There’s nowhere quite like Vietnam – a land of true contrasts, from the frenetic and fascinating capital of Hanoi to the idyllic rice terraces of mountainous Sapa. Whether you’ve got a month to play with, or two weeks off work, here’s an at-a-glance guide to the cities in Vietnam to kick off your trip planning.
Hoi An, Central Coast
Best for: Sightseeing, shopping and café hopping
Don’t miss: Seeing the thousands of lanterns on an evening stroll around the Old Town
If you want to combine sightseeing with a spate of shopping, then the charming UNESCO world heritage city of Hoi An should be top of your list. Dating back to the 15th century, character positively oozes out of its ancient, ochre-hued walls. It’s not hard to see why the city is often dubbed the 'Venice of the East’. Spend your afternoons strolling along the main canal and exploring the labyrinth of winding streets, lined with market stalls, tailors, cafés and boutique shops.
You can get almost anything made here – and for incredibly little money by Western standards – so be warned, you may be going home with far more than you came with. If shopping doesn't interest you, escape the crowds and pedal down to the ocean for some relaxing beach time – the beach is only a 15-minute cycle away. Hoi An really comes alive at night, when thousands of brightly-coloured silk lanterns illuminate every nook and cranny of the Old Town creating a magical glow – a photographer’s paradise.
Hoi An is lined with picturesque canals © Sarah Gibbons
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Dalat, Central Highlands
Best for: Countryside romps and canyoning thrills
Don’t miss: The hair raising canyoning experience
If baking on the beach is something you’d rather avoid, then make sure Da Lat – known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ – is on your itinerary. Located in the picturesque Central Highlands, this quaint mountain city enjoys far cooler temperatures than its coastal counterparts. Here, you're surrounded by pine forests, open meadows and coffee plantations.
A popular weekend break destination for domestic tourists, this city is built for romance, with its French colonial architecture, horse-drawn carriages and even a Eiffel Tower-lookalike radio pylon. However, it’s got a serious adventure streak too, with travellers from all over the world coming to experience one of the most adrenaline-inducing canyoning experiences is Southeast Asia. Not for the faint of heart, this involves scrambling, jumping and abseiling down 20-metre waterfalls – a hair-raising, but utterly thrilling activity that you won’t forget in a hurry.
Canyoning in Dalat – not for the faint hearted © Sarah Gibbons
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Southern Vietnam
Best for: Buzzing culture and cheap eats
Don’t miss: Exploring the city’s best street food on a motorbike tour
You haven’t experienced chaotic traffic until you’ve been to Ho Chi Minh City (still known by many locals as Saigon) – a high-octane, positively pulsating city of over eight million people. One of the first things you’ll no doubt experience is the blaring horns and clatter of thousands of bikes zipping around; it seems like pandemonium yet somehow everyone seems to know where they’re going.
The food scene here is thriving and if you can muster the courage, join a motorbike street food tour (as a passenger, naturally) and take a whistle-stop tour of the city’s best street food, from Bánh mì (filled baguettes) to bánh xèo (crispy rice-flour pancakes). Ho Chi Minh City is also the gateway to exploring the fascinating, and highly claustrophobic, Cu Chi Tunnels – used by Vietnamese guerrilla fighters during the war with America – as well as the hard-hitting War Remnants Museum.
Bánh xèo, a crispy rice-flour pancake filled with a variety of delicious choices © Alphonsine Sabine/Shutterstock
Sapa, Northwest Vietnam
Best for: Trekking through the iconic rice terraces
Don’t miss: The view from the top of Fansipan Mountain
Established as a Hill Station by the French in 1922, Sapa is the tourist hub of the mountainous north – famed for its dramatic rice terraces that cling to the steep hillsides. The region is also home to a number of ethnic minorities, namely the Red Dao and Black Hmong, who still wear their distinctive traditional dress – each village wears different clothing.
Spend your days exploring the region on one of the multitude of hiking trails and if you’re looking for more of a challenge, you can tackle Mount Fansipan itself, the highest peak in Indochina at 3,143m. If you don’t fancy the trudge, then you can still soak up the incredible views thanks to the Fansipan Legend cable car – reportedly the highest and longest in the world.
Rice terraces in Sapa, Vietnam © This Is Me/Shutterstock
Hue, Central Coast
Best for: Exploring Vietnam’s imperial history
Don’t miss: Biking along the Hai Van Pass
Get a taste of Vietnam’s imperial past on a visit to Hue, the Vietnamese capital (1802-1945) during the time of the Nguyen Dynasty , which dissolved at the end of the war with America. Straddling the Song Huong (Perfume River), the city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to The Imperial City – a vast network of temples, museums and pavilions that will definitely keep you busy all day long.
If you're travelling to Hue from Da Nang and Hoi An or vice versa, make sure to travel the Hai Van Pass: a stunning mountain road of hairpin turns and panoramic vistas of deserted beaches and mist-clad hills. Some may recognise it from Top Gear, who named it one of the best coastal roads in the world in their Vietnam special. You can either rent a motorbike and experience it solo or join an ‘Easy Rider’ tour as a passenger.
The Phu Van Lau Pavilion in Hue, Vietnam © Efired/Shutterstock
Hanoi, North Vietnam
Best for: Pho-loving and bargain hunting
Don’t miss: A stroll around the serene Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of Hanoi’s historic district – a hub of activity for tourists and locals alike.
Vietnam’s attractive capital is a city of contrasts, from the wide, elegant streets of the French Quarter to the colourful chaos of the Old Quarter. Most of the activity is found in the latter – the UNESCO-protected heart of the city. Packed with hundreds of shops and market stalls spilling out onto the streets (and thousands of motorbikes!) the best way to explore is to just dive in and see what you discover.
Make time to stop off and sample a Pho; Hanoi is the home of this famous noodle soup, after all. You can easily spend several days in Hanoi itself, but most also use it as a springboard to exploring the iconic Halong Bay and its thousands of towering limestone pillars – a four-hour drive away. The peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake is well worth a visit, and it's steeped in history too: legend has it the Emperor Le Loi obtained a magical sword from the Dragon King to fight against Chinese oppressors in 1428.
Tran Quoc temple in Hanoi, Vietnam © martinho Smart/Shutterstock
Da Nang, Central Coast
Best for: Beach breaks and cosmopolitan city culture
Don’t miss: The Marble Mountains and the Golden Bridge
Vietnam’s third-largest city, just up the coast from Hoi An, cosmopolitan Da Nang is changing fast and steadily gaining a reputation with visitors . Known for its white-sand beaches, stylish bars and restaurants and picturesque surrounding mountains, there’s plenty to keep you occupied for a few days. One of the most popular things to see is the Marble Mountains, a cluster of five mountains named after the earth’s elements: Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth). The main attraction is Nui Thuy Son Mountain, the largest in the group and home to a series of caves; you can also climb up one of the winding staircases in the rock to enjoy the vistas of the surrounding countryside. One of the newest attractions is the Golden Bridge, a 150-metre-long pedestrian bridge in the Bà Nà Hills resort. Supported by two gigantic hands it looks like something out of a fantasy film set.
The Golden Bridge, Da Nang's Instagram-friendly new construction © charnpui/Shutterstock