3 weeks in Vietnam: an eco-friendly itinerary from north to south

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We spent 3 weeks in Vietnam, starting from Hanoi, exploring the northern area, and making our way down south. Below we lay out the perfect eco-friendly Vietnam itinerary for a 3 week trip so you have the best visit and discover all the things to do in Vietnam.

Our goal was to travel slowly and sustainably, rather than to rush through and try to see everything. An important note is that we were not very interested in beach-related activities, since we had just arrived from the Philippines and were heading to Sabah afterwards, though we did have some relaxing beach days in Danang.

Keep in mind: it’s not possible to see every single thing in Vietnam in just 3 weeks, nor would I recommend trying to do that in a short period of time. It’s not sustainable to travel this way plus you will burn out from trying to do too much. So in this article I also mention the activities we skipped in each area and why. 

This was our route: 

Hanoi  (4 days) – Halong Bay (3 days) – Sapa (4 days) – Hanoi  – Hoi An (4 days) – Danang (5 days) – Saigon (3 days).

If this seems overwhelming to plan on your own, G Adventures provides a variety of sustainable tours to Vietnam.

Before you start planning your trip, make sure to read up on facts about Vietnamese culture and proper etiquette to follow. 

3 weeks in Vietnam: starting in Hanoi

It is highly likely that you will land in Hanoi, which is where we landed too. We usually try to do a mix of city and nature when we travel, but we found Hanoi too chaotic, so we limited our time there. 

Things to do in Hanoi, Vietnam 

Day 1: Hanoi: an evening food walking tour

3 weeks in vietnam
Old Town, Hanoi

On the day we landed, we did an evening food tour in the old town. This allowed us to see Hanoi through the eyes of a local, and try food that we might have overlooked. And it’s an eco-friendly activity that also allows you to learn about the cuisine and its importance in Vietnamese culture (try the egg coffee or the egg hot chocolate, it’s thick and creamy and not as gross as it sounds).

If we had more time we would have done a cooking class in Hanoi and a tour of the city highlights and hidden gems.

Day 2: Hanoi, Vietnam: a walk around town

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Phung Hung street murals, Hanoi

After a good night’s sleep, we had a lazy morning, and spent the day walking around. We went to see the street art (3D art) at Phung Hung street, walked around Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc son temple, and then went to the puppet theatre show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in the late afternoon. 

Many people have described the puppet theatre show negatively, saying it’s only for children or that it was hard to understand. We got the audio guide for English to follow along and found it very interesting and fun. Also got to learn a bit about Vietnamese culture, plus you’re supporting the local community. 

Tip: Most people suggest buying the ticket for the puppet theatre show online to skip lines, but the official website does not sell tickets online. So you have to buy it from a third party website, and still have to go pick up the ticket at a separate location nearby. We did not find lines to be that long when we went in the late afternoon, but it can be long and so I understand why buying online is best for some. We bought ours here.

Day 3: Hanoi: a day trip to Ninh Bình

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Ninh Bình

Ninh Bình is a small city in the Red River Delta in the northern part of Vietnam, about 1.5 hours from Hanoi by car (or 100km, or 62 miles). We booked a shared tour that provided transportation and a guide, so that we could learn things along the way. I would not recommend driving in Vietnam on your own as a foreigner, it’s chaotic and it’s every man for himself. 

The Ninh Bình tour consisted of several activities, some of which were the river Tam Coc in sampan boats, and the Ngoa Long Mountain in Hang Mua, where you get magnificent views of the rice fields and river. It was such a beautiful day, and I definitely recommend taking a trip to Ninh Bình.

If you prefer to spend a few days in Ninh Binh, check out this eco hotel in Tam Coc.

Day 4: morning in Hanoi, then off to Halong Bay

On day 4 we had a lazy morning in Hanoi, then took a shared van to Halong Bay. It was surprisingly fancy. 

Things we skipped in/around Hanoi, some due to lack of time:

  • Van Phuc Silk Village to see the process and buy affordable silk
  • Quang Phu Cau (the Incense Village)
  • Imperial citadel of Thang Long
  • Bat Trang Pottery Village and make your own
  • Dong Xuan Market
  • The Perfume Pagoda
  • Temple of the jade mountain
  • Train close to houses: this is typical “must-do” according to Instagram but it’s just a train that comes really close to cafes and houses, and is now a tourist trap, in my opinion. We skipped it and focused on nature and cultural exploration instead. 

A few options for eco-friendly hotels in Hanoi

Things to do in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Most people spend a few days cruising Halong Bay for a few days, spending the night and most of the journey on the cruise boat. This did not seem like the most sustainable way to explore Halong Bay, and there were not any eco-friendly options for this, so we booked an accommodation near the bay and stayed on land. Check out this (partially) eco-friendly hotel in Halong Bay.

We did end up doing a short 1-day cruise because there was no other way to see Halong Bay, and we had lunch on the boat but were back to our accommodation by sunset. We kept our trip to Halong Bay short, we only spent 3 days there: the day we arrived, the day we did the cruise, and the day we left.

If you choose to do a 2-day cruise, this Halong Bay 2-day cruise looks interesting because it also offers kayaking and a Vietnamese cooking class. But this cruise is also popular because of the boat itself.

halong bay  things to do in vietnam
Halong Bay

The reason we were apprehensive about Halong Bay is because of overtourism, and we were right. Halong Bay is beautiful but there were so many boats and people, plus plastic pollution in the water, which was very sad to see. That’s also why we decided to not stay very long.

Activities we skipped in Halong Bay:

  • Vung Vieng village and pearl farm and fishing (Pearls: According to a legend, the bay was created by ancient dragons who breathed jewels, emeralds and jade to form thousands of islands and islets. This legend perhaps gives an insight into why pearls are so easily farmed in Halong Bay)
  • Lan Ha Bay and snorkel at Cong Do Island, Cat Ba, and Van Gio Island
  • Hike Bai Tho Mountain for views

Overall, would I recommend Halong Bay? Honestly, no. It’s suffering from overtourism, and was a weird ghost town. Ninh Binh is a much better alternative.  

Exploring Sapa, Vietnam: a must-do for your Vietnam itinerary

Getting to Sapa was easy enough in terms of getting there: we took a direct bus from Halong Bay (from Bai Chay Bus Station) to the city centre of Sapa. But it was a long journey. Alternatively, you can head back to Hanoi and take the sleeper bus from there to Sapa in 6 hours.

We reached Sapa about 10 hours later. However, the bus was comfortable enough, and the time flew by. Sapa is definitely worth the journey. It’s a beautiful mountainous region with rice fields everywhere, minority villages, and breathtaking natural beauty.

We took a taxi from the city centre to our local, family-owned guest house in the mountains, about 30 minutes away (in retrospect, we should have asked the guesthouse owner to pick us up, his fee is reasonable and we would not have wasted time bargaining with the taxi driver, who at some point wanted to leave us by the roadside).

The guesthouse was absolutely lovely. We had a room in front of the pool, overlooking the mountains and rice fields. The owners were kind and friendly, and despite the language barrier we managed to understand each other (with some help from google translate). Breakfast was included and there was no extra fee for the pool, which some hotels or airbnbs in Vietnam charge for. 

3 weeks in Vietnam
Photo of Sapa by D Tan on Unsplash

We spent most of our days in Sapa doing absolutely nothing but taking short walks around the village, enjoying the fresh mountain air and views, and the local hospitality. On one of the days we went hiking with a local guide, booked directly by the owner of the guesthouse, and we walked about 10 km through various minority villages and learned a bit more about Sapa people (there are different options for hiking, we chose a medium-level challenging one).

Check out our guesthouse in Sapa

What we decided to skip out on in Sapa

The town area: we did not spend much time in the city centre, we only spent about an hour there the day we arrived. It’s a busy town with lots of hotels, restaurants, tourist shops, markets, cafes, amenities, etc., but we wanted a break from city life after Hanoi. 

We also skipped Swing Sapa, which is a tourist attraction mainly with photo ops for photoshoots.

Next up on the Vietnam itinerary: 4 days in Hoi An

From Sapa, we took an early morning bus (8 am) to Hanoi and reached around 2pm. We spent a few hours in Hanoi before taking a sleeper overnight bus to Hoi An.

We spent 3 days in Hoi An at Gioan Boutique Villa, a family-owned guest house with a beautiful pool, within walking distance of the Old Town, but in a quieter space. They also offer cooking classes, as well as meals which were all delicious. 

However I would not go to the tailor they recommend (I don’t remember the name). Hotels and guest houses usually have a partnership with tailors and you might feel pushed into getting an outfit made, even if you’re not looking for that. In my case, my hosts did not push anything on me, and simply recommended their tailor, but the tailor herself was very pushy and not very friendly. If you want to find a tailor on your own, just walk through Old Town Hanoi and you will find plenty.

Here are the things to do in Hoi An, Vietnam

Day 1 in Hoi An: Old Town

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Hoi An Old Town

Hoi An’s Old Town is crowded and touristic without a doubt, but it’s one of those things that is popular for a good reason, and so worth a visit. The ancient town of Hoi An was a trading port between the 15th and 19th century, and today is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It’s best to go in the evening when the lights dim and you can see lanterns everywhere. It’s even better to go on the full moon of every month, as they close the streets to vehicles, and all the lights are turned off for a few hours except for the lanterns, and it’s even more beautiful than usual.

The Old Town reflects the influences of other countries from its trading days, particularly Chinese, Japanese, and European. There’s a Japanese bridge by the river, where you can pay a dollar to buy a small paper lantern and make a wish and release it into the river. You can also take a boat ride in a Sampan (a traditional) boat along the river, but keep in mind that this area gets incredibly crowded during the full moon every month. 

Day 2 in Hoi An: a day trip to Mỹ Sơn hindu temple

We booked a day tour to Mỹ Sơn hindu temple (pronounced “mee sun”), a large temple complex often compared to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which was unfortunately heavily destroyed by bombs during the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War, or Civil War). Lots of work and restoration needs to happen, but is delayed due to lack of funds. 

my son temple visit vietnam
Mỹ Sơn temple

Mỹ Sơn dates back to the 4th century, and was in use until the 14th century by kings and dynasties of Champa (Cham people are an Austronesian ethnic group indigenous to Central Vietnam). It was also a burial site for the royal Cham people and Vietnamese heroes.

After exploring the temple with our guide, we saw a Cham performance where they depicted stories of Hindu Gods such as Shiva through music and dance. I really enjoyed this activity as we got to learn a lot about Vietnamese history, but I recommend going on days when it’s not too hot, nor rainy, because there’s nowhere to hide from the elements.

Day 3 in Hoi An: coconut boat tour and cooking class

We took a lantern-making class in the morning from one of the first lantern-making family businesses in Hoi An, called Pho Hoi Lantern Workshop (address: 310 Nguyen Duy Hieu, Cam Chau, Hoi An). You don’t need to book ahead and can just go there and see if they have availability. Your lanterns are yours after making them, but you can also buy lanterns that they themselves made.

However, if you prefer to book a class, here’s a good option for a lantern-making class in Hoi An.

lanterns hoi an vietnam 3 weeks in vietnam
Lantern-making class, Hoi An

For the afternoon, we booked a cooking class that first took us to the market where we shopped for fresh ingredients, then took a boat ride in a coconut boat to Cam Thanh village. We learned to make savoury Vietnamese crepe, a rice noodle dish, fresh spring rolls, and pho. It was all very delicious.

The coconut boat was also fun; we did not have to row it ourselves, and we had a very nice old lady who rowed us around, took photos of us, and let us fish for some crabs (it’s recommended to tip them afterwards). We also saw a fisherman throwing a net to catch fish, and we saw the popular twirling boat activity, where they blast music and spin around really fast while standing in the spinning boat. You can spin in the boat with them for about €5 per person.

coconut boat hoi an visit vietnam
Coconut boat, Hoi An

Day 4 in Hoi An

After a chill morning and a quick swim, we headed to Danang in the afternoon.

What we skipped in Hoi An and why

  • Hoi An memories show – no availability for our dates
  • An Bang beach – seemed like an ordinary beach, nothing extraordinary

Visit Danang, Vietnam in 5 days

Next stop was Danang, an area known for beach vacation, just 30 km away from Hoi An (about 45 minutes drive). We did not go to Danang for beaches, but rather as a base to explore the surroundings.

Check out the best sustainable hotel in Danang.

Day 1 in Danang: Cầu sông Hàn bridge (dragon bridge)

Every weekend at 9pm, the dragon bridge in Danang spits out fire and water, and it was really cool to see. We went to a night market for dinner first then headed to the dragon bridge. There are a few restaurants and bars with rooftops for direct views of the bridge, or you can stand by the bridge on the street like most people do, but it gets crowded there.

Day 2 in Danang: Marble Mountain day tour

lady buddha danang 3 weeks in vietnam
Lady Buddha, Danang

We booked a day tour that took us to Lady Buddha, Son Tra, Am Phu Cave, and Marble Mountain, the three major attractions in Danang. Wear comfortable shoes if you want to do this tour, as there are a lot of steps and it can also be slippery inside the caves.  I really liked this tour; we had an incredible guide who was very knowledgeable about Vietnamese culture and symbolism. We learned about the importance of dragons and other animals in Vietnamese culture.

In the evening, we had dinner around sunset at one of the restaurants on My An beach.

Day 3: Massage and Ba Na Hills in Danang

In the morning we booked a massage at An Spa Sauna & Massage. I compared multiple massage places for quality, luxury level, and affordability, and this was one of the best options. We had time to enjoy a bath and sauna before getting the massage, and we were not rushed, and everything was clean and beautiful. We were provided with a light lunch and dessert after.

After the massage and lunch, we went to Ba Na Hills to see the famous Golden Bridge. We booked the evening tour to avoid crowds, and our ticket included the bus to the entrance and a local dinner, and we had to buy the cable car ticket to reach Ba Na Hills at the entrance. If you want an option to Ba Na Hills that already includes the cable car ticket, this is a good option. If you’re scared of heights it’s best to close your eyes, as it is quite high and the cable car ride takes about 45 minutes.  

ba na hills golden bridge vietnam
Golden Bridge, Ba Na Hills

We took our time strolling around Ba Na Hills, which felt like a big movie set of fake European cities and was not particularly interesting or authentic, and then went to the Golden Bridge right before it closed. The bridge itself was pretty cool and had virtually no crowds at that time, though it did start getting foggy. 

Day 4: a day trip to Hue

We booked a tour to see the Imperial City to learn about the history of emperors, see Buddhist temples, ancient tombs, Thien Mu Pagoda, and Lang Co Bay. I definitely recommend a day trip to Hue. 

imperial city hue, things to do in vietnam
Imperial City, Hue

At 11pm we took the night train to our last stop, Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh city).

What we skipped in Danang (mostly beaches)

  • Beaches
    • Son Tra peninsula
    • Red beach for sunset
    • Non Nuoc Beach
    • My Khe Beach 
  • Charming Danang show  
  • Hon Viet Traditional Show (there were no dates availability) 
  • Cu Lao Сhаm Іѕlаndѕ

Last stop on our Vietnam itinerary: Saigon in 3 days

We reached Saigon the next day in the late afternoon, and only had time to eat, rest, and sleep. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after Vietnam was reunited after the civil war (also known as the Vietnam war in the US, and the American war in Vietnam), in honour of Mr Ho Chi Minh. However, many people in Vietnam still call the city Saigon. 

Check out these sustainable hotels in Saigon

The next day we took a half-day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels (we chose Ben Duoc, the less touristy one) where we learned about the atrocities of the Vietnam war and how people survived by digging tunnels and living in them.  You can also do a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels with a war Veteran.

cu chi tunnels vietnam
Cu Chi Tunnels

It was humbling and heartbreaking to hear about the war and its repercussions. Our guide was directly impacted by the Vietnam war, as he was a child when he and his classmates got hurt (and some killed) by a random bomb. Our guide’s father was a Viet Cong who had severe PTSD from the war.

On our third day in Saigon, we checked out the Ben Thanh market and Tao Dan Park before taking our flight out of Vietnam. The market was overwhelming and people were a bit pushy in selling their products, but the park was really nice, a break from the heat and busy city noise. 

What we skipped near/in Saigon

We skipped the Mekong River tour, which even though it’s an important functional and cultural river for the local people, was too far away and we would have to get up before sunrise. 

Concluding thoughts on our itinerary for 3 weeks in Vietnam

This was our first visit to Vietnam, so we decided to see the recommended places such as Halong Bay, Sapa, Hoi An, Danang, and Saigon. We did a lot but we also gave ourselves time to relax without any planned activities (e.g. during our time in the mountains of Sapa), which was a way for us to appreciate and visit Vietnam mindfully. For our next trip, we already have a list of things to do in Vietnam.

Recommended places we want to see in Vietnam for next time

  • Ba Vi National Park
  • Phong Nha (caves, mountains, rivers) 
  • Dalat: tropical forests, waterfalls, wildlife, lakes, coffee
  • Mui Ne: a fishing village 3.5 hrs from Ho Chi Minh, known for:
    • Desert (sand dunes) and quad biking, sand boarding, hot air balloon
    • Linh Long Tu temple with gardens and buddha
    • Po Sah Inu Cham Towers hindu temple with views and old fort
    • Fish market at sunrise 
    • Ta Cu mountain 1 hr away (take mountain cable car to the top to see the white Buddha)
  • Cat Tien National Park
  • Phu Quoc island below Cambodia

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