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Vietnam is a gem of Southeast Asia, with sweeping landscapes, mouthwatering cuisine and eclectic cities bustling with culture, there’s no destination quite like it.
I spent 4 weeks in Vietnam as part of my 4 month backpacking trip throughout the region, here is my ultimate itinerary starting in Ho Chi Minh city in the South and finishing in Hanoi in the North. This route will give you an overview of the country with cities, countryside and even some time on water included.
This itinerary is 25 nights, allowing enough time either side for you to arrive and leave the country within your 4 week trip.
1. Ho Chi Minh City
My 4 week itinerary begins in Ho Chi Minh city, formerly known as Saigon. Although it’s not the capital, it’s the largest city in Vietnam by population and certainly the most challenging to get around with more motorbikes than people. It’s also got a thriving nightlife with plenty going on down Bui Vien Street in district 1, also known as backpacker street.
Where to stay? I recommend Hideout hostel for daily free beer and a great atmosphere with other travellers. The hostel will help you plan visits to most of HCMC’s main attractions and evening activities allow you to explore backpacker street in safe hands.
Check my full guide of the best hostels in Ho Chi Minh City
Top Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City
CU CHI TUNNELS – The Cu Chi Tunnels are an underground network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war. These can be visited from Ho Chi Minh City where you’ll see exhibits that demonstrate life in the tunnels and you’ll get to try a firsthand experience in a tunnel (albeit a slightly larger tunnel that is widened for tourists!).
WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM – This museum explores the devastating impacts that the Vietnam war has left on the country with over 13 different exhibition areas dedicated to telling the story. If you’re not familiar with the Vietnam war, I’d recommend you learn the basics before you visit as the exhibits get intense very quickly.
VISIT THE MEKONG DELTA – The Mekong Delta, known as the rice bowl of Vietnam, is an area where the Mekong river flows into the South China Sea through a massive network of distributaries. The locals have adapted to life on water utlising boats for transportation and floating markets. You could easily spend a few days exploring this region but to allow enough time in the rest of the country, I recommend sticking to a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City.
BEN THANH STREET FOOD MARKET – Ben Thanh market itself is great to visit during your stay, here you’ll find everyday items as well as souvenirs at a super cheap price. However, the highlight is the street food market where a variety of cuisines from across the world are available from several vendors in a food hall style building, needless to say I returned a number of times.
In the highlands of Southern Vietnam lies the city of Dalat. One of the most noticeable things when you arrive here is the cooler climate than the rest of the country which makes a nice change. The city is known for its canyoning which is a must-do activity, but you should also try and explore outside the city where an array of waterfalls, farms and coffee plantations are waiting to be discovered.
Where to stay? Here are my top hostel recommendations for Dalat
Top Things to Do in Dalat
THE CRAZY HOUSE – This bizarre piece of architecture is hard to explain. Imagine taking an Alice in Wonderland style adventure through odd rooms with themes such as underwater and forests, all connected by crazy staircases that twist and turn around the inside and outside of the building. You need to visit to understand.
ALPINE ROLLER COASTER – This self-propelled roller coaster is built through the forest and is the best way of reaching the waterfalls at the bottom. It is 1-2 people per carriage, and you control the acceleration and breaking yourself, which adds a whole new element of fun.
CANYONING – This was my number 1 experience in Vietnam, a day of abseiling down waterfalls, zip lining into rivers and cliff jumping (although I bailed on the last one). I wrote a full post about the day with tips of which company to use.
From Dalat to Hoi An – The cheapest and most convenient way to get between these two cities is via an overnight bus, I left around 5pm and arrived in Hoi An around 7am. It is also possible to take a faster train from Nha Trang although you would still need to get a bus to Nha Trang so there is little benefit.
3. Hoi An
Hoi An might officially be a city, but it has the feel of a small town. The city is known across the region for its lanterns, with most of the lanterns in Vietnam originating from the workshops here. The old town area itself is brimming with cute places to discover and the night market has plenty of local delicacies to try.
Where to stay? I recommend one of the Tribee hostels, you’ll have access to all their facilities including a pool, free and unlimited spring roll classes and a fantastic bar with free booze and parties. The Tribee street food tour is well worth attending and will take you to some of the best spots, all for free.
Top Things to Do in Hoi An
LANTERN CRAFTING WORKSHOP – When you’re in the city of lanterns, you need to make a lantern yourself. There are several workshops across the city that will teach you to craft a lantern and allow you to decorate it as well, this makes for great souvenirs.
CYCLE THROUGH TRA QUE VEGETABLE VILLAGE – I woke up early one morning, rented a bicycle and took a ride through the vegetable village where they still grow all their vegetables by hand. It might not sound very exciting, but I felt like I was seeing the real Vietnam.
VINPEARL LAND WATER PARK – There is an incredible brand new waterpark just a 30 minute drive from the main city called VinPearl Land. It’s both a waterpark with huge slides, a theme park with rollercoasters and a huge amusement arcade all in one – get there early to make the most of the day.
4. Hai Van Pass
If you’re a keen motorbike, then you may want to consider doing the entire journey by bike. However, for me just a glimpse at biking through Vietnam was enough. The best part of this itinerary to experience on a bike is between Hoi An and Hue, this includes the Hai Van Pass which was made famous when top gear visited and described it as “the best coastal road in the world”.
Because it’s such a popular journey, there are a number of businesses that now allow you to rent a motorbike in Hoi An and drop it off in Hue, they will even transport your backpack for you so that you can concentrate on enjoying the ride. It will take the best part of a full day if you plan to enjoy some of the best stops along the way.
Hue will be your stopping off point after the Hai Van Pass but I recommend one full day in the city to explore it’s historic importance before you move on. Right in the middle of Vietnam, Hue has played a key role in the history of the region having been the capital of the Dang Trong Kingdom in the 18th century and of the Nguyen Dynasty throughout the 19th century as well as a key battleground during the Vietnam war.
Top Things to Do in Hue
THE IMPERIAL CITY – At the center of Hue is Hue Citadel, a fortress where the emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty lived and worked. Today, the massive complex features monuments and ruins for tourists’ pleasure.
ABANDONED WATER park – Originally opened in 2004, Ho Thuy Tien water park was soon abandoned with financial difficulties often being cited as the reason. With graffiti everywhere, overgrown greenery and smashed glass, it’s like looking into a post-apocalyptic world, well worth an afternoon.
ROYAL TOMBS – Hue is surrounded by elaborate tombs of foregone emperors which were usually designed by the emperors themselves before they died. Today, many lay in a poor state although some have been renovated – either way, it’s worth a visit.
6. Phong Nha
By now, you’ll be more than halfway through your 4 weeks in Vietnam so it’s time to get out and enjoy the beautiful landscapes of the north.
The small town of Phong Nha in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park earnt its place on the map with Son Doog cave, officially the world’s biggest natural cave. Whilst the $3000 price tag for a tour is enough to put most backpackers off, that doesn’t mean you should discount Phong Nha. There are plenty of more affordable caves to visit and the surrounding scenery is beautiful making it a great place to hire a bike and explore the countryside.
Where to stay? Easily the best hostel in Phong Nha is Easy tiger hostel with live music and a great bar.
Top Things to Do in Phong Nha
THE DARK CAVE – This was my favourite caving experience in Vietnam. Reaching the dark cave involves zip lining down to the entrance, once inside you’ll realise why it’s called the dark cave. Enjoy a messy mud bath with your fellow cavers before rowing upstream back to the entrance.
THE DUCK STOP – Don’t miss the duck stop, simultaneously weird and hilarious. At this farm you can have a foot massage from ducks and ride a buffalo like a pro Vietnamese farmer. Whilst there, make sure you visit the nearby Bar with the cold beer (it’s actual name) which is known for allowing guests to choose their own chicken and kill it before it’s freshly prepared.
PHONG NHA CAVE TOUR – The tour through Phong Nha cave is a totally different experience to the Dark Cave. On a boat of about 15 people, you’ll be taken through a stretch of caves that’s lit up by floodlights, allowing you to witness the great detail of the 400 million year old limestone with a short opportunity to explore some of the areas by foot.
From Phong Nha to Ninh Binh – I recommend taking the overnight bus to Ninh Binh. The journey is 7 hours with buses usually leaving around 9pm, this means you’ll arrive very early in Ninh Binh so secure accommodation before you leave and make sure they will be able to check you in at 5am. Don’t worry, they will be used to this as many backpackers follow this method.
7. Ninh Binh
I can see why Ninh Binh is referred to as ‘Ha Long Bay on land’, with stunning limestone cliffs protruding from the ground making a beautiful landscape. If you take the overnight bus as suggested, you’ll arrive early in Ninh Binh so 2 nights should be enough here.
Top Things to Do in Ninh Binh
TRANG AN OR TAM COC BOAT TRIP – There are two great opportunities for boat trips in Ninh Binh, Trang An and Tam Coc. I personally visited Trang An, here we were rowed around in between enormous limestone rocks in a small 4 person boat, stopping at temples, caves and the set of King Kong skull island along the way.
HANG MUA CAVES VIEWPOINT – The viewpoint at the top of Hang Mua caves was probably one of the best views I saw in Vietnam. Once you climb the 500 steps up the jagged rocks, the view is incredible – a must-do activity.
8. Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba is the largest island in the Ha Long Bay area and is fast becoming a popular alternative to Ha Long City as a jumping off point for boat tours around the iconic bay. I choose to visit Cat Ba over Ha Long after recommendations from locals and it proved to be a good decision.
Top Things to Do in Cat Ba
LAN HA BAY CRUISE – After recommendations from travellers and locals, I forwent a traditional Ha Long Bay cruise in favour of a Lan Ha Bay cruise. Both are part of the same geographical area, only they are in different provinces of Vietnam. Lan Ha Bay cruises are far cheaper, less crowded and often they will venture out as far as Ha Long Bay anyway.
HIKING IN CAT BA NATIONAL PARK – The vast majority of Cat Ba island is jungle which you’ll notice as you make the journey towards the main town area. This makes for some great hiking opportunities in Cat Ba National park with the Lookout Tower Trail being one of the most popular routes which will reward you with a fantastic viewpoint, although it’s no longer possible to climb the tower itself.
The final stop on my 4 week Vietnam itinerary is the capital city itself, Hanoi. Built on the banks of the Red River, the city is chaotic and noisy with plenty of areas to explore. Look out for beer as cheap as 5,00 VND (about £0.20) and enough Bahn Mi stalls to keep you fed for a lifetime.
Top Things to Do in Hanoi
TRAIN STREET – With a single track that sees speeding trains run inches away from the doorways and dining areas of independent shops and restaurants, train street has become a hot spot for anyone visiting Hanoi and is top of the list when it comes to insta-worthy photos.
THE NOTE CAFE – A little favourite of mine was the Note Cafe, a 4 story cafe that is entirely decorated by post it notes with messages from previous customers. Everything from the chairs to the ceiling fans had a note, some were deep and meaningful, others were just hilarious.
WEEKEND WALKING STREET – On Friday and Saturday evenings, many of the main roads around the lake are closed off to vehicles to make way for a night market. The entertainment varies each weekend, but you can guarantee some sort of singing or dancing performance along with streets lined full of stalls selling everything from clothes to food.
Extend Your Stay
This 4 week itinerary for Vietnam is based on my own experience and within the confines of a 30 day visa. However, there’s plenty of other great things to do in Vietnam if you can extend your stay. Here are a few suggestions:
PHU QUOC – This island in the south of Vietnam is known for sandy beaches and beautiful sunsets.
HA GIANG LOOP – Known across the region, this 4 day motorcycle loop from Ha Giang is full of beautiful landscapes, winding roads and the renowned Ma Pi Leng Pass.
SAPA TREKKING – Also in the north of the country, Sapa is known for it’s hiking trails, from half day up to three days, there’s a trek for all abilities and you can stay with local families in one of the many homestays to enhance the experience.
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