1 week in Vietnam is not enough time to get to know the country.
There’s so much to do if you have more time – checking out the sand dunes in Mũi Né, eating bún bò huế in Huế, shopping for lanterns and clothes in Hội An, relaxing or partying in the beaches in Phú Quốc.
You could easily spend a week just in each of Vietnam’s three macro-regions (North, South, and Central Vietnam) and still not experience all the great things they have to offer.
But sometimes, one week is all we can spend abroad- let alone just in Vietnam!
I’ve been to Vietnam several times for a couple of months to visit some of my best friends’ families. They showed us around, and so this is a collection of the best things we did– in the two major cities that are essential to any Vietnam trip.
This itinerary is perfect for anyone who’s traveling to Vietnam for the first time and isn’t sure how to make the most of their time. There’s an even balance between culture, nature, history, food, city, and country, and each day is packed full of activities.
If this sounds like the itinerary you need, read on!
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City is the modern, loud, and lively capital of Vietnam. It’s Vietnam’s most visited city, with tons of history and unique local cuisine, so that’s why I’ve started here. Plus, if you’re flying from the West Coast, this is typically the cheapest airport in Vietnam to fly into!
Day 1: Explore the city’s history on foot
Ho Chi Minh City is broken up into several districts, and many of Ho Chi Minh City’s major sights are in Districts 1 and 3.
This means that they’re easily walkable! You can also hire a cyclo, a three wheeled, person drawn carriage from French colonization times, if walking is harder for you. They’re slow enough so that you don’t miss the bustling people and the parks and buildings along the way.
Start your first day in the War Remnants Museum, in district 3. This museum has exhibits from the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it’s called in Vietnam) as well as the French Indochina War. Even if museums aren’t usually your thing, if you’re from the US, you need to check out this museum! It paints a very sobering picture of the Vietnam War, one that we’re not taught in schools- because it’s the Vietnamese perspective.
At least if you went to a crazy alternative facts religious high school like me, and were taught that the US “won” the Vietnam War. Which is not true! And did you know one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most divisive speeches was condemning the Vietnam War? Learned that here, not in US schools!
Now that you’re sad from colonialism and imperial aggression, walk over to district 1 to check out the Reunification Palace. This is where the tank crashed that ended the Vietnam War. Before that, it was the homebase of one of the generals during the war from South Vietnam. The palace has been preserved, so you’re walking through replicas of the rooms and sometimes actual tanks used in the war.
Next, stop by a couple of impressive relics built by the French during colonization: the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica and the Saigon Central Post Office. If you’d like to attend a service, the Cathedral is one of the few Catholic churches and you can find the times here. These are both colorful, unique buildings that are fun to admire and take pictures with!
You’re probably getting pretty hungry now. For food, follow your nose to the many food stands at Benh Thanh Market. I love getting snack-y food here like banh beo, which is made of rice and tapioca flour and topped with pork and shrimp (technically this is from Central Vietnam, not South Vietnam, but it’s my favorite snack!). They also have souvenirs, traditional clothes, and unique trinkets for sale.
Day 2: Motorbike through cultural and historical sights
Now that you’re familiar with all the major sights of Ho Chi Minh City, it’s time to travel further than you can on foot!
If you want to get out of the city and see more history, head to the Cu Chi Tunnels. These intricate, underground tunnels were used by the Viet Cong for military purposes- channeling supplies, planning attacks, and even living, eating, and working. They were essential in giving North Vietnam an edge over the South. Today a couple of the tunnels have been preserved for visitors, and it makes an interactive, historical day trip.
If you want to head to more cultural parts of the city, bike to some pagodas and temples. In Vietnam, pagodas are places for Buddhist worship, and temples are to worship significant people (think royal families or deceased relatives). You can read more about the differences, as well as the rules to know to respect the culture and people visiting for worship here.
Which ones should you check out? This site lists some of the best temples and pagodas to visit in Ho Chi Minh City. The Jade Emporer Pagoda is the one one that Obama had famously visited and enjoyed!
And if you don’t want to bike on your own, don’t worry- there are tours that you can do to go with people, or you can use Uber or Grabr for a professional to drive you around! Just make sure it’s the one you actually ordered, and not a random person- it could be a scam and it happened to one of my friends! Double check the license plate!!
However you do it, motorbiking in Vietnam is a unique experience that you have to try at least once!
Day 3: Day trip to Mekong Delta
Now that you’ve seen some major parts of HCMC, it’s time to get out! The Mekong Delta is a must if you’re visiting Vietnam for the first time. It’s an expansive array of rivers and islands, filled with villages, markets, pagodas, houses, and lots of biodiversity. Yes, all built on the water!
Since this area is huge, there are a lot of ways you can do this trip. If this is your first time, My Tho or Can Tho are the most popular entry points. You can go on your own or go with a tour, and many tours will pick you up from HCMC. If you’re a foodie, I would say you should choose My Tho so you can stop by and try hu tieu my tho on the way!
Thousands of years older than Ho Chi Minh City is Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. More of its history is preserved in the city, and its food culture has noticable differences from Ho Chi Minh City as well.
This is one of my favorite cities to explore in Vietnam because there are so many attractions, and they’re easier to get to! Where HCMC is sprawling, Hanoi feels a little more condensed. They’re both still busy and bustling, but Hanoi has a few more obvious quiet areas.
Day 4: Explore the city and eat
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is home to many fun streets and sights on your first visit. Start your day wandering through the windy streets and stopping at any shops that catch your eye until you find Hoan Kien Lake and Ngoc Son Temple, one of the more peaceful areas of Hanoi shrouded by local folklore. On a walk around the lake and veering off a little inland, you’ll find beautiful religious buildings like St Josheph’s Cathedral and a few different Buddhist temples.
If you’re interested in history, next take a transportation to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Visiting this was probably more impactful for my friends since he’s their country’s hero, but it’s still interesting as a foreigner to visit such an important political figure.
Across the street from here is the Imperial Citaldel of Thang Long. In the past this went from palace for Vietnamese royalty to military base during the American War. Unlike the military things we’ve seen in HCMC, the palace here is more peaceful and relaxing to walk through.
But my favorite thing about Hanoi is the food! Each region of Vietnam has a different culinary style, and the North’s is probably my favorite.
I’ve written a more detailed food guide to Hanoi here, but the TLDR is pho is from Hanoi, and make sure you eat bun cha and cha ca lang thong. For vegetarians, you can find bun chay, which replaces the fatty pork with tofu. In general, chay means vegetarian in Vietnamese, so look out for any dishes that have chay!
And last for caffeine addicts, you need to try ca phe truong, or egg coffee. It sounds weird, but it’s an amazing, sweet, creamy, local specialty! Hanoi is a major coffee city, so really, try it all!
Days 5 and 6: Cruise through Ha Long Bay OR Trek through Sapa
Spend your last couple days in Hanoi doing one of two popular trips outside of the city! While the city itself has so much more to offer than I described above, Hanoi is also home to many nearby day or weekend trips that help you get in touch with Vietnam’s natural beauty.
For a uniquely beautiful and relaxing trip, I recommend Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site full of beautiful limestone rock formations, islands, and caves. The most popular option is to go on a cruise that takes you through the bay. Our trip included kayaking through parts of the bay and also exploring the caves with light shows (I said what? too).
For an active trip with hiking or cultural attractions, head to Sapa.
Sapa is a mountain village home to different minority groups and is the base for many hikes through the national park. The most popular option is to go with a guide or on a tour, which can actually be a great way to give back to the communities too because many are locally owned!
Note: While we didn’t have any bad experiences, I’ve heard bad stories of people having trouble making sure they book a reputable tour company for both of these. Like they don’t get picked up or the tour is really different than what they paid for.
I recommend doing a little research and booking in advance, rather than when you’re there, so you have time to look up reviews and avoid any sketchiness. Even when people book with their hotels, I’ve heard horror stories, so try to do your own research first!
Ho Chi Minh City
It’s your last day! My biggest fear is missing flights, so I always try to head back to the city close to the airport I’ll be flying back from like 12-24 hours on advance. You never know if your transportation getting back there will be delayed! Assuming you do this too, that means you’ll have one last day to explore Ho Chi Minh City!
Day 7: Check off the things you missed earlier
I technically put way too many things in Day 2.
So on your last day, cross off anything you didn’t do! If you went to Cu Chi Tunnels, explore the pagodas and temples. If you explored the pagodas and temples, head to Cu Chi Tunnels. If you want to take another day trip, here are a few other ideas from Ho Chi Minh City, including if you want to just relax and unwind or keep exploring.
And have one last Vietnamese coffee before you leave Vietnam!