Discover the best things to do in Vietnam, from visiting rice paddies and busy cities to exploring national parks, sailing Halong Bay, sampling noodle soup and relaxing on beaches.
Vietnam is one of the most rapidly-changing countries in Southeast Asia and offers a fascinating contrast of colonial-tinged history, frantic capitalist development and traditional rural life. Over the past 40 years, the country has transformed from a war-torn, divided nation into one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Tourists are drawn by the wide variety of things to do in Vietnam and come to cycle through its swaying fields of rice, walk through forested mountains, get lost in its sprawling, motorbike-strewn cities and sail past limestone karsts in iconic Halong Bay. Vietnam has some of the most bio-diverse national parks in Southeast Asia which are full of rare wildlife and trekking opportunities. With over 2,000 miles of coastline, there are also deserted stretches of sandy beach to relax on, spectacular sand dunes and tropical islands to explore.
The beautiful Vietnam
Top things to do in Vietnam… you’ll find an epic mix of ancient culture and modern development spread across a varied landscape in Vietnam. For many, the country’s stand-out features are its hectic, motorbike-choked cities and vivid-green rice paddies.
Vietnam is officially a Socialist Republic, but capitalist Doi Moi reforms have sent the country’s economy booming. Vietnam is now the second largest coffee producer on the planet and has the fourth biggest motorbike market. Nowhere is this contrast more visible than in Vietnam’s bustling major cities Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). In the capital, Hanoi, modern malls, skyscrapers and shiny office blocks contrast with crumbling French colonial buildings and the maze-like streets of the Vietnamese Old Quarter. Throughout the city, street vendors wheel baskets of fruit and flowers through the beeping mass of nearly five million motorbikes and you can watch a Vietnamese water puppet show in an old-fashioned theatre or a Hollywood blockbuster at a multiplex cinema.
Due to Vietnam's colonial past, the country has a unique mix of cultural treasures to discover. Cycle through the historic streets of Hoi An to find Chinese merchant houses and temples set amongst pastel-coloured French buildings, an ornate Japanese bridge and Vietnamese tube houses. Vietnam’s former 19th-century capital and seat of the Nguyen Dynasty lies in Hue, which has an impressive citadel filled with palaces, shrines and the forbidden purple city. In the mountains in the north, visit ethnic villages populated by tribal groups such as the Hmong people or seek out the Bahnar ethnic group, who live in communal wooden houses in the central highlands.
The Imperial Citadel in Hue
The UNESCO Protected My Son Sanctuary
Although technically an atheist state, over a quarter of the Vietnamese population follow a religion so there’s a scattering of religious buildings throughout the country. Some of the most renowned include the Long Son Buddhist Pagoda, St Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi, Thien Hau Chinese Temple in HCMC and the Cao Dai Temple, home to Vietnam’s indigenous religion Caodaism. The UNESCO protected My Son Sanctuary was the capital of the Champa Kingdom and includes the remains of unusual temples built by a culture derived from Indian Hinduism between the 4th and 13th century. Here are some of the best cultural things to do in Vietnam:
Hanoi Old Quarter – an area filled with traditional houses, shops and colonial buildings.
Hoi An – explore old merchant houses and history in this UNESCO site.
Ethnic culture – visit ethnic villages and markets in Bac Ha and Can Cau.
Citadel in Hue – the former capital’s 19th-century citadel surrounded by scenic gardens.
Water puppet show – an art form that originated in the Red River region.
Cao Dai cathedral – the unique colourful temple which belongs to this local religion.
My Son Sanctuary – wander the ruins of this former capital of the Champa Kingdom.
When the sun sets, find your way through the congested streets of the Old Quarter in Hanoi to Bia Hoi Corner, where you can perch on a tiny stall amongst locals to sip the country’s lager-like draught. For a capital city, Hanoi’s nightlife is surprisingly tame and there’s a12pm curfew, although bars and clubs at top hotels are allowed to stay open until 2am. To party late into the night head to HCMC, which has a string of backpacker bars in the Pham Ngu Lao district, as well as trendy clubs with DJs and live music and rooftop pubs scattered throughout the city.
HCMC's most famous nightlife street: Bui Vien
Relax with a beer as the sun sets over the sea and enjoy the nightlife in Vietnam’s busiest beach destinations. Nha Trang and Danang both have lively drinking and dancing scenes with late-night clubs and relaxed lounge bars on the beachfront. After a day of chilling on Vietnam’s most popular tourist island, Phu Quoc, there are plenty of low-key beach bars to spend the evening in. Although experiencing the nightlife isn’t one of the top things to do in Vietnam, here are some of the leading places to party in the country:
Hanoi – visit Bia Hoi corner in the Old Quarter for lager with locals and Tay Ho for expat bars.
HCMC – Bui Vien is the backpacker hangout but the city also has clubs and rooftop bars.
Nha Trang – a party hotspot with late-night clubs as well as lounge bars by the sea.
Phu Quoc – has laid-back bars by the sea with a chilled-out vibe.
Danang – boasts a collection of modern clubs, busy bars and water-side hangouts.
Vietnam’s cuisine is characterised by its heavily-seasoned meaty soups and fresh spring rolls, as well as its French-influenced baguettes and local bakeries. One of the most essential things to do in Vietnam is to join the locals and sit on a child-sized stool on the pavement to slurp a morning bowl of Pho. This is the country’s most well-known soup which is typically made with beef swimming in a steaming noodle broth. For a quick meal, stop by a Banh Mi street cart to try a famous pork sandwich or feast on Bun Cha, barbecued pork patties served atop cold noodles with vegetables and sauce.
Streetfood vendor preparing multiple portions of Banh Xeo
You’ll also find a variety of fish dishes in Vietnam, especially along the coast. Sample a simple but delicious meal called Cha Ca, white fish cooked in butter with onion, spices and rice noodles. Don’t miss Banh Xeo too, these delicious light pancakes are cooked with meat or fish and vegetables and then wrapped in rice paper for you to dip in a spicy sauce. Nom Hua Chuoi, a banana-flower salad full of vegetables covered in a lime and chilli sauce is a top recommendation for vegetarians, who may struggle with Vietnam’s meat-heavy diet. Here are some of Vietnam’s must-try foods:
Spring rolls – a delicious mix of vegetables and soya or meat in a roll, served fresh or fried.
Pho – the signature beef or pork noodle soup.
Banh Mi – a pork sandwich which is commonly sold by street vendors.
Cha Ca – white fish cooked in butter with onion, rice noodles and peanuts.
Bun Cha – small barbecued pork patties on cold noodles served with vegetables and sauce.
Banh Xeo – huge pancakes cooked with fish or pork and vegetables wrapped in rice paper.
Nom Hua Chuoi – a banana-flower salad of shredded vegetables mixed with lime and chilli.
One of the best things to do in Vietnam is take advantage of the country’s unspoilt beaches spread along over 2,000 miles of coastline. Experience your own desert island surrounded by colorful coral reefs in An Thoi, a collection of remote islets which are part of the Kien Giang Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO site teeming with precious marine life. Ho Coc and Hon Khoi islands are also idyllic havens with an undiscovered feel, while the stunningly serene Con Dao island is known for its beautiful beaches and haunting history. Con Dao is the largest in a chain of 15 isolated islands which were once used by French and American forces to house prisoners. For views of Vietnam’s Halong Bay, head to one of Cat Ba Island’s three sandy bays.
One of the beaches at Cat Ba Island, with Halong Bay in the background
Phu Quoc has emerged as Vietnam’s most popular island destination. Travellers come to this jungle-covered paradise for its quiet bays characterised by fine white sands shaded by coconut palms and crystal waters bursting with coral reefs. If you’re looking for a livelier beach head to Nha Trang, Vietnam’s most developed beach which offers water sports and is lined with bars and restaurants. Danang’s My Khe Beach is a favourite with expats for its white sands, natural pine trees and coconut palms while Mui Ne is fast becoming an upmarket resort famous for its fishing village and triangular sand dunes. When you’re tired of cycling the ancient streets of Hoi An, head to Cua Dai for a day of relaxation on silky sand. Here are some of the most beautiful beaches to visit in Vietnam:
Long Beach, Phu Quoc Island – a jungle island fringed with sandy beaches.
Nha Trang – has a crescent-shaped beach, water sports and vibrant nightlife.
Con Dao Islands – picture-postcard beaches where prisoners used to be incarcerated.
Mui Ne – perfect stretch of coastline with towering nearby sand dunes and a fishing village.
Ho Coc Beach, Ho Coc Island – often deserted golden-sands with dunes and hot springs.
Doc Let Beach, Hon Khoi – pristine beach fringed with evergreen trees and azure water.
My Khe Beach, Danang – a lively tourist beach with surfing, snorkelling and diving.
Cua Dai, Hoi An – a pretty beach getaway from Hoi An with perfect fine sands and sunsets.
Cat Ba Island – has three small beaches overlooking Halong Bay.
An Thoi Islands – archipelago of 15 uninhabited islets surrounded by coral reefs.
An overnight boat trip on Halong Bay, often touted as the eighth wonder of the world, is one of the top things to do in Vietnam. Watch the sun rise over the paper-flat water studded with limestone outcrops and islands. Tam Coc is a lesser-visited area of scenic beauty in the Red River Delta which is often referred to as ‘Halong Bay on land’ as you can float down rivers surrounded by rice fields bordered by limestone cliffs. Mai Chau is renowned for its authentic Vietnamese villages which offer homestays in stilt houses as well as some of the most stunning rice paddies in the country. More sweeping fields of rice can be found in the famous Mekong Delta region in the south where you can take a boat trip on Asia’s mightiest river.
Vietnam’s varied scenery continues in the mist-topped mountains in the north, where most visitors stop to marvel at incredible staircases of rice in the alpine town of Sapa. More cool weather and pine trees await in the central highlands around Dalat, where Vietnam’s delicious coffee is grown alongside fresh strawberries and flowers. Not far from Dalat you’ll find Lak Lake, one of the largest in Vietnam, which is inhabited by the Mnong people who make their living fishing in wooden canoes. In this long, thin country you’re never too far from either a modern city or the coast, which has spectacular views of the South China Sea.
Some of Vietnam’s most impressive scenery can be found in its national parks. Hike through one of the largest, Cat Tien, which covers 72,000 hectares of rainforest full of wildlife including 100 types of mammals and 350 species of birds. More rare creatures such as the Crested Serpent Eagle can be found in Ba Be, a park full of evergreen forests and 13 ethnic tribal villages. At Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s oldest national park, you can cycle and trek through protected forest, see age-old caves, 100-year-old trees and endangered wildlife such as the Delacour’s Langur. Don’t miss UNESCO site Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which has some of the most impressive cave systems in the world. Here are the top scenic spots in Vietnam:
Halong Bay - peaceful waters dotted with limestone karsts, islands and huge caves.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park – a UNESCO site home to the largest cave on the planet.
Mekong Delta – an area of rice fields and floating markets around the Mekong River.
Red River Delta – a scenic northern region that cuts through national parks and countryside.
Lak Lake – the largest natural lake in the central highlands, with Mnong village homestays.
Cat Tien National Park – a bio-diverse tropical rainforest great for hiking, bird watching and biking.
Ba Be National Park – full of evergreen forests, waterfalls, caves, mountains and lakes.
Dalat – a city in the heart of the central highlands surrounded by pine trees, mountains and waterfalls as well as strawberry and coffee farms.
Cuc Phuong – Vietnam’s oldest national park with an endangered primate centre.
Tam Coc – rivers run through floating rice fields surrounded by limestone mountains.
Mai Chau –an area of vast picturesque rice fields and villages with stilt houses.
From trekking to boat tours, museums and train journeys, here are some of the top things to do in Vietnam:
Trekking in Sapa – hike through deep terraces of rice surrounded by forested mountains and visit ethnic villages.
Taste Vietnamese coffee – Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer in the world, so head up to the Dalat highlands where you can tour strawberry farms and coffee plantations.
Take a trip on the Mekong Delta –take a trip along this famous fisherman-filled waterway that winds through fertile rice paddies full of farmers in conical hats.
Museums – Vietnam has some excellent museums that showcase its cultural, military and colonial history. The somewhat traumatising War Remnants Museum in HCMC is a must, as is the Hanoi Hilton Prison and Women’s Museum in Hanoi.
Trekking in Sapa
Visit the Demilitarised Zone – fans of military history should visit the DMZ, a stretch of land on either side of the Ben Hai River, which was used as a buffer between North and South Vietnam for over 20years, when it became one of the most militarised areas in the world.
Ride the Reunification Express – this scenic train journey takes you through Vietnam’s diverse landscape, all the way from Ho Chi Minh City in the South to Hanoi in the north.
Silk tailoring in Hoi An – get yourself a bargain, made-to-measure silk suit or outfit from an express tailor in Hoi An.
Cu Chi tunnels – visit the network of claustrophobic tunnels built by the Vietcong and learn about the booby traps they used to fend off American soldiers.
Special events in Vietnam
TET, the New Year celebration which is loosely connected to the Chinese Lunar calendar, is Vietnam’s biggest holiday and falls in either January or February. Experiencing TET is one of the ultimate things to do in Vietnam. To celebrate, people take a week off work, put cherry blossom trees hung with envelopes of lucky money in their homes, and have firework displays and dragon dances in the streets.
When to go to Vietnam?
In northern Vietnam, the weather is hot, humid and rainy between May and October and cool and dry from November until April. The south is hot all year-round and the rains come between May and October. In central Vietnam January until August is hot and dry while it’s warm and rainy between September and December.
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