The siren song of Vietnam has brought many travelers to its shores in search of incredible landscapes, pearl-white beaches, chaotic and vibrant cities, and one of the warmest welcomes in the world.

The tough decision for travelers isn't whether they should visit Vietnam, it's how they choose what to do with so many incredible options. Do you start in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)? Do you swap the big city experience for the beaches and seafood suppers of Phu Quoc island? Do you dive headlong into the history of a dozen rival empires, or embrace the dynamic, modern Vietnam that has emerged from the aftermath of conflict?

No matter what you want your vacation to look like, accept that you'll never cover everything in one trip and embrace it as a reason to return. Here are 15 incredible things to do that need to be on your Vietnam to-do list.

1. Embrace past and future Vietnam in historic Hanoi

The vibrant capital of the former North Vietnam – and today the capital of the nation – Hanoi is where old and new Vietnam come together. Traces of the imperial past float like ghosts in a city surging skywards – hawkers drift through the narrow lanes of the Old Quarter selling snacks from traditional yoke baskets, while the surrounding buildings are lit up with advertising displays and strip lights.

Exploring at street level is highly atmospheric and fantastic fun – mix up days visiting wartime and imperial relics with evenings feasting on some of Asia’s finest food and late nights dousing the sticky summer heat with glasses of bia hoi (local draught beer).

Planning tip: As they say, Hanoi rocks, and the best places to rock out like a local are lively live music venues such as the moody Binh Minh Jazz Club and keep-it-loud Hanoi Rock City.

2. Find your own island in the sun in Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay

Okay, we concede that Halong Bay – the atmospheric sprawl of rocky coves and eroded karst islands to the east of Hanoi – is firmly discovered, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to discover away from the cruise ship crowds. If a tour on a diesel-powered luxury junk doesn’t appeal, consider hiring a kayak to potter around Lan Ha Bay near Cat Ba Island, where outcrops sculpted by wind and waves emerge from the water like the teeth of sea monsters.

Alternatively, leave the diesel fumes behind in calmer Bai Tu Long Bay to the north, where more jungle-capped islands shelter low-key resorts and languorous beaches.

High angle close up of a bowl of bun bo hue, or beef noodle soup.
Vietnamese bun bo Hue (beef noodle soup) is pleasantly spicy with cylindrical noodles like spaghetti © Mint Images / Getty Images

3. Get your fill of imperial cuisine in handsome Hue

Vietnam’s Nguyen Dynasty held court in Hue until 1945, and the city’s damaged but still impressive historic relics feel somehow closer to imperial China than to the rest of Southeast Asia. However, for many travelers, it’s all about the food. More than half of Vietnam's estimated 3000 local dishes are believed to have originated in Hue, from the vermicelli-noodle-based bun bo Hue and crispy banh khoai pancakes topped with shrimp and pork to canapé-like, soft-and-crunchy banh ram it dumplings. The lavish imperial cuisine known as am thuc cung dinh – created by the emperors’ loyal chefs – can still be sampled in some of Hue's top restaurants, such as Thin Gia Vien and Hoang Phu.

Planning tip: Don’t restrict yourself to posh imperial banquets; for less than 100,000 dong you can gorge on tasty Hue staples at busy stalwart restaurants such as Madam Thu or at food stalls on the streets.


4. Meet Vietnam’s imperial leaders in the Hue tombs

Hue gets a second spot on the list thanks to the astounding imperial tombs, which preserve the mortal remains of a string of Nguyen emperors and empresses, from dynasty-founding Gia Long to Khai Dinh, the last Nguyen emperor to be buried on Vietnamese soil (his son, Bao Dai, the final emperor of Vietnam, was interred in the Cimetière de Passy in Paris).

While crowds mob the Citadel and Imperial Enclosure, you can still find peaceful moments for contemplation by skipping the boat tours and renting a motorcycle to visit the extravagant mausoleums along the Perfume River. Don’t miss the towering Thien Mu pagoda, looming over the north bank on the city fringes.

Detour: Equipped with two wheels, you can also buzz north from Hue to enjoy unspoiled dune beaches on the sandy barrier island stretching north and south from Thuan An.

5. Learn to make soups, stir-fries and salads on a cooking course

There’s no better souvenir to bring home from Vietnam than being able to prepare your own Vietnamese feast. Indeed, Vietnamese food arguably has a bigger dinner-party cachet than more familiar Thai cuisine.

Up and down the country, you’ll find cooking courses that start with a fragrant market trip to buy fresh ingredients and local herbs and end with a banquet of the dishes you’ve prepared, covering everything from summer rolls to pho noodle soup.

Hoi An is the most popular destination for aspiring chefs – small and personal Green Bamboo Cooking School is highly recommended. There are also good cooking schools in Hue, Hanoi and HCMC.

A woman approaches a ruin surrounded by jungle
The temples and tombs at My Son (such as this former library) were built between the 4th and 14th centuries CE © Frans Sellies / Getty Images

6. Unravel Vietnam’s complex religious history in My Son

While travelers mob the regal assembly halls, pagodas and historic homes of Hoi An, nearby My Son offers a calmer vision of Vietnam’s rich and layered past – particularly if you come in the afternoon. The big lure here is the atmospheric collection of UNESCO-listed Hindu temple ruins surrounded by jungle in a loop of the sacred Thu Bon river.

Sharing many architectural features with the Khmer temples of Cambodia and Thailand, these crumbling, red-brick shrines were built between the 4th and 14th centuries by the Hindu kingdom of Champa, whose descendants – the Cham people – can still be found in pockets in central Vietnam. With only birdsong to disrupt the quiet, the site scores highly for atmosphere as well as history,

Detour: If you use Hoi An as a base for exploring My Son, set aside a day to explore the nearby Cham Islands, an impressive marine reserve whose granite islands are still inhabited by Cham people, most now followers of Islam.

Explore My Son effortlessly with GetYourGuide. Book your tour today.

7. Visit the Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh

One of the world’s youngest faiths, the Cao Dai religion was founded in the Mekong Delta town of Tay Ninh in 1926, fusing elements of ancestor worship, folk religions, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Roman Catholicism, with the ultimate goal of freeing the soul from the endless cycle of reincarnation.

To explore its complex customs, head to the cathedral-like Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh. Inside, you’ll see weapon-toting statues, an all-seeing eye, and even a Communist-looking red star – the sect reveres, amongst other figures, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Mohammed and even French novelist Victor Hugo.

Planning tip: Visitors can enter the shrine to witness prayers four times a day; if you have time to kill before or after a visit, detour 15km (9.3 miles) northeast to Nui Ba Den mountain. You can take a gondola then hike to reach its summit cave temples, then whoosh back downhill on a luge-style slide.

Dense, crowed scene of city traffic in rush hour, crowd of people wear helmet, transport by motorcycle,
City traffic at rush hour in Vietnam, where the most popular mode of transport is by motorcycle © xuanhuongho / Shutterstock

8. Rumble through the highlands by motorcycle

Vietnam largely moves on two wheels, and a motorcycle is by far the most enjoyable way to explore the hill country of the northwest, even if it takes some courage to adjust to the driving conditions, the errant livestock, and the steep, winding roads. Rent a quality bike in Hanoi and pop your wheels on the train to Lao Cai, to avoid the nerve-jangling ride out of the capital.

Once you reach the heart of the hill country, you can rumble out to outlying villages far from the tourist crowds for epic views and nights in charming homestays run by members of Vietnam’s tribal minorities.

Planning tip: You’ll need an international driving permit to ride legally in Vietnam, and this is only available for some nationalities. Many travelers manage to rent a motorcycle without a permit, but if things go wrong, you won’t be covered by your travel insurance.

9. See the American War through Vietnamese eyes

Modern-day Vietnam is moving on from conflict, but the battlefields from the American War still linger as a sobering reminder of what people had to go through to get to this point. Sites of American losses such as Hamburger Hill in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) are etched into the popular consciousness, but the wartime tunnels at Cu Chi near HCMC and Vinh Moc near Hue offer a glimpse of the Vietnamese experience, as ordinary people went to extraordinary lengths to resist the world’s greatest superpower.

10. Visit villages in the "Asian Alps"

The former French Hill station of Sapa is surrounded by mountains so impressive that French colonizers called them the “Tonkinese Alps,” and the surrounding villages of the H'Mong and Dao ethnic minorities have become popular destinations for hikers – and somewhat commercialized in the process.

For a taste of the scenic serenity that first drew travelers to these lush green hills, head instead to drier, calmer Bac Ha, or the trails and mountain roads around Ha Giang province, tucked against the border with China and seemingly sculpted by the hands of the gods. Stay in hospitable homestays and explore markets, peaceful stilt-house villages, French-era relics and soaring limestone pinnacles, away from the maddening crowds.

Planning tip: There's a lot of competition for the title of best vista in Vietnam but the lookouts gazing over the Dong Van Karst Plateau are strong contenders. The area is designated as a UNESCO Geopark, and the trip from Yen Minh to Dong Van and over the Mai Pi Leng Pass to Meo Vac is particularly spectacular.

11. Find a perfect cup of coffee in the Central Highlands

It was the French colonizers who brought coffee from the Arabian peninsula to Vietnam, but it was the farmers of the Southwest Highlands who mastered the art of coaxing quality beans from these undulating hills. Rising to 1600m (5250ft), Dak Lak Province provides the perfect terroir for growing robusta beans, and the regional capital of Buon Ma Thuot is a great place to tour plantations and track down a quality cup of ca phe, particularly during the annual coffee festival in March. If you insist on arabica beans, head to Dalat and visit the community K'Ho Coffee cooperative, supporting local coffee growers from the K’Ho minority.

Planning tip: The best time to visit coffee country is from September to the end of December when the harvest season is in full swing and plantations are filled with baskets of red beans.

Transform your visit the Central Highlands by booking with GetYourGuide.

Man at the cave entrance in Son Doong Cave, the largest cave in the world in UNESCO World Heritage Site Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Hang Son Doong is the largest cave in the jungle-clad Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park © Hanoi Photography / Shutterstock

12. Enter the world’s largest cave in Phong Nha

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in north central Vietnam is a lost world of jungles and caverns, including the world’s largest, Hang Son Doong. The scale of this wonder of nature is simply mind-blowing – a 747 airplane could fly through the cave’s main tunnel.

Parts of the limestone ceiling have collapsed, bringing in natural sunlight, so Hang Son Doong contains an entire rainforest ecosystem with flying foxes, rare langurs, and even a small population of tigers. Since 2012, one tour company – Oxalis Adventure – has been allowed to take a strictly limited number of visitors into Hang Son Doong on challenging four-day treks; the price is stratospheric but so is the scenery.

13. Walk with the ghosts of French Indochina in Ho Chi Minh City

The former capital of South Vietnam may have changed its name from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), but the past remains close to the surface, from the American War relics in the HCMC Museum and War Remnants Museum to the city’s elegant French-built mansions and civic buildings – many now housing museums, restaurants and boutique hotels.

To get a feel for vintage Saigon, stop for a cup of ca phe sua (milk coffee) at the elegant Hotel Continental Saigon, sample cutting-edge French cuisine at La Villa, and take a stroll past the Central Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral and the People’s Committee Building – built as HCMC’s Hôtel de Ville but rebranded as the Vietnamese sent the colonizers packing.

Planning tip: To fully appreciate the marvelous, lip-tingling variety of HCMC street food, join a foodie-focused scooter tour with Saigon Street Eats.

Explore Ho Chi Minh City effortlessly with GetYourGuide. Book your tour today.

14. Bask on beautiful beaches

It was the beaches of Phu Quoc Island and Danang – developed as a playground for GIs during the American War – that put Vietnam on the map for seaside vacations, but both have developed into lively resorts. To find unspoiled stretches of sand, modern-day castaways aim their sights at the kitesurfing beaches around Mui Ne, the island sands of the Con Dao archipelago and long, languorous Hong Van Beach on Co To Island in Bai Tu Long Bay.

Planning tip: The best time for a beach trip varies as you move around the country. In central Vietnam, skies are brightest from January to August, while December to April is the beach window on the south coast, and northern Vietnam sees plenty of dry days from October to April.

15. Float on the Mekong Delta

Reaching out into the East Sea like an enormous hand, the mighty Mekong Delta marks the end point of Southeast Asia’s longest river – a 4350km (2700 mile) monster, rising on the Tibetan plateau and emptying to the south of Ho Chi Minh City. This waterlogged wonderland is Vietnam’s rice bowl, nurturing a network of sleepy towns and stilt villages whose residents use the river as their primary artery for life and trade.

For comfortable exploring, book an overnight cruise along the main channel near Can Tho or a cross-border trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia. For a less commercial experience, take a day trip to the backwaters near Ben Tre with Mango Cruises or make your own arrangements with boat owners in Delta villages.

This article was first published Sep 22, 2021 and updated Feb 29, 2024.

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