There is only one thing worse than not having enough time in a destination you love: having too much time in a destination that you hate.
Time is absolute ruler of travel. It controls everything. Everything! There are so many layers to it: How long can I be gone? How long will I spend in each place? How do I spend my days? What is the best way to get around?
Figuring out the answers to these questions requires a lot of research, coordination, scheduling....probably some tea leaf burning... sacrificing a pig or two. Whatever it takes to get those stars to align.
Traveling for an extended amount of time lessens the burden of time. You can just play it by feel and leave (or stay) when it feels right.
Obviously, this is not a luxury every traveler has. Not everyone can just put their economics degree on the back burner and throw up deuces to the United States for several months.
For most people, and even really paranoid backpackers, all arrangements need to made at home, pre-departure.....but, if you have never been to an area before, how do you figure out how to delegate your time from the comfort of home?
I have met a lot of people traveling through Northern Vietnam for only a week or two with everything already booked. When I hear the list of places they are going, and how long they are spending in each, I cringe. It is not their fault, but please friends, let me try to help....
HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME IN NORTHERN VIETNAM:
1 week: Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay - use Hanoi as your base in the region to hop to and from Sapa and and Halong Bay
2 weeks: ^above + Ninh Binh, Hue, Hoi An - use the extra time to travel a bit further by overnight bus (not as bad as it sounds) or plane
^This can be applied to short vacations to the country or backpacking trips where you only have 30 days to see the entire country.
HANOI: 1-2 DAYS (MAXIMUM)
I cannot stress this enough - do not budget a lot of time for Hanoi. Literally use this city for the fact it has a major airport and then move on.
As the metropolitan magnet in the north, everyone assumes you need to spend a lot of time in Hanoi. This is not the case. All of the "sights" can easily be done in one day. During that day, you will get the feel, and probably your fill, of Hanoi.
So fly into Hanoi. You'll get there early and probably be jetlagged. Spend day one relaxing and exploring casually (if you can work up the nerve to cross the street). Wake up the next day, get your caffeine fix with an egg coffee and attack the city. Get it all done in one day so you are ready to go to....
HALONG BAY & SAPA: 2-3 DAYS EACH
Halong Bay and Sapa are the areas to spend the bulk of your time in North Vietnam. How long you spend in each is a matter of personal preference.
Are you more of a relax on the beach type of person? Spend longer in Halong Bay. Do you prefer to stay active and go hiking? Budget more time for Sapa.
FOR THE BEACH LOVER: Plan on 3 days in Halong Bay. Spend a night on a boat and a night (or two) on Cat Ba Island. Swimming is restricted in most parts of Halong Bay because of heavy boat traffic. On Cat Ba island you can swim, relax, and try different water sports.
The easiest way to do Halong Bay is to find all-inclusive tour that fits your budget. I know, I know. You want to be the self-sufficient traveler who figures everything out on their own. You don't want to be a tourist and book a tour. Well, I am here to tell you that Halong Bay is not the place for that. It is too big with too many companies. Suck it up and let someone else do the planning for you.
It is very easy to find a company that will do a Hanoi to Halong Bay round trip for the exact amount of time you want to go, wether it is one day or one week. There are SO many Halong tour companies, which causes a price equilibrium for the most part. Do some research online or wander around Hanoi to find a company that fits your budget/time schedule. I used Halong Fantasea. It fit my (meager) budget and I really feel like I got a lot for what I paid.
FOR THE ACTIVE HIKER: There are many prepackaged tours to Sapa, but Sapa is truly a unique beast deserving of its own post. Rest assured, it is possible to 'do' Sapa in a day or two. FTR - August & September are rice harvest season in Sapa so the area is particularly beautiful. If you are in Vietnam during those months, definitely make the trek up there to see it.
FOR TWO WEEKS....
HOI AN: 2-4 DAYS
I spent two weeks in Portugal and only visited 2 cities. Vietnam is not that type of country - it is constantly moving, and you should be too. There is wayyy too much to see to stay in one place the whole time.
If you have two weeks, make it to Hoi An. Hoi An displays a completely different aspect of Vietnamese culture. The area is much more laid back with a strong art and cafe culture.
Hoi An was heavily developed in the 15th and 16th centuries because it was a major trading port. This early architecture was well preserved and continues to give visitors a look into what a 15th century Asian trading port looked like.
It is beautiful, but that is no secret. It is flooded with tourists...yet, it still manages to maintain its charm. Hoi an is located just a few kilometers from the beach, so it is easy to spend an a day or two in teh city and an extra day or two at a hotel/hostel on the water.
GETTING THERE - There is an overnight bus from Hanoi to Hue. Hue is a great place break up the trip and spend a day and a night before continuing on to Hoi An the following morning (less than 3 hour drive). Otherwise, Vietjet offers VERY cheap flights from Hanoi to Hoi An that will save you a ton of time.
NINH BINH: 1-2 DAYS
Another another awesome trip if you have extra time is Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh is popular destination for local Vietnamese citizens doing weekend trips, but less for international tourists. Because the actual city of Ninh Binh doesn't cater to tourists, it gives a good look into daily Vietnamese life.
The reason people go to Ninh Binh is for the boat tours through the karst rice paddies. Definitely go on one - they are worth the meager $5 entrance cost - but also take the time to rent a bike or motorbike and explore the countryside, national parks, and city of Ninh Binh. It is a very unique part of the country. I like this blog post on the area.
That's a wrap folks - and should certainly be enough to fill up two weeks in this awesome country. Truthfully, I did all of that in less than two weeks, but I am cruising at an uncomfortably fast pace here in Vietnam. Take the time to enjoy yourself... you're on vacation!