Surfing on the sand dunes, learning about war history, basking on gorgeous beaches…these are just some of many enticing things to do in Vietnam.
Offering a rich history, possibly the best food in the world, and breathtaking landscapes, Vietnam’s reputation as a top destination is on the rise. The memories of the relatively recent war are still present in Vietnam, but this increasingly youthful country is developing at an incredible pace. It has a distinct feel among the Southeast Asian nations; the diversity of its people is apparent between the north and south and they’re more direct in comparison to their perpetually smiling Cambodian and Lao,too.
Being such a diverse country, Vietnam is suitable for all types of travelers. There are loads of things to do in Vietnam, even if you are travelling on a tight budget. It’s a top destination for backpackers, but there are plenty of options for those looking for more comfort or luxury. Outdoor lovers, foodies, and history buffs will all feel spoiled for choices when traveling across Vietnam.
Planning a trip to Vietnam
Many travelers spend far too little time in Vietnam, only adding a couple of the main cities as stops on a broader Southeast Asia trip. When in the region, the temptation is to get a taste of as many countries as possible. To truly experience Vietnam, though, you need at least 10 days, and ideally a few weeks or even 1 month+. Hanoi, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) are the 3 most common stops one visitors’ Vietnam itinerary. These are all amazing cities, but for the best possible Vietnam experience it’s nice to also visit some smaller and more rural areas outside of these cities.
Having spent 6 weeks in Vietnam as part of a 7 month trip across Southeast Asia, I have had the privilege of seeing and experiencing many parts of the country. There are many things I have learned along the way, so I have compiled this article so that you can better plan your own journey.
When to Go
Covering so much distance from north to south means the climate across Vietnam varies greatly. Dry season is generally December to April. Fall and spring are particularly nice in the north. April to October is the rainy season. It does get cooler in the north during the winter so it will depend on how much you plan to cover. In March and April humidity hits its peak. Our 6 weeks were spent in April & May and it was extremely hot.
Vietnam is by far one of the cheapest places to travel in the world and certainly the most budget-friendly in Southeast Asia. Over our 6 weeks we spent an average of $70 USD per day for two people covering everything from flights, accommodations, food, activities, and ground transportation. Realistically you could get by on $25-30 USD per person and still be very comfortable.
You’ll most likely fly into Hanoi or HCMC to enter Vietnam. Regular flights from all Southeast Asian cities on the discount carriers are available with plenty of flexible options. Many of the smaller cities through Vietnam have airports as well. Hoi An, roughly in the middle, is the next most common city to fly into.
Land routes by bus from neighboring countries are available as well, but flying is definitely more comfortable and convenient.
Regardless of how you get into Vietnam, make sure you have your visa ready before arrival. You must apply in advance online and have your documents ready when you land. There are expedited services available, but the regular processing only takes a few days. Make sure you get this done so you don’t run into any problems.
Once you’re in Vietnam there are various options to get around. Flying is the easiest, particularly if you’re sticking to the larger cities. Regional carriers fly the short routes frequently and you can pretty much book the day before and get cheap flights.
The train is your next best option, but somewhat of a pain. The stations are often well outside cities, requiring a taxi ride and adding 45 minutes to either side of your trip. In many cases, this made it quicker to take a bus – which picks you up and drops you off in the city centers. Neither train nor bus is particularly comfortable so we always opted for the one with the shortest total travel time. Another recommendation: splurge for a second class or higher seat on the trains. Third class is often old, dirty, and smoky.
Be wary when booking trains or buses with tour operators or your hotel, as the price will likely be substantially marked up. Ask around to get an estimate as to what you should be paying. Whenever possible, we bought our tickets directly at the train station for often less than 25% of what tour agencies or our hotel was asking. Bus tickets can also be bought from tour operators and are typically not as aggressively marked up.
Unfortunately, you can only book train tickets online with a Vietnamese credit card. Many tour operators run official-looking train booking sites with highly inflated prices. The actual official train website is DSVN.com. Use it to verify timetables and prices, then buy your ticket at the station. Beware of the many official-looking websites that are some variation of “Vietnam Railways”.
Now that you know the travel essentials, here are my suggestions for the best things to do in Vietnam.
01 | Explore Hanoi
You can’t help but feel like you’re in the heart of Vietnam when you explore the capital city, Hanoi. It’s everything Vietnam is known for wrapped up in one. The scooters, the bustle of activity, the food; it has everything! As you walk around, you’ll notice the stores along a street are all selling the same items, as the streets are arranged (and named) by trade.
The Old Quarter showcases French influence, so don’t miss it. Spend some time exploring, and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of Vietnam in this massive, exciting, and chaotic city.
02 | Learn about the War
Known as the “American War” across Vietnam, there is ample opportunity to learn how the Vietnamese experienced the war and the lasting effects it has had on the country. Although you get the feeling the country has recovered, the memory is still fresh and an important part of the culture to understand. Learning about the war history can be heavy, but is definitely one of the top things to do in Vietnam.
These are some recommended learning opportunities:
- Hanoi Walking Tour: We took two free walking tours across Hanoi, led by local students whose primary motivation is to practice their English, but they do work for tips. It was fascinating to get the perspective of young locals and impressive to see them question the rarely criticized direction of the Vietnamese government.
- Vietnam Military War Museum (Hanoi): Overviews Vietnam’s military history including battles with the Chinese and French for their independence, along with the Vietnam War.
- Hoa Lo Prison Memorial (Hanoi): Originally used by the French colonialists for political prisoners, it was then transformed by the North Vietnamese to house captive American soldiers.
- Chu Chi Tunnels (HCMC): One of the top things to do in HCMC is to visit the Chu Chi Tunnels. Going into the tunnels only begins to give you a sense of what they went through during the war, but the site is informative and worth visiting. We had a fantastic guide who was a Vietnamese veteran of the war.
03 | Kick back on one of Vietnam’s beaches
Vietnam has some beautiful beaches running along its 2000-mile coast, and the beaches are just as diverse as the countryside. Below I have listed some of the best beach towns to consider visiting and what type of traveler they’re best suited for.
- Nha Trang: Best for anyone looking for a Vegas-In-Vietnam experience. Incredibly built up, with massive resorts, condos, bars, clubs, huge restaurants, and bright lights.
- Hoi An: Best for anyone looking for a laid back, relaxing, and out-of-the-way beach. An easy bike ride away from he town center (nearly all guesthouses and hotels hire bikes), we loved heading out to this quiet beach to relax. The water was swimmable but not as turquoise and clear as other places.
- Danang: Best for anyone looking for resort-style beaches. This highly developed city next to Hoi An has all the big city amenities of a resort town, tourists included. It’s bigger and busier, and we liked the variety of amenities available, but the beaches are definitely busier.
- Qui Nohn: Best for anyone looking for a mid-size beach town. More often just an overnight stopover to break up a long train trip between Hoi An & Nha Trang, we loved Qui Nohn. It’s still under the radar in terms of tourists, so it feels smaller and more authentic. The beaches are quiet and accessible.
- Con Dao: Best for anyone looking for island beaches and diving. A small group of islands south of the mainland, Con Dao has turquoise waters, corals, and beautiful sandy beaches. It is accessed by a multi-hour ferry ride.
04 | Experience the rural side of Vietnam in Nihn Bin
Overlooked by many tourists, Nihn Bin is known for it’s limestone cliffs, but it’s also worth visiting for its authentic and rural setting. You can find it in northern Vietnam, about 100km south of Hanoi.
Known as “Halong Bay on land”, it has the same characteristics of the towering, limestone islands that are seemingly endless – but instead of coming up from the water, the “islands” rise from the land. The region was at one time also covered in water, but now makes for a really cool area to explore. We borrowed bikes from our guesthouse and every day would set off along random paths and roads into rural Vietnam.
The air was as fresh as you can imagine, and we loved stumbling upon random caves or rivers. Spending a few days in this region was a great way to easily get out of the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities.
05 | Mui Ne Sand Dunes
The last stop if you’re heading south to HCMC, the city of Mui Ne feels like its well past its prime. What was once a beautiful fishing town and beach-side destination has clearly experienced a decline in tourists. The hotels are a bit rougher, there aren’t many restaurants, and we only spent about ten minutes on the beach because it wasn’t very nice.
BUT one of my #1 favourite things to do Vietnam was visiting the Mui Ne sand dunes. As you drive in on the bus, they materialize out of nowhere; massive sprawling red sand dunes in complete contrast to the rest of the landscape.
There are plenty of organized tours that visit the two main sand dunes in the area (it’s really the only thing to do here) but we opted to go ourselves. There’s a regular local bus you can jump on that runs across town. One tip: try to verify the price with your hotel, because the person on the bus you pay is notorious for making up an inflated price for tourists. We managed easily enough and in about 20 minutes got off at the dunes.
For the next couple hours we ran, rolled, and jumped through the dunes. A couple tour groups came and went, but we loved being there on our own time. The same bus takes you back to town and we just paid the same price without asking. If you only spend two nights in Mui Ne you’ll be good, but don’t miss the sand dunes.
06 | Have a stroll in Hoi An
I loved the smaller size of Hoi An. It’s not as large and crazy as Hanoi or HCMC, but has all the amenities you’d need. It was very convenient staying in a guesthouse outside of the packed main part of town and walking or biking in daily. The city is known for its tailors, so if you’re in the market for a custom-made suit or dress, this is your spot.
Restaurants were plentiful and the beach is never more than a 20-minute bike ride away. Head into town in the evenings to see the beautiful, colourful lanterns the city is known for, on and along the waterfront. As a word of warning, paddle boats are hugely popular along the river at night, so you will get asked at every turn to pay for a ride, but the view is just as amazing walking along the riverbank.
07 | Visit Halong Bay and/or its equally spectacular neighbour
With 1,600 limestone towers rising from its turquoise waters, Halong Bay is the most touristy spot in Vietnam. The bay is huge but with hundreds of boats taking off on cruises every day, it still feels overcrowded.
Bai Tu Long Bay, just a few kilometers away, offers the same jaw-dropping scenery but sees only a fraction of the visitors. It’s the perfect alternative for exploring caves and beaches without the tourist crowds.
I recommend taking a one-day tour that includes lunch, 2 hours of kayaking, a stop to swim, and another stop to walk on an island. Getting out on the water is definitely one of the best things to do in Vietnam, considering the beauty that makes up the thousands of islands in the region.
08 | Motorbike trip on The Loop
My personal favourite activity in Vietnam was a 3-day motorbike trip along The Loop in the very north of the country. The Loop is a defined circular route that takes you through the mountainous north of the country right along the border with China. Stunning views, precarious roads, and stops in small villages along the way make this one of the highlights of Southeast Asia.
You have a couple options for actually taking The Loop. If you’re comfortable driving a motorbike/scooter, you can rent or buy one and follow the route yourself. It’s extremely straightforward, and even though you’re in the middle of nowhere, you don’t need to worry about getting lost as the route is very well established.
The second option is to drive, but as a part of a guided group. This will give you the experience of driving but you’ll get to see more with a guide.
A third option is to hire a driver, so your only responsibility will be taking in the beautiful sights along the way.
My suggestion is that if you are not already comfortable driving a scooter or motorbike, this is not the place to learn. We saw accidents every day with inexperienced riders, and the whole region is filled with backpackers who have bandaged up legs and arms from wipeouts.
09 | Sampling Vietnamese Food
For many, this might be the main reason for a trip to Vietnam. For others, it might be the reason for staying. Nowhere else in the world have we been so consistently blown away by the amazing food. I would recommend that every time you get to a new city or region, Google the food that area is known for. But be warned, if you find something you love, know that it might be hard to find once you leave that area. The dishes are very regional, but fortunately that favorite will likely be replaced by a new one very quickly.
Here are a couple suggestions to get you started:
- Banh Mi: The best sandwiches you can find in Southeast Asia; I always threw a couple in our backpacks on travel days. The best ones were in the north and central regions.
- Buhn Thit Nuong: Possibly the best noodle dish I’ve ever had, with crispy spring rolls layered on top.
- Bun Cha: Only available in the north; incredible pork in a warm and fresh noodle bowl. Anthony Bourdain and President Obama shared this dish at one of the top spots in Hanoi.
- Banh Xeo: A sizzling pancake stuffed with pork or shrimp, sprouts, veggies, and mung beans.
Amazing landscapes, incredible cuisine, and an deep history all contribute to Vietnam’s status as a top destination. Well worth an extended amount of time or multiple visits, you will feel the distinct identity of the culture shift as you move through the country. Vietnam moves at a rapid pace but if you can slow yours down to soak in everything that makes this country unique, it will leave you wanting more.
I hope this post has provided you with useful information on the best things to do in Vietnam and how to plan your trip. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below.
This is a guest post by Jasnon Kraemer, the co-founder of Flashpacker Co, a lifestyle brand aimed at helping the growing number of global flashpackers get the most out of their adventures - experiencing more by sacrificing less. Follow Flashpacker on Instagram @FlashpackerCo and their website, flashpackerco.com.