A precise guide to the places to visit and the things to do in Vietnam for an unforgettable experience
With the country being disproportionally long, making a list of fun things to do in Vietnam would normally take into account some sort of route. But there are simply too many things to see and do, and I can’t expect anyone to completely stick to my personal itinerary anyway.
Therefore, it makes most sense to just make a list of ten incredible or smart attractions you should really consider when you are in the neighbourhood. And I am well aware there are tons more, but you have to start somewhere, right?
Halong Bay – Northern Vietnam
I first came along Halong Bay during a photo shoot in Krabi, Thailand. While we trying to get the best possible lights, a traditional Chinese junk slowly moved into our pictures, complete with red sails and the typical stern towering over the water. One of the photographers remarked that this whole experience was just like ‘Halong Bay’ and years later I finally found out what he meant.
It turned out that the idyllic combination of clean water, limestone towers and an abundance of traditional boats (which is why we came to Krabi in the first place) also exists in Vietnam. Except their version is infinitely better. The entire area was recently declared a UNESCO Heritage Site and it makes perfect sense.
The bay is dotted with almost 2,000 little islets, covered with plants, birds, lizards and some very angry monkeys. For a truly spectacular experience, get ready to fork out a little more money and try to find a cruise that accommodates as few people as possible.
The less people on board, the higher your sense of exclusivity and there really is nothing like waking up on your own traditional vessel, while the crew is preparing the first coffee of the day.
Cu Chi tunnel systems – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon/South)
The Cu Chi tunnels is something especially Americans like to go visit. Given that their country’s history is so tied up with the history of Vietnam, I get it. The conflict has cost almost 60,000 US soldiers their lives and millions of Vietnamese sadly perished in the too. As the American war machine was technically superior, the (North) Vietnamese had to improvise and one of these improvisations was guerilla warfare.
Given that Vietnam already had an enormous tunnel infrastructure from their last conflict with the French, they simply expanded the existing structures. As a result, there were underground hospitals, storage facilities and entire training grounds beneath the soil by the 1960s.
Rife with booby traps above and below the ground, special infantrymen called ‘tunnel rats’ were sent in to destroy the tunnels with explosives, and ‘neutralize’ enemies, while the Viet Cong would try to pick of the intruder before he could do any damage.
Located outside Ho Chi Minh, the Cu Chi tunnels are part of an enormous network, that cover most of Vietnam. Visitors of the war memorial park get to crawl in parts of the tunnel system that are well maintained, with several spots being enlarged to accommodate Caucasian tourists (we happen to be taller than the average Viet Cong soldier). If you always wanted to shoot an AK-47, an M16 or even the M60 (Rambo II, final scene), you can’t miss out on the Cu Chi tunnels.
The Mekong Delta – Southern Vietnam
The Mekong is an enormous part of South-western Vietnam and can be considered the lifeblood of the country. If you happen to be in this part of the country, make sure to book some sort of guided tour out into the little villages or better yet, float out there.
Seeing the hustle and bustle on these waterways will allow you to understand the deep connection the Vietnamese people have with the water, both as a means of transportation, an irrigation system and even a defensive barrier in ancient times.
There are so many floating markets to see, and contrary to other places in Asia, there is still real trading going on and none of it is aimed at the tourists. As I mentioned earlier at Ha Long bay, it really pays off to spend a little extra on your tour here, as a budget ticket will buy you a place on an overcrowded barge together with 30 foreigners, whereas a little extra can make all the difference.
So, be ready to buy a more exclusive experience for your Mekong Delta Tour, and bring a camera with a fully charged battery.
Pro tip: Whenever someone from another boat or canoe tries to hand you something, always ask how much it costs first, to avoid ‘unpleasant surprises’. These are traders and some are very entrepreneurial.
Hang Nga Crazy House – Da Lat (Southern Vietnam)
The Hang Nga Crazy House or Hang Nga guesthouse is an unusually shaped guesthouse at Da Lat, in Southern Vietnam. Immediately triggering thoughts of Dali’s architecture in Barcelona, this unusual building stands out. And the best thing is that you can spend a couple of days here at a very affordable price. Each room carries a different theme, and you will find just as much westerners as locals eager to stay in this place.
Talking to the owner reveals a lot about the everyday struggles of the indivdual as they stand out in one way or another in a Communist regime. But with perseverance and a lot of help from her peers, she managed to overcome initial struggles and the ‘crazy house’ is now a tourist staple and even its greatest detractors admit that the place has put Da Lat on the map.
The area is mostly known for bike tours and the usual list of pagoda and temples, but nothing quite like the crazy house exists anywhere else. Or, as one guest mentioned: “Thanks for showing me the meaning of life. The fairy tale house took me back to my childhood, to when things were pure and natural.”
The Imperial City – Hue (Central Vietnam)
The Imperial City is a walled palace within the citadel of the city of Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. Now for fans of Kung Fu films, there are very locations in Vietnam that are more ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ than this particular site. Find the throne in the ‘Hall of Supreme Harmony’ and notice how it resembles the set from another Asia-influenced movie of recent times: ‘The Wall’.
The spectacular symmetric architecture with bright reds and golden accents looks amazing, whereas outside the compound is filled with straight moats, delicate pavilions and curvy rooftops. Similar to the Forbidden City in Beijing, access to the inner sanctum, the ‘Purple Forbidden City’ was restricted to the imperial family only, but nowadays it is open for the general public.
For the most scenic spots in the complex, visit the Thien Mu Pagoda, and make sure to check out the different gates as each one is unique and vibrant with colors. The imperial tombs are spectacular too, although the restoration process has been slow, considering most damage was done during the Test Offensive in 1968.
Sapa – Northwest Vietnam
Sapa or Sa Pa is a mountainous town in northern Vietnam and most famous for its rice terraces. I figure a lot of travelers come here as they consider it a ‘destination of the beaten path’ (which is a relative term at best), and want to meet some of the local tribes in their natural environment. You should ask yourself how genuine their culture is when half the village is making bracelets and blankets to sell to tourists, but hey, to each their own.
Refrain from buying trinkets from the kids though, as you are perpetuating their misery. If you want to do good; bring some pencils and books and hand them to a local school. If you want to go trekking through the rice fields, I recommend joining a group as the guides do know what area is the most scenic. Also note that during the wrong season, the trials can get muddy and thus, slippery.
Pro tip 1: Those Adidas Campus you bought in Thailand are practically useless here, so make sure you have a pair of sturdy shoes out here.
Pro tip 2: Check out the evenings at Sapa Square. It is not unusual to see the locals play ‘foot badminton’ or Da Cau, and the dexterity the players possess is incredible.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – Hanoi (Northern Vietnam)
Vietnam has gradually been opening up to tourism and more and more western influences, so it is easy to forget it is still a communist country. Entrepreneurs and expats living in the country are all too aware of this, but many tourists tend to look past the little signs. For a stern reminder, all you need to do is look up the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, as its intimidating architecture is a textbook communist building.
Created to honour the country’s father, it was modelled after the mausoleum erected for Lenin, while at the same time it incorporates Vietnamese design accents. The structure is protected by an honour guard from the military and visitors have to show the proper respect. Don’t wear skimpy clothing, don’t put your hands in your pockets, don’t cross your arms and don’t talk while entering the mausoleum.
Personally I prefer the garden around the structure, which features different plants and flowers from all over Vietnam, symbolizing the entire country. It is all meticulously maintained and there is a peaceful quietude around the entire area.
Highlights are the changing of the guards at the Mausoleum, and other tourists being told to cover their legs or stop eating that capitalist chewing gum they are so fond of. Don’t get intimidated by all the rules – the Mausoleum offers a glance at the cult of personality, and it is one of the cheap things to do in Vietnam.
Mui Ne – Southeast Vietnam
Mui Ne is a little village on the South coast of Vietnam and famous amongst windsurfers and kite surfers in the region. A lot of people also travel here as it is part of their personal backpacking trial and why not. The beaches are beautiful, life is very affordable and the dunes are famous.
Many tourists hire a sled to slide down the white and yellow sand dunes, and another popular attraction is the Fairy Stream. This inconspicuous little river doesn’t look like much, until you take of your shoes and try to walk close to it. The sun in Southern Vietnam tends to heat up stones and sidewalks to an unbearable degree, but walking in the river is amazing.
The red dirt sloshes between your toes and just following the creek bed is a simple feel-good experience that cools you off and brings you back to simpler days. Sounds horribly cheesy, but it really isn’t. Go find the Fairy Stream and find out for yourself.
Test yourself with a few kiteboard lessons if you plan to stay for several days, or simply get to know some of the Russians while enjoying copious amounts of vodka. Mui Ne is amazing, and even though it is mentioned in a lot of travel guides already, the area still feels genuine and interesting.
Motorcycle touring – all over Vietnam
If you are looking for adventurous things to do in Vietnam, this might be the ultimate tip. Friends of mine set up a motorcycle rental shop for this exact purpose in Cambodia, but Vietnam has just as much to offer, and once you get out of the cities, touring is like a dream. Vietnam traffic can get a little weird, but it is well worth it. Getting outside of the cities and beyond the reach of most tour companies is best done on a motorcycle, and once you are out there you get to see the real Vietnamese and their culture.
Having toured several villages myself, it never ceases to amaze me how every village has its own statues with either a farmer or a revolutionary brandishing an AK-47, but then I remind myself – this IS Vietnam after all.
Son Doong or Hang En cave – Central Vietnam
In the same vein of the motorcycle tour, Son Doong and Hang En belong in that list of adventurous things to do in Vietnam. Hang En and Son Doong are two massive caves located in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which happens to be another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both caves are extremely difficult to get close to, and most tours take several days. But what you get is a unique experience that will remain with you for the rest of your life.
And if you are usually annoyed by backpackers who are ‘all about the party’, then this is your trip. The caves are 300 million years old, the authorities are making sure the area remains intact and unpolluted and I can honestly say this is a great project.
The very few operators that organize tours here are evaluated on a yearly basis, and as such, they make sure their impact on the cave and its ecosystem is minimal. If you’ve always wanted to see giant cave pearls or stalagmites higher than 70 metres, this is your chance. Note: this is not one of the cheap things to do in Vietnam.
I’ve literally compounded some of the very best and most interesting things to do in Vietnam here, but of course there are many more. It all depends on personal taste, and while I had the time of my life in a karaoke bar somewhere in the Vietnamese backcountry, other people may compare that to water torture. In the end, it all comes down to what you are into. Once you know you are coming to Vietnam, pick a region and plan ahead. Take into account what the weather is going to be like, and read up on the different activities. I hope my list of 10 things to do in Vietnam helped.
More Vietnam: Check out other amazing things you can do in Vietnam