Our 30-day Vietnam itinerary (plus suggestions for shorter visits)


Posted by Beth | June 26, 2016

We recently spent a full month traveling across Vietnam, the longest we spent in any single country on our round-the-world trip (not counting our time living in Uganda). We chose to stay the full 30 days allowed on our visa because it’s a country neither of us had been to before in our favorite region of the world, a huge country with varied landscapes and seemingly plenty to do. In the end a month proved a little too long for us, our overall experience hindered due to battling illness for several weeks. Though it was probably our least favorite country, there were certainly bright and brilliant moments of our month in Vietnam, and we are thankful for our experiences. It’s still a fantastic and cheap place for travelers, especially backpackers. If you’re contemplating a visit to Vietnam, here’s what you need to know to make the most out of your month there, and how to schedule your visit if you have just a week or two.

Happy hour with a view from the boat deck in Halong Bay.

Happy hour with a view from the boat deck in Halong Bay.

Our month-long itinerary:

  • Hanoi: 5 days
  • Halong Bay: 3 days
  • Hue: 2 days
  • Hoi An: 6 days
  • Da Nang: 2 days
  • Nha Trang: 3 days
  • Dalat: 4 days
  • Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC): 4 days

Slow travel/open itinerary: Prior to our arrival the only things we had booked were our flights in and out of the country, knowing we’d be working our way from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. This was unique from the rest of our trip where almost everything was planned out in advance down to the day, stopping in each new city for as much as five days or as little as 24 hours. We looked forward to this freedom and flexibility after months of being on the go, and it was nice to be able to just “play things by ear,” even if we ran into some minor inconveniences by waiting until the last minute. Overall Vietnam is an easy country to get around and book tours and local transportation as you go.

Slow travel gave us the time to explore hidden gems like the Crazy House in Dalat

Slow travel gave us the time to explore hidden gems like the Crazy House in Dalat

Transportation:

  • Flights: The only domestic flight we took was from Dalat to HCMC. Flights are typically the most convenient, but likely most expensive, way to get around Vietnam. Budget flights are widely available though, especially if you book far enough in advance.
  • Trains: Vietnam has a good train system that is generally safe and reliable. It is considerably more expensive than a bus, but worth the extra comfort if you can book a sleeper car. The train does not run to Dalat though, unfortunately. Book at least several days in advance!

    The Vietnamese also apparently love to travel by cable car. We rode the world's longest over water cable car to Vinpearl Amusement Park in Nha Trang.

    The Vietnamese also apparently love to travel by cable car. We rode the world’s longest over water cable car to Vinpearl Amusement Park in Nha Trang.

  • Buses: We only took two long-distance buses. The sleeper bus (even though it was a day trip) was somewhat comfortable, though Caleb didn’t really fit in the bed/seat. From Nha Trang to Dalat we used the popular Singh Tourist and ended up on a much smaller van-type bus, which was far less comfortable. Either way, the bus will stop several times for extended periods for the driver to eat and smoke, and the roads in Vietnam are not the best. The bus is the least comfortable but most affordable mode of transportation.
  • Private drivers: For destinations a few hours apart hiring a private driver is an option. Within Central Vietnam many of the cities are close together and private drivers allow more flexibility for sightseeing along the way and setting your own schedule. We hired a driver to take us around the sights in Da Nang when needing to get from Hoi An to Da Nang.  It was about $50 USD, you can pay a similar amount to get from Hue to Hoi An.
We were able to see Da Nang from this viewpoint thanks to a private driver

We were able to see Da Nang from this viewpoint thanks to a private driver

Lodging:

  • Points Hotels: We spent nine nights in points hotels. There are many options in the larger cities and beach resort towns: HCMC, Hanoi, Da Nang and Nha Trang.
  • Airbnb: We spent 10 nights in Airbnbs. The room-sharing service is popular in Vietnam, though most of the available properties are actually guesthouses and not individual homes.
  • Guesthouses/hostels: Widely available, especially in backpacker areas, guesthouses typically provide only private rooms (starting around $10) and hostels offer both private rooms and dorm beds (starting around $5). We thought the value for your money was the best in Southeast Asia. $10-$20 a night will get you a clean, large room with a private bathroom, air conditioning and typically a free breakfast.
The Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa Da Nang was our favorite hotel in Vietnam.

The Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa Da Nang was our favorite hotel in Vietnam.

Food:

  • Vietnamese Food: Food plays an important role in the Vietnamese culture and is known to be fragrant and colorful and typically full of fish sauce. There’s a big street food scene and most dining takes place on little red stools on sidewalks.
  • Western/International Food: Luckily for us there was a plethora of international options available since we didn’t care for the local food for the most part. We were admittedly not very adventurous with Vietnamese food after getting sick on pho one of our first days in the country then battling gut issues for most of our time there. We were able to enjoy all different types of cuisine, including Indian, Greek, Italian, Thai, sushi, pizza and even a decent burger.
  • Café/Coffee Culture: Coffee is a way of life in Vietnam. They drink it all day everyday, dark and thick and typically laden with sweetened condensed milk. You’ll find nearly every block dotted with cafes, the most basic consisting of just red plastic stools on the sidewalk and the fanciest with sweeping balconies and expensive muffins.

Entertainment:
Post coming soon on the specific activities we did in Vietnam. 

A beach in Halong Bay

A beach in Halong Bay

  • Beaches: Vietnam’s beaches may be less well known than their Thai counterparts, but are still beautiful and the perfect way to escape the stifling heat. We focused primarily on the Central Vietnam beaches, in Nha Trang, Da Nang and Hoi An. Beach lounge chairs with giant umbrellas are typically available for rent for the day for only a dollar or two. Just beware of jellyfish!
  • City life: Vietnam’s biggest cities, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and to some extent now Da Nang, are bustling with markets, museums, tourist attractions, nightlife and good restaurants.
  • Countryside: Renting a motorbike or bicycle is a great way to get out of town and see authentic village life in Vietnam. We highly recommend an Easy Rider tour in Dalat, though you can do them in many other parts of Vietnam as well.
Enjoying a leisurely stop at a coffee farm in the Dalat countryside.

Enjoying a leisurely stop at a coffee farm in the Dalat countryside.

Visa: Americans traveling to Vietnam need a visa prior to arrival. We used an online booking agency (Vietnam Visa), but you can also visit a Vietnamese embassy or consulate.  The visa itself is $25 per person that must be paid on arrival in USD, and the service was an extra $17 per person. You fill out a couple forms and your visa letter shows up in your inbox 2 days later.

Highlights/Must-see spots in Vietnam: Our favorite places were Hoi An, Dalat, Halong Bay and Ho Chi Minh City. Unfortunately these are in three distinct regions, but if at all possible try to see them while you are in Vietnam.

Don't miss seeing the lanterns in Hoi An!

Don’t miss seeing the lanterns in Hoi An!

Our month-long itinerary:

  • Hanoi: 5 days
  • Halong Bay: 3 days
  • Hue: 2 days
  • Hoi An: 6 days
  • Da Nang: 2 days
  • Nha Trang: 3 days
  • Dalat: 4 days
  • Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC): 4 days
Exploring the Temple of Literature in Hanoi

Exploring the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, despite both being really sick

Our Itinerary Recommendations: (modify the above itinerary for your timeline)

If you have…

  • One Month: Skip Da Nang and focus on beaches in Nha Trang instead. Plenty of time to add in Sapa, Mui Ne, the Mekong Delta or Phu Quoc Island, or several of the above if you really rush.
  • Three Weeks: Skip Hue unless you’re really interested in history, choose only one beach (don’t forget Hoi An has beaches too!) and cut out a day or two in Hanoi and Hoi An.
  • Two Weeks: Do the 2 day instead of 3 day Halong Bay tour, cut down days in each place. Perhaps something like this:
    • Hanoi: 2 days
    • Halong Bay: 2 days
    • Hoi An/Da Nang: 4 days
    • Dalat: 3 days
    • Ho Chi Minh City: 3 days
  • One Week: This will be pretty rushed and you’ll need to fly or take all overnight transportation, but you could conceivably do it.
    • Hanoi: 1 day
    • Halong Bay: 2 days
    • Hoi An: 2 days
    • Ho Chi Minh City: 2 days
Highly recommend a Halong Bay cruise if you make it to North Vietnam, so give yourself enough time if it's on your list.

Highly recommend a Halong Bay cruise if you make it to North Vietnam, so give yourself enough time if it’s on your must-see list.

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