Visiting Vietnam? Here’s 11 things you’ll want to do
Vietnam offers possibilities for fully-fledged, diverse trips encompassing the best of South-East Asia. While tourism only started (slowly!) in the 1990s, Vietnam has experienced a boom in recent years for all types of travellers and budgets. Its assets? A variety of activities, from cultural sites to stunning natural wonders, world-class beaches and vibrant cities. Exquisite and exotic food. Good infrastructure and easiness to travel. And last but not least – cheap prices.
You will need time if you want to visit the three main regions (North, Centre and South) of Vietnam, which have each their own unique features and identity. A common mistake is to force everything into your Vietnam travel itinerary. If you want to have the full experience, allow at least 3 weeks – any less and you will be rushing. Focusing on only one region for a shorter trip can also be a good strategy.
But what are the things you would not want to miss while traveling there? After several trips there, these are my top recommendations.
1. Nin Binh
The province of Nin Binh is located about 100 km south of Hanoi, in the North of Vietnam. It is called the ‘Halong Bay in land’ due to its numerous limestone cliffs and peaks erupting from the ground scattered across paddy fields.
Nin Binh is still a spot that is not so well-known by tourists, and probably my top recommendation of things to do in Vietnam. It reveals a breathtaking scenery – as much as the famous Halong Bay – and enables you to discover a rural region of Vietnam.
With the help of a travel agency that can take you off the beaten track, you can:
- Take a boat to slowly sail down the river on a rowing boat. The sites of Tam Coc and Trang An are the most impressive; Van Long is a natural reserve and is less touristic but great too.
- Take a bike and explore the countryside, going through peaceful villages and rice fields.
2. Halong Bay
The Halong Bay is a site that cannot be avoided due to its stunning beauty, but which unfortunately suffers from a high touristic frequentation – it is the most visited site in Vietnam.
Located in the Quang Ninh Province in the North Vietnam, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The bay reveals thousands of limestone karsts and isles of various sizes reflecting in beautiful emerald waters. The best way to explore it is to hop by boat between islands. Cat Ba Island is the biggest island in the Bay; it is home to a national park and offers lush scenery along with beautiful beaches.
While taking a cruise on a boat to hop between islands and spending at least a night on a boat is a must, I would strongly advise to look for a local travel agency that goes off the beaten track. Too many boats are going to the same spots and do not provide good food on board. And after all, why not venture in Bai Tu Long Bay, which offers similarly impressive landscapes but with many less tourists?
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and the country’s second largest city by population. 1000 years old, it is the soul of the North, and it also embodies Vietnam’s rich history of various influences – China and France in particular. It is perhaps the metropolis that compiles most of Vietnam’s traditional and modern (contradictory?) features, where beautiful lakes and Chinese temples run alongside French colonial architecture and crowded boulevards.
Hanoi is full of wonderful sites to explore, to name a few among my favourites:
- The Old Quarter is the name given to the area that has been existing since imperial times. Each street of this area was specialized in one specific type of manufacturing or trade. Nowadays, the quarter is an attraction for people interested in the history of Hanoi.
- The French Quarter. After 1882, the French were in full possession of Hanoi and started building a city of their own, with Parisian-style buildings and boulevards, villas, and St Joseph’s cathedral.
- Hoan Kiem Lake. According to a popular legend, in 15th century, Heaven sent Emperor Ly Thai To a magical sword he used to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. After the war, a giant golden turtle stole the sword and disappeared into the lake, restoring the sword to its divine owners. This explains the name Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword).
- Temple of Literature: This complex founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong is a rare example of well-preserved traditional Vietnamese architecture and it honours Vietnam’s finest scholars. It was also the site of Vietnam’s first university (1076).
4. Hoi An
Hoi An is a city with a population of approximately 120,000 in Vietnam’s Quang Nam Province and listed since 1999 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I am not going to lie – it is one of Vietnam’s most touristic places. However, it is (as often) easy to escape the crowds and discover hidden gems.
The Old Town of Hoi An is, somehow, everything you could imagine and fancy about Vietnam. It is extremely well preserved and offers many cultural attractions, from 18th-century houses to beautiful pagodas and assembly halls built by Chinese communities. A very famous sight is the so-called 17th-century Japanese bridge.
This feeling that the town has a strong heritage from the past – not to mention the French colonial architecture – should not overshadow all the gifts it has to offer in the present. At night, the lantern-strewn streets confer a totally different atmosphere to Hoi An. Lanterns are lit on the river and are glittering in the dark, while kids marvel at the spectacle.
The town is filled with art galleries (my favourite: Ha Ha – Art in Everything) and fancy cafes. One of the things I prefer in Hoi An, however, is gastronomy. There are some local delicacies that you must try, including the best Banh Mi in the country (Vietnamese typical sandwiches that are one of the quintessential dishes of the country), Cao Lau (rice noodles with barbecued pork, greens and croutons) or Ban Xeo (crispy pancakes).
Last but not least, you can quickly escape from the town to cycle among rice fields to reach lovely An Bang beach, or venture to the wonderful Cham ruins of My Son in the middle of a lush jungle…
The city of Hue is located on a strip of land in Centre Vietnam, 13 km from the South China Sea in the foothills of the Truong Son Mountains.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the evocative seat of the Nguyen-dynasty of emperors (1802-1945). Although it was severely damaged during the American war, the city still displays some of its former splendour and is slowly being restored. The walled Forbidden City, which was built in 1805 by Emperor Gia Long, is obviously a must. But the city has much more to offer – a cruise on the Perfume River, a visit of the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady… Last but not least, the Emperors’ tombs are a real architectural and natural jewel (the Tu Duc tomb being my absolute favourite).
Hue is also famous for its many culinary delights and cultural importance in Vietnam (being the national capital for almost 150 years), and for the youth of its population. I marvel at night walks along the river surrounded by street food merchants, people exercising on public equipment or lovers lost in reverie on benches. The final piece of advice regarding a visit to Hue would be to avoid the months of November-December, as the weather can be extremely bad in this region.
6. Da Lat
Dying for some fresh air? Da Lat is located 1,500 m above sea level in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam and has a temperate weather, contrary to the tropical climate of the rest of the country. With its year-round cool weather, Da Lat offers a different experience – people wearing woolly hats (whereas you would barely be wearing a pull over), strawberries, cabbage or other temperate agriculture products you would not find elsewhere…
The city is also interesting from an architectural point of view, as it became a mountain resort under the French occupation. It quickly became a vacation destination for colons who could not bear the summer heat. It offers picturesque churches and streets, beautiful waterfalls in the surroundings, and many outdoors activities (trekking, mountain-biking etc.).
Be aware, however, that Da Lat is a popular tourist destination also among Vietnamese people. And there is kitsch involved – for instance, expect to find swan-shaped pedal-boats on the lake in the centre of the city. Still, it is a different face of Vietnam that Westerners do not know that much, and which I found very nice to explore.
7. Ho Chi Minh City
At the time of the French colonisation, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon at the time) was nicknamed ‘the Pearl of the Orient’. Today, it is the economic capital of Vietnam and certainly the most vibrant of the country’s cities. Wide boulevards crowded with motorbikes, towers popping up every single day, cultural gems to explore… Despite the crazy hustle and bustle, it is also (and paradoxically) a laid-back and welcoming city – from peaceful pagodas to cool coffee shops – embodying the South of the country.
A few recommendations:
- The French colonial quarter remains one of the nicest areas of the city. There are still remnants from this period, with the Notre-Dame Cathedral, made entirely of materials imported from France, an opera house and a 19th century Central Post Office. Hotels are also famous, from the very colonial Continental (starred in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American) to the Rex hotel popular with American GIs during the Vietnam war.
- Not far, the Ben Thanh market is a bustling market that is really worth a visit to shop (clothing, artisanal crafts…) or grab a bite at one of the many local food vendors.
- There are many pagodas and temples to visit (Giac Lam and Ngoc Hoang Pagodas and Thien Hau Temple in particular). They are all the more interesting as they constitute peaceful oases in the chaotic yet exciting life of the city.
- The Cholon district, which shows to what extent China has influenced Vietnam. The quarter has long been inhabited by Chinese people and is considered the largest Chinatown in the world by area. The market in particular is quite impressive in size and types of products sold.
- A visit to the War Remnants Museum is also a must, bearing in mind that the museum aims at building the Vietnamese national identity. It features exhibits from the Vietnam War and the first Indochina War, and also displays military vehicles and various weapons.
8. Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta is one of my favourite places in Vietnam by far. It is said to be the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam, as it supplies much of the needs of the country compared to its sister Red River Delta. This area is an intense, beautiful mix of rivers, canals and streams where people sail, work and leave all at once. During a day of visit in the delta, you might take four or five boats of different sizes to venture in a maze of arteries.
I would recommend spending more than the usual one-day trip from Ho Chi Minh City, which will enable to go down to the Cambodian border (the Tra Su bird sanctuary is absolutely magical) and perhaps enjoy a night on a boat.
The city of Can Tho is a necessary stop to any trip in the area. Its busy waterfront is a hub for boat trips on surrounding waterways, and it is also home to floating hotels, bars and restaurants. On the other hand, countryside landscapes will ravish you – visit a coconut candy factory, observe rice collection, and enjoy all the shades of green from palm trees to rice paddies.
9. Beaches and Islands
After taking in so much, isn’t it time to relax? Extending the trip for a few days on the coastline or on an island is a great way to finish a trip in Vietnam.
- Phu Quoc island: Phu Quoc is perhaps the best destination I could suggest for a few days away. Although it is becoming a touristic destination, with hotel resorts popping up along the main beaches, there is still something wild and genuine that I enjoyed very much. You will find white-sand beaches, tropical jungle, and many nautical activities (diving, snorkelling, kayak etc.). Also quite interesting to visit: Black pepper plantations and production of the famous Vietnamese fish sauce nuoc mam. In terms of beaches, Long Beach stretches over 20km on the west coast of the island and offers paradisiac views; on the Eastern side, Star Beach is less frequented but just as beautiful.
- Hoi An: The most popular and frequented beach is Cua Dai. It is clean and has beautiful sand, with great views on the Cham islands, and there are many nice cafes on the beachfront. Further north, Cam An beach is much less frequented but just as nice.
- Nha Trang: In recent years, this city located on the coast south of Vietnam has become the main beach destination in the country. The city beach is quite enjoyable and stretches over 6km, with many cafes and restaurants lining up. Many activities are proposed, be it for a few hours of fun or for a full day trip by boat. But beware: There are (too) many tourists in the high season!
In Vietnam, markets are not just places where you can buy and sell food or other things. They are a highly social place that reveal so much about the local culture. Each town has one or several markets, sometimes night ones.
You will see fresh herbs piling up, spices, fruits and vegetables you have never heard of. You will hear all kinds of noises – animals, machines…and people shouting. You will smell unknown scents. It is a lot to take in in this hustle and bustle, but you will find it fascinating for sure.
Markets are also a great way to explore street food, which you will find particularly tasty there. Why not sit at a table on one of these small plastic blue chairs and enjoy a pho – the national noodle and meat soup dish with fresh herbs and a hint of lemon?
Some of my favourite markets in Vietnam include:
- Hanoi’s Old Quarter
- Ho Chi Minh City’s Ben Thanh and Cholon (Chinatown) market
- Mekong Delta’s floating markets, which are an experience not to be missed. You will need to get up very early and look in all directions to catch a glimpse of all the products sold on wooden boats; a good starting point for this is Can Tho city.
11. Vietnamese coffee
Vietnamese coffee (‘ca phe’) is a national habit and a real culture. But it is not just any coffee.
First of all, coffee cultivated in Vietnam has a unique flavour – a hint of vanilla – that makes it special and different from other blends.
Then there is the way it is prepared, with water slowly tickling into a cup from a drip filter. In the cup, you will usually find sweet condensed milk, which was introduced by French colonists. Mixing it up gives a beautiful caramel colour to the coffee. It can be drunk hot or iced, depending on the preference and on the outside temperature. There are also many other variations (coffee smoothie, yoghurt coffee) to explore.
There are many great places to have Vietnamese coffee, especially in cities. You can see people lingering for hours over a single glass in the streets. Hanoi probably remains the best place for this, from traditional sidewalk cafes to hip coffee shops, but quality coffee can be found everywhere in Vietnam.