Vietnam Travel Guide (Top 12 Things to Do)
Vietnam is an incredibly beautiful country with a range of climates and landscapes. From magnificent mountains, serene beaches, palm trees, and pine trees to the busy city streets and rural villages, Vietnam has it all. The delicious food, thrilling motorbike rides, breathtaking views, and welcoming people made our month spent in Vietnam one of our favorite travel destinations to date. Whether you travel to Vietnam for a short holiday or travel to Vietnam for a more extended stay like we did, you should not miss these TOP 12 THINGS TO DO while traveling in Vietnam.
If you would like to hear all about our times in Vietnam, check out our episode Podcast 11: Vietnam Travel (and Location We Hated during our World Tour).
Visit the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi
It sounds exactly just like it is, a puppet show on water. The theme of the show is rooted in rural Vietnamese traditions and folklore. The puppets used in the show are both animals and humans depicting fishing, planting and harvesting rice, and cultivating the land. There are even fire-breathing dragons and fireworks. The puppet performances are accompanied by live Vietnamese folk music that is played on bells, drums, bamboo flutes, and guitars and vocalists sing and cheer words of encouragement to the puppets.
There are five shows per day, 365 days per year. Ticket cost is VND 100,000/ person ($4.45 USD). Note: The shows will sell out, particularly in high season. If you want to see a show on a specific date or time, make sure to go to the box office and purchase your ticket in advance.
Explore the Marble Mountains in Da Nang
Located just south of the city, the Marble Mountains are full of caves containing Buddhist shrines and altars depicting scenes from heaven and hell. The five mountains are named after natural elements (fire, water, wood, metal, and earth). There are also several fantastic viewpoints overlooking the city and ocean.
Ticket prices are VND 40,000/ person ($1.80 USD). Note: You can walk up the staircase to the mountains or take the elevator for an additional cost (VND 15,000/person). The walk up the stairs is short, easy and beautiful. I suggest skipping the elevator ride.
Visit the Golden Bridge near Da Nang
The newly built Golden Bridge – Cau Vang – outside of Da Nang, is located in the Bà Nà hills, sitting beautifully above Da Nang just west of the vibrant city. The 150m-long bridge was built along a mountaintop and the main attraction is obvious as soon as you set your eyes on it – the giant stone-like hands covered in moss holding the massive walking bridge.
Get some Beach Time
Considered to be Vietnam’s most beautiful beach, My Khe Beach offers impressive surfing and sunbathing options. The 32 km, white, sandy stretch of pristine shoreline is anything short of paradise. Nha Trang also offers a 6 km stretch of beautiful shoreline and is often referred to as the Riviera of the South China Sea. Along the coastline, there is a myriad of restaurants, cafes, and beach bars much like the beaches of Dhermi, Albania.
Visit the Lady Buddha at the Son Tra Linh Ung Pagoda in Da Nang
Standing at 67 meters high, a tall, white, radiant statue gazes upon the sea, marking the entrance of the Linh Ung Pagoda. This Lady Buddha or Goddess of Mercy statue is said to watch over the sailors and pray for them during times of heavy storms or inclement weather. Inside the Linh Ung Pagoda, apart from the Lady Buddha statue, there are 18 statues of Arahat that are placed around the central shrine to protect it.
Each Arhat, a spiritual rite, expresses love, hate, anger or joy. The complex is also full of bonsai trees, well-manicured gardens, flowers, and is bustling with praying devotees. Note: Entrance is free. If you are arriving via car or scooter/ motorbike, the parking attendant will allow you to park and accepts donations as you leave.
Cruise around in Halong Bay
Halong Bay is home to over 1,600 massive, limestone islets, each topped with thick jungle vegetation rising magnificently from the turquoise colored ocean. If you have ever been to the Phi Phi Islands, it is similar to this but on a much grander scale, with more caves, grottos, and many more islets jutting out of the water over a more expansive area.
There are several ways to explore Ha Long Bay depending on your budget and travel schedule; with day cruises, overnight cruises, and kayaking tours. Make sure to bring your camera! Note: We booked a day cruise through our hotel that started at 1200, included transportation to and from our hotel to the harbor, lunch, and a 3-hour cruise around Halong Bay. The ticket cost was VND 45,000/ person (USD 20).
See the lanterns at night in Hoi An
Hoi An is notorious for its handmade lanterns which can be found hanging throughout all the main streets in Old Town. The lanterns are made in an array of different colors, shapes, and sizes. During the day, the lanterns add character to the streets, but at nighttime, when the lanterns light up, Old Town has a romantic, almost magical feel to it.
Eat delicious street food
Vietnamese street food is incredibly cheap and super tasty. Typical ingredients like lemongrass, bok choy, mushrooms, cabbage, bamboo shoots, Ceylon spinach, Chinese broccoli, cucumber, fresh seafood, beef, pork, and various noodles can be found in Vietnamese cuisine.
During our one month in Vietnam, we fell in love with Vietnamese street food. Our personal favorites were hot pots, báhn mì (banh mi), and phớ (pho, pronounced “fuh”); all of which can be ordered in both vegan and non-vegan varieties just like in Kerala, India.
Hot pots allow you to cook your food right at the table! A pot of hot broth, herbs, and spices is brought to your table and continuously simmers over a small burner. Freshly prepared, raw ingredients of your choice are brought as sides for you to cook in the hot broth. The broth can be made from chicken, beef, pork bones, seafood, or vegetables.
The uncooked ingredients usually consist of vegetables like lemongrass, bok choy, mushrooms, cabbage, bamboo shoots, Ceylon spinach, Chinese broccoli, and rice noodles. You also get to choose the protein of your choice (beef, chicken, seafood, tofu, soy, etc.).
Banh mi is a Vietnamese variation of the American sub sandwich. The banh mi sandwich starts with a crusty, brittle baguette bread made from rice and wheat flour. Various meats (pork, ham, beef, and pate), mayonnaise, sliced cucumbers, cilantro, sour pickled daikon and carrot, and fresh chilies are then added to the crusty baguette.
If you prefer the vegetarian/ vegan option, ask for a banh mi chay (no meat, hold the mayo, and ask for more vegetables). Some banh mi stands had soy meat as an option which was a nice touch! Pho is simply soft rice noodles in broth, topped with chopped green onions and the meat of your choice. The meat is usually chicken (ga) or beef (bo).
The best part about pho is the sides that accompany the soup. Heaping piles of bean sprouts, sawtooth herb mint, cilantro, chilies, a salt and pepper mix, and lime are used to add to the pho. Again, if you prefer a vegan/ vegetarian pho option, make sure to ask for “pho chay”, pho containing vegetable broth and no meat.
Explore Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, often referred to as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam. With 24 districts in total, District 1 and 3 is where you will find most of the best tourist attractions, eateries, bars, cafes, museums, etc. We stayed in District 1, the buzzing city center where there was plenty of great food, trendy shopping options, main tourist attractions, and late-night nightclubs. Be sure to visit the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon if visiting District 1.
The cathedral was constructed between 1863 and 1880 by French colonists and has two bell towers, each reaching 58 meters in height. In 1959, Bishop Thien ordered a statue of Our Lady of Peace to be made from granite in Rome and had it installed outside of the cathedral with the inscription that read, “Notre Dame bless the peace to Vietnam” on the statue. In 2005, it was reported that the statue shed tears causing thousands of people from all over to come and see the statue.
Opposite the cathedral, you can visit the Central Post Office. This building was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. One of the most visited sights in Saigon is the Reunification Palace (also known as Independence Palace). This is the very place where the end of the Vietnam War was decided.
If you are looking to buy some goods, head on over to the Ben Thanh Market. Here you can buy anything! From souvenirs, jewelry, art, and clothing to fresh fruit, coffee, and seafood, Ben Thanh Market is sure to have what you are looking for. Just make sure you look both ways before crossing the busy, motorbike infested street!
If you like playing poker tournaments, be sure to check out the action in HCMC where they are always hosting great poker games. Matt details the action in Ho Chi Minh, Da Nang, and Nha Trang in his post Playing Poker in Vietnam.
Visit the World of Heineken at the BITEXCO Tower in Ho Chi Minh City
The World of Heineken provides a unique, fun and educational experience and breathtaking views of Ho Chi Minh City. The World of Heineken ticket price includes a visit to the Saigon Skydeck where you can see 360°, panoramic views of Ho Chi Minh city from the 49th floor of the BITEXCO Tower.
It also includes a visit to the 58th-60th floors where you will learn how beer is made, the history of Heineken, experience a 4D movie, and enjoy two cold Heinekens while overlooking the entire city from the 60th floor. You also get a personalized Heineken bottle that you get to design. Tickets cost VND 250,000/ person ($11 USD).
Rent a scooter (anywhere)
Traffic in Vietnam is quite hectic. However, once you have ridden in a taxi or motorbike taxi in Vietnam you soon come to realize that the bustling streets are easily navigable; organized chaos. Renting a scooter in Vietnam is super cheap VND 113,000- 136,000 / day ($5-6 USD).
Scooters are a fun way to navigate the small and crowded alleys, escape traffic jams, and see the city with the wind in your face and the sun shining down on you. If you do not feel comfortable driving a scooter on your own, you can always catch a Grab Bike or uberMOTO, both great on-demand motorcycle taxi services.
Drink a Vietnamese coffee
Vietnam is one of the largest producers of coffee in the world. Vietnamese coffee is made by a slow filter drip process. Coarsely ground coffee beans are placed into a drip filter called a phin which sits on top of an empty cup. The coffee beans are weighted down by a thin lid, hot water is added to the phin, and the hot water then slowly drips through into the empty cup.
The result is a dark, intense coffee brew that can be enjoyed as is by itself, with condensed milk, or poured over ice. If you are a coffee lover like me, you will inevitably fall in love with Vietnamese coffee.
Traveled November – December 2017