Blessed with ravishing natural beauty, a stunning coastline, exotic national parks and emerald-green mountains, add to that energetic cities, an incredible heritage, stand out culture, generous people and incredible gastronomy… Vietnam delivers on all fronts and cannot be missing on your South East Asian bucket list!
Vietnam is as dramatic as it is dynamic, melding modern elements of Hanoi with the scenic charisma of Halong Bay’s azure ocean pierced by surreal-looking limestone islands. Factor in Ho Chi Minh City’s lasting French colonial legacy of stately museums and the crispy baguettes and coffee culture, interspersed with Hoi An’s graceful history and Sapa’s colorful Hill Tribe traditions.
We have created a complete travel guide on where to go and what to do in Vietnam to make sure you’re not missing out on any must-do’s in this up and coming destination!
Described by the Lonely Planet as “the grand old Dame of Asia with a seductive blend of Parisian grace and Asian pace”, 1000-year-old Hanoi in Vietnam is an enduring colonial city with pleasing boulevards, revered pagodas, labyrinthine streets and dilapidated lemon-colored houses. Wander the Old Quarter in Hanoi, visit small art galleries, idle away at cafes with Cathedral views or enjoy a unique buffet experience at a restored Buddhist temple.
WHAT TO DO IN HANOI:
1. Discover the highlights of Hanoi on a cycle: Take a tour through the tree-lined vistas and past picturesque lakes in a traditional cyclo. This is a great way to gain insights into the culture and architecture of Hanoi and soak in charm of the vibrant Old Quarter.
2. Watch a water puppet show in Hanoi: The waterlogged rice fields of Vietnam have hosted the water puppet show for nearly 1000 years! Watch expert puppeteers of the Thang Long Theatre maneuver through waist-deep water as they bring ancient legends alive. You can also opt for a private show at the home of a master puppeteer.
3. Street Food Tour in Hanoi: A delicious amalgam of myriad influences, street food is an intrinsic part of life in Hanoi. Accompanied by a gastronomic expert, this is your chance to satiate your love for culinary delights such as Bun Cha, Banh Cuon and Cha Ca, as well as the ubiquitous Pho.
4. Tai Chi with a Master in Hanoi: Conducted by a Tai Chi master who has practised this philosophy for more than a decade, this is a great way to de-stress in pristine, natural surroundings.
5. Visit Duyan Thai, Ninh So & Nhi Khe: Set out to see the scenic Duyan Thai village that generations of lacquer artists call home. Picturesque Ninh So is famous for bamboo craftsmanship while the winding alleys of Nhi Khe house skilled artisans who design intricate ornaments and musical instruments.
Said to be the place that has more lanterns than people, Hoi An in Vietnam is a delightful historic old port with a dreamy atmosphere, rich culture and easy-going feel. See the Chinese Assembly houses, wooden shop-houses and dine at a riverside cafe or restaurant while watching the world go by.
WHAT TO DO IN HOI AN:
1. Take a sunset cruise on a local boat: This is the time of the day when fishermen in Hoi An begin their daily rituals, and you can observe them readying their equipment and heading out into the sea. If you are feeling adventurous, hop aboard a typical round basket and paddle your way around!
2. Cycle around the town: Cycle along the Thu Bon river where row after row of picturesque fishing boats and charming houses await. The road takes you past numerous gardens, farms and paddies, and through a tranquil Ecological Village, until you reach the palm-fringed Cua Dai beach.
3. See the highlights of Hoi An: Visit public buildings, ancient pagodas, ancestral homes, merchant houses and witness myriad Chinese and Japanese influences on this UNESCO World Heritage site. There are also colorful markets and lively street food stalls waiting to be explored.
4. Visit the My Son Temples: The ancient ruins of My Son tell tales of the powerful Cham kingdom. Just an hour and a half from Hoi An, this UNESCO World Heritage site is set in a verdant valley and surrounded by picturesque hills.
5. Take a day trip to Hue: The imperial capital of Hue offers a blend of the traditional and the modern. Set by the tranquil Perfume River, Hue bears traces of ancient glories and is an important center for literature, art and culture.
Formerly Saigon, the city evokes a myriad of images. The largest city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City nestled on the banks of the River Saigon, is abuzz with energy and never sleeps. Modern skyscrapers vie for space with graceful colonial buildings. From stately museums to busy streets; gourmet restaurants to street cafes; designer malls to ramshackle wooden market shops; ageless alleys to enduring pagodas… Saigon is alive!
WHAT TO DO IN HO CHI MINH CITY:
1. Sample street food on the back of a Vespa: Zip through the best food streets of Ho Chi Minh City on the back of a vintage Vespa during your travels in Vietnam. Guided by an expert, discover the tastiest treats and indulge in the abundance of authentic street food experiences.
2. Discover the secrets of Saigon: Behind the facade of modernity lies thousands of untold tales about the culture and daily life in Saigon. Visit secret weapon chambers, walk through ancient streets, meet local artisans and visit secret restaurants not on the regular tourist map in the usual Vietnam travel guides.
3. Take a Bonsai Cruise: Climb aboard a traditional dragon boat and set sail on the Saigon River in Vietnam. Cradle your favorite sundowner while you float past the city, listen to a live band belt out classics and tuck into tasty treats from the buffet.
4. Explore the Cu Chi Tunnels: The famous tunnels constructed by the infamous guerillas of Viet Cong are just two hours from the city. Explore the intricate labyrinthine as your learn about life in the tunnels from your guide.
5. Spend a night at the opera: Built by a famous French architect, the iconic Opera House of Saigon in Vietnam is a must-visit for history and culture enthusiasts. With a blend of music, dance, acrobatics and cirque, set against an exquisite backdrop, the show portrays urban and traditional life in Vietnam.
A UNESCO site, this natural landscape with over 3,000 tall vegetation-covered limestone islands rising from the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, is undoubtedly Asia’s most breathtaking coastal landscape. Enjoy cruising aboard a Vietnamese Junk to explore the islets, accompanied by amazing views and local culinary delights.
WHAT TO DO IN HALONG BAY:
1. Overnight cruises in Halong Bay: Sail through the scenic bay aboard a junk. Your boat will drop anchor near secluded beaches where you can swim, snorkel and relax. Visit fishing villages from your boat, kayak or sail on bamboo row boats when you aren’t busy sunbathing or enjoying massages on board.
2. Day cruises in Halong Bay: Take a scenic cruise through the UNESCO World Heritage site of Halong Bay, where more than 3000 islets and islands form stunning limestone pillars. Enjoy a delicious lunch aboard the junk while you sail.
3. Charter Seaplane ride in Halong Bay: Gain a bird’s eye perspective on the spectacular limestone karsts of Halong Bay. This scenic flight departs from Hanoi airport and flies over bay area and small fishing villages before landing at Tuan Chau Island Marina.
Bordering China and Laos lies the lush, mountainous region of Sapa, a quaint little former French hill station in Vietnam. With a plunging valley of cascading rice terraces engulfed by towering mountains, Sapa is ideal for hiking. H’mong, the ethnic minority of indigenous Hill Tribe people, add a lively dash of color and uniqueness of culture.
WHAT TO DO IN SAPA:
1. Take a bike ride through the mountains: Ride past stunning valleys and quaint villages that are home to the Hmong and Dzay tribes. You can also enjoy a short trek and refresh yourself with a swim at a nearby waterfall.
2. See Love Waterfall and Heaven’s Gate: Set in the lush forests of Hoang Lien National Park, Love Waterfall offers a panoramic view of the surrounding area. Just a few minutes away lies Heaven’s Gate, where you will see the highest peak of Indochina – Fansipan.
3. Shop at the Hill Tribe Market in Sapa: Meet the colourful attired, friendly hill people who gather at one of several weekly markets to buy and sell everything from animals to fabrics. Nearby, the tranquil Chay River is a great place for a relaxing river cruise.
4. Trek to Lao Cai: Trek past Vietnam’s largest rice terraces in Muong Hoa Valley. Just beyond the rolling valley and farmland lie Lao Cai and Ta Van, which the friendly Black Hmong and Giay communities call home.
5. Visit Fansipan by cable car: Take a cable car ride to the ‘Roof of Indochina’ in Vietnam. From up top, you can see as far as China and Laos apart from panoramic views of the hills and valleys in Northern Vietnam. Visit a small pagoda nearby, where locals often gather to offer prayer.
Between Hanoi and Saigon lies Mui Ne, made famous for its excellent beach, great kite and dune-surfing, and sand-sledding across the stunning White and Red Sand Dunes. Witness the manifold variegated hues of the sand as the sun sets on the horizon.
The sleepy resort town is undoubtedly a photographer’s paradise. Relax with heady sundowners, enjoy kite and windsurfing, work on your tan and sample delicious food at one of the several fine dining restaurants. You can also try your hand at golf at the award-winning golf course.
The undisputed ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam, paddling through the Mekong Delta’s veritable water world of swamps, orchards, paddy fields, crisscrossing canals, mighty waterways, floating markets, boats, houses and even restaurants, reveals much.
WHAT TO DO IN MEKONG DELTA:
1. My Tho City: Take a relaxing cruise from My Tho until Siem Reap in Cambodia. En route you can enjoy various activities such as biking and village tours, see fams and floating markets as well as ancient ruins.
2. Cai Be/Can Tho: Take an overnight cruise from Cai Be to Can Tho or from Can Tho to Cai Be. On your way, visit picturesque canals, floating markets, traditional villages, rice paddies and local shipyards.
A QUICK MARKET GUIDE TO VIETNAM
Sneeze, and be blessed with “com muoi”, or “rice with salt.” Food is the epicenter of Vietnam, where markets and cooks abound. Visiting Vietnam without experiencing its ‘high-octane’ markets is incomplete. Famous markets include Ben Thanh, the touristy market of Ho Chi Minh; the colorful Hill Tribe markets of Sapa; Hanoi’s huge Dong Xuan market; the fish and silk market of Hoi An’s busy riverside.
MUST-EATS IN VIETNAM:
Pho, the ‘anytime’ national hero – a salty broth with fresh rice noodles, chicken or beef and herbs.
Bun cha, lunchtime’s top choice – small patties and slices of seasoned pork belly charcoal grilled, served with a large bowl of a fish sauce-heavy broth, herbs and rice noodles.
This travel guide has been contributed by Mouli Bardhan from Enchanting Travels.