I struggled to find examples of itineraries I liked when preparing for three weeks in Vietnam. There are lots out there for two weeks, and even more for four weeks due to most people opting for either the free 15 day visa or the entry level 30 day visa. Whilst some examples of three week recommendations were available, none entirely ticked our boxes so we decided we’d share ours.
Although actually this isn’t quite what we did as I’d say we made a couple of mistakes or made some choices based on factors that other travellers wouldn’t necessarily need to consider. Examples of this being staying in Dong Hoi city instead of Phong Nha town when visiting Phong Nha National Park as we needed good internet to work, as well as only staying one night instead of two. We also visited Nha Trang which was a bit rubbish when we should have taken time out to see Cat Tien National Park – we couldn’t decide which to go for and plumped for a couple of beach days to save money and do work which was a mistake.
So, this is our recommended itinerary for three weeks in Vietnam based on us learning from our mistakes. If you like partying and beaches it’s probably not for you, but if you want to see plenty of the history and culture of Vietnam as well as nature and foodie highlights it could be a good choice.
Hanoi – 4 nights / 3 days
Our first stop on our 3 weeks in Vietnam was Hanoi, where we arrived late in the evening on the bus from Laos and spent a total of 4 nights and 3 days. This was plenty of time to see all the sights the city has to offer and our days looked something like this:
Day 1 – wander around the Old Quarter and take in the crazy motorbikes, loud street vendors and the shops selling all manner of interesting things. Spend time at Hoan Kiem lake and visit the temple, before checking out the famous residential street with the train line cutting through it.
Day 2 – visit Ho Loa Prison, used by the French Colonists to house Vietnamese rebels and later a place where US prisoners of war were kept. Then spend time in the French quarter with its crumbling decadent architecture before taking in a water puppet show.
Day 3 – see the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum complex although be wary of strange opening times and closures at certain times of year. This is a great insight into his life and ideology. The Temple of Literature is nearby and is an impressive complex of temples that used to house the city’s main university.
Hanoi Food & Drink
You’ll be spoilt for choice with the food in Hanoi – try to take a street food tour to introduce you to Northern Vietnamese flavours. I was too sick unfortunately but we heard amazing things from people who did these.
Bun Bo Nam Bo do amazing beef noodle soup – you don’t even need to order as it’s their only dish.
For vegans or people who enjoy vegan food we can’t recommend Minhchay highly enough, I think they have a couple of outlets in the city.
Make sure you drink loads of egg coffee as it’s the most traditional drink in Vietnam and by far the best examples are found in Hanoi. One of the streets in the Old Quarter is lined with brilliant little coffee shops that are always packed out – try as many as possible!
We stayed in the Rising Dragon Palace which cost 25USD per night. We had a superior double room and it was one of the nicest hotels we chose for our whole trip – would highly recommend.
Halong Bay – 1 night / 2 days
After Hanoi we did the usual jaunt to Halong Bay for a 1 Night / 2 Day tour of this beautiful world heritage site. I was feeling a little cynical and expected to be underwhelmed but it was an amazing tour and one of the best we’ve invested in, not just from our 3 weeks in Vietnam but the whole of South East Asia. We met lovely people and had the luxury of getting a pretty good price for a decent boat.
Based on a tip from friends back home we opted to tour Bai Tu Long Bay which takes a different route from the standard cruises and is far less busy as a result. We paid 95USD each and booked through Lily’s Tours who we were pretty happy with.
Halong Bay > Phong Nha – Overnight Bus
Rather than going back to Hanoi to head South like most people do, we managed to sort out a bus from Halong Bay to Ninh Binh then from there through to Dong Hoi. Our advice would be to take this route but get off one stop earlier at Phong Nha town and base yourself here to explore the park. We paid 25USD each for these bus tickets and I’m pretty sure we were ripped off so make sure to shop around! It’s 4 hours to Ninh Binh then about 7 hours to Phong Nha.
Phong Nha – 2 Nights / 2 Days
We weren’t here for long enough and once we realised how beautiful it was we wish we’d arranged to stay an extra night. Definitely one of our favourite spots on our 3 weeks in Vietnam. On your first day explore the park by bike and spend time visiting the caves – definitely the Paradise Cave – and maybe one other if you have time. The Dark Cave is supposed to be amazing but you do have to half swim half crawl in some places which we didn’t fancy. Stop off at the Botanic Gardens and soak up the beautiful views on the circuit that goes around the park.
On day 2 take a trekking tour to explore more of the landscapes and to learn more about the nature and history of the area. It’s not cheap but the tours look awesome and we wish we’d done one. We also wrote a short full post on our day trip to Phong Nha.
Hue – 2 Nights / 2 Days
We got to Hue by bus (again) which took around 4 hours and cost about 5USD each. It was pretty amazing how many people they crammed into the bus but it wasn’t too uncomfortable on the whole.
Most people don’t rate Hue too highly compared to other cities in Vietnam which Id say is fair, but it’s worth visiting if you have time and we had a busy couple of days.
Day 1 – explore Hue city including the Imperial Palace and ancient citadel. Take a short cruise down the Perfume River if you can negotiate a decent price with the ticket sellers down by the riverside.
Day 2 – take a full day tour of the DMZ which only costs around 15USD and gives a fascinating insight into the Vietnam war. More information on our full day tour to the DMZ in this post.
Hue Food & Drink
The DMZ bar is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Hue and is worth visiting for a beer. The whole place is Vietnam war themed with a map of the DMZ and massive helicopter model on the ceiling.
Risotto Italian restaurant is also worth a visit if you’re after some Western food. Prices are reasonable and the food is brilliant.
We stayed in a lovely guesthouse (Canary Boutique Hotel) with really friendly staff and a helpful tour desk. It’s located centrally and around a 15 minute walk from the Palace and just 5 minutes from the night market. It was a massive room with a seating area and a really good shower. It was just 16USD per night.
Hue > Hoi An – Biking the Hai Van Pass
Travelling to Hoi An or Danang via the Hai Van Pass is a must do on a 3 week Vietnam itinerary, and making the journey by motorbike is a brilliant day trip. You’ll be given a map and some tips on places to stop off whilst your luggage is transferred to Hoi An for you by bus.
Popular stops include the Elephant Springs, Lang Co beach where you can enjoy a brilliant seafood lunch on an empty beach, an old army lookout point in the hills and the marble mountains. It’s a long day but full of interesting things to see and amazing views and only costs around 20USD for the bike and luggage transfer. We booked this through our guesthouse and there’s plenty of tour agencies to choose from if you want to negotiate or find a driver who will take you.
Hoi An – 4 Nights / 4 Days
We’d heard amazing things about Hoi An so planned to spend the most time here and weren’t disappointed. There isn’t necessarily loads to do but the city is a UNESCO world heritage site full of beautifully preserved architecture. It’s great for wandering round and enjoying the many cafes and bars on offer.
One must do is a cooking class in Hoi An where you learn to make some of the most popular central Vietnamese dishes. The recipes are quite complicated and it’s a busy day but a brilliant opportunity to enjoy some of the best food in Vietnam. We used Madam Vy for our course and would highly recommend.
Hoi An Food & Drink
Rosie’s Cafe is a quaint hipsterish cafe down a quiet side street that serves avocado toast and delicious milkshakes.
Also try Nu Eatery which is always busy after being included in Lonely Planet but worth the wait. It serves traditional Vietnamese dishes including steamed pork buns, various salads and rice dishes and everything we sampled over our 3 course meal there was delicious. It was one of our favourite meals of our whole 3 weeks in Vietnam.
As well as the cookery class and various restaurants, Madam Vy also boasts a popular street food kitchen. It’s a sanitised street food experience where you can try every type of Vietnamese food you can imagine. There’s also a section for weird and wonderful dishes which are worth exploring if you’re brave enough to try them!
Drink coffee at the Hoi An Roastery which does the best coffee in town although it’s not exactly a cheap option. They also do a decent egg coffee which we drank far too many of!
Hoi An Accommodation
We went for a budget option just a few minutes walk from the old town (Harmony Home Stay) and had a great stay for just 18USD per night. They also sold bus tickets at cheaper prices than the agencies in town.
I can’t recommend this home stay enough as the family who run it are lovely – they have a traditional tailors downstairs and patched some jeans and adjusted a dress for me completely free of charge.
Hoi An > Ho Chi Minh City – overnight bus
We actually took this bus to Nha Trang for 250000D per person but it wasn’t worth the stop off, and we’d recommend taking the bus directly down to Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City. I think it takes around 18 hours and leaves from Hoi An at about 6pm.
If you do want some beach time Nha Trang is alright but I’ve heard much better things about Phu Quoc which has many daily flights from Ho Chi Minh, so either way it’s worth heading there from central Vietnam if you’ve only got a couple of weeks to explore the country. If I had to plan our 3 weeks in Vietnam again, I’d head here instead of Nha Trang I think.
If you do decide to stay in Nha Trang, we can recommend the Hotel Suisse and we spent a lot of time at the Sailing Club Beach Bar – pretty pricy by backpacker standards but a nice touch of luxury!
Ho Chi Minh City / Cat Tien National Park – 3 Nights / 3 Days
Take a night in Ho Chi Minh to relax and recover from the night bus before starting a tour to Cat Tien National Park the next day. We had really wanted to go but we’re tired and running out of cash – hence stopping in Nha Trang for this time instead.
The best tour itineraries involve spending 2 nights staying in basic accommodation in the park and doing plenty of trekking and exploring the nature and wildlife in the area. Typical sights include Crocodile Lake and the Bear & Wildcat Rescue Station, and the tours cost 100USD to 200USD depending on what level of luxury and type of tour you choose.
Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon – 3 nights / 3 days
Back to Ho Chi Minh city to spend some time exploring this bustling metropolis. We spent one and a half days exploring the city itself and another day and a half on tours in the local area so our Saigon time looked something like the following.
Ho Chi Minh Sightseeing
Day 1 – spend the day exploring the city on foot including seeing the central city park, the War Remnants Museum, the Palace and Notre Dame Cathedral
Day 2 – half day tour to Cu Chi Tunnels which are a remnant from the war and around 2 hours outside the city. Tours cost around 10USD including the entry ticket and return to the city by about 3pm. This leaves time to check out any places you’ve missed like the famous Ben Hai market. If you’re into Vietnam war history then I’d say this is one of those tours you should definitely leave time and budget for on your 3 weeks in Vietnam.
Day 3 – full day tour of the Mekong Delta, again around 2 hours outside of the city and around 380000 for a standard itinerary including a decent lunch and English speaking guide. Honestly we had a pretty rubbish tour so if it’s an area you want to really enjoy rather than just see a bit of then it’s definitely worth spending more and making sure your itinerary is better than the ones that just take you to lots of places where people try and persuade you to buy things. We’re glad we did the tour and parts of the area are beautiful but the basic tours are just a tourist conveyor belt.
Ho Chi Minh Food & Drink
Famous Saigon Restaurant – ambitious name but lived up to it with simple traditional Vietnamese dishes well cooked with great prices. The beef noodles and steamed pork are delicious.
Bun Cha 145 – the cheapest and best meal we had in Vietnam, for less than 10USD we enjoyed various Vietnamese style tapas for starters, delicious Bun Cha and a couple of beers.
Saigon Street Food Market – just around the corner from the main market this is a modern street food kitchen that’s well suited to any tastes. Buzzing with people it has around 30 stalls selling everything from Vietnamese and Korean dishes to Thai and Malaysian delicacies. Great value and allows you to try lots of different food.
Ho Chi Minh Accommodation
We stayed at the Dragon Palace 3 having been moved again from our original choice of the Brilliant Saigon. It was perfectly adequate but the best thing was the location – easy walking distance from all the main sights.
Got More Than 3 Weeks in Vietnam??
Add a couple of days on the beach in Phu Quoc and make time to take a trip to Sapa for a couple of days from Hanoi – famous for its trekking, hill tribes and stunning rice fields. We bailed on this as it was 0 degrees while we were there but it looks like an amazing place to spend a couple of days.
Got Less Time??
Consider cutting out Hue and spending more time in Hanoi and Hoi An to optimise your trip if you have less than 3 weeks in Vietnam. You could also skip Cat Tien National Park.