1. Northern Vietnam
Approximate Time: 1 to 2 Weeks
In general, the geography of Vietnam forces most travelers to follow similar itineraries. If you plan to visit the entire country you can either travel from north to south, beginning in Hanoi and ending in Saigon, or south to north, doing the same trip in reverse. Because the country is so long and narrow, some bus trips are best accomplished overnight. Bus conditions can be somewhat frustrating but the experience will likely be memorable. Alternatively, you can choose to fly. This will save you a lot of time but cost you a lot more money. You may also miss some interesting stops along the way.
Northern Vietnam offers visitors a wealth of culture and stunning beauty. Many people choose to fly into Hanoi's airport. If you are traveling overland from China, it is also easy to begin your trip in the beautiful town of Sapa. Sapa is a popular destination for those who enjoy hiking and markets. The Hmong people hold regular markets throughout the area that are both colorful and lively. Depending on the season, the weather can be hit or miss in the highlands. If you have enough time, it is worth lingering for a few days to experience the culture. Many people travel to Sapa from Hanoi as part of a tour. This is not necessary and often limiting in the experience. It is easy to take an overnight train to and from the area and explore independently. Alternatively, once you reach Sapa, if you'd like to do a day tour, these are easily arranged.
Hanoi itself warrants at least three or four days. The streets can be chaotic and difficult to navigate, but the city itself offers many options in the way of attractions, entertainment and cuisine.
From Hanoi it is also relatively easy to organize a trip to Halong Bay. This trip usually lasts several days and is most convenient when done as an organized tour. Often guests spend one night on a boat and one night in a hotel. Confirm that all expenses are included in the price of your tour before you commit.
From Hanoi it's about a two or three hour bus ride to Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh itself has little to offer but it makes a good base for exploring the nearby countryside and parks. In particular, Tam Coc is only nine kilometers away and is an impressive sight. It's somewhat similar in appearance to Halong Bay but is much less touristy. Also consider going to Trang An Grottoes to explore the caves as well as Cuc Phuong National Park to see the Primate Centre.
2. Southern Vietnam
Approximate Time: 2 to 3 Weeks
Southern Vietnam has a strikingly different feel than Northern Vietnam. Many people coming from the north spend at least a couple of days in Hue. Hue is not only a fascinating city with a rich history, but it is also a convenient stopping point to split up the trip from north to south. The river is the lifeline in Hue and it offers a great place to take a boat ride. From Hue you can make your way to the beautiful town of Hoi An. Hoi An is famous for its tailor shops where you can have clothing designed and made in just a day or two. There is also a unique and delicious cuisine that is local to Hoi An. From Hoi An many people make their way south to the coastal town of Nha Trang. There you can relax and have a few drinks. If you're short on time or eventually headed to Thailand, Nha Trang may not be worth the time. If the heat is becoming oppressive, you can relax for a few days in the cooler temperature of Dalat. This eclectic town is set amid green hills and it offers a refreshing change from most places in Vietnam.
From Dalat, travel to the chaotic city of Saigon. There you will find many museums, entertainment venues, and activities available to visitors. It's also easy to organize a multi-day tour to the floating markets around Cantho. If you're more independent and adventurous, consider making this trip on your own with public buses. It's possible to continue on from Cantho into Cambodia, or return back to Saigon and fly home. If you decide to take a tour, discuss your options with the tour company. Alternatively, public buses are relatively easy to locate.