Scents of steaming broth, herbs and fruits permeate the air. Old men sit on their stoops while the younger generations hang out in trendy cafes—all with a coffee in hand. Motorbikes zoom past en masse, creating a stream of movement between the French colonial buildings and modern skyscrapers.
In other parts, people meander slowly, transporting ducks in baskets. A hammock under a shady tree provides respite from the relentless sun and humidity.
The bold flavors, the sweet coffee, the loud cities and serene countrysides, Vietnam is a sensorial symphony.
I had just started dating my now husband when we were invited to his friend’s wedding in Vietnam. Deciding to attend together (six months later) was a bold choice to make only three months into our relationship, but it certainly paid off.
Not only did we discover that we’re a pretty great team, but we discovered Vietnam, which would likely not have been at the top of our travel wish list otherwise. And let me tell you, I’m so glad we did.
Since then, we’ve traveled to Israel for another friend’s nuptials and celebrated our own destination wedding in Portugal. I don’t need much reason to travel, but love is certainly a good one.
Back to Vietnam…like anywhere you find yourself traveling, the country is best explored with an open mind, adventurous soul and hearty appetite. Ready for an adventure of a lifetime? Here’s how to spend two weeks in Vietnam.
Vietnam Itinerary: 2 Weeks for First-Timers
Vietnam might seem a little intimidating at first, so here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your trip.
- No matter which cities you visit, drink the coffee (cà phê đá) and try as much food as possible. If you’re vegetarian, write down a few key phrases from this guide to eating meat-free in Vietnam.
- Don’t be afraid to cross the street. Yes, it will be nerve-wracking the first few (or few hundred) times. The trick is to step out with confidence and walk at an even pace across the street. The drivers will stop for you. If you hesitate or start running it’s more dangerous for everyone involved. So take a deep breath, look both ways and watch the seas of motorbikes part. When in doubt, try crossing the street next to a local.
- This itinerary moves from south to north, but it did require a few flights to make it happen within a 2-week timeframe. If you have longer, think about taking a slower mode of transportation (motorbike, train, etc) and truly soak in the experience.
- Bargaining is normal and expected. Here’s a handy guide to negotiating with vendors.
What to pack for Vietnam
Packing for Vietnam is similar to any warm, humid climate. Just keep in mind that you will need warm layers if you’re traveling to the North in the cooler months. It was pretty chilly during our stay in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay in December.
Otherwise, here are a few essentials to bring along:
Visa. Not everyone needs a visa to visit Vietnam, but US citizens will need a visa prior to arrival. Get more details here. Always check your country’s requirements before booking travel.
Note: Your hotel will ask you to leave your passport at the front desk. This is normal.
Vaccinations + bug spray. Generally, it’s recommended to make sure you’re up-to-date on your routine vaccines and that you consider Hepatitis A and typhoid shots. Always talk to your doctor before getting travel vaccines. Get more details from the CDC here. Malaria risk is low but it’s always wise to check with your doctor and use bug spray regardless.
A scarf or cover-up. In general, unless you’re at a beach resort, err on the side of dressing more conservatively. If you plan on visiting temples or historical places, make sure you have clothing that covers your knees and shoulders.
Sandals and sneakers. Same goes for easy-to-slip-off shoes. You may be required to take your shoes off at temples, guesthouses and private homes. If not required, well, it’s just more respectful.
Tissues or toilet paper. Many public toilets won’t have paper, so BYO.
Probiotics. Probiotics are especially helpful to take before, during and after a trip to help keep your gut functioning well and prepared to take on all the new foods you’ll try.
Day 1-3 Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, is a modern metropolis with plenty of international flavor fused with everyday Vietnamese life. You’ll find luxury shops, local markets, rooftop bars and street vendors all intermingling together. With a large, international airport, easy Uber access and plenty of things to see as you wander off your jetlag, it’s a great city to begin or end your trip.
Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City:
Take a free Saigon walking tour or food tour led by college students.
Shop high-end boutiques and luxury goods on Dong Khoi Street, Ho Chi Minh’s version of NYC’s 5th Avenue or London’s Oxford Street. Stop by the beautiful and grand Opera House.
Visit the ornate and colorful Cao Đài Temple, worship place of Caodaists, a religious sect exclusive to Southern Vietnam.
Discover the history of the healing arts at the Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine. Don’t leave without relaxing with a cup of tea in the gift shop.
Take a people-watching nighttime walk down Nguyen Hue Pedestrian Street from the People’s Committee Building to the Saigon River.
Day 4-5 Mekong Cruise
You can take a day trip to the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City. However, if time and budget allow, do yourself a favor and take an overnight cruise. We enjoyed perfectly peaceful sailing with delicious food and drinks, tours to villages and the Cai Rang floating marketing, and a killer sunset too.
We chose to cruise with Mekong Eyes, boarding in Cai Be and disembarking in Can Tho. The transfer from Ho Chi Minh City was included but we chose to stay one night Can Tho and fly to our next destination the following morning.
Day 6-8 Hoi An
Some call it the Disneyland of Vietnam, and I get it, but that doesn’t make me love Hoi An any less. Yes, it’s a city catered to tourists for sure, however, it’s charm and beauty aren’t diminished by that fact. And as you walk the canal-lined streets of the ancient port city, you’ll get a lovely sense of the diverse cultures that have all made their marks.
Things to do in Hoi An:
Wander the UNESCO preserved Ancient Town with its welcoming yellow buildings, pedestrian streets, Chinese temples and Japanese covered bridge.
Eat banh mi at Banh Mi Phuong, made famous by Anthony Bourdain and worth the waiting in line for.
Get clothes made at a local tailor. Shop around for the best fabrics and price. Don’t be afraid to bargain.
Sip delicious tea in silence, buy local artisan goods and support the deaf community of Hoi An at Reaching Out Tea House. All of the staff are hearing impaired and they encourage you to keep your voice to a whisper. It’s was such a tranquil and memorable experience.
Hoi An is decked out with colorful lanterns scattered all over the town. If you happen to visit during the full moon, don’t miss the lantern festival where people make a wish and set their candle-lit lanterns down the river.
Take a bike tour to the neighboring countryside and get a taste of the local life, and the local water buffalos.
Escape the crowds and head to An Bang beach. Grab some lunch and a cocktail followed by a snooze under a thatched palapa.
Day 9-11 Hanoi
The calm vibes of Hoi An are swiftly replaced with chaos as you start your day in Hanoi, the country’s bustling capital. Hanoi feels very traditional compared to modern Ho Chi Minh City, especially the hectic Old Quarter. However, there are a few serene spots to take advantage of as well.
Things to do in Hanoi:
Eat, drink, shop and dodge motorbikes in the Old Quarter. There’s always a lively buzzing scene among the crumbling buildings.
Caffeinate with the famous coconut coffee at Cong Caphe (multiple locations).
Take an evening walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, a great spot for people-watching. You’ll spot locals doing everything from working out to dancing to taking wedding photos. It’s also fun to walk to Turtle Tower, which is the lone pagoda in the middle of the lake.
Get cultured with a water puppet show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theater.
Admire the colonial architecture of the French Quarter, stop by the Opera House and do a little window shopping along the wide open streets.
Day 12-13 Ha Long Bay
In all honesty, if it weren’t for Ha Long Bay, we probably wouldn’t have ventured to northern Vietnam during this trip unless we had more time. Even though it was a quick trip, I’m so glad we tacked Ha Long Bay onto our Vietnam itinerary.
We chose to take a one-night cruise in Ha Long Bay and it was one of the highlights of the trip. Ha Long Bay is a protected UNESCO heritage site and therefore you’ll need to take a tour to explore the area. Don’t worry though, there’s a tour for everyone, from backpacker day trips to luxury yachts.
The beauty of the bay is breathtaking on its own, you don’t even have to leave the boat. If doing nothing isn’t your thing, there’s plenty of adventure to be had as well with kayaking, cave exploring and squid night fishing.
We booked our cruise through our hotel and had a wonderful experience.
Day 14 Hanoi
Back in Hanoi, use your last day to wrap up and shopping or taste any foods you’ve yet to taste. Or get a last minute massage before heading home.
This two-week Vietnam itinerary just scratches the surface of what the country has to offer. If you have more time, venture out to the northern countryside and Sapa or spend time at a beach resort in Da Nang or Mui Ne if that’s more your style. There’s truly something for everyone in Vietnam.
Before you go, make sure to download your free travel journal prompts below to get the most out of your trip to Vietnam.