So you were granted a one-month visa to Vietnam? Here’s how to see the best of the country on a budget and make the most of your time (this itinerary can easily be reversed as well).
Overview by Days:
- 1-4: Hanoi
- 5-7: Halong Bay
- 8-10: Sapa
- 11-12: Ninh Binh
- 13-14: Phong Nha
- 15-16: Hue
- 17: Hai Van Pass
- 18-21: Hoi An
- 23-23: Nha Trang
- 24-25: Dalat
- 26-27: Mui Ne
- 28-30: Saigon
Day 1: Arrive in Hanoi
Days 2-4: Hanoi
Explore Old Quarter by foot and sample street food & Bia Hoi (cheap freshly brewed beer), walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, shop at the markets, visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, National History Museum, and Hỏa Lò Prison, watch a water puppet show, and check out the nightlife (don’t forget to go to a karaoke bar!)
Hostels Recommendations: For a fun and social atmosphere, stay at either Vietnam Backpackers (the one in Old Quarter is great, but the Mã Mây location is closer to good nightlife and more street food) or Central Backpackers (there are three hostels called Central Backpackers, so make sure it’s the Old Quarter one at 16 Thanh Hà)
Days 5-7: Halong Bay
Do a 3-day/2-night cruise to Halong Bay. I recommend a three day cruise (with Indochina Junk) since it gets you further off the touristy track into more beautiful parts of the bay. If you’re looking for a more social cruise targeted specifically at backpackers, check out the Castaway tour. It’s expensive, but everyone who’s participated says it’s worth the money (if you enjoy water activities and drinking).
You’ll arrive back in Hanoi in the early evening. Take a sleeper bus to Sapa (should depart around 9pm).
Days 8-10: Sapa
Do a two-day trek to local hill tribe villages and enjoy the stunning rice terraced mountains along the way. Then spend one day exploring Sapa by foot or motorbike.
Hostel Recommendation: Mountain View Hostel (part of the Vietnam Backpackers chain)
Days 11-12: Ninh Binh
Though your transportation will be to and from Ninh Binh, the area you actually want to stay and explore is Tam Coc, a small town just a few kms away. Rent a push bike to tour the area, and make sure to do the boat ride down the river to see “Halong Bay on land.”
Take a sleeper bus to Phong Nha.
Days 13-14: Phong Nha
Spend a few days exploring the National Park and seeing the caves and waterfalls. There’s lots to do in the park including kayaking, ziplining, hiking, caving, swimming, jumping into the river, and more.
Hostel Recommendation: Easy Tiger
Days 15-16: Huế
Take an early bus to Huế on day 15, and head to Beach Bar Huế to relax. It’s $5 entry, but that entry fee acts as a $5 credit for food and drinks. Spend your second day touring this historical city by motorbike, and make sure to visit the Citadel, tombs, a few temples, and the night markets.
Food recommendations: If you like Mexican food, check out Jalapeño restaurant, and if you like Indian, try Omar Khayyam’s. Both are amazing!
Hostel Recommendation: Imperial (part of the Vietnam Backpackers chain)
Day 17: Motorbike the Hai Van Pass
Rent a motorbike and have your bags shipped down to Hoi An. Start early (around 10-11am) so you have time to stop along the way. Great stopping places include Suoi Voi (Elephant Springs), Lang Co Beach, and Marble Mountains, and if the timing’s right eat a sunset dinner at one of the beachside restaurants in Danang. If you don’t feel comfortable driving a motorbike, you can also hire a driver and sit on the back.
Hopefully your drive down will go smoother than mine did…
Days 18-21: Hoi An
Check out Ancient town, do some shopping, have clothing custom made by a tailor, relax on one of the beaches, go snorkeling at the Cham Islands, and enjoy the buzzing nightlife along the river. Hoi An was one of my favorite places in Vietnam; click here to find out why.
Food recommendations: Make sure to try the local specialties of cao lau and white rose dumplings.
Hostel Recommendations: Sunflower is the most popular hostel among backpackers and is definitely a fun and social atmosphere (with great breakfast included), but I actually preferred DK’s (the last of the Vietnam Backpacker chain, which also includes a great breakfast and has a social atmosphere but is cheaper and a bit smaller so it has more of a family feel to it).
Take a sleeper bus to Nha Trang.
Days 22-23: Nha Trang
Spend one day being a kid again at Vinpearl water and adventure park followed by some of the beachy Nha Trang nightlife. The following day head to the beach, go snorkeling, and visit some waterfalls or the famous Po Nagar Cham Tower temples. Nha Trang has nice beaches but is full of resorts and very touristy so don’t stay if you don’t like it.
Hostel Recommendation: Mojzo Inn
Days 24-25: Dalat
Take an early bus to Dalat, and spend the day exploring the city by foot, walking around the lake, and either heading to Elephant Falls or taking the cable car to the Trúc Lâm temple. Get your adrenaline rushing on the second day by going canyoning, where you’ll abseil down rock faces, jump off cliffs, and slide down waterfalls.
Hostel Recommendation: Cozy Nook
Days 26-27: Mui Ne
Take an early bus to Mui Ne, where you can spend a couple days relaxing by the pool, sand-boarding on the sand dunes, and even riding an ostrich. Check out Dragon Beach club for nightlife, and eat at Lam Tong Quan for cheap but delicious Vietnamese food.
Hostel Recommendation: Mui Ne Backpacker Village (basically a luxury resort for budget backpackers)
Take a sleeper bus to Saigon.
Days 28-30: Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City
Spend one day of history seeing the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum, and take a one or two day trip along the Mekong Delta. If your budget isn’t too tight, visit one of Saigon’s rooftop bars during sunset for stunning panoramic views of the city.
Don’t have an entire month? I’d take out Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Mekong Delta, Ninh Binh, one day of Sapa, in that order.
Have extra time? Hoi An is always a great place to stay longer, or if you love outdoor adventure, add some extra time in Phong Nha. If you love bustling cities, stay longer in Hanoi. There’s also the island of Phú Quốc, which you can read about my experience here, but I wouldn’t include this unless you have lots of extra time to kill.
Getting Around Vietnam: Vietnam is one of the easiest countries to travel around, as you can easily book through most hostels/hotels or from any of the many travel agencies lining the streets. I took sleeper busses wherever possible to save money on a night of accommodation and so I wouldn’t waste a full day just traveling, but there are always trains or daytime busses if you prefer. A train will be the most comfortable option if you don’t mind paying a bit more. Alternatively, you can buy a motorbike and ride around the country on your own, which many people do. However, this will cut into the activity time you have at each location, so you may want longer than a month to fully explore the entire country this way.
Warning: Like many Southeast Asian countries, theft and scams are frequent in Vietnam. A few tips to keep in mind before you go:
- Pickpocketing is common, especially in the big cities, so keep your valuables secured and hidden.
- Motorbike robberies occur frequently, either by the driver driving away without giving you change, or by him reaching into your wallet and grabbing all your cash when you try to pay. Always have exact change and keep it in a separate pocket so the driver never sees all your cash.
- Drive-by robberies (i.e. someone driving up and grabbing your phone out of your hand) are also common, so don’t walk around flashing your camera or phone for all to see. Also, girls keep your purse cross-body instead of over your shoulder so they can’t grab it off you (someone attempted this on me but since it was across my body they drove off with nothing).
- Taxi scams: Taxi drivers will frequently drop you off at the wrong hotel, because if you end up staying they’ll get commission. Or they’ll drive “the long way” to increase the meter. Make sure you know your hotel name and address, and if you don’t have a sim card with data you should download maps.me (an app for maps that work offline) so you can check if you think they’re driving you in circles to rip you off.
Despite the need to be a little more careful in Vietnam, it’s an incredible country with a fascinating history, unique culture, and many beautiful nature spots for outdoor adventures. You could easily spend months exploring the country and going off the beaten track into little local villages, but if you only have one month, this itinerary should help you cover all the key sights and activities. If you’re visiting Vietnam and have any questions, feel free to ask!
As always, keep on livin’ pura vida ✌