Vietnam is a country blessed with outstanding scenery, fantastic food and enthusiastic, welcoming people. Here are a few of my favourite things to do in Vietnam.
1. Cruise Among a Thousand Islands at Halong Bay
Relax on a Chinese-style junk as you sail among the tiny, uninhabited islets and sheer cliffs of Halong Bay. Take a kayak out for a spin, explore a cave, make friends with the monkeys, snorkel with the fishes, visit a traditional floating village or take a dip in the warm waters of the South China Sea.
Be sure to spend a night or two on the boat, where you’ll be treated to the freshest seafood, served by staff who are eager to please. During the magical hours from twilight to dawn, the interplay of light and shadow, sun, sea and clouds on the towering karst islands and sea stacks is a sight to behold.
2. Trek Through the Terraced Rice Paddies in Sapa
The former French Colonial hill-station of Sapa, near the Chinese border, makes a fantastic base for seeing some of best terraced rice paddies in Vietnam. The best way to view them is on a guided trek, which can include spending a night at a homestay in a remote Hmong or Dao village.
Sapa is minutes away from cascading waterfalls and 3,143-metre-high Mount Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest mountain. Climbing to the summit is an option, but you can also take a cable car from the town all the way to the summit. In Sapa, you’ll meet colourfully dressed ethnic minorities who make beautiful handicrafts and will share stories about their traditional way of life.
3. Get Lost in Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Get lost wandering through the haphazard maze of streets in the Old Quarter. You’ll see old French colonial-style buildings and hidden Chinese temples, bustling markets and street vendors, more motorbikes than you ever thought possible and some of the best street food to be found anywhere in Southeast Asia.
Don’t miss Hoan Kiem Lake, the historic heart of Hanoi, with its gnarly shade trees, ancient temples and pagodas and friendly locals. In the evening, head to Bun Cha Huong Lien, where former U.S. president Barack Obama dined on one of Hanoi’s most loved local dishes, then take in a traditional water puppet show. Splurge for a night at the historic Sofitel Legend Metropole, where past guests include Charlie Chaplin, Graham Greene, Joan Baez and Jane Fonda.
4. Explore Palaces and Ancient Tombs in Hue
Discover Vietnam’s proud history as you explore the Imperial City of Hue, which was the capital city of Vietnam in the early 19th century.
The grounds, fortified by ramparts and a moat, contain the citadel. Within the citadel is the walled Imperial City palace complex and within that, the Purple Forbidden City. Take a boat trip down the Perfume River, where you can visit the tombs and temples of ancient emperors.
Hue is also the starting point for tours of the Demilitarised Zone, a fascinating trip that includes a visit to the battlefield of Khe Sanh and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
5. Ride into the Clouds on Hai Van Pass
Rent a motorbike or hire a motorbike and driver and explore Hai Van Pass, a nearly deserted mountain pass on the old national highway that winds between Hue and Da Nang. The steep and twisting road is one of the best motorbike-friendly roads in Vietnam.
When you arrive at the summit, you’ll be treated to spectacular views of the sleepy fishing village of Lang Co to the north, Da Nang to the south, seemingly endless mountains to the west and the rugged coastline of the South China Sea far below. You can explore the remnants of an old French fortification at the summit and grab a snack or a drink before starting the long descent.
6. Explore an Ancient Town in Hoi An
Wandering around Hoi An is a photographer’s dream. Once relegated to the backwaters of history, the rediscovered Ancient Town is full of Chinese-style communal halls, temples and traditional houses, a Japanese covered bridge, a thriving market, exquisite lanterns and flowers everywhere you look. This is the place to save big money on tailor-made clothing, too.
When you’ve had your fill of history, rent a bicycle and head over to Cua Dai or An Bang Beach for some serious relaxation. Be sure to sample some of the special local foods like Cau Lau noodles and White Rose dumplings that are available only in Hoi An.
7. Life’s a Beach in Nha Trang
Nha Trang is famous for having one of the most beautiful bays in the world and its beach is one of the most popular in Vietnam. The wide, powdery sand and gentle waves are gorgeous sights, but it’s only one reason to come here.
Visit the ruins of the once-mighty Cham civilisation, indulge yourself at one of several hot springs resorts in the area or take a cable car across the bay to Hon Tre Island and stay at the five-star Vinpearl Nha Trang. Nha Trang is also well-known for its delicious just-caught seafood, dried squid, fresh bread and the best bar and nightlife scene on the Central Coast.
8. Cool Down in Dalat
Escape the heat and explore the Central Highlands from the 1,500-metre-high town of Dalat. Cascading waterfalls, coffee plantations, a cable car leading to a serene Zen temple tucked deep in the mountains, pine forests and pristine lakes are just a few of the sights to see in the City of Flowers.
The large market has the finest produce and the most beautiful flowers in Vietnam; at night, it becomes “Food Street” where the tastes and smells of fresh seafood and barbecued meats combine perfectly.
Spend a night at the outlandish Hang Nga Crazy House, a hotel where a Hobbit would feel perfectly at home.
9. Have a Shopping Spree in Ho Chi Minh City
If shopping is your thing, there’s no better place to go in Vietnam than to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The city is a hub of commerce, full of stately French Colonial mansions, impressive museums and sprawling parks nestled in the shade of modern skyscrapers.
The Ben Thanh market, one of the oldest structures in Saigon, is a maze-like building full of tiny shops stocked to overflowing with food staples, household goods, clothing, souvenirs, hawker-style restaurants and street food vendors. Dozens of glitzy malls offer a more sedate (and air conditioned!) experience.
Be sure to visit the Opera House and the Saigon River while you’re in the area.
10. Take a Cruise on the Mekong River
A cruise along the tributaries of the mighty Mekong in southern Vietnam offers a glimpse into the lowland jungle and tranquil countryside.
Boats make their way along the numerous canals and streams that crisscross the delta, passing by colourful riverside markets, temples, fruit orchards, rice paddies, water buffalo and quaint villages. Life moves slowly here, a world away from the steaming metropolis of Saigon less than three hours away.
A visit to Vietnam is guaranteed to never be boring. There are so many extraordinary things to see and experience; the biggest challenge is finding the time to do it all.