Vietnam sets an all-time record in 2019 with a total of 18 million foreign tourists coming in to take a glimpse of its vibrant cityscape, breathtaking nature views, and rich culture. That number translates to a 16.2% increase in just a year showing the booming tourism of the country. Solo backpack travellers, couples looking for a romantic getaway, families in for a cultural immersion, and even travel bloggers alike all swear that Vietnam is a must-visit travel destination.
2020 might have put a brake on all our travels this year but let’s not lose hope that we will survive this pandemic. Soon enough, we’ll be able to ride a plane to take our weary souls for a refreshing and nurturing wandering.
As a side note, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you guys to first, wear your mask! Second, develop healthy hand washing routines and lastly, practice social distancing when you’re out! Stay safe, always. Let’s do our part in preventing this virus from spreading!
I wouldn’t want to bore you out of a long intro now so let’s hop on and explore Vietnam!
If you’re a seasoned traveller browsing through travel guides who is thinking of giving Vietnam a visit or a first time traveller who has already booked a trip, we have compiled a list of places that you should never skip while you’re in Vietnam.
The Geography and Culture of Vietnam
Before we get to the list, it’s nice to take in a look at Vietnam’s geography and culture for two good and valid reasons. First is you get to appreciate the country before actually visiting it and seeing what types of places it can offer you. Second is a more practical reason. Knowing the geography and culture of the land can help you plan out a good and efficient travel itinerary especially if you’re the type of traveller who likes to take in everything they can visit in just one go.
Vietnam sits on the Southeast Asian region of the world and is located on the eastern side of the Indochinese peninsula with Hanoi as its capital. It looks like a long S-shaped piece of land jigsawed into the borders of China, Laos, and Cambodia going down on the western side. Its eastern side and the tip of the south is bounded by the Gulf of Tonkin on the northern most part, the South China Sea, then the Gulf of Thailand. It has a 3,260 kilometer long coastline which makes Vietnam a definite summer getaway with all its breathtaking beaches. If you’re in for a trip here, note that Vietnam experiences a tropical climate so gear up for a sweat-filled adventure or a rainy coffee-sipping day.
Vietnam is also home to tropical lowlands and hills as well as densely forested highlands. It’s known for its mountain plateaus in the north and northwest region which are inhabited by tribal groups and the Central Highlands in the southern part which has an estimated area of 51,800 square kilometers filled with rugged mountains, dense forests, and basalt soil. Main takeaway by most visitors in Vietnam is the vast expanse of nature that they can never get enough of.
But although Vietnam takes high pride in its nature spots, the city is also a vibrant place to chill and relax. It has a vast metropolitan vibe that fully encapsulates the development of Vietnam as a country. Culturally, Vietnam is home to some of the most beautiful temples in the world revering Buddhism. Like most countries, Vietnam has religious liberty and also accommodates Christians and others but the largest percentage of Vietnamese are non-religious or follow the folk traditions.
If we’re talking about food culture, Vietnam undoubtedly has a lot to offer a traveller. Vietnamese cuisine is known for its flavor combinations with simple elements yet visually attractive owing to the contrasting colors. And just like any Asian country, Vietnamese like their rice and can be found in many dishes. Aside from those, Vietnam is also very popular in the world as a coffee giant. Coffee became deeply entrenched in Vietnamese culture after its introduction by French missionaries in 1857. The government has supported this industry ever since and now Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world.
It’s important to know where you want to land in Vietnam. If you’re visiting northern vietnam, hop on the plane and book your flight to Hanoi at the Noi Bai International airport. If you’re out for a summer getaway, start your trip in Da Nang, a coastal city found in central Vietnam. But if you want the bustle and the vibrant cityscape, take the urban centre route with Ho Chi Minh.
Let’s start our virtual trip with the capital of Vietnam featuring the classics.
Hanoi is the formal capital of Vietnam established for political reasons and somehow some people confuse it with Ho Chi Minh. Hanoi is Vietnam’s second largest city. It’s a French-colonial city which features a lot of museums, ancient pagodas, and other colonial buildings. It’s also famous for its delectable cuisine and multicultural community. If you’re a creature of the night, Hanoi welcomes you to modern nightclubs and bars and night markets where you can indulge yourself to a shopping spree without breaking your budget.
Hanoi is known for its two major neighborhoods. First is the Old Quarter which houses Vietnam’s famous historical attractions and at its heart is the Hoan Kiem Lake which is one of the most beautiful lakes in the whole of Vietnam. And second is the French Quarter where you can find the Hanoi Opera House and Hoa Lo Prison. These two neighborhoods are just fifteen minutes away, well, without the chaotic traffic.
Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple
Hoan Kiem Lake or the Lake of the Restored Sword is a cultural and historical landmark in Vietnam. Today, it’s a peaceful and quiet public park where you can refresh your soul. The lake surrounds the Ngoc Son Temple which sits on a small island in the center of the lake. It’s guarded with two towering posts which have Chinese writings on it. Ngoc Son Temple was built to commemorate the military leader Tran Hung Dao who fought bravely in war during the Yuan Dynasty. Rickshaws can take you to the post office where you can acquire entry tickets to the lake. Before reaching the lake, you will pass through the scarlet-painted wooden bridge adorned with classic Vietnamese design and art where you can take in the view of the lake and the temple.
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
You can never skip Hanoi’s Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (Hanoi Citadel) which has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site which was constructed in the 11th century by the Ly Viet dynasty. It’s a complex of historic and imperial buildings where you can see the Princess’ Palace, Doan Mon gate, and Flag Tower. This landmark is very famous and a lot of tourists come to visit it so it’s best to book in advance to make sure you get a slot. One of its highlights is the 9 meter deep underground bunker (called D67) where communists made important political decisions.
Hanoi Opera House
Found within the extent of the French Quarter in the August Revolution Square, this Opera House is home for the neoclassical French architecture with its heavy Gothic theme found all over the structure. It has a very aesthetic interior which rivals the likes of Paris Opera House. This opera house is not just a visual attraction as it’s also fully functioning with state-of-the-art equipment. International artists such as the famous violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Glemser along with talented homegrown Vietnamese entertainers have taken their stages in this Opera House. You can choose to purchase tickets for live shows ranging from opera to drama to ballet to symphonies.
Hanoi Weekend Market
After visiting cultural heritage sites showcasing the rich culture of Vietnam, get your fix of the city with a night in the Hanoi Weekend Market which runs through the Old Quarter starting from Hang Dao Street to Dong Xuan Market. It’s open from 7pm onward every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The Hanoi Weekend Night Market is a good place to immerse in the city life but not forgetting the cultural richness of the place with its cultural performances. Iconic Hanoi food are also found here and you can stroll through a long line of roadside stalls offering the classics such as bun thang, a rice vermicelli soup with shredded chicken and pork coupled with fried egg and La Vong grilled fish pho. Pho is a classic and traditional. Vietnamese food which is a noodle soup with beef or chicken.
Cong Ca Phe
Of course, it’s Vietnam so we can never skip a good coffee shop experience. This cafe brings you back to the Communist era Vietnam with its war-era paraphernalia and propaganda posters. This gives you that certain war nostalgic feeling that came out of a book while sipping a cup of quality espresso.
HA LONG BAY
Have you ever really gone to Vietnam if you haven’t seen one of its most celebrated natural wonders? Halong Bay covers over 1,500 square kilometers in area with 1,600 limestone islands and a lot of beaches, inlets, and caves you can explore. Aside from those, Halong Bay also features some floating villages. It’s also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you’re an adventurer, Halong Bay also offers a wide-range of activities like trekking and rock climbing, snorkelling and scuba diving, cave hiking, swimming, and kayaking. If you just want to chill out and enjoy the magnificent scenery, you can go out for a boat cruise. Although this can be quite expensive, it’s recommended for first time travellers to ease your travel. Halong Bay is 170 km from the capital Hanoi and you can take a minibus or cab to get you there.
Ninh Binh has been getting more attention with its most popular attraction Trang Ban which is also known as the “Halong Bay on land” which features a stunning landscape and can be admired on top of Hang Mua or the Dancing Cave but you’re going to get some real exercise here as you need to take 500 steps to get to the top. No worries though because the climb will surely be worth it and on the plus side you can take some awesome Instagram photos here.
If you haven’t had enough adventure on your trip, Sapa can surely challenge you with its mountainous area popular for its many trekking routes. You can explore beautiful viewpoints and immerse with the daily lives of locals in the villages. Fret not though if you’re not one of the adventurers as Sapa also offers leisure trips for those who just want some relaxing trip. One location that you should definitely visit in Sapa is the Fansifan Peak accessible through a cable car which is known as the roof of Indochina. The theme of this place is designed for leisure trips with local interactions, traditional culture, and relaxation. You can also enjoy the different beauties of Sapa here from the mountains to terrace fields to streams and falls.
That’s just the North. If you want to see more of Vietnam, let’s continue to Central Vietnam.
Hue is Vietnam’s former capital and just like Hanoi, it houses Vietnam’s rich culture and history. Hue has a lot of attractions so it’s recommended for first timers to book a city tour so that they would be able to fully appreciate the place with knowledgeable tour guides in tow. Hue is also adjacent to a lot of beautiful beaches so you can easily get some swimming time while cultural and historical landmarks are easily accessible on foot or on a cyclo. Unlike Hanoi, Hue has a much more laid back vibe and nightlife here is quite limited although there are a few bars that stay open until late.
Hue is three hours north of Da Nang where there is an international airport. That is if you want to skip Hanoi and the North and go straight here.
Hue Imperial City
Hue Imperial City is another UNESCO World Heritage Site that you should never fail to visit. Hue was founded by Gia Long who was the first king of the Nguyen Dynasty back in 1802. This magnificent complex houses the Forbidden Purple City which once served as the residence of the royal family. Great monuments such as the Ngo Mon Gate of the Imperial City and the tombs of Emperor Minh Mang and Emperor Tu Duc are found here. It’s bounded by a 6 meter high and 2.5 kilometer stretch of wall and is banked along the famous Perfume River.
Perfume River is one of the most popular landmarks in Hue where you can spend time to watch the beautiful sunset, waterfront, and the illuminating of the Trang Tien Bridge or the Cau Truong Tien. It’s approximately 80 kilometers long originating from the Truong Son Mountain and flows until Bang Lan Fork. This was known for its scent of flowers hence the name.
Da Nang is every beachgoer’s dream and is known as the tourist capital of Central Vietnam. It’s filled with a lot of pristine beaches and beautiful sunset locations draped with lush mountains as a backdrop. If you want to get the most out of da Nang, visit it between May and August when the waters are calm.
My Khe Beach
This beach takes pride in its 20 mile stretch of white sand coast and is located just 6 kilometers aways from Da Nang. Aside from being a picturesque beach where you can take most of your instagram photos, it also offers a variety of water activities such as fishing, snorkelling, jet skiing, and surfing. Since it’s the beach, indulge yourself in some good seafood dishes.
If Instagram is your game, Golden Bridge is the destination (I hope you weren’t expecting a rhyme there!). This bridge is supported by two gigantic hands and is the newest addition to the popular Sun World Ba Na Hills amusement park. The bridge is located at the peak of Ba Na Hills 3,280 above sea level which runs 500 feet. To get up here, you’ll need to ride two cable cars – first is up the Ba Na Hills amusement park then second is all the way to the Golden Bridge itself.
Take in the nature vibe of Da Nang by visiting this coffee shop which has a green complex and offering indoor and outdoor seating and unique alcoves which sets in a fantastic vibe for coffee drinking.
Hoi An is a host to a lot of many interesting attractions from ancient houses to Japanese Covered Bridge to the Fujian Assembly Hall and many more. It’s a small town popular for its long streets with captivating colorful lantern stores. It’s peaceful here yet the vibrancy of life is still felt. Nature lovers are also welcome in Hoi An as there are biking trips to nearby villages such as Cam Thanh and Tra Que and like in Sapa, you can immerse yourself here with the local life.
Now we’re down to southern Vietnam, home of the urban centre, Ho Chi Minh.
HO CHI MINH
Ho Chi Minh is also popularly known as Saigon during the Vietnamese War and is the business and financial capital of Vietnam. Now, it’s no longer a place of war with guns but war with life where you can experience the bustle of city life. Although Ho Chi Minh is highly urbanized, it’s still a place of cultural and historical landmarks.
Notre Dame Cathedral
When touring Ho Chi Minh, this landmark is a must-visit. It’s an 1880 structure which represents the stronghold of Catholicism in Vietnam. It’s a massive church almost 60 metres high adorned in neo-Romanesque design. In 2005, the Virgin Mary Statue standing in front of the Cathedral was believed by locals to shed some tears and while this event was refuted, it came to be one of the most prominent attractions of the Cathedral and Ho Chi Minh.
War Remnants Museum
Ho Chi Minh stands as a location of the Vietnam War so this museum will surely take you back to that era wherein you can view unexploded bombs and real photographs from the war. Aside from the Vietnam War, this museum also holds remnants of the Indochina war. If you’re one who likes taking in the history of places you visit, you should definitely visit this museum.
Ben Thanh Market
What is a capital without a good old market? Ben Thanh is District 1’s go to place for local handicrafts and Vietnamese art and souvenirs. Aside from those, Ben Thanh also serves authentic Vietnamese cuisine with a wide range of choices (like fresh seafood and crispy rice pancakes!) and with chefs cooking your meal right in front of you. As a first time traveller, this is a good experience to try in Vietnam.
Of course, touring Vietnam’s bustling centre is not complete without a good coffee fix. The Workshop offers a unique and trendy place to sip over a good cup of coffee in the morning. You can choose from a wide-range of coffee depending on your mood and vibe for the day with beans sourced from Da Lat and Colombia. And the best thing? It serves all-day breakfast!
Mekong Delta is situated not far from Ho Chi Minh but you can easily see the set-in calm in the area which is different from the bustling life in the capital. You can opt to take a full day tour to cover all the attractions in the area but if you want to immerse more, save up 3 days. Mekong Delta features the Cai Rang floating market, fruit gardens, and specialty factories.
PHU QUOC ISLAND
Touring the South is incomplete without visiting this attraction. Phu Quoc Island is called the Pearl Island and Vietnam’s biggest island. It’s a nice beach getaway which offers a lot of attractions such as the Ho Quoc Pagoda, Phu Quoc Prison, and Duong Dong night market.
I think we’ve covered a good bit of Vietnam’s best spots where you can start planning. And hey, if you’re a coffee lover like me, it’s. Not on the list, but make sure to visit Dak Lak Province!