As the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi distinguishes itself as a travel destination through its history, its rich cultural heritage, and its picturesque blend of French and Chinese influences. The combined effect of its chaotic streets, French colonial architecture and curious odes to communism resonate with history buffs and the culturally curious alike. Hanoi is at once charming, perplexing, vibrant, and chaotic. The combination of intrigues travelers who want to experience a destination that has a fascinating story to tell.
Must See: Nearly every visitor to Hanoi will put a visit to the Old Quarter at the top of their list. As the most historic part of the city, make sure you visit Ngoc Son Temple at the north end of scenic Hoan Kiem Lake – both central to Hanoian folklore.
History buffs shouldn’t miss a visit to the Hanoi Citadel and the War Museum, and the haunting but intriguing Hoa Lo Prison Museum. The serene Temple of Literature promises a fascinating look at the roots of Hanoi’s Confucian values, while St. Joseph’s Cathedral is a spectacular example of French-inspired architecture.
Last but not least, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum demonstrates the country’s nationalistic pride, as well as locals’ deep veneration of their revolutionary leader.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City – often referred to as by its former name, Saigon – is not only Vietnam’s largest and most populous city but also the most cosmopolitan. Ho Chi Minh City is a booming economic powerhouse, with infrastructure and amenities to match. The antithesis of Hanoi’s old-world charm, Ho Chi Minh City is fresh and ever-evolving. Best known for its vibrant nightlife, roaring street food scene, and more out-going locals, Ho Chi Minh City is a must for urban adventurers heading to Vietnam.
Must See: The Vietnam War is an inextricable part of the country’s history, and its southern hub is no exception. History buffs should put the War Remnants Museum and the Presidential Palace at the top of their list, while lovers of architecture shouldn’t miss the Opera House and the Central Post Office.
For a trip beyond the center, the culturally adventurous will love Cho Lon – the city’s historic Chinatown area – in District 5. Another of the city’s out-of-town gems is the Cu Chi Tunnels, easily accessible in a day trip by speedboat or car.
Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Halong Bay translates to “Bay of Descending Dragons”, referring to the local legend of its creation by a gem-spewing dragon. Take one look at its stunning collection of over 2000 monolithic limestone mountains rising from calm water, and its likeness to its namesake is undeniable. Halong Bay is a jaw-dropping natural marvel that has inspired international visitors for decades and has earned its rightful place on travelers’ bucket lists. If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, it would be remiss not to include this iconic destination in your itinerary.
Must See: No visitor to Halong Bay should ever miss the opportunity to enjoy a sunrise or sunset over the bay – both easily done onboard a traditional junk boat cruise. Most overnight cruises will visit its most famous attractions, including Surprise Cave and Bai Tu Long Bay.
Some cruises visit Cua Van Floating Village and a pearl farm, depending on weather and water conditions. Longer tours will stop off at Cat Ba Island, the perfect place to stretch your legs with a cycling or rock climbing adventure.
Hoi An is a small coastal town on the scenic central coast of Vietnam. As an important port city in colonial and pre-colonial times, Hoi An is a unique cultural melting pot boasting nearly a thousand years of history. Honey-yellow architecture, ancient Chinese shophouses and a notably laid-back atmosphere make Hoi An a must on the Vietnam circuit. A convenient destination to catch your breath on a lengthier journey in Vietnam, Hoi An is the perfect place to go if you like strolling down quiet alleyways and breezy walking streets.
Must See: Rarely will a visitor leave Hoi An without a walk around Hoi An’s Ancient Town – the historic downtown area famous for its charming architecture. No Ancient Town exploration would be complete without a stop at the Japanese Covered Bridge, the Fukian (Phuc Kien) Assembly Hall or Tan Ky Old House.
Beyond Ancient Town, the rural villages further afield promise uniquely local experiences. A favorite is the village of Cam Thanh, a small fishing and farming community easily reached by bicycle from Hoi An.
Few people travel to Vietnam specifically for its beaches. The coastal gem of Nha Trang challenges this notion, though. Despite rising tourism, Nha Trang retains the beachside charm many of its coastal cousins have lost. Home to a collection of high-end resorts, you’ll have no trouble finding modern comfort, convenience, amenities and nightlife in Nha Trang. Venture just a little bit away from the surprisingly pleasant main strip, and you’ll discover why Nha Trang is a favorite destination for snorkeling and diving as well. Nha Trang’s crystal-clear waters and idyllic islands are perfect for underwater adventures.
Must See: Nha Trang is most famous for its beach along the main strip, but it hides a few hidden secrets as well. Perhaps the most unique is the Hon Khoi Salt Fields, a favorite destination for travel photographers, it’s about an hour from the city center.
History buffs should head to nearby Po Nagar Cham Temple Complex, not far from the center. Alternatively, you can check out the fantastic views at Long Son Pago, a 79-foot-tall Buddha overlooking the city.
Last but not least, divers shouldn’t miss a trip to Hon Mieu and Hon Mun islands.
Located in the furthest reaches of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, just a stone’s throw away from the Cambodian border, Chau Doc is a gem all too often missed by travelers. A perfect combination of languid delta culture and beautiful nature reserves, Chau Doc is a spectacular place to experience Vietnamese agricultural heart. Inhabited by ethnic Vietnamese, Cham and Khmer people, Chau Doc is as much a cultural destination as it is a scenic one. A visit here promises an enlivening combination of riverside communities, bustling floating markets and sprawling rice fields that exemplifies the Mekong Delta’s timeless charm.
Must See: Chau Doc is most famous for nearby Tra Su Nature Reserve, a fairytale-like bird sanctuary and flooded eucalyptus forest. This area is easily reached by car from central Chau Doc and explored by boat while floating over an enchanting sea of green duck-lilies.
Within Chau Doc, must-see spots include the Floating Market and the nearby Cham Village, a small ethnic community of practicing Muslims. Last but not least, a journey to nearby Nui Sam (Sam Mountain)offers a fascinating window into local folklore and legend.
Impressive and historic, the former imperial capital of Hue is a jewel of central Vietnam. Modeled after Beijing’s Forbidden City, Hue’s stately tombs and feudal-era ruins are an interesting look at Vietnam’s imperial past. Contributing to its historical intrigue is Hue’s important role during the Vietnam War. Those that are fascinated with wartime history will find Hue’s nearby DMZ an intriguing destination with a story to tell.
Must See: Within Hue’s ancient city walls is its most impressive historical attractions, including the Citadel and Royal Palace. No visitor to Hue should miss a visit to the Minh Mang Tombsor the Khai Dinh Tomb.
The architectural marvels of Thien Mu Pagoda and The Mieu Temple are perhaps Hue’s most photogenic attractions, while a river cruise down Perfume River is a great way to end a day of exploring.
Nestled away in the mountainous region between Vietnam and China is the picturesque frontier town of Sapa. Home to Vietnam’s most colorful ethnic communities and its most rugged mountain scenery, Sapa is a favorite among both adventure travelers and those seeking unique cultural experiences. Whether you’re trekking among rice fields or mingling with the friendly minority locals in scenic villages, Sapa is one of Southeast Asia’s most unique and stunning destinations.
Must See: Resting between Sapa Town and Fansipan Mountain is the majestic Muong Hoa Valley. Home to Sapa’s famous tiered rice paddy fields and charming Hmong villages, this stunning area is a favorite area for trekking adventures and homestay experiences.
Day tours from Sapa Town center visit some of the region’s famous mountain markets, including Bac Ha Sunday Market and Coc Ly Market. Both offer unique opportunities to meet Flower Hmong, Black Hmong and Giay people among other ethnic groups.
Once little more than a blip on the radar for most tourists, Phong Nha became legendary among travelers and adventurers after the discovery of Son Doong Cave in 2009. Currently the largest cave on earth, it’s so big that it has its own river, rainforest ecosystem, and climate. Besides Son Doong, Phong Nha is also home to a host of other cave systems, as well as some of the most impressive karst formations in Southeast Asia. Visitors on the hunt for something truly unique in Vietnam will find it in Phong Nha.
Must See: Besides the obvious highlight of Son Doong Cave, cave enthusiasts to Phong Nha will be spoilt for choice. Top choices include Hang En Cave, Tu Lan Cave and the recently opened Hang Va excursion. Those with a bit of extra time should also pay a visit to surround villages by bicycle.
As Vietnam’s quintessential island paradise, Phu Quoc is famous for its translucent waters and sugar-white sand beaches. Though new developments have put Phu Quoc on tourists’ radar, most of the island still retains an untainted charm. The island is perfect for travelers looking to unwind under an umbrella sipping coconut juice, so its location just off of Vietnam’s southern tip makes Phu Quoc a great place to end a north-to-south journey.
Must See: Besides Phu Quoc’s pristine beaches, the island has a few cultural surprises in store. One such destination is Dinh Cau Rock Temple and Lighthouse, where a winding walk up 29 steps promises stunning panoramic views of the ocean.
The culturally curious should also pay a visit to the Cao Dai Temple here. The temple is home to the Cao Dai religion, an intriguing amalgam of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity. Lastly, Sung Hung Pagoda is the oldest pagoda on the island and offers a unique glimpse into the island’s Buddhist culture.Things to do in Vietnam
Explore Vietnam by boat
Something strange happens when you step off of the land and begin to explore Vietnam by boat. Like taking a step back in time, life slows to the languid pace of its mightiest river, the Mekong, and a sense of timelessness takes hold. If you want to see what Vietnam was like decades or even centuries ago, exploring it by boat is the best way to do it.
Where: The Mekong Delta region comprises a sizeable portion of southern Vietnam that can only be properly explored by boat. Some of the best destinations for boat journeys are Cai Be and Can Tho floating markets, sleepy Ben Tre and Tra Su Forest in Chau Doc. It’s easy to connect the dots between many of these destinations on a single Mekong River cruise.
In Central Vietnam, hopping aboard a junk boat in Nha Trang – one of Vietnam’s most stunning beach destinations – reveals dazzling islands, local fishing villages and coral reefs home to a collection of kaleidoscopic sea life.
In northern Vietnam, the lure of Halong Bay and its iconic limestone mountains are enough to compel most visitors to try their sea legs out – and rightfully so. Little-known but equally impressive is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Trang An in Ninh Binh, and its impressive cave systems, which you can explore by paddle boat.
When: With year-round tropical weather, you can see Southern Vietnam by boat at any time of year. November to April promises drier weather, while the rest of the year has higher rainfall paired with lush scenery.
Central Vietnam’s rainy season wraps up in December, with January to April being a great time of year to explore.
Northern Vietnam is best explored by boat either in late spring to early summer (late February to May), or in the autumn (September to mid-November).
Go caving Phong Nha
After being tipped off by locals, explorers discovered a massive cavern in the heart of Phong Nha Province, central Vietnam, in 2009. Known as Son Doong Cave, it’s now considered to be the largest cave passage in the world. It’s so large, in fact, that it hosts its very own river, climate, and ecosystem! The unbelievable scale of its size and natural beauty has, since, been the focus of a flurry of international attention including a cover story by National Geographic. Today, Son Doong Cave is considered by many to be among the world’s most exciting and exclusive adventure travel destinations.
Due to the extremely delicate ecosystem there, few visitors have the chance to enter Son Doong Cave itself. However, the same geology and conditions that shaped Son Doong Cave also created a host of other caves in the area that is equally untouched and ripe for exploration. If that isn’t reason enough to head to Phong Nha, the province is also home to a host to spectacular karst formations similar to Halong Bay.
Where: Most of the subterranean attractions of Phong Nha are centered around Phong Nha National Park. Besides the obvious highlight of Son Doong Cave, cave enthusiasts will be spoilt for choice. The top caves to visit include Hang En Cave, Tu Lan Cave and the recently opened Hang Va excursion.
Also, as you make your way to the famed caves of Phong Nha National Park, be sure to stop for a visit toBan Doong Minority Village. Deep within the forest interior, this isolated community of indigenous people has inhabited remote areas of this region for time immemorial, and still retain some of their hunter-gatherer practices -making for a fascinating cultural side-trip.
When: Temperatures fluctuate very little in central Vietnam, so you can explore the caves year-round. However, the rainy season typically lasts from mid-September to mid-November, when the cave is sometimes flooded due to heavy rain. So if you’re planning to travel there during that time period, be sure to check in advance if the caves are still open for visitors.
Travel the Ho Chi Minh Trail
During the mid-20th Century, Vietnam was politically divided between the North and the South, which led to the cultural distinction between the regions that is still palpable today. Those who want to experience the country’s rich cultural diversity will find a journey from north to south (or vice versa) offers a kaleidoscopic showcase of the nation. The adventurous will follow the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail through the center of the country, while those shorter on time can have an equally fulfilling experience by plane or train.
Where: Most cross-country tours will start or end in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Popular stops along the journey include Sapa, Halong Bay, Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Hue, and Nha Trang.
When: Planning cross-country trips can be a challenge in Vietnam, where weather patterns are distinct in certain regions of the country. Overall, the best in-between time to travel from the North to the South or vice versa is typically mid-October to late April, when the weather is mostly mild throughout Vietnam.
Insider Tips: During your time in central Vietnam, make time to drive the scenic 21 kilometer stretch of road near Danang, called the Hai Van Pass and Tunnel. The winding road is not only considered the most beautiful stretch of road in Vietnam but also has a rich history rooted in the Vietnam War.
Cycle through Vietnam
Because Vietnam has some of the most stunning rural countrysides in all of Asia, the adventurous would do well to explore at a slower pace that allows frequent stops to discover hidden gems. Cycling is a favorite way to traverse the country a bit more slowly, while still allowing you to cover large expanses in a relatively short amount of time.
Where: There are a variety of cycling tours throughout Vietnam. However, the best cycling excursions are in central or southern Vietnam, where breezy weather and flatter terrain in Hoi An and the Mekong Delta are perfect for cycling excursions.
When: Mid-October to late April offers the mildest temperatures throughout Vietnam. In central Vietnam, January through April offers the best weather for cycling.
Spend a night in a homestay
For a truly authentic experience in Vietnam, a homestay is a perfect opportunity to connect with the locals while supporting a proven model of responsible tourism. By spending a night or two with a local family in their home, you get an up-close and personal experience of the local culture of Vietnam. Plus, homestays are a great way that travel can empower local communities while providing much-needed income for families. A homestay in Vietnam is feel-good tourism at its very best.
Where: In the north of Vietnam, you can enjoy fantastic homestay experiences in Sapa. Vinh Long, in the south of Vietnam, is a sleepy Mekong Delta town not far from bustling floating markets and fishing villages that also has fantastic homestay opportunities.
When: Many homestay experiences in Vietnam are combined with trekking adventures through the fantastic countryside in which these communities live. So it’s advisable to travel in spring or summer (early March to the end of September) when the weather is most amenable to outdoor activities.
Have a “Day in the Life” experience
Traveling in Vietnam is all about local experiences and cultural immersion. What better way to do it than to have a “day in the life” experience? Rolling up your sleeves and getting outside of your comfort zone is a great way to add a unique twist to an itinerary. These unique workshops and tours offer an in-depth look at how locals live in Vietnam – and provide the perfect opportunity to connect with locals beyond the busy cities. Plus, many of these experiences are created in partnership with local communities, so your visit is a contribution toward the sustainable development of rural Vietnam.
Where: In Central Vietnam, Hoi An is a fantastic place to have first-hand experiences of local culture, with fantastic tours allowing you to spend your day as a local fisherman, rice farmer, or even to make your own traditional lanterns!
In the Sapa you can try your hand at traditional batik painting with local artisans who have mastered the art over generations, then take your creation home with you as a souvenir.
When: Many “day in the life” experiences are dictated by harvest seasons, so depending on when you visit, your experience will be unique to the time of year. Otherwise, these experiences are great additions to an itinerary year-round.
Explore Vietnam’s war relics
The Vietnamese are fiercely independent and nationalistic people and take great pride in their history. Perhaps the most visible sign of these qualities are the remnants of Vietnam’s wartime past, preserved in a collection of museums dedicated to telling the story of Vietnam’s fight for independence. For history buffs, these museums are a fascinating window into the story of Vietnam told from a different perspective.
Where: From Ho Chi Minh City, there are a variety of places where you can learn about the history of the Vietnam War, including the Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum, and Chu Chi Tunnels. To get the most out of the experience, it helps to join a guided tour, where a knowledgeable guide can explain the history and context of what you see.
The former Demilitarized Zone or DMZ in central Vietnam served as the frontlines of the war and saw the most intense and heated conflict, making it a fascinating side-trip from Hue, Danang, or Hoi An.
Perhaps the most fascinating place to explore Vietnam’s war history is in the capital city of Hanoi, home to the Vietnam Military History Museum and Hoa Lo Prison – a place once known as the “Hanoi Hilton” so-named by American POWs held there.
When: Since most war-era museums and exhibitions are indoors, they make a great destination for any time of year. For a visit to central Vietnam’s DMZ, the moderate climate between December and April is the best time to explore the area.
Nothing provides context for an exploration of history better than a local guide. Local guides offer unique perspectives on the stories you might have heard in your home country, and give you the opportunity to ask questions along the way.
Meet Locals in Vietnam’s ethnic minority communities
One of the things that makes Vietnam such a magical travel destination is all of the colorful ethnic communities you will encounter – a surprising 54 in all! With very distinct traditions, beliefs and even clothing, the locals in Vietnam’s remote mountain villages are famously hospitable. Often living in very basic homes and living in much the same way they have for decades, these communities are a fascinating window in the past.
Where: The frontier regions of northern Vietnam are laden with scenic minority villages that are ripe for exploration. The most popular launching point for cultural jaunts into minority ethnic villages are from Sapa, only about four to six hours by bus from the capital city of Hanoi. If you’re feeling adventurous and have a bit more time, you can also head to Ha Giang, a much more remote and lesser-traveled region similar to Sapa.
135 kilometers southwest of Hanoi, Mai Chau is another destination famous for its ethnic minority communities and culture. The area has good infrastructure but fewer tourists than Sapa, making it an attractive alternative.
Further south, head to Cham Village in Chau Doc during your tour of the Mekong Delta for a unique insight into Vietnam’s only substantial population of practicing Muslims – people who have called the coastal areas of the Mekong Delta home for centuries.
When: The minority villages of northern Vietnam are best visited in spring when things have warmed up and the clouds have lifted. If you get your timing right, springtime has the added benefit of having huge flower blooms! These same areas can offer a refreshing respite from Vietnam’s sweltering summer heat as well. The drier conditions can make for more pleasant trekking to some of the more remote villages.
Insider Tips: Visitors to minority villages often feel compelled to give candy or money to local kids, but visitors should know that these well-meaning gifts do not contribute to the sustainable growth of education, and can contribute to poorer health. Instead, bring along useful items such as pens that can actually benefit the children – or choose responsible touring options that support local business initiatives.
Take a cooking class
Why: Perhaps the best way to experience Vietnam’s culture is through its tastiest export: food! A fun, hands-on way to do it is with a cooking class, where master local chefs walk you through the basics of making your favorite dishes. Plus, most cooking classes also send you home with a recipe so you can recreate each dish in your own kitchen – a sure-fire way to make your friends jealous!
Where: Although Vietnamese cuisine is interesting and varied throughout northern, central and southern Vietnam, Central Vietnamese food is perhaps most renowned for its explosive flavor and fascinating fusion with French cuisine. So if you’re in Hoi An, be sure to take part in one of the great cooking classes there.
Further south, you can also take part in a cooking class in Ho Chi Minh City, where you’ll not only learn how to cook the goods, but you’ll visit local markets and learn how to choose the best ingredients!
When: Because they are usually hosted inside, cooking classes are a great thing to do when the weather isn’t ideal for outdoor discovery.
Tips: Bring a small notebook with you to take notes. There can be a surprising amount of ingredients and steps in the preparation of traditional Vietnamese food!