A concise guide to the things to do in Vietnam
A concise guide to the places to visit in Vietnam and the things to do in Vietnam
I visited Vietnam with my sister, as part of a larger trip across South East Asia. I didn’t know what to expect and had little idea of all the things to do in Vietnam. We spent 15 days traveling from North to South before crossing into Cambodia, and all I can say is that 15 days are hardly enough to get a decent understanding of Vietnam: there are simply too many things do to in Vietnam, too many places to visit in Vietnam that require way longer than a mere 2 weeks.
Before going, I had heard mixed things about Vietnam. People who had visited either loved it and mentioned the many marvelous things to do in Vietnam; or hated it and said that despite the many places to visit in Vietnam they didn’t enjoy the country and the people, and they wouldn’t go back.
I surely didn’t have a problem with Vietnamese people at all. I suppose Cuba proved to be a good training against scams. I actually found the locals to be friendly (especially in the south) and welcoming, although at times the language barrier made it hard to communicate. Still, they loved chatting whenever they could, they were as curious about me as I was about them, and they truly enjoyed posing for pictures (and asking if they could have their picture taken with me!). In fact, one of the top things to do in Vietnam is taking pictures of its photogenic people.
Read more about my troubled relationship with the people in Cuba on my post “Where are the lovely Cubans?”
I enjoyed Vietnam, but I think it is a good idea to be somehow prepared on what to expect – some basic reading is a must – in order to avoid the extreme cultural shock that I experienced at first. Vietnam is dirty and polluted, way more than anywhere else I have been. Almost all the places to visit in Vietnam, included the best known Vietnam tourist spots, are covered in garbage. So much so that at times it is hard to find the beauty in them.
As in the rest of Asia, Vietnamese people are not exactly champions at environmental protection or animal welfare and they are still much unaware about the importance of responsible tourism. They regularly throw stuff in the streets, in the rivers, in the sea. Seeing that people cared so little about the environment made me sad. I concluded that one of the best things to do in Vietnam is leaving as little footprints as possible: carrying a filter to purify water and ecological personal hygiene items and laundry detergent are good steps to begin with.
Find out more about the consequences of the use of animals in tourist attractions on my post “Don’t ride that elephant.”
Although I am far from an expert on Vietnam – there are too many places to visit in Vietnam that I haven’t seen, and too many things to do in Vietnam that I haven’t done – I can give a few tips on how to prepare for a trip to Vietnam and how make the most of this interesting country. So, here’s my take on the the things to do in Vietnam.
Things to do in Vietnam in 15 days
When to visit Vietnam
I visited Vietnam between the end of February and mid March. The weather varied a lot between the various places to visit in Vietnam, and even within them. Hanoi was incredibly sunny and pleasantly (yet not suffocatingly) warm on the first day I was there; but I also experienced it under its more typical weather: misty, cold-ish and overall miserable.
The weather in Ha Long Bay – one of the best known Vietnam tourist spots – had been sunny and warm before I visited. When I went, it was overcast and cold. I missed out on the sunrise and sunset, but enjoyed it nevertheless.
Sapa Valley is another of the places to visit in Vietnam, and a top destination in the country for hiking. It supposedly gets cold in the winter, but it was not nearly as cold as I thought it would be, and in fact my sister and I even got sunburnt during the hike. It did get colder at night, though.
Hoi An, one of the top places to visit in Vietnam, was a lot warmer than the north of the country, but never suffocating. Yet on our last day there it was actually quite chilly and overcast.
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and the Mekong Delta were incredibly hot, sunny, and humid, yet only a prelude to the heat of Cambodia. I would still recommend visiting them, as they are among the top places to visit in Vietnam.
What to pack
One of the best things to do in Vietnam is to be ready for any weather condition – from cold and wet to hot and sunny – and thus carry also a warmer jacket, best if wind and water proof; a pair of good hiking boots and hiking pants; a good sweater for when the temperatures drop at night in the North) and plenty of comfortable long cotton pants and t-shirts.
I also recommend traveling with a backpack rather than a suitcase: walking up and down the stairs when there often isn’t an elevator in sight; carrying luggage on the boat, and from boat to boat, is way easier when carrying a backpack. Using a backpack is one of the things to do in Vietnam. I also recommend using sticky labels to mark and recognize the backpacks and suitcases, as there are lots of people traveling around the country, flights are always packed and it is a quick and fast way to make sure nobody picks the wrong one.
For more packing tips, read my post “My ultimate packing list.”
Getting a visa for Vietnam
Depending on the nationality, it is possible to get Vietnamese visa on arrivals. As Italian passport holders (but the same applies to other nationalities), we didn’t have to apply for a visa before arriving in Vietnam, and were given a 15 days visa waiver upon showing proof that we’d leave the country within that time limit. This means that we didn’t have to pay for a visa. However, one of the things to do in Vietnam if planning to stay longer is to apply for a visa beforehand.
Lots of travelers limit themselves to a quick visit and regret it the minute they realize that there are way too many things to do in Vietnam to only spend 15 days there. Traveling in Vietnam is cheap anyways, that it is well worth investing on a visa to stay longer and enjoy all of Vietnam attractions and do all the things to do in Vietnam.
The official Vietnamese currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VN). The exchange rate is around 22000 VN to a US dollar. Dollars are accepted in hotels and even in some shops, though in order to save on the exchange rates, one of the best things to do in Vietnam is paying using the local currency. Any bank exchanges money but do make note of the exchange rate before going and make sure you count the money given carefully. In Sapa, I had to insist till the teller at the bank gave me all the money that I was meant to receive in exchange of the dollars – as per his calculation!
Safety in Vietnam
We found Vietnam to be safe, even as female travelers. The only fear we had was that of being hit by a car or a scooter as we walked around. Indeed, of the most important things to do in Vietnam is thus learning to cross the street. The key is to walk without stopping, because nobody will ever stops for pedestrians but everybody will make sure to avoid them. Staring at the traffic is actually quite entertaining and one of the most fun things to do in Vietnam.
Rumor has it that years ago pickpockets and thefts would often steal backpacks. I have seen and heard none of this when I visited, yet keeping important belongings in the hotel safe and being aware of the surroundings is what to do in Vietnam in order to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Scams are quite common too: hotel owners and receptionist can be quite pushy when trying to sell tours (for which they evidently receive a percentage of the profits). For example, when we arrived in Hanoi the receptionist asked very inquisitive questions about our plans for the next day. Giving elusive responses or simply saying no, and standing one’s ground is what to do in Vietnam to avoid such scams.
Traveling to and across Vietnam
One of the most important things to do in Vietnam is having an idea of the transportation options. Words can’t describe the kind of absurd modes of transportation one can see in Vietnam. Let me start from the basic and useful staff for travelers.
Vietnam is connected to the rest of South East Asia by various budget airlines and one of the best things to do in Vietnam is getting a cheap flight to get there. There are several international airports: the main ones are Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. We flew to Hanoi from Bangkok, where we where we had spent a few days, to Hanoi.
Read more about Bangkok in my post “Nine fabulous things to do in Bangkok.”
Given the crazy traffic, one of the best things to do in Vietnam is to cover long distances by plane, rather bus. I know this will make many environmentalists shriek, but the traffic is so bad, the driving so mad, the honking so constant, the buses and minivans so uncomfortable (no leg room, bags and suitcases all over, falling off at every turn) and everything so slow (5 hours to cover 150 km, just to give an example) that I would discourage anybody to solely rely on wheels. I should be used to uncomfortable bus rides after having traveled across Central America on the chicken buses, yet the discomfort of the buses in Vietnam went well beyond my wildest predictions.
If taking a no frills flight, I strongly advise as one of the things to do in Vietnam to carefully check the weight of the backpacks as attendants often check it and are quite strict about it.
One of the nicest things to do in Vietnam is taking the night train. Some of the best places to visit in Vietnam are actually usually reached via trains, which are mostly for tourists, but they are a nice experience anyways. We took the night train to Lao Cai, which is the main train station from where to reach Sapa, and it was a good experience.
Taxis are easily available everywhere, within cities and from airports to cities, and they are inexpensive. Taxi drivers generally try to set a price, yet one of the best things to do in Vietnam is to demand to pay by the meter. Just to give a few examples: the driver from Hanoi airport to our hotel in Hanoi wanted to settle at 400000 VN (around $18 USD). Paying by the meter costed us 360000 VN ($16 USD). In Ho Chi Minh City airport, we were asked for 300000 VN and ended up paying 120000 by the meter.
Hopping on a moto-taxi is what to do in Vietnam if looking for a fun, fast and cheap way to dodge the traffic. These are available pretty much in any city and can be recognized as the driver is usually waiting with his motorbike by the side of the road, and has two helmets.
We even ventured to rent a scooter in quieter Hoi An, one of the places to visit in Vietnam. It was one of the most fun things to do in Vietnam, though I have to say that even if traffic in Hoi An is not as bad as in other cities, we finally figured why Vietnamese drivers honk all the time: they are scared to death!
I know some travelers go across the country by motorbike – they buy a motorbike and sell it before crossing the border. This must be one of the most incredible things to do in Vietnam and a great way to experience the country. If I go back, I may well put my motorbike license to use.
I also found that renting a bike is what to do in Vietnam when wanting to get a bit closer to nature, such as in the Mekong Delta and in the surroundings of Hoi An.
Accommodation in Vietnam
The range of accommodation options in Vietnam is incredible. From luxury hotels to mid range options, to very basic hostels, there is something for any budget. Many argue that one of the best things to do in Vietnam is staying at a homestay. This implies having a room at a local family, sometimes even sharing the bathroom facilities. To be fair, some home-stays are way too basic (more basic that no frills hostels, and frankly unsuitable to cater to tourists), with homes in Sapa Valley that have unfinished roofs and no glasses on the windows, making it beyond cold and uncomfortable at night.
As I was traveling with my sister and had the chance to share a private room, I thought that opting for mid-range hotels and good home-stays was what to do in Vietnam in order not to blow my budget and at the same time enjoy some comforts. A private room with bathroom and breakfast included never costed us more than $12 USD per person, per night.
Eating and drinking in Vietnam
Eating in South East Asia is an incredible experience and one of the top things to do in Vietnam is trying its incredible food. I am a picky eater, yet food in Vietnam hardly disappointed me. One of the top things to do in Vietnam is trying the fantastic soups – which are often eaten for breakfast. I think I could kill for a pho bo now – rice noodles in a slowly cooked beef broth, served with bean sprouts and thinly sliced beef that cooks with the heat of the soup. Not to mention the interesting desserts of grilled banana with sticky rice and coconut milk and nuts and the abundance of delicious fruit and noodle dishes.
Eating in the street and markets is what to do in Vietnam, not only as it is cheaper than eating at restaurants, but also because the food is truly delicious! I perched myself on those tiny stools, sat at the small tables and had full meals (including a beer) for under $2 USD. The key to finding a good place is checking its audience. A good mixture of locals and tourists, women and children, and more than anything else food being continuously cooked are indicators that the food is good and safe to eat. Beware that some markets are invaded with rats. I cut a meal short in Chau Doc after seeing a multitude of rats!
Taking a street food tour is what to do in Vietnam to gain confidence with the local food. Prices are generally reasonable but make sure that the company is a respected one – ask around, get first hand recommendations, and do not blindly trust recommendations found online (more to come on this).
Chicken in Vietnam is often served with the soggy skin, not only in local restaurants but also in Vietnam tourist spots – this was often the case in chicken noodles soup. Vietnamese people eat pretty much anything. If “regular” food that used ingredient I’d recognized was almost always ok for me to eat, I admit that I was shocked to see dogs, foxes, dears and what not – some still with their fur on, others completely skinned – on the windows of some restaurants and eateries.
I often opted for tofu based dishes but vegetarians and vegans should be aware that seemingly vegetarian dishes usually have fish sauce. One of the best things to do in Vietnam, for vegetarians, is asking to prepare a dish without fish sauce – provided it is cooked from scratch (not so easy with soups) and that it is possible to communicate with the waiting stuff (who often doesn’t speak English). Having wifi helped me as I could show pictures of the ingredients I could not eat due to allergies and made myself understood.
Beer in Vietnam is crips and cold and one of the best things to do in Vietnam is having a cold beer. A bottle never costs more than 20000 VN (less than $1 USD). Lots of local places sell beer by the glass. I paid as little as 4000 VN for a 0.30 cc glass. I call that a deal!
Of all the things to do in Vietnam, drinking water is not one of them. Bottled water is easily available, but carrying a water filter is what to do in Vietnam to show more respect for the environment. A good alternative to water is coconut water. There are plenty of stalls in the streets that sell cold and delicious coconut: drink the water and then ask for a spoon to scoop up the delicious pulp!
Finally, one of the most fun things to do in Vietnam is taking a cooking class. It is a great way to get a bit closer to the local culture, to meet other travelers and to learn how to prepare some of the tastiest dishes in Vietnam. Cooking classes are available in all the places to visit in Vietnam.
Shopping in Vietnam
Shopping is one of the top things to do in Vietnam. Lots of multinational brands have their factories in Vietnam but many shops sell counterfeited products. If a branded jacket or a backpack are really cheap, chances are that they are counterfeited. Original stuff is as expensive in Vietnam as it is in the rest of the world.
There are plenty of markets and shops in Vietnam that sell souvenirs. In fact, markets are among the most interesting places to visit in Vietnam.
It goes without saying that vendors at markets shoot the prices much higher when they deal with tourists. Therefore, haggling is one of the most important things to do in Vietnam. My technique is very simple: I ask for the price, I offer a tenth of what I have been asked, and eventually work my way to what I consider reasonable. At times, walking away as if not interested is a way immediately get a cheaper price. If that doesn’t happen, it is a cue that the price stated is pretty much the right one.
Taking guided tours in Vietnam
Among the things to do in Vietnam, I hardly recommend guided tours. Guided tours are a fantastic way to explore places that are hard to reach, or to save time and money as they do put together all the transportation and connections, meals and accommodations. Besides, if the guide and the other people in the tour are cool, it is a great way to get to know a place and to meet other travelers.
To read more of what I think about guided tours, read my post “Ten reasons to take a guided tour at least once in life.”
As my sister and I were a bit tight on time yet didn’t want to miss some of the places to visit in Vietnam, we decided to join a guided tour to some of Vietnam tourist spots. We did see beautiful places, but that is as far as the benefits go.
We took 3 multi-day guided tours. One of Ha Long Bay (one of the places to visit in Vietnam) one of Sapa Valley – which we bought locally with the same company; and one of the Mekong Delta which I bought online through a site that collects and categorizes – among others – all the things to do in Vietnam and then entrusts a local tour company to provide the service. We had done a lot of careful research for the best options, considering the prices but also the itineraries, the attractions seen, the online reviews.
My conclusion is that if buying a guided tour may be what to do in Vietnam to fit everything into a tight schedule, it is always better to do it locally (in the case of the Mekong Delta tour, we bought it online before hand because we needed to have proof we’d leave the country within 15 days). It is four times cheaper – the same tour we bought costed us $160 USD per person, whereas people who bought it locally paid no more than $35 USD. We both received the same poor service, but it would have been more bearable had we known that the tour was a real steal. It all goes to show that I am an unsuccessful backpacker, I suppose.
Find out why I think I am an unsuccessful backpacker on my post “How to be an unsuccessful backpacker.”
Furthermore, I understood that online reviews are hardly reliable. The company with with we toured some of the top places to visiti in Vietnam such as Ha Long Bay and Sapa Valley was the one with the best reputation according to reviews. They must have been bought, and any negative one deleted, as there is no other explanation for it being considered the best. I tried to keep a positive mindset but I soon realized that others in my group felt the same.
If in other countries group tours may be a great way to experience and explore a place, guides in Vietnam hardly speak English – one of ours was a lovely sweet girl, but hardly able to understand me when I told her I was sick and needed to stay in my room that day, and she could not utter more than a few words. Not really helpful when she was meant to provide insightful information on Vietnam tourist spots.
Another one spoke decent English but the hike we did could have easily been done independently, especially considering that she shared no information whatsoever but preferred talking to the local ladies (presumably her friends) who followed us. We asked her several questions but she was dismissive in her replies. Although the hike offered nice views and was one of the best things to do in Vietnam, that was not the service we had paid for. At the cost of sounding fussy, if I spend the money I work hard to save to buy a guided tour, I definitely expect to have a trained guide that speaks a language I can understand.
Given the services provided, it is better (and cheaper) to go to the places to visit in Vietnam independently.
Places to visit in Vietnam
Having only spent 15 days in Vietnam, I don’t feel I am an expert at all. There are too many places to visit in Vietnam to cover them all in such a short time. Yet, I got a good feel for the places I have seen. I would surely love to go back to this incredible country and do more of the incredible things to do in Vietnam, explore more of Vietnam tourist spots and even go off the beaten path.
The following is non-exhaustive list of the gorgeous places to see in Vietnam and the things to do in Vietnam for those that like me have a limited time in the country.
Hanoi and things to do in Hanoi
One of the top places to visit in Vietnam is Hanoi. This was my first stop in the country, but I knew very little about it before visiting.
Sure enough, there is a bunch of things to do in Hanoi to keep visitors well entertained. It is an interesting city, full of life, and as Vietnamese as it gets. Traffic is frantic and noise incessant. The sidewalks are occupied by parked scooters, stalls of any kind, and impossible to walk on – forcing pedestrians to dodge the crazy traffic.
I normally don’t enjoy this kind of scene, but all in all I liked Hanoi and it was one of my favorite Vietnam tourist spots.
Certainly among the best things to do in Hanoi there’s visiting its Old Quarter, which is Hanoi’s historic heart and its commercial centre. It is a real maze of tiny alleys, packed with tiny bars and lots of street food places (and one of the top things to do in Vietnam is eating street food) and there are many travel agencies (but remember what I said about packaged tours!). It is where most people who visit Hanoi stay.
Other Hanoi attractions include the incredible Temple of Literature, a great example of traditional Vietnamese architecture with a temple dedicated to Confucius built in 1070 and which later became a university for the education of the mandarins; and the stelae dedicated to all the students who received doctorates.
Visiting the Hoan Kiem Lake is one of the things to do in Hanoi. Not to mention, it gives a good break from traffic. The bridge that leads to the Ngoc Soc Temple (another of Hanoi attractions) is illuminated at night and a lovely sight.
Not too far one from the other, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House and the One Pillar Pagoda are other places to visit in Vietnam. The area is lovely – it is near all the embassies, and closed to traffic – so it is really pleasant to walk around especially on a sunny day.
One of the top things to do in Hanoi is attending the Water Puppet show. It involves puppet being moved from under the water, in a show that explains the pillars of Vietnamese cultural beliefs. I found it interesting. Granted, of all of Hanoi attractions this one is exclusively for tourists. But the show is fun, it lasts just long enough to make the 100000 VN of the ticket worth it, yet not so long that one may get bored.
Where to stay in Hanoi
Finding good accommodation at reasonable prices is one of the easiest things to do in Vietnam, and there is a great range of hotels and hostels in Hanoi. Prices for a private room in a hotel are so cheap that I hardly see the point in staying in a backpackers place. I opted to stay in the Old Quarter, at Quoc Hoa Hotel. I had a lovely stay, and managed to get a good night sleep and a very good breakfast too.
Day trips from Hanoi
One of the most interesting places to visit in Vietnam is the Perfume Pagoda. When we enquired about it in Hanoi, we were actually encouraged not to go and told it is way too touristy. But having gone, I can say it is one of the most unique things to do in Vietnam. The Perfume Pagoda is a complex of Buddhist temples built into the limestone mountain chain of Huong Tich. The most important temple is the Chua Trong which is located in a gorgeous cave, making it one of the most interesting places to visit in Vietnam.
Yes, the place is packed with tourists as this is one of Vietnam tourist spots, but it pretty much only gets local visitors who go there on a pilgrimage. I counted no more than 10 Westerners there during the entire day (including myself and my sister). So rare it is to see western faces there, that we were often asked to pose for photos.
It takes about an hour and a half (depending on traffic) to get to a dock on the Yem river, from where tourists hop on a wooden boat to then reach the area where the pagoda is located, another hour away. Traditionally, women row those boats. The ride on the river is pleasant and relaxing, the views incredible and I recommend it as one of the fun things to do in Vietnam. The entrance of the complex pretty much looks like a huge market with shops, restaurants, stalls, blasting music and an incredible amount of garbage (as in the rest of the country).
There are several temples in the area, all interesting and full of people praying. To reach the Chua Trong temple and cave, there’s either a footpath or the cable car. We opted to walk up and then take the cable car on the way down, but it was so humid that day that the ground was completely slippery – so much so that we regretted walking. The cave and Chua Trong temple are gorgeous, illuminated by natural and candle light, and the view from the cable car breathtaking, making this one of the most beautiful places to visit in Vietnam.
Ha Long and Bai Tu Long Bay
Cruising Ha Long Bay is one of the top things to do in Vietnam and I wholeheartedly recommend it. This archipelago of over 3000 limestone islets in the Gulf of Tonkin is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the unmissable places to visit in Vietnam.
Tours of Ha Long Bay normally leave in the early morning from Hanoi (about 5 hours away by car) and consist of a night (or more) on a boat and (for multi-day tours) one on one of the many islands (either Cat Ba or Bai Tu Long, sleeping in bungalows or home-stays). They include activities such as fishing, kayaking around the islets, hiking and visiting the many caves that make Ha Long Bay one of the top Vietnam tourist spots, tai chi classes, biking on the islands (one of the most fun things to do in Vietnam), seeing the sunrise (if the weather is nice), and even cooking classes. Meals are consumed on the boat and they are usually delicious (and abundant). Cabins on the boat are quite nice – two beds and a private bathroom with hot water, and a huge window to admire the view from the comfort of the bed.
Picking a good boat to tour Ha Long Bay is one of the most important things to do in Vietnam, yet I must underline that if boats are of varying quality, rats are commonly seen even on the best ones. There surely was one on the boat we took (which we paid dearly!): we saw it on the roof and we clearly heard it at night. My sister woke me up in the middle of the night, terrified after hearing it scratch, and I was so tired that, much to her frustration, all I could mutter was: “I am fine, as long as it won’t chew on my toes!”
If the weather is nice, Ha Long Bay shines of an emerald green. However, the chances of seeing the sun are quite slim between February and April, when temperatures are typically cold and the weather drizzly. The experience is nevertheless mystical and so enjoyable to make this one of the top Vietnam tourist spots.
The downside of uncontrolled tourist development (and of development and overcrowding in general, I’d say) is that Ha Long Bay is truly dirty and polluted (picture any sort of debris, plastic bags and garbage floating on the water), and I was shocked to see this considering that it is among Vietnam attractions as well as UNESCO protected. I wish stricter laws were put in place to control the number of boats and visitors that enter the area and that laws on environmental protection were properly implemented.
New safety regulations have been adopted after a boat sinked in 2011, but lots of operators don’t abide by the rules: my recommendation is to avoid super-budget cruises and opt for ones that go a bit off the beaten path and that are run in a more ethical way. In fact, if visiting Ha Long Bay is one of the most amazing things to do in Vietnam, the experience can be less than amazing if surrounded by a crowd of boats and noise.
We were quite lucky: our boat followed an alternative route and there were no boats in sight for a long time, we heard no noise at night (the silence was blissful) and when we ventured on kayak expeditions we were pretty much alone. We also visited Bai Tu Long, spending a night in a lovely homestay. The island has a lovely local feel, and it practically knows no tourism yet. Visiting Bai Tu Long is one of the loveliest things to do in Vietnam.
Sapa Valley and Bac Ha
If I ever go back and I am asked to pick just one of the places to visit in Vietnam, I’d go to Sapa and hike the Fansipan mountain. I instantly fell in love with the atmosphere, the views and the people. This is the most indigenous region of Vietnam, an area where the Hmong minorities live following a traditional lifestyle and a place to fully grasp how multicultural the country is.
I love hiking, and one of the best things to do in Vietnam is following one of the incredible hiking trails in the region of Sapa. However, exploring this region requires time, and unfortunately I didn’t have much. We went on a hiking tour of Sapa and beyond, that also took us around the lovely village of Bac Ha, during which we hardly met anybody, we crossed beautiful green fields and met local families.
The other hike followed an easy route from Sapa, one of the top places to visit in Vietnam, to the Black Hmong village of Ta Van. During the hike, we met lots of women and children wearing traditional clothes who were really eager to talk to us (and some of them spoke surprisingly good English!).
One of the best things to do in Vietnam and for which I really recommend Sapa is enjoying the gorgeous views of the valley: rice terraces, buffalo lazily chewing on the grass, traditional villages and the smiling faces of the locals make this area truly enjoyable.
Finally, one of the things to do in Vietnam and which is best enjoyed in the region of Sapa is going to one of the traditional markets. We visited Bac Ha Sunday’s market and it was a memorable experience. Men and women from around the region, wearing their traditional clothes, gather early in the day to sell just about anything: from household goods, fruits and vegetables to all sorts of souvenirs. Bac Ha market bursts with color and life and it is one of the best places to visit in Vietnam for shopping: we surely didn’t miss on this great opportunity to see a bit of local action, we haggled on the prices and managed to score quite an array of items.
Hoi An and things to do in Hoi An
If I had to move to Vietnam to live there for a few months, I’d have no doubt to pick Hoi An as my base. It simply is gorgeous, and I enjoyed it so much that I actually cried the day I left. Yes: among all the things to do in Vietnam, visiting Hoi An is perhaps the best one.
This gorgeous small city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is blessed with a relaxed atmosphere: the historic centre is closed to the traffic; its cobbled streets and historic homes perfectly kept, making it one of the top places to visit in Vietnam.
Among the best things to do in Vietnam that can be fully enjoyed in Hoi An there’s discovering its traditional architecture in the many historic buildings that are scattered around the centre of town, such as the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge, constructed in the 1590s by the Japanese community.
One of the best things to do in Hoi An in order to visit the city is getting the tourist tickets. Ticket boots are scattered around town selling a carnet of 5 tickets for a total of 120000 VN (less than $6 USD) that can be used during the course of 10 days. Tickets allow entrances to the many temples, historic buildings and museums across town.
Of all the places to visit in Vietnam, Hoi An is the one that has the highest density of tailors. One of the most fun things to do in Vietnam is having some clothes tailor made in Hoi An.
If haggling is one of the things to do in Vietnam and prices at tailors are somewhat subject to haggling, I recommend to use moderation in this case: even I wasn’t as fierce as I normally am because I didn’t want to exploit anybody or force anybody to work overnight for just pennies. Although Vietnam is a real bargain, good tailors are not as cheap as one may think. Having said so, even the best tailors will produce tailor made clothes that will end up costing half of the price one would pay in Europe or in the US. We had our clothes made by Be Be, which has several shops in the city (the main one is located at 11 Hoang Dieu Street) and has the reputation of being the best tailor in Hoi An.
When approaching a tailor it is important to go with a clear idea of what to have made and with what fabric. The top tailors of Hoi An have a great array of designs and know what fabric works well with a specific design. We had planned to spend four full days in the city in order to attend the various fittings without putting the tailors under too much pressure. Hoi An is so gorgeous, anyways, and one of the top places to visit in Vietnam that one won’t easily get bored.
As one of the most famous Vietnam tourist spots, Hoi An has a buzzing nightlife. Right after the sun sets, vendors start crowding the streets right outside the historic centre (on the other side of the river) at the night market, where it is also possible to find a wide range of street food and budget eateries – and one of the top things to do in Vietnam is enjoying its incredible food.
If one of the top things to do in Vietnam is enjoying a cold beer and one of the things to do in Hoi An is enjoying its nightlife, I’d say that not all bars offer the same service and in fact most of those that attract backpackers with the promise of a 2 for 1 on cocktails offer poor quality drinks. I ended up in Tiger Tiger, on the river bank, and left after trying one of the worst gin and tonic I have ever had in my life. If on a budget, stick to beer!
Among my favorite things to do in Vietnam that can be truly enjoyed in Hoi An there is visiting the rice fields. An easy bike ride from Hoi An historic centre, there is Cam Kim, a lovely island where life has a different, slower pace. Beautiful, simple homes, the smiling faces of the locals and green fields make Cam Kim a perfect escape from the city and one of the top places to visit in Vietnam.
By now everyone knows I am fussy when it comes to beaches and the sea – I am from Sardinia, after all. Yet, I enjoyed the beaches near Hoi An and found them clean and well kept. In fact, one of the nicest things to do in Vietnam is relaxing at the beach. An Bang beach is the trendiest and most serviced one in the area. Soul Kitchen is a bar-beachfront restaurant where it is possible to also rent a sun bed.
Read more about Sardinia and its amazing beaches on my post “How I got to one of the best beaches in Sardinia (and almost killed myself there).”
We don’t mind crowded beaches as An Bang, but we were pleased to find a lovely, quiet stretch a but further north, on the drive towards Da Nang (the closest big city to Hoi An, as well as the closest airport). We were one of the very few persons on the beach. If one of the best things to do in Vietnam is relaxing, this is the perfect place to do it.
And in order to relax some more, one of the nicest things to do in Hoi An is enjoying a good massage at one of the many spas scattered across town, for a real steal!
Where to eat and sleep in Hoi An
One of the best things to do in Vietnam is trying its fabulous cuisine. Hoi An is home to some of the best restaurants in Vietnam, whether it is for local food or for international cuisine. It is packed with small cafes to enjoy a quick meal, a fantastic Vietnamese coffee or a delicious smoothie – the choice can be quite hard, actually.
I enjoyed seafood at a small eatery called Chips ‘n Fish, in front of the market, and it was really cheap (a beer only costed 4000 VN). On the pricier side (yet a bargain by European standards) Cargo Club is a fantastic restaurant with a great selection of Vietnamese dishes and international cuisine, and to-die-for desserts. One of the top things to do in Hoi An is booking a table at Cargo Club, possibly on the balcony to admire the incredible view.
Many argue that among the best things to do in Vietnam there’s staying at home-stays. After leaving an unfinished home in Bac Ha, I was reluctant to try another one. I eventually found The Corner Homestay in Hoi An, a lovely place in a small street right off the centre. The great hosts, the super-nice and knowledgeable receptionist (who speaks perfect English), the atmosphere, the total lack of noise, the delicious breakfast and the fantastic service made it really worth it.
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) and things to do in Ho Chi Minh
I told myself that Saigon would be just another big Asian city before going, and wasn’t too interested in it. I just thought it would be a good place to stop as I made my way to the Mekong Delta and eventually Siem Reap, in Cambodia. I arrived in Saigon late at night, and instantly fell in love with its vibe – so much so that I consider it one of the most incredible places to visit in Vietnam.
Find out how to make the most of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat on my post “Visiting Angkor Wat and other things to do in Siem Reap.”
One of the most enjoyable things to do in Ho Chi Minh is seeing it from above, from the Bixteco Financial Tower at the Saigon Skydeck. It costs $10 USD to get there, but on a clear day the views are spectacular. When I visited, there was also an exhibit on the Ao Dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress for women, and it was a good way to learn a bit more about the national culture, history and way of life.
In order to admire great examples of French colonial architecture, one of the top things to do in Ho Chi Minh is simply walking around the city and visit the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office and the National Theater, all located in the Dong Khoi Area.
Visiting markets and pagodas is one of the top things to do in Vietnam, and the best areas of Saigon in order to do this is Cholon and Chinatown.
My human rights background had the best of me in Saigon, and I would not have left without visiting the War Remnants Museum. If having to pick just one of the many things to do in Ho Chi Minh, make sure to pick this one. This museum has an incredible collection of pictures and other kinds of documents of what in Vietnam is known as the American War. It is a heartbreaking experience. My sister had to sit down at some point, shaken by what she was seeing. I cried my eyes out. It is touching, it is disturbing, but it is a piece of recent history that we should not forget.
Where to eat and sleep in Saigon
Trendy as it is, Saigon is packed with good restaurants. Yet, one of the best things to do in Vietnam is enjoying its fabulous street food. A good compromise between the incredible street food and a stylish environment is Nha Hang Ngon, in Dong Khoi.
Considering it is one of the top places to visit in Vietnam, it is obvious that there are all kinds of accommodation in Saigon. I opted to stay at the Yellow House, and it turned to be a good choice. In such a busy city, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to rest because of the traffic, but the Yellow House is tucked away in a small alley which is closed to traffic at night. Rooms are small but well organized, breakfast is good and varied and the staff is kind and informative.
The Mekong Delta
Known as the “rice bowl” of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is one of the top Vietnam tourist spots. This region is crossed by an incredible number of waterways. Life floats here, quite literally: houses, restaurants and even markets float on the rivers, canals and streams that flow like arteries. Cai Rang, about 6 km from Can Tho, towards Soc Trang, is one of the biggest floating markets in the region and one of the top places to visit in Vietnam to experience a bit of local action.
What makes the Mekong Delta one of the most interesting places to visit in Vietnam is the intricate contradictions that are visible here. Traffic and noise characterize its main centers such as Can Tho and Chau Doc. Yet, the back sides are incredibly quiet and rural, and a whole world apart.
A typical tour of the Mekong Delta includes a stop at a typical Vietnamese bakery (yes, the cakes are delicious!), at a coconut candy factory, at a rice paper factory (these are all family run businesses), a boat ride along the small channels to admire the landscape and the wildlife, a bike ride around the smallest villages, and a visit of the Muslim minority that lives in the region. So diverse is the area that I recommend visiting the Mekong Delta as one of the top things to do in Vietnam.
Have you ever been to Vietnam? What were the things to do in Vietnam that you enjoyed the most?