeming with history, it has a host of attractions to visit and a great place to start in Central Vietnam, and located close to the other popular locations of Da Nang and Hoi An.
Where to stay
Luxury: We think Vedana Lagoon Resort gets our vote. It is a little further out of town, but situated on a beautiful lagoon.
Mid-range: Scarlett Boutique Hotel – this one is in a wonderful location and you can walk to everything you need.
Budget: Shark Homestay – It’s a little more basic but a great location in the heart of the tourist area, with great bars and restaurants a stone’s throw away.
Getting from Ninh Binh to Hue
By train: This is our preferred method of travel since the train was very comfortable between these two points. The journey takes about 11 hours and there are 8 trains daily, including day and night options. The cheaper trains are operated by Vietnam Railways but still a great option – clean and on-time, and more expensive options include Laman Express and Lotus Train. Note that if you are staying in Tam Coc, you need to take a taxi to Ninh Binh station where the trains depart.
By bus: You can also catch a bus, and there are a few sleeper and overnight options; all of them quite modern and comfortable. The trip takes about 15 hours.
Day 13 Hue
This hugely impressive and expansive citadel is a great way to start your time in Hue. As the former capital of Vietnam the Imperial City was the home of the Emperors from the early 1800s to the end of World War II. You can spend ages walking around the temples, buildings and museums. Thanks to it being such a large space, we were pleasantly surprised by the amount of time we found ourselves completely alone.
Given its size, prepare for some good walking and we’d recommend giving yourself around 3 hours to see it. Entrance fee is 150,000 VND (about 3.75 GBP).
Location: Thành phố Huế, Thua Thien Hue, Vietnam
Open: Daily from 6.30 am to 5.00 pm
Not far from the citadel, and after a good deal of walking, we found this great little restaurant. It’s a perfect place to refuel and escape the heat of the afternoon for a bit – we highly rate the burgers here!
Location: 34 Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Phú Hoà, Thành phố Huế, Thừa Thiên Huế 530000, Vietnam
Open: Daily 10.00 am to 6.00 pm
Day 14 Hue
We’d recommend that if you’re comfortable on a moped, to hire one for the day as it’s the best way to get around to see the other major attraction – the Tombs of the Emperors. No worries if not, you can also hire a car to take you between the tombs or look at one of the boat tours, as the tombs are located along the Perfume River.
The tombs were our favourite activity around Hue, so if you can spend as much time exploring them as possible, with the following three being our must-see stops:
Tomb of Khai Dinh: Probably the most elaborate of all the tombs and also the most popular, the Tomb of Khai Dinh was constructed in 1925. On arrival you’ll walk up an impressive staircases, with forecourts adorned with life-size statues of warriors. And a great view of the valley below.
Location: Khải Định, Thủy Bằng, Hương Thủy, Thừa Thiên Huế 530000, Vietnam
Open: 7.00 am to 5.30 pm daily
Tomb of Tu Duc: Finished in 1867, this almost feels as impressive as the citadel on size alone, and is better preserved having not been partially destroyed in the war. It’s definitely worth getting to this one before the tour buses start arriving at 10.00 am. Entrance fee 100,000 VND (approx. 2.50 GBP).
Location: 17/69 Lê Ngô Cát, Thủy Xuân, Thành phố Huế, Thừa Thiên Huế, Vietnam
Open: 7.00 am to 5.30 pm daily
Tomb of Minh Mang: This is a real mixture of these other two tombs, being similar in layout to Tu Duc but similar in grandeur to Khai Dinh. We loved wandering the various buildings of the Minh Mang Tomb. And given that this seemed to be the least visited out of the three, became our favourite.
Location: QL49, Hương Thọ, Hương Trà, Thừa Thiên Huế, Vietnam
Open: 7.00 am to 5.30 pm daily
After resting up in the afternoon, this evening head to the best (and surprisingly affordable) restaurant in Hue: Madam Thu, for some fantastic Vietnamese cuisine. We tried the set tasting menu, which consisted of 7 different courses and was so worth it. Note that the restaurant can get quite busy so try to book beforehand or be prepared for a bit of a wait.
Location: 45 Võ Thị Sáu, Phú Hội, Thành phố Huế, Thừa Thiên Huế 530000, Vietnam
Open: 8.00 am to 10.00 pm
Day 15 The Hai Van Pass
So today will hopefully be your most beloved day in Vietnam, as it was for us. If there is something that you take away from this it is the best way to get from Hue to Hoi An – via the Hai Van Pass. The road described by Top Gear as the most scenic ocean road in the world is without doubt spectacular. But doing this route on the back of a motorbike (easy rider) was just an incredible experience.
There are several companies that offer day trips doing the route, but we’d endorse Hue Adventures, who offer private cars, Jeeps or Easy Rider on the back of a motorbike.
The day’s tour takes in the following stops – so lots of important sightseeing spots that you get to check off along the way.
- Fishing village on the Tam Giang Lagoon
- The Elephant Springs in the Bach Ma national park
- Lang Co beach
- The Hai Van Pass
- My Khe beach (known as China beach)
- The Marble Mountains
Read our full review of the experience here so you know exactly what to expect.
Recently voted by Travel and Leisure magazine as the best town to visit in the world, Hoi An is a staple on any Vietnam itinerary. It wasn’t our top city in the country because we did find it particularly busy and touristy but this town full of cosy little boats and lanterns strung from every corner will definitely charm you.
Where to stay
Luxury: Four Seasons Nam Hai – Friends of ours stayed here when we were in Hoi An, and they raved about the sheer luxury of this resort. It’s a bit further out of town, but easily accessible via taxi.
Mid-range: East West Villa –one of the best value for money places and Hoi An hotels around. Great rooms, delicious breakfast and a refreshing swimming pool. They did have WiFi issues when we stayed so if this is important to you, perhaps give them a skip.
Budget: Palmy Villa – it’s not entirely budget but is amazing value in Hoi An. We stayed here for a few nights and provides clean rooms and a great pool, but at a very affordable price.
Day 16 Hoi An
Wander the old town
After a bit of relaxation in the morning, head straight over to the Old Quarter to wander the streets. Here you’ll find the streets far more empty than in the evenings, so a nice respite from the manic crowds of the night time.
If you are able to get up first thing (before sunrise), you will also get the streets all to yourself – it’s definitely worth doing if you’re keen to get some great pics.
As part of walking the streets, you’ll definitely notice all the dresses and suits on offer. Hoi An has become a bit of a dressmaking hub, as you are able to commission a tailor to create an outfit overnight, at a bargain basement price. We would suggest you take advantage of this – it’s an absolute steal! You can get custom made dresses for less than $50 (40 GBP) and a custom suit for under $200 (160 GBP) which, compared to the price of a tailormade suit or dress in Europe or Americas, is not worth sniffing at. The garment usually needs at least one fitting so you want to do that today, so you can pick it up tomorrow.
Lee got a dress made at Kim Hien – they were fast, friendly and affordable.
Hoi An has become the land of the lanterns, as you’ll see them lit up every night along every street and the pier comes alive with them after dusk. You can light a lantern and take a short boat trip any night of the week but, once a month, Hoi An celebrates the full moon with their Lantern Festival. The lighting of the lantern comes from the Buddhist tradition of lighting candles as an offering to the ancestors and has morphed into this monthly festival, attracting thousands every 30 days.
This festival always happens on the 14th day of the lunar month and you go down to the pier, pay for your lantern and place it on the Thu Bon river with a wish for happiness, love and luck. Technically this happens every night but during the festival they turn all the lights off at 8.00 pm and the town is beautifully lit up with pops of colour. Please know that the lantern festival night is the busiest night of the month in Hoi An so be prepared for crowds and keep your belongings safe – there are known pickpockets particularly on the bridge.
Just over the river from the lantern lighting is the Hoi An night market. It hawks the usual night market wares: souvenirs, cheap clothing, trinkets, but is still worth a wander while you are in the city.
Day 17 Hoi An
After all the walking in Hoi An old town, you’ll probably want to have a bit of rest and relaxation. So today we’d suggest you head to the beach! There are a few options for beaches in Hoi An but the most popular is An Bang. It’s conveniently located near the town, has a massive array of restaurants and bars, and has modern comforts like lounger and umbrella hire (about 10, 000 – 50, 000 VND / about 1 GBP). You can also tickle your adventure bone with parasailing, jet skiing and surfing at this beach.
If you’re not keen on An Bang you could also try Hidden Beach (spoiler: it’s not very hidden!) or Cua Bai beach.
Location: Hai Bà Trưng, Tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam
If you’re taken our (very sound) advice and gotten a dress or suit stitched up, then head over today to pick it up.
Vietnam’s third largest city, Da Nang very much has the feel of a seaside town that has exploded into a coastal city, with numerous high-rises lining the beach fronts. There are some great beaches with bars, good surfing and the water is not bad for a dip either. Since it’s so close to Hoi An, many people seem to miss this city on their 3 week itinerary.
We preferred not to stay in Da Nang and would recommend flying straight out to Ho Chi Minh this evening to make sure you get the most of your time there. However, if you do plan a day in this city, we have a few recommendations to share…
Getting from Hoi An to Da Nang
By bus: it’s relatively easy to take the bus, (Bus no.1) will take you around 60 minutes but only costs 30,000 VND (so less than 1 GBP). The buses depart about every 20 minutes from 5.30 am to 6.00 pm.
By taxi: Definitely best to use the Grab app to get you a taxi. It will take you around 30 – 45 minutes and will cost around 400,000 VND (approx. 10 GBP)
Day 18 Da Nang
The Golden Bridge – Ba Na hills
It’s the most famous sight in Da Nang; arguably all of Central Vietnam. Think two huge concrete hands reaching up to the sky and balancing a large suspension bridge between them. The Cua Vang ‘Golden Bridge’ has become a staple on Instagram feeds across the world, which means tourists flock to this location every day.
What you might not know about the Golden Bridge is that it’s actually paired with an amusement or theme park, Ba Na Na Hills by Sunworld. Think a smaller, less Mickey Mousefied version of Disneyland.
The Ba Na Hills complex is actually 35 kilometres away from Da Nang itself, so becomes a day trip. It’s best reached by taxi, with the price ranging between 350, 000 VND to 500, 000 VND (10 – 12 GBP) at time of writing – best time to go is around 07.30 am since the cable car only opens at 8.00am. It also costs 700, 000 VND (18 GBP) for your ticket which includes the cable car and the bridge itself – you can’t just buy a ticket for the bridge. Tickets are available online in advance or you can buy one at the carpark when you arrive.
First up you’ll head to the Golden Bridge itself by using an almost 6km long cable car, arguably the world’s longest. The bridge itself is 150 metres long and, according to the architect, is meant to allude to the mountain gods and the bright yellow silk that helped local villagers find the gardens. Then, take a walk through the Le Jardin D’Amout flower gardens and the French Village before heading to the Linh Ung Pagoda, a 27 metre tall statue of Buddha surveying the landscape before him.
Lastly, make like your inner child and visit the theme park and ride the rollercoaster. 1.5 million visitors a year can’t be wrong, right?!
Location: Sun World Bà Nà Hill, Hoà Phú, Hòa Vang, Đà Nẵng, Vietnam
Open: 07.30am – 09.30pm
The largest city in Vietnam, also known as Saigon, is one of those places that you either love or hate. For us, we loved it. So much so that if we wanted to become full-time digital nomads, we would choose to live in this buzzing city.
The former capital of South Vietnam, it is known for its colonial landmarks but also as a place which pays homage to the more difficult past of the country, the conflicts and the Vietnam War. It has undergone a revival over the last few years as tall buildings sprout out of the cracked pavements and street food stalls are swapped for suave coffee shops, but it definitely still retains it’s old world flair.
Where to stay
There are heaps of good options for accommodation in Saigon but it’s also an Airbnb hotspot. You can generally find an apartment in one of the newer high-rises in District 4 quite cheaply, including washing machine, gym, coffee shop and super-fast wifi access.
Luxury: Arty, indulgent and with a French colonial flair, you must stay at the world-class Hotel des arts Saigon. An award-winning spa, beautiful suites and a rooftop bar with killer views.
Mid–range: It might trend closer to luxury than mid-range but its worth a few extra notes for Lief Mojo Saigon. It’s perfectly situated in District 1, and has all the conveniences you need.
Budget: Backpackers will tell you that HCMC has a plethora of options but most will settle on The Dorm Saigon for it’s A+ location, social vibe but squeaky clean rooms.
Getting from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City
Here our suggestion is clearly to take a flight. We’ve included some options for towns or cities along the way at the bottom of this article, in case your itinerary allows you to spend a few more days in Southern Vietnam. However, after travelling for a month in the country, we wouldn’t rate either Da Lat or Mui Ne as ‘must-do’ towns so to cut out travelling time on shuttles or busses between Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City, we recommend going via air.
Day 19 Ho Chi Minh City
War Remnants Museum
This morning head out to the War Remnants Museum to learn more about the Vietnam War. It’s a stark reminder of how horrendous war was, and it is quite hard, but very important to properly understand what the country has gone through. The photographic exhibition on the third floor is impressive and the best way to start since it also offers a more balanced take on the conflict, without erring too far on the side of the US or Vietnam. It is chilling to see some of the imagery so be prepared for a more sombre morning.
Location: 28 Võ Văn Tần, Phường 6, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam
Open: 07.30am – 06.00pm
Lunch at Bun Cha 145
Again, time to refuel and good to head to the ‘backpacking area’ of Saigon’s District One, for some of the best Bun Cha in town. If you haven’t had bun cha at this point you’re in for a treat: think beef broth, grilled pork and white noodles, with dipping sauce to bring out the flavour. We also highly recommend the bananas in green rice tempura for dessert at this cosy little restaurant.
Location: 145 Bùi Viện, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Open: 12.30pm – 08.00pm
Sunset boat trip
This evening, head down to the river for a sunset boat trip. There are two ways of doing this – either on one of the tour boats, or over on the public boat for a more authentic experience.
For the latter, head down to the Bach Dang pier – the boat starts near the statue of Tran Hung Dao. It travels about 10 km from District 1 to 9, taking about 45 minutes and showcasing key sights from the city, including Landmark 81, the tallest building in Vietnam. It costs about 15, 000 VND (0.5 GBP) and you will need to return via taxi, at a cost of approx. 400, 000 VND (10 GBP)
For a more upmarket cruise there are loads of options available, usually including all food and drinks and often a local dance showcase or cabaret entertainment. These range from 30 – 100 USD (25 – 85 GBP) depending on the style of the cruise, and we’re told that Bonsai Cruise is a great operator.
Location: Bach Dang Pier, Tôn Đức Thắng Street, District 1, Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam
Open: 06.00am – 07.30pm
Day 20 Ho Chi Minh City
Chinatown and the Thien Hau Pagoda
Vietnam, like many countries in Asia, has had a huge Chinese influence over the years and their Chinese district (Cho Lon – District 5) is one of the most vibrant, fascinating Chinatowns to be found all over the world. It’s worth starting your day with a walk around the district and stopping off at the Thien Hau Pagoda for a few photographs. This 19th century temple is quite atmospheric – hundreds of smoking joss sticks burn atop you, their ash falling quietly down onto your shoulders as you take in the temple. It is dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess, Thien Hau, and is quite fascinating as the architecture is significantly different to the Vietnamese temples you would have seen thus far.
Location: 710 Nguyễn Trãi, Phường 11, Quận 5, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Ben Thanh Market
The best way to see any city is through walking it’s streets, so this afternoon take more time to wander the lanes of Ho Chi Minh City, by visiting two uniquely Saigon spots: the market and the walking street. The Ben Thanh Market is the largest market in the city and full to the brim with local food, handicrafts, textiles and, of course, souvenirs. Try egg coffee there for the first time, or just meander through the stalls. It was unfortunately closed for renovation when we were in Ho Chi Minh City, but this is apparently a great way to spend one or two hours.
Location: Chợ, Lê Lợi, Phường Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam
Open: 07.00am – 07.00pm
Ngu yen Hue Walking Street
In a city overrun with mopeds, it’s quite a relief to find a walking street. Head to this pedestrianized street to visit a few local stores, or stop in for a drink at number 42. This block is an apartment building turned into a creative hotbed: think café apartments, boutiques, a little bookshop: it’s a fascinating little place to spend a few hours drinking coconut coffee and browsing the shelves.
Location: 42 Nguyễn Huệ, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam
Pizza and a cocktail
It’s been a long day on your feet, so it’s time to rest up and see the city from a different angle. We suggest heading to one of the many sky bars in the city, the best of which is the Eon bar in the Bitexco Financial Building (it literally overlooks their helicopter pad) – just keep in mind they have a strict dress code. After this, we highly recommend you make a booking for a taste of Italy: pizza at one of the PizzaP4’s branches. Eating pizza in Vietnam might seem like blasphemy, but this is the best pizza in Asia. Anything on the menu is delish but the parma ham with burrata cheese is our favourite.
Location: Tầng 52, Bitexco Tower, 2, Hải Triều, Quận 1, Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Day 21 Ho Chi Minh City
It’s your last day in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City and either you’re flying out today, or you have a few more hours to see the last sights this city has to offer. For your last day we’d look at doing a tour of the colonial architecture in the city, to see the French influence on this Asian powerhouse. A few stops include:
Saigon Post Office: 2 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh 710009, Vietnam
Colonial City Hall: Số 86 Lê Thánh Tôn, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh 710212, Vietnam
Statue of Ho Chi Minh: 110 Nguyễn Huệ, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
So there you have it, our perfect 3 week Vietnam itinerary! We hope you’ve found this useful, but if you have any tips or questions do let us know in the comments below or get in contact with us here.
If you have a bit more time and are able to extend your trip, here are a few further options that you can explore, especially in the South of the country. We had one month in Vietnam and so the majority of these could be added to a 4 week Vietnam itinerary, although we didn’t enjoy these places as much as our other recommended stops.
The hill town of Da Lat was historically where French expats and Vietnamese wealthy families used to escape for holidays, as it’s a hill station with much cooler temperatures. However, nowadays its less a hill station and more a city – we were actually surprised at how large it was. It still offers refreshing cool temperatures though, so it’s great to avoid the heat, and we even got to see a sunset, rainstorm and rainbow combination which was very special.
Since it’s a lot busier than expected, we didn’t really enjoy this town too much but it could serve as a good stop if you have a longer itinerary and has lots of things to do!
An Austrian company has installed a high class cable car in Da Lat, offering panoramic views over the city from Robin Hill. This is worth a visit for the views but we’d suggest going early since busloads of tourists arrive from about 10.00am onwards. At the top of the cable car, you can also visit the Trúc Lâm Temple, a lovely Buddhist temple. Keep in mind you need appropriate dress i.e. covered shoulders, long trousers or skirt.
Location: 1, Đống Đa, Lâm Đồng, Vietnam
Open: 07.30am – 05.00pm
Da Lat has it’s fair share of waterfalls, some of them very accessible from the city itself. We went to the Elephant Falls which we found quite overcrowded but it seems that the Pongour waterfalls are very quiet, since they are a bit less accessible. You could also take a short walk to the Datanla waterfalls, which are close to the town.
Location: Gia Lâm, Lâm Hà District, Lâm Đồng, Vietnam
Open: 08.00am – 05.00pm
As the name suggests, this is a weird, strange and quirky house or complex really. The vision of Vietnamese architect, Đặng Việt Nga, the Crazy House started as a coffee shop and is now a public museum but also a fully-functioning guesthouse. Think fantastical turrets and curving staircases, with upside down artwork – this place defies description. But… go! It costs 50, 000 VND (approx. 1.50 GBP) per person.
Location: Số 3 Đường Huỳnh Thúc Kháng, Phường 4, Thành phố Đà Lạt, Lâm Đồng, Vietnam
Open: 8:30am to 7pm everyday
For us, this very nearly made the list, but it’s a bit out the way, so you’ll need a couple of extra days to make it to Mui Ne. It’s the perfect place to relax and unwind and potentially soak up some sun, sea and sand. This little beach town is big on both the backpacker trail and as a Vietnam holiday destination, and there are some really exciting things you can do in one day.
Red and white sand dunes
The number one thing to do in Mui Ne is to visit the impressive red and white sand dunes, usually as part of a pre-packaged Jeep tour which also sometimes includes the Fairy Stream. We were pleasantly surprised by the cost of a private 2 person jeep tour to visit these – at $25 (20 GBP) for a 5hr trip, which you can either do for either sunrise or sunset. We chose to do the sunrise tour, thinking that it wouldn’t be too busy. We were wrong – it was absolutely heaving with tourists. Luckily the tour groups seem to stick together so if you’re able to walk a few minutes away, you’ll find yourself all alone.
Generally the tour will take you to the white sand dunes for sunrise. They are about a 45 minute drive away from Mui Ne, so it’s a very early start between 04.00 – 05.00 depending on the season. When you arrive you can either take an ATV up the dune or walk up yourself – we opted for the ATV which we felt really wasn’t worth the money: 200, 000 VND (5 GBP) for what is a slightly hairy 5 minute trail up the dune to the viewing point.
We also didn’t like the use of the ATVs to get up the sand dunes. These are expensive and not worth it for what would be a 20 minute walk at best. Our advice would be to avoid these at all costs.
After sunrise, head back onto the jeeps to visit the red sand dunes. Once again, hundreds of tourists are at the main spot, and we were pretty disappointed by the amount of litter around. However, if you walk for 10 minutes away from the main area, you’ll have the red dunes all to yourself. Away from the crowds, all alone on the pristine dunes is pretty special. A great place to take a towel, and enjoy some quiet time.
Another one of those cities that people seem to love or hate, we travelled to Nha Trang as a stop over point from Da Nang to Da Lat (via air). There are pretty good restaurants and accommodation options in the city but we weren’t enamoured with this city and hadn’t heard much positive about it. Our advice? Skip it or use it as a transit point.
This is a bit of a tricky one as there are several different ‘seasons’ in Vietnam, so it totally depends on which part you are travelling to. However if you are looking to travel the whole country there are definitely ‘better’ times to travel. In an ideal world you’d probably look to travel in March or April, where it can still be cool in the far North, but it is still dry in the North, hot and dry in the middle of the county and also South Vietnam.
However it is good to note the rainy seasons in both the North and South are between May and October, and you’ll want to avoid typhoon season from September to November.
However, most time of the year you can get lucky and great weather in much of the country. We travelled this route throughout the month of July and only had a little rain when we got to Ho Chi Minh City, whereas we’ve heard from others who mentioned that they were there in March and places were really cold!
- Hello – Xin Chao (Sin chow)
- How are you? – Ban Khoe Khong (Ban Kwe Khom)
- Thank you – Xin cam on (sin gahm un)
- Sorry – Xin Loi (Sin Loy)
- Goodbye – Tam Biet
- No – Khong
- Yes – Vang
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