I get it. It’s impossible to decide where to go in Vietnam with limited time, because there are so many cool spots from North to South. So instead of spending hours figuring it out like I did, go with this adventurous 10 day Vietnam itinerary and you’ll have no regrets.
10 day Vietnam itinerary: how we chose North and Central
We focused on North and Central Vietnam on our December 2018 trip. Our interests and love of the outdoors aligned better with places in the North and Central. A few of the hot spots in the South were easy to eliminate (we thought Nha Trang would be too overdeveloped and touristy, Phu Quoc would be a lot like other tropical islands we’ve been to before, etc.)
There are other great places in the South of course, but we decided Hanoi, Bai Tu Long Bay (or Halong Bay), Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park, and Hoi An were the ideal places for us to hit up on our 10 day Vietnam itinerary. It was the perfect mix of two urban, cultural centers and two quiet, rural retreats.
We had our kids Cohen and Vayla (who were six and four) with us. It’s worth noting we would’ve done the same itinerary without them. If you are caucasian and travelling in Vietnam with kids, you’ll likely get some attention. Locals touched our blue-eyed, blonde-haired four-year old’s face over and over, asked to take photos with her/us, picked her up, and one even kissed her.
We had 10 full days not counting the day we arrived and day we left. You could easily stretch this itinerary longer for these four amazing spots. If you have 12-14 days, even better. Add a day to each of the last two places I recommend.
Days 1 and 5 – Hanoi
I say days one and five in Hanoi because most Bai Tu Long bay trips (the next stop on the itinerary) include transfers from Hanoi. So we split up our two days there.
Not so fresh off a long Japan Airlines flight from Canada, we started day one eager to embrace Hanoi’s Old Quarter. We arrived the night prior to a cacophony of honking and partying, locals waving Vietnamese flags everywhere. We learned the national football team had just won a big qualifying game. Although it was 1:30 a.m. and we were so tired, it was such a cool first impression of Vietnam.
HANOI SIDENOTE: If you haven’t travelled a lot, you may find Hanoi quite full-on. Yes, a good old culture shock: good for the soul. Hanoi awakens your senses – every one of them – the constant honking in your ears, the strong waft of barbecue smoke in your nose, a smattering of raw meat or colourful produce on the sidewalk that attracts your eyes, the healing touch of a cheap Vietnamese massage, or your first taste of local pho. It’s chaotic, but in an awesome way that’s not scary or sketchy (okay, maybe crossing the road is). So don’t worry – just enjoy it for all it is!
What to do in Hanoi
Despite the jet lag, we were excited to explore. We focused our time in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, suggested by multiple sources. I had read articles about how Hanoi is not the place to check temples, museums and tourists attractions off a list, but a place to soak up all that is Vietnam. I agree, but if you’re into history, museums and temples, check out Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the Temple of Literature, or the Museum of Ethnology, all of which sounded cool but not really what we felt like doing in Hanoi.
We spent our two days walking to all corners of the Old Quarter – eating, drinking, shopping, and taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Well, and the touches. You CAN’T pass up a six-dollar, 30-minute massage. You just can’t. At that price, the whole damn fam gets one.
We did a three-hour walking tour in Hanoi’s Old Quarter with Hanoi Free Local Tours. University students who want to practice English run this company and the tours are free, although they encourage tips. Our lovely guide “Silver” took us to the Hanoi Ancient House (otherwise known as Heritage House), a well-preserved traditional Vietnamese merchant’s house built in 1890, which was quite cool.
We also visited Don Xuan market, a huge indoor spectacle with every kind of kitschy toy, souvenir, and textile imaginable. When the kids became tired from exploring the Old Quarter all day, we went for coffee at Cong and ice cream on the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake. You’ll want to walk around this lake and across the cute bridges that go over it.
Shopping was a Hanoi highlight. Jewellery, hats, bags, luggage, figurines and decor, plus a plethora of North Face and other (fake) brand name clothing line the walls of shop after shop. You can get inexpensive original art in Hanoi. We bought a beautiful large canvas painting for $150 USD.
You may read that a water puppet show is a must in Hanoi. If you’re going to Halong Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay (the next place on my 10 day Vietnam itinerary), this will likely be included. Don’t see two.
Where to stay in Hanoi
I’m only going to recommend where we stayed because I can’t fault it. The Hanoi Emerald Waters Hotel and Spa is not a budget option, but for what you get, the price is a steal compared to hotels in other parts of the world (less than $100 USD per night, but price varies based on the time of year and occupancy).
The hotel was super modern and clean with nice decor, the location was great, the staff were incredible and had excellent English, the beds were more comfortable than average (we hardly slept on any soft beds in Vietnam), the breakfast was delicious and the massages were heavenly (although more expensive than six dollars). A pool was the only thing it lacked.
Where to eat in Hanoi
Where not to eat in Hanoi? There are options galore, but here are a few things you should try in Hanoi, where to get them, and one you shouldn’t try):
- Bun Cha – I highly recommend Bun Cha Ta
- Pho – Pho 10 was great
- Egg coffee – sweet and thick, a Hanoi must try – we went to Cafe Giang
- The Note Coffee – a cafe plastered with sticky notes from travellers; you can write your own and the kids loved it
- Cong is cool and pretty much the Starbucks of Vietnam
- The breakfast at the Hanoi Emerald Waters Hotel and Spa was very good, with Vietnamese and western options. Most hotels include breakfast.
- DON’T bother with the Hanoi Social Club – it’s hyped up in articles as a cool spot, but we didn’t find it anything special. Plus it smelt like pee.
Days 2-4 – Bai Tu Long Bay (or Halong Bay) Cruise
Off the Northeast coast of Vietnam is the stunning and popular UNESCO world heritage site Halong Bay, a top contender on all Vietnam itineraries. We chose Bai Tu Long Bay instead, slightly Northeast of Halong Bay, because it’s off the beaten path but features the same beauty. Only certain cruise companies are allowed to visit Bai Tu Long Bay. This means there are way fewer boats than Halong Bay and the water is cleaner. This was a three-day, two-night organized tour with Indochina Junk.
I recommend a three-day tour instead of a two-day tour. The three-day trip is actually only 48 hours on the boat, because transport to and from Hanoi and a stop on the way there and back is included in the three days.
Don’t cheap out on this portion of your trip – you need a reliable boat. There are some sketchy operators there. Indochina Junk was amazing and had very good reviews. Our family and two other passengers had the boat (called the Dragon Bay) to ourselves, along with the crew. Indochina Junk has boats with up to 24 cabins and a range of amenities, and were wonderful to deal with.
We filled our two days with gazing at the turquoise water and hundreds of karst mountains jutting out from the sea from the comfort of our upper deck lounge chairs, kayaking, exploring a cave, visiting a floating fishing village, squid fishing, learning how to make spring rolls, drinking wine and ice-cold Saigon, and enjoying some of the best meals we had in all of Vietnam, including a delicious barbecue lunch on a deserted beach.
If that last paragraph didn’t sell you on adding this to your 10 day Vietnam itinerary, I don’t know what will. To find out more, I have a post with all the details of this Unforgettable Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise, including a detailed itinerary, review of the food, and video of our boat.
Days 6-8 – Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park
This was our favourite place in Vietnam. I highly recommend you add this gem to your 10 day Vietnam itinerary, as I’m certain it will only get busier as more travellers discover it. It’s not the easiest to get to; go anyway. We flew from Hanoi to Dong Hoi then took an hour transfer to Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park. To get out of Phong Nha, we took a six-hour private transfer to Hoi An. Hue is about halfway and a good spot to stop for lunch or a stroll in the citadel.
Another UNESCO world heritage site, Phong Nha is relatively new on Vietnam’s tourist track. It’s set amongst the oldest karst mountains in Asia, with a pretty turquoise river running alongside Phong Nha town (also called Son Trach). It’s the beautiful rural Vietnam you might imagine, with quite a few good hotels and restaurants that have popped up in recent years. But the main attraction here is the hundreds of behemoth caves – the largest, most impressive I’ve seen by a long shot.
What to do in Phong Nha
As mentioned, the biggest draw here is the caves. We visited Phong Nha Cave, Paradise Cave, and Tien Son Cave – all were extraordinary. They take some effort to get to, but the journey and exercise is great. There are many other caves you can trek to, swim in, and even have mud baths in, including the Dark Cave and Tra Ang Cave, both of which we couldn’t do with our four and six-year-olds.
The Paradise Cave is clearly named after its beauty – a speleologist’s heaven on earth indeed. I can’t explain the size and intricacies of the cave formations, but I promise they won’t disappoint. The Phong Nha Cave is accessed by boat (buy a ticket at the tourist center) and they will row you the full kilometre length down the underground river inside the cave before letting you off to explore the dry areas.
The Tien Son Cave is a short walk from the Phong Nha cave and is accessible by climbing no less than 480 stairs (Cohen diligently counted). Our efforts were rewarded though, as we were the ONLY FOUR PEOPLE in this incredible, massive cave, which definitely can’t be said for the others.
Another highlight of our time in Phong Nha was the Duck Stop. If you’re travelling with kids, DO NOT miss this place. Nick and I also found it terribly amusing. It’s a working farm turned tourist attraction in an agricultural area with unpaved roads in the Bai Long Valley. First, taste the farm crops and see what’s growing, then ride “Donald Trump” the water buffalo before having some duck-tastic fun.
I’ll save you some element of surprise, but your fun might include being a duck leader or getting a duck massage. The family who lives here is lovely and perhaps the best part was the Bahn Xeo they feed you. Made by the farm mom, it was one of the best things I put in my mouth in Vietnam.
If you fancy a cold beer and killing your own chicken to eat after your Duck Stop experience, head to the Pub With Cold Beer. Phong Nha also has botanical gardens, plenty of hiking, and other outdoor adventures.
Where to stay in Phong Nha
The most luxurious place to stay is Victory Road Villas. This place had such an inviting vibe, with super helpful staff, huge two-floor modern villas with kitchens (stocked with wine!), outdoor tubs, and Netflix. It had a nice pool, sauna and great restaurant. If your budget allows, stay here hands down.
We visited the Phong Nha Farmstay and it was also very nice, although out of town. The highlight is the tranquil surroundings and pool area that overlooks a rice paddy.
Where to eat in Phong Nha
Similar to Hanoi, here’s my list of places to eat or drink, and one to not eat at:
- The Villas Restaurant at Victory Road Villas, which has Vietnamese and Western options
- Momma D’s Rooftop Patio – great sunsets/views, happy hour, and board games
- Bamboo Cafe – for cocktails and healthy options
- DON’T eat at Easy Tiger Hostel – we went here trying to find a lively place to drink one night. It was bumpin’ alright (filled with backpackers 15+ years younger than us, and we sat there with our kids like big dorks), but the food was just okay. It’s a hostel after all.
Here is my full post on Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park, with more details and photos to sell you on hitting up this truly wicked destination.
Days 9-10 – Hoi An
Hoi An is an essential stop on a 10 day Vietnam itinerary. It was a vibrant trading port back in the day and is exceptionally preserved – the whole ancient town is a UNESCO world heritage site. The colourful silk lanterns hanging everywhere make for a whimsical strolling experience, especially with kids.
What to do in Hoi An
Hoi An’s ancient town is chock-full of shopping, restaurants, bars, and tourist attractions, like the multiple preserved historic houses and temples, and a thriving market. It’s a place to wander and lose track of time, which is exactly what we did. When the kids got tired of walking, we took a “cyclo” ride (a rickshaw pulled by a bicycle) or borrowed bikes from our hotel. Vayla sat in a baby seat and Cohen sat on a little seat with foot rests at the back of my bike. Don’t bother asking for a helmet.
Buy a pass to the ancient town, which includes entrance to five of 22 heritage sites and attractions. The Japanese covered bridge is a must-see. The Tan Ky Old House was interesting and similar to the ancient house we visited in Hanoi. There’s no shortage of other museums, temples, pagodas, and ancient houses in Hoi An.
Hoi An is also the spot to get suits or clothes made. Nick got two high-quality suits and three shirts made for a fraction of what he pays in Canada. The suit savings actually paid for a big chunk of this trip! He researched where to go and was happy with the service and end result he received with Yaly Couture.
The shopping in Hoi An was the best we saw in Vietnam, with boutiques selling unique leather goods such as shoes and handbags, and a few shops selling fashionable women’s clothing, like Hot Chilli.
There are lovely beaches close to Hoi An – An Bang beach and Cua Dai beach. We didn’t go as it wasn’t hot enough and rained off and on while we were there. Our hotel had a free shuttle to the beaches.
There are other attractions not far from Hoi An worth noting, like Ba Na Hills and Marble Mountain. We visited Marble Mountain on our way to Hoi An, which felt like a bit of a tourist trap. It had some cool mountain views, various temples, and a few small caves though.
Ba Na Hills is dubbed the Disneyland of Vietnam, but we read it was very busy and expensive. It features the “Hands of God” bridge you may have seen in photos. The main reason we didn’t go though was that given the high altitude, the weather can be downright evil in the rainy season (foggy, cold, and rainy), making it unenjoyable and hard to see the sights for the price.
Check out this post on Hoi An with kids for more perspectives on the Ancient Town and unique things to do there.
Where to stay in Hoi An
We stayed at the Lantana Boutique Hotel Hoi An, which was nice, but the room was quite small for the four of us for three nights. If you’re a family, ask for a larger room. The food is plentiful and staff fabulous, plus they had an over-the-top Christmas party. The covered and heated pool is a great escape during a downpour.
Where to eat in Hoi An
Hoi An offers a unique blend of Vietnamese food mixed with influences from different cultures. Trade partners settled in Hoi An years ago, and married culinary offerings with those of the locals. For example, the famous dish Cao Lau (noodles, pork and greens with broth) is a Vietnamese-Chinese dish (although some sources say Japanese) apparently only found in Hoi An and is quite delicious.
We didn’t have as much luck here with good restaurants, but that could’ve been because of my occasional tendency to become hangry. It can take over the importance of finding the best restaurants. Our two favourite places were Morning Glory and Hoi An Golden Kitchen.
Morning Glory had a glorious menu with a wide array of options. The cao lau and white rose dumplings here were excellent – everything was. Hoi An Golden Kitchen also had diverse options and the service was impeccable. My citrus and seafood salad was delish, and Nick opted for another cao lau, because he may never have it again. Sensible.
10 day Vietnam itinerary: final thoughts
This 10 day Vietnam itinerary will provide you with an epic adventure. It involves a lot of moving around and features activities that require a decent amount of physical activity, but Vietnam is not a place to park your ass on the beach for 10 days. You could, but then you wouldn’t come to know the beauty, chaos, charm, grit, diversity, laid-back vibe and sensory bliss that is Vietnam.