Vietnam map & itineraries
Make the most of your time
Vietnam may not be massive, but it stretches a surprisingly long way from north-south, so depending on the duration of your trip, your Vietnam itinerary may only focus on one of these regions. Internal flights and sleeper trains make covering huge distances easier – but you’ll still be spreading yourself thinly if visiting for less than two weeks.Weather varies wildly according to region and season, so it’s a good idea to base your Vietnam itinerary on the time of year you’re traveling. Main attractions within the cities all tend to be within walking distance, but if you need a cab, look for a green My Lai taxi to ensure legitimacy.
Buon Ma Thuot
Caffeine addicts should head to the little-visited region of Buon Ma Thuot for Vietnam’s best coffee; it’s grown locally, and there is even a coffee festival each March. The town itself is modern and unappealing, but the surrounding countryside is home to 44 different ethnic groups, as well as a national park. There are some super community tourism options, and you can ride a dugout canoe.
Con Dao Archipelago
It’s hard to believe that this outstandingly beautiful archipelago was once an island prison, home to political prisoners and the infamous “tiger cage” cells, which can still be viewed. Today, the islands form part of a national park, sheltering nesting sea turtles, primary rainforests, thriving reefs and endemic species. You can hike, snorkel, dive, sample the seafood – and of course, relax on the glorious beaches.
Cu Chi Tunnels
With thousands of visitors each day, the tunnels are one of Vietnam’s most crowded attractions. The wartime ingenuity is evident, though the stories of what occurred here are brutal – and the information is entirely one-sided, which may grate with some. Crawling through the hot, narrow tunnels is an experience of the discomfort and fear of war, though some describe the nearby firing range as a rather tasteless addition.
Vietnam’s largest and oldest national park draws researchers and conservationists thanks to rare fauna and flora hidden in its dense forests. Clouded leopards, bears and langurs live here, but for guaranteed wildlife viewing head to the Cuc Phuong Primate Rehabilitation Centre and the Turtle, Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Centres. The limestone caves reveal fascinating traces of early human habitation.
The French settled in these highlands as respite from the thick, tropical air below, and the European influence lives on in the quirky architecture. Strangely Alpine, there are pine-forested hills and lakes, as well as coffee, tea and fruit plantations and tropical plant nurseries. There is excellent hiking and cycling here, and don’t miss the cable car ride down to the monastery – or the aptly-named “Crazy House”.
This dreamy seascape is one of Vietnam’s most distinctive scenes. A UNESCO Site, Halong is the world’s largest marine karst landscape, with over 2,000 giant limestone boulders emerging from the waters. Sail on a classic wooden junk, paddle into secluded caves and admire the sunset over the karsts from the deck of your boat. You can also visit the surrounding fishing villages, and a floating school.
Vietnam’s 1,000-year-old capital has an unexpectedly European feel, with balconied buildings, tiled roofs, tree lined streets and pleasant parks. Street names describe the industries found in each one, including Rice Street, Boiled Fish Street and Silk Street. See ancient pagodas, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, skinny “tube houses”, artisan workshops and water puppetry – or take a cookery class, to bring the flavours home with you.
Ho Chi Minh City
A marvellous Asian microcosm of markets, temples and roaring motos, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) – is an instant immersion into urban Vietnamese life. You could easily spend several days losing yourself in the Ben Thanh Market, Chinatown, Taoist temples, lacquer workshops, Reunification Palace and the excellent, emotive War Remnants Museum. Get stuck into the street food too – delicious and unbelievably cheap.
Hoi An is a leap into the past. The car-free streets of the old town are lit by lanterns, and evidence of Spanish and Portuguese settlers is visible in the crumbling architecture. Tailors and artisans abound; this is the best place in Vietnam to buy a tailor-made suit or dress, as well as paintings and ceramics. Walk or cycle the narrow streets, browse the riverside fish market and visit a community project for local children.
Take a dragon boat down the evocatively named Perfume River to discover the old capital of the Nguyen Dynasty. The former emperors’ tombs can be explored, along with the exquisite Thien Mu Pagoda – the tallest in Vietnam. Classic rural scenes surround the city, as workers in conical straw hats tend to the rice paddies around their simple homes. The local cuisine is best sampled in an old timber “Garden House”.
Kon Tum is home to the minority Ja Rai tribe, and visitors can take the opportunity to spend the night in a Rong house – a highly unusual communal stilt house with a very high, sloping roof, particular to this region. Enjoy a meal with the community, and head out into the lush landscape for a day of trekking, rafting and exploration of the local villages, reached by crossing a hanging bridge.
An inspiring example of grassroots community tourism, Mai Chau is filled with lush paddy fields and little rural villages, home to the White Thai people, distant relatives of tribes from Thailand. Brocade weaving is a speciality here; you can visit workshops, cruise on a wooden sampan up the Ma River and tour the villages with local guides, who all benefit from this excellent tourism initiative.
The Mekong is not only a glimpse of a spectacular Vietnamese landscape, but also an enchanting introduction to its water-dwelling cultures, with the floating markets of Cai Be and Cai Rang, fishing villages on tiny islands and flooded paddy fields. Navigate the narrow channels in sampan rowing boats, cross them on precarious “monkey bridges” and sample the produce of the nearby rice, fruit and honey harvesters.
The former capital of the Champa Kingdom is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing temples dating back to between the 4th and 13th centuries. While this is no Angkor Wat, it’s well worth exploring, and the jungle scenery – both at the site and along the route from Hoi An – is gorgeous. The temples are constructed of bricks without mortar, and were used as places of worship of the Hindu god Vishnu.
After an adventure-packed race through Vietnam, head to this wonderland of soft sandy beaches, idyllic islands, coral reefs, restorative hot springs and superb seafood. Dive or snorkel around the reefs, cruise up the river to visit local craft communities or wallow in the mud baths. Still not relaxed enough? Cruise out to the exclusive Whale Island, 80km away, for a truly remote retreat.
Tucked away in the hills of the Chinese border, this former French hill station offers superb hiking, picturesque waterfalls and an introduction to Vietnam’s minority hill tribes. Listen to folk music in local homes, see traditional Tay and Dao dance, explore village markets and help local families tend to their gardens and domestic animals – all to the backdrop of Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain.
14-day adventure itinerary:
Hanoi ► Halong Bay ► Hue ► Hoi An ► My Son ► Hoi An (flight) ► Ho Chi Minh City ► Cu Chi Tunnels ► Mekong Delta ► Ho Chi Minh City
12-day family itinerary:
Ho Chi Minh City ► Cu Chi Tunnels ► Mekong Delta ► Ho Chi Minh City ► Dalat ► Nha Trang ► Ho Chi Minh City
15-day off the beaten track itinerary:
Hanoi ► Mai Chau (Lac Village) ► Pu Long ► Kon Tum ► Buon Ma Thuot ► Ho Chi Minh City ► Con Dao Archipelago ► Ho Chi Minh City
Driving times in Vietnam
The following times give you a rough idea of the driving (or train / flight) times between the main attractions in Vietnam.
- Hanoi – Halong Bay: 4 hours
- Hue – Hoi An: 4 hours
- Ho Chi Minh City – Mekong Delta: 3 hours
- Hanoi – Sapa: Overnight train
- Halong Bay – Hue: Overnight train
- Hoi An – My Son: 1 hour
- Nha Trang – Hoi An: 10 hours
- Ho Chi Minh City – Nha Trang: 8 hours by train
- Ho Chi Minh City – Dalat: 8 hours
- Nha Trang – Dalat: 3.5 hours
- Ho Chi Minh City – Con Dao Archipelago: 1 hour by plane