Experience the variety of northern Vietnam in ten days
I fell in love with Vietnam – all of it – during my 2015 visit.
But my husband and I had three weeks to tour the country, a luxury most time-pressed visitors don’t have.
When discussing Vietnam with Chris Christensen of the Amateur Traveler podcast, he suggested developing an itinerary that would give visitors the best of northern Vietnam in a week.
I cheated and planned for a minimum of 10 days.
While I do have a tendency to stretch the rules a bit anyway, I thought it was important that travelers get to the far north of Vietnam. This area has an unusually varied, rich, and accessible culture. However, it lacks air service, which makes visiting more complicated and time-consuming.
A recommended Northern Vietnam itinerary
If you only have 10-14 days in Vietnam, this itinerary takes you to places and experiences you won’t have anywhere else in Asia.
- Hoi An, with the option of visiting My Son and/or China Beach (3 nights)
- Stop in Da Nang to visit the Museum of Cham Sculpture as you drive through town
- Hue, with a day spent outside the city visiting the royal tombs (3 nights)
- Optional visit to Hanoi for travelers with more time
- Night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (1 night)
- Sapa, with day trips to visit local villages (2 nights) OR hire a guide/driver and explore the villages in the border area around Lao Cai and Ha Giang (minimum 3 nights)
- Night from Lao Cai to Hanoi (1 night)
I am focusing on the north because you can’t see all of Vietnam in a week or even two, and northern Vietnam is quite different from most other spots in the region.
Hear about traveling in Northern Vietnam on the Amateur Traveler
I got to discuss my experiences in northern Vietnam and this itinerary on a recent episode of the Amateur Traveler.
If you are not familiar with the Amateur Traveler podcast, I recommend you listen to a few episodes.
My Northern Vietnam segment on the Amateur Traveler is episode 548, so you can see that host Chris Christensen has been doing this awhile! He started the podcast in 2005 – the same year I started blogging. That experience shows in both the range of destinations the Amateur Traveler covers and the production quality. It’s fun and informative. And, unlike me, Chris has a perfect made-for-radio voice.
There are a lot of travel podcasts out there, but this really is one of the best for regular people who like to travel or like to dream about travel. And Chris only features destinations he personally finds interesting, so you know you aren’t getting fake marketing fluff. It’s all real travel stories and advice from people who’ve been there.
Notes for planning your trip
You can check my complete Vietnam itinerary, map, and links to posts, including a series of posts on each day of my time on a private tour of far northern Vietnam.
Keep in mind that Vietnam is a large country and the above itinerary takes you across much of the northern half of it. While modern major roadways connect many large cities, most of the country’s roads are small and poorly maintained. Fly whenever and wherever you can.
The cities listed below can be visited on your own or with occasional guiding services if you are comfortable managing in a country where you can’t speak or read the language. Also, although not the case in other places, English is widely understood in Hoi An and in the town of Sapa. However, once you get beyond Sapa or otherwise out of major tourist areas, a guide is almost essential.
Hoi An is heavily touristed and has well-developed tourist infrastructure. It’s a beautiful city for wandering and an easy place to get around. It is also an excellent place to buy high quality (and higher priced) clothing and Vietnamese crafts.
- Stay right in or very near the old town or, for a beach-based visit, stay north of town along China Beach.
- Hoi An is a short distance from Da Nang, which has good air service from most Vietnamese airports and a few international destinations.
Da Nang is a large, modern city. It’s the most western-feeling city on this itinerary, with modern landscaped boulevards and many newer buildings. This itinerary doesn’t leave time for a beach vacation, but Da Nang has incredible beaches. Make a couple stops as you drive through to visit the wonderful Cham museum and at least dip your toes in the sea along China Beach.
- There is transit service between Da Nang, Hue, and Hoi An or hire a driver and stop along the way.
Hue is a typical large, dense Asian city . . . except for its historic heart, which includes a lovely French colonial neighborhood along the Perfume River and a former imperial palace.
- Stay near the Perfume River across from the palace complex for the best mix of walkability, historic sites, and restaurants.
- Hue’s Phu Bai International Airport primarily provides service to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Hanoi is a large, complex city. As the capital of Vietnam, there are many political and war-related museums and monuments. There are also a number of cultural sights worth visiting.
- Stay in the old city’s fascinating maze of narrow, busy streets to get a taste of daily life in the city. Stay in the French colonial section of town for more refined accommodations in a more relaxed setting.
- Vietnam Airlines runs regular and frequent service between HCMC and Hanoi, as well as some domestic and international service.
Sapa is a rapidly developing tourist town, with both the good and bad associated with that. However, it is located in a very scenic area and is home to large numbers of ethnic minorities.
- This is a popular base for trekking in northern Vietnam and the city has a complete range of tourist facilities, including many trekking guides.
- Most visitors reach Sa Pa by traveling to Lao Cai from Hanoi by train, and then take a bus or private vehicle on to Sapa. Sapa is said to be about a 9 hour drive from Hanoi.
Further afield in northern Vietnam
For those with the time and resources to do so, I highly recommend traveling into the far north of Vietnam. This area has a rich array of traditional ethnic culture, wilderness, mountain passes, and terraced mountainsides, but limited tourist amenities. Due to poor roads and language barriers, most visitors should visit this region with a guide.
- The road system in much of the north primarily serves pedestrians, cattle, and motorbikes. There are few buses of any size, leaving tours by private vehicle or motor scooter as the only option in many areas.
- Travelers are required to have a special permit to visit areas near the Chinese border. It is not difficult to get (usually your guide or travel agent will get it for you), but you must have it to travel here.
- A guide is pretty much essential to travel in this area.
We traveled with a wonderful guide
Our guide in the far north of Vietnam was excellent. Hoang Hue has a thorough knowledge of Vietnam’s north, a workable grasp of the areas many languages, and the flexibility to make adjustments to schedules as needed. I highly recommend him.
While Hoang is not currently set up to serve as a travel agent himself, his services as a guide can be requested through a travel agent. Contact him directly to verify that you have a workable itinerary and to make adjustments. (Many travel agents do not understand the complexity and time required to travel in the far north and overbook this part of the itinerary.) If he’s available, Hoang can be hired directly to provide guiding services around Sapa.