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We’ve been traveling the world full-time for almost two years and consider Vietnam to be one of the most incredible, diverse places we’ve ever been to. After spending two months exploring every inch of this beautiful country, we have narrowed down the very best locations you should visit on a 2-week trip!
To make this Vietnam itinerary work you’ll need to fly into Hanoi and out of Ho Chi Minh City. You’ll use Hanoi as your initial travel hub, spending your first couple of days there then going back and forth from Hanoi to Sapa and Cat Ba Island. Each ride will be 4-6 hours by bus, but it’s the fastest and most comfortable way to get around North Vietnam. After those three stops, though, you’re encouraged to take flights into the center of the country, Da Nang, and from Da Nang to HCMC. These flights will be only marginally more money than an overnight train and will save you loads of travel time. Vietnam is a great place to be cheap in, but saving a few $$ isn’t worth giving up 1-2 days of precious travel time!
The Best Places to See in Vietnam on a 2-Week Vacation
Open this interactive map for detailed information on every location you must see in Vietnam!
Days 1-3: Hanoi
Vietnam’s historic capital is as interesting to observe as it is to explore. Visually, Hanoi combines Colonial-era buildings, colors, streets, and landscaping with quintessential Vietnamese motorbike crowds, street food stalls, and shopping. Left largely intact despite heavy bombings during the American-Vietnamese War, Hanoi is one of the best examples of a Colonial-Asian city left in Southeast Asia.
Getting to Hanoi:
The easiest way to get into Vietnam for your 2-week trip is by flying into Noi Bai International Airport. This is a major airport with incoming flights from all over the world, so you shouldn’t have any trouble managing your flight schedule.
Once in Hanoi download the Grab app to request private drivers around the city. Grab works just like Uber, and is very safe and reliable. Choose to import a credit card onto the app or pay in person after your ride.
What to do in Hanoi:
There is so much to do in Hanoi, so some personal research will serve you well before you visit! Here are our suggestions for making the most of this quaint city.
1. Sightsee Downtown and Old Quarter
This is probably best done on your first day, as you’ll want to take it easy after a long plane ride. The city center is small and easy to navigate by using Google Maps, so choose a starting point, pull up the map, and start walking.
In the Old Quarter you’ll see the famous colorful, tall houses build closely together. Stalls at the street level sell all varieties of souvenirs and goods, so keep an eye out for anything you can’t live without! The streets become quite crowded with tourists during the day, so come first thing in the morning or around sunset if you’d rather have a more intimate experience.
One of the most popular things to do in Hanoi is take a pedicab (locally called “cyclos”) through the downtown streets. Lines of cyclos form on street corners and drivers will eagerly ask if you’re interested in a ride. It’s an enjoyable way to experience the Old Quarter, but one you’ll be fine to only do once. Be sure to haggle with the cyclo driver. They will offer their service for a high amount, of course, but start negotiations at 50% of the original price (but don’t be greedy.)
If you’d rather not walk around on your own consider this 5-star tour of downtown Hanoi with a local guide.
2. See a Water Puppet Theater
Water puppet theater is, as the name suggests, a live-action show where stories are told by puppets floating around on a stage of water. It’s one of the most traditional art forms in Vietnam, and Hanoi is famous for their performances.
A water puppet show is not only about watching puppets dance, it’s a great way to experience Vietnamese culture. The stories told by puppets are popular Vietnamese folk tales, the dancing performed by puppets are cultural dances, the decoration and style of puppets exhibit Vietnamese art techniques, and the performance is accompanied by trained musicians playing traditional instruments and songs. Plus, the lighting, set, and puppetry over water is just really cool. The experience is definitely one of the most entertaining ways to observe Vietnamese culture!
Conveniently, the most famous water puppet theater in Hanoi, Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, borders two popular attractions: the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem/ Turtle Lake. You can spend an entire day just walking through the Old Quarter and around Turtle Lake’s park while waiting for your water puppet show to begin. It’s the perfect day in Hanoi!
Lines can be long for show times, so get tickets to the famous water puppet show at Thang Long theater in advance here.
3. Visit the Hanoi Hilton/ Hoa Lo Prison
Warning: this historic prison can be hard to digest. I, an American with deep military roots, had a difficult time being in the space where so many inhumane atrocities were carried out. I spent most of our visit in tears over the heinous acts delivered by governing French to local Vietnamese, then later by the North Vietnamese Army to American P.O.W.’s.
The Hoa Lo Prison has stood in Hanoi for centuries and is currently one of the most popular places to go in Vietnam. Originally used by French colonists to detain Vietnamese political prisoners, the prison was later used by the Vietnam government as a deterrent to local criminals and, eventually, to house American prisoners of war during the American-Vietnamese War (where it earned the nickname “Hanoi Hilton”, in reference to the famous American hotel chain.)
Though the prison has since been demolished, portions remain as a museum. The prison museum consists of video presentations, historic photograph and memorabilia displays, and realistic mannequin displays. Visitors are asked to respect the property and memories of those imprisoned by wearing modest clothing and acting maturely. Coverups are available and requested to be worn by any visitors who do not meet the dress code.
Days 4-7: Sapa and H’mong Homestay Trek
A trek through the lush mountainside to a local Hmong village was the highlight of our entire trip to Vietnam. We only planed on visiting the area to see the famous rice paddy terraces, but ended up on a Hmong homestay trek based on the recommendation of a friend. Learning about the Hmong culture and seeing the incredible landscape made Sapa the standout place to see in Vietnam!
Getting to Sa Pa Vietnam from Hanoi:
The best way to get into Sa Pa is by bus. It will take around 6 hours on a surprisingly comfortable bus to reach Sapa from Hanoi. Buses will leave Hanoi in the morning, getting you to Sapa by mid-late afternoon (after 1 or 2 30-minute stops for bathroom and snack breaks during the drive). There is also a night schedule, which departs Hanoi in the evening. We recommend the morning bus, however, as it provides a great opportunity to see the country in daylight. The night bus will save you a night at your hotel, but it will be difficult to sleep on the bus and you’ll arrive to Sapa groggy.
Book your bus ticket to Sapa on the highly-rated express bus with 40 comfortable beds in advance. It’ll save you time and headache from trying to navigate the trip hawkers around the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
What to do in Sapa
Tourists to Sapa are drawn there for two reasons: the hiking opportunities on the mountain range which overlook gorgeous rice paddy terraces, and the proximity to Vietnamese Hill Tribes. If you don’t choose an overnight trek to Hill Tribe homestay you cut your trip to Sapa down to only 2 days, but please consider taking the trek!
1. Sightsee around Sapa/ Shop at Sapa Market
Spend the remainder of your first day walking around Sapa to see the small town up-close. While Sapa is small, walking from place to place will actually get quite tiring do to the hill inclines around town. We recommend renting your own motorbike for $5 a day to get around.
When most people mention Sapa they are referring to the greater mountainous region of the Muong Hoa Valley. Sapa, itself, is actually a very small town and the trekking and commerce hub for the area. The town has developed almost solely as a way to cater to the needs of backpackers. You’ll see four different shops repeat in a predictable pattern as you walk through town: hostel, pho restaurant, massage parlor, outdoor gear shop. Hostel, pho restaurant, massage parlor, outdoor gear shop… like clockwork.
There are a few more interesting things to see scattered around, however!
Sapa Market should be the first place on your list. Sapa Market is conveniently located in the heart of downtown next to the bus terminal. Here you’ll find local meat and vegetable vendors as well as handicrafts tables manned by the hill tribe members responsible for them.
Shopping for intricately handmade fabrics and home decor souvenirs painstakingly embroidered and sewn by hill tribe women is most ethically done at the Sapa Market. There will be plenty of vendors laying their goods on the street for you to peruse, but locals tell us that those wares are often Chinese knock-offs. You’ll probably be tempted to purchase from sweet children hawking goods on the street, as well, but locals also warn that buying from these children negatively affects them and the larger community. The children should be encouraged to go to school, not sell to tourists during the day!
The next place to see downtown is the Notre Dame Cathedral. The Notre Dame Cathedral is the only Catholic church in Sapa, and is a landmark in town. The Roman Gothic stone building features a prominent bell tower and rests just beyond the town’s outdoor sports complex. As such, it’s a popular hang out spot for locals, street hawkers, and food vendors.
The cathedral is open from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day with a daily mass at 7:00 p.m.
2. Drive your motorbike to Heaven’s Gate and Thac Bac “Silver” Waterfall
Sapa is the city in the clouds. Within minutes you can be out of Sapa center and driving a winding road on the edge of a mountain through clouds of mist and fog. The drive to Heaven’s Gate, 18 km North from town, takes 30 minutes to 1 hour, and passes so many beautiful lookout spots you’ll want to turn it into a half day tour.
Heaven’s Gate is popular as a lookout to Fansipan summit. On a clear day you can stop for breathtaking views of Fansipan, the tallest mountain in the Indochinese Peninsula, and the valley below. On a cloudy day you’ll be riding the windy Tram Ton Pass through thick, foggy clouds, which is as surreal and beautiful experience as the view you’re missing. There’s no downside!
One of the best stops on the way to Heaven’s Gate is Thac Bac “Silver” Waterfall. You’ll find signs along the road leading you to Silver Waterfall, and it’s easy to park in the lot beside the road to enter the facilities. Towering 200m tall, it costs 20,000 VND and takes 300 steps to get to the scenic view of cascading powerful water. You have the option of hiring a guide to help you to the waterfall, but it’s easy and fun to visit on your own.
If you are a waterfall buff (they exist… I’m married to one!) then you’ll also want to stop by Love Waterfall on your way to Heaven’s Gate Sapa. The grounds of Love Waterfall cover flat land with a trail that follows a meandering stream and passes grazing water buffalo. The waterfall isn’t as tall as Silver Waterfall, but it’s a pleasant visit to a less-crowded attraction.
3. Trek and Hill Tribe Homestay
A trek with a Hill Tribe member is the best way to combine the best of what Sapa has to offer: Hill Tribe culture with stunning hiking opportunities. Hill Tribe treks are usually led by women (their husbands are left to care for their children, homes, and farms) who have learned common languages from other tourists. Tours can be arranged in English, Chinese, German, French, and Spanish! The trek guides tend to be talkative and open to answering any questions. They know that first-hand knowledge is the best way for tourists to learn correct principles about their way of life, and they appreciate your support of them and their culture, as the money they earn from tour agencies is used to further the entire community.
This is the single best thing we did. Your two week trip to Vietnam will not be complete without going to this must-see place!
A local Hmong Hill Tribe member met us in the morning for our trek. Our day started with a visit to Sapa Market to pick out the foods we would like to eat later in the day. These ingredients and some water canteens were carried by her as she took us through rice paddy terraces and streams all the way to her village, teaching us about her culture and her tribe’s history along the way.
Our first stop after walking was to our tour guide’s own home. Her family prepared the food we had brought while we played with her children and helped pick corn from their garden. After lunch we walked a bit farther to the home of our homestay host, where we again played with children and helped prepare a local meal before sleeping in the house’s designated guest room with Western-style bed. It wasn’t a great night’s sleep, but the overall experience was extraordinary and left a profound impact on us.
Our exemplary Hill Tribe trek (not sponsored, for the record) was arranged through Ethos Trekking Service. They have a completely transparent financial model, which gives the highest percentage of funds back to the tribes they employ than any other trekking service in Sapa. They also fund a number of outreach programs to educate and support the women and children living in the surrounding area.
Days 8-9: Cat Ba Island (Ha Long Bay)
Ha Long Bay is considered one of the naturals wonders of the world. Tall, skinny limestone karst islands crowd together in the turquoise water of the North Vietnamese coast, a view which has inspired movie makers and artists for decades. But the word is out on this natural oasis and the crowds have descended on Ha Long Bay is such droves that the namesake city is now a crowded party scene.
Go, instead, to Cat Ba Island to get the best views of Lan Ha Bay and a quiet, cultural experience. The real secret of Cat Ba Island, though, is the fact that it’s actually closer to limestone islands than Halong Bay city. That’s right- you can take an overnight cruise through Lan Ha Bay from Cat Ba Island to see the islands up close, but you won’t have to. You can get incredible views from any number of places on the island- the peak of Fort Cannon or from the boat jetty, for starters.
Getting to Cat Ba Island from Sapa (via Hanoi):
Getting to Cat Ba Island can take a little while, but it’s an absolute must on your tour of Vietnam. There’s no easy way to get to the East Coast from Sapa, or vice versa. Getting from Sapa to Cat Ba Island involves another multi-hour bus ride from Hanoi, which means you’ll need to book a return bus ticket to Hanoi from Sa Pa. You may consider staying the night in Hanoi, then grab the bus to Cat Ba Island.
Any number of tour operators on the streets of Hanoi will be able to arrange the transportation for you, as Cat Ba Island is a popular destination. The trip will include a 3-hour bus ride to the coast, a short speedboat ride to the island, and then another bus ride from the island jetty to your hotel. The entire trip should cost around $15USD.
If you’re more interested in having your entire trip to Cat Ba Island arranged for you, purchase this 5-star rated experience. It includes transportation from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island, plus excursions and meals on Ha Long Bay’s famous junk boats.
What to do on Cat Ba Island:
Though this island is small, there are still tons to do on Cat Ba Island. Believe me- you will not regret coming to this island instead of Halong Bay!
1. Explore via motorbike
It’s easy to find a motorbike rental agency in town. Find one with a fleet of motorbikes in front and haggle towards $5/ day + helmet for each passenger. Once you have the moto, explore to your heart’s content! There is a beautiful park in the center of the island, lots of coastline with exposed views of the bay, nature trails, and American-Veitnamese War sites.
You’ll feel so free perusing the small villages and landscape of Cat Ba Island. It’s the most tourist-free place on our list, which means you’ll be surrounded by other-worldly nature virtually all to yourself. That’s why you came across the world to this tropical destination, right?
2. Boat ride to Monkey Island
Get to the small boat jetty and ask around for a ride to Monkey Island. The island isn’t far away, and many boat captains hang out at the jetty waiting for personal hires throughout the day. They’ll negotiate a rate which includes a tourist fee to the island, boat use, and sticking around for a certain amount of hours until you’re ready to head back.
As the name implies, Monkey Island is full of, well, monkeys. One reason people come to this small island is just to photograph the monkey hoards who call the island home. You’ll see them from the first second your chartered boat pulls up to when you’re ready to leave.
Monkey Island is, otherwise, a quiet place where you can lounge on the smooth sand, play in the warm, clear water, or hike around. It’s one of those extremely picturesque and relaxed activities exotic vacations are known for!
3. Tour Lan Ha Bay Floating Village
The same private boats at the boat jetty can take you on a tour of the famous Lan Ha Bay floating villages. These villages are made up of multiple homes built in stages on top of floating tires, plastic barrels, and wooden pallets. The homes double as fish farms, and those who live there can eventually earn a decent income selling their fish to local restaurants and international fish markets after a few years.
The Ha Long Bay floating villages are a unique sight. They are often brightly colored and can amass large extended fish farm decks, which makes the village look like a complex web of wood and rubber.
Our favorite way to view the floating villages is with a local guide. We hired a local guide to take us on a rock climbing trip in the Bay with an extension to the floating village. This way we had an adventure, saw the beautiful karst islands, and got to disembark on an extensive fish farm home in the floating village.
Days 10-12: Da Nang and Hoi An
Da Nang is the sixth largest city in Vietnam and the largest in Central Vietnam. It offers shopping, excitement, and modern-day fun. Trek just 30 minutes south of Da Nang for a completely different experience in Hoi An, Arguably Vietnam’s most popular tourism site.
Hoi An’s popularity is due to the quaint charm of being a UNESCO-protected World Hertiage Site with a limit to new construction and beautiful beaches.
Getting to Da Nang from Cat Ba Island:
Backbackers through Vietnam tend to prefer cheap overnight trains to travel between cities, but that’s not the best way to get from Cat Ba Island to Da Nang. Forgo saving a few dollars to get to Da Nang quickly and comfortably.
The closest airport to Cat Ba Island is in the regional capital, Hai Phong. Getting to Hai Phong will include a ride to the terminal, a boat ride to the coast, and another drive to the airport. Ask your Cat Ba hotel to help you arrange transportation the Hai Phong airport to make everything easier!
Flights from Hai Phong to Da Nang cost $40-50 USD and can be purchased with little advance warning. The Hai Phong airport is small, so getting through security is easy. Enjoy your quick trip!
What to do in Da Nang and Hoi An
Da Nang is a large city with lots to do, and Hoi An is the UNESCO-protected historical town 45 minutes south. You could easily spend a week between the two cities (we were here for a month and didn’t get around to everything!), but here are the basics of what you should do in Da Nang and Hoi An.
1. Golden Hands Bridge and Ba Na Hills Amusement Park
The Golden Hands Bridge has become a worldwide phenomenon since it’s introduction in June 2018. Honestly, this attraction is actually worth the hype. It’s not only a beautiful piece of modern engineering, it also happens to be on the grounds of one of Southeast Asia’s most popular amusement parks.
It will take a full day to visit the Golden Hands Bridge and Ba Na Hills amusement park, but you’ll hate yourself if you don’t. The extended, multi-tiered grounds of Ba Na Hills were designed to entertain more guests than ever visit. You’ll have access to one of the world’s longest cable car systems, the Golden Hands Bridge, European-style sculpture gardens, and yes, indoor and outdoor thrill rides.
Tickets are 700,000 VND ($30) for adults and 500,000 VND ($21.50) for children, which makes this one of the most expensive things on our list of places to see in Vietnam. But after a busy week of hiking, sightseeing, busing, flying, and touring, don’t you deserve a day of fun?
You could arrange for transportation to the park, Ba Na Hills entrance, and lunch altogether before you arrive with this tour package.
2. Hoi An Historic Downtown
Hoi An is filled with tourists for a reason. The old town is a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, where new construction is limited and historic structures are well-maintained. Next to Hanoi, Hoi An is the best colonial-era town still remaining.
Come in to Hoi An from Da Nang for day or stay overnight to get the best exposure to this quaint town. You’ll want to stop by the Japanese Bridge, night market, museum, and Buddhist temples in Old Town, take in one of the best cultural performances in Southeast Asia at the Lune Theater, go to the Tahn Ha Village for a personal pottery class using local clay, and a rice paddy or banana boat tour with Jack Tran Tours.
3. An Bang Beach, Hoi An
The best reason to visit Hoi An, however charming and historical the old town, is to go to the beach. An Bang Beach is the most popular beach in Hoi An due to it’s wide, soft, white sand and turquoise water. The water is bathtub temperature and the sunsets are incredible, which makes An Bang beach the perfect place to hang out for an afternoon.
While you’re around, stop at any of the beachside restaurants (many of them vegetarian or vegan) for a delicious, slightly-more-expensive-than-on-the-street meal and the vendors for one of those awesome fruit print shorts and shirt sets.
The time will fly by!
Days 13-14: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Don’t worry, Vietnamese are torn on whether to call the modern-day capitol of their country Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, too. There is a complicated political debate affecting the issue, which is best figured out in person by asking the locals. In the meantime, we’ll call it HCMC, as that is the official name (whether we agree or not.)
Getting to HCMC from Da Nang:
This may be your easiest leg during your 2-week Vietnam trip! Simply book a flight from Da Nang DND (an airport it feels like you were just at, right?) to Ho Chi Minh City SGN.
Nonstop flights between Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City take around 1.5 hours and cost between $30-45 USD. They can be booked with little advance warning.
What to do in HCMC
HCMC is a much more modern, cosmopolitan city than the historical capitol, Hanoi. Hard core travelers will even tell you it’s not “worth” visiting, but, since you’re departing flight will likely leave from HCMC here are a few things to keep you busy.
Insights on what to do in HCMC are provided by Jackie Szeto and Justin Huynh of Life of Doing. See a complete list of how to spend 6 days in Ho Chi Minh City here.
1. War Remnants Museum
If you’re interested in learning about the Vietnam War from Vietnam’s perspective, consider visiting the War Remnants Museum. This museum provides an overview of the war and its dire consequences to the people and the environment. It’s quite sad to read about the Agent Orange chemicals and how it affected birth rates. In front of the museum are tanks, helicopters, bombs, and other weapons left that were behind from the war.
2. Nguyen Hue Walking Street
One of the best places to take a break and people watch is along the Nguyen Hue Walking Street. The pedestrian walkway is closed to motorbikes and cars so you’re free to walk around. Visit in the evening as you’ll see hundreds of people hanging out.
The top highlights along the street include seeing the Ho Chi Minh City People Committee building with the French architecture and Ho Chi Minh statue and stopping by the Cafe Apartment which has coffee and boutique shops.
3. Landmark 81 & Vinhomes Central Park
Landmark 81 is the newest multi-use complex with high-end shopping, restaurants, indoor ice rink, hotel, apartments, businesses, and future observation deck. It’s also the tallest building in Vietnam with 81 floors. Located 15 to 20 minutes from District 1, it’s a great place to de-stress from the busy city center.
The main draw of the area is the neighboring Vinhomes Central Park. The clean and well-maintained park has two playground areas, a Japanese zen garden, and plenty of grass to sit and have a picnic. Plus, you can walk around the park and enjoy the views of the Saigon River and District 1 and 2.
Vietnam is a country that stays with you long after you leave. It’s more than just a high variety of beautiful landscapes and adventurous things to do, there is a history and resilience among the Vietnamese that is contagious. As opposed to other destinations that don’t go beyond a desirable surface, you’ll find yourself thinking about Vietnam’s colors, food, sunshine, and heartache for years.
We’ve only scratched the surface on this 2-week travel itinerary through Vietnam, so if you have any other Vietnam must do’s please leave your suggestions in a comment!
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