Vietnam is nothing short of magical. A southeast Asian country that is one long stretch of coastline, you can expect everything from huge cities to swathes of beaches, dramatic islands and hill tribe communities. For me, Vietnam holds a very special place in my heart. It was one of the first countries I visited solo, just before quitting my job as a lawyer. It’s drawn me back time and again. And now I’m going share my guide to the best things to do in Vietnam.
1. Explore Ho Chi Minh City
As cities go, HCMC is quite unlike any other city in the world and that is one of the reasons I love it so much. A place where chaos prevails, the roads defy grid systems in every way they can and a (pleasant) surprise waits around every corner, you could literally spend months exploring this vast city and still not get fully under its skin. Although it can quickly get under yours.
When you first arrive, it’s good to just wander the streets for a big dose of culture shock. Then…
2. Learn to cross the road in Ho Chi Minh City
My first emotion on arrival HCMC was fear. Not because the country is full of thieves and rapists – on the contrary, I felt very safe amongst the people, but on account of the roads. Having spent a fair amount of time in HCMC, I can confidently say that if you can cross the roads there, you can cross them anywhere in the world.
For an entire day in HCMC when I arrived, I had to limit exploration to one side of the road because I was simply too scared to cross. Unlike most other countries around the world, the traffic simply doesn’t stop in Vietnam which means that there is only one things to do when it comes to roads and that’s step straight out into the streaming traffic.
It’s advice that flies in the face of every road safety rule you’ve ever been taught, but it is the only way (there is a slow introduction of traffic lights but they are not common). And when that streaming traffic is comprises of hundreds (literally on occasions) of motorbikes, that’s a pretty scary prospect.
Here is the road crossing advice I was given by a local:
– step calmly (?!) into the traffic.
– walk at a steady pace – no running!
– have confidence that the drivers will go around you.
I confess I had a few cocktails before crossing my first road (not the most sensible approach but an effective one for raising my fear levels). I took the advice and (touch wood for superstition) I’ve not been mowed down yet. In fact, I knew I had graduated from Vietnamese Road-Crossing School when, on my second visit, a group of westerners followed me (practically holding onto me) as I crossed the road.
As the rule should go in Vietnam: if in doubt, step out!
Many of the locals still refer to HCMC as Sigon and won’t be offended if you do too.
3. Visit the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City
Of all the sights I saw in HCMC, the War Remnants Museum was the one that stuck in my mind the most. I’ve visited a few war memorials around the world including Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima and HCMC’s museum is another that will stay with me for a long time. There is a fair bit of propaganda material within the museum but there is no escaping the harsh realities and imagery of what went on during the Vietnam War. Don’t expect to come out of this museum skipping with joy, but it is a valuable experience nonetheless.
4. Sunset cocktails at a rooftop bar, Ho Chi Minh City
If you want to shake off the remnants of the War Remnants Museum, then pick one of the city’s rooftop cocktail bars at sunset. I went to the Sheraton and sipped on some delicious pink berry yumminess. But that wasn’t the best part – watching the expanse of city lights come on as the sun goes down is a pretty spectacular sight – I took the skyline picture above from the top of the Sheraton. On my next visit I’d like to check out the rooftop at The Rex where all the journalists and correspondents holed up during the war – the picture above of The Rex was taken from the top of the Sheraton.
5. Drink Vietnamese coffee at Trun Nguyen
I have a coffee addiction, no two ways about it, so I was in coffee Heaven when I was in HCMC. At first, I assumed that the Trun Nguyen chain of coffee houses seemed was the local version of Starbucks – they were, after all, on every street corner, and so I avoided them. However, when I asked a local where she went for coffee, she pointed to Trun Nguyen and told me they served the best coffee in Vietnam. I visited the next day and couldn’t agree more. Never have I tasted such velvety smooth, rich and bold yet creamy coffee. The prices are western but the taste is out of this world. Visiting Trun Nguyen fast became my guilty pleasure in Vietnam. For the record, I didn’t try the local equivalent of Kopi Luwak that had come out of a Weasles bottom.
6. Visit Ben Than market in Ho Chi Minh City
If you’re looking for a knock-off copy of just about any brand, you’ll find it in the Ben Than market. But that isn’t why I like it there. The market is also home to an amazing array of fruit, vegetables and, best of all, stalls serving up food. Bag some rambutan (above – similar to lychee) and mangosteen but be careful if you’re going to try the infamous durian fruit as most hotels won’t let you bring it onto their premises because of the stench. From the food stalls, try an avocado smoothie (seriously good) and some fresh spring rolls (pictured above).
7. Drink Bia Hoi
Speaking of consuming things, one of my favourite discoveries on my second trip to Vietnam was bia hoi. Locally brewed draft beer that has a high turn-over meaning you get fresh beer each day, this drink is served from small bars where the patrons huddle on sidewalks sat on child-sized plastic chair and around similarly minuscule tables while motorbikes whizz on by. Find the right places (they are dotted all over) and there’s no better way to do as the locals.
8. Visit the Cu Chi Tunnels
As if the War Remnants museum wasn’t enough, it’s possible to day trip from HCMC out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a large warren of tunnels built by the Vietnames during the war. Not only did thousands of Vietnamese live in the tunnels during the war, a lot of the combat went on down there (hence the phrase “Tunnel Rats” to refer to western soldiers who entered the tunnels on search and destroy missions). The place is pretty spooky but also fascinating, and can be reached in less than an hour from HCMC.
9. Take the Reunification Express
I love a long train journey and I was rewarded exactly that on many occasions in Vietnam. The Reunification Express is the national train system that runs the length of Vietnam connecting Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. While it may not be the fastest way to get around, it definitely offers the most cultural experience. The train often crawls along the 1,726 km (1,072 mile) distance between the cities, with 191 stops in between. The route is largely coastal, stopping at many of the tourist hotspots or nearby. The official journey time is between 30 to 40 hours to travel the entire length of the north-south train. In reality, with late departures and multiple unscheduled stops, it can take much longer. But isn’t that the beauty of slow travel? Tip: pack some noodle pots. Trains have a hot water tap so you can dine to your hearts’ content.
10. Mekong Delta floating markets
I was in two minds whether to include this. I took a day trip from the city to visit the floating markets of the Mekong Delta but was honestly very disappointed by the experience. I booked a tour through my hotel and it wasn’t great. Not only was the market over by the time we got to the river (I suspect you need to stay near the river to see it in full swing because it’s a morning market and it takes hours to get to the river from the city), the rest of the day involved going from one tourist selling stop to another. The Mekong Delta held promise, just do more research than I did, ideally visiting for longer than a day, and try not to take one of the popular package tours offered from HCMC.
11. Visit Nha Trang for R&R
I was drawn to Nha Trang ever since I read about it as a place that was used for R&R during the war. And if that’s what you’re after, you’re in luck. If can be the perfect retreat from the cities of Vietnam and, so long as you skip the backpacker parties (more on that below), you can maintain a romanticised view about this stretch of coastline.
12. Party in Nha Trang
Step away from the sleek resorts and Nha Trang is party central. If that’s what you’re after, Nha Trang is the Koh Phangan of Vietnam. Kick bag, grab a beer or two and make some new friends.
13. Beach time in Nha Trang
Nha Trang has a famous stretch of coastline that promises rich golden sands and turquoise sea. Escape the party scene and head for some serious beach time. But my biggest tip is to visit in high season.
I visited in low season and not only was the beach closer to grey looking and headed by cloud, the monsoon rains were punishing.
14. Visit Vin Pearland in Nha Trang
The unexpected highlight in Nha Trang was a day out at Vin Pearland, a theme park on an island just off the coast. As amusement parks go, Vin Pearland is kinda retro – think wooden roller coasters, dodgem cars and a big ship rather than the high-octane rides found in the USA. For me, that was part of the place’s charm – good old-fashioned fun!
The water park was also a hoot though borderline dangerous (take care – the rides are fast and I don’t think any health and safety rules have been adhered to as I found out as I nearly slid over the edge of the slide). But perhaps the best part that makes Vin Pearland worth every Dong (I’m not being rude – it’s the local currency) is the beaches which are traffic, pollution and hawker free zones – bliss!
There is a light show at night, which is good enough to stay for, though I’d highly recommend leaving 10 minutes before the end to avoid the massive queues that form when everyone tries to get off the island at the same time.
You can reach Vin Pearland by taking a local bus to the ferry/cable-car dock and from there you can choose which way (boat or cable car) to get to the island. I’d recommend the cable car for fantastic views.
15. Take an Easy Rider motorbike tour up the coast
Easy Rider is a company that offer the opportunity to hop on the back of a motorbike (which is driven by a guide) and take off up the coast. This stretch of Vietnam is so beautiful that it’s worth exploring on the back of a bike by day (otherwise you’ll likely be travelling in the dark on a night bus or train).
Honestly this was one of the best things I did when I was in Vietnam.
16. Explore Hoi An UNESCO World Heritage Site
Hoi An is by far my favourite place in all of Vietnam and probably Southeast Asia. A curious combination of colonial French and Vietnamese, Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has certainly earned those stripes. Wander through the streets, which are lit by an array of Chinese lanterns at night, and its easy to pretend you’re in an exotic eastern fairytale.
17. Find Hoi An’s Temples and Pagodas
As a trading port, Hoi An is awash with influences from around the world. My favourites are the Chinese pagodas. Also, don’t miss the Japanese bridge. In fact, you could easily send a day wandering and exploring the temples – there are plenty of them.
18. Go silk shopping in Hoi An
As an old trading port for silk, Hoi An has literally hundreds of shops selling made to measure…everything. It’s an attraction that pulls in people from around the world. Each time I’ve visited, I’ve had beautiful clothes made. If you want more information about shopping for silk in Hoi An, check out my article complete with shopping tips: How to Make the Most of the Tailors in Hoi An.
19. Visit An Bang beach near Hoi An
Around 10 minutes by motorbike or taxi from the Old Town, you can reach the beautiful beach of An Bang. As well as the lovely soft golden sand you’ll come to expect in Vietnam, you’ll see that the beach is dotted with circular fishing boats used by the local fishermen.
20. Take a boat trip on the Thu Bon River in Hoi An
Carving up the centre of Hoi An the Thu Bon River, a winding river, and if you’re able to gather some people together to share the cost (and fun), head down to the dock and hire a boat for an hour. Try to go at sunset. Kick back, pop open a beer and watch the fishermen at work as your skipper steers the way.
21. Visit My Son
My Son is an ancient Cham religious site from the 4th century. Although the temples at My Son are largely in ruins, some of them remain pretty intact and if you’re unable to make it to Cambodia, this is going to be your best alternative to Angkor Wat.
The two things that are really impressive. First the temples have stood for centuries without using any form of mortar and even to this day scientists can’t figure out how the temples have stayed standing without it. Second, the site was very heavily bombed during the Vietnam War and there is extensive crater evidence still at the site.
For hotels: Here’s a list of the 10 best hotels in Hoi An (according to Trip Advisor) with both winning the Travelers’ Choice Award.
22. Explore the citadel of Hue
Hue (pronounced ‘Way’) is an ancient walled city that has a lot of historical significance from Nguyen Emperors through to fighting during the Vietnam war. If you’re after temples, a citadel, pagodas and palaces, Hue is for you. It’s often skipped by tourists which is a shame because its such an impressive city.
23. Explore Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Hanoi Old Quarter is the beating heart of the city for tourists and you can get lost in French Colonial streets. Wander, grab some French food (weird, I know, right?) and soak up the culture in Vietnam’s capital city. Only got time for Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi? A friend recently asked me whether I thought Hanoi or HCMC was the better city to spend time in. Personally, I prefer the city of the south, HCMC but you don’t want to skip Hanoi entirely – it’s the jumping off point for Halong Bay.
24. Sail to Halong Bay
Saving the best for last, Halong Bay is without a doubt one of the biggest highlights of any trip to Vietnam and my visit didn’t disappoint. Even though the sky was grey and the water unseasonably cold, those two days and one night I spent amongst the limestone karsts of Halong Bay will stay with me until I die. For hours as the light dimmed, I sat with my camera staring out at the eerie shapes that nature had taken and felt a huge wave of calm. After one day of kayaking and swimming and another visiting caves, watching the water rippling around the rocks just completed the scene.
I took my trip with Intrepid Travel, which currently costs £160/$240 for a two-night trip. The accommodation was top-notch (I had my own bunk) and the food was some of the best I’d eaten in Vietnam – cooked by the crew onboard. Best of all, it was a brand I trusted and knew I wouldn’t be gambling with my trip. You can find details of Intrepid’s Halong Bay Junk Cruise here.
25. See Sapa’s Rice Terraces
Sapa’s rice terraces in Vietnam are one of the highlights of any trip to Vietnam. In fact, they’re so stunning, they’re a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Found in orth Vietnam in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains it’s thought that the terraces were built more than 2,000 years ago by the local hill tribes. If you want toe scape the crowds of the city, and immerse yourself in Vietnam’s travel past, head to Sapa. Like rice terraces, check out my guide to visiting the Batad Rice Terraces in the Philippines.