Hey everyone! I’m Jackie. I’m a wannabe full-time traveler, but yes, I’ve got bills to pay so I work for a living and travel as a hobby just like Jessica. Having just returned from an amazing two weeks in Vietnam, I’d love to gush about it and encourage you all to go! And if you’ve landed on this page with tickets already booked looking for itinerary help, I’ve got you covered.
Is Vietnam at the tippy top of your long travel bucket list? Yea, I didn’t think so, as Vietnam wasn’t at the top of mine either. All that changed when I saw an Anthony Bourdain episode about the country and was instantly HOOKED! He actually had dinner with Obama in a little café in Hanoi – so come on, honestly, what’s cooler than that? (Sidenote: nothing. ? )
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
YOU’LL NEED A VISA
If you’re an American like me hoping to spend two weeks in Vietnam (or any other timeframe for that matter)– here’s something important to know –YOU WILL NEED A VISA. There’s no way around it, and thankfully, it’s pretty simple and quick to get. Unfortunately (of course), the fees have just been raised this past August, so make sure you check the current price before applying. The visa gives you a year’s worth of multiple entries in & out of Vietnam, so if you’re thinking of heading back, it’s definitely worth it, although you’ll need it no matter how long or short you stay in the country for. There’s no way around it, so I suggest you get your visa way early in case there are unforeseen delays.
Once you have your visa (which will be glued/stuck inside your passport), that is the only thing you need to arrange beforehand to avoid any problems entering the country.
A few ways to go about this:
1) Vietnamese Consulate or Embassy in the States:
- No extra fees, thankfully! Here’s the exact wording from the Vietnamese Consulate in San Francisco (just an example): “A VISA to Vietnam can be applied for by mail or in person at the Consulate General of Vietnam in San Francisco as early as 6 months prior to the date of travel. The application does not necessarily need to be at the Consulate in person. Processing time takes up to 3 working days.”
2) Online Companies:
- Any outside company will probably a charge a service fee on top of the actual visa fee
- We did ours through ‘Its Easy Passport & Visa’ in New York City and it was great. This particular company has offices all around the country and an online chat in order to check on the status of the visa. Ours took literally 4 days but I cannot say whether that is the norm, so make sure you leave ample amount of time to get that sacred piece of paper, aka the Vietnam visa.
3) Visa On Arrival (VOA):
- A VOA is a letter you get that gives you pre-approval to get a visa, which you then you fill out the remaining paperwork in Vietnam and get the visa at the airport. I don’t recommend this option as already having your visa will minimize your time at Passport Control in Vietnam (and who wants to spend extra time waiting around, not this girl!)
- It’s important to note that some of the VOA companies are scams, so make sure you are using a reputable company if you do decide to go this route.
Two Weeks in Vietnam: The Itinerary
A Quick Summary: Hanoi (3 days) — Ha Long Bay (3 days) — Sapa (3 days) — Hoi An (3 days) — Ho Chi Minh City & Mekong Delta (2 days)
DAYS 1-3: HANOI
We started off our two weeks in Vietnam in Hanoi, where we flew in to from New York. We spent 3 days out of our two weeks in Vietnam exploring the city, which we shortly learned was exceptionally diverse and just tons of fun!
- ‘Beer Corner’ >> You guessed it, Beer Corner is just that- a street full of bars, alluring your liver inside for some delicious imbibing.
- West Lake >> If you get out of the city center a bit, you’ll find West Lake, a gorgeous lake with a beautiful pagoda and temple that is definitely a worth a check-out. It’s walkable from the city center, being approximately only 15 or 20 minutes.
- All the Spas and Massages! >> Definitely take advantage of spas and massages during your two weeks in Vietnam, as amazing treatments can be found very cheaply. We got mud wraps that cost $12 each! Unheard of in the states! Any kind of spa treatment you want will probably be about 3/4 the price of what you would pay to get it back at home. The particular spa we went to was called Midori Spa on Ngo Huyen in the backpackers district. This particular spa participates in a program where all their masseuses are blind. It is part of a larger Vietnam initiative to ensure blind people are able to generate incomes that allow them independence. This spa was amazing and the initiative helping blind people was largely part of the reason we chose them over other spas in the area. There are tons of spas though, so if that’s something you’re interested in, the demand is definitely there & they do an amazing job.
Recommended Hanoi Activities:
Full Day Hoa Lu + Tam Coc Tour (Day Trip)
Hanoi Food on Foot: Walking Tour of Old Quarter
Day Trip to Perfume Pagoda
Hanoi Full Day Guided Tour
FOODIES, REJOICE! >> The array of food choices in Hanoi will not disappoint, I can promise you that! Admittedly, my boyfriend had quite a large list of foods he wanted to eat prior to our arrival, so we ran around the city checking off all the foods as we ate them. [Editors Note: my kinda people!] Food is incredibly plentiful across the city. People will run makeshift cafes on the sidewalks and set up little plastic tables & chairs for you to sit down and enjoy. A warm delicious bowl of Pho from a street stall will run you about 20,000-25,000 VND, which is a little less than an American dollar. Everything is warm and tasty so make sure you take advantage of the variety of foods, including:
- BUN CHA: Make sure to try Bun Cha, one of our favorites from our time in Hanoi. Bun Cha is served with grilled fatty pork over a plate of white rice noodles and herbs with a side of dipping sauce. It’s not too common to find this dish outside of Hanoi, so be sure to enjoy a few plates while in the city.
- STREET FOOD: Some words of caution– while eating from street stalls is generally safe, a few ways to ensure you are eating from a good place is a) it is busy with locals [as locals know the places in the area that are safe to eat, and most tourists do not] and b) that the soup is served boiling hot. Boiling soup will ensure most kinds of bacteria or any cross-contamination has been killed off. Not trying the street food would be a crime as the plates are absolutely delicious (!!!), just take caution about where and what you eat.
Crossing the streets in Hanoi is like a real life game of Frogger. No joke. Don’t let it deter you from visiting the city, just ensure that you use caution when crossing the streets. Here are some tips to make it across safely:
- Be relaxed and self-confident
- Look both ways & maintain eye contact with the drivers
- Walk slowly but keep the same pace throughout your crossing
- Once you have started crossing, continue your crossing. Don’t stop or step back.
Thankfully, most of the drivers will slow down or drive around you, however, caution should always be used when crossing any street – you don’t want to get run over! The majority of drivers throughout Hanoi (and actually most of Vietnam) use motorbikes. There are stop lights but drivers do not always obey the traffic laws.
We pretty much ate our way through 3 days in Hanoi. Realistically, Hanoi can be done in about 2 days. 3 days is certainly plenty but 2 days is perfect to still see and do everything you might want to do and eat your heart out as well.
Where we stayed:Old Quarter Homestay (approx. $43/night)
Other Recommended Accommodations:
Luxury Accommodation: Hotel Nikko Hanoi (approx. $92/night) // Hanoi La Siesta Diamond Hotel (approx. $107/night)
Mid-Class Accommodation:Oriental Central Hotel (approx. $37/night)
Budget Accommodation: Hanoi Asia Guest House (approx. $13/night)
More Hotels in Hanoi Here.
DAYS 4 – 6: HA LONG BAY
After a few days of city life (and oh so much eating), head on over to Ha Long Bay, complete with emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands. (Do a quick Google Search, and you’ll see what all the fuss is about). Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe this place; it’s even considered to be one of the new ‘7 natural wonders of the world’ as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The absolute best way to see this natural phenomenon is by boat, and thankfully there are quite a few different options depending on your preference.
We chose to tour with Vietnam Backpackers Hostel, specifically the ‘Castaway & Ha Long Bay 3 day/2 night package’. For those who might be interested in this tour, a bit of information: it is basically 2 half-days partying on the island (yes, of course it’s beautiful) – laying on the beach, kayaking, beach volleyball, hanging out with other travelers AND 1 full day cruising around the bay. For the most part, I enjoyed this tour, but there were a few setbacks. The accommodations on this tour were pretty bare, and although we knew about this beforehand, it took some getting used to — no Wi-Fi, limited electricity, and limited hot water. It was definitely doable, but don’t expect luxury by any means. In addition, it appeared as this tour catered for those in the younger crowd (18-mid 20s). Being in our early-mid 30’s, we were two of the oldest members on the cruise. This was not necessarily a negative perhaps, but we definitely felt our age! We did, however, get a lot of recommendations from the others on our tour and traveled to an additional destination because of their expertise.
If partying isn’t your thing (or you want a bit more luxury), there are so many different tour options and cruise companies to ensure you get to see the beauty of the bay! A bit of research and you’ll easily find a travel experience you’re seeking – there are a ridiculous number of options.
Regardless of what tour you choose, Ha Long Bay is beautiful & should definitely not be missed. Make sure to take a decent camera to photograph this spectacular scatter of islands! You can even take a day trip from Hanoi, although I recommend spending a bit more time there for the full experience.
Recommended Ha Long Bay Tours:
Three Day Ha Long Bay Cruise (with transfers from Hanoi)
Ha Long Bay and Monkey Island 3-Day Tour from Hanoi
Two Day Tour of Ha Long Bay + Tuan Chau Theme Park
LUXURY Two Day Cruise on Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay Full Day from Hanoi with Kayaking and Lunch
Where we stayed: Castaway Island (part of our tour)
Other Recommended Accommodations:
Luxury Accommodation:Royal Lotus Halong Bay (approx. $90/night)
Budget Accommodation: Saigon Halong Hotel (approx. $33/night)
Find More Hotels in Halong Here.
DAYS 7-9: SAPA
After being dazzled by Ha Long Bay, head back to Hanoi to catch an overnight train to Sapa, a destination definitely worth the long trek!
Located up north by the border of China, the town is extremely picturesque and terrace rice paddies graze the landscape. Swoon! It really is that fantastic… once you get there!
How to Get to Sapa >> Flying into Sapa is not available, but thankfully, both options are quite easy. You can choose to either take an overnight train or an overnight bus, although I suggest a train as it’s faster (8 hours or so) and apparently safer (says Lonely Planet).
We booked a soft-sleeper berth on the Violette Train, run by VNR (Vietnam National Railways). The berths are bunk-bed style, two sets in each cabin, meaning you will be sharing the sleeping cabin with other people/another couple. If you aren’t comfortable with those arrangements, there are other sleeping options available. You may be wondering about the comfort level of the beds on the train… and thankfully we both got a good night’s sleep despite the fact that the train moves and stops frequently throughout the night!
The train ride to Sapa is about 8-9 hours, and drops you off in a town called Lao Cai. You will then proceed to transfer to Sapa via bus, which takes roughly 30 minutes. Note that the overnight bus mentioned above goes directly from Hanoi to Sapa, although I cannot comment on the sleeping conditions nor the overall experience.
Where to Stay in Sapa >> Definitely go for a home-stay if you’re looking for an authentic Vietnamese cultural experience. You basically stay in a local family home, eat meals with them, and learn about their everyday life. We booked in a village outside of Sapa called Ta Phin, and stayed with a lady named May Kieu and her family, who are part of the Red Dao Hilltribe. Ta Phin is home to 6 different hilltribes and approximately 3,000 people. We found May through a recommendation from another travel blog, and thankfully booking was easy as she has an English-speaker do all of her reservations. More information on home-stays in Ta Phin with May can be found here.
May’s home-stay had electricity and modern bathrooms with a hot shower and running water; however, there was no stove, TV, or even couches to sit on. All hot meals were cooked over fireplace and the furniture was rather basic, with just a wooden table and some chairs. The homes are made of wood and have concrete floors. Her beautiful children made up for the lack of all material things. May and her family were so gracious and she had a lovely home. She and her husband Lua cooked delicious meals for us, accompanied by a delicious homemade Rice Whiskey.
If May’s home-stay is unavailable or you’d like other options, don’t fret, as there are dozens of others. You don’t even need to book anything ahead of time! Once you arrive in Sapa, there will be tribe ladies waiting for you asking if you’d like to stay in their homes. If you’d prefer to arrange a home-stay ahead of time, an agency is your best bet for bookings. Most of the tribespeople don’t have internet, and is therefore difficult and sometimes even impossible to book directly through them. Note that the homes are primarily extremely basic, some even without electricity or hot water, but you’ll hopefully know beforehand.
A Must-Do in Sapa >>The herbal bath! May even took us into the fields and rice paddies to gather our own fresh herbs for the bath! What an exhilarating experience venturing out with our wicker basket backpacks and pulling the herbs off the trees and ground. Once back from the fields, the herbs are then cooked and placed into hot water in a bucket that you sit in. Our skin felt so nice and rejuvenated after soaking for a bit, which was more than welcome after traveling on the train for so long the day prior!
Recommended Sapa Tours (for ease)
2-Day Tour with Homestay in Ta Chai Village
Sapa 4-Day/3-Night Mountain Bike Tour to Dien Bien Phu
From Hanoi: Sapa Overnight Tribal Village Trek
Sapa Easy Trekking Tour 2-Days 3-Nights
A few pointers about Sapa & the overall home-stay experience:
- Make sure you have VND on you (Vietnamese money). There is an entry cost to get into the villages – you must buy a ticket to be allowed into the village. They do not accept credit card.
- Most people in the villages ride motorbikes and they will likely take you back to their homestays on one, so packing light is pretty much necessary. A backpack is recommended because you will be responsible for holding onto your luggage while on the bike. We have the Osprey Farpoint 55in packs, which also allow you to use them as carry-ons. The 70in lets you pack more but it is too big to be carry-on luggage and would need to be checked on flights. We love our Ospreys & they worked perfectly on the motorbikes!
Where we stayed:May Kieu Home-Stay
Other Recommended Accommodations/Hotels:
Luxury Accommodation:Topas Ecolodge (approx. $140/night) // U Sapa(approx. $114/night)
Budget Accommodation: Eco Palms House (approx. $13/night) // Sapa Lodge Hotel (approx. $40/night)
Find More Hotels in Sapa Here.
Say goodbye to Sapa and the traditional homestay experience, one of the most unique experiences we had during our two weeks in Vietname, and head off to Hoi An!
DAYS 10 – 12: HOI AN
After an overnight train back to Hanoi from Sapa, off to the airport we went to catch our (very) spontaneous flight to Hoi An!
Getting to Hoi An >> After recommendations from friends we met in Ha Long Bay, we decided to add Hoi An to our two weeks in Vietnam, and thankfully were able to schedule a flight and hotel the day before we intended on leaving. Domestic airlines are plentiful in Vietnam, with tons of flights running all day. You’re usually guaranteed a seat even if booking last minute as the flights rarely fill up, so let your newly acquired Vietnam dreams come true! Note that you’ll be flying into Da Nang, and taking a 30-minute cab ride to get to Hoi An, as the city has no major airport.
Some of the domestic carriers include: Vietjet, Air Asia, Vietnam Airlines, and Jetstar Pacific. Make sure to note baggage restrictions. We flew with Vietjet and had a decent enough experience.
What to do in Hoi An >> The city consists of 2 main areas – the beach and theancient town. The beach is about 5km (3 miles) from the ancient town so you can certainly do both in a short period of time.
(Like Hanoi, crossing streets is challenging here as well in Hoi An, but not as difficult in my opinion.)
The Ancient Town of Hoi An:
- Definitely check out the Japanese Covered Bridge and walk around the ‘Walking Street.’
- At night the streets and shops are lit up with lanterns and the streets turn into a night market, with vendors selling souvenirs, crafts and all the kinds of food you can imagine!
- There are women running boat rides around the river and selling lanterns that you can float down the river (similar to Thailand’s ‘Loy Krathong’ holiday).
- If you’re feeling adventurous, definitely rent a motorbike! This was by the far one of the coolest things we did during our two weeks in Vietnam. We drove to the Myson Ancient Ruins, about 40km away.
Recommended Activities and Day Trips in Hoi An:
Vietnamese Cooking Class at Green Bamboo School
From Hoi An: Half-Day Trip to Cham Island
Half Day Marble Mountain + Monkey Island
My Son Half Day Private Tour from Hoi An
Luxury Accommodation:Anantara Hoi An Resort (approx. $180/night)
Budget Alternative Accommodation: Golden Bell Hoi An Boutique Villa(approx. $28/night)
DAYS 13 & 14: HO CHI MINH CITY & MEKONG DELTA
After an amazing time in Hoi An, we flew from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City, which is also known as Saigon.
While Hanoi is more of a culture & shopping city, Ho Chi Minh has way more of a food variety and awesome nightlife! If you are getting sick of the Vietnamese food by this point like we were, HCMC is home to a wide variety of food. We were able to get delicious pizza, Indian food, and even Tex-Mex! At night, we visited one of the many rooftop bars this city has to offer. We chose Air 360 and it was beautiful! The views of the city were incredible at night and this place provided a 360 degree view, as intended by the name of the bar.
If you like markets, check out Cho Benh Thanh. They sell everything. Seriously, EVERYTHING! (Just don’t try the Durian. Seriously. Don’t do it. You have been warned).
Our last day consisted of a tour of the Mekong Delta. We got picked up from our hotel and traveled about 3 hours for a boat ride down the Mekong and savored some tea tasting. This awesome lady rowed me down the Mekong and let me wear her extra hat!
Recommended Activities in Ho Chi Minh + Mekong Delta
From Ho Chi Minh: Mekong Delta Small Group Tour
Half-Day Cu Chi Tunnels Tour
Mekong Delta Day Trip
Saigon Street Food: 2.5 Hour Evening Tour
Where we stayed: HCMC Bali Boutique Hotel (approx. $25/night)
Other Recommended Accommodations:
Luxury Accommodation: Silverland Sakyo Hotel & Spa (approx. $78/night)
Mid-Budget Accommodation: Alagon Saigon Hotel & Spa (approx. $50/night)
Find More Hotels in HCMC Here.
Some general information about spending two weeks in Vietnam:
- Most hotels will keep your passport when you check in and give it back you at the end of your stay when you check out. This is because the police run checks every night at the hotels and require all to let them know which foreigners are staying there. It’s standard practice and not really a big deal– if you are apprehensive about leaving your passport, make a copy of it to leave with the hotel front desk instead. We did this at all hotels during our two weeks in Vietnam and didn’t have any problems.
- Bargain! Bargain! Bargain! If there is something you want but don’t want to pay the asking price, most merchants will bargain with you. If they don’t budge, start walking away– they hate losing business! Once they see you walk away, they are likely to come down on the price. Most sellers would rather take less money than lose the sale completely. We saved quite a bit of money doing this, and while spending two weeks in Vietnam, it definitely can add up!
- Bring a roll of toilet paper with you. No joke. A lot of bathrooms throughout Vietnam do not have toilet paper in them and if you have to, urhmm, reallyuse the bathroom, you will likely find yourself in a ‘stinky’ situation.
- Approximately 22,705 VND is equal to $1. Everything in Vietnam is super cheap and you’ll feel like a millionaire.
This country is seriously breathtaking! The people are generous and the food is oh so good. While two weeks in Vietnam is certainly sufficient to see the country, I wish we had more time to explore because my love affair with this beautiful nation is still brewing. Beat the masses and get there before everyone and their mother knows about it!