A land of staggering natural beauty and cultural complexities, of dynamic megacities and hill-tribe villages, Vietnam is both exotic and compelling.
Unforgettable experiences are everywhere in Vietnam. There’s the sublime: gazing over a surreal seascape of limestone islands from the deck of a traditional junk in Halong Bay. The ridiculous: taking 10 minutes just to cross the street through a tsunami of motorbikes in Hanoi. The inspirational: exploring the world’s most spectacular cave systems in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The comical: watching a moped loaded with honking pigs weave a wobbly route along a country lane. And the contemplative: witnessing a solitary grave in a cemetery of thousands of war victims.
History & Culture
Vietnamese culture is complex, diverse and represents something of a history lesson. The nation's labyrinthine, teeming trading quarters are rich in indigenous crafts and reflect centuries-old mercantile influences. Ancient temples display distinctly Chinese influences in the north and Hindu origins in the south. Meanwhile the broad, tree-lined boulevards and grand state buildings that grace the capital date from the French colonial period. And it's impossible to forget Vietnam's pivotal position close to the epicentre of East Asian power and prosperity, for its cities' skylines are defined by clusters of glass-and-steel corporate HQs and sleek luxury hotels.
A Culinary Superpower
Thailand may contest the top spot, but in Southeast Asia nothing really comes close: Vietnamese food is that good. Incredibly subtle in its flavours and outstanding in its diversity, Vietnamese cooking is a fascinating draw for travelers – myriad street-food tours and cooking schools are testament to this. Geography plays a crucial role, with Chinese flavours influencing the soups of the north, spices sparking up southern cuisine, and herbs and complex techniques typifying the central coastline, rightly renowned as Vietnam’s epicurean hot spot. And up and down the country you can mingle with villagers, sample local dishes and sip rice wine in Vietnam's many regional markets.
Thrills & Chills
If you have the bills, Vietnam has the thrills and chills. Some require a little physical effort, such as motorbiking switchback after switchback up the jaw-dropping Hai Van Pass in central Vietnam. Others require even more sweat: kitesurfing the tropical oceanic waters off Mui Ne or hiking the evergreen hills around Bac Ha or Sapa. And when you’re done with all that adrenaline stuff, there’s plenty of horizontal ‘me’ time to relish. Vietnam has outstanding spas – from marble temples of treatments to simple family-run massage salons with backpacker-friendly rates.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Vietnam.
To understand the US invasion of Vietnam, and contextualize its devastating impact on the country's civilians, this remarkable and deeply moving museum is an essential visit. Many of the atrocities documented here are already well publicized, but it's rare to visit a museum such as this, where the victims of US military action are given the space to tell their side of the story. While most of the displays are written from a Vietnamese perspective, much of the disturbing photography of war atrocities come from US sources, including the images of the My Lai massacre, where more than 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians were brutally killed by US soldiers. Even travellers with little interest in the war should not leave the city without visiting. Its absorbing exhibits give visitors an invaluable insight into a defining chapter in the country’s history – and a deeper understanding of present-day Vietnam as a result. Allow at least a couple of hours for your visit. The museum, which was formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, primarily deals with the American War, but the French-colonial period and conflicts with China are also documented. US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons are on display outside. One corner of the grounds is devoted to the notorious French and South Vietnamese prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son islands. Artefacts include that most iconic of French appliances, the guillotine, and the notoriously inhumane ‘tiger cages’ used to house war prisoners. The ground floor of the museum is devoted to a collection of posters and photographs showing support for the antiwar movement internationally. This somewhat upbeat display provides a counterbalance to the horrors upstairs. Some of the images on show are very upsetting, in particular photos of widespread destruction from US napalm bombs and the horrific toxic effects of Agent Orange on Vietnamese citizens. Many visitors may need to take a break between exhibits. The museum also offers the rare chance to see some of the experimental weapons used in the war, which were at one time military secrets, such as the flechette, an artillery shell filled with thousands of tiny darts. Upstairs, look out for the Requiem Exhibition. Compiled by legendary war photographer Tim Page, this striking collection documents the work of photographers killed during the course of the conflict, on both sides, and includes works by Larry Burrows and Robert Capa. Tickets and other practicalities Tickets to enter the museum are 40,000d for adults, and 20,000d for children aged 6-16. Children under 6 enter free. The War Remnants Museum is in the former US Information Service building. Captions are in Vietnamese and English.
Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003, the remarkable Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park contains the oldest karst mountains in Asia, formed approximately 400 million years ago. Riddled with hundreds of cave systems – many of extraordinary scale and length – and spectacular underground rivers, Phong Nha is a speleologists’ heaven on earth, and a real treat for anyone who appreciates the sight of nature at its most raw. The caves are the region's absolute highlights, but the above-ground attractions of forest trekking, the area's war history, and rural mountain biking means the park has enough going on to warrant stays of up to three days. Documented exploration of the caves parks only began in the 1990s, led by the British Cave Research Association and Hanoi University. Cavers first penetrated deep into Phong Nha Cave, one of the world’s longest systems. In 2005 Paradise Cave was discovered, and in 2009 a team found what is considered the world’s largest cave – Son Doong. In 2015 public access to two more cave systems was approved. Above the ground, most of the mountainous 885 sq km of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is near-pristine tropical evergreen jungle, more than 90% of which is primary forest. It borders the biodiverse Hin Namno reserve in Laos to form an impressive, continuous slab of protected habitat. More than 100 types of mammal (including 10 species of primate, tigers, elephants and the saola, a rare Asian antelope), 81 types of reptile and amphibian, and more than 300 varieties of bird have been logged in Phong Nha. Touring the park In the past, access to the national park was limited and strictly controlled by the Vietnamese military. Access is still quite tightly controlled, for good reason (the park is still riddled with unexploded ordnance). Officially you are not allowed to hike here without a licensed tour operator. Trekking tours can be organised at hotels and tour operators in Son Trach village (note this is sometimes known as Phong Nha town). Good options include Hai's Eco Tours and Jungle Boss Trekking. Most cave visits require an organised tour, notably trips into Hang En and Tu Lan, as well as the famed four-day expedition into gargantuan Son Doong (though it's worth noting the latter will set you back a cool $3000 per person). All of these trips can be booked directly with Oxalis Adventure, who are the only provider allowed to run trips into Son Doong. The Son Doong expedition in particular should be booked a long way in advance. Other caves are more accessible. The eponymous Phong Nha Cave can be visited easily on a short boat trip from the jetty at Son Trach village, while Paradise Cave, at least the first kilometre of it, can be visited independently (if you have your own transport). You can travel independently (on a motorbike or car) on the Ho Chi Minh Hwy or Hwy 20, which cut through the park. There is no entrance fee when entering the park. A few guesthouses in Son Trach also rent out bicycles, allowing you to explore the countryside surrounding the town at your leisure. Nearby accommodation The Phong Nha region is changing fast. Son Trach village (also known as Phong Nha town) is the main centre, with an ATM, a rapidly mushrooming choice of accommodation and eating options, and improving transport links with other parts of central Vietnam. This is the easiest place to base yourself for exploring the park, though their are eco-farms and homestays in the back and beyond if you like your solitude. Good accommodation options in Son Trach village include Victory Road Villas, Central Backpackers Hostel and Jungle Boss Homestay.
Hang Son Doong (Mountain River Cave), located in the heart of Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, is known as the world's largest cave, and is one of the most spectacular sights in Southeast Asia. It is also one of the most exclusive. Access to the cave was only approved by the government in 2013, and the sole specialist operator permitted to lead tours is Son Trach–based Oxalis Adventure – commanding a US$3000 per person fee for the four-day/three-night expedition. Numbers are limited to 10 trekkers per trip, who are accompanied by a small fleet of porters and cooks. History 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 long, 200m high and, in some places, 150m wide) was only confirmed as the world’s biggest cave when British explorers returned with him in 2009. The expedition team’s biggest obstacle was to find a way over a vast overhanging barrier of muddy calcite they dubbed the ‘Great Wall of Vietnam’, which divided the cave. Once they did, its true scale was revealed – a cave big enough to accommodate a battleship. Sections of it are pierced by skylights that reveal formations of ethereal stalagmites that cavers have called the Cactus Garden. Some stalagmites are up to 80m high. Cavers have also discovered colossal cave pearls measuring 10cm in diameter, which have been formed by millennia of drips, fusing calcite crystals with grains of sand. Magnificent rimstone pools are present throughout the cave, plus rivers that are ideal for swimming. How to visit Hang Son Doong Visits to the cave can only be booked with Oxalis Adventure. Head to their website to check availability and book well in advance. Keep in mind the three-night expedition is a challenging one, with tough trekking, underground river crossings and technical caving included. Anyone who struggles significantly with the climbing elements will be turned back on the first day. Accommodation comes in the form of basic (though spectacular) campsites within the cave itself. The tour runs from January to August. Oxalis Adventure Tours also run shorter, more affordable tours, both to other caves in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, and around the park itself.
The Tu Lan cave system comprises of more than 20 wet and dry caves, which are thought to be between three and five million years old. Huge caverns, underground rivers and vast dangling stalactites make the caves a big draw for spelunkers (cave enthusiasts) visiting Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park (although the caves technically lie just outside the park), and the otherworldly landscape even captured the imagination of Hollywood, with Tu Lan featuring as a backdrop in blockbuster Kong: Skull Island (2017). History The existence of Tu Lan was first documented by the British Cave Research Association in 1992, but its existence was known locally for much longer. Additional surveys of the caves took place in 2010, which revealed the true scale of the system. The 2010 caving team included consultants to tour operator Oxalis, who are the leading tour operator licensed to take visitors into the caves. Touring the caves The caves can be explored on one-, two-, three- and four-day tours with Oxalis. All trips begin with a countryside hike, past peanut fields and grazing cattle, to the entrance of the cave system, and include a guided tour through at least two caves and a swim in an underground river. Longer tours take in additional caves (both wet and dry) and include nights in campsites nestled in the surrounding countryside, while the four-day iteration offers the chance to abseil inside the cave.
Lying to the south of Halong Bay off the north-eastern coast of Vietnam, the 300-or-so karst islands and limestone outcrops of Lan Ha are just as beautiful as those of its superstar neighbour, but feel more isolated and untouched. Lan Ha also has the additional attraction of numerous white-sand beaches, which aren't found at Halong. Geologically, Lan Ha is an extension of Halong Bay but sits in a different province. Around 200 species of fish, 500 species of mollusc, 400 species of arthropod (prawns, crabs) and numerous hard and soft corals live in the waters here, while larger marine animals in the area include seals and three species of dolphin. Like Halong Bay, Lan Ha is best explored on an overnight boat tour, which usually includes a stop at a beach and the chance to get out on the water to kayak. However, tours can also include activities like hiking and rock climbing, as well as homestays on some of the islands. How to book a tour of Lan Ha Bay Tours can be arranged from both nearby Cat Ba Island and Hanoi. Tours generally tend to come as a one day, two days/one night or three days/two nights package and the bay's admission fee is normally incorporated into the price. Locally-owned Cat Ba Ventures on Cat Ba Island is just one outfit running overnight boat trips around the bay (overnight boat tour per person from approx US$136).
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 (50,000d) 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. For a fine overview of the falls and the entire karst valley, head back towards Cao Bang for 1km and climb left to the hillside Phat Tich Truc Lam Ban Gioc Pagoda. The police station at the waterfall sometimes requires foreigners to buy a border permit (200,000d for up to 10 people) to visit the falls, though we weren't asked during our recent visit. Bring your passport just in case. How to get to Ban Gioc Waterfall Frequent buses link Cao Bang and the waterfall (70,000d, two hours, hourly from 5.30am to 6pm). Catch them just east of the Bang Giang Bridge in Cao Bang. To reach Ban Gioc Waterfall from Hanoi, catch a bus to Cao Bang (journey time: six hours) and take onward transport from there.
Surrounded by forested karst peaks, this staggering cave system in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park extends for 31km, though most people only visit the first kilometre. The scale is breathtaking, as wooden staircases plunge into a cathedral-like space with vast alien-looking stalagmites and stalactites illuminated by large flood lights. Get here early to beat the crowds, as during peak times (early afternoon) tour guides shepherd groups using megaphones. Paradise Cave is about 14km southwest of Son Trach. Electric buggies (per person one way/return 15,000/25,000d) ferry visitors from the car park to the entrance 1km away, or you can simply walk it. From the buggie drop-off, it's a further 600m-plus sweaty climb up to the cave entrance. There's an entry fee of 250,000d (125,000d for children). To explore deep inside the cave beyond the barrier at the end (and with luck see the eyeless cave fish that are part of its ecosystem), book a 7km Paradise Cave tour (2,650,000d, minimum two people), which includes a swim through an underground river (there's a boat if you can't swim) and lunch under a light shaft. Bookings can be made through Phong Nha Farmstay and other accommodation options.
With picture-perfect white sand, the delightful curve of beautiful Sao Beach bends out alongside a sea of mineral-water clarity just a few kilometres from An Thoi, the main shipping port at the southern tip of Phu Quoc Island. There are a couple of beachfront restaurants where you can settle into a deckchair (50,000d for nonguests), change into bathers (10,000d fee) or partake in water sports. How to get to Sao Beach Sao Beach is located on the south-eastern edge of Phu Quoc island. The easiest way to get around the island is by motorbike, either as a moto taxi or private hire. For short xe om runs, 20,000d should be sufficient. Otherwise figure on around 60,000d for about 5km. Agree on a price before setting off. Motorbikes can be hired from most hotels and bungalows for around 120,000d (semi-automatic) to 150,000d (automatic) per day. Inspect cheaper bikes thoroughly before setting out. Car taxis are also available, as is the Phu Quoc Bus Tour, a hop-on/hop-off shuttle that loops around island hotspots every 40m. Tickets for the latter can be purchased online.
This wonderfully wacky bridge takes the form of a ginormous, colour-changing dragon, weaving its way across the Han River. If that wasn't attention-grabbing enough, the sculpture, which cost a reported VND1.5 trillion (US$88 million) to build, spouts fire and water from its mouth every Saturday and Sunday night at 9pm, much to the delight of onlookers. The best observation spots are the cafes lining the eastern bank to the north of the bridge; boat trips taking in the action also depart from Ð Bach Dang on the river's western bank.
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