Our Top Destinations in Vietnam is a guide to the best of the best of Vietnam filled with ideas for travel sightseeing and accommodation with a few insider tips along the way.
The capital Hanoi is a city of broad, tree-lined boulevards, parks, lakes and elegant French villas and colonial-era buildings painted in muted hues of yellow and orange. The tree-lined shore of Hoan Kiem Lake is the heart of Hanoi, and is where residents perform mesmerising ‘Tai Chi’.
The Old Quarter, also known as the ’36 Streets’. Each street is named for what it sells, eg. Silver St, Gold St, Shoe St, Fish St, Tin St, Bamboo St etc. Great place to shop. On fine afternoons, stroll through the French quarter, sip an aromatic cup of coffee on the sidewalk and observe the bustling street life.
As the oldest university (established since 1070), the Temple of Literature and its five courtyards retains a scholarly atmosphere and makes a peaceful respite from Hanoi’s busy streets. Visiting Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is an unforgettable experience, as inside an imposing building lies the embalmed body of the founder of modern Vietnam.Vietnam is a culturally diverse country and the fascinating ways of life of her 54 ethnic groups can be seen at the Museum of Ethnology.
Water Puppetry, a remarkable Vietnamese art form combining music, fireworks and elaborate puppets floating gracefully on the water. The performing stories depicting Vietnamese legends, and festivals.
If you have more time to spare, there are many interesting locales in Hanoi’s out skirts that are lesser visited by tourists. Tam Coc in Ninh Binh – with its series of limestone rock formations jutting out from a sea of rice paddies, is a scenic and surreal place to visit. Nearby Hoa Lu also offers similar landscapes of rocky outcrops – no less spectacular when compared to Tam Coc – as well as 10th century relics from when the area was the capital’s country.
To learn about Vietnam’s pottery history, a visit to Bat Trang Ceramic Village should be on the travel agenda. Here, you could try your hands at making the ceramics, but it is much easier to be enticed into owning the exquisite vases, bowls and dishes produced from the hands of the talented Bat Trang potters. For lovers of indigenous crafts, the Van Phuc Weaving Village lures visitors with its bewildering range of silk products. Explore the rustic landscapes by cycling around the city’s northern outskirts in Dong Ho Village, which is also famous for its painting styles that depict the traditional Vietnamese village lives. Follow the trails of Vietnamese pilgrims and embark on a 2-hour trek up Huong Son Mountain to Perfume Pagoda (or Chua Huong), with lots of photographic oppor tunities along the way.
Located in the Gulf of Tonkin 170 km from Hanoi, Halong Bay is an impressive collection of nearly 3,000 islands covering an area in excess of 1,500 sq km forming a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars and cliff faces. Many of the forested islands in the Bay have hidden caves and grottoes which are easily explored by boat or kayak.
A full exploration of Halong Bay takes 2 to 3 days, though a day trip ex Hanoi provides enough time to get a feel for the place. Cat Ba Island, home to Cat Ba National Park, is the largest island in Halong Bay and is actually comprised of 366 islets and islands and is home to a variety of forested zones, coastal mangrove, freshwater swamps, beaches, caves and waterfalls.
Hue (pronounced ‘whey’), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where you will see the remnants of Hue’s royal past with tombs of Emperors, moated ruins of Citadels and Vietnam’s best known pagoda, Thien Mu – a seven-storey stupa, 21 metres high, with each level dedicated to one of the various human forms taken by Buddha. A sampan trip on the Perfume River is a must, as many of the attractions can be found on the River, like the Thien Mu Pagoda and a number of Royal Tombs.
Hue’s spectacular Citadel is built on the same principles and design as Beijing’s Forbidden Palace. The ten-metre thick outer walls enclose a vast compound of palaces, temples, meeting halls and pavilions, many of which are now sadly victims of war and the passage of time. Hue is good for a day trip out to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), a buffer site between North and South Vietnam that saw intense fighting during the American War. Traverse the quaint streets of Hue on a cyclo or bicycle and take in Hue’s unique atmosphere. Do not forget to visit nha vuon, elegant historic garden houses that are exclusive to Hue.
Hoi An is located about 30 minutes south of Da Nang (which is your closest terminis if coming by plane or train). Touristy but clean, easy-to-walk historic district, very chill vibe, good beaches and great people. The old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has narrow pedestrian-only streets and is a great place to wander around. Silk abounds, and many clothing shops can be found in Hoi An – it is cheaper to have clothes made here than in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. The town is also home to dozens of art galleries, textile houses and museums.
The Japanese Covered Bridge was built over a small canal in 1593 to link the Japanese and Chinese quarters. The best way to get around Hoi An is by cyclo, on foot or hire a bicycle. A half-hour pedal (5kms) at a leisurely pace along a country road brings you to popular Cua Dai Beach. Cua Dai Beach’s golden sands provide a nice place to unwind over fresh seafood. Explore the small villages on a bicycle and discover artisans crafting pottery in the narrow streets. For day trips out of Hue, opt for the historical Cham statues at My Son or to the Marble Mountain where caves, temples and magnificent views await at the summit. Best to visit January through August.
Tip: If you don’t mind tourist throngs, you can show up in Hoi An on the 14th day (full moon) of the lunar month as the town is lit up by lanterns in a special way.
HO CHI MINH
Commonly referred to as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest city and undisputed commerce capital. It is a dynamic city that is currently enjoying the fruits of Vietnam’s economic boom – lavish hotels, decadent restaurants and trendy nightspots are continually added to the cityscape.
A stroll along Saigon’s most famous street, Dong Khoi takes you past the Caravelle and Rex hotels made famous in the war. Reunification Palace (former Presidential Palace), originally built for the French Governor-General in 1868 has over the years been abandoned and occupied. The War Remnants Museum leaves most visitors shocked and stunned at the graphic war photos on the walls. Ben Thanh Market is the largest market in Ho Chi Minh City. Local and imported products ranging from garments and textiles to handicrafts, flowers, and vegetables can be found here.
If you have a bit of time to spare, make a day trip outside of Ho Chi Minh City to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This network of over 200 kilometers of underground tunnels was used by the Vietcong during the American war and offers a fascinating look into the lives of the inhabitants during the war-time era. This can easily be combined with a stop at Wildlife at Risk (WAR) rescue centre, a non-profit organization to stop illegal wildlife trade, and Tay Ninh Temple, home to the intriguing Cao Dai religion.
Known as the food bowl of Vietnam, it is formed by various tributaries of the mighty Mekong River. The gateway is My Tho, approx two hours drive south of Ho Chi Minh City. Day trippers will get to ride on sampans along the busy Mekong River and see the hundreds of boats plying the water with market goods. On land you can visit coconut candy factories, fruit farms and small local villages. We recommend spending a few nights in this area so you can get right into the Delta.
Further south is the riverside town of Vinh Long. The canal network and villages surrounding Vinh Long are more rural than those seen in My Tho, and are perhaps more representative of village life in the Mekong.
Can Tho is located in the very heart of the Mekong Delta. This bustling city, the largest in the region has broad boulevards and an elegant waterfront which connects it to the rest of the Mekong Delta via a system of rivers and canals. Most tourists seem to show up, take a boat tour of one of the nearby floating markets (like Cai Rang) and then leave. However, it feels like a better version of Saigon personally. The people are friendly (and don’t hassle you constantly as they do in downtown Saigon), the market along the waterfront is amazing, the food is great and the prices are good.
Sa Dec: Mekong Delta region, flower farms, (antiquated) French architecture, not heavily touristed.
Chau Doc is a port town near the Cambodian border. To the south of Chau Doc (45 minutes) is the Tra Su Bird Sanctuary (good August-early November especially due to high water levels). Somewhat new floating market, interesting river life (rent a boat and check it out), fish farms and good food. Tra Su is a bit overblown.
Sapa (or Sa Pa) is located in the far northwest. It is home to various tribes such as the Hmong. Brilliant landscapes due to the tiered rice patties they have built into the landscape. Best to visit in August and early September for the green and yellow rice patties that are being harvested, or in April when the rice is being planted and various fruits are blossoming in the clear weather. Home to a diverse group of hill tribes such as Tay, Red Dao, Black and Flower H’mong, Sapa boasts of ample hill tribe trekking and home stay opportunities. Beyond Sapa, Mount Fansipan (Indochina’s highest peak) is great for trekking and exploration. Less popular alternative is Mu Cang Chai.
Although not a major stop on the tourist trail, Danang’s location between Hoi An and Hue makes a nice stop along the way. The city is one of the most dynamic of Vietnam’s modern cities with rapid industrial and economic growth. Visitors to Danang can enjoy the understated, yet fascinating Cham art and culture at Cham Museum. On the outskirts of town is China Beach, steeped in legend yet wonderfully deserted. Best time to visit Da Nang is mid-January or February through April/May (with February having highs around 77F (25C) and high 80’s (31C) by May), or later, such as June & July are okay as well, it’ll just be hotter (for instance, June and July will be averaging highs around 95F (35C). Heavy rains are found in Da Nang’s wet season which lasts from August through December, with the heaviest and most frequent rains in September & October. Rain is least likely in February and March.
With its perennial cool weather, pine-clad valleys and weathered but elegant French hilltop villas, Dalat is Vietnam’s premier hill station. As Vietnam Online notes, “Dalat looks like a cross between Vietnam and the French Alps. Many of its hotels and houses were built in a French style during the French colonization”. The area is well touristed and one popular stop is Bao Dai’s summer palace. It is also one of the few places that produces wine, although it is still in its infancy and perhaps not ready for the big time), lastly, it generally does not get hot here – with temps maxing out in the high 60’s (20C) and averaging in the mid-60’s (18C). Much of the Vietnamese coffee (and many flowers) comes from Dalat (if you want the real coffee epicenter, check out nearby Buon Ma Thuot) but is said to be more expensive to buy in Dalat than elsewhere. Investigate Vietnamese cocoa in Dalat if interested.
BUON MA THUOT
Buon Ma Thuot is the largest city in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region, an unexplored area with great adventure and trekking potential.
The abundance of untouched forests, stunning landscapes, national parks and hill tribe villages are still off the tourist trails.
In the heart of Khanh Hoa province, Nha Trang is the undisputed beach capital of Vietnam. Besides long stretches of sand lapped by crystal clear waters, it is dotted with many islands each with its own distinct character. The turquoise waters play host to teeming marine life, and snorkeling and scuba diving are perennial favorites. This beach town also features a vibrant night life. The lovely Evason Ana Mandara and Sheraton top the resorts in Nha Trang and for travelers seeking a luxurious resort experience, the remote six-star Six Senses Hideaway Ninh Van Bay does not disappoint.
Note that rainy season is centered around October and November, although most of those non-Nha Trang-based Vietnamese recommending it always dispute this fact.
MUI NE – PHAN THIET
Just a four-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City, Mui Ne is renowned for its long stretches of sandy beaches and perennial sea breezes that greatly complement wind-surfing and kite-surfing. It is also famous for the wind-sculpted red and white sand dunes that make great postcard shots and adventurous sports.
Golfers can tee off at the Nick Faldo-designed Ocean Dunes Golf Course.
Home to many different resorts, the luxurious Victoria Phan Thiet, the boutique Cham Villas and the newly refurnished Blue Ocean are our top selects for this charming beach town.
PHU QUOC ISLAND
Off Vietnam’s southern coast in the Gulf of Thailand, the island of Phu Quoc is one of Asia’s up and rising beach destination. The island’s clear waters, isolated beaches, forested interior and charming local character make for an ideal beach escape. Dry season mid-November to April, warm all the time (30’s C / 80’s F), remote and resort beaches line much of the coastline, great fresh seafood although more expensive than the mainland, some of the best fish sauce comes out of Phu Quoc such as Red Boat fish sauce and Khai Hoan fish sauce.
In the north-eastern corner of the island are peppercorn farms and a national park with hiking.
Quy Nhon is Vietnam’s other ‘secret’ destination. Occupying the stretch of coastline between Danang and Nha Trang, this port city is close to spectacular secluded bays and unpopulated private islands. The Life Wellness Resort Quy Nhon makes an ideal location for a peaceful retreat.