Stretching 1,650 km from north to south, Vietnam is packed full of wonderful sights and experiences that are not to be missed. Because of this, coming up with an itinerary that fits such an array of beauty and culture into just a week or so can seem pretty daunting. But if you’re short on time and don’t have much annual leave, you don’t need to worry.
We’ve compiled a handy seven-day guide for your whistle-stop tour of Northern Vietnam.
Day 1: Sapa
We start in Sapa – our northernmost location, close to the border with China. This region is home to many indigenous hill tribes and is well known for its hiking.
To really take it all in, prepare for an early start and get ready to explore the beautiful scenery on foot. The seemingly endless terraces of rice fields look like something from a sci-fi movie (particular when they’re shrouded in fog) and, like me, you may have to pinch yourself to remember you’re still on planet Earth!
It’s just a two or three-hour trek to visit a hill-tribe village called Cat Cat. Home to the H’mong people, who emigrated from China 300 years ago, it’s one interesting and scenic trip, especially since it passes a waterfall!
Day 2: Sapa
For a more relaxed day as your legs recover from all the hiking, take a wander through the town. Coffee drinkers, here you can get your first fix of Vietnamese coffee! Iced coffees are everywhere and great for cooling off or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try the Vietnamese specialty – coffee made with egg yolk (tastier than it sounds)!
The main square of Sapa acts as a marketplace for hill-tribe women to sell their handmade goods (like dyed fabrics, hemp plants and handmade textiles), so here you can come away with cheeky souvenir or two.
Since today is your last day in Sapa, you may as well make it memorable, right? Why not climb Fanispan Mountain – the highest mountain in Vietnam? Though anyone of decent fitness can climb it, you will need the proper hiking equipment (sturdy shoes, layers) and a guide to make sure you’re safe.
If hiking isn’t for you, there is a cable car that will take you to the summit too, with great views on the way up and down.
Be aware that the weather can turn bad very quickly in Sapa, so be prepared for a downpour at any time. The scenery, however, should more than make up for damp feet.
Day 4: Hanoi
Next, we head to the capital city of Hanoi. Expect buzzing markets, chaotic streets and an abundance of motorbikes to greet you. In fact, to save feeling overwhelmed, you might want to read our light-hearted guide to crossing the road in Vietnam!
With influences from all over the world, there is no shortage of interesting architecture and history to discover in the city’s Old Quarter. Take a wander through the lively, narrow streets, witness a unique water-puppet performance, or visit the Vietnamese Women’s Museum before grabbing some food from one of the countless street food vendors.
Also feel free to stop for a bia hoi (freshly brewed draught beer) at one of the microbars in the Old Quarter. Strolling round Hoàn Kiếm Lake, in the city center, is especially nice at sunset.
Typically the best places to eat are tucked away at the side of the road and packed with locals sat on stools outside! For a taste of authentic Vietnamese pho, I recommend a restaurant called Pho Thin. Looks wise, it’s nothing extravagant but the food more than makes up for it!
Day 5: Tam Coc
Venturing further south, head to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tam Coc in Ninh Binh where endless rice paddies, limestone towers, and the Ngo Dong River await you.
Tam Coc is commonly labeled as ‘Halong Bay on land’ – which I finally understood when I saw the giant limestone karsts towering above the river and rice fields for myself. It is, no doubt, a sight to behold!
On day one we recommend hiring a bike and cycling around to get your bearings. This gives you the freedom to explore the fields and back roads around Tam Coc as Vietnamese farming life happens around you. Your hard work will be rewarded with stunning scenery and you may even catch the wonderful sight of the sun setting over the fields.
Day 6: Tam Coc
For a more peaceful start to the day, we suggest taking a boat trip in the morning. Local men and women will take you on a lovely journey along the river, passing through caves and temples, some of which can only be reached by boat. It was amazing to see how the people here are so accustomed to the water that they row the oars with their feet, leaving their hands free to peel fruit to sell.
At the end of the boat trip, if eco-tourism is your thing, you won’t want to miss Thung Nham. Also known as Bird Valley, it’s a bicycle ride away from the boat jetty to a beautiful park with lakes, caves, mangroves, a 1,000-year-old tree and over 40 species of bird.
Day 7: Halong Bay
The last day takes us to Halong Bay. Being one of the most well-known destinations in northern Vietnam, it has to be crossed off the checklist. The landscape is famous for its huge limestone karsts that take you can admire from beach or boat.
The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, when you take a visit, you’ll see why. And though a hotspot for tourists, there are ways of escaping the crowds. Intrepid’s tours, for example, take you to a secluded harbor and natural grottos aplenty, before letting you swim and spend the night on board a boat. The best part is that these boats moor in quiet areas of the bay overnight, so get on the sun deck and take in the sunset in all its unobstructed glory.
Sit back and enjoy it to finish off your unforgettable week. There’s truly nowhere like this Southeast Asian stunner.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel x2, iStock, Intrepid Travel x3, iStock x2, Intrepid Travel)