Thanks to its epic karst landscapes, mouth-watering food, insanely bustling cities, and distinct culture, Vietnam is an absolutely classic Asia travel destination.
Where you travel in Vietnam will have a big impact on your trip, however. There is much more to experience than most visitors will be able to fit into a typical two or three weeks itinerary, so you may have some tough choices to make for where to travel in Vietnam.
Let me help you by highlighting some of the definite must-see sights in Vietnam, which I’ve based on travelling the country for 2 months.
Top places to visit in Vietnam
1. Experience the frenetic city of Hanoi
No other place in Southeast Asia gave me more of a sense of wonder than the first time I visited Hanoi.
It’s a strange, frenzied place. There are so many motorbikes rushing through the streets that it sometimes feels like you’re caught in a giant swarm of wasps. So much of life takes places on the street; people eat and drink there, get their haircut, read the newspaper and play games.
Having visited Hanoi multiple times now, I put together some insider tips on how to get a local experience in this riveting city.
If you start in the south, you might be equally enthralled with Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon), which was once the capital of South Vietnam.
2. Cruise around the islands of Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay probably needs little introduction! This UNESCO World Heritage site is easily Vietnam’s most famous. The bay is home to over 2,000 small limestone islands, scattered around an area of 334 km2.
The typical way to visit is to book a cruise on a sailing boat, with trips ranging from 1 to 3 days. It’s no doubt a must-visit in Vietnam. The location is magnificent and definitely worth it, though know that this experience is the most touristy in Vietnam. Most boats cluster around a single bay where there are several viewpoints and caves. The crowds at this specific point can sometimes be a bit mad depending on the season.
For the best experience, go for at least a 2-day cruise, so that you’re not in a rush. Also consider tours that include the Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay. These are also part of Ha Long but because they’re a bit further from shore they are quieter and have fewer day-trippers.
3. See the terraced rice fields of Sapa
The mountain town of Sapa, surrounded by terraced rice fields, is one of the iconic places in Vietnam.
During French colonial times, the occupiers found in Sapa a suitable retreat to flee the scorching heat of Vietnam’s lower lands. Today, it’s a popular starting place for mountain trekking, as well as a favored spot for rural homestays.
My number one tip for Sapa is to not stay in the town itself if you can, as it’s seen quite a wild growth of hotels, massage parlors, and tourist restaurants. Think of it just as a convenient launching pad and not the reason in itself to go. The part that you’re sure to love is the surrounding area.
The best way to enjoy Sapa is to book a homestay just out of town amid the rice fields, or in a nearby village. Another great way to experience Sapa is to trek the trails between the highland villages of local minority tribes, including the Hmong and Lao Chai people.
The rice terraces are greenest from July to September. They’re golden yellow around harvesting season in September and October.
4 Stay among the karst cliffs in Ninh Binh
The national park of Trang An (and Tam Coc) is sometimes referred to as the ‘Ha Long Bay on land’.
You’ll find beautiful karst mountains poking out of the landscapes, except here they are surrounded by rice fields and wetlands instead of the sea. The main activity is to take a paddleboat through the rivers and wetlands to see the stunning mountain scenery, caves, and wildlife.
While Ninh Binh is not as well-known as Ha Long Bay, I highly recommend making a stop for at least a day or two. If you go there, I especially recommend staying in the town of Trang An at the edge of the park, which is truly a hidden gem.
There you stay in guesthouses and eco-resorts along the river with cute bamboo docks with deck chairs and fairy lights.
You can read much more tips for Trang An (and Tam Coc) in my detailed guide.
5. Marvel at the world’s biggest caves
The national park of Phong Nha ke-Bang in central Vietnam is known as one of the best places to go caving in Asia.
There are over 500 caves in the area of which 30 can be visited by the general public. These include the world’s biggest cave and the world’s third-biggest cave, which are truly epic locations and quite possibly the most spectacular in all of Vietnam.
You can only visit these mega-caves on multi-day expeditions (which start at $330), though it’s worth it if your budget allows. It ranks among one of my favorite travel experiences anywhere. I wrote about my tour to Hang En, the world’s third-biggest cave, which was jaw-droppingly amazing.
If you’re on a smaller budget or if you have less time, then there are loads of other caves in Phong Nha that you can visit. Some can be explored independently, others by boat, and there are even some adventure caves that you can swing- and clamber through. Entrance fees are usually just a few dollars.
While not so known just a few years ago, Phong Nha is rapidly becoming the adventure travel capital of Vietnam. The town itself is very pleasant, with an unhurried vibe and a lovely riverside location — easily one of the real gems of Vietnam.
6. Kick back in cute Hoi An
Despite being rather packed with tourists, Hoi An still gets consistently rated by travelers as their favorite place in Vietnam. Any time I do any informal polling among other tourists I meet in Vietnam, Hoi An is at the top of their list!
The delightfully well-preserved town of Hoi An was once a key post for Vietnam’s spice trade with China, Holland, Portugal, and other countries. Today, all the small two-story merchant quarters serve as all manner of restaurants, souvenir shops, and tailors (the town is famous for selling custom-tailored clothes at unbeatable prices).
Hoi An’s UNESCO-protected Old Quarter is very tourist-friendly with numerous cute cafes, restaurants, and arty souvenir shops. The development has all been very tasteful and all the colorful lanterns hanging over the streets lend Hoi An a ton of charm. The center is also largely pedestrianized, giving you some welcome relief from the chaotic traffic of the bigger cities.
There are many things to do in Hoi An and it has some worthwhile beaches and sights nearby, making it a must-visit for anyone on their first trip to Vietnam.
7. Explore the temples of Hue
Hue (pronounced like ‘way’) is the perfect stop in central Vietnam if you’re interested in seeing many tombs, temples, and pagodas.
The main draw inside Hue city itself is the Imperial Citadel, but keep in mind that nearly everything at this site was bombed in the war so it can be seen relatively quickly.
Much more worthwhile are some of the sights around Hue. The Tombs of the Emperors, for instance, is very impressive and almost entirely intact. The sights around Hue offer some interesting examples of Vietnamese Buddhist aesthetics and architecture, and are well worth a visit.
8. Explore Ha Giang province by motorbike
This is quite possibly the best thing I’ve done in all of Vietnam. The northern Ha Giang region near the border with China has some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery in the whole country, which has only become more accessible in recent years thanks to improved roads. The remote region is home to minorities such as the Hmong, who dress in colourful attire.
In Ha Giang, it’s all about the journey. The scenery is simply spectacular and best enjoyed on a motorbike trip. Many travelers do a loop starting and ending in Ha Giang city.
You can pay for motorbike drivers or go on an organized group tour, but the best way is to drive by yourself.
Ha Giang is perhaps not a place to tick off the list quickly if you’re in Vietnam on a shorter holiday. It’s best to have some time for Ha Giang to truly enjoy it.
The minimum amount of time needed for the short loop is 3 days, but it’s better to have at least 5 days so you can stop along the way and truly take it all in.
9. Go sandboarding in Mui Ne
A great spot to stay a couple of nights is the small town of Mui Ne on the southern coast. The beach is not the main attraction, as it is very thin and more enjoyed by kitesurfers than sunbathers, but it’s the resorts around Mui Ne and the fun sights in the area that make it worth a stop.
The old fishing village of Mui Ne highly picturesque and famed for its colourful fishing boats.
There is also a great little river canyon walk nearby, as well as white sand dunes where you can watch the sunrise or try sliding down the dunes on a board. When you find yourself in this sandy desert, you’ll surely wonder if you’re in Vietnam or in the Sahara Desert.
Mui Ne also has a big traveller scene and is a great place to chill out with a lot of great budget-friendly accommodation.
10. See the Vietnam War tunnels
Finally, there are a number of insightful Vietnam War museums and sites — or the American War, as it’s known in Vietnam. The best of the bunch is the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, though you can expect it to be uncomfortable and heart-wrenching.
Not too far north of Da Nang and Hue are the tunnels of Vinh Moc, an elaborate complex of shelters built by villagers during the war. The tunnels were a success and no villagers lost their lives, though they had to live in absolutely awful conditions. It’s a very insightful place to see, and there are also the similar Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam.
11. Visit Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City (previously known as Saigon) is Vietnam’s second-largest city. It’s in the south, on the far opposite side of the country to Hanoi, and as such it has a very different vibe.
Hanoi is more traditional with windy market streets, old temples, and tree-lined streets. Saigon, on the other hand, is a lot more cosmopolitan and Western-oriented, having become the fast-paced commercial capital of Vietnam.
Many backpackers love Saigon because it’s a great place to party. But it’s also an interesting cultural stop, thanks to its War Remnants Museum, huge street markets, and distinct cuisine.
From Ho Chi Minh City, you can easily make trips to the Mekong Delta, and other places in the south of Vietnam.
12. Explore the Mekong Delta
South Vietnam is where the mighty Mekong river splits into hundreds of smaller tendrils, forming the Mekong Delta. It’s formed a vast maze of rivers, rice paddies, and riverine islands.
One of the highlights of the Mekong Delta are the floating markets, where boats dock together on the river to sell all manner of fruit and vegetables. One of the best places to see floating markets is at the city of Can Tho.
There are many organized tours to the Mekong Delta, including day-trips from Saigon, but they can be quite cookie cutter. I recommend staying in a guesthouse or homestay somewhere in or near Can Tho, and checking out the markets by yourself or with a local guide. Driving around the rice fields and waterways on a scooter is also a delightful way to get a taste of life in the Mekong Delta.
Planning your Vietnam trip
Now you know some of the top destinations in Vietnam. The map below tells you where you can find them.
There’s much more to see in Vietnam than most people can fit into a single trip, so if you’re having trouble deciding on your exact itinerary, you shouldn’t miss my tips for planning a Vietnam trip.
Don’t underestimate Vietnam’s size; its length is similar to that of the entire West Coast USA. If you want to see several places in the north, center, and south, count on needing at least 3 weeks.
A common Vietnam itinerary is to visit Hanoi, Sapa, Ha Long Bay, Hue, Hoi An, and finally Ho Chi Minh City. Yes, that’s a lot of places starting with an ‘H’.
Among the places I personally loved the most were some of the less famous ones, such as Ha Giang, Phong Nha Ke-Bang, and the seaside town of Qui Nhon. I recommend these if you wish to get away from the crowds and see a different side of Vietnam.
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