Vietnam

THE ULTIMATE 3-WEEK VIETNAM ITINERARY: PLANNING TIPS, ROUTE & COSTS

Ornate carved tomb entrance, Hue, Vietnam
Hue, one of the stops on this epic 3-week Vietnam itinerary

Planning your 3-week Vietnam trip? I’ve got you covered! This 3-week Vietnam itinerary will take you from North to South, letting you experience some of the country’s highlights and giving you a taste of what Vietnam has to offer.

Vietnam is a country of staggering landscapes, and it may just be the most beautiful country in Southeast Asia. On your travels you’ll find karst mountains jutting out of the sea, green rice fields, dense jungle and some of the world’s largest caves.

The food in Vietnam is unbelievably tasty. Rice paper rolls, pho, banh mi, bun cha, and cao lau… Vietnamese is some of my favourite food in the world. I may or may not be drooling right now thinking about it.

If that’s not enough to convince you, Vietnam is perfect for adventurous travellers. You can spend the night in the third largest cave in the world, join a motorbike tour from Hue to Hoi An, or go canyoning in Dalat. Vietnam is basically the backpacker’s dream destination.

THE BEST TIME TO GO BACKPACKING IN VIETNAM

If you’re planning on travelling the whole country there’s no real best time to visit as the weather is complicated over such a large area. Autumn (September-December) and spring (March-April) are probably your best bets. We visited in March and were surprised to discover winter in North Vietnam, though the weather got better as we made our way south.

BACKPACKING VIETNAM ON A BUDGET

Accommodation
Our spend on accommodation was a little higher than in other Southeast Asian countries as we stayed at a resort on Cat Ba Island and splurged a little at Phong Nha Farmstay. Still, in 22 days we stayed mostly in private rooms in hostels and hotels and spent 17,610,469 dong (roughly $759.40 USD), an average of $34.50 USD per day or $17.25 USD each.
Food
You can get a bowl of pho for less than 20,000 dong ($1 USD), or pay 45,000-95,000 dong ($2-$4 USD) for a sit down meal. Western food is more expensive.
Transport
Bus and train travel in Vietnam is very cheap. For our overnight train from Hanoi to Phong Nha we payed around 370,789 dong ($16 USD), and overnight buses are slightly cheaper (if less comfortable).
Activities
Aside from an overnight stay in Hang En Cave activities in Vietnam are cheap. Entrance to a lot of museums and art galleries are as little as 20,000 dong (less than $1 USD). Canyoning in Dalat could cost you from around 450,000 dong ($20 USD) to around 1,707,440 ($75 USD).
Daily Budget
Like a lot of Southeast Asia, Vietnam offers cheap food, accommodation, transport and activities. Your daily budget will depend a lot on your individual travel style but $35-$45 USD would be a comfortable daily budget in Vietnam.

BACKPACKING VIETNAM QUICK TIPS

Currency: The offical currency in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). 1 USD is equivalent to roughly 23,497.80 dong.

Language: Vietnamese is the sole official language spoken in Vietnam. The popularity of English as a second language in growing and you’ll find English is widely spoken throughout the country.

Credit Cards & ATM’s: ATM machines are widespread throughout Vietnam. You shouldn’t have any problem using your credit or debit card from home.

Plugs: In Vietnam the power plugs and sockets are type A, C and D. The standard voltage in Vietnam is 110/220 V and the standard frequency is 50 Hz.

Safety: Vietnam is widely considered a safe country to visit, and I’d recommend it as a great destination for solo female travellers. Petty theft can occur in bigger cities, so as always stay safe and be sensible. Always check your local travel advisory before you go.

3-Week Vietnam Itinerary: Where To Go & What To Do

  • Hanoi: 4 Nights
  • Ha Long Bay & Cat Ba Island: 4 Nights
  • Phong Nha: 4 Nights
  • Hue: 2 Nights
  • Hoi An: 4 Nights
  • Dalat: 2 Nights
  • Ho Chi Minh: 3 Nights

Vietnam is very long and the distances between cities can be vast. I recommend spending at least 3 weeks if you plan to explore the whole country. If you have less than 2 weeks focus your time on one area, otherwise you run the risk of spending many exhausting nights on Vietnam’s night buses or having to take frequent flights.

You could start this 3-week Vietnam itinerary either way, though we started in the North and made our way down South.

Hanoi: 4 Nights

We arrived in Hanoi from Vientiane, Laos, and the contrast between the two cities was immediately apparent. Whereas Vientiane is sleepy and laid back, Hanoi is chaotic, messy, loud and a lot of fun. Hanoi is the perfect place to begin your epic 3-week Vietnam itinerary.

Museums in Hanoi

While in Hanoi make sure to check out Hoa Lo Prison, one of the city’s top attractions. Today the prison has been turned into a museum memorialising the Vietnamese who suffered and died at the hands of French Colonialists. Hoa Lo’s most macabre display is the French guillotine, but you can also get a glimpse into life in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by peering into the small, damp cells. Entrance to Hoa Lo Prison Museum is 30,000 dong (around $1.50 USD).

For something a little lighter visit Vietnam Fine Arts Museum for a display of traditional, religious and contemporary Vietnamese Art. The entrance fee is 20,000 dong.

Than Long Water Puppet Theatre makes for a fun night out in Hanoi. It’s a little kitsch, but also an impressive performance with puppets dancing across the water, light effects and live vocals. Tickets cost 100,000 dong (roughly $4 USD). 

Eat: Bun Cha Huong Lien offers delicious food in an unassuming setting, but hey it must be good; it was made famous by visits from Antony Bourdain and Barrack Obama. You have to try the bun cha; this dish of grilled pork and noodles is native to Hanoi and will blow your mind.

Vietnamese woman cooks in kitchen
Vietnamese street with barber shaving a customer on the footpath
Close up on grey stone statue in museum

Halong Bay & Cat Ba Island: 4 Nights

With its picturesque karst peaks jutting out of the sea Halong Bay is one of the most recognisable sites in Vietnam.

While the views are stunning and I highly recommend a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site, our visit to Halong Bay was a little disappointing. Learn from my mistakes and you’ll be able to make your Halong Bay experience an epic one.

Not many people stay in Halong City. Most tourists either do a multi-night booze cruise, or join a day tour from Hanoi. I’m not a big fan of rushed tours and the idea of catching a bus and then joining a boat tour and being herded around the bay was unappealing.

Instead, we rented a nice-looking Airbnb and decided to stay in Halong City. This was our first mistake. Halong City, despite its proximity to one of Vietnam’s largest tourist sites, is not a tourist city. It was even difficult to book a boat tour from Halong City and we ended up joining a tour from Hanoi after all.

White boat with Vietnamese flags heads into Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island

The highlight of our time in Halong Bay was an overnight stay on Cat Ba Island. Instead of staying in Halong City spend several days on the bay’s biggest island and use it as your base to explore.

Because our time here was rushed we didn’t do much, and I regret not staying longer. You can rent a kayak and explore by yourself, relax on the beach, visit the Hospital Cave or go for a hike in Cat Ba National Park. Cat Ba is also a great place to book a boat trip to explore the bay.

Take my advice and skip Halong City – Cat Ba is much more interesting. Or, if it’s your kinda thing, look into doing a tour from Hanoi.

Man kayaks around Ha Long Bay
Halong Bay, Vietnam

Phong Nha: 4 Nights

After making our way back to Hanoi we caught a night train down to Phong Nha.

A quick note on night trains: the train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi takes roughly 11 hours and costs around 615,000 VND ($26.50). You can then catch a local bus from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha. I’d recommend a night train over a night bus; they might be slightly more expensive but they’re also way more comfortable. And safer!

A sleepy rural town that’s seen a rapid increase in tourism due to the popularity of Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park, Phong Nha was easily one of my favourite places in Vietnam. Aside from the caves, the countryside is incredibly picturesque and cycling dirt roads surrounded by lush green rice fields felt like something out of a (backpacker’s) dream.

Phong Nha Farmstay

We stayed at Phong Nha Farmstay. Located a little outside of town the Farmstay features comfortable rooms, delicious Western and Asian food, a swimming pool and great customer service with a variety of tours on offer.

Oh, and did I mention the views?! Idyllic is the only way to describe it; sipping rice wine and watching the sunset over the rice paddies was one of the best nights I had in Vietnam. Trust me, you won’t want to leave.

From the Farmstay borrow one of the free bicycles and head into town to get a taste of some of Phong Nha’s incredible caves.

Make sure to check out Phong Nha Cave, one of the most impressive to visit as a day trip, and the nearby Tien Son Cave. The boat fee for up to 14 people to Phong Nha and Tien Son combined is 400,000 dong ($17.20 USD). Entrance to Phong Nha Cave is 150,000 dong ($6.50 USD) and entrance to Tien Son is 80,000 dong ($3.40 USD).

On your way back stop for a refreshment at Bomb Crater Bar. Try their gin and tonic; it was just what I needed after a day of adventuring.

Man wearing head torch and lifejacket in cave with waist-high water
Massive cave with lake and tents, Vietnam
Hang En Cave, Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park

Stay overnight in Hang En Cave 

For one of the most magical experiences you’ll have in your life hike deep into Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park and spend the night in the third largest cave in the world.

On your adventure you’ll begin by clambering down a steep hill, hiking for hours through the jungle and making several river crossings to get to Hang En Cave. Wet and tired you’ll enter the cave and be rendered speechless by the view that lies beneath you. The colourful tents look tiny in the vast cavern, and the river winds its way through the caves enormous length.

The price for this tour is 7,600,000 Dong (approximately $330 USD).

Read More: The Ultimate Southeast Asia Bucket List

Hue: 2 Nights

Next on your 3-week Vietnam itinerary head further South to sedate Hue. Built up around the Perfume River, Hue is a city of crumbling ruins and expanding cityscapes. The city has a rich history and although it wasn’t my favourite place in Vietnam, it’s worth taking a day or two to explore.

Imperial City & Royal Tombs

Make sure to visit the Imperial City. One of Hue’s top attractions, the Imperial City is a walled complex containing hundreds of monuments. Some have been partially destroyed. Hue was the site of one of the most bloody and intense battles of the Vietnamese-American War and the buildings inevitably suffered, but the Imperial City remains a beautiful place to visit.

Hue also features several impressive Royal Tombs housing the emperors responsible for building the Imperial City.

Some of the most popular tombs to visit include the Ming Mang Tomb, a beautiful complex planned symmetrically along a single path over 44 acres of land.

The tomb of Tu Duc was my favourite. Featuring temple and tomb areas the complex is colourful and opulent; fitting, as the emperor himself was known for a life of luxury and excess. Each of the tombs is 100,000 dong (roughly $4 USD) to visit, or if you’re planning on visiting multiple sites you can buy a combination pass.

Eat: Our guesthouse host recommended we try Lac Thien for local cuisine. We tried several tasty local dishes including banh khoai (a stuffed crepe with peanut sauce) and nem lui (lemongrass pork skewer).

Ornate carved tomb entrance, Hue, Vietnam
Ornate carved tomb entrance, Hue, Vietnam
Close up on Vietnamese dish and hand, Hue

Hoi An: 4 Nights

From Hue hop on a motorbike and head down the coast to Hoi An. We did a 1-day Hue-Hoi An trip with Le Family Riders, and it ended up being one of the highlights of our trip to Vietnam.

Lined with colourful lanterns and charming buildings, picturesque Hoi An is many traveller’s favourite part of their Vietnam trip.

Top Things to do in Hoi An

Hoi An’s rich heritage and strong Chinese and Japanese influence can be seen in the town’s Eastern-style architecture. Make sure to check out the Japanese Covered Bridge and The Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation.

An Bang Beach is 3km from the Old Town making it easy to rent a bike and spend the day relaxing by the ocean. It’s a good chance to unwind – you’ll probably need it after a busy few weeks exploring!

If you fancy a bit of shopping, Hoi An is the place to make your dream of owning a custom suit a reality. We researched a few different places and in the end had a suit made at Rubin Cloth Shop. The service was quick and excellent, the suit was great quality, and they made shipping home to New Zealand painless.

Person in a grey hoodie rides bicycle between yellow-coloured buildings, Hoi An
Colourful streets of Hoi An, Vietnam

Day trip to My Son ruins

For an interesting day trip from Hoi An head out to My Son ruins, a cluster of abandoned Hindu temples from the Champa kingdom.

The site was heavily bombed during the Vietnamese-American War and is honestly not as spectacular as Angkor Wat, but it’s still an important complex with cultural significance.

We made the trip as a part of a bus tour from Hoi An, but if you can I’d recommend hiring a motorbike and making your own way. I’m not a huge fan of organised tours and I imagine a visit to My Son would be more special without the hordes of tourists. For more information on how to get to My Son, this article has some good tips.

Eat: For a taste of Hoi An make sure to try cao lau. This Vietnamese dish is incredible, and the best version we tried was at a little street stall with red plastic tables outside the Japanese Covered Bridge.

Close up on cao lau dish on red plastic table
Close up on cao lau dish and coconut on red plastic table, Vietnam

Dalat: 2 Nights

Next up on your 3-week Vietnam itinerary; Dalat.

Temperate Dalat is a haven away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. Sometimes called the ‘Paris of Vietnam’ (although the two cities could not be more different), Dalat was at one stage home to the French who came fleeing the heat of Saigon. Today traces of French influence can be seen in the elegant colonial villas that still dot the town.

Top Things to do in Dalat

The Crazy House is one of the top attractions in Dalat and well worth a visit. Listed as one of the world’s ten most bizarre buildings in the Chinese People’s Daily, Hang Nha Crazy House is a fun explosion of surrealist architecture. Crazy House is the brainchild of local architect Mrs Dang Viet Nga and is actually a private residence (you can even stay there!). Tickets are 40,000 dong ($1.75 USD).

Dalat is also the adventure capital of Southern Vietnam. If you’re the daring type canyoning is a popular tourist activity in Dalat. Make sure to research the company you go with as the safety standards are probably more lax than what you’re used to. Still, it’s a fun way to spend a day abseiling down waterfalls, bashing your way through streams and sliding head first down rapids.

Explore the Countryside

While in Dalat you should also take the opportunity to explore some of the beautiful countryside.

We did a motorbike tour with the fantastic Through Vietnam and got taken to a flower farm, rice wine distillery, silk farm (we got to eat silk worm grubs!) and Elephant Falls. The highlight of the tour was stopping at a coffee plantation to try weasel poo coffee. Despite the beans having been pooped out of a weasel the coffee was surprisingly delicious. Don’t knock it til you try it.

Vietnamese guide takes a selfie with young couple and brown falls in background
Tour with Through Vietnam, Dalat

Ho Chi Minh: 3 Nights

End your 3-week Vietnam itinerary in the country’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh. Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh is chaotic, loud and congested with traffic. Walking down the streets you’ll spot trailing electrical wires, throngs of motorbike riders, sleek skyscrapers and tasty street food stalls.

It’s not the most attractive place in Vietnam, but Ho Chi Minh has an undeniable and exciting energy.

The War Remnants Museum is one place you must visit while in Ho Chi Minh. It’s not an easy place to visit, but it is important to fully understand the brutal effects the Vietnamese-American War had on its victims. One of the most chilling exhibits displays photos of children affected by US bombing and napalming. The entrance fee is 40,000 dong ($1.75 USD).

Cu Chi Tunnels

One of the most popular tourist attractions just outside of Ho Chi Minh is Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels were hugely important in the Viet Cong’s resistance against the American’s, but honestly, it’s very touristy.

There’s even a gun range where tourists can pay to shoot AK-47’s and other guns. But don’t do that, it’s gross and offensive, making light of a tragic part of Vietnam’s history. Tickets to Cu Chi Tunnels cost 110,000 dong ($4.75 USD) and tours to the site will vary in price.

Woman in orange sweater and hat walks through a local market in Hue, Vietnam
A local market in Hue, Vietnam

Start Planning Your 3-Week Vietnam Itinerary!

I’m gonna make a call; I think Vietnam is the most beautiful country in Southeast Asia. With landscapes ranging from dense jungle and lush green rice paddies, to immense caves and limestone cliffs jutting out of the sea, everywhere you go in Vietnam is incredibly picturesque.

Vietnam also offers delectable, fresh cuisine (tied for me with Cambodian and Thai food), friendly people and the chance to set off on an epic adventure. Trust me, friend, 3-weeks backpacking Vietnam is an experience you’re unlikely to forget.

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The Ultimate 3-Week Vietnam Itinerary
The Ultimate 3-Week Vietnam Itinerary