Few places have seen as much change as quickly as Vietnam. Forty years after the American War, the nation has picked itself up and dusted itself off, emerging from its turbulent past anew, and – if local motorcyclists are anything to go by – raring to go. After decades of being left out in the cold, Vietnam’s captivating and confronting cities, awe-inspiring diverse landscapes and epic eats (easily the best in Southeast Asia, though Thais may gripe) have steered more travellers to the region than ever before.
With so many things to do in Vietnam, it’s easy to get overwhelmed while planning for the mother of all Southeast Asia trips. From the sights to see to the tips to know, keep this guide handy and you’ll be ready to travel the region before you can say “Good Morning Vietnam!”
Vietnam’s highlights in a nutshell
Halong Bay: for the views
While there hasn’t been an official vote, we think that Halong Bay’s fair shores take the crown for being some of the most beautiful in Vietnam, and we’re not the only ones. Just snaps of the limestone pillars and tiny tree-topped islets rising from the emerald waters sends many weak at the knees. This heritage-listed Vietnam attraction is even better in person.
As Northern Vietnam’s number one tourist destination, Halong Bay is swamped with travel agencies all vying for their slice of the foot traffic. The upside? There’s tons of tour options available to travellers here – the most popular being sightseeing cruises. Boats run daily, varying from budget to luxury, day trips to week-long jaunts, and most include tours of the striking caves nearby.
Halong Bay sightseeing cruises
If you’re struggling to choose a boat tour in Halong Bay, you’re not alone. Here’s the top things to ask yourself before booking with a cruise operator…
Is it safe? At the risk of sounding boring, safety should always come first. While stricter regulations have seen cruise operators up their game in health and safety over recent years, it’s still worth reading up on each boat’s on-board safety features. Check out other travellers’ reviews before booking your cruise too.
Where does it go? Three different bays actually make up the site known as Halong Bay. Different cruises focus on different areas. Ha Long, Bai Tu Long and La Han Bay all have good points and not so good points. Do some research on cruise itineraries to find out what and where appeals to you most.
How long is it? Most travellers opt for at least an overnight cruise rather than a day trip. This means you can wake up to b-e-a-utiful views and take it all in without pesky time pressures.
What does it include? While it’s common practice for cruise operators to include all activities, travel costs and food (minus drinks) in the price, be sure to double check. If a rate sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Sapa: for the trekking
For striking mountain views, a look-in on the nation’s tiny hill-tribe villages and to see some of the country’s postcard-perfect rice fields, head straight to northwest Vietnam and don’t stop until you get to Sapa. A former hill station established by the French in 1922, today Sapa town is a leading base for trekking, the area overlooking plunging valleys and towering mountains.
A Vietnam highlight for countless travellers, those romantic visions you had of roaming the charming countryside without another soul in sight will have to wait until you venture further out of town. Do some digging, pick a challenging trek route and visit the region outside of peak tourist times, (September is particularly laden with foreigners) to experience Sapa in all its glory.
Go with trusted agencies
While an authentic travel experience is the dream, not having your money stolen is a noteworthy aspiration too. Smaller, less reputable travel groups may not offer safe, well-organised excursions, or deliver the service you paid for at all. Opt for an established tour company for your Sapa Valley adventures and you can sleep soundly in the knowledge that you’re going to get exactly what you paid for, and probably more.
Hanoi: for the culture
It may take ten exasperating minutes just to cross the road, but your patience will be rewarded ten times over in Hanoi. Like most things in this full-tilt city, Hanoi’s motorcycles go full steam ahead, while the city’s colonial architecture and traditional street eats are an ode to the capital’s compelling past. Without further ado, here’s the Hanoi highlights you need to see.
Best places to visit in Vietnam’s Hanoi
Do yourself a favour and make your way up to the 65th floor of the Lotte building where you’ll find the best views of the city. The observation deck is open from 08.30am to 11.00pm, (though the ticket counter closes at 10.00pm, so be sure to grab your ticket before then) and prices for adults range from 230,000 VND in the day, to 130,000 VND in the evening.
For those looking to be in with the old, Hanoi has just the place. Dive into the Old Quarter’s labyrinth of alleyways to experience the city’s historic side. A congested square kilometre maze spilling with street vendors, restaurants and pagodas (the Bach Ma Temple, said to be the first in the city, is a must) makes up the city’s oldest site. See if the local beer, known as Bia Hoi takes your fancy on Ta Hien Street and stroll the century-old marketplace, Dong Xuan Market, to get a taste of life for locals in the capital.
No visit to Hanoi would be complete without stopping by Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. A top Vietnam attraction, this site is without a doubt Hanoi’s most-visited. To add to the madness, entry is restricted to the mornings only. Opening its doors from 7.30-10.30am in the summer and from 8.00-11.00am in the winter, the early bird will definitely get the worm when it comes to this revered site. The entry fee will set you back 10,000 VND.
Cu Chi Tunnels: for the history
While most of Vietnam’s attractions call for digging deeper, touring the Cu Chi Tunnels means it quite literally. If you’re claustrophobic, maybe sit this one out. For the rest of you, let us introduce the Cu Chi Tunnels – a network of intricate underground passageways utilised by the Viet Cong during the war with America in the 1960s. Spanning more than 120km, the network included trapdoors, storage facilities, living areas, field hospitals, weapon factories, kitchens and command centres. A tour of the tunnels gives rare insight into the life of Vietnamese soldiers during the war and the strong-willed spirit they refused to let slide.
Good local transport links means visiting the Cu Chi tunnels solo is possible, though we’d suggest touring with a guide. Trust us, in this intricate underground world, you’ll need all the local insight you can get. Entry to Cu Chi Tunnels costs 110,000 DNV.
Nha Trang: for the beach
For some good, old fashioned sun worshipping, Nha Trang’s sandy coastline is just the ticket. Both locals and travellers alike head to Nha Trang Beach for respite from the country’s hectic cities. With six kilometers of clear, blue ocean and pristine white-sand shores, they’re definitely on to something.
If you’re the type who needs to have more on the itinerary than just beach days, the nearby 7th-century Po Nagar Cham Towers beckon and plenty of island hopping, diving and other adventurous Vietnam activities are up for grabs too.
Ho Chi Minh City: for the buzz
For fans of the big smoke, you’ve met your match in Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi may be the capital, but this crazy commercial hub is also one of the country’s biggest drawcards. A Southeast Asian city at its most dizzying, here’s a run through of the Vietnam tourist attractions worth visiting in Ho Chi Minh.
Best things to do to in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh
Enjoy the finer things
Giving other Asian powerhouses a run for their money – Singapore and Bangkok, we’re looking at you – Ho Chi Minh has all the trims and trappings of a modern capital, with fine dining, five-star hotels, a cool club scene and luxury shopping all finding a home here. Enjoy living luxe at a fraction of Western costs in this metropolis.
Visit American War sites
Many of Ho Chi Minh’s noteworthy sites are a nod to the events of the 1960s. Be sure to check out the War Remnants Museum and Ho Chi Minh City Museum, as well as the Reunification Palace during your city break.
Explore French colonial landmarks
Grandiose reminders of French rule are commonplace in Ho Chi Minh, with the Notre Dame Cathedral and Hotel de Ville proving most popular with travellers. If you can, head to the Notre Dame Cathedral for Sunday mass at 9.30am, where Catholic locals still worship. If you are attending mass, be sure to leave your more revealing outfits at home to avoid causing any offence.
Visit world-renowned pagodas
The Jade Emperor Pagoda and Quan Am Pagoda are glorious contrasts to the city’s French colonial architecture, and are well worth visiting.
Speaking of pagodas…
Traditional Vietnamese places of worship, pagodas are dotted around the country, their intricate carvings stunning enough to bring grown men to tears. Still visited by locals today, head to pagodas in the early morning to avoid the masses, or brave the crowds and experience pagodas in full-swing; both are eye-openers.
My Son: for the 4th century ruins
My Son may not be as well-preserved as its Cambodian equivalent Ankgor Wat, but the beauty lies in its shambles. Once the rich religious and political capital of the Champa Kingdom, My Son is today in ruins. Though, surrounded by lush jungle valley, tall mountain peaks and swelling streams, as ruins go, they’re pretty marvelous.
Most guided tours to My Son leave from the city of Hoi An, about an hour and a half’s drive away. If you fancy going solo, get your bearings via the on-site museum first before exploring the ruins. The entry fee to My Son is 150.000 VND.
Hoi An: for the old town charm
It may be small, but there’s a reason this charming port city is moving straight to the top of travellers’ lists – several in fact. One of the best places to visit in Vietnam, here’s why you should stop by Hoi An…
The merchant houses
The trading center for Japanese and Chinese merchants in search of local silk, Hoi An was once full of merchant houses, and many are still in good nick today. Head to the 17th-century Tan Ky House, a design gem preserved by seven generations of dwellers. Tan Ky House is open daily from 6.00am to 12.00pm, and from 1.30pm to 5.30pm.
Traffic and pollution are non-existent
Unlike it’s big city counterparts, Hoi An has escaped the issues that plague modern Vietnam. Cars and even beloved motorcycles are banned from Hoi An’s centre and as a result, its streets are calm, its waterways are clean, and its locals are laidback.
The intake of Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese traders over time has created a unique melting pot for Hoi An’s local flavours. Adopted fare and traditional Vietnamese dishes are made all the better by the fresh produce that abounds throughout the region.
Hoi An cooking classes: Those who can’t look past a good meal should sign up to a local cooking class. We’d opt for the Thuan Tinh cooking classes, where would-be cooks visit a remote market, hop on a riverboat to the UNESCO heritage-listed Thuan Tinh island and cook up a local feast of beef and rice noodle soup, crispy Vietnamese crepes and more.
Vietnam’s National Parks
Vietnam’s national parks are worthy of much more than just a few lines, but you’ve already read a lot, so we’ll keep it brief. Here’s a checklist of Vietnam’s most spectacular national parks, and what to do there…
Swim, stroll and marvel your way through Heritage-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, one of the world’s best caving destinations.
Where: Phong Nha-Ke Bang is in the country’s Quảng Bình Province, in the north of the Central Coast region.
Entrance fee: 150,000 VND
See Vietnam’s wildlife up close at the Ba Be National Park
Where: Ba Be National Park is 200km north of Hanoi. Lacking decent public transport, most travellers opt for a tour of the region from Hanoi.
When to go: The best time to visit Ba Be Lake is during the months of winter and spring. Avoid visiting Ba Be during the wet season as the lake often floods with water from the Nang River.
Go Mountain Biking Through Cat Tien National Park’s Tropical Rainforest
Where: Cat Tien is in southern Vietnam, lying between Ho Chi Minh City and Dalat.
Entrance fee: The fee scheme is complicated at Cat Tien. 60,000 VND will get you through the Park Headquarters, but additional entry costs to other sections of the park will follow.
Catch a Glimpse of the Rare Clouded Leopard at Cuc Phuong National Park
Where: Cuc Phuong National Park is a two to three hours’ drive from Hanoi, roughly 120km away.
Entrance fee: 40,000 VND