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Vietnam is a country laced with endless beaches, food that will have you counting down to dinner time and a personality that will make you heartbroken to leave. It’s a popular destination and it’s clear why, which can make it all the harder to choose where to spend your time as you’re never short of options. Some of the best places to go in Vietnam aren’t the ones that your friends may have been to, they are the lesser-known gems, just off the beaten tourist trails. Many of them may also be more environmentally friendly to visit, and by planning your route through this magical country you can lower your carbon footprint.
Curious about visiting Vietnam but aren’t sure where’s suited to you? Fear not – to help you decide and to tickle your fancy, we’ve put together this guide with our favourite places to visit in Vietnam that will give you an insight into this unique destination. Working from North to South, we have your trip covered.
Places To Go in North Vietnam
Hanoi is where the blend of old and new is still blurry. Full of spirit and intriguing fusions, you can skip from a high-end restaurant to drinking local green beer sat on child-sized furniture on a street corner. You’ll easily find ‘foodie’ tours, giving you an authentic insight into the country’s culinary delights, some even include cooking lessons (highly recommended!). Hanoi is around 2 hours inland from the coast, in the Northern central region, and can be easily reached by public transport or local taxi. If you’re exclusively looking for warm beaches and peace and quiet, you’re better off heading down to the South. However, this area truly isn’t to be missed and has so much to offer.
When you visit Hanoi, be sure to pass by and enjoy the serene Hoan Kiem Lake. Here, you can take in the sights of the locals doing their Tai chi, or attend a performance from the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre, where highly skilled musicians and puppeteers sustain this 1,000-year-old Vietnamese art form. Dodge the speeding ‘street train’ that rushes through a narrow residential passage twice a day and then take in the optical illusion street art murals nearby, which embrace the realistic 3D Trompe-l’œil style which can make you feel, literally, part of the pictures.
Hanoi’s history is marred with the plight of various violent conflicts, foreign rules and civil struggles, yet it’s vitality and peaceful nature is easily found and visibly thriving. In Hanoi you can visit various landmarks that hold the scars from these historical time periods, which stand testament to the memories that shouldn’t be forgotten, providing opportunities to be respectful and learn more about the resilience of the Vietnamese people. Hoa Lo Prison Museum and the Long Biên Bridge, both sites holding key positions in, unfortunately, only too recent wars. And, for those arty thespian types out there, you’ll find modern and traditional theatre and dance performances readily available in the Hanoi Opera House to entertain you after a day exploring the city. The Vietnamese Women’s Museum is also easily visited in a day with the other museums, and has beautiful photography and artefacts documenting the contribution and strength of women in Vietnamese history.
Sapa is in the very north west of Vietnam, near the Chinese border, 400km from Hano. This means that travelling from the capital city is nearly always via overnight train. Many visitors arrive in Sapa via May Chau and don’t go on to discover the amazing Tonkinese Alps where hill tribes have lived for thousands of years. Of course, when you are time-limited there is still much to enthral you within and around Sapa; not least the indigenous tribes with their distinctive dress, the lively markets and stunning views. There are options to visit the Giang Ta Chai and Red Dzao tribes as well as the Black H’mong people of Cat Cat village. Homestays are popular here and a wonderful way to experience Vietnamese hospitality.
While Sapa itself has embraced tourism, it is also the gateway to the vibrant Vietnamese countryside. You are surrounded by almost vertical rice terraces and picturesque mountain peak, where mists hover over them.
Bai Tu Long Bay
While the very well known (and close by) Halong Bay is at risk of being overrun with tourists, Bai Tu Long offers a wonderful and more sustainable way to take in this beautiful part of Vietnam, aboard a magnificent traditional junk boat. The Bay has a rich biodiversity with two ecosystems: one is a tropical, evergreen rainforest, the other, marine and coastal. You may feel a bit like Jack Sparrow on these tours, but with less “Aaaargh” and more “Aaaaaaah” as you drift among the sculptural limestone, glass-clear waters and sandy coves. Plenty of sensory treasures, but no need to dig for them. You really can’t afford to miss this.
Bai Tu Long Bay is around a 3 hour distance from Hanoi, so it can be a great place to venture to next. Look for easily found shared and public transport to reduce your carbon footprint rather than a solo taxi.
From Hanoi or Bai Tu Long, you can head south around 100 km and hang out in Ninh Binh. Often overlooked, this natural gem isn’t so much about the town itself but the surrounding countryside. With its hundreds of limestone cliffs emerging from the ground scattered across the rice fields, this region offers a wonderful glimpse into rural Vietnam and a more serene way of life, outside of the bigger cities.
A fabulous way to experience this area is by boat. Meandering the lakes through the caves and nearby temples in a petite rowing boat is quite special and Trang An can offer an alternative to the busier Tam Coc. Close by, Thung Nham Bird Garden is also often missed but is absolutely magical with around 40,000 bird species. The landscapes, views and sights in this region can be explored on foot, but bicycles also offer a good way to get around — independent or organised transport is essential here.
Ba Be National Park
Ba Be is truly magical; effortlessly calm and full of evergreen forests, cave systems and crystal waterfalls to explore. Only fairly recently declared a National Park in the early 90s and slightly off the beaten path, Ba Be is somewhere that many tourists never get to. It’s around a half day of travel to Ba Be from Hanoi, however we’d recommend taking your time along the way as there are some unique experiences to be had whilst making your own journey there via motorbike or shared transport.
Breathe in deeply and inhale the peaceful countryside air, listening to the bird calls and echoing sounds from the all the native wildlife. The enthralling Puong cave is not to be missed and local on-foot tours and hiking treks can be organised through your homestay.
As this is a rural area where you’ll encounter agricultural families with less experience interacting with Western travellers and on lower incomes, it’s a nice idea to take some small (organic and biodegradable materials, not plastic) gifts like handmade toys for children, or useful household items to share with locals when you meet them. You may even find a trade there in exchange for some of their ‘happy water’, a type of local corn based moonshine which will leave you feeling quite happy indeed as you continue on your journey!
Places To Go in Central Vietnam
Centuries of careful preservation and a commitment to tradition, festivals and beliefs are part of the reason why Hoi An is so special. It takes you back in time and you can imagine a time when it was a globally recognised trading town and port. One such beautiful tradition is the monthly full moon lantern festival where paper lanterns are set into the river as an offering to worship both ancestors and the God of the land. You can even take a workshop on how to make them while supporting vocational training for self-sufficient local enterprise.
Hoi An offers so many authentic experiences against its dreamy romantic backdrop and we’ve not even mentioned the beach yet! Not only can you eat like a king or queen in the amazing Central Market while looking your best in newly tailored clothes (you’ll be spoilt for choice), you can also have time on sandy shores at An Bang or Hidden beach.
Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park
Step into this UNESCO World Heritage site with high expectations of having your jaw dropped at each new turn. Meandering rivers lace the foothills of ancient towering karst mountains and then flow underground into a myriad of chasms you can explore. Phong Nha is truly other worldly and the enchanting cave networks here will leave you feeling like you’re a main character in a Lara Croft movie. Most of the main caves don’t require a personal tour guide, however for the more inquisitive of travellers out there, it’s possible to pay a bit more for an experienced and regulated local guide to take you deeper into the labyrinth of caves. A must for anyone passionate about and interested in geology, sometimes the ceilings of the caves can be 100ft over your head and filled with monumental stalactites and stalagmites glowing iridescently.
Journey through the Phong-Nha valleys hiking on foot, by motorbike or if you fancy really putting your legs to the test, hire a mountain bike and get stuck into the marked routes and pathways. Whichever way you choose, you’ll not be disappointed. There are also a number of lakeside resorts slightly further into the park which offer opportunities to hire kayaks, giving a new perspective to take in the breathtaking scenery. We’d recommend more than one day here so have a go at both if you’re feeling up to it! There are numerous war history sites in this area, educating travellers on the plight of all those who were involved in the various conflicts in this now tranquil countryside.
The Perfume River meanders through the city and while not especially pretty with its wide brown waters, it takes it’s name from the fragrance it offers up in the autumn when the flowers in the orchards upriver lose their blossoms into the water. From sunset, the riverside comes to life with shops and food stalls and there are many options for boat trips and cruises, including a journey to Tien Mu Pagoda, a Buddhist Temple, situated on the river banks. In spite of its history of brutal battles, Hue is heavy on both Buddhism and vegetarianism.
For those after traditional Vietnamese architecture and landmarks, you’ll be delighted in Hue. Stroll round and enjoy gazing at the Thien Mu Pagoda, Royal Palaces and a multitude of old Tombs guarded by life size statues and carvings.
Places To Go in South Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City
One of the jewels in the Vietnamese crown is the capital of the South, Ho Chi Minh City. Dripping in history, it is perhaps most famous for the fall of Saigon, as tanks burst through the gates of what is now the Independence Palace to end the war. The city formerly known as Saigon is now rapidly becoming a modern metropolis, with high rise buildings mingled amongst French colonial landmarks and food stalls that line the city’s streets.
Here, the human-powered cycle ‘cyclo’ has been taken over by the motorbike (scooter) and not just on the roads, but the pavements and pretty much anywhere else too! There are an estimated 7 million scooters in the city. You’d need to be brave to rent one yourself but you can do exhilerating Vespa tours which allows you to see the city like a local (as a passenger) but without totally freaking out about focusing on where you are going and whether or not you’ll come out of it alive!
As well as visiting the Independence Palace – with its underground war rooms frozen in time – there is also the War Remnants Museum which is well worth checking out, and the famous Cu Chi Tunnels is a great half day out of town.
If you are in the mood to shop then the huge covered Ben Thanh Market is a haven of goods, although the Binh Tay Market is a more relaxed and cheaper alternative in the Chinatown area too. If you’re up early, you can also check out the ‘wet’ market here which is from 6-9am and full of fresh Vietnamese produce and lovely photo opportunities. It’s a good time to have the most famous of Vietnamese dishes, Pho (beef noodle soup) generally served with a mixture of raw beef and brisket, is a noodle soup bursting with flavour and texture. It is served with a generous heap of raw or blanched vegetables which add a lovely crunch. Fresh chilli, lime and fish sauce can be added for extra zing and saltiness.
An equally rewarding side trip involves swapping the frenzy of the city for the slower pace of the Mekong Delta. The rice paddies and winding rivers of the delta are home to a large percentage of Vietnamese farmers who utilise the wetlands to irrigate multiple crops, contributing to over a third of the country’s food produce.
To appreciate the complex waterways, the best way to explore is by boat.
As you navigate the magical canals you can experience traders selling their wares at floating markets, such as Cai Rang, which often begin before dawn. You can also catch and cook freshwater fish and step off the boat to nearby orchards to sample the delicious fruit that thrives in the tropical climate. Homestays here offer a fascinating glimpse into the real life of the delta and provide the opportunity to improve your culinary skills by paying attention to how local dishes are prepared.
Nicknamed the Emerald Isle, Phu Quoc is a dreamy tropical paradise. Surrounded by turquoise waters and boasting palm-fringed beaches, where soft white sand sinks between your toes, you’d be forgiven for cancelling your flight home and refusing to ever leave.
Still very unspoiled, especially in comparison to the famous Thai islands, Phu Quoc is littered with hidden coves, covered with tropical rainforest, and home to plenty of sleepy fishing villages. It is also one of the best spots in South East Asia to go diving or snorkelling, with the nearby archipelago of An Thoi offering an excellent underwater world to explore.
As over half the island is a national park, there are also great opportunities to head off on a jungle trek or two… Although you may just prefer to kick back in your hammock, sink another cocktail, and snooze in the afternoon sun!