Best Things to do in Vietnam

updated 11/27/2019
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As one would expect from a country so long and skinny, there’s plenty of things to do in Vietnam – it’s a land of emerald paddy fields and white-sand beaches, full-tilt cities and venerable pagodas, vast caves, craggy mountains and friendly minority communities. Read our guide and find out about the best things to do in Vietnam.

The information in this article is inspired by the Rough Guide to Vietnam, your essential guide for visiting Vietnam.

1. Visit the Ethnic Markets

Spectacular traditional dress and a lively atmosphere make visiting the ethnic minority markets one of the best things to do in Vietnam – especially those in Bac Ha and Can Cau. Bac Ha’s Sunday market, the town’s one big attraction, gradually swells between 8am and 10am. Until lunchtime it’s a jostling mass of colour, mostly provided by the stunningly dressed Flower Hmong women looking for additional adornments.

One spot that’s rarely visited by foreigners is the Tuesday flower market at Coc Ly, about 20km southwest of Bac Ha on Highway 154, where Nung, Flower Hmong and Dao women stand side by side selling carefully selected flowers to neighbouring minority groups.

Hmong woman, Vietnam © The Old Photographer/Shutterstock

2. Explore temples and pagodas (Thien Mu Pagoda)

Vietnamese temples and pagodas reflect the country’s diverse range of religions: Long Son Pagoda in Nha Trang is a good example. The Long Son Pagoda is a 1930s creation whose entrance is marked by stone gateposts topped by lotus buds. The huge White Buddha, 180- odd steps up the hillside behind is the pagoda’s greatest asset – and Nha Trang’s most recognizable landmark.

Another must-visit pagoda in Vietnam is the seven-storey Thien Mu Pagoda (“Pagoda of the Celestial Lady”) which is possibly Hue’s most photographed structure. The pagoda is a peaceful place where the breezy, pineshaded terrace affords wide views over the Perfume River.

Hanoi, Vietnam © Shutterstock

3. Celebrate Tet

The most important festival in the Vietnamese calendar, Tet sees the New Year ushered in with colourful flower markets, spectacular fireworks and exuberant dragon dances. Tet lasts for seven days and falls sometime between the last week of January and the third week of February, on the night of the new moon.

This is a time when families get together to celebrate renewal and hope for the new year, when ancestral spirits are welcomed back to the household and when everyone in Vietnam becomes a year older – age is reckoned by the new year and not by individual birthdays.

Celebrating Tet is among things to do in Vietnam for an authentic experience © Vietnam Stock Images/Shutterstock

4. Examine Cu Chi tunnels

Look out for the spiked booby traps that Vietnamese guides reveal for visitors to the Cu Chi tunnels. During the American War, the villages around the district of Cu Chi supported a substantial Viet Cong presence. Faced with American attempts to neutralize them, they quite literally dug themselves out of harm’s way, and the legendary Cu Chi tunnels were the result.

Today, tourists can visit a short stretch of the tunnels for an insight into life as a tunnel-dwelling resistance fighter. Some sections of the tunnels have been widened, but it’s still a dark, sweaty, claustrophobic experience, and not one you should rush into unless you’re confident you won’t suffer a subterranean freak-out.

Viet Cong tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City © ImaginativeGifts/Shutterstock

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5. Visit the Citadel in Hué

Visitnig the former capital’s historic citadel, mausoleums and gardens are idiosyncratic should be on the list of things to do in Vietnam even for the most jaded traveller. Hue’s days of glory kicked off in the early nineteenth century when Emperor Gia Long laid out a vast citadel, comprising three concentric enclosures, ranged behind the prominent flag tower.

Within the citadel’s outer wall lies the Imperial City, containing administrative offices, parks and dynastic temples, with the royal palaces of the Forbidden Purple City at its centre.

Where to stay in Hue:

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Hue, Vietnam © wawri/Shutterstock

6. See the water puppets

Enjoy a performance of mua roi nuoc, an art form developed in the Red River Delta around Hanoi. The Thang Long Water Puppet Troupe is by far the most popular, and polished, of Hanoi’s water-puppeteers; though aimed at tourists, their shows (100,000đ) feature modern stage effects to create an engaging spectacle. Catch them at this small, a/c theatre, located by the northeast corner of Hoan Kiem Lake.

Where to stay in Hanoi:

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Water puppets in Hanoi © Shutterstock

7. Trek around Sa Pa

The tourist capital of Vietnam’s mountainous north, Sa Pa is perched dramatically at an elevation of around 1600 metres on the western edge of a high plateau, facing the hazy blue peak of Mount Fan Si Pan, Vietnam’s highest mountain, across the Muong Hoa Valley. The refreshing climate and alpine landscape struck a nostalgic chord with European visitors, who dubbed these mountains the “Tonkinese Alps”.

Rice field, the Fan Si Pan summit, Sa Pa, Vietnam© Jimmy Tran/Shutterstock

8. Go to Cat Ba island

Dragon-back mountain ranges mass on the horizon 20km out of Haiphong as you approach Cat Ba Island. The island, the largest member of an archipelago sitting on the west of Ha Long Bay, boasts only one settlement of any size – Cat Ba town, a buzzing tourist centre that was once a fishing village.

The wild terrain of Cat Ba Island lends itself to adventure sports, and if you are looking for active things to do in Vietnam come here for rock climbing, hiking, kayaking and mountain biking, as well as cruising round Ha Long Bay or the nearer Lan Ha Bay.

Cat Ba island beach © Shutterstock

9. Visit Phong Nha caves in Phong Nha National Park

There are plenty of opportunities to visit caves in Vietnam – especially around Ha Long Bay – but for sheer scale nothing can compare with those at Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The only way to visit Phong Nha Cave is by dragon boat, which wend their way 5km (30min) upstream to the cave entrance, after which the pilot cuts the engine and starts to paddle through.

Keep your eyes open for scars on the rock in the entrance caused by an American rocket attack. You’ll drift awhile between rippling walls of limestone, and see immense stalactites and stalagmites, all tastefully illuminated.

Find more information about Phong Nha caves with our guide to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park: Vietnam's last paradise.

Phong Nha caves © Shutterstock

10. Paddling a canoe across Lak Lake - one of the most romantic things to do in Vietnam

A hundred and fifty kilometres northwest of Da Lat and 40km south of Buon Ma Thuot, Highway 27 passes serene Lak Lake, a charming spot that has become very popular with tourists.

Five thousand people, mostly from the Mnong community, once lived on the lake itself, but have since moved into distinctive longhouses in shoreside villages. There are a number of (slightly cheesy) activities available here, including musical gong performances. Still, the lake itself is a glorious place.

Lak lake, Vietnam © Shutterstock

11. Spend a few days in Hoi An

With its rich cultural heritage, beautifully preserved merchants’ houses and slow pace of life, Hoi An is a captivating place to spend a few days. Wonderfully preserved and full of compelling sights, the small town of Hoi An exudes a laidback atmosphere, and boasts a rich architectural fusion of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and European influences.

The town’s most photographed sight is the beautiful Japanese Covered Bridge. However, the most noteworthy monuments stem from the resident ethnic Chinese, who today constitute one-quarter of Hoi An’s population.

Where to stay in Hoi An:

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Hoi An, Vietnam © Shutterstock

12. Take a trip around the Red River Delta

Slow the pace down with a trip to the countryside and experience a lifestyle little changed in centuries. When you’ve taken in Hanoi’s main sights, there are plenty more places waiting to be explored in the surrounding area, including the cave-shrine of the Perfume Pagoda, which is one of the country’s most sacred locations.

There are dozens of other historic buildings, of which the most strongly atmospheric are the Thay Pagoda and Tay Phuong Pagoda, buried deep in the Red River Delta – both are fine examples of traditional Vietnamese architecture. You could also spend months exploring the delta’s villages, in particular the craft villages, which retain their traditions despite a constant stream of tourists passing though.

Uncover the secrets of Ho Chi Minh City and charms of Vietnam’s capital Hanoi with our tailor-made 9-days tour to Quintessential Vietnam.

Ninh Binh is a small city in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam © Shutterstock

13. Float down the Mekong delta

Putter through this fertile farming region, surrounded by classic Vietnamese scenery. From its lofty source in the Tibetan Himalayas, the mighty Mekong River tumbles down through China’s Yunnan province, squeezes between Thailand and Laos, then slides through Cambodia before reaching Vietnam.

Here, in a flat, comma-shaped delta protruding from the south of the country, the river fragments and spreads out into innumerable tributaries and rivulets, all meandering slowly seawards. It’s in and around the delta’s myriad waterways that you’ll find some of Vietnam’s most iconic images.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

14. Take a Cyclo Ride

The quintessential Vietnamese mode of transport gives you an up-close view of street life. These three-wheeled rickshaws comprise a “bucket” seat attached to the front of a bicycle that can carry one person, or two people at a push, and are now only really found in tourist areas (though locals use them just as much as foreigners).

There are continuous stories of cyclo drivers charging outrageous sums for their services, so to avoid getting badly ripped off, find out first what a reasonable fare might be from your hotel. If the first driver won’t agree to your offer, simply walk on and try another.

Bike vendor with fruits, Vietnam © Shutterstock

15. Take boat trip in Ha Long Bay

The thousands of limestone islands jutting out of these silent waters have been dubbed the eighth natural wonder of the world. Drifting out from Vietnam’s north coast in a wooden junk, your eyes will be riveted on what, at first, appears to be a jagged wall of emerald green. This is Ha Long Bay, the number-one tourist attraction in all Vietnam.

Bar a clutch of impressive caves, specific sights are few on the ground. Even if you tire of the scenery there’s a lot to do in the bay – cruises aside, there’s kayaking across the tranquil waters, swimming amid the twinkles of phosphorescent plankton, or even climbing up a rocky cliff with your bare hands.

Visit Northern Vietnam, anchored by the ancient city of Hanoi, go east and take in the stunning island-studded Halong Bay onthis tailor-made Vietnam Family Adventure. As you make your way down the country, stop in charming coastal Hoi An before venturing south to experience exciting and bustling Ho Chi Minh City.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam © VLADYSLAV DANILIN/Shutterstock

16. Relax on Phu Quoc

Unspoilt beaches lined with coconut trees circle the island. You can also sail south to the unspoilt An Thoi islands for fine snorkelling. One of Vietnam’s most popular holiday destinations, Phu Quoc island rises from the country’s slender southern tip like a genie released from a bottle.

The main attractions on Phu Quoc are its fabulous beaches, and the west coast has some of the best. The majority of resorts and guesthouses are strung out to the south of Duong Dong, along Long Beach (Bai Truong). Most resorts are fronted by fine stretches of soft yellow sand and coconut palms, and the beach is ideal for sunbathing, sunset-watching and swimming.

If a beach holiday is what you're looking for, check out our list of the 20 best beaches in Vietnam.

Where to stay at Phu Quoc:

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Sao beach at Phu Quoc-island, Vietnam © Shutterstock

17. Ride the Reunification Express

Load your bike on, then sit back and relax as the train slowly chugs its way between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Given the amazing prices and frequencies of the various bus services on offer, few travellers opt for the train. However, rail journeys are still well worth considering.

Vietnam Railways runs a single-track train network comprising more than 2500km of line, stretching from Ho Chi Minh City all the way to the Chinese border. The most popular routes with tourists are the shuttle from Da Nang to Hue – which provides a picturesque yet acceptably short sampler of Vietnamese rail travel – and the overnighters from Hue to Hanoi and from Hanoi up to Lao Cai.

Discover Vietnam and Cambodia on this multicentre tailor-made trip to Vietnam and Cambodia by Rail. Explore Hanoi’s charming quarters on foot; then take to the waters and cruise around Halong Bay. Then take the night train to Hue before continuing on your rail adventure through Hoi An and Nha Trang before you cross the border into Cambodia.

Room cabin in express train, Vietnam © Chaitawat.P/Shutterstock

18. Explore Da Nang

The largest city in central Vietnam, Da Nang was until recently ignored as a destination in its own right, eclipsed by the glories of Hue’s Imperial City to the north and the nearby ancient town of Hoi An which lacks its own airport and train station. But things have changed fast, and the city’s gleaming towers and bridges – not to mention its modern, cool and laidback character – are finally luring tourists by the planeload.

The city itself occupies a small headland protruding into the southern curve of Da Nang Bay. Its elongated oval of a centre harbours a few worthwhile sights, foremost among which are the Cham Museum and the fire-breathing Dragon Bridge with the riverside promenade along Bach Dang, where most of the city’s bars are located.

Where to stay in Da Nang:

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Danang, Vietnam © Galina Savina/Shutterstock

19. Enjoy traditional music

Music is the most important of all Vietnam’s performing arts and a traditional performance should feature on every itinerary. The origins of Vietnamese music can be traced back as far as the bronze drums and flutes of Dong Son, and further again to the lithophone (stone xylophone) called the dan da, the world’s oldest known instrument.

The Chinese influence is evident in operatic theatre and stringed instruments, while India bestowed rhythms, modal improvisations and several types of drum. Much later elements of European theatre and music were coopted, while during the twentieth century most Vietnamese musicians received a classical, Western training based on the works of Eastern bloc composers such as Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.

Vietnamese musical instrument © Paul Evan Green/Shutterstock

20. Browse the famous Vietanmese floating markets

Markets such as Binh Tay are good grazing grounds for snacks. Have a soup, spring roll, sticky rice cake – or even a baguette filled with pâte–to keep you going while you shop. First impressions of Binh Tay Market, with its multi-tiered, mustard-coloured roofs stalked by serpentine dragons, are of a huge temple complex. Once inside, however, it quickly becomes obvious that only mammon is deified here.

If any one place epitomizes Cho Lon’s vibrant commercialism, it’s Binh Tay. Its well-regimented corridors abuzz with stalls offering products of all kinds, from dried fish, pickled vegetables and chilli paste to pottery piled up to the rafters, and the colourful bonnets that Vietnamese women so favour.

You will visit all culinary regions on this culinary tailor-made tour of Vietnam. Awaken all of your senses to the wonderful sights sounds and aromas of this fascinating country.

Floating market in Ha Tien, Vietnam © Shutterstock

21. Explore Son Doong cave

Rock-climbing, kitesurfing, kayaking and mountain biking are just a few of the heart-pumping activities awaiting thrill-seekers in the Son Doong cave. In 2009, a group of British cavers attempted the first-ever detailed survey of the Son Doong Cave in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

Their records and photographs revealed chambers large enough to swallow up whole city blocks – the largest is over 250m high, and 150m wide – plus 70m-long stalactites, gigantic shards of crystal and grapefruit-sized calcite pearls. The cave is highly remote but is now open to a limited number of visitors and despite the whacking fee you may have to book months in advance.

Exploring Son Doong cave is one of the mysterious things to do in Vietnam, Vietnam © Shutterstock

22. Walk along Mui Ne sand dunes

In Mui Ne, sand-based fun is not confined to the beach – just north of Mui Ne village, in an area known as the white dunes, you’ll be able to get your fix of quad-biking and dune-buggying.

Mui Ne’s famed Fairy Spring is in fact a narrow stream running through a psychedelic landscape of red sand dunes, which are accessible via an uphill, inland turn just west of Mui Ne village. You’re best advised to kick off your shoes and pad your way along the course of the stream itself – a highly pleasurable, not to mention stunningly beautiful, experience.

Where to stay at Mui Ne:

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Mui Ne, Vietnam © Shutterstock

23. Visit Bahnar villages

A group of four secluded but easily accessible Bahnar villages lie 38km east of Pleiku, en route to Quy Nhon, where Dek Tu, De Cop, De Doa and Dek Rol rub shoulders with one another across a small area of forests and streams. Small split-bamboo and straw houses on stilts are used in these orderly communities, and each one boasts an impressive, steeply thatched rong, or communal house, where ceremonies are performed.

As at Plei Phun, the graveyards are particularly interesting (especially in Dek Tu), where the practice of feeding the dead is prevalent. Unlike the Jarai, however, each of the deceased here has their own grave complete with a small sloping roof. Ladders made out of bamboo poles are leant against the graves to aid the journey to a new life.

Rong house in Bahnar villages in Highland Vietnam © Ovu0ng/Shutterstock

24. Taste local street food

Soak up the atmosphere at a street kitchen and have your plate piled high with a selection of fresh food for next to nothing. You can’t beat a plastic-stool meal – for sheer value for money and atmosphere, your best bet is to eat at Hanoi’s food stalls or street kitchens, most of which specialize in just one or two types of food.

You’ll find both of these sorts of places scattered across the Vietnams cities, often with no recognizable name and little to identify individual establishments, but there are a few that stand out from the crowd.

If you are interested not only in local street food but also in the bar and club experience, read our guide to the Vietnam nightlife: the best bars and clubs.

Bun Cha - Vietnamese traditional dish © Shutterstock

25. Chill out in Nha Trang

Taking a snorkelling trip in the emerald waters of the outlying islands around Nha Trang, or simply chilling out on the beach are one of the best things to do in Vietnam. The delightful city of Nha Trang has, despite increasingly stiff competition, earned its place as Vietnam’s top beach destination.

A grand 6km scythe of soft yellow sand is lapped by rolling waves on one side and fringed on the other by cafés, restaurants, hotels and some unusual modern sculptures. The dining scene is correspondingly cosmopolitan and increasingly sophisticated, and the city boasts some stylish boutiques and bars.

On the other side of the sand, scuba-diving classes and all kinds of watersports are available, while local companies also offer popular day-trips to Nha Trang’s outlying islands, combining hiking, snorkelling and an onboard feast of seafood.

Where to stay in Nha Trang:

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Beach at Nha Trang, Vietnam © Le Quang Photo/Shutterstock

26. Stroll through the rice fields in Tam Coc

It’s hard not to be won over by the mystical, watery beauty of Tam Coc – the “Three Caves” – which is effectively a miniature landlocked version of Ha Long Bay, and an easy cycle ride from Ninh Binh. The two-hour boat trip from Dinh Cac pier in Van Lam village brings some memorable sights, especially of dumpling-shaped karst hills in a flooded landscape where river and rice paddy merge serenely into one.

Keep an eye open for mountain goats high on the cliffs, and bright, darting kingfishers. Journey’s end is Tam Coc itself: three long, dark tunnel-caves (Hang Ca, Hang Giua and Hang Cuoi) eroded through the limestone hills with barely sufficient clearance for the sampan after heavy rains.

Thung Hang Ca in Trang An in Ninh Binh, Vietnam © Shutterstock

If you are looking for solo travel inspirations - check our list of the best places you can travel alone.

Ready for a trip to the Vietnam? Check out the snapshot Rough Guide to Vietnam. If you travel further, read more about the best places to visit and best things to do in Vietnam. For inspiration use the Vietnam itineraries from The Rough Guide to Vietnam and our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Vietnam without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

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updated 11/27/2019
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