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15 Things to Do in Vietnam

Charlotte Boswell

A land of dramatic history and intriguing culture, Vietnam offers spectacular scenery, bustling cities, a sweeping coastline and fabulous food. The north is home to rugged mountains and rolling rice terraces, the south offers the exotic Mekong Delta and beautiful beaches, whilst central Vietnam is best known for the imperial city of Hue and delightful Hoi An with its cobbled streets and colourful markets. With so much on offer, here is a list of our favourite things to do in Vietnam.

1. Wander down Hoi An’s cobbled streets

A quaint, picturesque town of winding cobbled streets, colourful merchant houses and pagodas, Hoi An in central Vietnam is one of the country’s prettiest and most popular destinations. Around two-hundred years ago Hoi An was a bustling little port home to Chinese traders and a strong commercial link to Japan which, over time, influenced the town’s architecture and design. Spend a few days exploring this beautiful town; get lost wandering through Hoi An’s markets and silk merchants, cross the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge and sample some of the country’s best cuisine in boutique cafes and restaurants.

Hoi An harbour in Vietnam

2. Explore the world’s oldest cave at Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park

The remarkable Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, listed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, contains the oldest karst mountains and cave systems in Southeast Asia. Formed approximately 400 million years ago, the national park is dotted with hundreds of limestone caves and spectacular underground rivers that give way to pristine tropical jungle. Phong Nha Ke Bang is also home to Son Doong Cave, which is considered to be the world’s largest cave. Spend a couple of days exploring the region; kayak down the emerald water, take a forest trek, discover the area’s war history and visit remote villages and families.

Phong Nha Ke in Bang Lake, Vietnam

3. Visit the abandoned My Son temples

Deep in the forest and mountains lies one of Southeast Asia’s most significant historical sites – the ancient Champa kingdom of My Son. Dating back to the 4th century, the sanctuary is home to a jungle temple complex of about 71 standing structures, 32 epitaphs and an array of cultural artefacts from a long-lost kingdom. Built from fired clay bricks and adorned with detailed carvings and sculptures, these temples have withstood hundreds of years of weathering and wartime destruction and are a testament to the impressive building technique of the Cham people. It is possible to take a day trip from Hoi An or Danang to the remarkable My Son where you can explore the ruins and learn about the important history and rituals of the site.

My Son Cham Temples in central Vietnam

Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

4. Be inspired by the scenery of Ninh Binh

Described as an ‘inland’ Ha Long Bay, the watery landscape and limestone scenery of Ninh Binh is considered one of the most picturesque in the country. Located in the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam, Ninh Binh is an off-the-beaten track destination that is traveller friendly and also incredibly stunning where hundreds of limestone monoliths topped by dense greenery emerge from the ground. The best way to experience Ninh Binh is by boat; board a traditional sampan and travel through the narrow waterways that snake through lush fields of rice, past imposing karst outcrops and small farming villages.

Ninh Binh landscapes in Vietnam

5. Experience the hill tribe culture in Mai Chau

Sitting in the heart of the spectacular Mai Chau Valley, Mai Chau is a region of towering limestone karst formations and lush rice paddies framed, in the distance, by the Annamite Mountains. Mai Chau and the surrounding villages are also home to numerous different ethnic groups and remains an excellent place to experience the Vietnamese hill tribe culture. During a stay in Mai Chau discover unique bamboo stilt houses, meet the ethnic Ban Lac people descended from Thai ancestors and explore remote farming communities and villages on a cycling tour.

Hmong woman in rice terraces in Mai Chau, Vietnam

6. Cruise through Ha Long Bay

Vietnam’s most iconic landscape, Ha Long Bay, is a beautiful vision of over 3,000 limestone-karst islands protruding from the turquoise sea creating a labyrinth of channels, secluded beaches and yawning caves. The most rewarding way to see Ha Long bay is aboard an overnight junk boat cruise where visitors can visit floating villages, kayak in the glistening water and discover the various caves. However, due to Ha Long Bay’s sheer beauty and UNESCO-listed status it is an increasing tourist spot; for a quieter alternative visit the equally stunning Bai Tu Long Bay.

Halong Bay in Vietnam

7. Search for Hanoi’s best bowl of pho

The national dish of Vietnam, pho, was created in Hanoi in the early 20th century. Although this iconic dish is served throughout the whole of Vietnam with millions of bowls being served every day, it is a classic Hanoi staple. The concept of pho simply is a hearty bowl of silky flat rice noodles, thinly sliced rare beef and topped with a fragrant and delicate beef broth. Adjust the soup as you wish with various flavourings and condiments including chilli, limes, coriander, bean sprouts, soy sauce and spring onions. Eat your way around Hanoi in search for the best bowl of pho in the country.

Bowl of pho in Hanoi, Vietnam

8. Discover the imperial city of Hue

Hue in Central Vietnam was the country’s capital under the Nguyen Dynasty between 1802 to 1945. Today the city is full of infinite charm and personality and is dominated by its spectacular Imperial Citadel. Similar to Beijing’s Forbidden City, the ancient walls of this UNESCO World Heritage Site enclose a vast complex of palaces, pavilions, gardens and temples and although heavily damaged during the Vietnam War, it is still a remarkable place to visit. Hue’s imperial tombs dotted along the Perfume River house many of Vietnam’s most important emperors and are another intriguing sight in the city.

Citadel East Gate in Hue, Vietnam

9. Explore the Mekong Delta’s floating markets

The Mekong Delta, a low-lying region of thick jungle, palm trees and quaint riverside towns, is situated in southern Vietnam close to Ho Chi Minh City. A vast maze of rivers, swamps and islands, the Mekong Delta is best explored by traditional boat where visitors are able to visit the colourful floating markets and local villages. For a more in-depth and authentic experience, take a multi-day cruise upstream to Cambodia where you will discover the fascinating river life of the Mekong.

Mekong Delta in Vietnam

10. Take a cookery class in Hoi An

Vietnam is a melting pot of cultures and cuisines and the food is fresh, fragrant and flavourful. With its distinctive style and influences from China, Japan, Southeast Asia and France, Vietnamese cuisine is recognised worldwide for its use of fresh ingredients and harmony of balancing flavours. A great way to get to grips with the local cuisine is to take a cookery class in the picturesque port town of Hoi An. Start the class off with a trip to the local market where you will buy fresh ingredients before proceeding to a local kitchen. Learn how to prepare national dishes such as spring rolls and pho and also perfect Hoi An specialities including Cao Lau, White Rose Dumplings and Mi Quang.

Hoi An market, Vietnam

11. Hike through Sapa’s rice terraces

Located high in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, Sapa is north Vietnam’s premier trekking base where hikers can enjoy the surrounding countryside of cascading rice terraces and remote hill-tribe villages. Established as a hill station by the French in 1922, the town of Sapa is now a tourist hub home to excellent markets and various hill-tribes. On a clear day the view from Sapa is spectacular as it overlooks the plunging valley framed by jagged peaks. When it is cloudy, which is quite frequent, mist rolls over the mountains creating a beautifully moody atmosphere.

Sapa rice terraces, Vietnam

12. Wander the Old Quarter of Hanoi

Vietnam’s capital Hanoi offers French-colonial architecture, a fabulous food culture and a long and intriguing history. The city’s Old Quarter, located near the picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake, is the heart and soul of Hanoi that has been the commercial district for over 1,000 years. Each street in the Old Quarter traditionally specialised in a specific product or craft, for example jewellery, silk and spices, and subsequently each street is named after what was manufactured and sold. Spend an afternoon meandering down the myriad of bustling streets admiring crumbling-colonial houses and the goods on offer.

Hanoi Old Quarter, Vietnam

13. Relax on the paradise island of Phu Quoc

Located off the Cambodian coast, the picturesque and sleepy island of Phu Quoc is one of the region’s best-kept secrets. A relaxing escape from the hustle and bustle of mainland Vietnam, Phu Quoc Island boasts white-sand beaches, turquoise waters and idyllic sunset spots. The Phu Quoc National Park, which makes up more than half the island, features mountains, tropical jungle and excellent wildlife and is well-worth a visit. Aside from beach relaxation, visitors can also explore the traditional villages, kayak in the bays, take jungle hikes and feast on fresh seafood.

Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam

14. Visit the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City

The harrowing yet intriguing War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is one of the city’s most popular and significant attractions. Few museums convey the brutal effects of war on its civilian victims so powerfully and documents the atrocities from both a Vietnamese and American sources. As you approach the museum, view the US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces and weapons that are on display. Inside, the atmosphere is humble and sober; explore the graphic displays, photographs, unexploded ordinance and other artefacts that highlight the horrors face during the Vietnam War.

Ho Chi Minh War Remnants Museum, Vietnam

Photo credit: ronan crowley

15. Photograph the breathtaking Mui Ne Sand Dunes

Mui Ne is a picturesque fishing village and beach resort on Vietnam’s southern coast. A destination known for windsurfing, kitesurfing and sailing, it is perhaps most famous for the spectacular sand dunes. The two most impressive dunes are the Red and White Sand Dunes; the Red features red-hued cascading dunes, whereas the latter is the most remarkable where oceanic winds sculpt the yellow sands into wonderful formations emanating the Sahara. A popular way to see the dunes is during sunset where the sky becomes a kaleidoscope of oranges and purples, highlighting the incredible, huge dunes. 

Mui Ne sand dunes, Vietnam

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