From its bustling cities and ancient culture to lush highlands and beautiful beaches, Vietnam is an incredibly rich destination.
With so much to discover, it’s hard to know where to start when you’re deciding what to do in Vietnam.
Whether it’s cruising through the exquisite Halong Bay or learning about the Vietnam War in Ho Chi Minh city, this is our breakdown of things to do in Vietnam.
What to see in Vietnam
Hoi An's lanterns
Once an important port and trading town, Hoi An is a melting pot of Chinese, Japanese and French influences. Motorised traffic is banned from the town centre, making it one of Vietnam’s most pleasant towns to explore on foot or by bicycle. Strolling around the atmospheric Old Town is one of the best things to do in Vietnam – sights include the famed Japanese Bridge and a plethora of pagodas. Exploring Hoi An feels as though you’re stepping back in time, as you wander through 844 UNESCO protected structures, open-air craft museums and art galleries.
While lanterns light up the street year-round, the monthly Hoi An lantern festival is particularly beautiful. On the night of the full moon each month, colourful silk lanterns replace the buzzing bright lights of motorbikes. The streets are lined with hundreds of traditional colourful lanterns, making for excellent photo opportunities. Escape the crowds on a sunset river cruise along the Thu Bon river, floating past candle-lit lanterns and the buzzing night market.
Hai Van Pass
Arguably the most famous road in Vietnam, the Hai Van Pass is a mountain pass stretching 21 kilometres between Hue and Hoi An. Offering some of Vietnam’s most dramatic seascapes, travelling down the Hai Van Pass by motorbike, jeep or private car is one of the top things to do in Vietnam. With an abundance of secluded beaches and hidden luxury resorts scattered along the world famous road, stopping for a seaside lunch shows you the peaceful Vietnam of a bygone era.
Vietnam’s secret paradise, Con Dao is one of 16 islands in a protected marine archipelago in the South China Sea. Lined with coral reefs, white sand beaches and lush forests, Con Dao is the perfect island getaway. It is also great for snorkelling enthusiasts, with Hawksbill turtles and rare dugongs inhabiting the island. Still relatively unknown, Con Dao remains a delightful retreat for those seeking an exclusive hideaway.
What to do in Vietnam
Go trekking in Sapa
Former French hill station Sapa is now the trekking haven of Vietnam. Sitting high in the mountains of northwest Vietnam along the Chinese border, Sapa provides awe-inspiring panoramas. Walking through its rolling green hills is one of the best things to do in Vietnam if you’re a trekking enthusiast. Breathtaking rice terraces and tribal villages make this one of northern Vietnam’s most special regions.
You can spend your time in Sapa chatting with the local H’mong and Dzao people in the town, before heading out on rewarding treks. Experienced hikers can challenge themselves with Vietnam’s tallest peak, Fansipan. Dominating the Hoang Lien Son Mountain range, the majestic Fansipan has been dubbed ‘the Roof of Indochina.’
Cruise through Bai Tu Long Bay & Cat Ba Island
Cruising Halong Bay’s waters is one of the most well-known things to do in Vietnam. It’s world renowned status means it can sometimes be overrun with junk boats. As Vietnam’s number one tourist destination, there can be up to 8,000 people and 500 boats in the bay at any given time. Bai Tu Long is an equally beautiful bay located just around the corner and a great alternative. With around 10% of the number of visitors to Halong Bay, and over 1,600 limestone karsts rising from the sea, you will be spoilt for scenic views and you can expect a more tranquil experience. After you’ve finished taking in the dreamy panoramas from the boat deck, you can stop over in wildlife-rich Cat Ba Island for a hike through the forest.
Street food tours in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh
Southeast Asia is well known for its cooking classes but if you want a varied taste of the real Vietnam, street food tours are a great way to go. Street food is an important part of Vietnamese culture and is embraced by all – old, young, tourists and locals alike. Vietnamese street food tours tend to begin with an introduction to local ingredients at a food market before putting local specialities to the test.
In Hanoi, explore small alleys and bustling streets before savouring some of the city’s best dishes. Ho Chi Minh’s vespa street food tour is a little different, with your driver taking you on a whistle-stop tour through densely filled streets. Savour unique snail dishes in District 4 or Banh Xeo (rice pancake with pork and prawns) in District 3. Then, you can round off your tour in one of Vietnam’s many local coffee houses.
Mekong River Cruises
Spanning 4,350 kilometres, the Mekong River is the lifeblood to innumerable communities across Asia. Vietnam’s Mekong Delta is the perfect place for a relaxing cruise after you’ve explored Vietnam’s bustling cities. The banks of the Delta are lined with rice paddies, fruit orchards, fish farms and floating villages that all depend on the river’s bounty. The best way to experience the Mekong is on a refined river cruise with daily guided outings to quaint riverside towns. On the cruise, you’ll be able to gain a compelling insight into rural life in Vietnam and barter your way through colourful floating markets.
Cities to explore in Vietnam
Hanoi is fascinating – a whirlwind of colours, smells and sounds make it the perfect place to get a real flavour of life in Vietnam. From pretty pagodas to an enchanting French colonial quarter to cultural institutions, Hanoi has it all. Home to institutions such as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the bustling Dong Xuan Market, Hanoi is one of Vietnam’s hotspots for the arts, history and folklore. Food also takes centre stage in Hanoi – the city is one of the best places to sample the mouth watering array of street food that Vietnam is famous for.
While in Hanoi, you can visit the historic Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on a cycling tour. An imposing marble monument where the preserved body of ‘Uncle Ho’ resides sits next to Ho Chi Minh’s house, where all of his belongings are on display. One Pillar Pagoda is another one of Hanoi’s must-visit buildings and is considered one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples. Hanoi’s old quarter is also worth exploring, with its maze of streets dating back to the 13th century. ‘Tunnel’ houses lining the narrow streets were built to reduce the fees paid when fares were set according to the house, adding to the ‘old’ feel of the Old Quarter.
Ho Chi Minh
A booming economy has given Ho Chi Minh city (often still referred to as Saigon) a new lease of life. The city is flourishing, with a sophisticated café culture, exciting dining scene and a burgeoning interest in eclectic art. Ho Chi Minh’s French colonial past has given it an elegant feel, with an assortment of French architecture lining the remaining boulevards and narrow streets. Timeless alleys filled with street food markets are also a delight to explore.
No visit to Vietnam is complete without paying homage to the infamous Vietnam War and Ho Chi Minh city is the best place in which to do so. Visiting the War Remnants Museum is an eye-opening excursion, as the museum tells the harrowing story of the Vietnam War from start to finish. The Cu Chi Tunnels, located just outside Ho Chi Minh, are another attraction reminiscent of the war era. Now a preserved war memorial, you can learn about the underground network’s ingenious design that once housed food and weapon caches, hospitals, living quarters, traps and bunkers. For a little light relief, visit the city’s Fine Arts Museum or haggle in the central Cho Benh Thanh market.
There’s more to picturesque Hoi An than lanterns and with everything from bustling markets to serene beaches, it truly is a varied city. Hoi An’s traffic-free streets make it the perfect Vietnamese city for roaming around. The Old Town is particularly good for a wander, with charming cobbled alleys that can easily be tackled in a couple of hours. The Old Town comes alive at night – an evening bike ride through lantern lined streets is a magical experience. For an authentic Vietnamese shopping experience, stop off at the lantern-lit Night Market, which has stalls selling silk fans, beaded jewellery and trinkets.
If your visit to Hoi An coincides with the full moon, be sure to check out the Assembly Halls. These are ornate Chinese-style congregation halls, that will be decorated with hundreds of tiny candles and fragranced with sweet-smelling incense. Hoi An is equally famed for its tailors. Tailor-made clothing items are one of Hoi An’s specialities and we recommend visiting a tailor near the beginning of your stay, so that you have enough time for fittings and adjustments. If you’re in need of some relaxation after a hectic day, head down to Ha My beach, considered ‘among the world’s most luxurious beaches.’
Hue sits on the banks of the Perfume River and is another of Vietnam’s safeguarded UNESCO heritage sites. The Imperial City created under the Nguyen Dynasty is now an interesting blend of old and new. The old citadel and working temples sit alongside sleek hotels and modern houses. Hue also offers an assortment of delicious restaurants without a rowdy bar scene, making it a tranquil and pleasant city.
Spend a day in Hue visiting the Imperial Citadel – explore its magnificent architecture and gardens as a guide explains the intrigue of the former royal court. Despite being the setting for one of Vietnam’s fiercest battles, the property is extremely well preserved. From there, head to 17th century Thien Mu Pagoda and wander through the graceful gardens. History buffs can take part in an educational tour of the Demilitarized Zone. Functioning as the division line between North and South Vietnam during the Vietnam war, the DMZ was the scene of some of Vietnam’s bloodiest battles. Visiting the nearby Vinh Moc Tunnels is also a fascinating insight into where a village was constructed underground to avoid bombing.
Where not to go in Vietnam
Danang is central Vietnam’s largest city and a handy halfway point between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. Although it’s well located, Danang largely lacks the atmosphere provided by its larger compatriots. Travellers in search of more atmospheric cities should head to nearby Hoi An. While Danang probably doesn’t suffice as a standalone destination, it shouldn’t be overlooked altogether. The city is a good strategic base for those looking to visit the ancient temples of My Son or the natural wonder that is the nearby Marble Mountains.
The busy town of Nha Trang is largely a coastal resort city, filled with bars that open until the early hours. With backpackers and beach bums alike flocking to Nha Trang, it can become easily overcrowded, particularly at night. Tran Phu beach – Nha Trang’s longest stretch of coastline – can also be overrun with tourists, with sunbeds and umbrellas overshadowing the beach’s natural charm. If you’re after something a little more off the beaten track, head to Vietnam’s Northern Highlands. A rural medley of diverse hill tribes, deep valleys and soaring mountains make Mai Chau, Nimh Binh and Tam Coc extremely cool places to visit. While you’re there, you can adventure through untouched waterfalls and epic caves for a different view of Vietnam.