The top sights and activities.
1. The Mekong Delta
2. Bicycling – the latest tour craze
3. Sea kayaking – thousands of coves, islands, and inlets await
4. Trekking in Sapa and surrounding areas
5. The open-air university in Hanoi
6. Dalat’s Mad House and monasteries
7. Hué’s Forbidden City at sunrise or sunset
8. Having clothes made in Hoi An while exploring the estuary and shop houses
9. The Cu Chi tunnels, if you’re not claustrophobic
10. Coffee and baguettes at a café in the former French Quarter in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Hanoi
11. Snorkeling or scuba diving in Nha Trang
12. Exploring the islands of Halong Bay
13. The bus ride along parts of the jagged coast
14. Floating lazily down the Mekong River
15. Hoa Lo Prison and Museum in Hanoi (the so-called “Hanoi Hilton”)
16. Spending at least one night on the Reunification Express between Hanoi and HCMC (in soft sleeper if at all possible!). Since there isn’t much to see between Hanoi and Hué, that is my preferred overnight trip.
10 days – ATaste of North or South
This is the bare minimum since you need two days just to get there and one to get back. If you fly into Bangkok or Hong Kong you may lose another day waiting for connections onward, especially coming from North America. With seven days “on the ground” you’re going to need to fly, or take overnight trains. You’ll also want to book private or very small group tours to fit your limited time schedule. Group tours don’t necessarily leave every day.
1. Fly into Hanoi.
Spend the first day in Hanoi, exploring Old Hanoi and the French Quarter, and do a bit of shopping. Take some time to see the outdoor university and one of the many museums.
Set up a two-day trip to HalongBayand Cat Ba Island. You’ll get to hike up to a cave, and take a walk around Cat Ba Island. If it’s summer, you might rent a bike and cycle the perimeter of the island before it gets dark.
Return to Hanoi and take the night train on a private tour (three days, four nights) to Sapa. Spend the first and last nights of your trip on the train (1st class sleeper) and then you’ll have two days of guided trekking (12-km/seven-mile and 17-km/10-mile trips) with the third day in Sapa to explore. These trips can be arranged at almost any guest house or hotel in Hanoi.
Return to Hanoi in the early morning of the seventh day, and fly back to your gateway Asian city the same day.
2. Fly in to Ho Chi Minh City (hcmc).
Spend the first day in HCMC, exploring the remnants of Colonial glory – especially the Opera and the Old Post Office – and arrange your onward travel.
Take the hydrofoil to Can Tho, and spend two peaceful days peddling around the Delta. Take the hydrofoil back to HCMC, spend the night, then fly to Hué – the old Imperial City. Rent a bicycle or hire a taxi and visit some of the tombs of the Ming Emperors just south of the city. The next day, visit the Forbidden City, and that evening take a bus to Hoi An.
Spend two days around Hoi An, exploring the old Chinese shophouses, and then hike to some of the nearby craft villages. The next day, take an organized tour to the Cham site, about 40 km/24 miles west of Hoi An. If you want to get some tailor-made silk clothes, make a tailor your first stop on arrival in Hoi An and your last stop on the way to the train or airport (in Danang).
Fly from Danang or take the night train back to HCMC, then continue to your original Asian gateway city.
Two Weeks – Add a Bit of Spice
With four extra days, you could do the North or South itinerary above and then fly to the other main city (Hanoi or HCMC).
1. If you do the northern route, you could do the itinerary in Option 1, then fly to HCMC, spend a day there and two days in the Mekong Delta, then fly back to your Asian gateway city. Or you could fly to Hué, spend two days, then fly to HCMC and spend a day before beginning the journey home.
2. If you do the southern route, you could do the itinerary in Option 2, then fly to Hanoi, and take a three-night, two-day trip to Sapa, then a day tour of Hanoi before starting home. Alternatively, you could take the two-day, one-night trip to Halong Bay, then visit Hanoi for two days and then head home.
To really see and explore and do things, you need to spend at least three weeks…
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