Things to do in Vietnam
Vietnam, with its mix of rich history, culture, coasts, and landscapes, is an incredible country to visit, known to leave a lasting impression. From visiting numerous national parks, slowly drifting past the spectacular karst seascape, or driving between the rice fields and coffee plantations in the countryside, there’s so much to do.
Take in the calm atmosphere as you sail among thousands of majestic limestone karsts. There are nearly 2000 islands here that rise out of the calm jade-colored waters. These jagged pinnacles have existed for over 500 million years, formed by wind and water. Although you can experience Ha Long Bay on land, the scenery is best seen on a cruise on the waters.
Cruises will typically come in packages, including a few activities. From kayaking, island hopping, and exploring caves to visiting pearl farms, floating villages, or going rock climbing, there are many options to choose from. Though, there’s also much to do on board while you float past the beautiful islands. Opt for an overnight tour to see most of the iconic views, but book in advance as it’s incredibly popular. This is by far one of the best things to do in Vietnam.
The Story of Ha Long Bay
This iconic site translates to ‘descending dragon’ and is based on a Vietnamese legend. It tells of a dragon defending the Vietnamese from invasion using fire, emeralds, and jade. The jewels then landed in the ocean to form the limestone karsts and islands, preventing invader ships from coming any further. This story of Ha Long Bay adds even more magic to an already surreal landscape.
2. Hanoi Motorbike Tour
Vietnam’s capital city is the heartbeat of the country and a place that’s always alive, buzzing with busy street vendors and lots of traffic. Though it can be a bit of a frenzy, Hanoi offers plenty of charm, from its colorful Old Quarter to authentic markets.
The best way to discover the city is to join a motorbike tour through Hanoi’s Old Quarter alleys, dating back 2000 years. Hanoi Backstreet Tours is a fantastic tour that uses vintage Minsk motorcycles. Soak up the surroundings as you sit on the back of these motorcycles, riding past all the city’s highlights.
Expect to see old houses on narrow alleys, locals transporting goods on carrying poles, and traffic crossing from every direction. The well-informed guides provide you with local knowledge and plenty of information about Hanoi and its history. You’ll also tour around the green region, which contrasts the busy morning in the metropolis.
3. Discover the Rice Terraces of Sapa
The Sapa Valley and its surrounding nature lie in the North of Vietnam, close to the border of China. It’s an incredible location where you can summit giant mountain peaks, balance on the borders of rice fields, and swim under stunning waterfalls. From trekking among some of the most beautiful scenery in the county to immersing yourself in the culture by visiting a tribe, Sapa makes a must-visit on any Vietnam itinerary.
The hills are terraced with layers of luscious green and yellow rice fields, overlooked by the country’s tallest peak, Fansipan Mountain. The wavy pattern of the terraces creates a rippling effect across the beautiful countryside.
Trek between tiny villages or soar through the clouds to the peak of Fansipan Mountain. You can also arrange trekking in Sapa town, where you’ll find many guides on the streets. This is the realm of the H’mong, a local tribe in the Sapa area, who often provide guided trekking tours.
If you can, however, it’s best to arrange a reliable trekking itinerary through your hotel, guesthouse, or homestay. This way, you can read reviews and have the most enjoyable and informative trekking experience possible.
4. Hike Hang Múa Peak in Tam Coc
The natural paradise of Tam Coc, a small town in the beautiful Ninh Binh Province, is one of the best things to do in Vietnam. Here, hundreds of limestone karsts tower out over calm rice paddies. As a result, the area has been famously nicknamed ‘Ha Long Bay on land’.
The town is part of a wider UNESCO World Heritage Site full of rainforest-covered mountains, enormous valleys, and limestone cliffs. This makes it the perfect rural retreat to unwind. Try to reach the highest peak Hang Múa, where you’ll discover a stone dragon watching over the landscape (an important symbol of Vietnamese culture).
Climb your way up the snaking path of 500 steps to reach the top of an incredible cliff point. Here, you’ll find gorgeous panoramic views over the deep valley, waterways, and green mountains. There are two peaks up here, and both are worth visiting! The peak is open daily from 6 AM – 7 PM, and entrance costs 100.000 VND (4,26 USD).
5. Tam Coc Boat Ride
Apart from the mountains, there are many other incredible things to do in Tam Coc. The sweeping valleys of the area are full of beautiful waterways sandwiched between colorful yellow and green rice fields. Admire the scenery by floating down the Ngo Dong River on a boat tour, taking in new breathtaking views around every corner.
During your journey, you’ll float through three large caves with dramatic stalagmites and stalactites. Hang Ca is the largest of the three, spanning around 20 meters in width and 127 meters in depth! The cave tour takes about 3 hours and is the perfect way to enjoy the beauty of Tam Coc.
Entrance fee: the cave tour costs a sightseeing fee of 120.000 VND (5,13 USD), with an additional 150.000 VND (6,40 USD) for the boat (for two people). Keep in mind that your boat guides and locals sometimes ask for a tip.
6. The Caves of Phong Nha
One of the best things to do in Vietnam is to explore the spectacular area of Phong Nha, also known as the ‘adventure capital of Asia’. You’ll find hundreds of mammoth caves here, nestled between gorgeous limestone mountains and wide-bending rivers. Because of this, spend a day enjoying trekking, climbing, abseiling, or touring through the tunnels and rivers.
The most extraordinary cave in the area is Son Doong, big enough to fit in city skyscrapers. It’s a 4-day trek to get to this cave, so make sure to plan ahead if you want to incorporate this experience into your Vietnam travels. However, there are many other caves just as impressive that can be visited on a day trek, like Hang En.
Tip: If you plan on visiting Phong Nha’s caves, visit outside the rainy season (July- December). Many of the caves become inaccessible during this time, especially in the later months.
7. Streets of Hoi An
Home to charming lantern-lit streets, traditional wooden houses, and yellow colonial buildings, Hoi An makes a lovely destination in the country. The atmospheric city is full of Japanese, Chinese, and French influences that translate back into the street scene along the river bank.
This long-established UNESCO site has perfectly preserved its history, packed to the brim with 15th-century merchant homes and ornate bridges. Spend a few days strolling through the old colorful alleys, enjoying the lively ambiance of markets full of food stands and century-old temples.
8. Try the Incredible Cuisine!
From grabbing a delicious Banh Mi in Hoi An to ordering Pho (a Vietnamese staple) in Hanoi, one of the best things to do in Vietnam is to try the incredible cuisine. Food is a big part of the country’s culture, whether you stroll through the history-rich streets of the cities or worm your way between rice fields and coffee plantations.
The introduction of the baguette by French colonial influences left its mark on Vietnam. Because of this, a must-try while you eat your way through the country, is a Banh Mi sandwich. Filled with meats, coriander, cucumber, pathé or cheese, chili, and mayonnaise, this is one of the most iconic Vietnamese dishes you can get.
Vietnamese cuisine is arguably one of the best in the world, and Hoi An especially is full of explosive flavors. Because of this, cooking classes are an incredible and popular activity to do. Gather organic vegetables and herbs during a beautiful boat trip and cook a traditional Vietnamese meal with others during a class. Cooking classes usually take 3 to 5 hours.
9. Discover Vietnam by Motorbike
Nothing tops driving past the lush Vietnamese countryside on a motorbike and seeing nature at its finest. From the tropical mountains and limestone karsts to thousands of kilometers of coastline and the gorgeous rice paddies of the Mekong Delta, there are endless corners to explore.
Stop in Danang to see the golden bridge or the weird and wonderful Ba Na hills full of countless wildlife. Exploring Vietnam by motorbike, whether by yourself or on the back of a driver, is easily one of the most incredible ways to see the country.
10. Mekong Delta
The mighty Mekong River flows over 4000 KM from the Tibetan Himalayas across Vietnam to the south before reaching the sea. For centuries, this stunning area of natural beauty has been home to a network of waterways, stilted villages, rice paddies, and mangrove forests. Because of this lusciousness, the Mekong Delta region is one of the most breathtaking locations in Vietnam.
Life here hasn’t changed much over the years, offering an authentic look into the local culture. Jump on a cargo boat, gazing at the lush riverbanks and floating markets while you drift through the waterways. Or, join one of the cruises from Cai Be or Can Tho to explore the delta region and soak up the views peacefully.
11. Ban Gioc Waterfall
One of Southeast Asia’s most breathtaking natural highlights is the enormous (70m tall, 208m wide) Ban Gioc waterfall. This iconic site sits on the border between Vietnam’s Cao Bang region and China and is made up of two colliding waterfalls that plummet down with a powerful force. It’s incredible to see the falls cascading down a huge limestone cliff face between lush greenery.
If you’re up for a climb and have the right walking gear, you can trek to the highest point of the falls. Here, you’ll be rewarded with astounding views of the waterfalls and the surrounding rocky mountains. Keen hikers can continue to explore nearby caves and their kilometer-long walkway, lined by stunning stalactites.
The entrance to the falls is about 2 USD. There’s also the option to get a closer look at the majestic falls by hopping on a bamboo raft, which brings you to the base of the cascade.
12. Phu Quoc Island
If you have the time on your Vietnam itinerary, make sure to visit the beautiful island of Phu Quoc. This natural paradise in the southwest of the country is full of secluded white sand bays, emerald waters, and beautiful palm trees, making it the perfect spot to relax. Spend a few days swinging in a hammock and enjoying the peacefulness of the surrounding nature.
Make sure to head north to explore the Phu Quoc National Park. Here you’ll find perfectly preserved nature, mountains, and dense forest home to an abundance of incredible wildlife. Take your time to go on a nice nature trek, admiring all the natural highlights and hidden waterfalls. From Ho Chi Minh, you can hop on a direct flight to Phu Quoc to take a breather from the hustle and bustle of the cities.
13. War Tunnels HCM
The more somber side of Vietnam is its hostile history, which is still there to see. Tributes, museums, and even architecture provide an insight into the country’s war-torn past. Vietnam has moved on as a nation, but the sacrifices made are still remembered, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City.
This fantastic metropolis is very modern, with broad tree-lined avenues, bright city lights, and skyscrapers. Take some time to dive into the different districts, try the incredible cuisine, and visit the highly informative war museums.
A must-do is to take a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels: a huge network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong soldiers in the war. This area stretches for more than 250 kilometers, allowing the troops to operate and communicate in the area around the city. Two short sections can be visited on a guided tour, giving you the opportunity to crawl through the tunnels yourself.
14. Custom Clothing in Hoi An
Vietnam is the epicenter of tailor-made clothing. Whether it’s a summer dress or a three-piece suit you’re looking for, you can get it custom-made in the country. The city of Hoi An, in particular, makes a go-to destination for visitors looking to get a custom-designed keepsake.
While you make your way through the downtown streets, take some time to look around for a shop that does custom tailoring or sewing work. From suits and gowns to bikinis and even winter coats, the tailors here can make anything with numerous different fabrics.
There are two different types of shops you can visit depending on what you want to get made. If you’re looking to have a summer dress or button-up shirt design come to life, head to a casual clothing tailor. If you’re looking for more formal attire, visit a high-end fashion shop like this one. These often have more luxurious fabrics and more experience in this type of tailoring. Getting a piece of clothing custom-made is one of the more unique things to do in Vietnam.
The Best Time to Visit Vietnam
The climate of Vietnam is different depending on the region. In the north, the weather is very seasonal, with hot, humid, and rainy summers and cold, dry winters. In the south, it’s hot throughout the year, with the drier months between November and April and the rainy period between May and October.
To see the scenery in Ha Long Bay at its most spectacular, it’s best to visit on a warm and sunny day. March to May and September to November are both good times to visit. The same goes for trekking through the Sapa Valley, though it does rain a bit more. If you want to experience green rice fields, visit between May and September.