Vietnam: A suggested itinerary

If you search for an itinerary which allows you to see the best of Vietnam, you're going to get a lot of results, and a lot of conflicting suggestions. Whilst I can't speak for any of those itineraries, I can tell you about the itinerary I planned for my trip to Vietnam - and what changes I would make now that I've had my Vietnamese adventure.

First up, it's worth noting flying from west to east that you're going to lose time on the way out. We flew from Heathrow to Hanoi on Friday evening, via Hong Kong, with Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon. Whilst there are direct flights to Hanoi, we wanted to spend time in Hong Kong at the end of our trip - a multi-city flight with a short layover made it cost effective and played into the time loss issue. Flying direct we would have landed late afternoon on the Saturday into Hanoi; going via Hong Kong meant we arrived early evening. However you fly, that first full day is a write off.

You also have the decision as to whether you want to travel north to south or south to north, aka: do you start in Hanoi or in Ho Chi Minh City? We plumped for north to south, purely because the flight from HCMC to Hong Kong worked out cheaper than a flight from Hanoi. We spent three nights in Hanoi, which gave us two full days to explore - the perfect amount of time to tick off all the main sights (blogs here and here). Plus starting in Hanoi put us in place for Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay is a must-see, even though it's not the most convenient place to get to. It isn't on the way to anywhere else in Vietnam, so you do have to make a "detour" if you want to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you are looking at a four-hour drive. As I discussed in my Ha Long Bay post, I felt a one-night cruise was sufficient, but if we went back I'd find a cruise that went to Cat Ba, Ha Long Bay's only inhabited island, and add in another night.

One place we didn't go to, which would be on our to-visit next time list, is Sapa (Sa Pa). This is even more of a detour though than visiting Ha Long Bay. The best way to travel to Sapa is take the sleeper train, which takes 8 hours. Unlike Hue and Da Nang where you do have the option of flying if you don't want to take the train, your options for Sa Pa are train, bus or private car. If you want to get a real feel of rural Vietnam though, this is the place to be, but it will eat up a few days of your trip.

Upon returning to Hanoi from Ha Long Bay, we had four hours to kill before we caught the sleeper train to Hue. If I could replan my 2018 trip, I'd fly down to Hue instead, have a quick explore of the city, then travel to Da Nang via the Hải Vân Pass whilst it was still light. The Hai Van Pass is the route made famous in Top Gear, and it has the most incredible views. I'm not sure I'd be brave enough to do it on a motorbike; if you're like me, hiring a driver is simple enough to do via Grab.

As for Da Nang, our destination after Hue, we spent five nights there. If we could have, I'd have spent more nights there to get some full relaxing days in. That's because there was more to do than we'd anticipated in the area: Hoi An definitely needs to be on your list, but it depends how much you want to see the Golden Hand Bridge as to whether you want to visit Ba Na Hills. Nha Trang (about 525km south of Da Nang, which has an airport close by) and Phu Quoc (an island 325km west of Ho Chi Minh City, also with an airport) are other options for beach time in Vietnam.

I'd definitely consider Phú Quốc next time we're in Vietnam as it looks stunning, though it wasn't always tranquil there - between 1953 and 1975, the island housed South Vietnam's largest prison camp. Which brings me to Ho Chi Minh City. As I mentioned in my blog, this was my least favourite place in Vietnam, and next time I'd forgo a trip to Saigon, though I would want to visit the nearby Mekong Delta.

It goes without saying that the more time you can spend over in Vietnam, the more you get to see. Even though I would change a few things to our trip, in hindsight, that in no way means we didn't have an awesome Vietnamese adventure. We did - it was one of my favourite holidays I've ever had - and Vietnam is definitely a country we'll return to. Next time though I'd want us to tick off a few new places, but also have a bit more beach time!

Our actual itinerary (12 nights in Vietnam; 3 in Hong Kong):
  • Three nights in Hanoi, landing in the evening, and then spending two full days in the capital
  • Overnight Ha Long Bay cruise, leaving Hanoi at 7am and returning at 4pm the next day
  • Overnight sleeper train at 8.10pm, arriving in Hue at 9.26am
  • Day in Hue, before catching the evening train to Da Nang
  • Five nights in Da Nang (four full days) for beach time, visiting the Marble Mountains, Ba Na Hills and Hoi An trips
  • Early morning flight to Ho Chi Minh City to spend two nights in HCMC (1.5 days for exploring)
  • Morning flight to Hong Kong, landing early afternoon and staying for three nights (two full days)

Revised itinerary if visiting for the first time (11 nights in Vietnam; 4 in Hong Kong):
  • Three nights in Hanoi, landing in the evening, then spending two full days in the capital
  • Two night Ha Long Bay cruise/Cat Ba Island stay, heading directly to the airport to arrive in Hue early evening time
  • One night in Hue, exploring the next day, then leaving late afternoon to take the Hai Van Pass to Da Nang
  • Five nights (four full days) in Da Nang for beach time, visiting the Marble Mountains, Ba Na Hills and Hoi An
  • Fly to Hong Kong for a four night stay, with a day trip to Macau (this was in our plans, but we simply ran out of time)

Suggested itinerary for a second Vietnam/Hong Kong trip (15 nights):
  • Fly to Hong Kong for a three night trip, including a day in Macau
  • Fly to Hanoi early afternoon, arriving in time to have dinner in the city before taking the overnight sleeper train to Sapa
  • Two nights in Sapa (giving you three full days as you arrive first thing in the morning and then leave late in the evening), before catching the sleeper train back to Hanoi
  • Straight to the airport to fly to Da Nang for three nights (I loved Da Nang, and I'd want to return to see how the city has developed)
  • Fly to HCMC to head straight to the Mekong Delta for an overnight cruise  
  • Head directly to the airport to fly to Phu Quoc for four nights
  • Fly home from Phu Quoc (apparently there are now direct flights to London)

Have you been to Vietnam? If you have, where wouldn't you leave off your itinerary? If you haven't, where's at the top of your to-visit list? x

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