For several decades now, Vietnam has been one of the main tourist attractions in Southeast Asia, attracting everyone from backpackers and families, right up to US senior citizens who fought in-and-around Vietnam during the US conflict. There are many different places to visit in Vietnam and here are some suggestions for first-time visitors with points of interest that range from the cities to visit, and things to do in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh and a three-point list of interesting beaches in Vietnam.
You may find some of these destinations in your Vietnam tourism packages, and that’s okay, this is not an article meant for the seasoned traveler who is laser-focused on unique discoveries.
Three things to do for Vietnam first timers
These are points of interest for first time visitors, so that you don’t miss anything important when traveling to Vietnam.
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long, trips are without a doubt one of the more popular trips because the landscape is beautiful and surreal. Located in Northern Vietnam, the unique properties of the limestone have slowly evolved into what you now see in Ha Long, Vietnam. This massive area features close to 2000 tiny islands made of limestone and is covered with jungle. Geologists estimate that it took 500 million years of formation to get to this stage and even though the pictures are always impressive, traveling there yourself is unlike anything else.
The best way by far to enjoy this place is to arrange for a private yacht with some friends and to spend a long weekend in the area. Waking up at sunset and seeing the surreal landscape in the morning is a memory that will stay with you for a very long time. Another bonus is that a private yacht does not have to stick to a tight schedule like many of the chartered boats. You get to choose when and where you want your yacht to go and when you return to the shore for the drive back to Hanoi.
A trip to Vietnam offers you the chance to see the Vietnam conflict from the other side. A lot of veterans jump at this opportunity and find their way to one of the many war museums all over the country.
The Vietnam Military History Museum is one of the more interesting ones, as they have an amazing collection of weapons, wrecks, and abandoned vehicles. They also have a fair share of Anti-American propaganda which is very interesting for someone who has only seen one side of this conflict. A word of warning; this place is angled towards locals, so don’t expect well-placed signs in English, Spanish and French at every corner. For a more international experience, visit the Cu Chi tunnels where they provide clear signage, audio tours, and English speaking guides.
Mekong Delta tour
The Mekong Delta transcends Vietnam in the sense that it is of vital importance to an entire region, and not just Vietnam alone. The Mekong connects China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. It all ends in the “Nine Dragon River Delta” though, which is relatively close to Ho Chi Minh City.
The Mekong Delta is wonderful and you will see large commercial floating markets with big barges and small longtail boats shooting back and forth in between them. In some of the smaller municipalities, you will find genuine small-scale floating markets as well, with all of the visual landmarks and cultural clichés you can think of such as vegetables being loaded onto little raft-like boats, an abundance of the Asian conical hats, and a sea of colorful dresses.
Being a part of these markets is great fun, and you will get a chance to interact personally and negotiate to get the best bargains as you buy some dragon fruit from a fast-talking local with a warm grin and a cigarette dangling from his lips. There are numerous homestays in the area and learning how rural life is outside of the Vietnamese cities can be inspirational and interesting at the same time.
Three great cities to see in Vietnam
Vietnam’s geographical situation is interesting, in the sense that it is a very long country and Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are almost 2000 kilometers apart (approx. 1000 miles). The most popular cities for travelers are Ho Chi Minh City, followed by Hanoi, then Da Nang.
Both cities have a population of well over 5 million people, whereas Da Nang houses a little more than 1 million people.
1/ Da Nang
Technically Haiphong is a bigger city than Da Nang, but since it is more of an industrial city, Vietnam visitors are well advised to skip Haiphong and head to Da Nang.
The Vietnamese are well-aware that Da Nang is a travel hub for foreigners making their way through the country, and you will find a well-organized tourist infrastructure present. Even without these amenities, Da Nang’s rich history makes it a great travel destination.
There are several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the area, including Thuy Son. This is the only one accessible to visitors and the summit allows for a magnificent view over the surrounding area and some of the other (forbidden) marble mountains. Visitors love taking pictures of the downtown Dragon Bridge, which will actually spit fire and water night. If this is something you would like to witness as well, make sure you are in the area around 9PM on the weekends because this dragon is only in action on Saturdays and Sundays.
Out of these three cities, Hanoi is the oldest one dating back to a settlement discovered from 3000 BC. Much has happened since then, and this Northern Vietnamese city remains a political powerhouse to this day.
You will be able to visit countless monuments, war memorials, and historically significant buildings. Keep in mind that Vietnam is still a communist state. A visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and shrine is revered, and disrespectful behavior will not be tolerated. The architecture alone is worth the trip, and there are the gardens to explore and a general peacefulness at the site.
Other great attractions are the Perfume Pagoda and the Temple of Literature. For an impression of the French colonial past, go to the Hanoi Opera House or Long Bien Bridge. Be sure to look around as you travel the city because the colonial architecture can be spotted nearly everywhere.
Given the colonial past of Hanoi, the nightlife is interesting and you can find terraces to enjoy a cold beer and watch the crowds go by, quite easily. The Vietnam nightclub experience is probably a little different but certainly worth checking out. You will also encounter mega clubs, with three different venues stuck together, attracting a pleasant mix of both locals and expats, with the occasional tourist popping in as well.
3/ Ho Chi Minh
Like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh is another Vietnamese city with a rich colonial past, and many tourists flock to Ho Chi Minh to visit the many war museums.
The Cu Chi tunnels are a popular attraction, where visitors trace the steps of Vietcong fighters and learn about the conflict from the other side of the fence.
Be sure to try some of the street food. You simply can’t leave the city without at least one bowl of Pho; a soup containing rice noodles, herbs, vegetables and thin slices of meat. This modest Vietnamese dish has taken the entire world by storm over the last few years. There are several versions to try and in the South, Pho is prepared with bean sprouts and local basil which is not found in the Northern version.
You really can’t beat the original from a street hawker in Ho Chi Minh though, so if you are feeling a little hungry, simply look around. Chances are there is a stand with little plastic chairs within a hundred meters from you. Simply sit down, point at the sign and get ready for a Vietnamese taste bud sensation.
Spending two or three days on the beach in Vietnam is an opportunity you should jump at. There are palm trees, countless high-end resorts and beautiful bays and lagoons to explore.
The three beaches below should come in handy as they are located in the North, South and the middle of the country as well.
Con Dao for island beach
Con Dao is a group of little islands in the South of Vietnam with several resorts in different price ranges on the main island. The beaches are sandy, the mountains are covered by jungles and Bai Nhat beach is one of the best in Vietnam.
Bai Chay Beach that is close to Hanoi.
If you can combine a trip to Ha Long Bay with a few days on a beach or in a resort, Bai Chay Beach is another great choice. Imagine a strip of low-sloping hills, stretching towards the sea. The strip of sand is over 500 meters long and 100 meters wide. The current is almost non-present and the waves are gentle.
Bai Chay is a well-kept secret and it is a great place to unwind for a few days while admiring the Bai Chay bridge.
Mui Ne for watersports and a sleepy town
Travelers who are into water sports like kitesurfing or windsurfing have to go to Mui Ne. The wind is excellent in the area it is popular with tourists from around the world.
The atmosphere is very laid back and things are relatively inexpensive.
When there isn’t any wind, the sand dunes are a local attraction you will want to see. During the holiday season, the town does tend to fill up with a regular exodus of expats from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, so make sure you make a reservation for that time period.
Melissa is a passionate foodie, travel writer, and editor working in media internationally and in the USA. She has lived in Bangkok since 2004 and has a background in the travel industry. Melissa’s writing has been published globally in many prestigious online and print magazines for over a decade. Her motto for life is “You cannot live or love well if you have not wined and dined well!”