Two Weeks in Vietnam: A Relaxed Itinerary for First Time Visitors
Vietnam was a country that we had wanted to visit for quite some time, but somehow we never got around to it. There are just so many places in the world to visit, right? But now that we’ve finally made it there, we have nothing but praise for this country.
We had a fabulous time in Vietnam and we enjoyed every second of it. With just over two weeks to spend there, we managed to fit in quite a lot, without feeling too rushed. With so much to offer, it’s difficult to decide what to include in a two-week itinerary. Vietnam is home to ancient capitals, stunning countryside, beautiful beaches and several UNESCO World Heritage sites. It also has a fascinating history, and let’s not forget its incredible food or Hanoi, its awesome capital! Of course, two weeks is nowhere near long enough to see everything that Vietnam has to offer, but as a first-time visitor, it’s enough to give you a taste of this incredible country.
Ho Chi Minh (3 nights)
We began our two weeks in Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon), flying there from Melbourne. We arrived late afternoon, giving us really only two full days to explore Vietnam’s largest city and its economic centre. With 8.5 million inhabitants and so many motorbikes, at first, it was a big shock to the system! But we had a blast, especially while riding around the city on the back of a scooter, experiencing the crazy traffic up close. There are many ways to keep busy in Ho Chi Minh City and some of its must-see attractions are:
- Notre-Dame Cathedral
- War Remnants Museum
- Reunification Palace
- Saigon Skydeck in the Bitexco Financial Tower (for the best view in town!)
- Ben Than Market
Cu Chi Minh City (Half-day from Ho Chi Minh City)
While in Ho Chi Minh City, be sure to take a half day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Exploring the Cu Chi Tunnels is an amazing experience because it gives you a sneak-peek at the underground life and the strength and tenacity of the Viet Cong soldiers during the war.
Click here to read more on Ho Chi Minh City.
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Hoi An (5 nights)
Our second stop was the UNESCO World Heritage site and ancient town of Hoi An. To get to Hoi An we flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Danang, which has the nearest airport to Hoi An. We had arranged a private transfer from there to our hotel.
The drive from the airport to our hotel took around forty minutes. We fell in love at first sight with Hoi An. It’d be hard not to, it’s a truly magical town and one of the most beautiful and photogenic places in Vietnam. A trading port from the 15th to the 19th century, Hoi An’s historic architecture has been extremely well-preserved. It’s a real gem and although most people only stay for a couple of days, we were glad we allowed more time there. We loved getting lost in its narrow and colourful streets and sipping Vietnamese coffee by the river. Of course the food in Hoi An is fantastic; after all, it is the food capital of Vietnam! Some of the best attractions in Hoi An are:
- The old town
- Japanese Covered Bridge
- Central and night markets
- The surrounding rice fields and countryside
- An Bang Beach
There are also some great day tours that you can take in the area around Hoi An, such as to the My Son Sanctuary (below) or to the Marble Mountains. So make sure to allow a few days for those.
Click here to find out about more great things to do in Hoi An.
My Son Sanctuary (a half-day trip from Hoi An)
The My Son Sanctuary is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, just over an hour’s drive outside of Hoi An. The sanctuary is an ancient Cham religious site from the 4th century and was dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva. The best time to visit the site is either at sunrise or after two in the afternoon. We visited at sunrise and it was worth getting up at 4 am for!
Click here to read more about the My Son Sanctuary
Use the search box below to find your accommodation in Hoi An:
Hue (1 night)
The drive between Hoi An and Hue is one of the many highlights of Vietnam. The Hai Van pass offers spectacular sea and mountain views, but as it winds up and down the spur it can be quite scary. We’d recommend hiring a local driver or taking a tour so that you can enjoy the incredible views without having to concentrate on the multiple hairpin turns. It takes about three hours to reach Hue from Hoi An through the Hai Van pass.
Hue was once the imperial capital of Vietnam and it is filled with pagodas, emperor’s tombs and an ancient Citadel. If you organise yourself well you can see the main sights in one day. Some of the main attractions in Hue are:
- Imperial City
- Khai Dinh tomb
- Thien Mu Pagoda
- Perfume River
Click here to read more about Hue.
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Hanoi (2 nights)
North Vietnam was the last part of our trip and we transferred back to Danang airport for our early flight to Hanoi. We didn’t like Vietnam’s capital right away, but once we ditched the tourist map it became our favourite place in Vietnam.
The old quarter is the place to be in Hanoi and if you haven’t got a lot of time I’d recommend spending it all there. It’s the most chaotic part of the city, with its small alleyways, its street sellers, and its restaurants and bars where you sit outside with your friends on little plastic stools.
The old quarter is a fantastic place to observe the local street life. Our favourite pastime was looking out for the crazy things being carried on motorbikes. But that wasn’t all, you’ll see children playing soccer amongst the traffic, ladies washing their dishes on the sidewalk and hairdressers cutting their clients’ hair on the footpath. Hanoi has an incredible atmosphere; it’s chaotic, loud, weird and totally different from what we are used to as Westerners. That’s why we loved it so much. Some of the main attractions in Hanoi are:
- The Old Quarter
- Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
- Hoan Kiem Lake
- Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton)
- Train Street
Click here to read more about Hanoi.
Ha Long Bay/Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise (3 days 2 nights)
Ha Long Bay is one of the most visited places in Vietnam and it’s easy to see why. The sight of its towering limestone islands emerging from emerald waters is truly breathtaking. Of course, everyone visiting Vietnam wants to experience it which has led to it becoming very touristy. If you dislike crowds then you might be disappointed.
However, there is an alternative to beat the crowds. It’s called Bai Tu Long Bay and it’s in a quieter part of Halong Bay. Only a few companies are licensed to sail on Bai Tu Long Bay which means that you can enjoy the view without flotillas of boats obstructing it.
After a lot of research, we decided to use one of those companies and booked our cruise with Indochina Junk. We had the perfect three days, a beautiful boat, amazing scenery, delicious food and many activities were included, like kayaking around the islands, visiting a cave, a floating fishing village and a pearl farm. We even had lunch on a deserted beach. It wasn’t the cheapest alternative but it was worth every penny.
Click here to read more about our cruise on Bai Tu Long Bay.
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Hanoi (3 nights)
After our last afternoon in Halong Bay we were driven back to our hotel in Hanoi to enjoy another three nights before flying home. We spent another day enjoying life in the old quarter, eating delicious Vietnamese food and drinking egg coffee and Bia Hoi (Vietnamese light beers) outside on plastic stools. We also booked a day trip to the ancient capital of Hoa Lu and nearby Tam Coc.
Ninh Binh, Tam Coc and Hoa Lu (1 day trip from Hanoi)
On our last day in Vietnam we visited the province of Ninh Binh, a couple of hours from Hanoi. Ninh Binh is also known as Halong Bay on land because of its limestone karst and caves. Unfortunately, we were very unlucky to have torrential rain for most of the trip but we still managed to enjoy it.
We first visited the ancient capital of Hoa Lu which is nestled amongst sheer mountain cliffs with a river meandering past it. We didn’t think the temples themselves were that exciting but the surrounding scenery made the visit worthwhile.
After Hoa Lu we made our way to Tam Coc (meaning three caves) where we were meant to go on a bicycle trip through the countryside. Sadly, with so much rain pouring down we decided to pass on the bike ride. We did, however, take a sampan boat trip on the river. Even in the pouring rain, the boat ride was spectacular, the surrounding scenery was awe-inspiring and the caves were a lovely five-minute relief from the weather!
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Things to know before your first trip to Vietnam
Vietnam’s local currency is the Vietnamese Dong. ATM’s are available everywhere in the big cities and in most towns, except in remote or rural areas.
However, many of the Vietnamese banks prevent you from withdrawing more than 2,000,000 Dong at a time. We had better luck with the larger international banks such as ANZ, HSBC or Citibank, whose ATMs let us take out up to 8,000,000 Dong. In Hoi An, the MB Banks ATMs are the ones to use. Most hotels and some larger restaurants and shops accept credit cards, but you’ll still need to bring cash to spend in smaller establishments.
To enter the country, you must have a valid and appropriate visa or a written approval letter for a visa to be issued on arrival. You can check this site for any visa requirement information.
From December 2017, some nationalities (such as Australians) have become eligible to apply online for a single entry electronic visa (e-visa). This visa is valid for up to 30 days. You can lodge your application online here.
If you want to stay longer than 30 days or if you need multiple entries, you must apply for a visa directly at your nearest embassy or consulate of Vietnam.
Although the dress code is more relaxed in the major cities, it is best to dress more conservatively when visiting rural areas. When visiting temples and mosques, cover your shoulders and do not wear shorts or skirts above your knees.
Vietnamese is Vietnam’s official language. Although many locals working in the tourism industry or living in touristy areas speak English, don’t expect everyone to. Try and learn some basic Vietnamese to communicate with the locals.
Vietnam is a very safe country to travel in, even for single female travellers. Both locals and the government welcome foreigners because tourism is very important for developing their country. But you do need to look out for petty theft. Be especially careful when walking outside with your handbags, cameras and phones. The most common type of theft is perpetrated by bag snatchers on motorbikes.
How to get around?
There are many ways to get around Vietnam.
This is the easiest and quickest way to get around when you need to cover long distances. There are domestic flights available daily from the major cities such as HCMC, Hanoi and Danang. However, this is not the cheapest option.
Bus travel in Vietnam is pretty cheap and convenient. There are also mini-buses operating between the main tourist towns.
Train travel is also very cheap, albeit pretty basic. It’s a great way to enjoy the landscape passing by as you make your way to your next destination.
For full details on each of the destinations mentioned here, please check out the articles below: