If you’re looking for a holiday that offers both adventure and beach time, cityscapes and rural retreats, a two week break in Vietnam is just the ticket!
I’ve created the perfect 14 day break for anyone looking to see everything Vietnam has to offer on a limited timeframe, based on my experiences travelling around this amazing country late last year. It’s fast-paced and you’ll have night trains and long bus rides ahead of you, but I think you’ll really get a sense of what Vietnam is all about after just two weeks, with a plenty of authentic local experiences and the odd bit of luxe thrown in!
Ho Chi Minh: 1 night and 1 night train
Fly into Ho Chi Minh city airport for the first leg of your journey. While we crossed the Cambodian border to reach the floating market town of Can Tho on the Mekong Delta by bus, you can kick start your two week adventure right in the heart of Ho Chi Minh.
Vietnam’s capital city is vibrant, buzzing and absolutely crammed full of mopeds! You’ll have a real sense of Asian city life just walking down these beautiful streets that still have touch of colonial France about them.
Spend the first day wandering, getting a feel for the city, and try to stop at the Ben Thahn market (it’s huge, but slightly overpriced – hold on your shopping til Hanoi but be brave with the street food!), as well as the War Remnants Museum – a must-see. It’s a heart-aching couple of hours wandering the three floors of the museum, but if you (like me!) had very little knowledge of Vietnam’s turbulent history and the Vietnamese war, it’s an eye opener.
For your first evening in Vietnam, head to one of the many rooftop bars in the city such as the Rex Hotel, one of the classic colonial Saigon institutions. There’s often live music playing while you look over the cityscape, but put on your smartest backpacking ware as flip flops are not allowed.
Next up: An overnight train to Nha Trang! I’ve written a blog post especially about hints and tips for taking night trains in Vietnam.
Nha Trang: 2 nights and 1 night train
Oh how we loved Nha Trang! There was a real relaxed, hippy beach town vibe from this place and we loved it as soon as we stepped off the night train at 4am!
If you’re like us and arrive at such an ungodly hour, leave your luggage at your hotel/hostel, slip into your bikini and head straight to the The Sailing Club on the main beach strip. It is a beacon of luxe and relaxation after your first night train experience.
Spend your morning relaxing on the beach, or exploring the old town and markets, but don’t dilly dally as there is so much to do! We only had two days here but we could have stayed longer, so in this Vietnam itinerary, here’s what you should squeeze into your stay.
- Snorkelling trip: Check with your hotel or hostel as they will probably point you in the right direction (with a discount ideally!). Just double check that there won’t be more than 10-15 people on your boat so you get the best experience.
- Thap Ba Hoy Springs Centre: It’s a about 6km tuk tuk ride outside of the city, but worth it for all it’s gooey, muddy-ness! A really fun afternoon of being covered in green gunk and then washing it off in natural hot spring pools awaits.
- Vinpearl Water Park: Not only is this an island off Nha Trang dedicated to water park amusements, but you get to take a Guinness World Record 3,320 meter long sea-crossing cable car to get to it!
- Dinner at Lanterns on 34/6 Nguyen Thien Thuat Street: Not only is the food incredible, but the restaurant works with 12 schools and orphanages around the area to set up scholarships and training schemes for teenagers and young adults looking to start off a career in catering, cooking and hospitality. Well worth a visit.
After all this activity, you’ll sleep well on your next night train to Hoi An!
Hoi An: 2 nights and 1 night train
This was by far my favourite place in Vietnam we visited. Hoi An has a deep historic core with its UNESCO World Heritage site protected old town quarter of the city; no cars are allowed past the old town walls so everyone is on foot or bicycle. It has picture-perfect streets that are lined with glowing lanterns and the beautiful, dusty yellow-fronted buildings that are typical of the region. At night, the river starts to twinkle with the wishing candles that float down it and the night market comes alive.
If you fancy getting some tailor made clothes (trust me, it’s an experience you don’t want to miss out on!) make sure you do this on your first day. Most tailors in Hoi An can rustle up a suit or occasion dress in under 48 hours, including a second fitting! I really recommend BlueEye Tailors – the team are so lovely, really attentive and brilliant at showing you fabrics, styles and colours that they think will suit you. One of the girls on our trip had a wedding dress made and I managed to get three dresses (one silk) and a maxi skirt for less than £70. The last dress I chose was literally made over night!
When it comes to food, you’re really spoilt for choice. If you’re looking for a gourmet Vietnamese experience, head to Morning Glory. Ran by Ms Vy, the menu if jammed pack full of delicious traditional Vietnamese meals with an Asian twist. For a more humbling experience, head to Oodles of Noodles – just like Lanterns in Nha Trang, Oodles of Noodles is both a restaurant and a school for underprivileged teenagers of the area. Supported by Planetera, the culinary and hospitality school takes 40 new students from the local area every six months for an 18 month training programme. From here, students have gone on to work in some of the top luxury restaurants and hotels of the country; it’s a wonderful way to see how tourism can help the local communities first hand.
And finally, for dessert, go to Van Phi. It’s a little tricky to find and I can’t seem to find it online (even though it’s a hostel, if you’ve stayed here, shout out in the comments please!) but cross over the Japanese Bridge onto the old town side of the river, and follow the road. It has the most beautiful outdoor garden area with hanging lanterns, giant beanbags and cosy blankets to keep you warm. We ate awesome banana pancakes and sipped the sweetest Vietnamese coffees of our whole trip!
Next up: Board a night train to Hanoi, but you won’t be there for long as your next stop off is Halong Bay!
Halong bay: 1 night and 1 night train (and bus ride!)
From Hoi An, take an overnight train to Hanoi, and then a bus to Halong Bay. There really isn’t much to see in Halong Bay on land, but it’s well worth a visit to see the bay itself and the hidden caves around the area.
There are hundreds of boat tour operators to choose from, from afternoon sails to see the bay area, day long tours that stop off at the caves and kayaking spots (swimming in most of the Bay area is not allowed) and some are even party boats that stay out at sea overnight and promise a good oceanic rave!
We opted for the day long tour and tried our hand at kayaking (which proved to be good practice ahead of Laos!) and went into some of the most beautiful caves I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, we were pushed for time and missed out on the tour, but if you think geology rocks and stalactites are your thing, it’s well worth a visit.
The next day retrace your steps and head back to Hanoi by bus.
Hanoi: 1 overnight train
This is a crucial day if you want to squeeze in Sapa into your trip. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an option for us at the time, but I would have loved some more time in the Vietnamese countryside, so I’ve added it into this. The same day you leave Halong Bay, get on a night train to Sapa.
Sapa: 1 night and 1 overnight train.
Based in Vietnam’s remote northwest mountains, Sapa is known for having an equal mix of rugged scenery and cultural diversity. From the photos I’ve been pining over, Sapa looks like a picture-perfect postcard of rural Vietnam in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range near the Chinese border in northwestern Vietnam, known as “the Tonkinese Alps”. Sapa is home to many hill tribes, as well as the famous rice terraces, and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam.
Missing out on Sapa makes me want to return to Vietnam asap!
Hanoi: 1 night and return flight home
If you’re flying out of Vietnam, making your way back to Hanoi is the best bet for ease of travel. Yes it means another overnight train, but you’ll be a pro by now!
For me, Hanoi felt like ‘real’ Vietnam, even more so than Ho Chi Minh city. It’s loud, and it’s hot, it’s smelly and it’s constantly alive with people and mopeds whiz by at an alarming rate with an alarming amount of passengers.
While there was still plenty to see and do in Hanoi, our pace slowed slightly and we spent most of our time drinking coffee and wandering around the great lake the city is based on and surround markets and shops. But here’s some highlights of the city:
- Hoa Lo Prison Museum: Ironically nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by US prisoners of war during the American War, the former Hoa Lo Prison is now a humbling and thought-provoking museum that is well worth a visit. Most exhibits relate to the prison’s use up to the mid-1950s (which does not feel long enough ago for such horrors to have happened) focusing on the Vietnamese struggle for independence from France.
- Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum: Situated in Ba Dinh Square, the mausoleum is one of the most visited attractions in Hanoi. It is the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh, the most iconic and popular leader of Vietnam – who the Vietnamese people affectionately call ‘Uncle Ho‘. The exhibit does get very busy during the day so head there early in the day.
- Hoan Kiem Lake & Ngoc Son Temple: Grab a Vietnamese coffee to go and take a walk around the beautiful lake in Hanoi. Or, spend the last of your travel money on a pretty over-priced breakfast on one of the many hotels and cafes along the shore and soak in the view. We did this on our last day and it was worth it to see the slower, lazier side of Hanoi.
- Pub street: Yup, it’s actually called Pub Street! By day, it serves up some of the best food we had – try Little Hanoi for a great dinner or directly across the street, pull up a tiny stool and tuck into the best hot pot in the world! By night, grab a bucket full of our favourite cocktail and join the street party!
- Egg coffee: You might have had your fair share of Vietnamese coffee (made with condensed milk) after two weeks in the country, but you can’t leave Hanoi without trying egg coffee in Giang. We don’t know how it’s made (and quite frankly, we didn’t want to ask) but I can confirm it is delicious! Be brave and try one (or three!).
So there you have it – 14 nights in Vietnam, travelling the length and breadth of this beautiful country, from the buzzing streets of Ho Chi Minh to the stunning Halong Bay and historic Hanoi.
Are you planning a trip to Vietnam? Leave us a comment below and tell us what you’re most looking forward to seeing or doing over there! And if you’ve any questions, just ask!