After a couple of friends asked me about the Cambodia and Vietnam recently, I’ll share my detailed 21-day itinerary today. The following blog post covers the must-visit destinations in both countries. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned traveler, this itinerary will help you make the most of your time and explore the rich culture, history, and natural beauty of Cambodia and Vietnam. Plus, I’ll provide tips on how to organize the trip yourself for a personalized and unforgettable experience.
For me, being back to South-East Asia five years after leaving the Philippines (read about my Filipino adventures here) was an absolute blast!
Day 1-4: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Our multi-destination flight schedule started in Cambodia. In my view, three days are the absolute minimum for Siem Reap. Every day, we explored more of the magnificent temples of Angkor, including Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Phrom and others. I’ll give more details in another post soon.
In the evenings, we discovered the Old Market and tried traditional Khmer cuisine. If you like nights out, Siem Reap is your place! We absoluteley loved celebrating New Year’s eve there.
Day 5-6: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh was our second and last stop in Cambodia. I would have loved to explore Cambodia’s south further, but our travel time was limited and so we continued to Vietnam afterwards.
On arrival, we went shopping at the Russian Market and enjoyed the sunset during a walk along the Mekong River. We only passed by the beautiful Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda because they were already closed.
The must-see highlights, however, followed the next day. At the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields, we learned about Cambodia’s tragic history. These visits left a bitter taste. Humanity doesn’t seem to learn and repeat inhuman atrocities.
Day 7-9: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
We booked a bus for our border-crossing between Cambodia and Vietnam, which I recommend to all backpackers. The changing landscapes between the different regions are impressive.
Ho Chi Minh City is the perfect starting point for Vietnam discoveries. Especially my day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels was important for me personally to learn about Vietnam’s wartime history. Our consequent visit of the War Remnants Museum was an enriching addition.
In my experience, day trips to the Mekong Delta are purely touristic. I would love to travel to the Mekong Delta again, but spend more time there to experience the truely local culture. Close to Ho Chi Minh, all local activity seemed unfortunately solely based on tourism, which I didn’t perceive as very sustainable.
Last but not least, Ho Chi Minh offers quite a rich food choice. Funnily, our hotel provided Mark Wien’s food guides on paper. For all food lovers, you’ll find lots of Vietnamese food recommendation on his YouTube channel here.
Day 10-11: Hoi An, Vietnam
For lack of time, we booked a flight between Ho Chi Minh and Danang, which connects most travelers to the famous Hoi An.
In Hoi An, we wanted to relax after the first busy week. We slowly wandered through the charming streets of this UNESCO World Heritage site. The Japanese Covered Bridge, the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation, and the Hoi An Museum of History and Culture are only some of its landmarks.
I recommend you taste Vietnamese street food and enjoy spa treatments in this town.
Day 12-13: Hué, Vietnam
The imperial city of Hué is a complex of palaces, temples, and tombs from the Nguyen Dynasty. Before visiting this former capital, we passed by the Thien Mu Pagoda and walked by the Perfume River.
Many blogs state Hué as the perfect place for cycling, which I cannot confirm. Maybe the city has developed exceptionally fast these last months, but I don’t believe that its major crowded roads would be save for international cyclists. In my view, you better postpone your cycling or biking plans to Ninh Binh, the next stop.
Day 14-15: Ninh Binh, Vietnam
We reached Ninh Binh from Hué by sleeper bus. This region turned out to be our favorite destination in Vietnam.
We explored everything by scooter, which made us feel free. Ninh Binh’s landscapes are often referred to as “Halong Bay on land” because of its limestone karsts and caves. You best understand this name during a boat ride through the Trang An Grottoes or after a hike to the Mua Cave viewpoint.
Surprisingly, not every guided tour to Ninh Binh and its surroundings offers a visit of Bai Dinh Temple. In my view, nobody should miss this impressive complex of temples and pagodas.
Finally, we combined the widespread ancient capital of Hoa Lu with the nearby Tuyet Tinh Coc, a mesmerizing canyon.
Day 16-18: Cat Ba, Vietnam
Instead of touring around the popular and crowded Halong Bay, we opted for the more laid-back Lan Ha Bay. The beautiful island of Cat Ba was our base for these explorations. Cat Ba’s National Park is worth a visit. If you’re a hiker, you’ll get some impressive views and may even reach a hidden traditional village in the mountain forest.
We dedicated one day to a boat trip along Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay. In dry and warm season, kayaking, swimming, and snorkeling are popular activities.
Day 19-21: Hanoi, Vietnam
The vibrant capital city of Hanoi was our final stop. We indulged in street food delights and explored local markets with our Vietnamese friend Nguyen in the Old Quarter, ran away from rushing trains on train street, visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Temple of Literature.
Even though I’m generally not the biggest fan of city trips, Hanoi was a fantastic concluding stop our of 21-day Cambodia and Vietnam itinerary.
How to move from A to B
If you organize this itinerary yourselves, you can theoretically cover all distances by public transport. However, be ware that some cities are far from each other and require overnight drives, namely Ho Chi Minh-Da Nang (near Hoi Anh) and Hué-Ninh Binh.
12Go Asia was our favorite travel assistant to find the best connections between cities. We thoroughly compared prices and reviews for different bus, train and private-car companies as well as airlines on this platform. You can even book from this website. Personally, I preferred booking directly through the bus companies and airline.
I generally recommend first-class buses or trains, especially for overnight drives. The seats and compartments in Cambodia and Vietnam are less luxurious and spacious than for example in Europe. Unfotunately, taller travelers may have a hard time in economy class.
In order to save some time and effort, we chose one domestic flight from Ho Chi Minh to Da Nang. It was of course more expensive because we also needed a hotel for that night. However, if you only have so limited time to see the two countries and don’t wanna finish the trip completely exhausted, it is absolutely worth the additional spending.
On the other hand, Grab was our almost daily travel assistant within cities. You can book your taxi in the form of cars, tuktuks or motorcycles through this app.
Conclusion: The perfect 21-day Cambodia & Vietnam itinerary for budget-conscious backpackers
With this 21-day self-made itinerary, we had the opportunity to explore the highlights of Cambodia and Vietnam at a very reasonable overall price (read about my Cambodia travel budget here, more about the costs in Vietnam is coming soon), from the ancient temples of Angkor to the bustling streets of Hanoi. By organizing the trip ourselves, we customized the itinerary to suit our preferences and made the most of our limited annual leave.
Nevertheless, these two countries are huge. If you follow our itinerary, be aware that you’ll follow a quite tight schedule to cover large distances. Even if we also included some more relaxed days, the many stops and connections may not be for everybody’s taste. Personally, I always prefer spending more time in just one country. Unfortunately, our annual leaves are limited. That’s why we consciously and happily decided for this itinerary, which is definitely recommendable.
The only thing left to say: Fellow travelers, pack your bags and get ready for your unforgettable adventure in Cambodia and Vietnam!