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Sasha Savinov By
Posted 29 Jul, 2019 | No comments
Posted in: Travel Blogs, Vietnam

From the rice fields in the north to the floating markets in the south, Vietnam is a fascinating country to explore. This Southeast Asian nation has it all — bustling cities, stunning landscapes, quaint towns, picturesque beaches, and much more. In this guide, we’ll check out some of the best things to do in Vietnam.

Whether you’re interested in adventure, history, nature, or culture, there’s something for you in Vietnam. As a travel destination, Vietnam really checks all the boxes. Best of all, you can enjoy incredible cuisine and coffee along the way!

Not too long ago, Vietnam was devastated by war. While there are plenty of monuments and museums dedicated to this dark time in the country’s history, most Vietnamese are looking to the future and not the past. This is one of the fastest-growing countries in the world, with tourism playing a major role in the growth of Vietnam’s economy.

There are so many things to do in Vietnam that you can easily max out your tourist visa and barely scratch the surface. On our visit, we spent one month in Vietnam and were still left wanting more. The longer you can stay, the better!

If you’re planning a trip and still aren’t quite sure what to do in Vietnam, read on for a closer look at what’s on tap in this exciting country.

top things to do in when travelling vietnam

1. Explore the Old Quarter in Hanoi

Our look at the top things to do in Vietnam begins in the capital city of Hanoi. The center of all the action here is the area known as the Old Quarter. Historically, each of the 36 streets here specialized in one particular trade. While this is still true to an extent, the Old Quarter is also home to countless travel agents, restaurants, bars, and hotels.

Your first order of business when exploring the Old Quarter is figuring out how to cross the street. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to the flow of traffic here, as a seemingly never-ending stream of motorbikes flies by without a stop sign in sight. 

If you can manage to survive that game of human Frogger, make your way to the scenic Hoan Kiem Lake. As the legend goes, the emperor Le Loi was out for a boat ride on the lake when he encountered a golden turtle. Apparently the golden sword the emperor carried with him actually belonged to the turtle. He returned it and the legend lives on in the name of the lake, which means “Lake of the Returned Sword.” 

Walking around the lake is a great way to experience the local culture. People gather here to do group exercise, kids rip it up on their skateboards, and happy couples snap their wedding pictures. 

Other than hanging out by the lake, other things to do in Hanoi include perusing the Dong Xuan night market and catching a water puppet show. This is a traditional art form in northern Vietnam and an interesting way to spend an evening. You might not understand a word of what’s said in the show, but for just a few bucks it’s well worth checking out.

visiting hanoi is one of the top things to do in vietnam

2. Take a Motorbike Adventure

Along the famed “Banana Pancake Trail,” there are a few must-do items. Hit the Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan, explore the temples of Angkor, go “in the tubing” in Vang Vieng, and take a motorbike adventure in Vietnam.

Many travelers purchase a used motorbike in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and ride it across the country. As it can be a pain crossing the border, most people just re-sell the bike to someone else before moving on. It’s the circle of (motorbike) life! 

While Vietnam has a pretty solid network of trains and buses, you just can’t beat feeling the wind on your face as you cruise the country on a motorbike. Of course, not everyone is up for the challenge of buying their own bike and navigating the country on their own.

Thankfully, it’s very easy to sign up on a motorbike tour thanks to groups like the Easy Riders. The options are basically endless for a motorbike adventure, as they can tailor-make a trip to your needs. You have the option of riding your own bike, or you can ride on the back and leave the driving to a pro.

Our Easy Riders motorbike trip was hands-down the highlight of our Vietnam trip. Over the span of four days, we visited waterfalls, temples, coffee farms, remote villages, and much more. Our guide was awesome and he really went above and beyond to ensure we had the trip of a lifetime. I can’t say enough good things about the trip, so be sure to add one to your list of things to do in Vietnam.

riding a motorbike across vietnam is one of the best things to do

3. Cruise Around Ha Long Bay

When deciding what to do in Vietnam, one thing that should definitely take priority is visiting Ha Long Bay. The name means “Descending Dragon” and there is an interesting story behind it, of course.

According to legend, the Jade Emperor sent dragons here to protect Vietnam from invaders. The dragons spit giant emeralds into the sea, which created an impassable barrier against invading ships. Over the years, these emeralds became islands of different shapes and sizes.

There are over 1,500 limestone formations in the bay, and cruising around them on a traditional junk boat is one of the top things to do in Vietnam. Tours typically include a bit of snorkeling and kayaking as well as lunch on board. Along the way, you get to enjoy the jaw-dropping scenery of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Many people visit Ha Long Bay on a day trip from Hanoi. As such, there are plenty of options for joining a tour from the capital. Just be aware that it’s a very long day with most of the time spent on a bus. If you’re flexible, I recommend spending a few nights on Cat Ba Island instead.

what to do in vietnam travel guide

Cat Ba Island is easy to reach via bus & boat and it makes a great base for exploring Ha Long Bay. After your cruise around the bay, you can rent a motorbike to head to the national park for some hiking and then chill out on a beach. There’s plenty of delicious seafood here as well. Speaking of delicious food, that brings us to the next item on our list of things to do in Vietnam…

4. Dig Into Vietnamese Cuisine

If you could only eat one cuisine for the rest of your life, what would you choose? I don’t know about you, but I think I’m going with Vietnamese. First of all, it’s one of the healthiest cuisines on the planet. With fresh ingredients (including lots of veggies) and minimal oil and dairy, you can feel good about stuffing your face with Vietnamese food!

The cuisine of Vietnam is influenced by the principle of five elements. Dishes in Vietnam have a nice mix of five flavors – spicy, bitter, sour, salty, and sweet. They also appeal to all five senses and include five types of nutrients. There really is a lot going on in the kitchen in Vietnam!

If you’re ever unsure of what to do in Vietnam, find a street food vendor with a crowd, pull up a plastic stool, and order the local specialty. Whether it’s a piping hot bowl of pho, a crispy bahn xeo crepe, or a world-famous banh mi sandwich, you just can’t go wrong with Vietnamese food.

Not only is Vietnamese cuisine delicious, but it’s also a fantastic bargain. If you eat street food or in local markets, you can easily fill up for just a few bucks. Even in nice restaurants in the big cities, you don’t have to spend a fortune to have a good meal.

Oh yeah, and draft beers known as bia hoi are usually only $0.25! It’s possible to go out for dinner and drinks for two here and not even spend $20 total. Eating your way across the country is definitely one of the top things to do in Vietnam.

best food to eat when travelling in vietnam

5. Explore Hoi An

One of the most popular places to visit in Vietnam is the ancient town of Hoi An. The town was once a major trading port during the Champa Kingdom between the 15th and 19th century. It’s very well-preserved and shows a variety of influences, from its famous Japanese Covered Bridge to its many Chinese temples. 

To take in the many sights of Hoi An, you’ll need to purchase one of the sightseeing tickets. With this ticket, you can visit five different attractions in town. You can choose between museums, pagodas, traditional homes, and more. It costs about $5 and goes toward the preservation of this ancient town. It’s a small price to pay for helping with the upkeep of these buildings.

The tickets are technically only valid for 24 hours, but this isn’t really enforced. If you visit a few places on your first day in town then hit a few more the next day, you’ll be just fine. If you want to visit more than five places, you will need to purchase another ticket. 

While you’re in town, I highly recommend joining the Hoi An free tour. Actually, you’ll need to spend a few bucks to rent a bicycle and take the ferry, but that’s it. These tours are run by local university students who are studying either English or tourism and are non-profit.

On the tour, you catch the ferry over to a village and spend the day cycling around seeing how locals make a living. Along the way, you’ll see people building boats, making straw mats, or producing rice paper. It’s a fun way to meet people and see what life is like in rural Vietnam. In our month-long trip, I’d say this was definitely one of my favorite things to do in Vietnam.

things to do in vietnam visit hoi an

6. Hit the Beach

In a country that can be quite hot and humid, sometimes you just want to hit the beach and relax! Thankfully you’ve got plenty of choices for beach-bumming when you visit Vietnam.

Actually, you don’t have to travel far from Hoi An to find a beach to chill out on. There are a few beaches within a short drive of town, including the beautiful Da Nang beach. This is a popular spot for sun-seekers and there are plenty of water sports on offer as well.

Further south, Nha Trang is one of the top beach destinations in Vietnam. This coastal city boasts some lovely white-sand beaches, excellent scuba diving opportunities, and some wild nightlife. 

If it’s an island escape you seek, head to Phu Quoc. Once a simple fishing village, this island is now a booming travel destination. It’s actually closer to the coast of Cambodia but is only accessible from Vietnam. Here you’ll find Star Beach, which just might be the most beautiful beach in the country.

There are so many excellent beaches across the country that you can definitely include getting some sun & sand on your list of things to do in Vietnam.

visiting beaches in vietnam in phu quoc

7. Floating Markets in the Mekong Delta

Located in the southwestern part of the country, the area known as the Mekong Delta is basically the rice basket of Vietnam. Much of the fish and rice in Vietnam comes from this area, and there’s also an abundance of fruits and vegetables that grow here.

It’s here that the mighty Mekong River empties out into the sea after passing through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and China. Life here revolves around the river, and there are several villages you can only reach by boat. 

With so much agricultural activity plus all the fishing, people in the Mekong Delta need a place to buy and sell all these goods. Since many people get around by boat and don’t live anywhere near a road, the area is home to several floating markets.

Visiting one of these Mekong Delta floating markets is definitely one of the most interesting things to do in Vietnam. While it’s possible to do on a (long) day-trip from Ho Chi Minh City, I recommend basing yourself in the area for at least a few days to have a more enjoyable experience.

The closest city to Saigon is My Tho, which is by far the most visited place in the Mekong Delta. If you spend at least a night there, you can get an early start on your floating market excursion and finish up before the tour buses arrive en masse. 

what to do in vietnam visit the mekong delta

On our trip, we headed to Can Tho, which is the biggest city in the region. I can personally recommend staying in Hung’s Homestay. It’s a family-run guesthouse where you enjoy a communal dinner in the evening. Mr. Hung himself runs boat tours to the nearby Cai Rang floating market. On our visit, we were the only two people on his boat and we had an amazing day exploring the area. 

8. Go Trekking in the North

While the south of Vietnam has the Mekong Delta and the beaches, the north is where you’ll find some epic mountains. If you’re an avid outdoors person, you’ll be happy to hear that trekking is one of the best things to do in Vietnam.

There are two areas in northern Vietnam that are very popular for trekking. The town of Sapa is where you’ll base yourself if you want to tackle Fansipan – Vietnam’s highest peak. If you’re into a more mellow adventure, there are tons of easier trekking opportunities.

Hill-tribe villages surround Sapa. Women from these villages come to town to sell their handicrafts and then lead tourists on treks to stay in their village. Along the way, you’ll walk past some stunning rice terraces before arriving at your homestay for the night. You can do simple overnight trips up to week-long treks from Sapa.

Another excellent spot for trekking is Ha Giang. This area isn’t quite as popular as Sapa but it’s just as beautiful. Some travelers find Sapa to be a bit too touristy and thus prefer visiting Ha Giang. We didn’t make it there on our trip but it’s definitely on my radar for next time!

things to do in vietnam visit sapa

9. Enjoy Vietnamese Coffee

Coffee lovers rejoice – you can find some of the best coffee in the world in Vietnam! The French may have brought coffee to Vietnam, but the locals put their own unique spin on it. 

A typical cup of Vietnamese coffee is made with coarsely ground beans and a small metal drip filter. You put your coffee in the filter and weigh it down with a lid. Add some hot water and then let the magic happen as the coffee slowly drips into your cup. 

The result may be a small cup of coffee, but it packs a punch as it’s quite strong. Vietnamese typically add a healthy portion of condensed milk to their coffee. Other popular varieties include yogurt and egg coffee. The latter actually tastes a bit like tiramisu and is very common in Hanoi. 

In addition to drinking Vietnamese coffee, you can also see how it’s grown. Visiting a coffee farm and seeing the process up close should most definitely make your list of things to do in Vietnam.

10. Temples and Rafting in Ninh Binh

If you’re looking for a place to stop in between Hanoi and Hoi An, a great choice is Ninh Binh. While the city itself may not seem like much, the surrounding area is full of majestic karst mountain peaks and cultural sights.

The first thing you’ll want to do in Ninh Binh is to rent a motorbike to explore the surrounding area. With a full day here, you can start by visiting Hoa Lu – an ancient capital of Vietnam. Here you’ll find some temples and tombs surrounded by incredible scenery.

From there, you can head to either Tam Coc or Trang An to take a bamboo raft down the river. Don’t worry, you don’t need to paddle at all. In fact, your captain steers the raft entirely with their feet! 

Both places offer some stunning views of the karst mountains, but most travelers recommend Trang An if you’re only going to choose one. You visit a few more caves there and it’s a bit less crowded. I will say that we were not aware of Trang An on our trip and still had a good time at Tam Coc.

ninh binh vietnam

11. Sightseeing in HCMC

Hanoi may be the capital, but Ho Chi Minh City is the biggest metropolis in Vietnam. The city formerly known as Saigon is a bustling place with lots to see and do. That is, if you can manage to dodge the sea of motorbikes and ever cross the street…

Some of the top sights in HCMC include the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. The former was the residence of South Vietnam’s president during the war. It’s also the place where the war officially ended when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates in 1975. It’s a very interesting place to visit, as much of it looks like it’s stuck in time.

When you visit the War Remnants Museum, you’ll see a handful of air crafts from both sides of the war. Inside, several different rooms show the tragedies of the war in gruesome detail. It’s a stark reminder of the horrors of war and an important part of history to acknowledge.

There’s plenty more to see in Saigon, including the Notre Dame cathedral, the old post office, and the modern, lotus flower-shaped skyscraper called Bitexco Financial Tower. Sightseeing in Ho Chi Minh City for a few days is certainly one of the top things to do in Vietnam.

things to do in vietnam for travellers

12. Go Underground in the Cu Chi Tunnels

When figuring out what to do in Vietnam during your trip, you should plan to spend a day visiting the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City. This network of tunnels was instrumental during the war, as it served as living quarters, supply routes, and storage facilities for the Viet Cong.

It’s very easy to jump on a day tour from HCMC to the Cu Chi tunnels, or you can just get yourself there if you’ve got some wheels. Tours begin with a short video detailing the history of the tunnels and how they were made. 

Next up, you walk by some displays that show how people lived in the tunnels during the war. Life definitely was not easy underground, as people mostly sustained by eating tapioca and sometimes couldn’t come up for days. 

You’ll also see some examples of booby-traps that the Viet Cong set for American and South Vietnamese troops. Some of these are pretty horrifying when you think about actually falling into one. Finally, you get to head into the famous tunnels yourself. If you’re claustrophobic, I recommend giving this one a pass!

cu chi tunnels are one of the most popular things to do in vietnam

13. Visit the Ruins of My Son

One of the most interesting historical attractions to visit in Vietnam is My Son. These Hindu temples were built during the Champa Kingdom between the 4th and 13th centuries. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a fascinating place to visit.

The temples at My Son were dedicated to Shiva, known as “The Destroyer” in the Hindu trinity of gods. There are over 70 temples in total, with some in better shape than others. Restoration efforts are ongoing here to preserve this important religious sight.

My Son is about an hour away from Hoi An, so you can easily visit on a half-day tour. If you have your own transportation, you might consider visiting later in the day when most of the tour groups have moved on. We came in the later afternoon during our Easy Riders tour and basically had the whole place to ourselves!

However you get there, a trip to My Son should be on your list of things to do in Vietnam. It’s a great place to visit as a warm-up for some of the more impressive temples in Southeast Asia, such as Angkor in Cambodia or Bagan in Myanmar. 

what to do in vietnam visit the my son ruins

14. Explore Caves

While you may think of rice paddies and beaches, Vietnam is also home to some astonishing caves. First of all, there’s Hang Son Doong – the largest cave in the world by volume. At it’s tallest point, you could actually fit a 40-floor skyscraper inside the cave!

It was discovered in 1991 by a local man and wasn’t internationally known until many years later. They started to run trips into the cave in 2013, with a limited number of permits given out each year. It’s not a cheap trip (around $3,000 per person), but it seems to be worth every dollar. 

If you can’t get yourself on a trip to Hang Son Doong, no worries. It’s actually located in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park in central Vietnam and there are several other caves here that you can explore. The park gets its name from Phong Nha cave, which is an incredible place to see and is only about $6 to visit. You’ll also need to hire a boat, but that’s only about $15 for up to 12 people. 

Actually, you’ll be able to explore Vietnam’s caves in many of the other destinations mentioned in this guide. In both Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh you’ll easily be able to check out a few caves. Even in Hanoi, you’re not too far away from the amazing Huong Tich cave. You have many options for adding some cave exploration to your list of things to do in Vietnam.

visiting caves in vietnam hang son doong

15. Drink Bia Hoi

Last but not least on our list of things to do in Vietnam is drinking bia hoi. This is the local draft beer that’s brewed daily and delivered to local bars and restaurants in small batches.

The name actually means “fresh beer,” and that’s exactly what it is! Since bia hoi has no preservatives, it has to be consumed within a day before going bad. Go ahead and pull up a plastic stool and order a glass to help make sure none of it is wasted!

Bia hoi is a light, refreshing lager that’s usually only around 3.5% alcohol. It’s usually enjoyed alongside some classic Vietnamese snacks like nem chua (fermented pork sausage). Best of all, a glass of bia hoi usually only costs between $0.25-0.50! 

Drinking bia hoi is also a great way to meet locals. After a few glasses, don’t be surprised if your neighbors pull their stools up a bit closer to make friends. Raise your glass and join them in saying “Một hai ba dzô!” (“One two three cheers!). 

Ready for Vietnam?

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things to do in Vietnam. It really is amazing the wide array of activities on offer in the country. Even on a short trip here, you can experience bustling cities, trek through rice terraces, journey into a massive cave, and chill out on the beach.

As if that weren’t cool enough, you get to do it all alongside the friendly, welcoming Vietnamese people. Oh yeah, and who can forget all the mouth-watering food, strong coffee, and cheap beer?! I seriously want to book a ticket back to Vietnam right now after writing this guide.

If you’ve been there and have some more suggestions for the best things to do in Vietnam, please leave a comment below and let us know!

Images in this post are courtesy of Shutterstock

 

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Sasha Savinov

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Sasha is regular contributor to Goats On The Road. He’s also an English teacher and an expert in online teaching. He’s a language student, a professional blogger, and video producer. In fact, he studied video production at Michigan State University. He and his wife are the founders and head editors at Grateful Gypsies, where they write about life abroad, long term travel, teaching English online and live music.  He also writes and shares his expertise on many well-known sites like LiveAndInvestOverseas.com. Follow Sasha on his website, social media accounts below and on YouTube.

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