A long, narrow country squeezed in between the East Sea and the Laos and Cambodia borders, Vietnam is a land of striking landscapes that range from the lush rice terraces and forested mountains in the north to the picturesque valleys of the Central Highlands and the fertile delta and beautiful beaches of the south. Included in the mix is booming modern cities, colonial towns, traditional villages, archaeological sites and otherworldly islands.
An overview of the best places to visit in Vietnam by touropia.com, a travel list website that features the most amazing sights around the world divided into various “best of” lists.
1. Ha Long Bay
With its aqua-green water and cluster of limestone rocky outcrops rising from the water like sea dragons, Ha Long Bay resembles a scene from a fantasy story. Located about 130 km east of Hanoi in northern Vietnam, this otherworldly bay features more than 2,000 jungle-covered islands pitted with intriguing caves, grottoes, sinkholes and lakes. Ranging between 50 and 90 metres high, many of the islands and outcrops have been sculpted over the centuries by natural processes into fantastic formations. The names of these islands reflect the unusual shapes they resemble such as Voi (elephant) islet, Mai nha (roof) islet and Ga choi (fighting cock) islet.
Although most of the islands are uninhabited, some of the larger islands such as Cat Ba offer restaurants, bars, hotels and tourist attractions like beaches, historic sites, a national park, markets and souvenir shops. Other islands like Dau Be and Bo Hon feature lakes, coral and grottoes that are ideal for swimming, kayaking, diving and cave-exploring. Rock climbing, jungle trekking and wildlife viewing are also available activities. Read Ha Long Tourism Experiences.
Boat cruises are the best way to experience the natural wonder of Ha Long Bay. With hundreds of boats ranging from traditional Chinese junks to luxury cruisers, boat tours can vary from day trips to multiple-night journeys. These tours often provide meals, nightlife activities and excursion stops where islands, caves and lagoons can be explored. Most boat cruises are arranged either from Hanoi or from ports such as Hai Phong, Ha Long City and Cai Rong.
2. Ha Noi
For the last century, Hanoi has survived through the invasions and occupations of Japan and France as well as the Indochina and Vietnam Wars to emerge as the booming capital city of a reunified Vietnam. Located on the banks of the Red River in northern Vietnam, Hanoi is a large city offering more than 1,000 years worth of history and culture now blended with modern attractions, dining, shopping and nightlife.
At the heart of Hanoi is its Old Quarter, an open-air museum of historic Asian and French colonial architecture that has largely remained intact despite the bombings of the Vietnam War. Here among scenic tree-lined boulevards, tourists can browse busy markets, sip coffee at quaint cafes and visit prominent sites like the Grand Opera House, the Presidential Palace and Saint Joseph Cathedral. Beyond the Old Quarter, the city is full of impressive temples and museums exhibiting the country’s eventful history.
Hanoi has many beautiful lakes surrounded by parks and green spaces with the most popular being Hoan Kiem Lake. A good way to experience the local culture is to attend a live performance of Ca tru, a traditional form of Vietnamese music, or to see history and folklore demonstrated at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. One of Asia’s top shopping cities, Hanoi is teeming in malls and shopping centers.
Hanoi’s dining scene is vibrant from numerous market stalls and street vendors selling traditional dishes like Pho bo (Beef noodle soup) and Pho ga (chicken noodle soup) to fine restaurants serving a variety of Asian and international cuisines. Nightlife choices are plentiful from karaoke bars and dance clubs to cinemas and theaters. The best options for getting around Hanoi are bus, taxi and motorbike taxi (Xe om).
3. Hoi An
Located off the coast of the East Sea in South-Central Vietnam, Hoi An is a beautiful, old city dating back 2,000 years to the Champa Kingdom. The city’s historic architecture, traditional culture and textiles make it a popular destination in Vietnam.
At the heart of Hoi An is its atmospheric Old Town, which is small enough to walk around easily. The narrow, winding lanes of the Old Town are lined with beautiful old architecture, traditional wooden houses and hundreds of tailor shops selling clothing, shoes, bags, souvenirs and custom-made services. The central market is here as well, bustling with vendors selling fresh food, cooked dishes, ceramics and handicrafts. Important landmarks not to miss are the 17th century Japanese covered bridge, the Quan Cong Temple and the Cantonese Assembly Hall.
Outside the historic center, motorbikes and taxis provide transportation around a more modern district booming in attractions, museums, hotels, restaurants, shops and tourist facilities. To experience the city’s historic culture, the Hoi An Handicraft Workshop and the Traditional Theatre present performances of folk customs and music. Bicycle tours to nearby villages offer picturesque countryside, rice paddies, water buffalos and traditional cuisine. Read Travel to Hoi An and visit Thanh Ha Pottery Village.
Hoi An has a good range of restaurants, pubs and clubs. Many of the city’s restaurants offer cooking classes, so visitors can learn to cook the city’s local specialties that include Cao lau (rice noodles topped with roasted pork, vegetables and dough fritters) and White rose (a shrimp dumpling shaped to resemble a rose).
Situated on the banks of the Perfume River in Central Vietnam, Hue once served as the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty, which ruled from 1802 to 1945. Today, the vestiges of this former glorious period are reflected in the city’s architecture, culture and cuisine, making it a popular tourist destination.
Hue is a compact city, making it easy to get around by walking although motorbikes, cyclos and taxis are plentiful. The city’s main attractions are its well-preserved historic monuments that mostly lie along the Perfume River, a scenic river so named from the pleasant aromas of flowering orchards. Of the city’s monuments, the Citadel is the most famous. Once the seat of the Nguyen emperors, the Citadel is a sprawling complex of grand palaces, ornate temples, walls and gates. Prime attractions within the Citadel are the Forbidden Purple City, Thai Hoa Palace, and the Ngo Mon Gate. Another important landmark on the river is the city’s official symbol, the Thien Mu Pagoda.
Just a short bicycle ride or scenic river cruise outside of the city is the must-see Tombs of the Emperors, an elaborate tomb system of which the Tomb of Tu Duc is the finest. While exploring the tombs, tourists may also want to visit the nearby hot springs and spas for a bit of pampering and relaxation.
Hue’s cuisine is another of its attractions, noted for its refined presentations that date back to the imperial period. Popular local dishes are Nem lui (sweet pork grilled on bamboo sticks) and Banh khoai (a pancake of shrimp, pork and bean sprouts). Hue offers a good supply of cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs.
Surrounded by pictorial mountains, rice terraces and a diversity of hill tribes in the remote northwest of Vietnam, Sapa is a quiet town frequently used as a base for trekking in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains and touring rice paddies and traditional villages.
Sapa’s main attraction is its proximity to the mountains, villages and rice terraces. From the town, there are many organized tours that aide tourists in mountain hikes and exploring the nearby rice paddies and remote villages. These tours present views of wildlife, beautiful waterfalls and the opportunities to experience the food, customs and way of life among the local tribes.
In the town of Sapa itself, there are attractive French colonial sites worth visiting such as the Gothic church, the town square and city hall. Sapa is a major market town where the various ethnic tribes in the area often gather to sell their handicrafts, which make excellent souvenirs. At the Sapa Culture Museum, visitors can learn all about the history and cultures of these ethnic groups.
Because it is a popular tourist base, Sapa boasts a wide variety of restaurants ranging from traditional Vietnamese to international cuisines. At the town market, food stalls serve the local specialty, hot pot, a simmering broth of meat, greens and mushrooms. Nightlife options are limited in Sapa, but there are a few bars where one can enjoy drinks, music and socializing. Read The specialties of Sapa and Enjoy the grilled dishes in Sapa.
Getting around Sapa is easily done by walking, but exploring outside of town should be done by organized tours, motorbikes and 4WD vehicles that can be rented at hotels.