Vietnam is one of the most culturally rich and mind-blowingly beautiful countries you can visit in Southeast Asia. Whether you’re slurping on phở in Hanoi, sailing through limestone cliffs in Halong Bay or roaming lantern-lit streets in Hoi An, there is something interesting to discover at every turn.
Although Vietnam looks small on a map, don’t be fooled! There is so much to uncover in this coast-lined country that it can be overwhelming to decide where to visit on your holiday. Some travellers opt for a northern Vietnam trip, some travel only to the centre of Vietnam and others prefer to go on a South Vietnam holiday.
If you only have 5 days to spend in Vietnam, why not visit the whole country? Keep reading for a carefully curated 5-day itinerary to Vietnam that visits all of the most important destinations from top to bottom.
Disclaimer: you will fall in love with each and every place on this list so don’t blame us if you “accidentally” miss your flight home and have to stay longer.
Day 1: Arrive in Hanoi
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Kick-off your Vietnam tour in the bustling capital. An excellent introduction to the country, Vietnam doesn’t get more authentic than Hanoi. Although it is a city that seems to run at a helter-skelter pace, visitors never fail to be utterly charmed by it. Think tightly-squeezed narrow alleys, colourful flurries of motorbikes and of course, world-class street food.
A taxi ride to the city centre from Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport takes around 40 minutes.o get a really good glimpse into local life, head straight for the Old Quarter; the beating heart of the city. A chaotic whirlwind of crisscrossing streets await you; getting lost here isn’t just a given, it’s a must!
Wandering around the Old Quarter, you’ll stumble upon everything from souvenir shops to colonial-style cafes and local bia hoi (local beer) drinking corners. You can easily meander the streets on foot or, if you prefer, you can take a traditional cyclo tour.
One of the star attractions here is Hoan Kiem Lake, which is encircled by a pleasant walkway and one of the few green spaces in the city. Locals and tourists alike gather here for sunny afternoon strolls, an ice-cream with friends or even tai-chi sessions early in the morning. Other attractions in this area include the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s oldest university or the gothic architecture of St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Don’t leave the Old Quarter without a bite of mouth-watering beef noodles at Bun Bo Nam Bo or trying the quintessential Hanoian egg coffee in Cafe Giang.
Once you’ve had your fill of the chaotic centre, head towards a quieter area of town, West Lake, which hosts a wealth of interesting sites to visit, such as Tran Quoc Pagoda (the oldest in the city). Finish your sightseeing day by visiting the final resting place of the beloved former president at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.
Day 2: Halong Bay Cruise
Leave the capital behind as you journey to one of the most spectacular seascapes of Southeast Asia.
A four-hour drive from Hanoi will take you to Halong Bay, a complex of over 1,600 limestone islands that jut out from the sparkling emerald green waters. No trip to Vietnam is complete without a cruise to this UNESCO listed World Heritage Site, and although there are dozens of cruises that explore the islands (with many including transportation to and from Hanoi) not all are equal.
Due to the increasing popularity of the site, you’ll find that the best cruises tend to venture off the beaten track, so you can enjoy the natural landscapes without having to share precious sea-space with a large crowd of equally eager travellers.
Once you’ve boarded your cruise, you can kick-back and relax. As you sail through the waters, you’ll glide past picturesque floating villages, tiny secluded beaches and towering cliffs that look straight out of a fantasy film.
One of the best ways to explore Halong Bay, however, isn’t simply on a boat, it’s in the water! Make the most of the natural beauty by kayaking through the limestone cliffs, swimming in the endless caves and lagoons and even enjoying some heart-stopping rock climbing over the limestone karsts.
After an adventure-packed day of exploring, spend the night in Halong Bay to make the most of your time here. Accommodation options include sleeping in a private beach, staying on Cat Ba Island or spending the night on a boat. If you choose to stay on your cruise, you can enjoy a number of exciting activities until the late hours.
Take a traditional Vietnamese cooking class, show off your pipes in a karaoke session or try your hand at squid fishing from the junk – it’s not as easy as it looks!
Day 3: Travel to Hoi An, City of Lanterns
Wake up on your cruise and start your day bright and early with one of the popular tai-chi classes on the top-deck. Take one last cruise around the bay this morning before returning back to Hanoi. You will head straight to the airport to catch a short one-hour flight to Da Nang, situated smack-bang in the middle of the country.
Only 45 minutes away from Da Nang airport, you’ll reach the next destination of your trip: the ancient city of Hoi An. Nestled on the banks of the Thu Bon River, you’ll soon see why this is the crown jewel on any Vietnam travel route. With its sunny-coloured alleys, lantern-lined streets and pretty beaches, Hoi An is nothing but enamouring.
Hoi An is the tailor capital of Vietnam – one of the most interesting things to do here is pay a visit to one of the hundreds of local tailors here. You can make a bespoke item of clothing, shoes or accessory for a ludicrously affordable price. If you can dream it, they can make it!
If you’re a self-proclaimed foodie, be sure to carve out some time in the day to chomp on some Vietnamese seafood in Mai Fish, a restaurant nestled in a gorgeous heritage house overlooking the river. Continue your visit with an outdoorsy activity: one of the best ways to see Hoi An is on a bicycle. Peddle past lush green rice fields, spot a water buffalo or two on the way, and head to Hidden Beach, for an afternoon of sun-fuelled fun.
Although the countryside is scenic, when Hoi An truly comes alive is when the sun goes down. Famed for its Chinese-style lanterns that hang from virtually every corner of the town, a stroll through the ancient quarter is an enchanting experience. With its fairytale-like river setting, grab a drink overlooking the water and watch the magic unfold.
Day 4: Da Nang and Fly to Ho Chi Minh
Drive 45 minutes to nearby Da Nang today to savour one last morning on the Vietnamese coast. Da Nang is famous for its pristine palm-lined beaches, breathtaking mountains and laidback small-town vibe. Non Nuoc beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and is the perfect spot to lay down a towel and soak up some rays.
For a more intrepid morning, rent a scooter and zip up to Marble Mountain. Overlooking the dramatic coastline over the South China Sea, this is a well-known pilgrimage site sprinkled with caves, temples tunnels and peaks. Here you’ll find pagodas that date back to the 17th century, not to mention some spectacular sweeping panoramas from the top.
Around midday, head to the airport in Da Nang to catch a short flight to the sprawling metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, located in the South of Vietnam. Spanning over 24 different districts, this is one of Vietnam’s largest and most diverse cities.
A blend of the traditional and the modern, Ho Chi Minh City is a kaleidoscopic melting pot of skyscrapers, colonial buildings and street food stalls. Start your afternoon off by diving into the Asia-in-wonderland rabbit hole that is Ben Thanh Market. A wonderful bustling introduction to southern Vietnamese life, the huge complex is full of narrow alleyways stacked with everything from yards of fabric to exotic fruits to fish-shaped slippers (yes, really).
As day turns to night, wander to Bui Vien street and plonk yourself down on one of the many street bars selling criminally cheap beer. It’s one of the best places to people watch and watch the backpacker mania unfold. Finish your day today on a high – literally. The Bitexco Tower is the second-tallest building in Vietnam, and from a 360° sky deck that stands at 68 floors up, the city well and truly lights up.
Day 5: Ho Chi Minh and Departure
Cure your hangover this morning in an old communist apartment block. Located at 42 Nguyen Hue Street – what was once an abandoned building has now been transformed into a hip, alternative shopping centre.
Each floor has its own shop or café overlooking the city and it’s a great spot to fuel up before a morning of exploring. Once you’ve had your fill, you’ll find that the Ho Chi Minh City Hall is only a stone’s throw away. With its pastel-coloured exterior, it’s an excellent opportunity for a ‘Gram-worthy photo stop.
Wandering around the pearly pink Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica and the Central Postal Office are also a must – purely to marvel at their French colonial beauty. History buffs should spend some time in the War Remnants Museum, which includes a photo exhibition retelling the crimes committed during the Vietnam War and the harrowing aftermath on the country and its people.
For one last meal in the big city, head to Huynh Hoa Bakery and fill your belly with probably the best sandwich you’ll taste in Vietnam. The only thing they sell here is bánh mì, a staple all over the country, which usually consists of a baguette stuffed with meat, vegetables, and paté. This bakery always has queues of locals bursting out into the street (which is always a good sign).
Although it is virtually impossible to squeeze all of Vietnam into 5 days, the destinations on this itinerary will give you a glimpse into the contrasts between Northern, Central and Southern Vietnam, as well as a taste of local life. Hopefully, it will make you hungry for another adventure in Vietnam, or if anything, another bánh mì!