The best things to do in Vietnam
By Kati Taylor
Vietnam is where sprawling rice terraces, palm fringed rivers and towering mega cities meet. It is a land of contrasts which has been beckoning international visitors for years. Its food scene, natural wonders and cultural complexities are all worth exploring and it is easy to see why people spend months travelling up and down its snaking form.
When it comes to choosing how to spend your time in Vietnam, there are a wealth of resources out there. Whittling down the options can feel overwhelming and even choosing which regions to visit is a daunting task. With that in mind, we asked our local experts for their top recommendations of what to do in Vietnam’s key areas. From the immense network of the Cu Chi tunnels to the gentle backwaters of the Mekong Delta, we have left no stone unturned.
Lan Ha Bay
Halong Bay’s 1,600 karst limestone towers have become synonymous with Vietnam. Hundreds of boat cruises depart from the bay each day and the steady demand of tourism has made Halong and its immediate vicinity very crowded. However, just 60km south of Halong City there is a second bay which has yet to find its way onto the average tourist itinerary. Lan Ha Bay is made up of 300 karst islets and their limestone outcrops are home to pristine sandy beaches which make perfect swimming spots.
While many visitors try to see the region’s iconic limestone structures in a single day, it is far better to take your time. A liveaboard cruise, spread over three days, is the best option for ensuring that you see all the highlights of Lan Ha and the Halong area more broadly. Lan Ha is a part of Cat Ba National Park and it is worth setting aside time to spend hiking along the reserve’s designated trails. The route to Viet Hai, a tiny village tucked away in the jungle, is particularly picturesque. Rural traditions are upheld here and you are likely to see locals ploughing their fields with water buffalo and harvesting crops by hand. From Viet Hai harbour, a 6km walking trail snakes through the trees and leads you to the heart of the village.
Alongside hiking, kayaking is a popular activity with Lan Ha visitors. By kayak, you can get to know the bay’s incredible structures at closer quarters and can even take a trip to Tra Bau island. The island is home to some of the loveliest beaches in the bay and a small fishing village which has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. The locals still use traditional methods and while you are there you can meet with the fishermen and learn more about their way of life. You can also sample the island’s seafood which is widely believed to be some of the freshest in the country.
Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, is where ancient and modern collide. It is home to incredible street food, a thriving coffee culture and one of the country’s most iconic sites - the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Whether you want to hop between cafes or explore the intricacies of Vietnam’s history, Hanoi is a perfect place to spend a couple of days.
While you are there you should definitely take a wander around Hoan Kiem Lake to get a taste of local life. It is one of the city’s most serene spots and its tree lined banks are home to the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre. Water Puppetry is a Vietnamese tradition which is believed to date all the way back to the eleventh century and talented artists are striving to keep it alive. The shows are popular with visitors and locals alike and take place most evenings.
During your time in the city you should also make sure that you pay a visit to the Old Quarter. The maze of streets has been Hanoi’s heart and soul for over 1,000 years and are still a hub of local activity. You are sure to find street food and handicrafts in abundance, as well as some lovely coffee shops, so be prepared to haggle and dive right in.
Ho Chi Minh
Once known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh is Vietnam’s largest city and is a stronghold of culture, history and handicrafts. The streets are full of mopeds and food vendors but are also stunning examples of French colonial architecture. You can easily spend a whole day wandering among them, stumbling on gems such as the Notre Dame Cathedral and Le Cong Kieu, Ho Chi Minh’s antiques district.
You should also find time to visit Ben Hanh market. It is the largest in the city and is full to the brim with wonderful souvenirs - colourful lanterns, fans, scarves and bowls. Be ready to haggle hard and always ask permission before taking photographs of the stalls or their vendors. Once you have had your fill, duck into one of Ho Chi Minh’s cafes and enjoy a Vietnamese coffee - a local staple which is normally drunk strong with condensed milk.
While in Ho Chi Minh, you can also take the opportunity to learn more about Vietnam’s recent history. The War Remnants Museum is a good place to begin your exploration. The exhibits are stark, often featuring graphic photographs, but it is an important experience for gaining context on Vietnam’s role in conflicts.
You can also visit the Cu Chi tunnels which are a short drive away from the main city. These immense networks of underground tunnel systems offered shelter to entire villages and were an important part of the Vietnamese military tactics. Hiding underground allowed them to take their enemy by surprise and the tunnels are now an important pilgrimage site for people all over the country. At their peak the tunnels reached all the way from Ho Chi Minh to the Cambodian border and offered vital storage for weapons and supplies. During a visit you can climb into the tunnels and crawl through them, giving you an idea of what it might have been like during the war years.
The Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta is a world of stilted houses, floating markets and palm fringed riverbeds. The chocolate coloured waters meander through village after village and it is easy to spend days drifting along them and watching the world go by. While markets like Cai Be and Cai Rang are certainly worth visiting, their authenticity has made them a magnet for tourist groups. It is best to head there early, around 5am, if you want to see the market at its bustling best and not have to share the waterways. Beyond Cai Be though, there is a whole world of natural wonders to be found on the Mekong.
One such wonder is the Cajaput Forests of Xeo Quyt. Here the river is near engulfed by a thick swathe of trees and vines which hide the remains of Viet Cong bunkers. A boat trip here, usually run on traditional wooden canoes, will take you to the heart of the forest. Water hyacinths bloom abundantly beneath the canopy and you are likely to see colourful birds darting between the trees. A walking trail runs parallel to the canal and leads you between the Viet Cong bunkers that dot the area. The forest was an important base during the war as it was the hideout for the main generals. The bunkers were so expertly camouflaged that they were not found until after the war, even though there was an American base just 2km away.
More broadly, during your time on the delta, you have to sample the region’s most iconic delicacies. Bun Mam is rice noodles topped with shrimp, river fish, onions and aubergine, all coated with a healthy dose of fish sauce. It can be bought at markets throughout the area and is well worth trying. It is often served alongside Banh Cong - a savoury cake made from shrimp, minced pork and green beans. You will also see lots of fish dishes - unsurprising considering the surrounding environment - and those particularly worth trying are Lau Mam (a delicious fish hotpot) or Ca Linh Chien (crispy fried little fish served with vegetables and dipping sauce).
No trip to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to Hoi An, the jewel of the central coast. It is home to colourful architecture, a fantastic food scene and white sand beaches, and is the perfect place to while away a couple of days on the banks of the Mekong.
Cars and motorbikes are banned from the centre of the city, giving it a more laid back atmosphere than Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, and most homestays offer push bikes to guest. You can join the locals and cycle around the city streets, stopping to take photos or duck into cafes.
During your time in the city, it is also well worth taking part in a cooking class. Hoi An is particularly famous for its food scene and its reputation is entirely justified. Its cuisine has been influenced by the many nationalities that have lived and traded here over the centuries and is now home to fried crab cakes, crispy pancakes, noodle salads and steaming bowls of pho. Learn to make these specialities for yourself and, if you want to sample the best of them, head to Quan Dau Bac and order a tasting plate.
Still a hidden gem in a country which is seeing more and more tourists every year, Ninh Binh is Vietnam at its most rural and authentic. Limestone cliffs tower over sprawling rice paddies, earning Ninh Binh the nickname of ‘Halong Bay on land’. The region is mostly flat and can easily be explored by bike at a laid back pace, cycling from village to village and admiring the scenery as you go. While in the area, be sure to take a boat ride at Trang An. Traditional wooden boats glide along the river, passing temples, caves and lakes, and making stops at scenic areas. It is best to get to the boarding point early in the morning or late in the afternoon if you want to have the river to yourself.
Another site worth working into your itinerary is the Thung Nham Bird Garden. It is a small national park tucked away in the mountains and it is where most of the region’s birds make their nests. There are hiking trails and caves to explore and if you head to one of the park’s viewing platforms in the late afternoon you are likely to see a true spectacle. Birds of all kinds and colours flock to the park to return to their nests. With the karst limestone cliffs as a backdrop, it’s an unforgettable experience.
Northern Vietnam’s most popular trekking base, Sapa is a must visit for lovers of the Great Outdoors. Although the city itself has become a tourism hub, once you step into the rice terraces and mountain villages you will understand how the region draws visitors back again and again. There are all kinds of hikes available in Sapa, from half day strolls to multi day treks. These vary widely in intensity and you can ask our local experts for advice on which routes will suit your schedule and ability.
One experience worth factoring in is a visit to the Muong Hoa Valley. This is where the Black Hmong minority live, an indigenous group whose way of life has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. From Sapa, a two hour trek through the surrounding fields and forests will lead you to the heart of the valley. Once there you can explore the village and get to know more about the locals and their daily lives. As you continue along the trail you will enjoy incredible panoramic views over the valley and the villages that dot the paths. The whole walk takes around five hours and offers a great insight into the ancient and mysterious lifestyles of Sapa’s residents.
The one day routes are definitely the most popular so if you wish to escape the crowds it is worth taking part in a multi-day trek. There are homestays available in villages throughout the area and the rolling hills seem to go on for eternity. Whether you want to summit Fan Si Pan, Vietnam’s highest peak, or simply meander from village to village and watch the world go by, there is no shortage of options in Sapa.
Make it happen
If you would like to explore the best of Vietnam, then get in touch with our local experts. They are brilliant at creating tailor-made itineraries - after all, Vietnam is their home and they know it like the backs of their hands! Simply send an enquiry with a few details about you and what you'd like to do and they will get to work on your perfect holiday. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.