On our second trip to Vietnam, we came to love this country. Our first visit wasn’t a huge success, but we left our second trip wanting more (always a good sign).
We’ve spent nearly two months in total exploring Vietnam and have covered the majority of the major places (and a few lesser known) to be able to craft the perfect 2 week itinerary for you. You’re in for a trip of a lifetime!
Vietnam 2 week itinerary
Vietnam is deceptively large and whilst getting around isn’t too difficult, in two weeks you don’t want to spending all your time on transport. To put this into perspective, if you were planning to get the train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City you’d need 2 and a half days constantly on board!
So we chose to focus on the north. It is our favourite part of the country and can fit nicely into a two week itinerary (although you’ll maybe want a little longer to relax every now and then).
The itinerary starts by flying into Hanoi and flying out of Da Nang, either back to Hanoi or internationally. Da Nang connects with many of the major hubs such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.
Day 1: The streets of Hanoi
Vietnam’s capital is a great place to start your trip and you’ll be thrown in the deep end here. The streets are busy and you’ll see many of the five million motorbikes that are currently on the streets of Hanoi (almost a motorbike for every man, woman and child).
We love the culture shock and immediate energy of Hanoi and whilst it can be a little daunting at first, you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly. The best thing to do first is the Old Quarter to get a feel for the capital. The streets here get quieter and you’ll be able to stop in Giang for some egg coffee (seriously, try it!) and Banh Mi 25 or one of the many other street vendors for a baguette - a local favourite.
We love Hanoi but watch out for these scams so they don’t spoil your trip.
Read next: Sapa - The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
After checking out the Old Quarter, head over to the remarkable Train Street for the 3.30pm train (arrive a good half hour before). This remarkable place is a tiny narrow street where the locals live within millimetres of the trainline. When it comes through, you’ll see how they’ve used every spare inch of space!
To get to Train Street head to Hanoi Train Station and go south. Walk to Kham Thien Road and then follow the train tracks. You shouldn’t be able to miss it!
You can read more about it on our post all about Train Street.
In the evening try the local speciality Bun Cha at the now world famous Bun Cha Huong Lien. This place hit the limelight when Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain turned up, sat on plastic chairs and devoured this delicacy with a Beer Hanoi. It should be on everyone’s itinerary for Hanoi!
Whilst you’d fear this place would be incredibly touristy (especially with the Obama/Bourdain pictures on every wall and “Obama Set Menu”), it retains an authentic and local feel, whilst serving up some of the best food we had in Vietnam.
This was just one of the many things we loved to do in Hanoi.
Day 2 - The History of Vietnam, Hanoi
You’ve seen the streets of Hanoi, now it’s time to see a bit more of the history that made Vietnam the country it is today.
Begin with an early start at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh was the leader of the Communist revolution of Vietnam. After years in exile in Europe and Russia, Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam to firstly lead them to liberation from the French at Dien Bien Phu (an iconic place near Sapa) and then onto the war with the Americans.
Ho never got to see his vision of a united Vietnam (he died before the North were victorious), but his image can be seen everywhere in the country and his body was embalmed. You can see Ho Chi Minh’s body every morning from 7am until 11am (except Mondays and Fridays).
The queues here can get pretty manic, so arrive early to ensure you don’t spend more time than needed. Weekends are also best avoided for crowds. You can’t take a bag or camera inside, but they do have storage facilities.
After the mausoleum, head to the Temple of Literature for a taste of the more ancient side of Vietnam. The temple is a 20 minute walk from Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, or a 5 minute taxi ride (it shouldn’t cost any more than 20,000 dong or $1).
It is one of the older buildings left in Hanoi after the war and French occupation and is a peaceful oasis from the traffic and noise of the streets of Hanoi. Whilst it probably won’t blow you away, it is a pleasant place to look around and see the older Confucian architecture.
In the afternoon, it is time to see some of the Vietnam War close up at Hoa Lo Prison (otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton). This prison was originally built by the French to incarcerate Vietnamese dissidents.
However, it is famous for being the place where American pilots were imprisoned during the Vietnam War. Arguably it’s most famous prisoner was John McCain - the United States Senator who lost the 2008 election to Barack Obama.
It is an interesting place to explore and learn a lot more about Vietnamese history: especially the Vietnamese propaganda around their history. You’ll see the juxtaposition of this horrific treatment of the Vietnamese at the hands of the French and the really nice humane treatment of the American POWs by the Vietnamese.
It felt incredibly strange to read how nice the Vietnamese were to the Americans with descriptions of Christmas parties, games of basketballs and happy faces everywhere. This was made stranger by our knowledge that prisoners were beaten to within an inch of their life. McCain could no longer lift his arms above his head after being tortured for not describing his captors nicely enough on a propaganda video. So read everything, but include a pinch of salt.
To finish the day, head to the famous Water Puppets show. Every day there are several showings, with the puppets submerged in water to the backdrop of traditional Vietnamese music. It doesn’t sound like the kind of things we usually recommend, but it was really good!
The show takes you through traditional folk stories and is completely in Vietnamese, so you won’t understand a thing. But you’ll get the gist of what’s going on, it’s a really unique experience.
Getting to Hanoi
We recommend flying into Hanoi to start your trip. You can get a taxi from the airport into the centre of the city. It won’t take long, but make sure you check our blog all about avoiding scams to ensure you don’t get caught out by one of the dodgy taxis.
Getting around Hanoi
Taxis are incredibly cheap (so long as they aren’t rigged) and you’ll rarely pay over $1 - 2 USD for any journey. If you want to be safer, you can use Grab, the local version of Uber. As this fixes the fares and takes the money out your bank account, you won’t have to worry about someone rigging the meter or demanding more money.
Where to stay in Hanoi
Emerald Holiday Hotel
The Emerald Holiday Hotel is not only a really great base for exploring Hanoi, it’s staff set a incredibly high level for friendliness and their willingness to help you find local favourites. We are yet to have met friendlier hotel staff (just look at the Booking.com score!).
The rooms are clean, comfortable and a great retreat from the noise, but make sure you request a room with a window (some don’t have them).
Day 3 - 4: Halong Bay
After the capital of Vietnam, it’s time to see one of the wonders of the world: Halong Bay. This huge area of limestone karsts is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Whilst we’re not cruise fans, sailing through this UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the highlights of any trip to Vietnam.
The only way to see Halong Bay is by boat and you’ll have millions of different options including 1 day, 2 days or 3 days as well as Halong, Bai Tu Long or Lan Ha Bay.
It is a stunning area and everything you could hope for. The limestone karsts are huge and there are hundreds of them, if you can find a spot without other boats in your eye line it feels like you’re sailing through Jurassic Park.
However, you won’t be alone. This area is incredibly popular and - sadly - there’s no way of getting anywhere to yourself once you step off the boat. Every stop will be crowded and as every tour chooses the same itinerary and route (something that boggles the mind) you can get that feeling of being herded.
The key to having the best time is picking the right boat. The majority of the trip will be spent onboard and having a really nice boat can make or break your trip. We were so lucky with our choice, as we decided to treat ourselves to a luxury option with a private balcony where we could take in the views whilst we sailed through.
You can give or take the excursions to Ti Top Island or the big cave, but we wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to see this area, even with the crowds.
Getting to Halong Bay
Hanoi to Halong Bay
A lot of cruise companies will offer a transfer from Hanoi to Halong Bay within the price. The funniest claim is that many companies offer a “limousine bus”, but in reality it’s a mediocre mini van! The journey should take about 2 hours and get you to the cruise ship by about midday.
Alternatively, you can get the train from Hanoi to Haiphong City (around two and a half hours) and then get a bus to where the boats go from for Halong Bay.
Our Halong Bay Cruise
Paradise Elegance Cruise
We decided to splash out on a luxury cruise as we were celebrating Joe’s birthday that day, after seeing how busy the stops were I am so glad we went for this option. Nowhere is it more true that you get what you pay for than in Halong Bay.
We decided to pay a little more than we usually would as it was a once in a lifetime cruise, but we felt that Paradise Elegance was worth it. Not perfect but a very good option for the price.
As soon as you step onboard you’ll realise that this boat is luxurious. The rooms felt like a small 5 star hotel with our own beautifully furnished bathroom and private balcony. We could have happily hung out in our room for the two days.
Whilst breakfast and lunch were mediocre, dinner was a la carte and much better. We started our meal with a seafood platter, freshly caught in Halong Bay which was the highlight of the whole meal. It doesn’t come much fresher!
This was followed by a soup, a main course - either Western or Vietnamese and a tasty pudding. We were able to eat on the deck, making it even more magical - this wasn’t standard so ask ahead of time. Drinks weren’t included so we stocked up during happy hour : )
Where to stay after Halong Bay
Moon Bay Hotel
Most overnight cruises finish at about 10am, but if you don’t fancy rushing onto Cat Ba (or you can’t face leaving Halong Bay yet), then head to the Moon Bay Hotel. This is based in the main harbour and the rooms have balcony views of the famous karsts.
The rooms are big, clean and comfortable and we really enjoyed staying here for a night afterwards. You can also get some great pizza in the Sandy Bay Beach Bar & Restaurant just up the road if you need a break from Vietnamese food!
Day 5: Exploring Cat Ba Island
It’s time to head to Halong Bay’s biggest island: Cat Ba! To carry on your Halong adventure, Cat Ba is a great place to explore beyond just the waterways. We loved it so much that we wrote an entire post all about what to do in Cat Ba.
The best way to arrive in Cat Ba is to take the public ferry from Tuan Chau. Essentially this is a cheap Halong Bay cruise with the epic views, but also cars and wooden benches!
The ferries run three times a day (8am, 10.30am and 3pm) and costs 40,000 dong (just under $2 USD). At the other side you can catch a minibus into the main town for 25,000 dong (just over $1 USD).
From here, rent a motorbike (they usually cost 100,000 dong - $4 USD - without petrol) and head into the middle of the island.
The first stop on exploring the interior of Cat Ba should be the Hospital Cave, a remnant of the Vietnam War. Hidden in a tiny opening on one of the many mountains is a hospital the Vietnamese built during the war. The cave it is in is so big that they could build walls and a roof!
You can look around at the pretty squalid conditions the patients had to endure and see how extensive this complex was. To ensure tourists have something to look at other than rooms and beds, the owners have chucked in a few dodgy mannequins.
Head onwards on the main road to the entry of Cat Ba National Park. From here is the start of one of the sweatiest hikes we’ve ever done, but it leads to an incredible viewpoint.
The trail to Ngu Lam Peak looks simple - 1.8km up, 1.8km down. However, the track is mainly steps up hill and with the humidity in Cat Ba, things get tiring and sweaty pretty quickly.
At the top you have two views to choose from - the tower or the unfenced peak. Both are epic, but the furthest viewpoint is unobstructed (something we always enjoy).
The trek should take about 1.5 - 2 hours depending on how long you linger at the top - we also spent quite a while taking in the views so you could be much quicker!
To finish off the day, head to Canon Fort for sunset. From here you have the choice of the bar and view over hundreds of little islands East or the view over Cat Ba harbour. Both are pretty nice places, but expect crowds and noise.
Day 6: Finding your own paradise island by kayak
One of the most unexpected highlights of Vietnam was hiring kayaks and exploring Lan Ha Bay. We expected it to be pretty but it was so much more spectacular than we imagined.
In Lan Ha Bay you can explore a lot of quiet areas and find an empty beach or island for yourself!
Kayaking in Lan Ha Bay
We’ve kayaked a couple of times, but wouldn’t say we’re expert kayakers. This is why if we can kayak Lan Ha, you can too!
The water can sometimes get a little wavey when big boats go by (which aren’t too frequent) and there’s a couple of currents, but generally it is very easy. Kayaking around Lan Ha isn’t like kayaking in the ocean.
The reason we loved it so much was because Lan Ha was really quiet, stunningly beautiful and had plenty of places to explore. We were expecting to see loads of karsts, but were blown away when we came across Vanboi Island.
Vanboi has beautifully still water, an empty beach and a bar serving drinks, you can’t beat Vietnamese iced coffee on a hot hot day! Add in no one else around and epic limestone karst views and you have our idea of paradise. We didn’t think you could find a quiet island in the middle of such a popular site.
For those wanting a higher tempo, you can head to Freedom Island. This is arguably more beautiful, but it has been taken over by backpackers who seem to drink 24/7 - no judgement, just not our thing! There’s a bar here serving alcohol and laughing gas… but it’s still worth visiting for the two stunning beaches.
However, we recommend just exploring all the little waterways! This was what we saw with just half a day, there’s probably loads more out there. Where else can you explore a UNESCO World Heritage Site on your own?
How to kayak Lan Ha Bay
So far as we could see, the only way to kayak Lan Ha Bay is to go to Ferry Terminal Ben Beo (marked on the map below) and meet a gruff and not very friendly woman - not a great start, but she’s the only one who seemed to organise a boat out to the kayak point. She can organise a transfer to the floating pontoon where the kayaks are. The rate seems to be the same whether you do an hour or a whole day.
We would strongly recommend taking your phone and seeing where the start point is on google maps before you paddle. It is very easy to get lost!
Getting to Cat Ba Island
Getting to Cat Ba Island from Halong Bay
This route is easy - you take the public ferry we recommend above, which takes one hour. Mini vans will be waiting for you when you get there, as are taxis and it’s a 30 minute drive to Cat Ba town. If you’re travelling with a motorbike you can bring it on the ferry.
Getting to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi
There are a couple of different ways to get to Cat Ba from Hanoi. You can take the train to Haiphong - which takes roughly 2.5 hours. Pha Binh port is a couple of kilometres from the train station and has ferry and speed boats making the short crossing to Cat Ba.
Note this is not a scenic ferry ride and you won’t see the karsts on this route. When you look online it says the journey takes one hour, but we are sure it was more like 30 minutes (not that we were timing it 😂). It is then 30 minutes further by road to Cat Ba town.
Alternatively - and the way we would recommend - you can take the bus to Dao Tuan Chan harbour and then take the beautiful ferry ride we mentioned above.
The bus journey takes 3.5 - 4 hours because they don’t use the highway. In a private car on the highway you could do this journey in just over two hours.
Where to stay on Cat Ba Island
As Cat Ba Island is a backpacker favourite, the hotels in town are all pretty basic. Whilst Cat Ba Sunrise Resort looks a step up, at over $130 a night it looked over priced to us.
You may just want to take the hit if you’re on holiday, however we think that Vanboi may be worth the risk and a little cheaper.
Island getaway - Vanboi Ecolux Resort
You won’t get a better location than Vanboi: beautiful beach, amazing limestone karsts views, quiet, and still water to swim in.
If you’re looking for a Robinson Crusoe experience in the middle of Halong Bay (without having to rough it), this is it. The rooms looked good and the view was out of this world.
However, it isn’t perfect. The rooms aren’t cheap for what they are (for $100 USD per night, you’d want more). There’s no wifi, it’s cash only and you’ll have to have the food they serve as there’s nowhere else to go!
But who said paradise was easy….
Budget - Phoenix Flower Hotel
Hotels in Cat Ba aren’t that different, but Phoenix Flower has the nicest people working there you’ll meet, always going out of their way to help.
The rooms are basic but large, and the bathrooms are also a decent size (they are wet rooms where the shower is beside the toilet) but the place is clean and has air-con, wifi and breakfast included (which is pretty good). It’s a really good option for $15 USD a night.
Day 7: Ninh Binh’s natural wonders
Ninh Binh has been described as “Halong Bay on land”, it’s a very beautiful area to explore for a couple of days. In this rural, green countryside, you’ll see a quieter part of Vietnam and experiences like the boats in Trang An and the ancient pagodas make this one of our favourite spots in Vietnam.
You can choose to take a lot of taxis, but we found that having your own two wheels was a really enjoyable way to see Ninh Binh. Motorbiking around Ninh Binh is more than just a way of getting around. The quiet roads outside of the city are really beautiful and you’ll feel like you’re seeing a more traditional and rural side of Vietnam, different to what you have seen so far.
The roads go through rural villages, next to rice paddies and around the limestone mountains. It’s the kind of place where an hour on the motorbike was a preference, rather than a chore.
If you’re not too confident on a motorbike, then a push bike will suffice, but it makes for hard work (especially when you see the condition of the ones they rent out in Vietnam).
Head north to Trang An, a simply stunning place to visit. I’d usually associate a boat trip with hundreds of other boats and tourists as my kind of hell. However, Trang An is big enough for you to get away from the crowds and take in this scenic area in peace and quiet.
Trang An is a series of waterways that wind around and through epic mountains (yep, you’ll paddle through caves) that are also covered in dense forests. The area is one of the few that is made even more stunning with a bit of mist and cloud.
It was the place chosen for “Kong: Skull Island” (no, we haven’t seen it either) for its atmosphere and into the wild type feeling. It’s a shame that the film crew chose to leave some of their cheesy sets behind.
The journey takes about 2.5 - 3 hours and you can choose one of three routes. The majority of tour groups choose no.1, desperate to tick off every pagoda, cave and spot in the area. Route 2 and 3 will offer you a quieter experience whilst still stopping to see a spot or two. We chose 2 and were not disappointed, for us the beauty was in the river journey itself, not stopping at every possible temple along the way.
The boats cost 200,000 dong per person (just under $10 USD) but if you have any less than three, you’ll probably have to share with someone else. As it is a popular spot with tour groups, we’d recommend arriving before 9am.
After lunch, head south towards Mua Caves, a place tucked away in the limestone karsts near Tam Coc. Alongside Trang An, Mua Caves is the big draw for visitors to Ninh Binh. Located 7km from Ninh Binh city, Mua Caves can be reached via a pretty bumpy road and then a walk through Vietnamese Disneyland - there’s swings, lights, manicured paths and plastic statues to navigate through or have a selfie if you’re so inclined.
The main attraction is at the top of a pretty long and steep staircase. Start climbing and take a left at the drinks/souvenir shop. This will take you to Lying Dragon Mountain and stunning view no.1 towards Tam Coc. In the wet/winter season, the river overflows, but in Spring and Summer the landscape turns a vivid green. No matter what time of year you go, it’s a beautiful sight.
Once you’ve taken in the views, head back down to the shop and go straight on (don’t head down to the bottom yet) to the other peak. At the top you’ll see a beautiful little pagoda and some more views to the countryside with Ninh Binh in the distance. It’s a different landscape with the farmers in the rice paddies and a few more mountains to take in.
Entry to Mua Caves is 100,000 dong per person (about $5 USD) but is free for anyone who stays at the Eco Lodge.
Day 8: Tam Coc
After a pretty hectic week, day 8 is where you can slow down a bit. Tam Coc is a great place to see a couple of things and take it easy with a coffee or three.
In the early morning, head towards Tam Coc and keep going until you reach one of our favourite pagodas. There are few places more picturesque in Vietnam than the entry of Bich Dong. The entry crosses over a lake full of lilly pads, leading to the entrance of the pagoda.
It is also one of Vietnam’s most instagram-worthy places. 😂
Inside there are a couple of temples and a path that leads behind them into a cave with some buddha statues. Then the path goes up a hill to another view of Ninh Binh.
Even in cloudy and gloomy conditions the countryside in Ninh Binh looked photogenic.
Entrance to Bich Dong Pagoda is free.
For a morning brew with a twist, head to Brick Coffee just outside Tam Coc. Here you’ll find a local favourite that is different to the Egg Coffee you had in Hanoi. Whilst the Hanoi version doesn’t taste too different from a normal coffee, the Ninh Binh one is almost thick enough to need a knife and fork!
It’s not what you expect: a creamy thick top with a hit of coffee at the end. It’s certainly unlike anything else we’ve tried and we loved it!
The family who run the coffee shop told us that it used to take 30-40 minutes to make, but when they got an electric whisk it went down to 10.
After the morning brew, head north past Trang An to Hoa Lu. It can sometimes seem that everywhere in Vietnam was the ancient capital, but Hoa Lu has the claim to being the original ancient capital. While there’s not too much left you can explore a couple of temples that are in the traditional Confucian style.
It couldn’t have been built in a better location with the stunning limestone karsts surrounding the temple grounds and the river meandering through the road to the entrance.
Sadly there’s very little information about the buildings or history, so it felt like looking around any other Confucian temple in Vietnam. Still, it has significance and you’re in Ninh Binh anyway, so why not have a look?
After a hectic start, this afternoon is going to be chilled. You don’t have to have a beer at Chookies Beer Garden, but they are cheap if you do (about $1.50 USD). The reason we love this place is because it’s got comfy seating and has a few home comforts - something we don’t feel guilty about having eaten a lot of Vietnamese food in the trip so far.
The pick is the wood fired pizza which is delish. However, Aussies can have their much loved Chicken Schnitzel or Steak. They also serve great coffee and a cake as well (all that weight you lost on the Vietnamese food can come back instantly at Chookies).
The place has a nice atmosphere in the middle of Tam Coc and is a great place to chill for an afternoon.
Read next: How to spend two days in beautiful Ninh Binh
Getting to Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh from Cat Ba Island
We feared that this journey was going to be a nightmare, but we found that several companies will take you from your hotel in Cat Ba all the way to the centre of Ninh Binh or Tam Coc. It cost 240,000 dong per person (about $10 USD) and included the ferry and bus all the way there.
Make sure you check the bus you get as some make you change and take a loooooot longer. Our journey took about 5 hours, but there are some that can take over 8!
Getting around Ninh Binh
We chose to hire a scooter from Mua Caves which cost 100,000 dong per day (around $5 USD). You can also hire bicycles as the majority of roads are flat, but you will have to contend with drivers having little regard for cyclists!
Alternatively, there’s plenty of taxis around that can drop you off anywhere you want to go.
Where to stay
Mua Caves Eco Lodge
If you’re looking to stay outside of the noise of Ninh Binh city, then Mua Caves offers peace and quiet in a rural setting. The lodge is actually a series of small buildings set around the path to the top of the mountain.
The positives are that the rooms are big, comfortable and blissfully quiet at night. You also get in to Mua Caves free and before anyone else. The drawbacks are that during the day you will hear people walking around outside your room and there was some construction going on (but if you ask for the furthest away room from the construction, this is mitigated). After sunset, none of this is a problem.
The food isn’t the best either, head out for your meals.
Day 9: The Caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang
Phong Nha-Ke Bang may not be as famous as the likes of Halong Bay, Sapa or Hoi An, but it it should be as it is home to the biggest caves in the world as well as others that make the top 10. Many were only “discovered” recently and it’s staggering to think that places like Phong Nha are still being explored in the modern day.
For the traveller, Phong Nha is a simply stunning area and offers one of those chilled and scenic areas that you look for in South-East Asia. The area is surrounded by huge limestone karsts with a stunning river, but it is a lot quieter than anywhere else on the itinerary which means you can explore the area in relative tranquility.
It’s no surprise that it was one of our favourite parts of Vietnam.
Day 1 in Phong Nha will focus on the main attractions - the caves. We would have included the biggest cave in the world (Son Doong, a place that is 5.5 miles long and tall enough in places to build a 40-storied skyscraper) but it costs $3,000 USD to visit! Here’s some easier ones to get to that will be a lot lighter on your wallet.
Start early to avoid the tour groups who make a lot of noise when visiting Phong Nha Cave. The boat launch is in the middle of Phong Nha town (ignore the location on Google Maps, the real location is below).
From here you can choose to see Phong Nha Cave by boat or include the option to walk around Tien Son, a cave that is a lot less busy. Trips to both caves take about 3 hours in total.
The trip starts with a ride on the boat along the river. In the morning this is a beautiful scene with the locals fishing from their boats among the mountains. The river soon turns to an emerald colour before entering the cave where the boat engine is turned off and paddling begins.
You’ll paddle for about 20-30 minutes before being dropped off on a landing to explore. The cave is huge and you can take in the stalagmites and stalactites that have formed over millions of years.
After Phong Nha Cave, you can take the steps up to Tien Son if you bought the ticket back in town. It’s a steep, long and sweaty climb up which puts off 90% of tourists going. There are a few drink stalls along the way to catch your breath and have a cool drink.
We really liked Tien Son as you could walk quite far into it in peace. It’s the only cave we visited where no one else was there. We’d taken it all in after 30 minutes or so and headed down to our boat to go back to town.
We’d recommend getting some lunch at Capture Cafe which serves really good coffee and food. It’s also the only place we found selling local tea, which was excellent. It’s within walking distance from the boat launch for Phong Nha.
After lunch hire a motorbike or taxi to head towards one of the other main attractions in Phong Nha - Paradise Cave. This is another monster of a cave that was discovered in the last 20 years by someone hunting in the mountains and looking for a cool spot to rest in he found the opening.
As soon as he looked in he saw a huge cave that required ropes to get into at that time. Before long professional cavers were scoping it out.
Paradise Cave is 30km out of Phong Nha town and takes about 45 minutes to get to by scooter. The roads are in great condition and there’s only a few cars, lorries and buses to worry about!
After Paradise Cave, head to the river to chill at Bomb Crater Bar. As the name suggests this place was where a bomb hit in the Vietnam War and created a big crater, two in fact.
Whilst nature has covered up most of the damage, the bar is a nice place to swing in a hammock with a beer and relax by the river. You can also swim here if you fancy cooling off.
Day 10: The rural beauty of Phong Nha
After saying how beautiful Phong Nha was, the first day was mainly spent underground! Day 10 is when you get to see the natural beauty of Phong Nha.
If you fancy a great place for sunrise and a beautiful early morning view, then head to the river on the location below. The soft light and mist across the water is magical, especially if you can find somewhere that’s open and serves breakfast on the veranda some were just beginning to open at 7am when we stopped by.
After getting fuelled up, head over to Mooc Springs, a place with dazzlingly blue water. This is a popular place with Vietnamese tourists, so heading over in the morning should hopefully help you avoid the worst of the crowds.
The springs are a little touristy with boardwalks, rope swings, bridges and kayaks condensed into a small area, but it’s undeniable how beautiful the place is. On a hot day, the water is refreshingly cool and how could you resist water colour that looks like this? Hint - it’s not photoshopped!
Following on from Mooc Springs, drive to Chap Lay Farmstay’s Adventure Centre to kayak along the Emerald River. This beautiful stretch of river offers up views of the epic landscape and a chance to get away from the road and into the countryside.
Hiring a kayak only costs 100,000 dong per hour (about $5 USD) and the only other living being you’ll see are the water buffaloes that wallow in the water to cool off.
To finish the day, head to the aptly named “Pub With The Cold Beer”. The pub is set down a nasty dirt road that starts 15 minutes out of Phong Nha town. We wouldn’t recommend going down this after rain as the road turns to slippery mud which is treacherous on two wheels.
As well as cold beer, the pub serves up food and drinks with a view - a great way to chill at the end of a day of adventure. They also have the option of choosing a chicken for you to catch and kill before they cook it for you….. this wasn’t for us but is a major draw for many travellers.
Getting to Phong Nha
Phong Nha from Ninh Binh
You can get a long and slow bus that leaves at an ungodly hour from Ninh Binh, but we chose to take the train from Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi (taking about 8 hours). You can then take a taxi to Phong Nha which took about 30 minutes and should cost 350,000 dong (about $15 USD).
Getting around Phong Nha
The things to do in Phong Nha are pretty far apart (some of the caves are 30km outside the town), so you’ll need something more than a bike unless you are super fit! We hired a motorbike, but we’d only advise others to do this if it isn’t your first time on a scooter. Whilst Phong Nha isn’t too bad, it’s not really the place to learn as a lot of driving will be along a major road.
The other alternative is to use taxis. There are quite a few around and we saw many others choosing this option.
A stopover on the way - Muong Thanh Luxury Vinh
If you’re not a fan of 8 hour commutes, then you can stop halfway at Vinh. Whilst there is virtually nothing to do in Vinh, it has a nice hotel that’s pretty cheap and a good place to rest up and relax.
The Muong Thanh Luxury Hotel has some really comfortable rooms (the superior ones have bathtubs) and is the perfect place to rest up after some long days.
Where to stay in Phong Nha
Phong Nha Lake Resort
Whilst the Phong Nha Lake Resort is set 7km from the town of Phong Nha, it makes up for the not so convenient location with the most comfortable rooms in the area for the same price as many basic homestays (when booked in advance, walk in rates were considerably more expensive).
We booked into the Lake View Bungalow and had a big, clean room with a comfortable bed, nice shower and a pretty lake view. Whilst scooter hire is incredibly expensive by Vietnamese standards (250,000 dong per day or just over $10 USD), they were almost brand new with 3,000 km on the clock, making the ride a lot more comfortable than any others we’d used in Vietnam. They also had the best helmets.
Day 11: Hue
On our first visit to Hue, we were a bit underwhelmed. I had high expectations for the city known for being the former capital of Vietnam and the Citadel. On our second visit, we were pleasantly surprised to see that the city had turned into a very eclectic place with hipster coffee shops, great restaurants and laneways that gave it character.
It still has that traffic clogged, big city feel, but it also had little quiet pockets you could escape to.
The morning starts with the Citadel - the ancient capital of Vietnam. Temper your expectations as the vast majority of it was destroyed during the Vietnam War (you know how we said earlier you can never get away from it?).
The complex is set with some huge walls and is entered by a beautiful temple entrance. Once inside it gets a bit greener with trees, grass and ponds. There are only a couple of buildings to explore now as well as the foundations of buildings destroyed during the war. In its day it would have been very impressive.
The highlight is The Long Corridor, a Chinese styled corridor which lets in beautiful light through the shutters. It’s strikingly painted red and gold, a glimpse of some of the former opulence of this site.
Entry to the Citadel is 150,000 dong (about $7 USD) and opens from 7am until 5pm.
The next is a detour from the usual kind of tourist trail. Hire a scooter from your hotel (they usually cost about 100,000 - 150,000 dong for the day - a max of $7 USD) and head off south to the Abandoned Water Park for a glimpse of what feels like a post apocalyptic world.
Ho Thuy Thien was intended to be a big Water Park with slides, shows, an aquarium and huge dragon to climb up. Shortly after opening it was closed down and left to disrepair. Whilst it isn’t strictly open, you can pay the guards a little money to tour the place.
You can drive around the whole site on your scooter and it’s hard to describe just how strange it is going around a theme park on a motorbike. The most interesting part is the derelict dragon which housed the aquarium. You can see the shattered glass inside (make sure you wear closed shoes) where people could see the small walk through tunnel.
You can then climb to the top and take in the view from the dragon’s head. Where else can you get an experience like that?!
If you want more information about the park, check out our blog all about Ho Thuy Thien.
Getting to Hue
Phong Nha to Hue
The most straightforward way to get to Hue from Phong Nha is to get the bus that goes there directly. This leaves at between 5.30am and 7am and costs 200,000 dong per person (about $10 USD) and takes about 4 hours.
Alternatively you can get a taxi to Dong Hoi Train Station and get the train south to Hue. The train costs about 100,000 dong ($5 USD) for a soft seater and takes about 2 hours.
Getting around Hue
With only a day, we’d recommend getting a scooter. The roads are very busy in Hue and there are a lot of lorries who love pushing motorbikes around, so take care.
Otherwise there are plenty of taxis and Uber drivers who can take you from place to place. The only difficulty is you’ll have to walk around Ho Thuy Thien which is a big site but still definitely doable.
Where to stay in Hue
Hotel Le Perle
Hue is blessed with a lot of great options but we recommend Hotel La Perle. The entry level rooms were so cheap that we treated ourselves to a King Room on the top floor (which was still under $20 USD per night!).
It is very clean and offers comfortable, big beds and is set in a very quiet location. The free fruit all day and a decent breakfast included in the price was a really nice touch as well. The staff were really nice and it was a great place to rest after a day’s activities.
Don’t just take our word for it, see the 9.5 Booking.com score below!
Day 12: Getting to Hoi An
The journey from Hue to Hoi An is full of places to explore and is wasted if you choose to do it on a bus. Although it isn’t cheap, we recommend hiring a driver who will stop off at the major sights along the way.
Whilst the driver costs $50 USD, you can stop as much as you want for as long as you want. This means you can really explore the Hai Van Pass, Da Nang Beach and the Marble Mountains at your own pace without being in a tour group. It was because of this that we thought it wasn’t bad value.
An even better alternative would be to do it on a motorbike but we were carrying too much luggage!
Take the Hai Van Pass on the way to Da Nang. This stunning coastal mountain road was popularised by Top Gear who rode along it on a collection of rusty motorbikes. Whilst the roads were quite empty back then, they certainly aren’t now.
The Hai Van Pass is very popular for good reason. The gutsy can still ride motorbikes along it, just watch out for huge tour buses wanting to overtake at any time (even on blind corners).
There are several lookouts, our favourite was towards Da Nang and was commonly known as “the rocks”. It has a lot of drinks stalls outside it and you can get some epic views down to the coast.
After the Hai Van Pass, head for some lunch and a beautiful view at Da Nang Beach. The long white sand beach is very pretty and also very quiet, a winning combination!
Whilst it is flanked by skyscrapers, you can also see the mountain ranges in the distance.
Hop back in the car and head to one of the most popular attractions around Da Nang - the Marble Mountains.
This is a series of cave temples set high up in mountains made of marble. It’s a really beautiful site to explore, with Huyen Khong Cave being our favourite. Inside the cave is a small temple that sits under a shaft of golden light. It’s very atmospheric.
If you choose to climb the stairs to the temple, then entry is 40,000 dong - $2 USD. If you don’t fancy getting incredibly sweaty from the walk up, then you can get the lift for 15,000 dong - just under $1 USD.
Day 13: Hoi An
Ok, you can breathe now! After a hectic pace, it’s time to slow it down in Hoi An. Hoi An is made for exploring at a slower pace with a beautiful old town that is fully pedestrianised. A fast speed in this area is choosing to explore by bike!
Head into the Old Town and explore the traditional buildings on foot. You won’t have to worry about the motorbikes trying to run you over here - well apart from the odd few that break the rules! Make sure you take in the beautiful Japanese Bridge and then meander through the lantern lined streets which have retained the same style and feel for centuries.
To take in the Old Town from a different perspective, head to Faifo Coffee for it’s rooftop views. You can see all the tiled roofs, yellow painted buildings and lanterns from above.
Alternatively head to one of the many Hoi An Roastery coffee houses to grab a delicious ice coffee, a comfortable seat and enjoy some people watching.
For lunch, head to Miss Khanh’s Banh Mi (or Banh Mi Queen as it’s also known). For 20,000 dong ($1 USD) you’ll have one of the best baguettes you’ll ever eat!
Hoi An is world famous for its tailors, so why not head to one of the most famous and get yourself some customised clothes. Bebe is so popular that it has spread to three stores and they can turn around a custom made suit, dress or shirt in 24 hours (although you may want to give them a bit more time for resizing, we needed 48 hours for ours).
They will deliver it to your hotel and keep on amending until it’s right for you.
For sunset, head over to An Bang Beach. This long beach is rugged and wild - a stark difference from Da Nang Beach - and has always been incredibly windy when we’ve been! You can walk along the beach or there are a couple of places to get a drink and even a lounger to take in the view. It’s technically a sunrise spot but we found the reverse sunsets were still very pretty.
Day 14: The Golden Bridge and Lanterns
It’s your final day in Vietnam, so let’s finish on a high! We’ve left a couple of our favourite things in the whole country until last.
Get up before sunrise to ensure you miss the crowds at the Golden Hands Bridge in Ba Na Hills. This stunning place is tucked away in Sun World - a theme park just outside Da Nang - and is a 45 minute drive from Hoi An. It opens at 7am and we advise getting there for the second it opens as it is very crowded by even 8am!
Hop on the longest cable car in the world - 5km in total - to the summit of the nearby mountains which has a completely different climate to the rest of the area. Even on the clearest day, the Golden Bridge can have thick fog and cold temperatures. This just makes the place more interesting.
At 7am it’s likely there will only be a couple of people, but this grows by the minute. By 9am there were queues on the bridge and crowds! There’s a really nice pagoda and buddha to check out nearby and a twee little French village, but the highlight is the bridge. We waited for the clouds to pass and got some great views before the clouds returned again minutes later.
It isn’t cheap at 700,000 dong per person ($30 USD) but we felt it was well worth it for seeing this beautiful spot.
Here are our top tips for avoiding the crowds at the Golden Hand Bridge.
You can easily hire a scooter and ride all the way yourself. Otherwise there are plenty of drivers who will take you up to Sun World and drop you back in Hoi An.
Rest up in the afternoon before heading out in the evening for one of the highlights of Hoi An. This old trading town is also famous for the colourful lanterns that light up the streets after dark. It is really beautiful walking around streets and seeing everywhere lit by lanterns.
Head towards the night market to snag a bargain, grab some street food or even a massage. There’s a great buzz and its worth walking around and seeing what’s going on even if you don’t want to buy anything!
Finally, head to the river to float among the lanterns on the water. It doesn’t cost much (about 50,000 dong per person - $2 USD) and you can paddle along the river and set your own lantern afloat, the trip takes around 20 minutes. It’s a really beautiful experience and one we’ll always remember.
Make sure you go to the western side of the bridge (Cau An Hoi) as many boats on the eastern side don’t have the license so you won’t be in the area with all the lanterns.
Where to stay in Hoi An
The Royal Hoi An by M Gallery
There’s no better place in the whole of Hoi An to treat yourself than the Royal Hoi An. This stunning hotel has the WOW factor and after all that hard work, you deserve it!
The rooms are big, luxurious and so comfortable. They’re the kind of rooms that are so difficult to leave as you feel so relaxed! We loved the bathtubs in the Wakaku Wing that were in the main part of the room (the bathroom isn’t divided from the bedroom and one flows to the other seamlessly)
If you can muster the energy to leave the room, there’s a rooftop pool that offers amazing views of Hoi An and is a great spot at sunset. The hotel also serves the most delicious brekkies, quite sure we put on all that weight we lost hiking!
Vietnam Packing List
Vietnam Lonely Planet Guide
The Vietnam Lonely Planet will help you plan the perfect trip. We don’t go anywhere without it!
Make sure you have a plug adapter for Vietnam. Some hotels will have plug sockets that can be used by any plug, but the majority do not.
Mosquito Repellant - 100% Deet
The mosquitos in Vietnam can be vicious and the repellant in Indonesia is pretty weak. Buy 100% deet before you go to keep them away!
We’ve used the Anker Powercore on all our travels to ensure our phones and other electronics are powered for long journeys. These powerbanks seem to last for a few days without the need to recharge.
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Are you planning a trip to Vietnam? Is there somewhere in the North you think we should have included? Let us know in the comments below!