Local village activity near Ta Van Village, Vietnam

3 Week Vietnam Itinerary For Adventurous Backpackers

by Kaisa

Vietnam is an exciting, ever-growing budget backpacker destination in Southeast Asia. Its popularity is growing so quickly, in fact, it’s starting to feel pretty darn hard (though not impossible!) to find off-the-beaten-path locations and activities. This 3 week Vietnam itinerary includes all the classic experiences, while allowing for plenty of choose-your-own-adventures along the way.

It can feel even harder to discover Vietnam’s unique hidden gems when you’re on a time crunch. Three weeks may seem like a good chunk of time, but chances are you’ll meet backpackers spending months on the road! And then promptly combust with jealousy.

Never fear! It’s absolutely possible to get a taste of the country’s less touristy side in this amount of time—that’s what this guide is for.

I crafted this 3 week Vietnam itinerary with adventurous, nature-loving backpackers in mind. When I first visited Vietnam, I was torn between wanting to see all the iconic places (hellooooo, Halong Bay) and wanting to get off the infamous “banana pancake” trail*. I think this 3 week Vietnam itinerary is a happy medium; you won’t miss any highlights, but will learn some strategies to avoid sharing those highlights with hordes of tourists.

*The “banana pancake trail” is the common, well-trodden backpacker route through Southeast Asia. It gets its name from the popular breakfast almost all hostels serve, which most Westerners prefer to local breakfast meals of pho or rice soup. Yes, it’s a little embarrassing. And yes, you will eat a banana pancake before these 3 weeks in Vietnam are over.

Beautiful golden rice paddies around Sa Pa, in Northern Vietnam
Ta Van Village, a couple miles outside the outdoorsy mountain town of Sa Pa. You can stay at local homestays in and around the village!

Crafting Your 3 Week Vietnam Itinerary: The Basics

I want to give a brief introduction so you’ll know what types of activities, schedule, and budget to expect.

I am a proponent of seeing things for myself whenever and however possible. AKA I avoid guided tours like the plague… or at least, I used to. Vietnam is an exception, for several reasons. First, the tours are incredibly affordable. Second, the tours can be great quality, when you do the research—or in this case, when I do the research for you! Third, they’re sometimes a necessity if you don’t drive a motorbike.

Motorbike rentals are really popular among backpackers in Southeast Asia, but I just don’t feel comfortable with them. I’ve seen too many backpackers with brutal, gnarly motorbike wounds. That said, there are several National Parks on this itinerary, for example, which would be impossible to reach without a motorbike… or a tour! There are taxis you can hire, but I found them alarmingly expensive compared to simply booking a tour with an English-speaking expert.

Long story short, you’ll see tours on this itinerary. Don’t be afraid of them; I’ll link their pages so you can read the great reviews yourself!

The schedule for this itinerary involves arriving in Ho Chi Minh city (in the far South) and leaving from Hanoi (in the North). You can flip it around however you want, of course. My round-trip flight was to HCMC so I just booked a Vietnam Airlines flight from Hanoi in time to catch the plane back home at the end of my trip. I recommend Vietnam Airlines over Vietjet any day, but the latter is admittedly more budget-friendly.

Finally, I made this 3 week Vietnam itinerary with a decidedly budget-minded backpacker in mind. I stayed in hostels or budget homestays the whole time, ate street food, and always had cost in mind when choosing activities. I don’t list every entrance fee, because they’re constantly changing, but I don’t recommend anything extortionately expensive (like, say, the $62 fee at Angkor Wat for example). That said, you could easily tweak this itinerary if you want to get a lil spendy in one place or other. If you have extra cash you want to throw at a destination, I recommend putting it towards your Halong Bay boat tour. You could easily make that tour an overnight, an experience I didn’t have but definitely still wonder about…

The limestone karsts and crystal turquoise waters of Halong Bay, in Northern Vietnam
The type of iconic limestone karsts you’ll cruise around in Halong Bay!

3 Week Vietnam Itinerary Breakdown

  • Day 1-3: Ho Chi Minh City
    • Ben Thanh Market for shopping and street food
    • Learn about history at the War Remnants Museum
    • Visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda
    • Explore Pham Ngu Lao backpacker district
    • See HCMC from a rooftop sky bar (e.g. Bitexco Financial Tower)
    • Day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Dai Temple
    • Take a motorbike tour with locals
  • Day 4-6: The Mekong Delta
    • Stay at a riverside homestay
    • Bicycle around the jungled Ben Tre countryside
    • Ride a boat through the narrow river channels
    • Visit pagodas in Can Tho
    • Take an early morning boat tour of the floating markets
  • Day 7-9: Hoi An to Hue
    • See lanterns glow in enchanting old Hoi An
    • Fresh seafood and bioluminescent plankton at An Bang Beach
    • Bicycle through Hoi An’s buffalo-filled rice paddies
    • Drive the majestic Hai Van Pass
    • Get lost in Hue’s Imperial Citadel
    • Eat the same Bun Bo Hue as Anthony Bourdan
    • Have dinner in a riverside night market under a bridge
  • Day 10-12: Ninh Binh
    • Ride your bike through rice paddy-filled country lanes
    • Take a boat ride through the “inland Halong Bay”
    • Visit the Hang Mua mountaintop pagoda (and several others)
    • Observe wildlife in Cuc Phuong National Park
  • Day 13-15: Hanoi
    • Get lost in Hanoi’s Old Quarter
    • Walk around Hoan Kiem Lake at night
    • Get your museum on
    • Visit Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place
    • See the Tran Quoc Pagoda
    • Take a motorbike street food tour
  • Day 16-18: Sa Pa
    • Stay in a village homestay
    • Respectfully visit ethnic minority hill tribes
    • Trek around the mountains, valleys, and rice paddies
  • Day 19-21: Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island
    • Take a boat tour of Halong Bay
    • Kayak through karsts and caves
    • Hike in Ca Ba National Park
    • Swim with bioluminescent plankton
    • Eat seafood hot pot

Okay, now let’s get started!

Days 1-3: Ho Chi Minh City and the Cu Chi Tunnels

Motorbike traffic in the streets of Saigon
A typical parade of motorbikes roaring through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

Ho Chi Minh City is a hectic, fast-paced introduction to Vietnam. Trust me, it’ll take you at least three days to get comfortable crossing the street. While HCMC is huge, I found most highlights to be within walking distance of the backpacker district. It’s one of the most exciting cities I’ve had the pleasure of getting hopelessly lost in. Plus, the street food is out of this world (spoiler alert: this is true in most of Vietnam). It’s a great place to immerse yourself in Vietnam War history, and in a larger sense Vietnamese history and culture in general.

Day 1: Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City! Woo hoo! Your epic 3 week Vietnam itinerary has just begun!

For your first day, just relax and explore. Maybe you’re a little sleepy, maybe you’re adjusting to the heat and humidity… take it easy, man!

A sidestreet full of hostels in the backpacker neighborhood of Saigon
One of the mellower quiet lanes in HCMC, just off the main backpacker street.

If you’re like most budget backpackers, you might be staying in a hostel around Pham Ngu Lao street. AKA Ho Chi Minh City’s (slightly toned down) version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road. A lot of people hate on this backpacker-centric area, but I think it’s a hoot. There’s always something to do, a cold beer to drink, and street food to eat. Plus Pham Ngu Lao is conveniently located near other attractions in the city. Which brings me to my next point…

If you’re looking for places to eat, the famous Ben Thanh market is great for both shopping and street food. If you’re dabbling in shopping here, make sure you have your bartering hat on. My jet-lagged foolish self way (like, way, way) overpaid for some hippie pants here on my first day in Vietnam. Ben Thanh is popular with tourists, so people will try to rip you off. The food was reasonably priced and there are a ton of options, though!

Backpacker drinking fresh coconut at a street market in Saigon, Vietnam
My poor brother, just trying to enjoy his coconut. Sorry, bud, impromptu Ben Thanh market photo shoots are a part of life now.

Depending on how early you arrive, you can check out the War Remnants Museum today, or wait until Day 3! This is a must-see spot in HCMC, and definitely the country’s most well-known war museum. There are a bunch of interesting war relics and absolutely heartbreaking photography. The museum is really well-designed and the exhibits well-translated.

3 Week Vietnam Itinerary War Remnants Museum
Checking out the larger of the War Remnants Museum relics, just outside the museum.

Day 2: Your second day in Ho Chi Minh city will not be spent in the city, but rather a full day tour of Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Dai Temple. I strongly recommend checking these out, particularly the Cu Chi Tunnels! They’re the unbelievably tiny tunnels the Viet Cong used to get around during the Vietnam War. You will also learn about their underground hospitals and meeting places, and get a taste of a typical Viet Cong meal from that time.

Cu Chi Tunnels entrance sign, in the South of Vietnam

Because the Cu Chi Tunnels are such popular day trips, there are a lot of truly, hilariously crappy options out there. Sometimes I’ll recommend just booking whatever your hostel has on offer, but this isn’t one of those times. Nope. A packed, disorganized tour company has ruined too many people’s experiences. Go with a well-researched, positively-reviewed tour like the one linked above. I also like this one because it includes attending a ceremony at the stunning Cao Dai Temple.

You’ll arrive back in Ho Chi Minh City in time for a late dinner. Local restaurants full of well, locals, are always a good bet! Just wandering around our hostel, my brother and I found the must absurdly delicious pho restaurant, Pho Quynh. If you are staying near the backpacker district, you’ve gotta try it!

A typical backpacker dinner of Pho and Bia Saigon (Vietnamese beer)
A heavenly meal at Pho Quynh.. $3 USD. Including beer. Why did I ever leave?!

Day 3: If you didn’t see the War Remnants Museum yet, absolutely do so. It’s sobering, world-famous, and deeply important for understanding Vietnam in a more historical context. As an American I found its messages particularly sharp, and I left wishing every American would travel here to experience stuff like this.

Another awesome thing to do on your last full day in HCMC is… hit up a sky bar! Yes, it will be the most expensive drink you order in Southeast Asia (though in retrospect, $13 is average for some US cities…) but it’s awesome to see the whole city from the sky. I chose to go to the Bitexco Financial Tower and was not disappointed. It was mildly terrifying as it started storming while we were up there!

Bitexco Sky Bar view of Ho Chi Minh City on a rainy day
The view of Ho Chi Minh City from the Bitexco Financial Tower sky bar!
Bitexco Sky Bar Inside
Their cocktails were actually pretty decent at the Bitexco bar.

If you’re still looking for fun stuff to add to your itinerary, I desperately wish I’d taken a motorbike tour. This tour with local students is the most affordable option, with excellent reviews, at $17 for four hours. Not too shabby. You couldn’t pay me enough to drive a motorbike through HCMC’s hectic streets, but riding with a pro sounds amazing. Other motorbike tour options specialize in things like street food ($25, a whole lotta authentic food), nightlife ($50, 3 hours, dinner and sky bar drink), and culture/local sites ($27, 3 hours, monuments, neighborhoods, and floating markets).

Days 4-6: The Mekong Delta

Boat gliding down the muddy waters of the Mekong delta

The Mekong Delta is a really unique place to visit when backpacking in Vietnam. Many folks choose to skip it or just see it as a day trip, when in reality you could spend your whole three weeks wandering around the delta towns, winding farther and farther down the river channels until you’re in the middle of the lush jungle. In this Vietnam itinerary, you’ll at least get to scratch the surface of its muddy waters with a few days in riverside delta towns.

Day 4: Most backpackers who visit the Mekong Delta from HCMC do so on a day trip, typically just to My Tho and boat trips to the surrounding area. You’re not gonna do that.

Instead, you’re going to wake up bright and early to go deeper into the delta, past My Tho, and stay at a homestay in Ben Tre, a laid back delta town with tons of nature to enjoy! Ben Tre Province is known for its coconuts, bamboo-lined water channels, and verdant orchards. While many day tours stop in Ben Tre for the natural beauty, none of them are actually spending the night or voyaging past a few main spots. And the magic of Ben Tre really lies in its surrounding bike trails and jungle.

Pssst! My favorite affordable and excellent homestays in Ben Tre are the Ben Tre Farm Stay and the Nguyet Que Homestay!

A local Vietnamese woman with her bike over a bridge in the Mekong Delta region
A local woman runs some errands in the Mekong delta

A local bus from HCMC to Ben Tre shouldn’t be more than $3 US, and just a couple hours. I’d head straight to your homestay and inquire about booking a bicycle! There are so many lovely roads around Ben Tre for having a nice little bike ride. As I may have mentioned once or twice, since I’m not a motorbike fan, I am obsessed with anyplace in Vietnam where bicycles are the name of the game.

If you want to take a small boat ride around the small palm-lined channels around Ben Tre, you can either try strolling down the main street along the river and looking like a tourist, or ask your homestay for suggestions.

Local Vietnamese farmers selling their produce on a floating market in the Mekong Delta

Day 5: For your second night in the Mekong delta, I recommend spending the night in Can Tho so you can see the world-famous floating markets at dawn. Just like those from HCMC, busses from Ben Tre to Can Tho are cheap and simple to book!

As for things to do in Can Tho, there are several cool pagodas within walking distance of the city center. Can Tho is the largest city in the delta, so just prepare yourself for a different pace than Ben Tre.

Can Tho also apparently has a riverside “beach”, which I did not visit, but color me intrigued?!

No pressure, but you seriously have to stay at the Casa Inn Hostel. It has better reviews than most hotels with dorms starting at $8/night and privates starting at $15/night. The staff is SO NICE, will help you arrange your tours, busses, whatever!

A local farmer selling watermelons from her boat in Vietnam's Mekong Delta
Putting the “water” in watermelons in the floating markets!

Day 6: The main reason to spend the night in Can Tho, however, is to visit the floating markets, Cai Rang and Phong Dien. These are some of the coolest floating markets in Southeast Asia. Personally, we don’t have anything resembling a floating market where I come from, so it’s just super fascinating to see in person. As these are considered main attractions, it’s easy to arrange tours with your homestay/hostel/hotel.

If floating markets don’t interest you, you can relax the pace a bit and spend two nights in Ben Tre. I find the town and area around Ben Tre much more appealing than Can Tho, but there’s no denying those floating markets are something special and the Casa Inn Hostel is awesome.

If you want to see the Mekong Delta in a small group tour, I recommend this one. You won’t spend the night in Ben Tre—only Can Tho—but if you’re short on time it’s a great way to condense the Mekong Delta part of your Vietnam itinerary. It includes three meals, all transportation (including to and from HCMC), accommodation, an English-speaking guide, and a ton of cultural activities, for $99. This is a pretty competitive price for the quality and quantity offered here.

Days 7-9: Hoi An & Hue

Hoi An and Hue are very different, so I kind of love they’re often grouped together on most backpackers’ Vietnam itineraries. Hoi An is a painfully charming (yes, I said painfully charming) little town full of historic architecture and multicolored lanterns that light up the night as far as the eye can see. If you’ve ever seen pretty pictures of an old Vietnamese city covered in thousands of lanterns, it was for sure Hoi An. It’s also painfully touristy for some. Hoi An and Hue are separated by the ridiculously scenic Hai Van Pass. Hue is much more “authentic” in the sense that locals actually outnumbered tourists. Imagine that! It’s often overlooked for the more exciting cities of HCMC and Hanoi, but I thought Hue was something special. Particularly, its Imperial Citadel is a must-see and Dong Ba Market has some of the best food in Vietnam.

Gateway in Hue's Imperial City
An ancient archway in Hue’s Imperial City covered in intricately detailed carvings.

Day 7: From either Can Tho or Ho Chi Minh City you can catch a flight to Da Nang. Don’t get me wrong, I am just as much a fan of sketchy Southeast Asian night buses as the next gal, but time is of the essence. If adventurous, outdoorsy travel is the priority on your 3 week Vietnam itinerary, I frankly think your time will be best spent 1) in and around HCMC/the Mekong delta and 2) in Northern Vietnam. The flight from Can Tho to Da Nang literally cost $12+fees with Vietjet last time I checked.

It’s really easy to get from Da Nang Airport to nearby Hoi An. Just email your accommodation in Hoi An and they’ll arrange an airport pick-up at a reasonable price.

It’s okay if you’re arriving in Hoi An late-ish… some of the best things to see here are at night! Specifically, the aforementioned lanterns. Some of my favorite Vietnam memories involved wandering around Hoi An’s Old Town by night. There’s a cute night market with artsy souvenirs as well.

Lanterns lining the streets of Hoi An, Vietnam

The best part? Motorbikes are “forbidden” in the Old Town, so the ever-present racket you got used to in HCMC is nowhere to be found in Hoi An. The odd one slips in once in a while, almost always ridden by a local, but it’s uncommon.

The main hostels in Hoi An belong to the Tribee chain, and are various degrees of chill vs. party. I tend to like a happy medium, leaning towards chiller, so I chose (and loved) Tribee Kinh. They made everything so easy, from getting to the hostel to renting bikes.

Booking.com

Day 8: My perfect day in Hoi An consists of waking up early, renting a bicycle, and exploring the surrounding countryside. Your accommodation will more than likely provide a map, as this is a popular activity in Hoi An. Are you a fan of water buffalo in rice paddies? If not, you certainly will be after today! THEY’RE SO CUTE.

A river near Hoi An, Vietnam
You’ll get a glimpse into local Vietnamese everyday life as you ride your bicycles around the outskirts of Hoi An.

After biking around a bit, once it starts getting hot, you can head to one of Hoi An’s nearby beaches! An Bang Beach has a lot of good seafood options and, while I’d read it was indeed popular with tourists, it was super easy to get a spot to ourselves.

An Bang Beach bungalows and crystal clear water near Hoi An
The view from our seaside restaurant at An Bang Beach! (We later procured one of the thatched umbrellas and went for a swim)

You can spend the evening in the old town again, surrounded by glowing lanterns… honestly, we posted up at a bar overlooking the night market both nights and had an awesome time. The bar had a live band and it was the perfect soundtrack.

Alternatively, you could head back to An Bang beach and swim with the bioluminescent plankton! I was too busy drinking Bia Saigons and listening to Vietnamese dudes sing Billy Joel covers, but I’m sure this would be cool. That said, you’ll have two more opportunities to see the plankton on this itinerary!

Day 9: The best way to get from Hoi An to Hue—no question—is via the stunning Hai Van Pass. You crawl higher and higher into the green mountains, with a gorgeous view of the turquoise sea to your East the whole way. It’s such a popular drive, you can rent a motorbike in one city and drop it off in the next. Alternatively, you can do as we did and take a little bus ride. The bus stops a bunch along the way so I didn’t feel as though I was missing out on anything.

We booked our Hai Van Pass ride tickets with Tribee Kinh hostel in Hoi An. I don’t know which company they even use, but it was SO FUN. Our tour guide was the sweetest, and he invited us to a night market in Hue that night! So, basically, I don’t think you could go wrong just doing that. However, if you want to make your Hai Van Pass experience super unique, I know you can join retro jeep tours in what I am pretty sure are open air jeeps. Hai Van Pass will be incredible no matter what, but I can see why riding it in a motorbike or open air vehicle would be just insanely cool.

Perfect, crystal clear tropical waters line the Hai Van Pass in Vietnam
As you wind around Hai Van Pass, you’ll rise around mountaintops and dip down towards serene beaches (like the one here)!
Da Nang's Marble Mountain on the Hai Van Pass
You’ll see some beautiful temples like this one walking around Da Nang’s Marble Mountain during your Hai Van Pass tour!

Once you’re in Hue, give yourself a little time to relax and explore. I’ll write more about Dong Ba market below, but stop by there if you’re looking for food and shopping. Also, there’s a night market under the main bridge in Hue I strongly recommend! We were among the only tourists there, and the locals were seriously the nicest of anywhere in Vietnam. We felt so welcomed. Like they were all having a BBQ and we got invited.

We stayed at the IBIZA Guest House in Hue, which was perfect for one night. The WiFi was excellent and our private room with two full beds was only $14 USD/night (breakfast included)! The location was great and staff super duper nice. It wasn’t the most social place, but again, perfect for one night in total comfort.

Day 10: Today is all about exploring Hue, specifically its awesome Imperial City. Many folks skip over Hue in their 3 week Vietnam itinerary, but the stunning Imperial City is a big reason why that’s a mistake. It’s easy to find and walkable from most main areas in the city. Essentially, the Imperial City is a beautifully preserved and laid-out ancient city. We allowed two hours to explore it, and actually really wished we had much longer! It was beautiful at sunset in particular.

A stone bridge to small island in Hue's Imperial City
The Imperial City is full of awesome, ancient architecture like this.
The golden hour sunset on a pagoda in Hue's Imperial City
More Imperial City beauty! See what I mean by seeing it at sunset?
A beautifully decorated colorful wall in Hue's Imperial City
I MEAN. Okay. Just. Last one, I promise.

You have to eat Bun Bo Hue at Dong Ba market (and also, whatever other dishes you can find at Dong Ba market). I am a huge Anthony Bourdain fan, and if you explore the depths of the market long enough you will come across the same food stand he dined at in Hue. The woman who runs it is super nice and you’ll know you’re at the right one because she has his picture up. I expected some copy-cats, but there seemed to be some unspoken code of honesty among the food vendors at Dong Ba, because I only saw one stand advertising itself as the Anthony Bourdain stand.

Ban Khoai
Ban Khoai (fried shrimp pancakes) at the Dong Ba market
The same food stand where Anthony Bourdain ate in Hue, Vietnam
Just look for this picture, and you’re golden.

Dong Ba market is also a great place to shop. I found the prices in parts of HCMC, Hoi An, and Hanoi super steep, but if you put your bargaining pants on you can find some deals here!

End the day by boarding the night train from Hue to Ninh Binh! I firmly believe, from the bottom of my heart, everyone should take an overnight train in Southeast Asia before they die. This one is as good as any! A soft sleeper berth is affordable ($43) and I promise it’ll be an experience you’ll never forget. I have trouble sleeping back home, but for some reason sleep like an absolute baby on Southeast Asian trains! You can book on Vietnam Railways website or in person.

Days 11-12: Ninh Binh

Golden rice paddies in Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Ninh Binh is amazing and there’s a decent chance you’ll leave here wishing you’d had another day (so by all means, if this sounds like your cup of tea more than another place on this 3 week Vietnam itinerary, do a little swap for a day somewhere else). People call Ninh Binh the “inland Halong Bay” because of the riverside karsts and beautiful waterways. The big difference is that Ninh Binh is surrounded by epic mountains, postcard-perfect rice paddies, and elegant pagodas. Ninh Binh is a place of natural beauty and ancient history.

Day 11: After your night train arrives in Ninh Binh, head to your accommodation in either Tam Coc or Trang An! The town of Ninh Binh itself is unimpressive.

Ninh Binh
Boating along the lush Trang An grottoes!
Booking.com

There are famous boat trips in both Tam Coc and Trang An. They’re both beautiful, but the latter is less crowded. Honestly, I’d just do both if you have time, but if you’re feeling strapped for time stick to Trang An. You can rent a bicycle from your accommodation and ride through the rice paddies around Tam Coc anyway!

Day 12: You’ll want to keep your camera on you all day, because Ninh Binh is just that stunning! You mustn’t miss the Hang Mua Temple and Bich Dong Pagoda. Hang Mua has the most amazing views of the surrounding countryside, while Bich Dong is literally carved into a limestone mountain! You can get to these, and to and from Trang An/Tam Coc, with your bicycle!

Trang An
Can we just talk about this place for a second? Head up to the Hang Mua Temple for similarly incredible views.

There’s also a National Park, Cuc Phuong National Park, nearby. It is a wonderfully preserved rainforest, with a botanical garden and endangered primate rescue centre. The hiking trails are among the most perfectly wild (but still passable/navigable) trails in Vietnam. It’d be a shame to miss this park!

You can’t ride your bike here sadly (too far) but the roads here are easier to drive a motorbike on than those in HCMC, Hue, Hanoi, etc. Otherwise, you can ask your accommodation about a tour you can join. This one from Hanoi is excellent, and a good option for seeing Ninh Binh in 2 days and 1 night. I’d only recommend that if you’re short on time and want to fly straight from Hue to Hanoi, then catch the tour. There are plenty of single day tours from Hanoi, as well, but those don’t do Ninh Binh justice!

Days 13-15: Hanoi

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, but I found it less bustling (or at least, a different brand of bustling) than Ho Chi Minh. You’ll definitely want to stay in the Old Quarter, with its narrow mazes of streets and gorgeous French Indochinese architecture. The Old Quarter is quite large, but walkable. Most of the activities I recommend are within the Old Quarter or an easy cab ride (or simply a longer walk) away!

Day 13: You decide how much time you want in Ninh Binh today—if there are several things you still want to see, by all means spend the whole day. The trip from Ninh Binh to Hanoi is common, it’ll be easy to arrange transportation with your hostel/homestay whenever you want! You could also take the bus or train.

Once you get to Hanoi, definitely explore the Old Quarter! Hoan Kiem Lake is a beautiful spot, if a little touristy, in the heart of the Old Quarter. The area around the lake really fills up with locals as night falls, and has such a fun energy to it. If you get to Hanoi quite early, check out the Tran Quoc pagoda. It’s a bit of a walk that’s the best way to see a new city!

Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam
Relaxing around Hoan Kiem Lake.
Bustling streets of Hanoi
The streets of Hanoi, looking a bit calmer than usual… typically there would be a veritable parade of motorbikes in this shot!

Day 14: Hanoi has a number of excellent museums. Most of these are a short cab (or motorbike, though you couldn’t pay me enough to drive one in Hanoi) ride from the Old Quarter. Some particularly good museums in Hanoi are the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, the Temple of Literature, and the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology. I linked their TripAdvisor pages so you can decide which one (if any) sounds most interesting. They’re quite spread out so it’d be tricky to see them all!

If you want, end the day with a street food tour. This was a highlight of our trip! This one has bonkers reviews and does pick-up and drop-off service, while this one is a motorbike food tour that also stops at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi
Oh, hello, Tran Quoc Pagoda peeking out from behind some decorative trees…

Day 15: You have all day to do fun stuff in Hanoi. My brother got horribly ill from some sketchy bia hoi (street beer), so I confess I spent most of this day making water and banana runs for him. If you haven’t seen Tran Quoc pagoda already, definitely do that! The pagoda is located on West Lake, which is much larger than Hoan Kiem lake and fun to walk around.

I wish I’d seen the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum during my time in Hanoi. After reading so much about him basically everywhere, especially in the war museum in HCMC, I think that would’ve been a powerful experience. Also, it’d be an excuse to check out yet another part of Hanoi.

You’ll take the night bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa. I recommend Sapa Express, though there are a ton of companies to choose from. I know you can even take the train, if you’re in the mood for another night train journey. However, the train stops short of Sa Pa and you need to arrange extra transportation at that point, so we went with a nonstop bus.

Day 16-18: Sa Pa, Hill Tribes, & Trekking

Sa Pa, the Northern Vietnamese mountain town surrounded by trails and ethnic minority villages, has been an outdoorsy backpacker’s dream destination for a while now. As such, it doesn’t have the off the beaten path charm it did five years ago, or even two years ago. That’s okay. By staying in a Ta Van village homestay outside of the main Sa Pa town you’ll create a more authentic and rugged experience! You don’t need a guide to explore the many gorgeous, often challenging trails in the area. Indeed, it’s more fun to have absolute freedom when exploring the picturesque hills and rice paddies!

Hills and mountains of Sa Pa
View from our hike around and outside of Ta Van village

Day 16: Your night bus from Hanoi will arrive in Sa Pa town bright and early. We arrived so early, the driver let us sleep on the bus for a couple extra hours before getting off!

After that, we opted to have our bags dropped off at our homestay so we could explore Sa Pa, visit the Cat Cat Village, and eventually hike to Ta Van Village ourselves. It was very easy to arrange this with the homestay via email; we just met the driver at a pre-arranged coffee shop, gave him our bags, and we were freeeeeee!

Sa Pa town at night
Wandering the streets of Sa Pa…

Sa Pa town is fun to walk around. You can tell it has a hiker and biker clientele by the types of knock-offs sold in the shops (a lot of Patagonia, Fjallraven, etc). As for specific things to do, I know there’s a really popular cable car ride you can take that’s supposed to have excellent views!

The cable car was too expensive for us, though, so we headed straight to Cat Cat Village. The theme of the Sa Pa portion of the trip seemed to be: WALKING EVERYWHERE. Cat Cat Village is a solid mile downhill from Sa Pa town (and solid mile uphill at the end of the day). Sadly, you can tell Cat Cat Village has been shaped by heavy tourism by the way locals harrass you. As cynical as it sounds, if a villager starts asking you questions about where you’re from and that kind of thing, they are 99% trying to sell you something and won’t stop following you if you respond.

Cat Cat Village indigo shop
Some indigo-dyed crafts Cat Cat Village is famous for!
Cat Cat Village waterfall
Cat Cat Village is full of quaint bridges and dotted with waterfalls.

Still, Cat Cat Village was undeniably beautiful and there were some lovely trails, which we pretty much had to ourselves! They give you a map of the area when you pay the entrance fee, if I remember correctly.

After exploring Cat Cat you’ll want to start the long walk to Ta Van. I’d give yourself a couple hours to get there before nightfall. I would’ve found the walk difficult to navigate without Google maps’ GPS on my phone. The homestay will give you walking directions, but there were just a few spots I would’ve struggled with without GPS.

I stayed at Hoang Kim Homestay in Lao Cai Village. I wrote a full post about my experience here! Long story short, it was a great time, in a great location, with great people.

Water buffalo in Ta Van village
Some of the best friends you’ll make in Vietnam 😉

Day 17: My favorite thing about staying in Ta Van Village is the freedom to explore the rural countryside. You literally turn left out of the mountainside homestay I was in, and are on a trail! You can keep going uphill, and uphill, aaannnd uphill, or take a side trail whenever. There are a few waterfalls in the area, some with little pools you can swim in. We brought a ton of water and snacks and just went ham on the trails, resting whenever necessary and taking in the views. My hamstrings haven’t been that sore in a long time, but it was so worth it!

You should definitely try to get back to your homestay in time for dinner. Almost every homestay serves a full dinner of local favorites to their guests, every night. It’s the perfect setting to relax and chat with the local family, or have conversations with like-minded backpackers (you know, of the chill, outdoorsy variety).

Trekking around Sa Pa
More trekking #views.

Day 18: Today is up to you—do you want to spend more time exploring Ta Van Village, or spend more time in Sa Pa town? Just book a cab with your homestay whenever you feel like getting back to town. As long as you’re back by 10:00 PM to catch the night bus to Cat Ba Island, you’re golden.

Of all the bus companies in Southeast Asia, Good Morning Cat Ba is one of my favorites. They focus on transportation to and from Cat Ba Island, and are the only company I’d trust to get from Sa Pa to Cat Ba Island. For only $28 they take you to Hanoi, then on to the coat, then onto a ferry, then another bus on Cat Ba island to your accommodation. The bus is also weirdly comfortable?! I’m telling you, there’s something about overnight public transportation in Southeast Asia which lulls me to sleep.

Day 19-21: Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Obviously, if you’re backpacking in Vietnam you’re gonna wanna see Halong Bay. You’ve also probably heard by now of the insane number of tourists and maybe a horror story or two about a shady tour boat trip. Many people will book their Halong Bay experiences leaving from and returning to Hanoi, but I recommend a different, sneaky lil method. If you stay on Cat Ba Island instead, you are not only putting yourself much closer to the bay, but you’re getting a chance to see a beautiful Vietnamese island and National Park. Plus, my favorite (super-affordable) Halong Bay tour company only operates their tours from Cat Ba.

Day 19: After you’re dropped off at your hotel on Cat Ba (Good Morning Cat Ba’s website has an arrival time of 11:30 AM, which I found to be accurate), you won’t have a ton of time to settle in. That’s because you’ll be heading straight to Cat Ba National Park! Can you tell I am trying to fit as many National Parks into this 3 week Vietnam itinerary as possible? Whether you choose to rent a motorbike or go with my fave tour company, Cat Ba Ventures, try to head out after a quick bite to eat at your hostel/hotel.

For eating on Cat Ba Island, I recommend the Yummy restaurant (yeah, it’s a subtle name) and any of the local restaurants on the same side street. I can’t for the life of me find the street name, but it’s on Google Maps. Once you get off the main road along the water prices drop dramatically! Seafood hot pot was my absolute favorite meal on Cat Ba, and one of my favorites in Vietnam.

If you are opting for the guided National Park trekking tour, you can read more about it and contact Cat Ba Ventures on their website. They leave from the main road in Cat Ba at 1:00PM (don’t worry, if you’re staying at Cat Ba Oasis it’s only about 2 minutes walking distance) It’s only $16 per person and a great way to see the highlights of the park on a tight-ish schedule.

Either way, the jungle hikes and views of Cat Ba Island are stunning. You’ll find the lack of backpackers around you quite refreshing, too!

Cat Ba National Park
View of Cat Ba island from a Cat Ba National Park overlook

There is a decent selection of places to stay on Cat Ba Island, but for quality and budget I strongly recommend Cat Ba Oasis Bungalows. A private room is $40-something dollars, you feel like you’re staying in a resort. Breakfast is included and you get a discount at the (awesome) restaurant. Their mango sticky rice was my favorite! Seriously, please get it and send me pics.

You can end the day with a chill poolside evening at your bungalows, or on one of Cat Ba’s excellent beaches (several within walking distance). If you wait til it’s completely dark, there are bioluminescent plankton all of the place here. Some people will say you have to wait til 1 AM or later, but we saw them quite clearly splashing around at 10 or 11.

Day 20: Fittingly, you’ll spend your last full day in Vietnam exploring Halong Bay! At long last! There are so many Halong Bay tour options, but Cat Ba Ventures is stellar and cheap. I don’t know how they get away with it, unless it’s because they leave from the island where fewer tourists go compared to Hanoi.

There are a ton of great Cat Ba Ventures tours of Halong Bay to choose from. I chose their full day kayaking day tour and was obsessed with it. I could go on for ages, which I did in this blog post about my experience!

Floating fishing village near Halong Bay
The local floating fishing village you’ll take a tour of on your day trip to Halong Bay.

Day 21: Depending on your schedule, you might spend all day today getting back to Hanoi to catch a flight home. If you opted for an overnight boat tour you’ll be getting back to Cat Ba sometime this morning. The first bus/ferry back to Hanoi leaves at 9:00 AM, while the last leaves around 4:00 PM.

If you have a ton of time today, you could do your National Park trek this morning instead of on the afternoon on Day 19. Or, take advantage of the extra time and opt for an overnight Halong Bay tour instead of yesterday’s day tour.

Northern Vietnam Street Food stand
The moral of the story is: you won’t stop eating for 3 weeks, and it’ll be great.

Final Thoughts on What to Do in Vietnam in 3 Weeks…

At the end of the day, it’s your trip. Tweak this itinerary however you want! I understand some flight times in particular might not match up with the day plans here, so do what you gotta do.

However, if you have a few extra days I recommend you make your Halong Bay tour an overnight or spread your extra days out over Sa Pa, Cat Ba Island, or Ninh Binh (in that order).

If you are short a few days, I literally don’t know what to tell you because everywhere is rad. Jk, I’d start by cutting out the Cu Chi Tunnels. Also, maybe do the 2D/1N tour of the Mekong Delta to save time.

Ultimately, though, go with whatever sounds coolest to you! Happy backpacking! If you followed this 3 week Vietnam itinerary in the slightest, please, please, please let me know how it went!

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*Some of the links in this 3 week Vietnam itinerary are affiliate links. This means if you buy or book anything through them, I get a small commission at no cost to you. Don’t worry, I don’t link anything unless it’s AWESOME and well-reviewed*

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14 comments

Megan McC February 9, 2019 - 3:33 am

What an amazing three weeks! I covered some of that ground in two weeks in Vietnam but your experience sounds amazing! Thanks for sharing such a cool outline for an itinerary with smart tips. Happy travels!

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Kaisa Lee February 9, 2019 - 4:35 pm

Thanks!! It was awesome. Same to you!

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Arunima Dey | Namaste, Solo Travel! February 9, 2019 - 4:15 am

I have a friend currently travelling in Vietnam so I send him this post. He is doing it from North to South but I am sure he can pick a few ideas from here. I didn’t get to explore it like you did but I fell in love with Ninh Binh a lot more than Halong Bay.

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Kaisa Lee February 9, 2019 - 4:35 pm

ABSOLUTELY. I feel like everyone ends up feeling that way! It makes me think Ninh Binh will become the next super-touristy place :/

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Arunima Dey | Namaste, Solo Travel! February 9, 2019 - 6:03 pm

I hope it doesn’t; that will take away all its untouched charm!

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mo February 9, 2019 - 4:33 am

I recently traveled to South Vietnam and absolutely LOVED it! Thank you for such a comprehensive itinerary, your tips are right on! I can’t wait to get back and explore the north. I’m dying to get to Sapa!

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Kaisa Lee February 9, 2019 - 4:34 pm

YES, you gotta go! It’s so different from the rest of Vietnam (but then again, so is everywhere 😛 )

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Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad February 9, 2019 - 7:48 pm

This is such a fantastic itinerary!! We actually spent 3 weeks in Vietnam and I always see either 2 week itineraries or 1 month, so I instantly wanted to check this one out! I would add Da Lat (somewhere we actually missed, sadly!), but other than that this is soooo good! I love your photos of the Mekong, and the ones from Ninh Binh are INSANE! Unfortunately it wasn’t great weather while we were there (or Halong Bay) so I’d love to go back in better weather and find that view point, holy crap! There’s a viewpoint I want to find at Halong Bay too. Ugh, Vietnam is SUCH a beautiful country in every way.

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Kaisa Lee February 9, 2019 - 10:15 pm

Oooh, I also missed Da Lat/will have to do some research!! I know, writing and reading these itineraries seriously just makes me want to go back and do everything again or add on new places. I WISH I’d had a full month!

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Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad February 9, 2019 - 10:23 pm

Me too!! We sort of messed up a bit because we meant to arrive earlier, and then had problems getting to Vietnam (basically we were coming from Hong Kong but couldn’t get a visa for China!) so we had to delay arriving by a couple of days. I am so desperate to go back to Vietnam and do everything we missed! AND everything all over again lol.

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Chasing Krista February 9, 2019 - 7:54 pm

oh my word, this guide is amazing!! like brb packing my bags and booking a flight. the first time i went to Vietnam i didn’t fall in love with the city :/ your detailed itinerary and beautiful photos are making me want to go right now! Thanks for sharing this!

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Kaisa Lee February 9, 2019 - 10:13 pm

Yeah, the cities definitely held less appeal overall than the smaller villages/National Parks… they’re so hectic! Chillin’ in nature is where it’s at lol

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Susan February 11, 2019 - 12:40 pm

I loves your stories. You covered so much, cities and rural areas both.. You’re a good sister to take such good care of your brother ❤️

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Kaisa Lee February 11, 2019 - 10:35 pm

Aw, thanks, Mom. Love you!

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