What to do in Vietnam in 1 week

Vietnam was my last trip before Covid-19 hit and incapacitated us to travel across borders for more than a year. A pandemic of this magnitude, with the ability to cripple the entire world and lock them inside their homes, was unprecedented and unimaginable for me back in December 2019, when I backpacked across one of the most culturally unique countries in Southeast Asia. I was fascinated, to say the least, with how diverse Vietnam was – from the chic rooftop bars and nightlife in Hanoi, to the quaint backwaters in Ninh Binh, the jaw- dropping landscapes of Halong Bay, and the lush green paddy fields & mountain villages of rural Sa Pa, the country brims with exquisite experiences and sights. Here are my suggestions on what to do in Vietnam in 1 week.

Let me start by saying, 1 week is nearly not enough to explore Vietnam. Do not underestimate the country’s perimeter – just getting from the north to the south is a long journey and with so much to see and do, especially for nature lovers, hiking enthusiasts, culture & history buffs, or architecture connoisseurs, it’s best to take it easy and explore every part in detail rather than rush through cities only to be able to cross off the touristy items from your bucket list. Nevertheless, I tried to build my itinerary keeping in mind some places that I really wanted to see – especially Halong Bay and the famous giant palm bridge, so I made sure to include these in my plan. At the same time, I wanted to make it to the mountains and throw in some hiking too, while making sure to experiment Vietnam’s culinary highlights & soak in the coffee scene.

Before I dive into What to do in Vietnam in 10 days, here are a few tips & things to keep in mind before/ when you travel:

Although not difficult to get, most people require a a visa to enter Vietnam which can either be applied online beforehand or on arrival. The best idea is to apply for an evisa at least 2-3 days prior to your travel dates and avoid long queues at the airport
Vietnamese people are very welcoming. But they’re also quite scamming in general. So be nice, but also be vigilant & alert at all times. It is not uncommon to be overcharged for some services or products, or not receive the right amount of change back when paying. Nevertheless, they are nice, friendly and helpful
Keep your phone and wallet safe! Although you are unlikely to experience any violent crimes, petty theft and pickpocketing are quite normal so keep your valuables close to yourself
Like most temples across the world, the pagodas and temples in Vietnam also expect you to dress decent, so carry a scarf along with you to show some respect and cover your shoulders/ knees. Some pagodas will provide a loose robe but others may not, why take a chance
Traffic is extremely disorganized and disarrayed; don’t assume that if the the signal is ‘red’, vehicles are going to stop. Or if you are at a pedestrian crossing, they will let you pass. We watchful, be road-smart
Don’t underestimate the size of the country, it’s huge. Overnight train journeys are actually the best way to cover long distances without wasting the productive part of your day, and making the most of your time in Vietnam. Trains are mostly clean and safe to travel in
As a woman, I did not feel unsafe at any given point. However, basic care needs to be taken, like you would in any other country
Some useful resources/ apps for ride-hailing in Vietnam, especially for scooters, are: Go-Jek & Grab. It is extremely cheap to hail a scooter-taxi and its sometimes more sensible to get a scooter for shorter distances because of their flexibility to maneuver through narrow & jampacked roads
A very useful app that I found for car taxi transfers, especially inter-city, is Dichung Taxi. Its cheap, efficient & a great idea for longer distances

Stairway to Heaven?

Although many places accept dollars as currency, its best to convert to Vietnamese dong at the (Hanoi) airport itself, on arrival. This will give you the best conversion rate and also a chance for you to feel like a millionaire Carry dollars with you, convert some into the local currency and save some for later, in case of an emergency
Many places accept credit cards but from personal experience, I advise you to limit the usage of your credit card because of numerous frauds. If you do end up having to use a credit card, DO NOT let is out of your sight for even one minute. Let them bring the credit card machine to you and swipe the card yourself
Don’t be shy to haggle, it is not only okay to do it but sort of expected! Be it at the street markets or massage salons, don’t forget to ask for a ‘better price’
Vietnamese coffee is, well, unique and the country has quite the coffee culture. The food is no less! Experiment, go out of your comfort zone, experience the local places
Carry your luggage based on where all you plan to go during the trip. If you’re visiting the mountains, its likely to be cold so take along some layers. Also, the weather varies from the region (north vs central vs south), so make sure you check that before you go to know what to expect!
Do yourself a favour and buy a sim card at Hanoi airport when you land. You will get some really amazing deals on calling / data which can be extremely helpful when trying to navigate a country by yourself

Day 1: Hanoi

Hanoi seemed like the obvious place to start because my flight landed there, and it is the capital city. Having said that, I have learned from years of travelling that the capitals aren’t the most exciting places to explore and are usually just the commercial centers. The real beauty of most countries lies in the suburbs or countryside. Nevertheless, I kept aside a day and half to just soak in and get my feet wet before venturing into the depth of a country that has historically been considered a challenging one to traverse.

Hoan Kiem lake is a good starting point to explore this chaotic and crowded city, before you venture into the narrow lanes with thousands of scooters, unruly bus drivers and disarrayed car drivers who refuse to follow the traffic rules and seem blind to the signals & pedestrian crossings. Walking along the lake is probably the only peaceful activity you will enjoy while in Hanoi. There are several walking paths along the lake where you can enjoy a leisurely walk. You will see an iconic red Huc Bridge leads to the picturesque Ngoc Son Temple in the middle of the lake.  At night, the the bridge is brilliantly illuminated and is a sight to see. The temple itself closes by sunset, so if you wish to visit, make sure you do so before it begins to get dark. There is an admission fee of 20,000 VND for the temple.

Right across the road from Ngoc Son is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, a popular entertainment venue for tourists interested in gaining an insight into Vietnamese folklore and rural lifestyle. A unique Vietnamese art form dating back to the 11th century, shows run at particular times through the day, so make sure to check and book your tickets accordingly. The last show is usually around 6 pm. This means, the only thing left to do after sunset, is to enjoy a nice drink at one of the rooftop lounges in the area or experiment with the street food.

To be honest, the food that was literally being served on the street did not seem very hygienic to me, even though I’m usually very adventurous when it comes to culinary experiences. I chose the slightly cleaner, cozy eateries instead and the food was absolutely delectable. Nightlife in Hanoi is quite good and with the high rise buildings, some of the rooftop bars are stunning! Even though these are more expensive than the regular street bars, Vietnam in general is quite cheap. I found MK Rooftop Bar & Restaurant located right next to the lake and the views as well as the vibe as pretty awesome. A relaxed place to enjoy some interesting concoctions, the food did not disappoint either. Diamond Sky Bar, located in the old quarter, is yet another chic place to enjoy some cocktails with a view of the sunset over the Hoan Kiem lake.

You may also head to Hanoi’s French Quarter, located on the east side of the lake. This location reflects the city’s colonial past, with wide boulevards, colonial-style buildings, and luxury hotels. The area offers a different vibe from the Old Quarter and is home to numerous chic boutiques, restaurants, and cafes.

Click here to book your stay in Hanoi. 

Day 2: Hanoi

Having seen the Train Street on Instagram and all the cute cafes along the narrow lane, where one could sit and watch a moving train pass by at arm’s length, I really wanted to visit this Insta-worthy this place myself. Unfortunately, 2 months before my visit, in 2019, the Vietnamese authorities barricaded a large area off, prohibiting tourists to enter the lane and closed down most cafes, due to safety concerns. However, there are a couple of areas where tourists can stand and watch the train go by, under the watchful eyes for the police & security guards, and you will see the place crowding up as the time comes close. There are very specific times when you can experience this, which is only twice or thrice in the day, so make sure to check the timetable out before you go or you’ll end up being disappointed. One recommended place to experience this is Railway Café, where you can sip on a coffee as you watch it pass by. While it is a super exciting and thrilling experience, one must not forget that it can be extremely dangerous too, so be super careful when you’re here. Don’t do anything stupid for the sake of a nice selfie or Insta reels.

Hanoi Train Street

The train street is right in the middle of the chaotic yet artistic Old Quarter, which was by far my favourite place to stroll, despite being jostled by the pedestrians, the motorbikes & the hawkers. Several shops, cozy cafes, massage salons, old houses, fish & fresh produce markets, temples, and eateries line the crooked streets and the maze is easy to get lost in. Walk towards Bach Ma temple, said to be the oldest temple in the city built in the 11th century, though most of the present architecture dates to the 18th century. An additional shrine, paying homage to Confucius, was incorporated into the temple in 1839. Upon entering through the enchanting old wooden doors of the pagoda, you will encounter a statue of the legendary white horse, that was known to have led Emperor Ly Thai To to this auspicious location, where he then chose to construct his city walls. Unfortunately, when I visited here (December 2019), the temple was closed for restoration.

You might come across a slightly European architecture building which is now Dong Xuan Market, a popular indoor market for souvenirs, cheap clothes & accessories and traditional Vietnamese food items. Take a break from the chaos and walk towards Tran Quoc Pagoda, a Buddhist shrine located in the middle of the West Lake and my personal favourite in Hanoi. More than 1500 years old, this Buddhist temple is popular not only because of its historical significance but also its stunning setting in an islet on Ho Tay Lake, and the architecture, especially the tall structure known as “Bao Thap Luc Do Dai Sen”. It is an eleven-story tower, has six arched doorways and a statue on each floor, made of precious stones. As it is a place of worship, make sure to be dressed modestly when you visit this pagoda.

Right across the pagoda, you will find a little island with lots of restaurants, offering lakeside seating with views. Not only is the local food here excellent and worth trying, but the location is also scenic. Ma Xó Café is one such place that offers a great lakeside seating but there are some local eateries as well where you can try the famous Vietnamese Pho. From here, walk back towards Old Quarter but you’ll pass by several monuments on the way such as the Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, Temple of Literature and the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Each of these places are significant and interesting to explore, so take your time and choose the ones you wish to enter and discover in detail. Each of these places are significant and interesting to explore, so take your time and choose the ones you wish to enter and discover in detail. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is an imposing structure that houses the embalmed body of Vietnam’s revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh, while the Temple of Literature is Vietnam’s first university and a dedicated Confucian temple. It is a well-preserved example of traditional Vietnamese architecture.

Tran Quoc Pagoda

The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, also known as the Hanoi Citadel, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a long and rich history, dating back to the 7th century when it was established as a military fortress. It is an extensive architectural complex, comprising palaces, pavilions, gates, and other structures. The site showcases a mix of architectural styles, representing various periods of Vietnamese history. If you wish to explore this place, keep aside at least 1.5 hours.

Overnight train from Hanoi to Sa Pa: As mentioned earlier, I highly recommend that you cover long inter-city journeys on overnight trains so that you can utilize the better part of the day in exploring. Although there are several trains from Hanoi to Sa Pa, I chose to travel on the King Express Train after careful research and reading reviews.

Book your train journey from Hanoi to Sa Pa here.

The train was comfortable, the journey lasted about 8 hours, from 10pm – 6 am, and cost about 27$ for a VIP cabin (including the transfer to and from Lao Cai station in Sa Pa town, which is about 45 minutes by bus). It was a very reasonable deal in my opinion! Food is not included in this price (only water is) but there are carts selling food & alcohol at the Hanoi train station and also on the train after departure. It’s highly recommended, however, to eat before you board or carry along food from a restaurant beforehand.

Kings Express from Hanoi to Sa Pa

Day 3 & 4: Sa Pa

You will arrive in Sa Pa at 6 am, allowing you 2 full days to explore this picturesque mountain town. Offering iconic forest treks, dramatic landscapes and cute tribal villages, Sa Pa is a charming town to visit. I went in the month of December, and while the rest of Vietnam had pleasant weather with a bit of rain, neither too hot nor too cold, Sa Pa was much colder due to its elevation. The nights were foggy and chilly, while the days were slightly balmy. Nevertheless, I absolutely loved this weather because when you’re in the mountains, that’s exactly what you expect!

The best thing about my Vietnam in 1 week itinerary is that I managed to find an early morning train from Hanoi to Sa Pa which got me there by 8.30 am, giving me the entire day to explore the town. Also, on my way back from Sa Pa to Hanoi, I found an early morning train which got me to Hanoi around 7 am. I booked my trains through bookaway that also provided me the option to arrange for a mini-van transfer from Sa Pa train station to the accommodation and vice versa, on return to Hanoi. You will find all details on my specific blog for Sa Pa, Vietnam.

Read my detailed 2-day itinerary for Sa Pa here: 2 days in Sa Pa

Overnight train journey back to Hanoi: I took the same train (King Express) back from Sa Pa to Hanoi. The journey lasts about 8 hours and the train departed from Lao Cai station (make sure to keep about an hour for your travel from Sa Pa main town to the train station) at 9.40 pm, arriving in Hanoi at 5.30 am.

Day 5 & 6: Halong Bay

Since I arrived back in Hanoi early morning from Sa Pa, I arranged for my Halong Bay pick up from Hanoi on this day itself, which was around 8.30 am. The best way to explore Halong Bay is in an overnight cruise. There are numerous companies that run cruises in different areas of Halong Bay and I picked one that goes into the Bai Tu Long Bay, the lesser crowded yet equally stunning alternative to the over-crowded and touristic Halong Bay.

I planned for a 2-day cruise (with 1 night stay onboard) but there are several options available, should you choose to spend more or less time. I highly recommend spending at least 1 night, it was such an incredible experience! Also, there ate several options to book in terms of the luxury you’re looking for – from budget cruises to ultra-luxury yachts.

Read my detailed 2-day itinerary on Halong Bay cruise here: Choosing a Halong Bay Cruise in Vietnam

Evening Train Journey from Hanoi to Ninh BinhThe cruise company dropped me back to Hanoi at about 5.30 pm and after a quick coffee and snack in the Old Quarter, I headed to board a short 2-hour train to Ninh Binh. This time, I decided to take Vietnam Railways (the state-owned operator) and even though I had some apprehensions about the quality & service of this national carrier, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was quite efficient, clean & cheap.

Day 7: Ninh Binh

A lot of people call Ninh Binh the lesser known sister of Halong Bay. However, I felt that the two places were not similar at all, except probably the presence of emerald green waters and limestone cliffs. The experience of being in the two locations is so different whatsoever!

I could have easily spent 2 days in Ninh Binh, especially because of my love for lesser popular, rural and preserved places. You are a lot closer to the local traditions and culture in smaller & untouristed places such as Ninh Binh and that is why, I urge you to make it here, even if it is only for 1 day. You can do this as a daytrip, which is how several people do it and many companies offer this option to do a quick highlights tour of Ninh Binh with pick and drop from your hotel in Hanoi. However, if you have a little extra time to spare, I highly recommend spending a night in Ninh Binh.

Read my detailed 1-day itinerary for Ninh Binh here.

Click here to book your overnight stay in Ninh Binh.

If you have additional time:

There’s a lot more you can do in Vietnam if you have additional time. I highly recommend visiting Hoi An and spending at least 3-4 days there, if possible. I travelled from Ninh Binh to Danang via overnight train journey (13 hours) and then took a taxi (booked on Dichung Taxi) from Danang to Hoi An (1 hour).

Click here to read What to do in Hoi An in 4 days.

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