Vietnam Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

A country with a long history and ancient traditions, Vietnam makes for one amazing tourist destination. Stretching down the southeastern coast of Asia, Vietnam boasts spellbinding emerald mountains, delicious food and a rich culture all waiting to be explored.
Vietnam Travel Guide
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Most travelers who head to Vietnam are drawn by the spectacular natural beauty of the green northern rice fields and the intriguing bustle of the south’s Mekong River Delta. This combined with the numerous old temples and historical landmarks makes Vietnam a must-see for every traveler.

Ninh Binh is home to Nha Trang, a seaside town situated along the country’s second most beautiful bay. The scuba diving center of Vietnam, Nha Trang features fantastic beaches with clean, fine sand and crystal clear ocean waters.

The life-blood of Vietnam, the Mekong River Delta is a very rich, lush area that’s covered in rice fields that produce half of the country’s total agricultural output. Visitors can explore the vibrant floating markets, lush sugarcane and coconut plantations found here.

Vietnam boasts a number of spectacular beaches. Phu Quoc is the largest of Vietnam’s islands, which boasts pristine tropical forests, unspoiled coral reefs and amazing beaches, including Bai Dai which was selected as one of the world’s 5 cleanest and most beautiful beaches. In addition to its great beaches, Mui Ne boasts a vast sandy expanse of dunes that offer great panoramic views particularly at sunset.

Once a small fishing village, Hoi An is today one of Vietnam’s main attractions. The heart of this city is the Old Quarter which is characterized by Chinese-style shops, winding lanes and narrow canals cutting through the town.

Hanoi is the Vietnamese capital where new and old Asia collide, but get along just fine. Hanoi has managed the rarest of feats: sensitive and elegant modernization characterized by hip restaurants and nightclubs sitting adjacent to ancient pagodas and temples, harmoniously blended together. While in Hanoi, be sure to visit Hoan Kiem Lake, a scenic spot that’s popular with the locals.

Ha Long Bay is home to thousands of islands, each topped by thick jungle vegetation to form a majestic seascape of limestone pillars. Some of the islands are hollow and have enormous caves; while others have lakes that support the floating fishing villages.

A former royal capital, Hue is divided into two by the Perfume River, with the Citadel and old city on one side and the new town with its restaurants on the other. The imperial past of Vietnam is well on display in Hue, as seen in its plethora of stately colonial palaces, pagodas and tombs.

The Vietnamese town of Sa Pa is positioned perfectly to provide incredible views across a valley of pine forests and rice paddy fields. Set against a backdrop of thick bamboo woodlands, the famous Sa Pa rice terraces provide sustenance to dozens of Vietnam’s ethnic minor groups inhabiting the area, each with their own dialect, customs and dress.

From intrepid explorers to tropical-paradise beach lovers, few can resist the charms of Vietnam. With so much to see and do in Vietnam, it’s no wonder that the country attracts thousands of visitors every year – and these are just a few reasons why you should be one of them.

1. Hoi An

Wandering the narrow, cobbled streets of Hoi An is like stepping back in time. The old town of Hoi An comprises brick alleys, narrow streets and ancient structures partially restored. Many cafes and tailor shops now dominate the Old Town which still gives a feeling of its historic buzz in the air.

Up until the 17th century, Hoi An served as a major trading stop in Vietnam for Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Dutch traders. Today, Hoi An caters to a large tourist crowd who come to have custom clothing made or simply to enjoy locally-brewed beers by the river.

The old clan houses, charming footbridges and rich culture make Hoi An an interesting stop on the well-beaten north-south tourist trail. It’s very easy to get around Hoi An on foot, which is the best way to appreciate the city vibe, particularly at night.

Built in the 1600s, the Japanese Bridge is a landmark in Hoi An, which crosses a small canal situated on the town’s western edge. Close by is a quiet street that is dominated by art galleries and handicraft shops. The arched footbridge crosses the river, serving as a photogenic focal point within the old town, as well as providing access to the restaurants across the river on the An Hoi Peninsula.

During the night, the old town’s streets are dimly lit by lantern only, which gives a warm and pleasant atmosphere for an evening stroll. The thousands of colorful lanterns are what make Hoi An so enjoyable at night. The lanterns also make for perfect souvenirs and gift items. Cross the footbridge to the peninsula and then turn left where you will find a large cluster of shops that sell lanterns.

Many cafés and restaurants line the narrow Thu Bon River. The old town of Hoi An is interesting enough for simply taking a stroll around. Visitors can tour the city’s 18 museums, temples, communal houses and other attractions such as the Tan Ky House.

In addition to wandering around the old town, shopping is another thing that draws tourists to Hoi An. The town is famous for its custom clothing, with many tailor shops that make shoes, suits and other clothing items on order. Prices in the tailor shops are open to negotiation.

Both traditional and modern artwork is widely available around Hoi An. Cross the Japanese Bridge then take a stroll down the Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street where you can appreciate the numerous art galleries.

Kim Bong is a historic woodworking village that has been crafting fine wooden sculptures since the 16th century. The mastery of the town’s artisans in the woodworking craft is on display at the village where you can also purchase some unique wooden sculptures. The village is situated about a half hour boat ride from the old town.

There is also the New Market, an outdoor market that sells produce, animals and souvenirs. To access it, walk on the Bach Dang Street along the river to the town’s eastern edge.

Hoi An has plenty of eateries, some of which serve great options for vegetarians. Many of the restaurants along the river have pleasant upstairs seating with a view. Be sure to sample the tasty Vietnamese dish, Pho.

Other delicious local specialties include Hoi An pancakes which comprise sheets of firm rice paper, salad greens and an egg omelet which you fold into a spring roll. Also try the White Rose which is a plate of inverted dumplings, with the noodle folded neatly below the pork or shrimp in the shape of a rose. And then there’s Cao Lau which features firm noodles with a tasty broth, thinly-sliced pork and salad.

2. Ha Long Bay

A picturesque body of water, Ha Long Bay offers the perfect convergence of water, sky and rock, and amazing views of more than 3,000 undulating karst outcrops and islands that in ancient times reminded the Vietnamese of the backs of dragons emerging from the sea. While the topography of Ha Long is entirely the result of natural processes, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that it appears out of this world.

The bay is situated in Quang Ninh province. If the weather and your timing is right, you will get a view of Ha Long Bay from the deck of your boat that will be absolutely worth the long drive it took to get there. The Bay offers more than breathtaking ocean views. Visitors can explore the grottoes and caves lurking on the sides of the many islands that dot the bay.

Eons of weather activity have sculpted the limestone outcrops into fantastic shapes. Some of the islands derive their names from the animals they are supposed to resemble. For instance, the Ga Choi islet supposedly resembles two fighting roosters.

The islets and islands in Ha Long Bay rise to between 160 and 300 feet. Most of the islands are uninhabited. In fact, many are inaccessible due to their comprising sheer limestone cliffs. The larger islands have beaches and caves, while the biggest island Cat Ba offers a diverse landscape ideal for adventure travel.

The karst and seawater landscape of Ha Long Bay offers an ideal playground for the adventure-minded traveler. Visitors can explore the hiking trails inside the Cat Ba National Park, or go kayaking through a limestone cave into a secluded cover. With more than 300 islands within the Cat Ba National Park alone, you will have plenty of room to blaze your own adventure trail in Ha Long Bay.

The Cat Ba National Park is a nature reserve that covers more than 15,000 hectares of sea and jungle. The forests shelter more than 700 species of plants and trees, along with 20 mammalian species and more than 70 bird species. The beaches and trails of the park offer some of the best images of Ha Long Bay, so be sure to bring your camera along.

One of the more challenging hiking trails in the Cat Ba National Park will take you 6-8 hours to complete, and winds through one of the island mountains before returning to Viet Hai, a village situated just outside the park. Most hiking trails through the park end at Viet Hai from where you can hire a boat to return you to Cat Ba town. Shorter and more pleasant hikes are also available.

Your guide will help you to spot the unique flora and fauna of the park including langurs, hornbills and hedgehogs moving amid the forest cover.

Butterfly Valley is the number one stop for serious rock climbers. The site features a limestone cliff close to the pleasant Lien Minh Village situated on the island of Cat Ba. This 160-foot-high unpolished karst wall has approximately 50 individual climbing routes, with a top-rope system installed to ensure you complete your climb in one piece.

For deepwater soloing, venture out to Polish Pillar and Tiger Beach. The former is a limestone spire rising out of the sea with a slim base where the seawater erodes the limestone; while the latter is a massive crag on Lan Ha Bay which is accessible by kayak. Always check the tide before you venture out to climb as you want to ensure there’s enough water below to break your fall.

Moody Beach is a secluded sand slip close to Tiger Beach which is only accessible by boat. The crag is a relatively easy gray limestone face that rises up from the sand.

To experience Ha Long Bay just as nature intended it; get a kayak to explore its secret beaches, hidden lagoons and rustic fishing villages. The calm bay waters provide a hospitable environment for kayakers as they sail past the local fishermen who eke their living from Ha Long Bay, while residing in floating houses and cultivating fish and clams for the local crabs and shrimp.

The karst landscape with its tucked way corners and low ceilinged caves almost seem designed to be explored via kayak. Luon Grotto – a tunnel in the side of Bo Hon Island, leading into a secluded, tree-lined lagoon that’s bordered by steep limestone walls – is a great example.

Ho Ba Ham Cave is another popular spot with kayakers. Set inside the western face of Dau Be Island, the cave is an inlet reaching into 3 lakes. Other favorite kayaking destinations including Lan Ha Bay, Ba Trai Dao Lagoon, and the Light and Dark Caves.

3. Hanoi

Hanoi is the capital and one of the major cities of Vietnam that well captures the breadth of the country’s historical and cultural experience. For a long time a jewel in the Vietnamese crown, Hanoi served as the royal capital and seat of learning for a millennium, and today has many monuments that celebrate the long and glorious history of the city.

Begin your tour of Hanoi with a visit to Hoan Kiem Lake. The historic Hoan Kiem Lake is the site of a foundational legend in Vietnam. “Ho Hoan Kiem” means “Lake of the Returned Sword” and this alludes to the legend of a future emperor who received a sword from a magic turtle at the edge of the lake. The emperor would later use the sword to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam.

Today, the lake serves as a charming cultural and social center for the citizens of Hanoi. A graceful, red wooden bridge leads up from the lakeside into Ngoc Son Temple where devotees continue performing their religious duties as they have been doing for close to 1,000 years.

Next visit the Temple of Literature, a 1,000 year-old temple to education and the site of the oldest university in Vietnam.

The Temple is laid out in a sequence of 5 courtyards from north to south, spanned by 3 pathways. The last and northernmost courtyard is the site of the former university for mandarins known as Quoc Tu Giam, which translates to “Temple of the King Who Distinguished Literature” and was established in 1076.

The Old Quarter of Hanoi is also worth a visit. Situated a short walk from Hoan Kiem Lake, this is the ultimate shopping hotspot in the city. Its maze of streets offer an abundance of shopping options and delicious foods. The Old Quarter has worn its age well with visitors encountering narrow sidewalks and shops selling fine silk shirts, lacquer-ware and a range of other items.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh. The huge mausoleum is situated on Ba Dinh Square adjacent to the Presidential Palace that’s closed to visitors except for its garden and the Ho Chi Minh stilt house within. There is also the One Pillar Pagoda and a Ho Chi Minh Museum nearby that were erected in his memory.

Inside the Mausoleum, the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh lies in state underneath a glass case with a military honor guard watching as visitors file past.

Hoa Lo Prison was built in the 1880s by the French and maintained until the end of the Vietnam War. The southern part of the prison features grisly exhibits that show the suffering of the Vietnamese prisoners of war.

Hanoi Opera House is a beautiful Art Nouveau building situated in the French Quarter of Hanoi. Built in 1911, the Opera House continues today as a performance venue for the high arts scene of Hanoi. Tours are not permitted inside unless you are there to watch an opera.

4. Ho Chi Minh

Still known to many as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam and its cultural hub. A bustling urban sprawl of interesting sights and busy roundabouts, the city offers plenty of attractions to please every traveler.

The tradition of water puppetry in Vietnam dates from the 11th century and watching a show will be well worth your while. The best performances are held exclusively in Vietnamese, but this should not hinder your enjoyment. Musicians sit on the sides of the stage to provide the soundtrack using traditional instruments, as well as the voices of the puppets.

Some of the puppets are heavy and large and are used to enact village life scenes, all on top of a pool of water. How the puppets are controlled is a closely guarded secret, so attend a performance to see if you can figure it out! The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater is the most popular venue for water puppet shows in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Reunification Palace is the site at which the Vietnam War ended. On the morning of April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the wall of the palace which was used as a war command center. Strategic maps and war-related objects are today on display in the palace. Visitors can tour the building and its grounds to see highlights such as the presidential office and the command bunker.

Ben Thanh Market is a cramped area featuring a labyrinth of stalls that sell everything from pigs’ feet to trinkets. A full-on sensory experience, the Market is ideal for souvenir hunters, photographers or travelers who just want to take a whirl in one of Asia’s most bustling markets.

An odd place, the War Market comprises of cages in a basement with artifacts and relics dug up from the American and French wars in Vietnam. Also on sale are plenty of other Chinese-made army surplus items including ribbons, uniforms, dog tags and unidentifiable items lost by soldiers or taken out of helicopter wrecks.

At the War Remnants Museum, visitors can see exhibits of unexploded ordinance, artifacts and photography depicting the horrors of war that many Vietnamese have had to live with for decades.

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon was constructed between 1863 and 1880 and is also worth a look.

A Bia Hoi is a simple sidewalk café that offers local beer and Vietnamese foods such as pho. Great for socializing, the bia hois have plastic stools on which you can sit and watch Vietnamese life go by. Bu Vien Street is the busiest and most popular street for enjoying a bia hoi experience.

5. The Southern Beaches

Sprawling rice fields, blindingly-white beaches and a landscape as dramatic as its history, Vietnam boasts a long coastline that measures over 3,400km. The coastline is characterized by fine sandy beaches with infinite stretches of warm blue waters, lovely lagoons, hidden coves and tropical islands with even more spectacular beaches.

The idyllic tropical beaches of Vietnam have long been a favorite among locals and intrepid travelers. The turquoise waters and unique diving opportunities along the southern and central coasts continue to draw beach lovers in droves from around the world. Vietnam’s best beaches are found in the southern region: from Hue all the way south to Phan Thiet you will find a stretch of fantastic beaches.

The beaches at Cape Mui Ne are popular with both tourists and locals. A 13-mile stretch of beach, Mui Ne offers interesting red sand dunes that rise above the village to create a mysterious desert vibe and great photo-taking opportunities.

Ong Dia beach is the jewel of Mui Ne’s beaches and is famous for its gold and red dunes which you can ride over or board down. Or simply stand on top of one and enjoy the sea breeze sweeping your face as you watch coconut palms sway in the sunset.

Situated off the west coast of the Mekong Delta, Phu Quoc is an island that boasts diverse topography of natural forest land, peppered plantations and sparkling white sandy beaches backed by lush jungle. The island has managed to maintain some of its unspoiled charm with quiet shores, dirt roads and limited tourist facilities.

One of the most beautiful islands of Vietnam, Phu Quoc is famous for having the whitest sands in the country and some of the most stunning sunsets in the entire Asia. Its popular beach is Bai Sao, which is ringed by bright white sands. Be sure to sample the islands famous seafood dish, the fermented fish sauce. Bai Dai is another beach, beautifully remote with sparkling white sands and picturesque vistas.

Phan Thiet is a fishing village situated a 3-hour drive from Saigon, which makes for a quick weekend getaway from the city. The beaches here are lovely and well worth the trip over.

Thanks to their isolated location off the coast of Vietnam, the Con Dao islands also offer a host of idyllic beaches. The remote location of the islands has protected them from the ravages of tourism and left them unspoiled. Therefore, visitors who go here can enjoy some of the most pristine beachfront property in the entire Vietnam.

6. Hai Van Pass

For a memorable adventure, an incredible journey and fabulous views in Vietnam, look no further than the Hai Van Pass. The Hai Van Pass is a mountain pass connecting the cities of Hue and Da Nang. Measuring 21 km long, the Pass is a deserted ribbon of perfection that is widely regarded as the most scenic route in Vietnam. Every corner of this stunning pass will unveil even more spectacular views.

To get to the Pass, you will need to drive around Da Nang Bay taking Nguyen Tat Thanh Street all the way up, crossing the railway track up into the clouds. The steep mountain path winds its way up the cliff edge peaks and jungle, opening up to breathtaking views at every 90 degree corner until you hit its peak that’s littered with fortifications. Stop here to explore by foot and grab some refreshments.

Weave in and out of the Hai Van Pass, with the stunning coastline and the East Sea to one side, and the jungle trails to the other. Stop by the waterfalls. The slow climb upwards will take you about an hour or longer if you frequently stop to admire the views, while the winding route downhill makes for an adventurous experience.

From the fortifications, you can continue down the other side. As the road levels out at the bottom, a left turn off will take you around a magical, oyster-farming lagoon. The lagoon is a stunning site of wood and tin houses stilted over the tranquil waters. Do a loop around the lagoon before breaking off for lunch at one of the oyster shacks that surround the area and enjoy some tasty charcoal-grilled oysters.

7. Mekong River Delta

To some, Mekong River brings back old images of Vietnam during the war. Today, the river continues to serve as a lifeline for the Vietnamese.

The tenth longest river in the world, Mekong is approximately 2,700 miles long, with its source lying in the mountains of Tibet. The river crosses China before snaking its way through 5 other countries in Southeast Asia. After leaving China, Mekong flows briefly through Myanmar before forming part of the border between Thailand and Laos. It then dissects Cambodia, entering the South China Sea near Saigon.

A cruise on the Mekong River in Vietnam is well worth it. Much of the river’s route in Vietnam passes through lush tropical areas, rural landscapes, small villages, towns and cities. The cruise focuses on the history and culture of the region, to provide you with an in-depth look at the country. You will embark and disembark in Ho Chi Minh City.

During your cruise, stop by the Cai Rang floating market in Can Tho. Here you will find boats overflowing with watermelon, pineapple and cabbage that is sold wholesale to locals who cruise up in smaller vessels. The market begins at 6am and ends around 9am.

Visit here to experience the hustle and bustle of floating market merchants and see the homes of the Vietnamese found along the estuaries of Mekong. This area makes for a superb boat trek along the riverbank on a fine day.

8. Sa Pa

A colorfully beautiful and hilly town in northwest Vietnam, Sa Pa is one of the country’s favorite tourist spots. A laid back mountain town that’s blessed with cool climate throughout the year, Sa Pa is dominated by the Hoang Lien Mountain range that offers a dramatic backdrop for numerous scenic treks.

Every Saturday, the local ethnic groups head into town for the main market to buy and sell fresh produce, meat, livestock as well as handicrafts and clothing. Visitors can go trekking in the local villages and beyond where spectacular scenery abounds.

For stunning scenery, you will need to get out to the Tram Ton Pass, the highest in Vietnam, which connects Sa Pa to Lai Chau. All around you will see near vertical rice paddy field terraces and stunning mountain peaks with mist constantly hovering above them. Plan your visit during the harvest season in Sa Pa so you can see the golden color of the rice fields.

Situated on the same route is the spectacular Thac Bac waterfall where you can go to indulge in a refreshing mist of water.

If you are very fit and have time, take a hike to the top of Fansipan, the highest peak in Indochina which rises to 3143m. If you are up for the challenge, the rewards will be breathtaking with majestic views over the Hoang Lien mountain range. Fansipan is also the last major peak of the Himalayan range.

If you’re not fit enough for Fansipan, opt for Mount Ham Rong which enables you to see the town from a different angle. The mountain also has a colorful flower garden that’s worth a peek.

A stroll through the streets of Sa Pa will leave you with images that will be forever carved in your heart. Sa Pa has some of the longest and most fascinating walking destinations in the world. You can walk dozens of miles from dawn till dusk, through villages, towns, rice paddy fields, over bridges and through streams. Take a walk to live slower. Observe and learn from the life and culture of the locals.

If old world charm is your thing, do not miss out on a trip to the Sa Pa museum where you can enjoy an educational day viewing exhibitions on the town’s rich history, culture, ethnic groups, customs and traditional crafts.

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9. Hue

The former feudal and imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue is the capital of the surrounding Binh Tri Thien province. To appreciate Hue, you need to understand that the town has played a significant role in the history of Vietnam for the last several hundred years. History is what makes Hue tick.

With its new town situated on one side of the Huong or “Perfume” River, and a collection of old pagodas, tombs and imperial buildings on the other, Hue is famous for its numerous royal structures, most notably the Forbidden Purple City which was home to the Nguyen Emperors.

The southern half of Hue city is a quiet, bustling community with old charming 19th century houses and a scattering of temples. The northern half is dominated by the Forbidden Purple City and the Imperial Citadel. Shopping areas have sprung up around the Dong Ba Market which is situated next to the Citadel.

The Citadel has high stone walls and measures about 520 hectares in size. The interior of the Citadel features plenty of wide open spaces where the imperial buildings used to stand.

The Royal Tombs of Hue all bear common elements derived from feng shui, aimed at maximizing the auspicious standing of the structure with the universe. Of the 7 imperial tombs, the most popular are the tombs of Minh Mang, Khai Dinh and Tu Duc.

The Thien Mu Pagoda is one of the city’s oldest historical sites and comprises a hilltop temple overlooking the northern bank of Perfume River.

Situated inside the Citadel is the Museum of Royal Fine Arts which is worth a visit. The museum houses everyday items from the Forbidden Purple City during its heyday including sedan chairs, gongs, utensils and clothing. Here you will also see finely crafted bronze ware, chinaware, court finery and ceremonial weaponry that offer insights into the extraordinary lives of the Nguyen courtiers.

The Museum building dates from 1845, and is notable for its unique architecture, a traditional type that features sloping successive roofs supported by 128 pillars. The walls have been inscribed with brushed letters in the traditional script of Vietnam.

The history of Hue as an imperial power center is tied closely to the history of the prominent families in the area, the majority of whom built ornate garden houses in the city.

Visitors can enjoy a tour of some of the garden houses including Lac Tinh Vien, Princess Ngoc Son and Y Thao. Every garden house covers an area of about 2,400 square yards and has common aspects such as a lush garden surrounding the house, a tile-covered gate at the front of the house, a small rock garden and a traditional house.

10. Ninh Binh

Famous for its beautiful karst limestone formations, Ninh Binh offers a more peaceful and natural side to Vietnam. Situated to the north of the country, the city doesn’t offer a lot to do but makes for the perfect base for exploring the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside.

Nha Trang is a busy beach area famous for its endless days of sunshine. Snorkelers and divers will enjoy the soft and hard coral reefs, caves and sea walls that offer some of the best diving spots in the South China Sea. Above-water adventures include kite surfing, wakeboarding and banana boat rides. You can also relax by the sea while adventure-lovers head to the countryside and mountains nearby.

Then go explore the wonders of Tan Coc. This beautiful area features impressive limestone formations that are similar to those found at Ha Long Bay. A boat will take you through waterways to see the rock formations close up. The surroundings of Tam Coc are also very scenic and make for good exploration on a bicycle.

Also visit the Grottoes of Trang An which enable you to explore natural caves. You will need to rent a boat and hire a guide to take you on a trip through the grottoes.

Then venture into the Cuc Phuong National Park, a beautiful park of lush, green tropical forest. Established in 1962, the park is home to numerous hidden grottoes and rich in wildlife and natural beauty.

The park has numerous scenic trails as well as an Endangered Primate Rescue Center that provides sanctuary to about 130 monkeys. Visitors can walk around a loop trail that will take you to the 1,000 year old tree or stay overnight in the park.

Next, marvel at the Bich Dong Pagoda. The 15th century pagoda was built on a steep mountainside with temples that are built right into the caves. A relaxing and beautiful place, the pagoda’s highest temple has a spot with rocks where you can climb and enjoy views of the city.

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