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Welcome to the wonderful world of North Vietnam and one of my favourite places in Asia. I’m going to share my Northern Vietnam itinerary to help you explore Asia bucket list destinations including hectic yet charming Hanoi, misty Sapa, dreamy Ha Long Bay and beautiful Ninh Binh.
If you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you’re planning a trip to North Vietnam. I want to stress what a fantastic time you’re going to have. Not only is it affordable, but there’s so much diversity in terms of culture and scenery.
E-sim data plan
Copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam
Check visas requirements: iVisa
Getting around: 12GoAsia
Pre-book your Hanoi airport to city transfer
Accommodation: Booking.com // Hostelworld
Travel insurance: World Nomads
Essential reading: 101 Southeast Asia travel tips
If I had 1-2 weeks in Vietnam, I would seriously consider staying put in Northern Vietnam and saving the rest of the country for a future trip. I personally prefer Hanoi to Saigon, plus you’ll need to spend time or money on long-haul buses or internal flights to visit the whole country.
If you’re keen to see Central and South Vietnam too, use my complete Vietnam itinerary for 2 weeks or 1 month.
How long to spend
How long to spend in Northern Vietnam depends firstly on your travel style. Do you want a fast-paced itinerary or do you like to travel slowly and savour the moment? Would you rather see 2-3 places leisurely or 4-5 places at a faster pace?
So you can make an educated decision, let’s run through the best places in Northern Vietnam.
Hanoi: exploring Hanoi Old Quarter is certainly one of the best things to do in Southeast Asia. If you’re arriving into North Vietnam by air, you’ll fly into Nội Bài International Airport. Even if you’re arriving by land from Central Vietnam, you’ll need to use the capital as a launching point for the stops during this North Vietnam itinerary.
Luckily, Hanoi isn’t just a stop-off. It’s a high contender for my favourite city in the world with buckets of charm and history. Not to mention even more buckets of Vietnamese coffee!
Exploring neighbour countries? Check out my ultimate Southeast Asia backpacking route
Ha Long Bay: Visiting this magical location in North Vietnam is a chance to cruise between craggy islands floating in the bay. Soak up the scenery and stay overnight on Cat Ba Island. You can take part in activities such as swimming and kayaking or just sun yourself on the deck.
Sapa: The hillside region of Sapa is captivating for so many different reasons. The cool, misty climate and scenery is unlike the rest of Vietnam. It’s also a great place to meet minority groups and learn about their culture. I’d recommend a few days hiking and staying overnight in homestays.
Ninh Binh: This region is known as ‘Ha Long Bay on land’ due to the striking cliffs that resemble Ha Long Bay’s islands. Sapa town isn’t much to speak of but the surrounding countryside is full of temples and viewpoints.
Ha Giang: This province close to the border with China is known as one of Vietnam’s most beautiful and least crowded regions. Here you can hike or, if you’re feeling adventurous, ride the Ha Giang Loop by motorbike during a couple of days.
Let’s run through my suggested North Vietnam itinerary with options for 1 week, 10 days and 2 weeks in Northern Vietnam.
Related read: Top tips for travelling Southeast Asia
How to get around Northern Vietnam
Bus – there’s an efficient bus network in Vietnam. Use 12GoAsia to compare bus times and book your tickets.
Train – take the scenic route between Hanoi and Sapa with the sleeper train.
Tours – you can visit Sapa, Ha Long Bay and Sapa without grappling wIth public transport thanks to GetYourGuide tours, including multi-day tours.
NORTH VIETNAM ITINERARY FOR 1 WEEK
Days 1-2 – Hanoi
While I would recommend a little longer in Vietnam’s capital, if you just have 1 week in North Vietnam, you can see Hanoi’s highlights in just a couple of days. Things I would recommend during 2 days in Hanoi include:
- Exploring the Old Quarter
- Visiting Hoan Kiem Lake and floating Temple of the Jade Mountain
- Wandering the decadent French Quarter including Hanoi Opera House
- Visiting the Vietnamese Women’s Museum
- Seeing the ex-leader’s remains at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
- Drinking insanely cheap fresh beer at Bia Hoi Corner.
Where to eat in Hanoi: the street food in Hanoi is world-class. Don’t leave without trying bun cha (slow-cooked pork balls in a tangy broth), banh mi baguettes packed with fresh ingredients and banh cuon rice parcels with pork and mushroom.
Some of my favourite restaurants include Banh Mi 25, Noodle N Roll Restaurant, Phở Cuốn Hương Mai and Bun Cha 34.
Where to stay in Hanoi: Backpackers can’t do better than Buffalo Hostel with a swimming pool in the middle of Hanoi and a tasty breakfast. Dorms from $6 and private rooms from $25. Stay at Hanoi Garden Boutique Hotel & Spa for beautifully decorated rooms, breakfast and a spa onsite from $35 a night.
Day 3 – Hanoi to Ninh Binh day trip
A Ninh Binh day trip from Hanoi is a wonderful addition to your trip. Book a tour and you’ll be picked up early and arrive in Ninh Binh in time for a scenic boat ride around Tam Coc cliffs. After lunch and temple hopping in the countryside, you’ll make it back to Hanoi the same day.
Although you can also visit by public bus, time would be tight with just a week in Northern Vietnam.
Day 4-5 – Ha Long Bay
Next, you’re in for a treat. Some people visit Ha Long Bay as a day trip but I wouldn’t recommend this even for the tightest North Vietnam itinerary. Ha Long Bay is a three-hour drive from Hanoi so you’d spend most of the day on a bus.
By spending a night in Ha Long Bay, you’ll get more time cruising the bay. You’ll also spend a night sleeping in your own cabin, waking up to coffee and breakfast on the deck.
For a 7 day North Vietnam itinerary, consider catching a night train to Sapa the evening you return from Ha Long Bay.
Browse all overnight Hanoi cruises
Day 6-7 – Sapa
If you take a night train from Hanoi to Sapa on the evening of day 5 after returning from Ha Long Bay, you will arrive in Sapa in the early morning of day 6. The other option is a Sapa tour including transport from Hanoi. These usually depart early in the morning so you could depart on day 6.
Spend night six at a Sapa hotel or homestay. Homestays are a great way for local hill tribes to make money while you learn about their culture. During day seven, you will have time for a little more hiking before returning to Hanoi by afternoon bus, arriving late in the evening.
NORTH VIETNAM ITINERARY FOR 10 DAYS
A few extra days in North Vietnam will make a huge difference to your itinerary. You can spend an extra day in Hanoi, a night on Cat Ba Island while visiting Ha Long Bay and an extra day in Sapa.
Alternatively, stick to the above itinerary for either Hanoi, Ha Long or Sapa and spend the saved day in Ninh Binh, staying overnight rather than visiting as a day trip.
Days 1-3 – Hanoi
With a full 3 days in Hanoi, you’ll have plenty of time for exploring the city at your leisure. Check out my 3 day Hanoi itinerary for everything to do, see and eat. For a quick round-up, check the bullet points under my 1 week North Vietnam itinerary above.
If you have three days in Hanoi rather than two, I would suggest adding any of the following activities to the agenda:
Where to drink coffee in Hanoi: During 10 days in Northern Vietnam, there’s more time for leisure. I don’t know what that means to you but it means drinking coffee in cute cafes to me! Visit my Hanoi cafe guide for 14 strong (brew) contenders.
Day 4 – Ninh Binh
With a 10 day Northern Vietnam itinerary, you can visit Ninh Binh as a day trip or stay overnight. A day trip will whiz you between the highlights and drop you back at your Hanoi hotel in the evening.
For a two-day trip, you can catch a bus from Hanoi to Ninh Binh and back. Stay overnight in Ninh Binh town or a countryside hotel and either hire a scooter or a driver to take you around. You can visit Trang An as well as the more touristic Tam Coc and add a few more temples to your North Vietnam itinerary.
Where to stay in Ninh Binh: For a cheap and cheerful homestay in town, head to Hoa Lu Family Stay with a garden, terrace and motorbike rentals. To stay surrounded by incredible countryside, I would recommend Trang An Eco Homestay. Browse all Sapa hotels on Hostelworld and hotels on Booking.com.
Browse Ninh Bin day tours from Hanoi:
Day 5-7 – Ha Long Bay
This is the Ha Long Bay tour I would recommend. You’ll arrive at Ha Long port by late morning and board your boat for the night. After a day spent kayaking and visiting caves, you’ll sleep on the boat and continue your journey to Cat Ba Island the following morning.
On Cat Ba, you’ll have free time staying in a hotel and exploring the island. The next day, you will re-board your board and journey back to Hanoi.
This Northern Vietnam itinerary for 10 days allows you to get deeper into the bay, see rugged scenery and ditch the other boats around the port. Read my Hanoi tour review.
Day 8-10 – Sapa
You can either board a Sapa night train on the evening of day seven after returning from Ha Long Bay or wait until day eight to catch a bus or train to Sapa. The amount of time you have depends whether you spent an extra day in Ninh Binh earlier in this 10 day North Vietnam itinerary.
Either way, spending two nights in Sapa rather than one is a great option if you have the time to spare. We spent 1 night in a homestay and 1 night at a hotel in Sapa town which gave us a bit of luxury after the homestay. Saying this, Sapa town isn’t especially exciting but it is a good launching point for hikes.
I enjoyed the 3 day 2 night Sapa tour we booked in Hanoi. We had lots of free time as well as guided hikes, plus we didn’t have to organise anything ourselves. If the homestay doesn’t appeal, there’s also a hotel-based tour instead. You can book online or with any of the Hanoi tour agencies.
NORTH VIETNAM ITINERARY FOR 2 WEEKS
If you have the time, of course I would recommend spending 2 weeks in North Vietnam. Not only can you stay overnight in Ninh Binh and visit Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay, but you’ll also have more time in Hanoi and Sapa.
You can also include an adventurous fifth destination, the Ha Giang loop which is a great way to see more of North Vietnam’s untouched scenery.
Days 1-3 – Hanoi
Three days in Hanoi can begin by sightseeing in the Old Quarter and wandering between the atmospheric French Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. Marvel at the Temple of Literature in the afternoon then catch the Water Puppet Show in the evening or explore the bar scene.
For day two, visit the Women’s Museum and Hoa Lo Prison where American soldiers were kept during the war. In the afternoon, explore Truc Bach island, Tran Quoc Pagoda and Tay Ho area.
During day three, you can visit Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, One Pillar Pagoda and Ngoc Ha neighbourhood. You will also have lots of time to eat all the best street food in Hanoi.
Days 4-5 – Ninh Binh
For two days in Hanoi, catch an early bus from Hanoi to Ninh Binh and check into your hotel. Spend the rest of the day cruising around Tam Coc by boat and visiting Tam Coc Pagoda. Jump back up to my 10 day itinerary for the best places to stay in Ninh Binh.
Other things to do in Ninh Binh include Mau Caves Viewpoint, Trang An (a quieter boating area rivalling Tam Coc), Bai Dinh Pagoda, the biggest in Vietnam, and ancient Hoa Lu Temple. Catch the return bus to Hanoi to continue this 2 week North Vietnam itinerary.
Days 6-8 – Ha Long Bay
I think I said all I have to say about Ha Long Bay in my 10 day North Vietnam itinerary above. This region is really one of my favourites so I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I did.
Days 9-11 – Sapa
Yay, you have a full three days to relax and hike in Sapa while learning about the minority groups who call the region home. Jump back to my Sapa tips above. You can also head over to the blog post I wrote about spending 3 days in Sapa.
Days 12-13 – Ha Giang
If you’re visiting Vietnam’s best hidden gem region, good on you! There are a few ways to do this including a DIY trip starting with an 8-hour bus from Hanoi’s Mỹ Đình station arriving into small Ha Giang town which is little more than a launching point for the surrounding region.
There are plenty of natural places to explore in Ha Giang like Heaven’s Gate where a road cuts through enormous cliffs topped with misty cloud. The best way to get around in Ha Giang is by motorbike which can be hired in Ha Giang town.
You can also book tours if you’d rather explore with a guide. Driving the Ha Giang Loop through mountain towns can take anywhere between 2-5 days depending how often you stop. Another fascinating reason is to meet minority groups far less visited than Sapa.
Have a fantastic time in Northern Vietnam. You’re going to love it!
Thanks for reading my Northern Vietnam itinerary!
Check out my other Vietnam posts:
- The ultimate Vietnam itinerary
- Hidden gems in Hanoi
- Where to drink egg coffee in Hanoi
- 1-5 day Hoi An itinerary
- How to spend 2 days in Hue
- Complete Saigon itinerary
- Guide to Phong Nha National Park
- Driving the Hai Van Pass
- Quy Nhon travel guide
See you next time,
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Vietnam quick links
Flights – I use Skyscanner and Kayak and search by month to see the cheapest dates.
Confused about visas? I use iVisa to check visa requirements and apply for visas online.
Stay connected with E-sim data plans that don’t require delivery or collection; just span the QR code.
In my opinion, Lonely Planet offer the best guidebooks. Get the latest Lonely Planet Vietnam.
For Vietnam buses and trains, I use 12GoAsia. The search feature allows you to compare prices and durations.
I use Booking.com for accommodation. They have the best range of hotels and self-catering apartments, plus you can filter by review score and price to find the best-rated budget places. For hostels, I use Hostelworld.
To save money on accommodation, I use Trusted Housesitters, a website that connects homeowners going away and travellers who can sit their homes & pets.
For activities, I use GetYourGuide as they have a huge range of affordable tours.
Need travel insurance? I use World Nomads. They cover 150 countries and have 24-hour emergency assistance.
Check out my resources page for more travel discounts and tips!