Buffalo and chickens grazing on a terraced farm in Du Gia

5 Complete Itineraries to See North Vietnam in 7 Days

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. This means I may earn a commission if you click a link and make a purchase. There’s no extra cost for you, and I only recommend products and companies I use. Learn more.

Many people say northern Vietnam is the better part of Vietnam, and I agree. It’s absolutely beautiful, with limestone cliffs, turquoise blue bays, lush rice fields, and towering mountains. In seven days, you’ll just scratch the surface of north Vietnam and see some of its highlights.

After spending a month and a half solo traveling throughout the entire country, I’ve put together five itineraries that’ll take you to the best places in north Vietnam. Feel free to follow these itineraries exactly or adjust them as needed.

Itinerary for nature-lovers

Day 1: Hanoi

Although you’ll be entering and leaving Vietnam from Hanoi, you won’t be spending much time here. For the best nature and landscapes in northern Vietnam, you’ve got to get out of the city. But if you have time on your first day, here’s a plan to get a quick taste of Hanoi.

Start at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in the 11th century on the site of an old Chinese fortress, and it “was the centre of regional political power for almost 13 centuries.” Exploring the entire grounds takes a few hours, since there are many gates, buildings, and exhibits. Don’t be surprised if you see a lot of locals doing photoshoots here – the site is beautiful and well preserved.

From the Imperial Citadel, it’s a short walk to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Depending on what day you visit, you’ll be able to go inside the mausoleum to see Ho Chi Minh’s body. However, this is a popular attraction among locals and tourists, so expect a long line. Aside from the mausoleum, you can also see the stilt house that Ho Chi Minh lived in, some of his vintage cars, and the surrounding gardens. Don’t miss the One Pillar Pagoda, which resembles a lotus blossom growing out of a pond.

Hoa Lo Prison, or “Hanoi Hilton” as American prisoners of war would call it, is the last major historical site I recommend seeing. The prison was originally built in the late 1800s by the French to contain Vietnamese prisoners and was called “Maison Centrale.” You can still see that name painted on the front gate of the prison today. During the Vietnam War, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam housed American soldiers. I highly recommend getting the audio guide when you visit, as it provides a lot of explanations for what you see.

If you have time and aren’t completely exhausted by now, here’s a bonus. Ngoc Son Temple sits on a small island at the northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s a picturesque spot, with a bright red bridge that leads you to the temple.

Before the end of your first day, book a bus or van to take you to Ninh Binh tomorrow morning or early afternoon. The drive is two to three hours. Make sure your destination is set to Tam Coc, which is a small town in the Ninh Binh Province. Although Ninh Binh city and Tam Coc are only separated by about six kilometers, Tam Coc is much more scenic and closer to all the sights.

Another thing you should book today is your trekking tour in Sapa for days four through six. You can either do a two-day, one-night tour or go for three days, two nights.

Trekking in Sapa has become really popular, which means there are a ton of trekking tours to choose from. Two standouts are Sapa Sisters Trekking Adventures and Ethos. Sapa Sisters is one of a few Hmong (an indigenous group) businesses and is entirely owned and run by women. Ethos started as an INGO (independent non-governmental organization) that provides “vocational training for ethnic minority children in Sapa District.” Both companies provide authentic trekking experiences where you’ll stay in local homestays and learn about the culture of the Hmong.

When booking your trekking tour, ask whether they can help arrange transportation between Ninh Binh and Sapa. Some companies will do so and it’ll be more convenient than booking transportation yourself.

Day 2 – 3: Ninh Binh

Day 2

It’s time to trade the big city of Hanoi for the scenic town of Tam Coc. After catching the van or bus that you booked yesterday, check into your accommodation and grab lunch at one of the restaurants I recommend.

Then, rent a bicycle or motorbike – they’re the best way to get around the area. Your first stop today is Bich Dong Pagoda. Its unique three-tier structure means there are three pagodas to see, with each built higher into the mountain: Ha Pagoda (Lower Pagoda), Trung Pagoda (Middle Pagoda), and Thuong Pagoda (Upper Pagoda). Entrance is free, but you may be asked for 10,000 Vietnamese dong to park your bike.

To get a bird’s eye view of Tam Coc, visit Hang Mua and hike up the 500 steps to the Hang Mua viewpoint. At the top, you’ll find a pagoda, a dragon, and the most incredible view of the rice fields and cliffs that Tam Coc is known for. Before leaving, take a quick peek into the cave and walk onto the lotus pond.

If transportation wasn’t arranged when you booked your trekking tour, make sure you book an overnight bus for tomorrow. After two quick days in Ninh Binh, you’ll be moving on to Sapa. It takes eight to nine hours to get there, so taking an overnight bus maximizes your time. Since trekking tours start in the morning, just be sure to arrive in Sapa well before then.

Day 3

One of the most popular activities to do in Ninh Binh is a boat tour. There are two boat tours you can take – one in Tam Coc and another in Trang An. The Trang An boat tour takes longer, costs a bit more, and is more professionally run. It’s best to start your day with the boat tour since it gets busier as the day goes on.

After the boat tour, ride over to Bai Dinh Pagoda. It’s not just a pagoda – it’s actually a huge complex of Buddhist temples that covers 700 hectares. Although the original Bai Dinh temple was built in 1136, the rest of the complex contains temples and buildings that were built between 2003 and 2010.

At night, board your overnight bus to Sapa and do your best to get some sleep. You’ll need the energy for all the trekking you’ll be doing.

Day 4 – 6: Sapa

Depending on what you’ve decided, you’ll either be spending two or three days in Sapa trekking. If you’re only trekking for two days, here’s how to spend your one free day.

One of the highlights of Sapa is Fansipan Mountain. Standing 3,147 meters, it’s the highest mountain in Vietnam and Indochina and has been nicknamed “the Roof of Indochina.” While you can hike up the mountain in one to three days, the more popular way to ascend is by cable car. The cable car holds two Guinness World Records – one for the the longest distance and another for the greatest elevation gain. Your cable car ride starts at Muong Hoa Station and in 20 minutes, you’ll find yourself at the peak.

To learn more about the Hmong, visit Cat Cat Village. The village has waterfalls, rice terraces, and opportunities to buy traditional handicrafts from the locals. Although beautiful, keep in mind that Cat Cat Village is a tourist attraction. It will feel commercialized and you’ll need to buy a ticket to enter.

The last option is visiting (and if it’s warm enough, taking a dip in) two waterfalls just outside of Sapa. Silver Waterfall and Love Waterfall have a small entrance fee each. After paying, you’ll go on a short hike to reach the waterfall.

Day 7: Depart from Hanoi

Your last day in Vietnam is a travel day back to Hanoi. It takes five to six hours to get from Sapa to Hanoi by bus.

If you have some time in Hanoi before flying out, it’s the perfect opportunity to check out anything you didn’t see on day one.

Itinerary for thrill-seekers and adventurers

Bundles of flowers in front of a winding road on the Ha Giang Loop

Day 1: Hanoi

While you won’t find many thrills and adventurous activities in Hanoi, you will find a lot of culture and history. Since you won’t be spending much time in Hanoi, take your first day to experience the highlights by following the Day 1 itinerary for nature-lovers. You should also follow the directions for booking a Sapa trekking tour. You’ll be spending days two and three in Sapa, so you can either do a one-day or two-day, one-night trek.

Book your overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa for tonight. With only seven days in Vietnam, we’re not wasting any time. It takes seven to eight hours to get from Hanoi to Sapa by train, which is just enough time to sleep and then jump straight into your first day in Sapa.

The last thing you’ll need to book in advance is a Ha Giang Loop tour for days four to six. To make your decision easy, I recommend going with Cheers Hostel. You can read my review of their three-day, two-night Ha Giang Loop tour here. Depending on your comfort level, you can choose to drive your own motorbike or sit on the back as an “easy rider” and let one of the guides drive. When booking with Cheers Hostel, tell them you’ll be coming from Sapa so they can organize transportation for you.

Day 2 – 3: Sapa

If you chose to do a two-day, one-night trek in Sapa, then your plans are all set. If you’re only trekking for one day, check out the Sapa itinerary for nature-lovers for ideas on how to continue exploring the amazing landscape on your free day.

If you booked your Ha Giang Loop tour, you should be picked up at night on your last day in Sapa. Strap in for another overnight drive!

Day 4 – 6: Ha Giang Loop

The Ha Giang Loop is absolutely going to be one of the best things you do in Vietnam. Enjoy your thrilling three-day motorbike ride through the mountains of north Vietnam and savor every moment of it. Before you know it, your time here will be coming to an end.

On day six, you’ll finish your tour in the afternoon in Ha Giang. A bus or minivan will take you back to Hanoi – expect to arrive late at night.

Day 7: Depart from Hanoi

On your last day, you can continue exploring Hanoi. Or if you’re dead tired by now, sleep in and opt to do absolutely nothing until it’s time for your flight. If you’ve fallen in love with Vietnam by now, you’ll surely be back in the future to do everything else that you didn’t get to this time.

Itinerary for relaxing by the water

Day 1 – 2: Hanoi

Day 1

With two days in Hanoi, you can see all the must-see attractions at a more relaxed pace compared to some of the other itineraries. Begin at the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long and then visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.

From there, walk to Tran Quoc Pagoda. It’s the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi and is free to visit. While you’re in this area, take a walk around the Ho Tay lake (West Lake). It’s the largest lake in Hanoi. But at 17 km, it’s too far to walk the whole way around. There are also swan pedal boats that you can take out on the lake.

You’ll need to plan a bit ahead today by figuring out how you’ll get from Hanoi to Cat Ba on day three. To get to Cat Ba island, you’ll take a three to four-hour bus or van ride, transfer to a boat, and take another bus that will drop you in the main area of the island. Your ticket will include all transfers between Hanoi and Cat Ba. While you’re at it, book your return transportation from Cat Ba to Hanoi on day seven.

Day 2

Egg coffee (ca phe trung) is a Vietnamese coffee drink that originated in Hanoi. It might sound strange at first, but it’s actually a sweet, strong drink. An egg yolk is beatened with condensed milk to create a fluffy, airy cream that’s poured on top of espresso or iced coffee. Giang Cafe is where egg coffee was invented and there are two locations in Hanoi that you can visit: 39 Nguyen Huu Huan and 106 Yen Phu. Kickstart your day with a famous egg coffee, or at least try it before you leave.

The first sightseeing stop is the Temple of Literature. The temple was constructed in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius. It also housed the Imperial Academy, the country’s first university that was initially only open to members of the elite and the royal family. In 1253, it expanded to accept anyone with exceptional academic abilities.

Afterward, head to Hoa Lo Prison to learn about the terrible conditions that Vietnamese prisoners endured during French rule and how many of them escaped from the prison. Then wrap up the day by the water at Ngoc Son Temple.

Day 3 – 4: Cat Ba

Day 3

You’re finally headed to the water! Although Cat Ba feels small, it’s the largest of the 367 islands in the Cat Ba Archipelago. It’s also the best gateway to the famous Halong Bay.

Speaking of Halong Bay, book your Halong Bay tour today. You’ll want to look for a two-day, one-night cruise so you can spend days five and six on the water. I highly recommend going with Cat Ba Ventures. Their cruise actually takes you through Lan Ha Bay, which is next to Halong Bay and much less touristy. Lan Ha Bay has everything that has made Halong Bay famous. However, it’s still an undiscovered gem, which means you’ll have the waters and beaches all to yourself and your photos won’t be ruined by other tourists. Read my review of my cruise with Cat Ba Ventures to see what you can expect.

Spending time on the beach is the perfect thing to do when you arrive on Cat Ba. There are three beaches that are all clustered around the southern end of the island: Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2, and Cat Co 3. To get between Cat Co 1 and Cat Co 3, there’s a nice stone walkway that you can take.

Day 4

Today’s your last full day in Cat Ba, since you’ll start your Halong Bay tour fairly early tomorrow. Aside from the beaches and water, Cat Ba National Park is the other main draw here. The national park makes up the majority of the island and is “at the heart of the UNESCO Cat Ba Archipelago Biosphere Reserve.” It’s home to 338 terrestrial animal species, including the endangered Cat Ba langur – one of the rarest primates in the world.

You can wander the national park without a guide, but it’s better experienced with a guide who can tell you about the jungle, spot wildlife, and take you to the caves. In addition to Halong Bay cruises, Cat Ba Ventures also does half-day or full-day tours through the national park.

Day 5 – 6: Halong Bay

You’ll set sail through Halong/Lan Ha Bay for these next two days. Kayak, swim, and fill up on all the seafood you want while enjoying some of the most memorable views in northern Vietnam.

At the end of the cruise, you’ll be dropped back in the main area of Cat Ba in the late afternoon. If you want, you’ll have time to go back to the beaches and even watch the sunset from there.

Day 7: Depart from Hanoi

Make the return trip back to Hanoi. Have time before you leave? Swing by Train Street or the Hanoi Opera House for some photo opps and grab your last meal in the Old Quarter.

Itinerary for culture and history buffs

Couple walking in the Temple of Literature

Day 1 – 3: Hanoi

Day 1 and 2

Being the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is a culturally and historically rich city filled with grand architecture and delicious food. Follow the previous Day 1 and Day 2 itineraries I shared above to do all the major activities.

During this time, you should also secure your seat on a bus or minivan to Ninh Binh on day four. Although you’ll be going to Ninh Binh Province, your destination should be Tam Coc. Ninh Binh city is just another Vietnamese city, while Tam Coc is a quiet town in the Ninh Binh Province that’s surrounded by rice fields and limestone cliffs. Tam Coc is the more picturesque and convenient place to stay.

Don’t forget to also book your return ticket from Ninh Binh back to Hanoi on day seven.

Day 3

While you’ve hit up all the must-sees in two days, there’s still a lot to discover in Hanoi. The Old Quarter is the historic center of the city, consisting of 36 streets or guilds that used to make up the area. It’s a hectic but vibrant maze of streets packed with shops, restaurants, and hotels. There’s so much to explore in the Old Quarter and you don’t need a plan to do so. Walking around aimlessly and following your curiosity is the best way to experience it.

One of the treasures of the Old Quarter is Bach Ma Temple (White Horse Temple). Although small, Bach Ma is believed to be the oldest temple in the city. Emperor Ly Thai To built the temple to honor the white horse that led him to this site, where he constructed the city’s walls. Bach Ma Temple is one of the four temples that made up the enclosure of Thang Long Citadel.

The Hanoi Opera House is a gorgeous Neoclassical yellow and white building that was built by the French in the early 1900s. Its architecture is based on the Palais Garnier, one of Paris’s oldest opera houses. Get plenty of photos outside and if it’s open, be sure to go in to see the equally glamorous interior.

Another place that’s great for pictures is Train Street. The narrow street has an active railroad track running down the middle of it. The most popular section of the railroad is lined with cafés and restaurants where owners will you invite you in for drinks or food while you wait for the train to pass twice a day. It’s not only a way for business owners to make money from Train Street, but it’s also a way to keep tourists safe and control crowds.

In the evening, catch a water puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppetry is a Vietnamese cultural tradition that uses puppets in water to tell stories of rural Vietnam and folktales. Although the shows are only performed in Vietnamese, they can still be enjoyed by anyone.

Another way to end the night is hanging out on Beer Street (Ta Hien), the center of nightlife in the Old Quarter. The street gets packed at night with locals and tourists who are looking for cheap beer and loud music.

Day 4 – 6: Ninh Binh

Day 4 and 5

Once you’ve caught your ride to Ninh Binh and have arrived, use the Day 2 and Day 3 schedules from the nature-lovers intinerary for the next two days.

Day 6

You have a few options to choose from for your last day in Ninh Binh.

Step back in time at Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, the capital of Vietnam from 968 to 1009. It’s a nice but small area to walk around, with a few temples and pagodas inside.

Van Long Wetland Nature Reserve is a breathtaking, biodiverse area. In the spring, the wetland is dotted with pink lotus flowers. And year round, the reserve is a fantastic spot for bird watching and a habitat for the Delacour’s langur. This species of langur is one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates, and Van Long is the only place where you can see them in the wild. You can also take a boat ride through the wetlands to see its caves.

Cuc Phuong National Park is Vietnam’s first and largest national park. It’s about an hour and 20 minute drive from Tam Coc, making it an easy day trip you can take on your own or with a tour. Trekking and wildlife spotting are the main activities in Cuc Phuong, but you can also bird watch, bike, kayak, and visit its conservation centers.

Day 7: Return to Hanoi

When you return to Hanoi, take any time you have left to see anything you missed or revisit your favorite places. Get your last bowl of pho, sip your last egg coffee, and take one final stroll around the Old Quarter before you have to say goodbye.

Itinerary for those who want to experience the most

Day 1 – 3: Hanoi

For the person who wants to see and do everything possible in north Vietnam in only seven days, this is a fast-moving itinerary that’ll have you bopping around from place to place. In Hanoi, immerse yourself in all its history by following the culture and history-buff schedule for Days 1, 2, and 3.

You’ll also need to book a day trip to Halong Bay for day four. Although it’s a rushed way to see Halong Bay, it’s the best option when you’re on a tight schedule. There are many tour companies that run one-day trips to Halong Bay from Hanoi. You can choose to shop around once you’re in Hanoi or book online in advance.

While you’re scheduling your Halong Bay trip, it’s best to reserve your spot on a bus to Ninh Binh for day five and the return trip from Ninh Binh to Hanoi on day seven.

Day 4: Halong Bay

To do Halong Bay in one day, you’ve got an early pick-up in Hanoi and a full day on the water. Lunch and water is provided, but you’ll need to pack everything else. Check the weather ahead of time to see if you need to bring layers, and make sure you have plenty of sunscreen, a quick-drying towel, and a change of clothes.

Expect to arrive back in Hanoi pretty late – around 8 or 9 PM. Clean up, have dinner, and get some rest before you tackle Ninh Binh tomorrow.

Day 5 – 6: Ninh Binh

Two days in Ninh Binh is just enough time to see the best of what some people call “Halong Bay on land.” Use the nature-lovers Day 2 and 3 itineraries as your guide.

Day 7: Return to Hanoi

It’s the end of your whirlwind trip through north Vietnam. You’ve seen so much of this part of the country in a short amount of time. Make your way back to Hanoi so you can finally take a breath. Your final hours in Hanoi are great for souvenir shopping, if you haven’t picked up anything yet. Otherwise, do as the locals do and post up at one of the many cafés or get a massage to unwind.

More resources for traveling Vietnam

7 Days in North Vietnam: 5 Itineraries for All Interests