Photography & travel tips from an award-winning photographer, educator & wanderlust

Vietnam itinerary: from South to North in 2 weeks

In February of 2017, my husband and I ventured on a three week vacation in Southeast Asia, two weeks of which we spent in our now favorite country of Vietnam. This was our 2nd venture there and with only 2 weeks we had a lot of places to see – 6 in total. Come along with us as we make our way on this 1,800 km+ (1,100 mi+) journey.

A. Phu Quoc

We entered Phu Quoc by way of Cambodia, which was surprisingly easy. Just visit the Vietnamese embassy in Sihanoukville and one day later you’ll have your visa and will be ready to travel. We traveled by bus to Kumpot, Cambodia, then crossed the border and got on a speedy ferry (about 1 hour) from Ha Tien. We loved Phu Quoc last year and thought it would be a fun place to come back to, where we can enjoy the beach, massages and awesome food, which is a fusion between Vietnamese and Thai (yes!).

Business is booming in Phu Quoc and while the accommodation and food remain very affordable, massages have sadly increased by 100%. We used to love to brag about their 4.5$ massages, but that won’t be the case any more. Still, Phu Quoc is a gem in my book – it can be as peaceful and quiet as you want, or venture out to a Night Market, a club or a day trip and you’re sure to find things of interest to various types of travelers.

B. Hoi An

From Phu Quoc, we flew very inexpensively to HCMC, which later took us to Danang (Vietjet – $50 for 2 people in February of 2017). Danang, while interesting didn’t excite me as much as Hoi An. Luckily, our hotel had a pickup from Danang Airport, which took about 1.5-2 hrs ($13). We stayed at a very friendly hotel (Green Apple Hotel), which was in a good location between the city and the beach. We borrowed bikes from our hotel on the daily bases to explore this ancient town full of beautiful, older architecture, markets, shops and restaurants. Yes, there are many tourists that visit Hoi An during the day (but not as many as in the narrow streets of Jiufen, Taiwan). While many fellow tourists may be turned off by this fact, I loved Hoi An – it’s picturesque nature, the close proximity to the beach and of course food and craft beer choices. Once we learned about a certain Happy Hour at a stunning pub, we started planning our days around it. The nights were always spent roaming the gorgeous streets in the center of the city, filled with what feels like millions of lit up lanterns. I’ve never seen so many lanterns in one place and Hoi An at dusk/night is a feast for the eyes and cameras alike.

C. Hue

To get from Hoi An to Hue, we hired a taxi to take us through one of World’s Windiest Roads at Hai Van Pass. There was no way that we were going to drive it on a scooter or miss it alltogether by taking a train, so we went with a personal taxi to take us to a few sights and then to our hotel in Hue. This was a fine selection (a bit pricey at $60 for 2-3 hr drive) but with an English-speaking driver, you can get to know the country and the local way of life pretty quickly. There is something about being stuck together in one vehicle that helps the conversation flow, without a drop of alcohol involved. It is one of our most memorable conversations in Vietnam all the while you’re passing ridiculously stunning scenery along the way.

A day in Hue is all you need to be asked about 10 times by different motorcycle drivers whether or not we wanted (Weed? Marijuana? You smoke? Smoke ok?). Jeez, is that all that is tourists do there? We walked along the river, got some ok local food and were on our merry way to Hanoi and Halong Bay adventure.

D and E: Hanoi and Halong Bay

Hanoi seemed like a large, noisy, busy city, after the likes of Hoi An and Phu Quoc, but it is here that you have to reach in order to take off for your 12 hour long (or more if you desire) adventure through the magnificent Halong Bay. We booked our trip through an online company Viator (you can get a $10 discount with them by clicking here), which ended up costing a bit more than local advertisements. But for a 12 hour trip $40 seemed reasonable behind the screen of a computer. What that means is – you spend about 3.5-4 hours just getting to the port, which left us with about 4 hours of actual cruising on a ship. Included lunch on the ship was more than enough to satisfy our growling stomachs and off we went towards giant rock formations and back-lit caves.

The weather was cloudy and slightly grey and for a single day trip from a photographic perspective it was fine (at least it wasn’t raining on our aquatic parade).

F. Mai Chau

Originally, I thought we’d take a 12 hour train ride north to the remote villages of Sapa, where tracking and tribal villages seduce travelers into going. But after three weeks of sightseeing and frequent traveling, we opted out for a closer getaway of Mai Chau, located about 3-4 hours away by van. Still not an easy journey (my tailbone hates me for traveling anywhere farther than 2 hours), but it is a beaut! The lovely Mau Chau Nature Lodge is located in the valley of rice paddies, surrounded by enormous mountains and cliffs. It is peaceful, romantic with a slight smell of cow and chicken shit, which reminds you how far away you are from civilization. We booked 2 days and 1 night ($60pp), which included a round trip van, our personal bungalow, lunch, dinner and breakfast, a night cultural show, a bicycle tour through the villages and a hike to more remote villages up in the mountains with a personal guide.

Our 2 week Vietnamese vacation was phenomenal. We completely fell in love with this diverse, delicious and dynamic country. From Halong Bay to the beaches of Phu Quoc, we came across friendly and inviting people. We enjoyed the likes of sweet and sour, beefy Pho, egg coffees, Ban Mi sandwiches, noodles, Vietnamese ice coffees and .25 cent local beers that hit the spot every time. I personally enjoyed the plentiful opportunities for exciting images and dreamy landscapes. It is without a doubt that we will be back again, because we have yet to see the sand dunes of Mui Ne, the high altitudes of Dalat, Sapa, other beaches, islands and cities that occupy a country, whose motto is spot on: “Independence, Freedom, Happiness.”

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  1. These pictures are absolutely amazing!! I especially loved your photos of Hoi An and Mai Chau. Just for reference, what was the name of the pub that you fell in love with in Hoi An? Would be good to know for when I go there myself 😉 The north of Vietnam is the part which I’d most like to visit, but I only made it to Ho Chi Minh and Mui Ne when I went there years ago. Thanks for the serious case of wanderlust 😛

    • Thanks Nathan, its really hard to take bad pictures in Vietnam. The name of the Hoian pub is The Hill Station and they have a sister pubs in Sapa and Hanoi as well. Hope more and more people get to travel to this wonderful part of the world.

  2. It’s kismet! I just booked a five day trip to VIetnam in May. I didn’t know whether to spend the whole time in Ho Chi Minh or not but you’ve got me thinking I should definitely pop over to Phu Quoc for some beach time. Do you think a couple days in each is enough or should i just pick one spot and stay there? I’m not sure what to expect from Ho Chi Minh ( Bangkok-ish)?

    • Hi Brian, I’d say go to Phu Quoc for all 5 days and don’t think about it twice. Relax on the beach, get massaged, eat, drink, visit the nightmarket, rent a motorbike and drive around the island visiting the Fishing Village, the Pearl Farm, the Coconut Prison and various restaurants/bars/pubs/museums. HCMC is just a large city, hot, busy and full of smog – not my cup of tea, especially if your time is so limited.

  3. From the gorgeous photos to your compelling writing, this looks and sounds like such an epic adventure! I feel like this itenerary should become the standard method of exploring Vietnam for anyone with enough time. Your route almost reminds me of the Top Gear episode where they raced from south to north on scooters, minus the hijinks. This is being saved and stored away for our upcoming trip, so thank you for putting this together!

    • Funny you say that about scooters and racing across the country. At times my hubby was complaining about that, but the way I see it – we have to see it! maybe I won’t ever have another chance, you know….I must sound like a dream travel partner…

  4. Wow, your trip looks incredible Alla!! Reading all these posts about SE Asia only makes my feet itch more to get out there for good for my impending world tour. But that must wait until a year from now, when I’m done with my teaching contract. Your pics are stunning! The quality is sooo good. I’ve always planned to visit Vietnam but this article sold it to me even more!

    • Thanks for the compliments Rocio, its such an easy place to photograph, I returned with almost 2000 shots lol

  5. This is wonderful Alla! So happy to see more and more posts about Vietnam. I’m not sure if you know this but I work full-time for the Vietnam Tourism Board as their current managing editor for the official website and your collection of photos are something we would happily feature on the connecting instagram. If you hashtag #vietnamcharm, I can absolutely give your photos some love on our official insta and website homepage! I’m headed up to Mai Chau at the end of the month so I hope I can see all that you saw firsthand 🙂

    • Yes, I remember that you’re currently stationed in HCMC! Unfortunately we only connected there on the way to Danang. I would love to be featured and have added hashtags to my photos, thanks so much for thinking of me! Enjoy Mai Chau, its stunning.

  6. I intend to book a trip to Hanoi soon, and Halong Bay is high on my list of things to see. Reading about your experience was very useful, particularly noting that booking from Hanoi seems to be cheaper than booking online with Viator. Were the tickets $40 per person? Also, I hadn’t yet investigated how long Halong Bay is from Hanoi itself, so it’s good to know that this is around a four hour trip each way. I really enjoyed looking at your photos. I actually scrolled through them very slowing.^^ Great info here!

  7. Stunning photos. Vietnam is definitely on our list of countries to see but sadly one we always kept on the back-up list while we were in Korea and had only short vacations. I will bookmark this post for future reference. May Chau Nature lodge sound like an incredible deal at only 60$pp!! Was the food good? Must have been the perfect end to your trip relaxing in the valley?

    • Yes, the food at Mai Chau was plenty. They would cater to vegetarians and non and just bring you dishes upon dishes of food, which we never finished completely (but tried really hard 😛

  8. Incredible photos! Your trip looks and sounds amazing. We spent a month in travelling through Vietnam around 5 years ago and loved every minute. How beautiful is Hoi An?! Your photos have made me want to get back there right now!

  9. Everyone has already said how beautiful your photos are! Indeed, they are!!!! Im amused with the “you want to smoke” offers. 2 weeks in Vietnam and it doesn’t seem enough yet? The families i know (children!) only go to a particular area for vacation so i envy those who are very mobile. You go north-south and it’s practically seeing the whole country.

    • Yes, seeing a lot of the same country is nice, but at the same token we’re always on the move… Every type of vacation has its benefits and drawbacks for sure.

  10. Great post and fabulous pictures! I’ve bookmarked this because we’re planning our Vietnam trip for next year and only have two weeks to spare. HCMC and Hoi An are on the list and this has helped enormously in planning the rest of the trip – thanks x

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