From south to north
- 2 Weeks
This route covers the nation's essential cultural sights and is bookended by its two greatest cities. You'll have an opportunity for some beach time, too. Definitely consider taking internal flights (or overnight trains) to save time.
The adventure begins in the cauldron of commerce that is Ho Chi Minh City. Spend two to three days hitting the markets, browsing museums and eating some of Asia's best cuisine.
Then it's a plane or train up to Danang to access the cultured charmer and culinary hot spot that is Hoi An. This town certainly warrants three or four days, such is its allure. Enjoy Hoi An's unique ambience, touring its temples and Old Town, and visit the nearby beach of An Bang. Then it's on to the old imperial capital of Hue for two to three nights to explore the citadel, pagodas and tombs (and nearby beaches, in season).
Next it’s a long journey by train (or a flight) to Hanoi to check out the capital's evocative Old Quarter, munch some street food and view the city's elegant architecture and cultural sights. From Hanoi book a tour to incomparable Halong Bay, which boasts more than 2000 limestone islands, before returning to Hanoi.
- 3 Weeks
Northern Vietnam is a world unto itself: a land of brooding mountains, overwhelming beauty and a mosaic of ethnic minorities. It’s ideal terrain to cover on two wheels, with light traffic and breathtaking views, though, with a patient attitude, most of the region can be tackled by public transport.
Leaving Hanoi, head west to Mai Chau, home to the White Thai people, for your first two nights; it’s a perfect introduction to ethnic minority life. Northwest, where the road begins to climb into the Tonkinese Alps, a logical overnight stop is Son La, a sleepy town with a good spread of restaurants serving minority dishes.
Continue on for two nights at Dien Bien Phu, a name that resonates with history as it was here that the French colonial story ended in defeat. Tour the military sights and impressive new museum then continue north through stunning scenery up the Tram Ton Pass. If you're looking to get off the beaten track, consider a one- or two-night detour to Muong Te, a predominately White Thai enclave in the country's northwesternmost corner.
Sapa is the premier destination in the northwest, thanks to the infinite views (on a clear day!), and an amazing array of minority peoples. Explore the area on two feet or two wheels for around four days before heading to Bac Ha for three nights to experience the best of the region's markets. Most colourful are the Flower Hmong people.
From Bac Ha, move east to Ha Giang province, taking it slowly through stunning scenery and towns including Yen Minh, Dong Van and Meo Vac. Explore remote destinations such as the Lung Cu flag tower and the Vuong Palace from Dong Van. Onwards towards the vertiginous Mai Pi Leng Pass and Meo Vac, there's no public transport (so you'll need to hire a xe om or car). The route then loops down to the riverside junction town of Bao Lac.
Local buses run from Bao Lac to Cao Bang and on to Ba Be National Park. Spend about three nights around Ba Be, staying at local Tay homestays, and exploring the park by trekking or kayaking. From Ba Be travel back to Cao Bang for the trip back south to Hanoi.
- 2 Weeks
This itinerary takes in a lovely offshore island blessed with wonderful sandy bays, the nation's main watersport centre and some fascinating floating villages. If tropical sunsets and white-sand beaches are high on your agenda it's probably best not to plan this trip during the southern rainy season (roughly May to October). There's frequent public transport to virtually all the main places.
After a couple of days enjoying the urban delights and compelling energy of HCMC, head into the Mekong Delta, stopping at Ben Tre to explore canalside lanes by bike and islands by boat. Then hop on-board a cargo ship for a slow, scenic journey to Tra Vinh and take in the town’s colourful pagodas. Next it’s a short trip to Can Tho where it’s worth lingering a couple of days to visit the bustling floating markets, the city museum and a temple or two. Then head to Phu Quoc Island for three days of well-earned beach time on some of Vietnam's best sandy shores and seafood feasts at night.
From Phu Quoc, fly (or bus it) back to HCMC, then head north into the south-central highlands via a night in Cat Tien National Park, home to gibbons, crocodiles and bountiful bird life. Next up it's the romantic hill station of Dalat for a tour of its quirky sights, and the opportunity to get stuck into some adventure sports such as canyoning, mountain biking or kayaking.
The road trip from Dalat down to Mui Ne is one of the nation's finest, negotiating highland ridges and plunging through valleys and pine forests; it's ideally done on the back of a motorbike (consider hiring an Easy Rider). You can then rest up by the beach in Mui Ne for two or three days – a tropical idyll with towering sand dunes and a laid-back vibe – or for those with the stamina, get stuck into some crazy kitesurfing or a sailing course.