There are many incredible things to do in Vietnam.
I visited Vietnam with my sister, as part of a larger trip across South East Asia. We traveled from North to South before crossing into Cambodia. This is a country you either love or hate. I must say it took me a while to get the hang of it. I found it to be overwhelming most of the time. There is no denying that Vietnam is crowded; traffic is insane; it is terribly dirty and polluted.
Yet, I ended up truly enjoying it. First of all, I could not get enough of the food – it’s probably the best food in the world outside of Italy (well, at least for me). Secondly, the landscapes are truly spectacular. And once you understand how to swing the traffic and chaos of the cities, it’s all becomes like a symphony.
Curious to discover more about this South-East Asia country? Continue reading to discover the best things to do in Vietnam.
Make sure to also read my post The Best Vietnam Travel Tips.
20 Best Things To Do In Vietnam
One of the top things to do in Vietnam is visiting Hanoi. This is an interesting city, full of life, and as Vietnamese as it gets. Traffic is frantic and noise incessant. The sidewalks are occupied by parked scooters, stalls of any kind, and impossible to walk on – forcing pedestrians to dodge the crazy traffic.
Hanoi Old Quarter is the historic heart and the commercial center of Hanoi. It is a real maze of tiny alleys, packed with small bars and lots of street food places and there are many travel agencies where you can enquire for guided tours to Ha Long Bay and Sapa. It is also where most people who visit Hanoi stay.
Among the best attractions of Hanoi, make sure not to miss the following:
HANOI TEMPLE OF LITERATURE – A great example of traditional Vietnamese architecture with a temple dedicated to Confucius built in 1070, which later became a university for the education of the mandarins. Don’t miss the stelae dedicated to all the students who received doctorates.
HOAN KIEM LAKE – It will give you a good break from traffic. The bridge that leads to the Ngoc Soc Temple is illuminated at night and a lovely sight.
HO CHI MINH MAUSOLEUM COMPLEX – Together with Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House and the One Pillar Pagoda, which are not far from each other, the area is lovely – it is near all the embassies, and closed to traffic – so it is really pleasant to walk around especially on a sunny day.
Head over to my post 17 Fun And Unmissable Things To Do In Hanoi for a more complete guide!
Attend the Water Puppet Show
One of the top things to do in Vietnam is attending the Water Puppet show. It involves puppet being moved from under the water, in a show that explains the pillars of Vietnamese cultural beliefs. It is quite touristy, but the show is fun, it lasts just long enough to make the ticket worth it, yet not so long that one may get bored.
Visit the Perfume Pagoda
One of the most interesting places to visit in Vietnam is the Perfume Pagoda. When my sister and I enquired about it in Hanoi, we were actually encouraged not to go and told it is way too touristy. Well, it is – but I’d say that 99% of tourists there are actually local, so it is kind of interesting.
The Perfume Pagoda is a complex of Buddhist temples built into the limestone mountain chain of Huong Tich. There are several temples in the area, all interesting and full of people praying. The most important one is the Chua Trong which is located in a gorgeous cave.
To reach the Chua Trong temple and cave, there’s either a footpath or the cable car. You can actually walk up and then take the cable car on the way down, but beware of the terrible humidity that makes the ground completely slippery.
The cave and Chua Trong temple are gorgeous, illuminated by natural and candle light, and the view from the cable car breathtaking.
It takes about an hour and a half (depending on traffic) to get to a dock on the Yem river, from where you can hop on a wooden boat to then reach the area where the pagoda is located, another hour away. Traditionally, women row those boats. The ride on the river is pleasant and relaxing, the views incredible. The entrance of the complex pretty much looks like a huge market with shops, restaurants, stalls, blasting music and unfortunately an incredible amount of garbage.
The easiest way to get to the Perfume Pagoda is on guided tours from Hanoi. For more information, click here.
Make sure to read my post 13 Great Day Trips From Hanoi.
Sail on Ha Long and Bai Tu Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is probably the most famous tourist attraction in Vietnam. This archipelago of over 3000 limestone islets in the Gulf of Tonkin is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A trip to Ha Long Bay include activities such as fishing, kayaking around the islets, hiking and visiting the many caves that, tai chi classes, biking on the islands, seeing the sunrise (if the weather is nice), and even cooking classes.
Meals are consumed on the boat and they are usually delicious (and abundant). Cabins on the boat are quite nice – two beds and a private bathroom with hot water, and a huge window to admire the view from the comfort of the bed.
If the weather is nice, Ha Long Bay shines of an emerald green. However, keep in mind that the chances of seeing the sun are quite slim between February and April, when temperatures are typically cold and the weather drizzly. The experience is nevertheless great.
One thing to know before visiting is that Ha Long Bay is packed with tourists. The downside of uncontrolled tourist development (and of development and overcrowding in general, I’d say) is that Ha Long Bay is truly dirty and polluted (picture any sort of debris, plastic bags and garbage floating on the water). Bai Tu Long is a bit less visited, and you may well enjoy spending a night there. The island has a lovely local feel, and it practically knows no tourism yet.
Picking a good boat to tour Ha Long Bay is hard: boats are of varying quality, rats are commonly seen even on the best ones. That’s why you are better off booking online: it’s a bit more expensive than booking the tour locally, but you can read the reviews. New safety regulations have been adopted after a boat sinked in 2011, but lots of operators don’t abide by the rules: avoid super-budget cruises and opt for ones that go a bit off the beaten path and that are run in a more ethical way.
Tours of Ha Long Bay normally leave in the early morning from Hanoi (about 5 hours away by car) and consist of a night (or more) on a boat and (for multi-day tours) one an island (either Cat Ba or Bai Tu Long, sleeping in bungalows or home-stays).
Go to Sapa Valley and Bac Ha
This is the most indigenous region of Vietnam, an area where the Hmong minorities live following a traditional lifestyle and a place to fully grasp how multicultural the country is.
The region is packed with hiking trails. My sister and I went on a guided hike that also took us around the lovely village of Bac Ha, during which we hardly met anybody, we crossed beautiful green fields and met local families.
The other hike we did followed an easy route from Sapa to the Black Hmong village of Ta Van. During the hike, we met lots of women and children wearing traditional clothes who were really eager to talk to us (and some of them spoke surprisingly good English!). The views of the valley are incredible: rice terraces, buffalo lazily chewing on the grass, traditional villages and the smiling faces of the locals make this area truly enjoyable.
For a guided hike around Sapa Valley, click here.
Visit Bac Ha Market
The traditional market of Bac Ha is an absolute must-see. It takes place on Sundays, when men and women from around the region, wearing their traditional clothes, gather early in the day to sell just about anything: from household goods, fruits and vegetables to all sorts of souvenirs.
Bac Ha market bursts with color and life and it is one of Vietnam must see for shopping, but it’s also a great opportunity to see a bit of local action. Make sure to (respectfully) haggle on the prides and you can score quite an array of items to bring home as souvenirs.
Indulge in Hoi An
If I had to move to Vietnam to live there for a few months, I’d have no doubt to pick Hoi An as my base. It simply is gorgeous. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is blessed with a relaxed atmosphere: the historic centre is closed to the traffic; its cobbled streets and historic homes perfectly kept, making it a favorite of tourists.
Make sure to discover its traditional architecture in the many historic buildings are scattered around the centre of town, such as the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge, constructed in the 1590s by the Japanese community.
To make the most of Hoi An, you should get the tourist ticket. Ticket boots are scattered around town selling a carnet of 5 tickets for a total of 120000 VN (little over $5 USD) that can be used during the course of 10 days. Tickets allow entrances to the many temples, historic buildings and museums across town.
Get a tailored suit in Hoi An
Hoi An has the highest density of tailors in Vietnam, so you should not miss a change of having some clothes tailor made.
Although haggling is what to do in Vietnam and prices at tailors are somewhat subject to haggling, I recommend to use moderation in this case: you simply don’t want to exploit anybody or force anybody to work overnight for just pennies.
Although Vietnam is a real bargain, good tailors are not as cheap as you may think. Having said so, even the best tailors will cut clothes that will end up costing half of the price you would pay in Europe or in the US. My sister and I had our clothes made by Be Be, which has several shops in the city (the main one is located at 11 Hoang Dieu Street) and has the reputation of being the best tailor in Hoi An.
When approaching a tailor it is important to go with a clear idea of what to have made and with what fabric. The top tailors have a great array of designs and know what fabric works well with a specific design. Plan to spend enough time in the city in order to attend the various fittings without putting the tailors under too much pressure.
Enjoy Hoi An nightlife
Hoi An has a buzzing nightlife. Right after the sun sets, vendors start crowding the streets right outside the historic centre (on the other side of the river) at the night market, where you can find a wide range of street food and budget eateries. While prices at bars are good, keep in mind that some sell cheap drinks: we went to Tiger Tiger, on the river bank, and left after trying one of the worst gin and tonic ever.
Go to the rice fields of Cam Kim
You can’t leave Vietnam without visiting the rice fields, and you’ll find some beautiful ones near the center of Hoi An. An easy bike ride from Hoi An historic centre, there is Cam Kim, a lovely island where life has a different, slower pace. Simple homes and the smiling faces of the locals and green fields make Cam Kim a perfect escape from the city and what to see in Vietnam.
You can easily visit Cam Kim independently, but if you want to join a guided tour, consider this one.
Go to the beach
The beaches near Hoi An are clean and well kept. An Bang beach is the trendiest and most serviced one in the area. Soul Kitchen is a bar-beachfront restaurant where you can also rent a sun bed. A bit further north, on the drive towards Da Nang (the closest big city to Hoi An, as well as the closest airport), there is a beach that is truly nice and secluded, with very few tourists.
Get a massage
Vietnam is very budget friendly so getting a good yet cheap massage is what to do in Vietnam, especially in Hoi An, as there are many spas scattered around town. The easiest way to go about it is to ask your hotel or guest house to recommend a spa, and they will make reservations for you.
Visit Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
Saigon is the starting point to explore the Mekong Delta and eventually head to Siem Reap, in Cambodia. It’s a massive city, but you can’t help loving it. Here is a selection of places you should not miss:
SAIGON SKYDECK AT BITEXCO FINANCIAL TOWER – For great views of the city from above, take the elevator to the skydeck. It costs $10 USD to get there, but on a clear day the views are spectacular. You can get tickets here.
DONG KHOI – This is where you will find Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office and the National Theater.
CHOLON AND CHINATOWN – This parts of the city are the best to visit markets and see pagodas.
WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM – This museum has an incredible collection of pictures and other kinds of documents of what in Vietnam is known as the American War. Visiting is a heartbreaking experience. What you see is touching, it is disturbing, but it is a piece of recent history that we should not forget.
Make sure to read my post The Best Things To Do In Saigon.
Go to the Cu Chi Tunnels
About 40 km from Ho Chi Minh, in the Cu Chi District, these tunnels were used as hiding spots and supply routes by the Viet Cong soldiers during the war, and often happened to be living places too. It’s one of the most interesting places to visit in Vietnam.
You are better off exploring the tunnels with a guide. For a guided tour of the Cu Chi Tunnel clic here.
Explore the Mekong Delta
Known as the “rice bowl” of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is one of the most popular places to visit in Vietnam. This region is crossed by an incredible number of waterways. Life floats here, quite literally: houses, restaurants and even markets float on the rivers, canals and streams that flow like arteries. Cai Rang, about 6 km from Can Tho, towards Soc Trang, is one of the biggest floating markets in the region.
Traffic and noise characterize the main centers such as Can Tho and Chau Doc. Yet, the back sides are incredibly quiet and rural, and a whole world apart.
A typical tour of the area includes a stop at a typical Vietnamese bakery (yes, the cakes are delicious!), at a coconut candy factory, at a rice paper factory (these are all family run businesses), a boat ride along the small channels to admire the landscape and the wildlife, a bike ride around the smallest villages, and a visit of the Muslim minority that lives in the region.
Make the most of the food
Eating in South East Asia is an incredible experience: food in Vietnam won’t disappoint.
You will find great noodle soups such as pho bo – rice noodles in a slowly cooked beef broth, served with bean sprouts and thinly sliced beef that cooks with the heat of the soup; interesting desserts of grilled banana with sticky rice and coconut milk and nuts and an abundance of delicious noodle dishes. You will also find a good selection of vegetarian dishes, though beware that many will still include fish sauce.
Markets in general are cheaper than restaurants, and the food is fabulous. Perch yourself on a tiny stools, sit at a small tables and have full meals (including a beer) for under $2 USD.
The key to finding a good place is checking its audience. A good mixture of locals and tourists, women and children, and more than anything else food being continuously cooked are signs that the food is good and safe to eat. Beware that some markets are invaded with rats, however!
Take a cooking class
A cooking class is a great way to get a bit closer to the local culture, to meet other travelers and to learn how to prepare some of the tastiest dishes in Vietnam.
You can book a cooking class in Hoi An here.
Have a cold beer
Beer in Vietnam is crips and cold and a bottle never costs more than 20000 VN (less than $1 USD). Lots of local places sell beer by the glass. You can pay as little as 4000 VN for a 0.30 cc glass. I call that a deal!
Try Vietnamese coffee
Coffee in Vietnam is a big deal. Don’t expect a quick drink like espresso in Italy or a brew like American filter coffee. Vietnamese coffee is filtered indeed (using a Vietnamese drip filter), but the process is ever so slow that the coffee is almost thick and incredibly rich in flavor (not to mention, packed with caffeine). Some prefer the coffee with condensed milk – but beware it gets truly sweet.
Shopping is one of the things to do in Vietnam. Lots of multinational brands have their factories in Vietnam but many shops sell counterfeited products. If a branded jacket or a backpack are really cheap, chances are that they are counterfeited. Original stuff is as expensive in Vietnam as it is in the rest of the world so watch out for actual deals.
There are also plenty of markets and shops in Vietnam that sell souvenirs. It goes without saying that vendors shoot the prices much higher when they deal with tourists. You will have to haggle. At times, walking away as if not interested is a way to immediately get a cheaper price. If that doesn’t happen, it is a cue that the price stated is pretty much the right one.