For most people traveling to Vietnam, the question really isn’t about where to go, but about how long to stay somewhere. I went into Vietnam relatively blind, knowing only about Hanoi, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh, and Ha Long Bay. That doesn’t matter because within your first couple of days of backpacking in Vietnam, you will basically hear suggestions from everyone else about where the best place in Vietnam is.
“Oh skip Nha Trang.”
“You can’t miss Sa Pa, bro.”
“Even just one day in Ninh Binh and you’ll be glad you went.”
Vietnam is very backpacker friendly and the tourist trail is very well-defined, but I figured I’d throw in my own input based on my experience here. My own route made very little sense and was full of mistakes that could have been easily avoided had I looked at a map, but you should be glad that I made the mistake of spending 5 nights on sleeper buses out of 7 days so you don’t have to.
The first thing to consider before going to Vietnam is the visa. While some countries are pretty lax about visas, you shouldn’t risk it in Vietnam. There was a group of Americans on my bus who were turned back at the border because their Visas weren’t ready. To avoid any nightmares, Vietnam Visa can take care of everything for you, whether it is a Vietnam visa on arrival or a Vietnam visa for US citizens. Trust me, you definitely don’t want to miss out on this country for whatever reason.
I had to cut out a week of my Vietnam trip due to an impulse decision to include the Philippines on my Southeast Asia trip, but despite rampaging through the country, I enjoyed every day of it.
Without further ado, the perfect backpacker’s itinerary for Vietnam.
If you’re traveling north to south, read it as is. If traveling south to north, just read it backwards I guess.
Stop 1: Hanoi
The capital city of Vietnam is pure chaos. It is hot, hectic, and the perfect way to get thrust into your Vietnam adventure. Travelers have mixed opinions on Hanoi, and you are either going to despise the chaos or indulge in it. In my opinion, the city itself does not have any must-see attractions, but it serves as a good central point to see the rest of northern Vietnam. You don’t really need more than three days here to see the museums, monuments, and get your fill of banhmis and other Vietnamese cuisine.
Stop 2: Ha Long Bay
Crowned one of the new seven natural wonders of the world, Ha Long Bay is probably the best-known destination in Vietnam. You can get there pretty easily from Hanoi, and while I don’t typically recommend tours, it is probably the least complicated way to see the 3,000 islands of Ha Long. Check out Cat Ba National Park while you’re there. Although breathtakingly beautiful, two full days in Ha Long should be ideal, heading back to Hanoi on the third day to your next northern Vietnam stop.
Stop 3: Sa Pa
My personal favorite place that I went to in Vietnam, you can’t miss trekking through the rice terraces, lush valleys, and endless mountains of Sa Pa. You can stay in a homestay with local families in the villages located within the valley, and it makes for quite an amazing experience. Definitely do a trek here with some local guides. Despite the little girls using their irresistible charm to try and sell you bracelets every time you take even the slightest stop, it was still fun having them as company. I only did a two-day trek, but would have loved to extend it to three or even four days if I had more time.
Stop 4: Ninh Binh
Often referred to as Ha Long Bay on land, Ninh Binh is another good destination to be surrounded by Vietnam’s amazingly lush nature. I didn’t actually get to go to Ninh Binh because I fell asleep on my bus, missed my stop, and woke up in Phong Nha instead, but I was told it was amazing. If I could do my Vietnam route differently, it would have been to spend a day or two in Ninh Binh instead of spending a day or two on sleeper buses trying to get back north after accidentally ending up in Phong Nha. But hey, it happens.
Stop 5: Phong Nha
If you aren’t tired of Vietnam’s incredible nature yet, Phong Nha has to be your next stop. The lush mountains and limestone karsts may have lost their luster for you, but Phong Nha will take you underground. Phong Nha is world famous for its caves, and it’s easy to see why. Paradise Cave is breathtakingly beautiful and is consistently ranked as one of the world’s best caves. Phong Nha also has the world’s largest cave, but you probably won’t be exploring that anytime soon as it costs $3,000 for an excursion into it (and is fully booked until well into 2019).
Regardless, Phong Nha is a great place to chill out in the more rural areas of Vietnam. Phong Nha really showed me a more local side of Vietnam, where I got to hang out with the sweet and overly friendly Vietnamese children, swim with the water buffalo, and throw a duck into the water for good luck. Three days here should suffice, but you can easily spend five or more just to take a break from the city life and relaxing by Easy Tiger’s swimming pool.
Stop 6: Hue
More of a sensible in-between stop than an actual must-see city, Hue can be done in a day or two just to break up the monotony of sleeper buses. I only spent a night here because I was sick and in a hurry, but in hindsight, Hue is a pretty cool city. Once the imperial capital, Hue’s old monuments, palaces, and pagodas are some of the best that you’ll find in Vietnam. There’s also an eerie abandoned water park that has become a popular attraction in recent years, and Hue is definitely the best place to check out the DMZ from the war.
The Hai Van Pass is a popular way to get to your next destination. While long and potentially dangerous, there is nothing more exciting for thrill-seekers than to motorcycle through the Hai Van mountain pass and catch the magnificent vistas of the surrounding cities, valleys, and ocean.
Stop 7: Da Nang/Hoi An
By the time backpackers make their way to central Vietnam, they will all likely be too hyped about Hoi An to even bother with Da Nang. Undoubtedly, you will encounter a large percentage of travelers telling you that Hoi An has been their favorite city in Vietnam. I had a quick stop in Da Nang, hiking up marble mountain and checking out the beach, but I was more than ready to kick back in the city of lanterns.
I loved Hoi An but I’ll admit that my expectations might have been a bit too high (the temperatures definitely were). Although it was fun for the first few days, going to the beach, then the night market, then Tiger Tiger 1 and Tiger Tiger 2 before struggling to find a reasonably priced way home got old pretty fast. Regardless, I don’t think I’ve felt as much magic in Vietnam as I did walking through Old Town at night for the first time and seeing all the lanterns lit up.
Hoi An is also a popular place to do all of your shopping. I’m not just talking about your typical souvenirs. Hoi An’s tailors, textile markets, and other craftsmen can make pretty much anything you want and have it ready within a couple of days. I’m talking anything from the high-quality knock-off Birkenstocks that I bought to a leopard suit that my Australian friend had made to his exact measurements. I had my bank account hacked before arriving in Hoi An, which might have been a good thing because I would have likely spent all my money on shopping here. Give yourself three days minimum in Hoi An, but that will likely turn into five or six.
Stop 8: Nha Trang/Quy Nhon
If you’re running low on time, these two don’t really need to be seen. They offer some nice beaches but are pretty touristy and as a non-beach person, I don’t really care for beach cities. If you have some time or are traveling at a more leisurely pace, splitting up the long bus ride from Hoi An to Da Lat could be ideal with a stop at Nha Trang.
Stop 9: Da Lat
Are you tired of the Vietnamese heat? Hang out in Da Lat for a few days. The weather here was my favorite in all of Vietnam. It hardly rained and was a perfect 70 degrees almost all throughout the day. The city itself does not have much to do, but the surrounding nature provides a lot of options for the adventurous traveler. A popular activity is canyoning, or rappelling up a waterfall, and then jumping off the waterfall. There’s a number of popular waterfalls in Da Lat to go to, but it’s also a great place to just chill out for a while. The nightlife here was about as dead as I’ve ever seen in a city, but fun times could still be had at the Maze Bar/100 Roofs. It was the most elaborate bar I’ve ever been to, and well worth checking out, as well as Crazy House.
Stop 10: Ho Chi Minh
Hot and musty Ho Chi Minh City is the typical kickoff point for travelers starting in the south of Vietnam. Let me just tell you that it gets better from here. Saigon isn’t a bad city, but it is your typical Southeast Asian city. For everyone interested in learning about the war, Ho Chi Minh is definitely the best city to educate yourself in. They also have tunnels from wartime that you can explore. You really don’t need more than two days in this city, but the nightlife is absolutely rocking here. After feeling deprived of proper nights out throughout the rest of Vietnam, I really was looking forward to the fabled nightlife of Saigon.
By now, you should have exhausted that 30-day visa that you probably applied for and are about to get kicked out of the country. There is a lot to see in Vietnam, and there isn’t a single place that I went to that I didn’t wish I had more time in. However, this itinerary should more than give you a taste of what Vietnam has to offer. From the islands of Ha Long to the caves of Phong Nha and the rice terraces of Sa Pa, Vietnam has an unbelievably diverse offering of bucket list attractions. This country is nothing short of a young, adventurous backpacker’s dream.