Photo: Meet Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay and Sapa are both highlights of Vietnam for good reason, but if you only have time for one, which should you choose? It's not a decision we'd like to have to make but we've put together some guidelines to help if it's one you'll have to face.

In a way it's surprising how often Sapa and Halong Bay are compared as they are different in so many ways. In fact, the only thing they really have in common is that they are both beautiful, albeit different, landscapes. Given these many differences, the main factor in your decision should be your interests and what you want to get out of your trip.

When you're lucky you get this...
When you're lucky you get this ...

Trekkers and those interested in ethnic minorities should head to Sapa. Guided treks are available from a half-day upwards and range from easy to challenging -- you can even take a seven-day trek to Ha Giang. All treks include visits to ethnic minority villages; you will also come across plenty of people from the Red Dao and Black H'mong groups in Sapa town and a visit to the local markets is a fascinating experience.

Stunning landscapes in Sapa.
Stunning landscapes in Sapa.

Trekking options are available on Cat Ba Island (Halong Bay), but if you're on an organised boat tour it's likely to be limited to a few hours walk around the national park. Travel to Cat Ba Island independently and more options are open to you, but it's trekking of the nature-loving rather than stunning scenery type that you'll get in Sapa. And although a cruise around Ha Long Bay will bring you up close with the inhabitants of the floating villages, it's not as personal as a wander through a H'mong village.

While trekking is big in Sapa, you won't find so many other activities, whereas Ha Long Bay offers an array: kayaking, swimming, rock climbing and cycling. And, of course, boat trips.

The junks are a better equipped.
The junks are a bit better equipped.

If it's all about the scenery, well, that's where it gets difficult. In our opinion Sapa perhaps has some more jaw-dropping scenic vistas -- on a clear day -- but the views of Ha Long Bay from Cannon Fort or one of the other viewpoints are spectacular, and as you cruise between the karsts it's difficult not to be a bit awestruck. Rice fields and mountains or karsts and ocean? That's the decision.

Both places offer opportunities to relax. On a Ha Long Bay trip you can relax on deck or, on Cat Ba Island, on the beach. If you go on an organised tour however you'll find that you are pushed from one activity to the next. In Sapa, relaxation will be in the form of finding a spot overlooking the valley with a good book. Sapa doesn't have any sunbathing venues as the only pool in town is under cover and only open to guests of the Victoria Sapa Hotel. If you're after serious sunbathing, hit central or southern Vietnam's beaches instead -- Nha Trang, for instance.

Coffee with quite a view.
Coffee with quite a view.

If you want to party, Sapa is probably not for you. Ha Long Bay is hardly party central either, but join the cruise with Hanoi Backpackers' Hostel, book onto the 'party cruise' -- available at Bamboo Travel -- or a cruise with another hostel and the chances of a big night are higher.

For the gourmands, Ha Long Bay is a case of getting whatever you're given on board, but if you go on a decent boat the food can be excellent. Overnighting on Cat Ba Island provides a change to indulge in excellent fresh seafood. Sapa isn't exactly a gastronomic delight although it has a couple of decent eating spots and some good barbecue stalls.

Or this view?
Or this view?

Time is a consideration. It's possible to visit either place for only two days but for Sapa that means a night either side on the train, which could leave you exhausted for your first day and for onward travel from Hanoi. It's also just a lot further than Ha Long Bay -- we'd recommend at least four nights and three days to make the most of it. Ha Long Bay, on the other hand, is great for three days if you want to do some activities but also works as an overnight trip. We wouldn't recommend a day trip unless you're basing yourself out of Cat Ba Island or Ha Long City.

Finally, the weather. Although both places are known for their unpredictable weather -- rain and fog can hit hard and unexpectedly -- Sapa gets very chilly and damp in the winter, so is best avoided if you're not a fan of wrapping up warm on holiday. That said, it's not exactly warm in Ha Long Bay when winter (December to February) comes either.

We urge you not just to compare Sapa with Ha Long Bay, but consider everywhere that takes your fancy in the country and make choices based on that. Perhaps you should just focus your time in the north and do both?

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More itineraries

Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!


Burma

Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.


Cambodia

Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.


Indonesia

How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.


Laos

North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.


Malaysia

The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.


Thailand

So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.


Vietnam

Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.


The region

This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.