Vietnam is a must-do for any traveller in South-East Asia. It is one of the most diverse countries in the region and offers so many incredible experiences that will stay with you for a lifetime.
The country has changed a lot since the first time we visited six years ago. On that trip (primarily to Ho Chi Minh and the South) we were not enamoured with it. Having just left the Philippines – a tropical paradise which has some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet – entering Vietnam and its bustling cities and millions of motorbikes didn’t really compare.
It didn’t feel welcoming and we were ready to skip through and jump into Cambodia’s warm embrace (another place with incredibly friendly people).
However, six years later the country has not only achieved redemption, it is now one of our top destinations to travel to. Not only did we find that the local people in the north couldn’t be friendlier, but that some of our favourite places in Asia could be found in Vietnam.
Read next: 15 Instagrammable Places in Vietnam
Places to visit in Vietnam
Vietnam is a lot bigger than it looks on a map. If you were to go from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, it would take over 36 hours by train! It is worth keeping this in mind when planning your trip as it is hard to visit the length of the country in a short time. We’d recommend focusing on the north or the south if you are limited to a couple of weeks..
Here’s our guide to the best places to visit and why Vietnam should be high on your list of places to travel to. We’ll start with the places in the north and head south.
Few people go to Hanoi and think “it’s ok”.
It’s a city that polarises people and we fall into the love category. Whereas many other cities in South-East Asia can be a little underwhelming and are gradually being westernised, Hanoi is bucking the trend. It’s a place with distinctive Vietnamese character and the street food is some of the best in Asia, or in fact the world according to Anthony Bourdain.
When you try it yourself, you’ll see why!
The capital of Vietnam can feel like an assault on the senses, and this is another reason why we love it. Everywhere you go there is bustle, music, the smell of street food wafting through the air, street sellers and a little bit of anarchy. It’s a place with history and culture that is unique and will awaken the desire to explore in even the most travel weary.
Top 3 activities in Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The mausoleum of Vietnam’s great leader should be high on everyone’s list. Not only will it help you learn about the founder of the modern country, but it is a chance to see one of the most influential people of the 20th Century up close. His body is embalmed and is still on display.
The instagram sensation Train Street has to be seen to be believed. The houses just south of Hanoi’s main train station has been built precariously close to the trainline, utilising every spare millimetre possible. For most of the day it is a relatively normal place with people coming and going. But at 3.30pm it’s a frenzy of activity, all the chairs and other bits are taken inside and you can see just how close the train gets to the houses!
It’s not your normal tourist experience. If you want to read all about how to find it, check out our article all about Train Street in Hanoi.
Ah, street food in Hanoi. At every turn someone’s cooking up a delicious meal that will rarely set you back more than $1 USD. You can try the nation’s favourite Pho or spectacular dishes like Bun Cha or the simple lunch of Banh Mi. It’s an experience you won’t forget!
Meat eaters will be well catered for but we noticed many more vegetarian options that we found on our visit six years ago.
Where to stay in Hanoi
Holiday Emerald Hotel
We loved this hotel in Hanoi! yo'u’ll struggle to find friendlier and more helpful staff in South-East Asia. We actually stayed somewhere twice the price before this one and it was nowhere near as good.
Holiday Emerald is in the middle of the Old Quarter, meaning you can simply walk to many of the major sights. The rooms are spacious, clean, really comfortable and come with a good breakfast (we recommend the ice coffee as a “pick me up!”).
Make sure you request a room with a window ($10 extra) as many don’t have any. We’ve discovered this is a bit of a thing in Hanoi so check any hotel booking carefully.
Why Halong Bay?
Halong Bay is a natural wonder of the world and a place that should be on every Vietnam itinerary. Cruising through thousands of limestone karsts is unlike any other boat trip we’ve done and was high on our bucket list. Yes it’s busy but there are a number of ways to experience it according to your travel style so don’t let that put you off.
However, it requires research as on the face of it the trips are complicated, confusing and some are misleading. There are thousands of cruise companies offering trips to three different areas, all with different facilities. You can choose to do a day trip, 2 days or 3 days to Halong, Bai Tu Long and Lan Ha Bay.
If you can spare the time and the money we’d highly recommended spending a night on the bay, it’s a truly magical experience. We’ve written two blogs which can help navigate through all the misinformation online including our picks of the best Halong Bay Cruises (which also includes information about cruises to Bai Tu Long Bay and Lan Ha) and 11 things no one tells you about Halong Bay.
Top 3 activities to do in Halong Bay
Cruise through the karsts
Simply being in Halong Bay is an experience. Sitting back and taking in the hundreds of limestone karsts you pass by is something we’ll always remember. We visited over Joe’s birthday and splashed out on a luxury cruise with a private balcony which allowed us to feel like we were the only ones around, perfect.
Kayak Lan Ha Bay
If you’re like us and you also want some adventure as well as an independent experience, then kayaking Lan Ha Bay is a great way to explore this stunning area. No tours, no schedule, just full control, it was my favourite experience in all of Vietnam.
Spend your time paddling around the towering limestone cliffs before pulling up on white sand beaches. There really is no better way to see this incredible world heritage site.
You can read about how to do a DIY Halong Bay kayaking trip in our post on the best things to do on Cat Ba Island.
Climb up Ngu Lam Peak - Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island may have a reputation as a backpacker haven, but outside of the main town you’ll find a beautiful tropical island to explore. One of the highlights is to hike up to the top of Ngu Lam Peak in the beautiful National Park.
The short walk is steep and incredibly sweaty from the humidity, but boy is it worth it. There are few places where you can find a view like this in the Halong Bay area without the horrendous crowds.
Our cruise on Halong Bay
To have a stunning cruise, you’ll have to pay up (sadly). There are a lot of cheap day cruises, but to stay overnight in something you won’t forget. We aren’t ones for cruises, in fact we positively avoid them, but when it comes to Halong Bay it had to be done.
We felt as this was a once in a lifetime experience that it was worth it and we were right. The Paradise Elegance was a stunning boat and the scenery is everything you could wish for. Our room was beautiful, the food was great and we had our own private balcony to watch the karsts go by. It was the perfect way to see this wonder of the world.
Why Ninh Binh?
Beautiful Ninh Binh is like a trip to a lost world, in fact it’s known as Halong Bay on land. Once you get out of the city to the countryside, you feel like you’re a million miles away from civilisation, exploring winding country roads and waterways in-between towering limestone mountains shrouded in mist.
You can explore on foot, by motorbike or boat. We enjoyed all three but the highlight was exploring the rivers and caves by boat.
If you’ve looking for peace and quiet, close to Hanoi, then spend a few days in Ninh Binh.
Top 3 activities to do in Ninh Binh
Feel like you’re going back to the Jurassic age with a boat trip round Trang An. I was sceptical before we went, it sounded like a naff tourist trap, but paddling around this beautiful landscape with misty mountains, caves and stunning temples was a highlight of Vietnam. If you go at the right time, you can avoid the crowds and see this stunning place in peace and tranquility.
Mua Caves offers some of the best views in Ninh Binh, looking out for miles across this dreamy landscape. At the top you’ll see the surrounding mountains, rice paddies and river - a quintessential Vietnamese landscape. You can read more on Mua Caves and how to plan your trip here.
Bich Dong Pagoda
Bich Dong is one of the most beautiful pagodas we’ve ever seen: the entrance is set at the foot of a mountain with a lake full of lily pads (granted they look better when in bloom but it’s still a pretty sight!). It is a very picturesque place and has more to explore beyond the entrance. It should definitely be on your itinerary for Ninh Binh.
Where to stay in Ninh Binh
Mua Caves eco-lodge
If you’re looking to stay outside of the noise of Ninh Binh city, then Mua Caves offers peace and quiet in a rural setting. The lodge is actually a series of small buildings set around the path to the top of the mountain.
The positives are that the rooms are big, comfortable and blissfully quiet at night. You also get in to Mua Caves free and before anyone else. The drawbacks are that during the day you will hear people walking around outside your room and there was some construction going on (but if you ask for the furthest away room from the construction, this is mitigated). After sunset, none of this is a problem.
The food isn’t the best either, head out for your meals.
Why Phong Nha?
Every country we go to in South-East Asia there is always a place that we end up falling in love with their laid back vibe and find it hard to tear ourselves away. Beautiful, peaceful and relaxing, they are places we recommend to everyone we meet: Luang Prabang in Laos, Pai in Thailand, Batad in the Philippines, Hoi An in Vietnam and Ubud in Indoneisa. Phong Nha has joined this illustrious list.
Set among the mountains and on the banks of a stunning river, Phong Nha has everything a traveller could look for: plenty of places to explore, turquoise rivers to swim in, some of the biggest caves in the world, good food, and quiet roads to explore the area in peace. It’s the kind of place where you can either chill in a hammock by the river swaying under the palm trees, or hike, swim and kayak in caves 1km high and 37km long.
Top 3 activities to do in Phong Nha
Paradise Cave is huge! You only get to see a small section of it if you explore independently (you can see more on a caving tour) but it’s enough to get the scale of this place. You can see stalagmites and stalactites that have formed over millions of years, with some of the most beautiful formations we’ve ever seen.
We’ve rarely seen water as bright blue as Mooc Springs outside a paradise tropical island! The water here is dazzlingly blue and is perfect for swimming. Whilst it is beautiful, it can get pretty busy here so time it right (early or late) to avoid the tourists who will make it a little less tranquil.
Bomb Crater Bar
As the name suggests, you can grab a drink in the middle of a crater made by a bomb in the Vietnam War, it’s good to see new life springing up in an otherwise sad reminder of the past.
As well as drinks, you’ll be able to swing in a hammock and lookout onto the river. A blissful way to chill after a day exploring.
Where to stay in Phong Nha
Phong Nha Lake Resort
Whilst the Phong Nha Lake Resort is set 7km from the town of Phong Nha, it makes up for the not so convenient location with the most comfortable rooms in the area for the same price as many basic homestays (when booked in advance, walk in rates were considerably more expensive).
We booked into the Lake View Bungalow and had a big, clean room with a comfortable bed, nice shower and a pretty lake view. Whilst scooter hire isn’t too cheap (250,000 dong per day or just over $10 USD), they were almost brand new with 3,000 km on the clock, making the ride a lot more comfortable than from any others we’d used in Vietnam. They also had the best helmets.
Why visit Hue?
Out of all the places we visited in Vietnam, Hue is the one that had the biggest transformation. On our first visit, it seemed underwhelming; a busy city, heaving with traffic with a main attraction that is virtually destroyed by the Vietnam War. I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but it paled in comparison to everywhere else.
This time, it was completely different. Cafes, restaurants and cool alleyways have sprung up around the city, giving it a really cool vibe. There’s now plenty of interesting places to escape the traffic and noise, as well as a couple of new places to explore that have made Hue a great place to visit. If you go here just for the Citadel, you are likely to be disappointed. However, if you add on a few other places to your list, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Top 3 activities to do in Hue
The abandoned water park – Ho Thuy Thien
This is the kind of place that wouldn’t be popular unless it was forbidden to the public! Ho Thuy Thien is an abandoned water park in Hue that you can visit for a “small donation”. Once in, you can see what a post apocalyptic world might look like with a decaying swimming area and huge dragon (that used to house an aquarium).
There’s not many places we’ve been to quite like Ho Thuy Thien, a recent Instagram favourite.
The Citadel in Hue was the ancient capital of Vietnam, but was heavily bombed and damaged during the Vietnam War. There are still quite a few areas to explore, but naturally it isn’t quite as grand as it used to be.
Our favourite spot was the beautiful (and aptly named) “Long Corridor” which was perfect in the late afternoon light.
Thien Mu Pagoda
Perched on the Perfume River in the Hue countryside, Thien Mu Pagoda is a beautiful temple and a symbol of the city. The journey there is nearly as enjoyable as the temple itself as you follow the river and escape the busy city.
You can also see some famous relics such as the car shown in the infamous burning monk seen here (an iconic photo depicting the Buddhist protest against the South Vietnamese government).
Where to stay in Hue
Hotel Le Perle
Hue is blessed with a lot of great options but we recommend Hotel La Perle. The entry level rooms were so cheap that we treated ourselves to a King Room on the top floor (which was still under $20 USD per night!).
It is very clean and offers comfortable, big beds and is set in a very quiet location. The free fruit all day and a decent breakfast included in the price was a really nice touch as well. The staff were lovely and it was a great place to rest after a day’s activities.
Why visit Hoi An?
It’s hard not to fall in love with Hoi An. It has been beautifully preserved and they’ve worked hard to ensure that all of the buildings have remained in their traditional style, resisting the temptation to modernise. What makes exploring Hoi An even better is that the old town has been pedestrianised allowing you to explore in peace. It’s incredibly atmospheric by day and night with the stunning river, great food scene and iconic lanterns that line the streets.
Hoi An is the kind of place where you intend to stay for a couple nights and find you can’t leave even after a week. Once you slow the pace down and spend your days strolling the streets, sipping on delicious coffee and getting some fabulous tailor made clothes, how can you jump back into the manic pace of every other Vietnamese city?
We’d recommend planning to have more time than you think you’ll need in Hoi An, it really is a hard place to leave!
Read next: Epic things to do in Da Nang
Top 3 activities in Hoi An
The Golden Bridge – Ba Na Hills
The Golden Bridge shot to fame on social media and is just as beautiful in real life. Sitting on the top of Ba Na Hills, this bridge overlooks the surrounding tree covered mountains and allowing you to see as far as the city of Da Nang and famous the Hai Van Pass. It can get very busy, so we recommend following our guide and going early!
The Old Town
Walking around the old town in Hoi An is a delight. The buildings are kept in their original condition, the cars and motorbikes are gone (apart from the odd bikes which bend the rules) and the toughest decision you’ll face is which coffee shop to go to next. If you’re a coffee lover it’s hard not to overdose! You have been warned….
The lanterns on the river
The main draw for Hoi An is the lanterns that are floated on the river every night. On this beautiful stretch of water you can ride on a small boat and set some of your own off with a wish. The candlelight makes this picturesque place even more spectacular.
Whilst many people try to time their visit to coincide with the monthly lantern festival (on the full moon) you can see the lanterns any night of the week - just slightly less of them.
Where to stay in Hoi An
The Royal Hoi An by M Gallery
There’s no better place in the whole of Hoi An to treat yourself than the Royal Hoi An. This stunning hotel has the wow factor.
The rooms are big and luxurious. We loved the bathtubs in the Wakaku Wing that were in the main part of the room (the bathroom isn’t divided from the bedroom and one flows to the other seamlessly)
If you can muster the energy to leave the room, there’s a rooftop pool and bar that offers amazing views of Hoi An and is a great spot at sunset. The hotel also serves the most delicious brekkies, quite sure we put on all that weight we lost hiking!
We stayed as guests of the Royal Hoi An but our opinions are our own.
It’s safe to say that Dalat is one of the unusual places to visit in Vietnam. The first thing you notice is that it is a refreshing break from the oppressive humidity and heat in the South of Vietnam – you may even have to crack out a jumper! However, you’ll soon find that this part of the country is a little ‘disneyfied’. There’s the bizarre crazy house and several places with love arches and twee buildings. You can even get to the foot of a waterfall by toboggan.
Whilst it isn’t on our “must-do” list of places to visit in Vietnam if your time is short, it is a nice stopover between Ho Chi Minh and Hoi An with a refreshingly cool climate.
Top 3 activities in Dalat
The Crazy House
The Crazy House is an introduction to the not so traditional town of Dalat. This weird and wonderful building takes inspiration from expressionist artists and is unlike anything you’ll see in the rest of Vietnam or probably the world! You can explore the narrow corridors and strange exhibits in every room, becoming more confused and bewildered as you go. If you really want you can even stay there!
The waterfalls of Dalat
There are three main waterfalls you can visit in Dalat, but the most popular is Tiger Waterfall. This is probably because you can get to the foot of the falls by a kart on rails!
Alternatively Elephant Falls is a more ‘normal’ and wilder experience. This huge waterfall is one you can feel the full force of up close and there’s no fairground ride in sight!
You can’t go to Vietnam and not drink the delicious coffee, and where better a place to do this than a plantation! Dalat is a famous coffee producing area in Vietnam, so you can learn all about the coffee growing process and follow it up with a fresh drip coffee - heaven.
Where to stay in Dalat
Dreams is the perfect place to stay in Dalat as it combines comfortable rooms, a great location, and home comforts at breakfast (it’s the only place outside the UK that has served marmite, if you’re aussie they also had vegemite!). It’s great value and even had a hot tub on the roof. It’s a really cosy place to stay in the cool highlands weather.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City is a glimpse of the modern side of Vietnam. It still has the millions of motorbikes, but this is flanked by skyscrapers and less of the rustic, traditional architecture of Hanoi. It is also another great place to learn about the history of Vietnam with the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants museum.
While we prefer Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh has plenty to keep you busy and is the best launchpad for adventures in the South.
Top 3 activities in Ho Chi Minh
Cu Chi Tunnels & Cao Dai Temple
A short trip from the centre of Ho Chi Minh, you’ll find two places which couldn’t be more different. The first is the Cu Chi Tunnels - the well preserved tunnels used by the Viet Cong in the war. It’s a good chance to learn more about the Vietnam war, even if the commentary is one sided.
Being allowed into the tunnels really allows you to get some perspective on the living conditions and you will be staggered at how they made it work.
Near the Cu Chi Tunnels is the bizarre Cao Dai Temple - a relatively recent religion that includes Joan of Arc, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, Julius Caesar and Victor Hugo among its holy people. The temple is a unique structure and the ceremony is equally so. It’s yet another place you’ll visit in Vietnam that’s unlike anywhere else!
We loved the colourful robes, try to visit in session if you can.
The War Remnants Museum
Prepare yourself as the War Remnants Museum is hard hitting. This striking museum is a comprehensive showcase of the Vietnam War including incredible photography, exhibits and detailed information about the impact the war had on Vietnam. The most horrifying part was learning about the devastation of “Agent Orange” - a chemical defoliant that also caused mutations in the children of those exposed to it and also affects future generations.
It isn’t easy reading or viewing, but is something everyone visiting Ho Chi Minh should experience.
The water puppet show
Something this touristy would normally not make our list, but the water puppets in Vietnam are iconic. In this little theatre, you’ll see a show that takes you through folk stories backed by traditional music. You won’t understand a thing unless you speak Vietnamese, but the stories aren’t complicated and you can get the gist.
Where to stay in Ho Chi Minh
Hotel L' Odéon Phu My Hung
We can’t recommend the hotel that we stayed in so here’s one that looks pretty nice and is currently in the top 10 on Tripadvisor and with a low price tag.
Hotel des Arts Saigon - Mgallery
If you’re looking for a luxury option, also in the top 10 is one of our favourite hotel brands - Mgalley. The rooms look stunning and incredibly peaceful in what is a very hectic city.
The Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta is another great place to get an insight into traditional life in the South of Vietnam. This huge delta has a lot of interesting places to visit, with the highlight being the huge floating market. This was one of the few places we explored on a tour because it was so cheap that we couldn’t justify spending more on exploring independently! Sadly, this meant we compromised on a lot of the best things to do, being shuttled into tourist traps where their goal was to sell you souvenirs. With hindsight we’d stump up the cash to do it ourselves.
It is something you should definitely do, but we’d recommend trying to do it independently to ensure you don’t get stuck in random factories or honey farms.
Where to stay on the Mekong Delta
There are a few different places you can stay on the Mekong Delta, both in towns or in local home stays along the river.
Charming Countryside Homestay
We stayed in a hotel we wouldn’t recommend and would definitely have opted for a home stay given the choice. There are many, many options for homestays but this one is currently getting rave reviews, the rooms look rustic and charming.
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Are you planning a trip to Vietnam? Have any places you want to visit that we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments below!