Ultimate Vietnam Travel Itinerary from North to South: Halong Bay and Beyond

Vietnam has a rich and fascinating history, breathtaking landscapes, and a vibrant culture unique to this exquisite Southeast Asian nation. From the towering mountains in the North to the lush Mekong Delta in the South, Vietnam offers a variety of experiences for every traveler. 

As a tourist traveling to Vietnam, you may feel overwhelmed by the unfamiliar names of places when navigating your itinerary. But don’t worry, this itinerary has got all the not-to-be-missed destinations in Vietnam covered! With eight years of expat life in my suitcase, I present the ultimate travel itinerary with Halong Hub. Let’s explore the treasures that make Vietnam unique, from the lively North to the serene South.

pelican cruise bamboo boat
Pelican cruise bamboo boat

Why travel from North to South Vietnam?

This itinerary begins in the charming old quarters of Hanoi and sailing through the emerald waters of UNESCO-listed Halong Bay. Start your journey with a relaxing cruise through a UNESCO heritage site in the North with Halong Hub, and then make your way through our carefully curated and organized list to make the most of your time in this exquisite country! 

Vietnam has two international airports – one in Hanoi, located in the North, and the other in Ho Chi Minh City in the South. These airports serve as the ideal gateways for exploring Vietnam’s hidden treasures. While exploring every destination may not be possible, this guide is designed to help you choose the locations that best align with your preferences, considering each region’s unique attractions and activities. Make sure to tailor your journey based on your interests and the weather conditions, as the areas of Vietnam vary depending on the time of year you choose to travel.

vietnam travel itinerary
Tan Son Nhat airport. Photo by Kent Lam

Quick Travel Guide Itinerary:

  1. Touch Down in Hanoi & Explore the Old Town
  2. Cruise Halong Bay’s UNESCO Gem with Halong Hub
  3. Dive Deeper into Northern Vietnam: Ninh Binh, Sapa, Mai Chau & Ha Giang
  4. Discover Central Wonders: Phong Nha, Hue & Hoi An
  5. Uncover the Magic of Central Highlands: Dalat
  6. Savour Southern Vietnam’s Highlights: Ho Chi Minh City & Phu Quoc Island

The Perfect Vietnam Travel itinerary from North to South:

NORTH VIETNAM

1. Arrive in Hanoi

Hanoi: Arriving at Noi Bai International Airport, about 45 minutes to 1 hour from the city center, you’ll enter Vietnam’s historical and cultural heart. Find out more about 3 airports close to Halong Bay here.

Ha Dong, Ha Noi. Photo by Minh Ngọc

Attractions & Things to do:

  • Discover the bustling Old Quarter, take a street food tour or a hands on cooking class, a city tour, sip egg coffees, savor local Vietnamese dishes, and enjoy a vibrant shopping scene.
  • Visit landmarks like Hoan Kiem Lake, the Hanoi Opera House, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, and the Temple of Literature.

Traveler Type: Ideal for cultural enthusiasts, foodies, city slickers, shopaholics, and history buffs.

Best Time to Travel: Autumn (September to November). 

2. Cruise Halong Bay UNESCO World Heritage Site

Halong Hub Cruise: A 3 to 4-hour journey from Hanoi leads you to the serene beauty of Halong Bay. With Halong Hub, experience a seamless trip, including hotel pickup in Hanoi or an extra add-on helicopter transfer service. Choose from a day tour, an overnight trip, an overnight cruise, or 2-3 nights cruising Ha Long Bay and the surrounding bays!

Photo by Andre Ouellet.

Attractions & Things to do:

  • Kayaking, cave explorations, and visiting floating fishing villages.
  • Enjoy leisurely activities like cooking classes, dining with stunning sunset views, yoga, and Tai Chi on board.
  • Relax in onboard spas, embracing the tranquility of the bay.Discover more with this related article: Things to Do in Halong Bay.

Traveler Type: Ideal for relaxation seekers, adventure enthusiasts, luxury traveler’s, and party-goers. Choose from various cruise boats: luxury, mid-range, budget, and lively party cruises. Excited to know more? Discover a typical cruise itinerary here.

Best Time to Travel: Spring (March to June) for the best weather conditions. However, Halong Bay is an all year round attraction. Check out this in depth Halong Bay weather guide to be fully prepared and make the most of your trip.

Stellar of the Seas – Executive-Suites – Halong Hub
Stellar of the Seas – Sundeck – Halong Hub

Embark on a Halong Bay Adventure with Halong Hub: Ready to experience the stunning beauty of Halong Bay?

Book your unforgettable cruise journey with Halong Hub, where luxury meets sustainability. Start your Vietnam adventure with us today!

3. Explore More of Northern Vietnam

After starting your vacation with an exquisite cruise in Halong Bay, you will return to Hanoi and have the opportunity to venture further into the diverse landscapes and rich cultural heritage of Northern Vietnam. Here are the top destinations you can choose from:

Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh, known as “Halong Bay on Land,” is a breathtaking destination in northern Vietnam. Its stunning limestone karsts, serene rivers, and fascinating cultural and historical sites make it a must-visit destination.

  • How to Get There: Approximately 2 hours by bus or train from Hanoi, making it the perfect day trip destination from the capital city of Hanoi.
  • Attractions & Things to do: Boat ride in Trang An River, ancient Hoa Lu, and Tam Coc caves. Take a day tour to Ninh Binh with Vietnam Is Awesome.
  • Traveler Type: Nature lovers, culture, and history enthusiasts.
  • Best Time to Travel: May to September.
Trang An, Ninh Binh. Photo by Just Filip.

Sapa

Sapa, nestled in the mountains of northwest Vietnam, is a charming old town that captures the essence of Vietnamese culture and natural beauty. The city is famous for its meticulously carved terraced rice fields cascading down the hillsides, offering a breathtaking landscape view. Sapa’s unique charm is also attributed to its diverse ethnic population, including the Hmong, Dao, Tay, and Giay, who have preserved their distinct cultural traditions over generations. The old town’s surroundings are adorned with lush green forests, majestic waterfalls, and scenic hiking trails, making it a paradise for nature lovers and adventure seekers.

  • How to Get There: Overnight train or bus journey, about 6 hours from Hanoi.
  • Attractions & Things to do: Trekking to ethnic villages, visiting Fansipan Mountain – the highest peak in Asia via cable car or trekking adventure!
  • Traveler Type: Adventure travelers, culture seekers, nature lovers.
  • Best Time to Travel: March to May and September to November.
Sapa photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh

Mai Chau

Mai Chau is a valley in the Hoa Binh province of Vietnam, known for its breathtaking natural beauty. It is surrounded by lush green rice paddies and towering limestone mountains that offer mesmerizing views to visitors. Mai Chau is a perfect place for those seeking a serene and peaceful retreat away from the city hustle. The valley is home to several ethnic minority groups, including the Thai and H’mong people, who add to the region’s cultural richness. Visitors can explore the traditional stilt houses, enjoy local cuisine, and participate in outdoor activities like trekking, cycling, and bird-watching.

  • How to Get There: Around 3-4 hours by bus from Hanoi. 
  • Attractions & Things to do: Explore valley cultural experiences with local ethnic groups.
  • Traveler Type: Cultural explorers and nature enthusiasts. Travellers looking for “less touristy” off-the-beaten-path experiences.
  • Best Time to Travel: September to April.
Mai Chau town. Photo by VNExpress

Ha Giang Loop

Embarking on the Ha Giang Loop is a thrilling experience that takes you through Vietnam’s most stunning landscapes and awe-inspiring mountainous regions. The journey is filled with breathtaking and panoramic views of the region’s lush green valleys, winding roads, and towering peaks. It’s an adventure of a lifetime, offering a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture and witness the traditional ways of life of the ethnic minority groups living in the area.

Ha Giang. Photo by Tron Le
  • How to Get There: About 6 hours by bus from Hanoi. The journey from Sapa takes approximately 4.5 hours by bus or private car. 
  • Attractions & Things to do: Scenic Motorbike tours, local markets, geological formations.
  • Traveler Type: Adventure seekers, landscape photographers, bikers.
  • Best Time to Travel: March to May, September to October.

Related Read: Hiking In Northern Vietnam: Discovering The Trails And Wonders Of Halong Bay

hiking in northern vietnam
Exploring Poem Mountain Vietnam – A Hidden Gem in Halong Bay
Poem Mountain (Bai Tho) in Halong Bay – 24 Hours Layover

CENTRAL VIETNAM

4. Visit some incredible destinations in central Vietnam: Phong Nha, Hue, Hoi An

As you continue your journey through Vietnam, Central Vietnam offers a shift from the mountainous landscapes of the North to the historical depth and serene beauty of its coastal and riverside towns. Each destination provides a unique glimpse into Vietnam’s rich past and vibrant present.

There are some amazing places to visit in central Vietnam that are easily accessible to each other. You can get there via a scenic train, private car, local bus, or quick flight. You can pick which of these destinations appeals to you. They are listed in order from North to South. Please note that each destination requires a minimum of 2 nights, but I recommend staying a few days or longer depending on your interests. 

A coastline in Da Nang. Photo by Kiril Dobrev

Phong Nha 

Explore the gateway to the world’s most spectacular caves and caverns. The region is a testament to nature’s artistry, with its impressive limestone formations and underground rivers for a Vietnam adventure!\

  • How to Get There: Flight duration from Hanoi to Dong Hoi is around 1 hour 15 minutes; the train journey takes 10 to 12 hours.
  • Attractions & Things to do: Discover the Phong Nha Cave, Paradise Cave, and Dark Cave; activities like river kayaking and exploring the national park. Book your day tour with our trusted partner, Vietnam Is Awesome.
  • Traveler Type: Nature explorers, adventure travelers, spelunkers.
  • Best Time to Travel: February to August for optimal weather conditions.
Boats trip in front of Phong Nha cave. Photo by Pen Ash

Hue

Hue, once the imperial capital of Vietnam, is steeped in history and culture. This city on the banks of the Perfume River is home to ancient tombs, ornate pagodas, and the remnants of a once-powerful empire.

  • How to Get There: The train ride from Dong Hoi to Hue takes roughly 3 to 4 hours; by car, it’s about 2.5 to 3 hours.
  • Attractions & Things to do: Visit the Imperial City, cruise on the Perfume River, and explore Thien Mu Pagoda and the royal tombs.
  • Traveler Type: History enthusiasts, cultural travelers.
  • Best Time to Travel: enjoy pleasant weather and cultural festivals from March to August.
Tu Duc tomb in Vietnam during sunset. Photo by Martijn Vonk

Hoi An 

A well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port, Hoi An charms its history, colorful lantern-lined streets, and a unique blend of cultural influences. One of the top travel experiences in Vietnam.

  • How to Get There: From Hue to Da Nang (the nearest city to Hoi An), it takes approximately 3 to 4 hours by train or car. Then, a short journey from Da Nang to Hoi An.
  • Attractions & Things to do: Explore the Ancient Town, relax at An Bang Beach, visit My Son Temple, and enjoy the scenic beauty of Ba Na Hills.
  • Traveler Type: Culture lovers, beach-goers, history buffs.
  • Best Time to Travel: February to May for mild weather and fewer tourists.
Hoi An Lantern Boat On Thu Bon River. Photo by Ha Jang

CENTRAL HIGHLANDS

5. Explore the magic of the Central Highlands

Da Lat

Da Lat is famous for its mild weather conditions all year round, earning it the nickname “The City of Eternal Spring.” The city’s unique French colonial architecture and charming streetscape offer a glimpse into its rich history. Da Lat’s picturesque landscape is further enhanced by its magnificent flower gardens, such as the Valley of Love and the Da Lat Flower Gardens, which feature diverse flora and fauna. Additionally, the surrounding mountains and waterfalls provide breathtaking views and natural beauty.

  • How to Get There: Direct flights to Da Lat are available from Local Airports.
  • Attractions & Things to do: Visit Tuyen Lam Lake to explore flower gardens, coffee farms, local cuisine, and waterfalls. Experience unique activities like glamping and trekking.
  • Traveler Type: Ideal for couples seeking a romantic setting, nature lovers, foodies, and families. 
  • Best Time to Travel: December to March for blooming flowers and pleasant weather.
Da Lat, Lam Dong. Photo by Minh Trần

SOUTH VIETNAM

6. Explore the Highlights of Southern Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, commonly known as Saigon, is a bustling metropolis that symbolizes Vietnam’s rapid modernisation and vibrant culture of Southern Vietnam. The city features towering skyscrapers, lively markets, and a bustling nightlife while retaining its historical charm through its colonial architecture and ancient temples. It’s a city that never sleeps and is always on the move, offering visitors a glimpse into Vietnam’s vibrant and dynamic culture when you visit Vietnam. Conveniently depart Vietnam from this point in the South.

  • How to Get There: The flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes.
  • Attractions & Things to do: Explore the War Remnants Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, Reunification Palace, Ben Thanh Market, take a cooking class, experience the AO Show at the Opera House, and the famous Cu Chi Tunnels. Discover the city’s rich history and dynamic food scene. Day Trips and overnights to the Mekong Delta. Checkout tours of Saigon with Vietnam Is Awesome.
  • Traveler Type: Perfect for urban explorers, history enthusiasts, foodies, and solo travelers. Family-friendly with diverse attractions.
  • Best Time to Travel: December to April for dry season sightseeing. 
Ho Chi Minh city at night. Photo by Tron Le

Phu Quoc Island (Seasonal)

Phu Quoc is a tropical paradise known for its stunning beaches, luxury resorts, delicious food, and rich history.

  • How to Get There: 1 hour Flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Phu Quoc.
  • Attractions & Things to do: Enjoy white sand beaches, explore the national park, visit local markets, take boat trips to surrounding islands, snorkel, participate in watersports, and indulge in fresh seafood and culinary scenes.
  • Traveler Type: Ideal for beach lovers, honeymooners, and families. It also caters to adventure seekers and nature enthusiasts.
  • Best Time to Travel: November to March to avoid the rainy season.
Fishing boat on the sea in the sunset time in Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam. Photo by OnBird Phu Quoc

Conclusion: Embracing the Diversity of Vietnam

Vietnam Highlights: Our journey through Vietnam, from the bustling streets of Hanoi in the North to the tranquil beaches of Phu Quoc Island in the South, has been a tapestry of diverse experiences. Each destination, from Halong Bay to the historical echoes of Ho Chi Minh City, has offered unique insights into the rich cultural heritage and stunning natural beauty of this incredible country.

  • We delved into Vietnam’s history in Hanoi, exploring landmarks like the Temple of Literature and enjoying local street food tours.
  • The Halong Bay cruise blended relaxation and adventure, from peaceful boat rides to exciting kayaking experiences.
  • Central Vietnam‘s hidden gem, Phong Nha, and the cities of Hue and Hoi An revealed their imperial past and charming ancient town, attracting cultural enthusiasts and history buffs alike.
  • The Central Highlands, especially the serene city of Da Lat, offered a romantic escape amidst flower gardens and coffee farms, a paradise for nature lovers.
  • Lastly, South Vietnam, with the dynamic Ho Chi Minh City and the War Remnants Museum, showed us the resilience and vibrancy of the Vietnamese spirit, while Phu Quoc Island’s pristine beaches and natural parks provided the perfect beach holiday.
Tan Dinh church, Ho Chi Minh city. Photo by Jet Dela Cruz

As you plan your perfect Vietnam itinerary for a week or a longer expedition, remember that each region has its distinct flavor, suited for various types of travelers – from solo adventurers and families to couples seeking a romantic getaway. From its imperial past to the Vietnam War, Vietnam’s rich history is ever-present, offering a journey through places and time.

So, whether you’re exploring the bustling streets or discovering hidden gems, Vietnam is a destination that promises an unforgettable experience for every traveler. With its delicious cuisine, rich history, natural beauty, and welcoming locals, your trip to Vietnam, guided by the expertise of Halong Hub, will surely be the adventure of a lifetime.

Begin your adventure in Vietnam, and book your cruise now! 

Are you eager to explore the rich diversity of Vietnam from North to South? Begin your adventure by booking a Halong Bay cruise with Halong Hub, your gateway to a journey filled with breathtaking experiences and lasting memories.

Curated & Written by: Lauren Tracy Pienaar