While Vietnam is, at points, no wider than 30 miles across, the distance from the northern border down to the deep south is on par with a drive from Boston to Miami, and on roads far more congested and far less maintained. This itinerary describes a brisk two-week trip, covering the full length of Vietnam’s coast, with a few detours to the interior. For a more relaxed pace, extend your trip to three weeks and linger in the places you like best.
Spend a weekend in the capital city, focusing on the hectic, narrow alleys of the Old Quarter.
Touch down at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport and head toward the city. Dive right into the action with a cyclo ride around the Old Quarter, taking in its frenetic pace from the safety of your seat. Stroll around the placid Hoan Kiem Lake to see where locals hang out and catch a glimpse of Turtle Tower and the ornate Ngoc Son Temple. You can grab lunch in the Old Quarter or head to the clutch of cafés and restaurants around St. Joseph’s Cathedral before charting a course south to Hoa Lo Prison and the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.
Wind down the day on the streets of the chic French Quarter, either atop the Press Club terrace or at the roadside Tadioto. In the evening, grab dinner at Ngon before catching a water puppet or ca tru (ancient chamber music) show in the Old Quarter.
Rise early for a morning bowl of pho, Hanoi’s favorite breakfast food, before heading off to Ba Dinh Square to line up for a visit at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Once you’ve paid your respects, swing by Uncle Ho’s famed stilt house or head to the nearby One Pillar Pagoda for a different era of Hanoian history. From there, the Military History Museum, flanked by the Flag Tower and Lenin Park, is just a short walk away.
In keeping with the Communist spirit, stop for coffee at Cong Caphe or head straight down to KOTO for lunch. Spend the afternoon getting to know Hanoi’s Temple of Literature before wandering back toward the Old Quarter. Once traffic picks up and rush hour is in full swing, head for some bia hoi (freshly brewed light beer) and a night on the town.
Ha Long Bay Cruise
Set off early for Ha Long Bay on a two-day, one-night cruise. It’s a four-hour drive to the docks; you’ll have a chance to stop for lunch before leaving shore. While itineraries vary from company to company, you can kick back, take in the scenery from your sun deck, and explore a cave or two.
Provided the skies are clear, a sunrise on Ha Long Bay is worth waking up for. Enjoy breakfast on the boat and another day of guided activity, which usually includes a cruise by some of the bay’s more famous landscapes, like Incense Burner and Ga Choi, as well as kayaking.
Your boat will dock back at Ha Long City around noon and from there it’s a four-hour drive back to Hanoi. After you return, either hop on an overnight train to Danang or fly there via one of the country’s budget airlines. Both are roughly the same cost. The train departs in the evening, while flyers have the choice of going straight to the airport or spending another night in Hanoi and heading out first thing the following day.
Alternate Option: North to Mountainous Sapa
If you’re not one for the water, leave Hanoi for Sapa, where you can opt to trek through Vietnam’s northern mountains, visiting remote villages.
Catch an overnight train from Hanoi and head to Sapa. You’ll arrive in Lao Cai in the morning and take a quick minibus ride to the small mountain town. Take the rest of the morning to explore the town, passing by its museum and shopping along Cau May street. In the afternoon, head to Cat Cat village or hire a motorbike to visit the nearby waterfalls and Tram Ton Pass. You’ll also want to arrange a trek for the following day, either through a local guide or one of the tour outfits in town.
Rise early and set off with your local guide to one of the nearby minority villages and get a more intimate look at the varied cultures of Vietnam. The trek takes a few hours, including lunch. In the afternoon, return to Sapa for a bit of R&R and any last-minute shopping before heading back to Hanoi via overnight train or bus.
Hoi An draws visitors with its photogenic wooden houses, nearby beaches, and tailor-made clothing. Stop for a long weekend for custom clothing and picturesque landscapes.
Train travelers from Hanoi will arrive in Danang by late morning; those traveling via air will arrive around noon. Hop in a cab bound for Hoi An, your base for the next three days. Spend an easy day exploring the Old Town, from its charming local market to the famous Japanese Covered Bridge and a clutch of Chinese Assembly Halls. Browse the wares of tailors, jewelers, and dressmakers that have set up shop downtown. Dive into mouthwatering local dishes unique to Hoi An, including cao lau (local noodles), fried wontons, and white rose dumplings. Around mid-afternoon, visit the banh beo (steamed rice flour cake) vendor that sets up shop in front of the Ngu Bang Assembly Hall.
Place your order for custom-made clothes as soon as possible, allowing time for alterations later on. Sip wine on the waterfront at sundown at White Marble Wine Bar.
For your second day in Hoi An, rent a bicycle and set off, pedaling to the photogenic Tra Que vegetable village north of town. Wander through the rows of veggies, then grab a meal on the breezy veranda of Baby Mustard.
Carry on north to hit the beach, either peaceful An Bang or the more happening Cua Dai to the east. Spend the afternoon catching rays before you cycle back to town. Some top-notch dinner spots include Ba Le Well, Miss Ly’s, and Morning Glory. For dessert, swing by the Cargo Club for decadent cakes and pastries, then grab a beer at Dive Bar.
Your last day in Hoi An can be spent a few different ways. Venture up the coast to the limestone Marble Mountains before carrying on to cosmopolitan Danang for a visit to the Museum of Cham Sculpture or over to nearby Son Tra peninsula, where the statue of Quan Am at Linh Ung Pagoda dominates the landscape.
If you’d rather stay put, Hoi An has plenty of tours and courses, including the Taste of Hoi An food tour, as well as a slew of cooking classes and a photo tour for aspiring shutterbugs.
At the end of the day, board a night bus or make your way back to Danang and hop on a train bound for Nha Trang.
Spend a few days taking in the energy of Nha Trang Vietnam’s beach capital and nonstop party hub.
Roll into Nha Trang in the early hours of the morning. From there, you’ll have the option to hit the beach or head to the local mud baths for a restorative spa day. For some local culture, make for Long Son Pagoda and its giant Buddha on a hill, or go over the river to the ancient Hindu Po Nagar Towers.
Rest up for the evening, as Nha Trang comes alive after dark, with all-night beach parties at the Sailing Club and plenty of cheap drinks and busy dance floors throughout the backpacker neighborhood.
Leave the planning to the professionals on your second day in Nha Trang and book a full-day tour on the water. Travelers can choose from snorkeling, diving, or day-cruise excursions, exploring local marine life or simply kicking back on a sun deck. Upon your return to shore, hop on an overnight train bound for Ho Chi Minh City or head to the airport to fly there.
Ho Chi Minh City
Spend your first morning in Ho Chi Minh City taking it easy with a coffee in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral. From here, both the Central Post Office and the Reunification Palace are within walking distance. Wander north toward Turtle Lake for lunch and then carry on to the city’s War Remnants Museum for the afternoon.
Head to the backpacker area later in the day for a happy hour drink or dress up and spring for a cocktail at Chill Skybar or the sky-high Saigon Skydeck to appreciate the city from a different angle.
For dinner, grab a cab to District 1’s Tan Dinh neighborhood, where local favorites like Banh Xeo 46A and upmarket eateries like Cuc Gach Quan await. For live music, check out Q4 or Yoko in the evening, or hit the dance floor at Apocalypse Now.
Today, visit bustling Chinatown, where the mammoth Binh Tay Market sprawls over several blocks and a tasty array of Chinese meals can be found. Back toward downtown, Thien Hau Pagoda is an incense-filled haze of reds and golds, lacquered woodwork, and ornate effigies, with neighboring Chaozhou Congregation Hall and Cho Lon Mosque adding an extra level of diversity to the mix.
Return to District 1 for some retail therapy at Ben Thanh Market and along posh Le Loi, passing by the colonial-era Hotel de Ville and local Opera House. Pop into the historic Rex Hotel for a sunset drink on its rooftop bar or head back to the backpacker district for a laid-back evening.
This whirlwind tour of the delta hits the highlights.
From Ho Chi Minh City, board a bus to Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta. You’ll arrive in the late morning, leaving the rest of the day to explore the riverfront. Around sundown, turn up at Ninh Kieu Park, the liveliest spot in the city after dark, with plenty of shopping and street stalls.
Get up early to visit Cai Rang Floating Market. This will take up most of your morning and some of the afternoon.
Get back on the bus to Ho Chi Minh City by mid- to late afternoon. Spend your last night with the city’s best jazz musicians at Sax N Art Jazz Club, venture out for a classy drink at Last Call, or unwind on the rooftop of Pacharan.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Vietnam.