Breathtaking landscapes appear at every turn in Vietnam. From the window of a trundling train you'll witness an endless patchwork of impossible-green rice paddies, while in Halong Bay a horizon studded with incisor-like limestone islands makes an ethereal sight. From Mui Ne in the deep south, where you can wonder at a Sahara-esque scene of wind-sculpted sand dunes from the basket of a hot-air balloon, to the stupendous karst mountains of the far north, Vietnam offers up a bewitching array of superlative landscapes.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay’s stunning combination of karst limestone peaks and sheltered, shimmering seas is one of Vietnam’s top tourist draws, but with more than 2000 different islands, there’s plenty of superb scenery to go around. Definitely book an overnight cruise and make time for your own special moments on this World Heritage wonder – rise early for an ethereal misty dawn, or pilot a kayak into grottoes and lagoons. If you’re hankering for more karst action, move on to the less touristy but equally spectacular Lan Ha Bay. Most tourists do a one-night cruise, but if you can, consider taking a 2- or even 3-night cruise which allows for getting off typical itinerary with time for kayaking, hiking and swimming.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park 

With jagged hills shrouded in rainforest, and mountain rivers coursing through impressive ravines, above ground the Phong Nha-Ke Bang region is one of Vietnam's most spectacular national parks. Head underground for even more proof that this area should be part of any Vietnamese itinerary. A fortunate selection of travelers can experience the cathedral-like chambers of Hang Son Doong, the world's largest cave, but more accessible are the ziplining and kayaking thrills of Hang Toi (Dark Cave), and the other-worldly beauty of aptly named Paradise Cave.

A woman wearing a helmet with a light stands at the top of a jagged rock gazes up to a hole in the ceiling in the expansive Hang Son Doong cave.
There's really nothing like Hang Son Doong © John Spies / 500px

Hang Son Doong 

Hang Son Doong (Mountain River Cave) is known as the world's largest cave, and is one of the most spectacular sights in Southeast Asia, with access only approved by the government in 2013. 

This enormous cave was discovered quite recently. Ho Khanh, a hunter from a jungle settlement close to the Vietnam–Laos border, would often take shelter in the caves that honeycomb his mountain homeland. He stumbled across gargantuan Hang Son Doong in the early 1990s, but the sheer scale and majesty of the principal cavern (more than 5km [3.1mi] long, 200m high [656ft] and, in some places, 150m [492ft] wide) was only confirmed as the world’s biggest cave when British explorers returned with him in 2009.

How to explore the world's largest cave, Hang San Doong 

Phu Quoc Island 

Lapped by azure waters and edged with the kind of white-sand beaches that make sun-seekers sink to their weak knees, Phu Quoc – way down in the south of Vietnam – is ideal for a no-hassle beach break, reaching for a seaside cocktail and toasting a blood-orange sun as it dips into the sea. In addition to beautiful beaches, over 70% of the island is a leafy national park. So if you want to take it up a notch, grab a bike and hit the red-dirt roads: the island is relatively compact, around the size of Singapore.

Tonkinese Alps 

The spectacular Tonkinese Alps soar skywards along the rugged, uncompromising edges of the country and include Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak. From sinuous and spidery ridges, rice terraces cascade down into river valleys home to ethnic minority villages of Hmong, Red Dzao and Giay peoples.

The Ban Gioc Waterfalls flanked by green vegetation on a sunny day.
The Ban Gioc Waterfalls is a popular Vietnam natural wonder © Peter Stuckings / Shutterstock

Ban Gioc Waterfall 

Ban Gioc is one of Vietnam’s best-known waterfalls, and its image adorns the lobby of many a cheap guesthouse. The falls, fed by the Quay Son River that marks the border with China, are an impressive sight in a highly scenic location. Aim to visit around lunchtime when the upstream dam is opened to allow full flow.

Boat owners here will punt you on bamboo rafts (for a small fee) close enough to the waterfall so you can feel the spray on your face. Rafts on the Vietnamese side have blue canopies; on the Chinese side canopies are green.

Sao Beach 

With picture-perfect white sand, the delightful curve of beautiful Sao Beach bends out alongside a sea of mineral-water clarity just a few miles from An Thoi, the main shipping port at the southern tip of the island. There are a couple of beachfront restaurants where you can settle into a deckchair, change into bathers or partake in water sports.

an empty boat traveling down a smooth waterway in Ba Be National Park
Ba Be National Park has over 550 different plants and hundreds of different bird and animal species © Ingram Publishing / Getty Images

Ba Be National Park 

Detour off the regular Vietnam tourist trail in Ba Be National Park, an essential destination for adventurous travelers, with towering limestone mountains, plunging valleys and evergreen forests. Waterfalls, caves and lakes combine in a landscape that sustains over 550 different plants and hundreds of different bird and animal species. Explore Ba Be’s natural spectacle by boat or on trekking and mountain-biking excursions, before relaxing and recharging in the rustic homestays and village guesthouses of the local Tay ethnic minority.

Thuy Son 

Thuy Son is the largest and most famous of the five Marble Mountains, with a number of natural caves in which first Hindu and later Buddhist sanctuaries have been built over the centuries. Of the two paths heading up the mountain, the one closer to the beach (at the end of the village) makes for a better circuit. At the top of the staircase is a gate, Ong Chon, which is pockmarked with bullet holes, leading to Linh Ong Pagoda.

White sand dune in Mui Ne, Vietnam
Mui Ne is a truly unique Vietnamese landscape © BlackAkaliko / Shutterstock

Mui Ne Sand Dunes 

Mui Ne is famous for its enormous red and white sand dunes. The smaller “red dunes” (doi hong) are conveniently located north of the main strip, but the “white dunes” (doi cat trang), 24km (14.9mi) northeast, are the more impressive – the near-constant oceanic winds sculpt the pale-yellow sands into wonderful Saharaesque formations. But as this is Vietnam (not deepest Mali) there's little chance of experiencing the silence of the desert.

Prepare yourself for the hard sell as children press you to hire a plastic sledge to ride the dunes. Unless you're very light, it can be tricky to travel for more than a few feet this way.

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This article was first published Oct 22, 2020 and updated Nov 6, 2023.

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