From sailing trips among Ha Long Bay’s limestone karsts of to exploring subterranean caves in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, not to mention eating delicious pho, there are many reasons why Vietnam continues to be a favourite with all kinds of travellers. Here are 10 of the best things to do in the country…
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1: Sail through Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long
Ha Long Bay – Image by Efired
Some 1,600 shaggy limestone stacks scattered across the teal-coloured Bay of Tonkin form Ha Long Bay which, in Vietnamese folklore, means ‘where the dragon descends to the sea’. The otherworldly atmosphere is apparent by flying over the giant karst fortress on a seaplane flight and then sailing through the still waters on a junk, or luxury boat, where kayaking, eating exquisite food, star-gazing, beach-hopping, and rare primate-spotting are all excellent ways to spend your time. Experience isolation by cruising to the outer rim of Bai Tu Long.
2: Explore Hanoi’s Old Town and French Quarter
Temple in Hanoi – Image by Elena Ermakova
Whimsical French colonial buildings, ancient Oriental homes and temples, and modernist behemoths combine in Vietnam’s communist capital, Hanoi. The Old Town is an alluring labyrinthine network of streets peppered with old trades, boutique shops, hotels, street food stalls and fine restaurants.
The original ‘36 Streets’ Old Quarter was the powerhouse of artisanal guilds, which serviced the nearby imperial citadel. Within steps of each other, you can now watch headstones being made, browse for exquisite silk goods, brave the motorbike madness of electric cable-wrapped streets and sit down on a pavement stool for bun cha (pork and noodles). Wander around the city’s central Hoan Kiem lake and admire the grandeur of the Belle Epoque French-built Opera House and handsome ochre French-Vietnamese civic buildings.
3: Go trekking in the tribal lands of the far north
Village near Hoang Lien Son Mountains, Vietnam – Image by Lu Nhat Thuyen
Board the elegant Victoria Express in Hanoi to journey overnight to the Alpine-esque mountain resort of Sapa, high in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains. Trek among the hills, markets and communities of indigenous Red Dao, Black Hmong, and Flower Hmong, learning about their clothing, customs and lives.
Overnight trekking to more remote villages is advised as those close to Sapa are touristy. For off-the-beaten-track adventure, motorbike or 4WD into the northern limestone wonderland and vertiginous rice paddy territory of Ha Giang.
4: Discover the imperial city of Hué and Nguyen emperors’ tombs
Hué, Vietnam – Image by Jimmy Tran
Powerful Nguyen Dynasty emperors ruled Hué as the country’s capital from 1802 to 1945, building a moated Forbidden City and Citadel for their regal rulers and entourages (eunuchs and concubines) in central Vietnam.
Mount a motorbike, or board a boat to travel south along the banks of the fragrantly named Perfume River to explore the pretty pagodas and the elegant garden mausoleums of Vietnam’s emperors and important mandarins. Back in the relaxing vibe of modern-day Hué, tuck into its vegetarian and extravagant imperial cuisine, and take an immersive tour of the Vietnam War relics of the DMZ, north of the city.
5: Soak up the romantic atmosphere of Hoi An
Hoa Lu Tam Coc, Hoi An Ancient Town, Vietnam – Image by Thampitakkull Jakkree
The achingly pretty ancient port of Hoi An, along the banks of the Thu Bon River in central Vietnam, woos visitors with its ochre buildings, cute Japanese Bridge, Chinese pagodas and low-slung temples, as well as its slew of excellent restaurants, tailor shops and monthly lantern fest, the Full Moon Festival.
From Hoi An, you can head off to relax at the nearby white sand, coconut tree-flecked beaches and top resorts, wander the atmospheric carved brick ruins of the Cham kingdom’s spiritual empire at My Son, or head to the bustling city of Danang, with its outstanding Cham sculpture museum.
6: Immerse yourself in the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam – Image by Tache
Mount the back of a motorbike taxi to cruise through the streets of the electrifying, economic powerhouse of southern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. The city hooks visitors with its energy, millions of motorbikes, glassy skyscrapers next to Chinese shop houses, temples and French colonial-era monuments.
You’ll find tempting shops, fascinating museums, kooky coffee shops, delectable street food and outstanding restaurant cuisine.
Head out by road or river to the war-era Viet Cong communist hideout at the Cu Chi Tunnels and the fantastical, colourful cathedral of the homegrown Cao Dai religion at Tay Ninh.
7: Cruise along the Mekong Delta
Mekong Delta, Vietnam – Image by Vietnam Stock Images
With its temple-covered islands, paddy fields, fruit orchards, rice paper factories, and colourful floating vegetable and fruit markets, the Mekong Delta’s languid riverine life makes for a fascinating journey. Putter about on sampans for intimate overnight journeys, board small day-cruise vessels or venture out in the luxury of a boat such as Aqua Mekong, essentially a five-star floating boutique hotel. Homestays on small islands offer an immersive cultural experience.
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8: Kick back on the coast
China Beach in Vietnam – Image by Arsenie Krasnevsky
With its 3,000 kilometres of coastline, coves and white sand-fringed islands, five-star hospitality and tasty food, it’s well worth checking out one of Vietnam’s top beaches and checking into one of the top resorts for luxury barefoot living.
The creamy sandy coves and smooth giant boulders of Ninh Van Bay are secluded. For ultimate luxury, escape to Six Senses Ninh Vanh Bay.
The miles of white sand in central Vietnam, including fabled China Beach have lured well-known hotel names, as well as unique properties, including the extraordinary bamboo paradise, Naman Retreat, between Hoi and Danang, and spa-inclusive Fusion Maia Da Nang on China Beach. Phu Quoc’s palms, picture-postcard beaches, and coral seas are attracting dozens of travellers and a host of resorts for all budgets.
9: Discover subterranean splendour of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Thien Duong Cave (Paradise Cave) in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam – Image by CPM Photo
In ancient limestone forests shoved up against the mountainous Laos border, the world’s largest underground cave, Son Doong, was discovered in 2009. Multi-day explorations are pocket-busting but the curious and adventurous can taste the splendour of this underground world by signing up for adventures in nearby caves that have also recently opened to the world, where hiking, cavern-swimming, camping and boating should satisfy budding speleologists.
Homestays, cycling trips, visits to a wildlife rescue centre and a chance to take in war relics are among the many different options helping to lure visitors to this newly opened area of Vietnam.
10: Explore the wilds of prison-turned-paradise Con Dao Island
Con Dao Island, Vietnam – Image by Studioloco
Con Dao was founded 500 years ago by the Portuguese, only to become a British trading port, a French prison island and, later, an American prison island. It’s now known as the most important area for nesting sea turtles in Vietnam, and offers the best scuba diving in the country, where the seas are home to vibrant coral, elusive manatee and dolphins.
A new high-speed ferry takes the adventurous straight to the archipelago, 180 kilometres off southeast Vietnam. Unwind in luxury at the Six Senses Con Dao, or the new, smart Poulo Condor hotel and spa.
For more ideas on things to do in Vietnam contact us for further information and a free travel consultation.
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Claire Boobbyer is a freelance travel writer whose heart is split between Latin America and the Far East. She writes mainly about Cuba, Vietnam, and Laos for the international press.