If you are planning a holiday to Vietnam, only have two weeks to spare and are worrying whether that will be enough: worry no more! Based on my own travels there, I have made the perfect itinerary that allows you to see the best of the country without feeling rushed or spending way too much money on organised trips or airplane-tickets. As is true for every trip, you have to make choices on what to visit and what to skip, but if you follow this itinerary you are sure to make the right ones.
Cost of traveling Vietnam: how much it will cost you will depend entirely on how luxurious you prefer your trip. In most places you will be able to find a dodgy dorm for about 3 – 4 bucks and a meal on a local market will be around one euro/dollar, but if you desire more class, you should plan on spending a little more. If you want to travel as cheap as possible it should be possible to travel for about 25 euro a day, but if you prefer clean (air-conditioned) hotels, want to eat at a restaurant every other day and also want to enjoy a relaxing Vietnamese massage at the end of the day the figure of 40 euro a day is more realistic.
The Ultimate Itinerary: Vietnam in 2 weeks
The following itinerary can of course also be done in reverse if that is preferred. I have written whole articles on most destinations included here which provide more in-depth information and background. Since there is a lot to see in Vietnam and two weeks go by way faster than you wish, it makes sense to select hotels beforehand instead of trudging around with a heavy backpack in tropical temperatures desperately looking for a nice place to stay. Actually booking is not necessary (except during the Tet-festival in late February) and by not doing so you allow yourself extra flexibility to opt for another choice if the accommodation upon arrival appears to be not at all like all the nice pictures and positive reviews you found online.
Day 1: Hanoi
Arrive in the weekend as this is the best time to visit Hanoi. Take the airport-shuttle from Noi Bai international airport to the Hoan Kiem lake area, check into your hotel and freshen up from (probably) a pretty lengthy flight. Head out to the lake and visit the Ngoc Son temple and the picturesque red bridge, search for the entrance to Hanoi Coffee time and taste the local delicacy of ‘egg-coffee’. Buy a ticket for the water-puppet show later tonight at the nearby theater and find a nice eatery to settle down for dinner. After dinner go see the water-puppet show and depending on your jet-lag, either head back to your hotel or use the remainder of the evening to meander around the lake, sampling street-food and talking to groups of schoolkids that want to practice their English.
Day 2: Hanoi
After breakfast head over to the Hoa Lo prison to learn about the monstrosities that happened here during the Vietnam war. Go to the St. Joseph Cathedral have a peak and settle down at one of the many local eateries around this church for an early lunch. Take a cab/moto to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and visit Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place. If you are up for more culture, visit the museum that is located next to it ( both close at 16:00 o ‘clock!). Head back to the lake area and settle down on a small plastic stool for one of the most important Hanoian traditions: Bia Hoi. This day-fresh beer is brewed without conservatives meaning the keg needs to be finished the same day, making the perfect excuse to spend the remainder of your day here talking to strangers (locals and tourist alike) and helping to finish up the keg;). If you still have energy left, visit the night-market that starts at the north of the lake to already stock up on souvenirs (do not expect to be able to haggle the price down much in this part of Vietnam).
Day 3: Halong Bay
The best way to visit the infamous limestone pinnacles of Halong Bay is to go by organised 2D/1N cruise (Rosa Cruise recommended). You get picked up at your hotel super early and are taken care of for the next two days. Enjoy kayaking, relaxing on the deck and eating tasty seafood meals in one of the most beautiful surroundings you have ever been.
Day 4: Halong Bay – night train to Hue
After your cruise you will be taken back to Hanoi (where you will arrive around 5 PM o’ clock), tell the driver to drop you off at the railway station where you take the night train that leaves around 8 PM. After buying a ticket (soft-sleeper!) you can have dinner in the French Quarter (which features beautiful architecture and is located right of the railway station) before stocking up on some snacks and water for an adventurous night on the night-train to Hue.
Day 5: Hue
You arrive sometime around 9:30 AM in Hue. Take a moto or taxi to your hotel and drop off your bags (checking in will probably not be possible yet, but the staff will bring your bags to your room for you). If your up for it, rent a scooter bike and head out to visit the Royal Tombs (download an offline map to navigate, they are quite easy to find). Alternatively you could use a cab that waits for you at every tomb and brings you to the next (some also offer explanations at the sights), but this is definitely more pricey. Afterwards return to the city to have lunch after which you go to visit the Forbidden City and the Thien Mu Pagoda nearby. Have dinner on Le Loi or Pham Ngu Lao and use the rest of the night to relax (at your hotel, or have a massage at a spa) as the nightlife in Hue is not that great.
Day 6: Hai Van Pass
Today you are going to cruise the magnificent Hai Van Pass, described by Topgear as one of the most beautiful routes in the world. Rent a scooter from a trusted company (I recommend MotoVina) that will bring your big backpack to your next destination for you and only carry a day-pack (with your valuables) as you wind down the roads on your way to Hoi An. Take plenty of breaks at temples and remote beaches, as the total ride is only about 4 or 5 hours. Arrive before dark and check into your hotel, use the rest of the night to relax at the swimming pool or in a spa, as Hoi An has some great, incredible value for money spa-options.
Day 7 & Day 8: Hoi An
Take two days to explore this little gem on your own pace. If you want to get a suit made, this is the place to do so. As Hoi An is pretty small everything can easily be visited on foot. If the weather is great, use a bicycle (most hotels have them for rent) to get to An Bang beach (only a few miles).
Day 9 & 10: Phu Quoc
Use the drop-off service of your hotel (or get a cab/moto) to get to the airport in Da Nang and take a morning flight to the paradise island of Phu Quoc. Flights can be booked online really easily for about 30 dollars and go about 6 times a day. On Phu Quoc, relax, lay on one of its many beaches, have sunset-cocktails at the beach-side bar Rory’s and discover the island by scooter bike.
Day 11: Mekong Delta
Take the morning fast ferry to Rach Gia (8AM) and take the bus from here to Can Tho at which you will arrive around lunch time. Use Can Tho as a base to explore the Mekong Delta. After lunch head out on a bicycle (they will provide you with a small map and a route but also make sure you downloaded an offline map on your cellphone to not get lost) to ride through rice fields, crossing little wooden bridges and finding out how people make their living off the mighty Mekong river. Return to the city before night falls and use the evening to discover the rich en bustling night-live of Can Tho!
Day 12: floating market & HCMC
Get up early (06:00 AM) to visit one of the many floating markets before the big tourist groups arrive. Buy breakfast on the river from one of the many long-tail-boat ‘restaurants’ and experience the chaotic but interesting floating markets at their fullest buy haggling for stuff you do not actually need. After returning to Can Tho go to the bus-terminal to catch a coach (for about 4 USD) to HCMC, which will take about 2-3 hours. After you arrive head to your hotel (Giang Son 2 is recommended) in district 1 or the Pham Ngu Lao area (backpacker-area) and freshen up. After lunch, head out into district 1 and explore the area by doing a walking-tour (the one described in the Lonely Planet is great!) which takes you to the Post Office, Opera House, Notre Dame, Unification Palace, Ben Treh Market and many more interesting sights. At the end of the afternoon head to one of HCMC’s many rooftop bars to enjoy a cocktail-fueled sunset before finding a nice restaurant to enjoy some fine-dining (which HCMC is famous for). After dinner you will probably be pretty exhausted after a long and busy day, so this seems to be all the program you need:)
Day 13: HCMC & the Cu Chi Tunnels
After breakfast head out to the 23/9 busterminal in District 1 and take bus 13 to Cu Chi (last stop) from here (1 – 2 hours depending on traffic). From here you have to take another bus to Ben Duoc (this is one of the visiting sites for the Cu Chi Tunnels). At the Cu Chi Tunnels you’ll find out how the Vietcong moved around (and how terribly small these tunnels are by actually crouching through them). Alternatively you can book a half-day tour (most leave at 8AM) here but make sure you are taken to Ben Duoc and not ( the very touristy) Ben Dinh, as these tunnels were created for tourists and were never part of the real tunnel-network. After the tunnels, head back to HCMC and do some souvenir shopping at Ben Treh (not the cheapest of markets but definitely the biggest) and find a nice restaurant for dinner. To finish up your Vietnam-trip, head to Broma Not a Bar, which is a relaxed rooftop bar where many backpackers and flashpackers gather for excellent tunes and ice-cold beers.
Day 14: HCMC
I recommend keeping this extra day as your last full day in your itinerary to allow for delays (or a slight detour) along your route. Therefore there is no program today (read my article on HCMC to see what else there is to do).
Day 15: HCMC – home
Getting to Tan Son Nhat international airport is really easy, you can just take the public bus (leaving from 23/9 terminal and the big traffic junction next to Ben Treh market) that takes you there for 20.000D within the hour. Sadly this is the end of the trip, but if you stuck to the plan by now you have probably seen the best of the land of the rising sun all in two weeks, and all without feeling too rushed along the way and without spending a lot of money on private charters.
Places you don’t visit: there are a few places that are definitely worth the visit but are not included in this itinerary if you have a few extra days it might be a good plan to fit them into the program. Ninh Binh is on route from Hanoi to Hue and hosts the mesmerisingly beautiful Trang An. Sapa is north of Hanoi and offers excellent trekking and endless terraces of rice-paddies. Dalat (between HCMC and Hoi An) offers a colder climate and makes a great outpost for outdoor-activities. Many people also have Nha Trang on their list, however this town gets swarmed by drunk Russians and is nothing more than a watering hole for youngsters coming there to party the whole night but lacking the ambiance that many Thai party-islands do have.