Header image courtesy of Steven Wilcox (via Unsplash)
From hiking through rice paddies to sailing through an emerald sea of limestone islands, and of course, slurping on the world's best pho, Vietnam offers an exciting new adventure around every corner. With so many fantastic experiences to be had, we thought we'd help you narrow it down with our pick of the best things to see and do during your visit.
With thousands of towering limestone islands jutting out of sparkling emerald waters, Halong Bay is one of the most stunning geographical formations you will come across in Vietnam – if not Southeast Asia. Located around 144km east of Hanoi in the Gulf of Tonkin, this impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site is best explored by boat, and luckily, there are more than 200 cruises to choose from, each with their own route, facilities, activities, and prices to meet all budgets. For a totally rustic adventure, jump aboard the Poseidon Cruise, a traditional wooden junk that is bursting with character, or push the boat out and opt for a luxury liner. Whether you want to navigate this beautiful natural wonder in a day, or stay aboard for one or two nights, this is definitely one experience not to miss.
Located on the central coast of Vietnam, about halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city, Hoi An is an enchanting little town, which was once the most important port for trading among Chinese and Japanese merchants back in the 16th century. Come nightfall, the city lights up with the glow of a thousand lanterns, which hang from countless market stalls, restaurants, and cafes lining the Thu Bồn River and side streets. Make sure not to miss the striking Japanese Covered Bridge (or Chua Cau), which sits in the heart of the old Japanese town, and becomes illuminated with different colours each night. You can also climb aboard a small rowing boat and drift gently down the river as you release paper lanterns containing tea lights, for a small price. This is considered to bring you good luck and happiness, so don't forget to make a wish.
Given than Vietnam is steeped in history, dating back long before the period of French colonialism in the 19th century and the Vietnam War in the 1950s, it comes as no surprise to learn that the country is scattered with significant museums and monuments to visit during your stay. From the famous Vietnam Military History Museum, Hoa Lo Prison Museum, and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (pictured) in Hanoi, to the Museum of Vietnamese History and War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh, you're never too far away from a glimpse into the past. Be warned though, Hoa Lo Prison Museum is not for the faint-hearted, and you will stumble upon some chilling photographs from the Vietnam War. If, on the other hand, you are more interested to learn about the country's culture and social structure, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and the Vietnamese Women's Museum in Hanoi are a good place to start.
Okay, so we know the name is somewhat unappealing, but take it from us – weasel coffee tastes amazing! Loosely translation from its Vietnamese name, cà phê chồn, this particular type of coffee is produced with the help of small weasel-like creatures called civets. The civets eat the coffee berries, pass them quickly – making them partially fermented and uniquely bitter — and poop them out, before they are cleaned, roasted, and ready to brew. Don't turn away just yet, because many coffee aficionados claim that these are the best beans in the world, and are willing to pay mega bucks for them. You, on the other hand, can find a bag for a fraction of the price, for sale in local coffee shops and market stalls. Go on – when in Rome!
Vietnam boasts some of the most celebrated cuisine in the world, and even if you don't enjoy spending time in the kitchen, signing up for a cooking class during a visit to the country is an absolute must. Learning how to whip up some of Vietnam's most popular dishes – like pho, bánh xèo (crispy crepes), and prawn rice paper rolls – is something you simply won't find by just eating in a local restaurant. Whichever city you're visiting, you shouldn't have too much trouble finding a reputable and affordable cooking school nearby, due to their popularity among tourists. If you're heading to Hoi An, make sure to check out Thuan Tihn Island Cooking School (pictured), which is located on a small, isolated island on the Thu Bon River, around 3.5km from Hoi An Ancient Town. Before you get cooking, you will be taken to a local market where you can stock up on all the fresh ingredients you need, before hopping in a row boat and drifting through a canopy of coconut trees to reach the eco-friendly island. Here, in an open-air cooking class overlooking the river, you will learn how to cook several delicious dishes with help from your own private chef. Whether you love to cook, or just live to eat, this should definitely be on your Vietnam bucket list.
As the quintessential must-try dish in Vietnam, pho (a tasty soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and meat) can be found in almost any restaurant and street vendor throughout the cities, especially in Hanoi where it originated. But while many a local and tourist can be spotted hovering over a bowl and slurping to their heart's content, there are a few places that have become famous for serving the best broths in town. Among them are Pho Ly Quoc Su, which has three branches in the city, Pho Gia Truyen, with its rundown shop in the heart of the old quarter, and Pho Thin, a rustic and narrow family-run eatery which has been serving customers for over three decades. Although the grandson of the great founder of Pho Thin won't share the family's secret recipe (we tried), there are definitely traces of ginger in the broth, and the restaurant is rumoured to use stir-fried beef instead of raw beef, which could explain the eu-pho-ric flavour.
If you're seeking the ultimate outdoor adventure, then Vietnam's extraordinary natural landscapes offer a unique experience for seasoned hikers and newbies alike. From easy strolls through historic villages and scenic beaches, to hardcore jungle treks that push you to your limits, there are plenty of options to suit all experience and fitness level. A fairly gentle hike in Ba Be National Park, which surrounds Vietnam’s largest natural lake, will lead you past waterfalls and caves, soaring limestone mountains, rice fields, and rainforests in which some 300 butterfly species reside. Meanwhile, Sapa, Vietnam’s premier hiking destination (pictured), offers a dense network of trails which can be chosen according to your fitness level. This area boasts some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Vietnam, featuring terraced rice paddies and secluded mountain villages. If you love wildlife, take a hike in Cat Tien National Park and try to spot gibbons, brightly coloured butterflies, and one of the 79 reptile species that live there. Make sure to make a reservation in advance though, as the park limits the number of visitors.
A trip to Vietnam wouldn't be complete with visiting some of the country's stunning temples and pagodas. Among the most celebrated are Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi, a Buddhist structure which dates back to the 6th century and boasts a 15m-tall pagoda made up of 11 levels. Also in Hanoi, The Temple of Literature is widely regarded as one of the city's most picturesque tourist attractions, and showcases a superb example of traditional Vietnamese architecture. Meanwhile, just 60km south of Hanoi, the dramatic-looking Perfume Pagoda features a maze of Buddhist temples built into the limestone cliffs of Huong Tich. Down in the south in Ho Chi Minh City, Cao Dai Temple combines the religious beliefs of Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam all under one multi-coloured roof. And if you happen to be in Hoi An, your chances of stumbling upon a beautiful temple during a cycling or walking tour are fairly high, given the scattering of impressive structures dotted around the city.
Aside from being famous for its enchanting lantern displays and historical buildings, Hoi An is known to be home to some of the best tailors in Asia, who have earned a reputation for making high-quality, bespoke clothing at a fraction of the price that other cities offer. What's more, they are praised for their speed and ability to make you a new outfit in less than 24 hours, which is perfect if you need a quick turnaround. Whether you're after a three-piece suit, an evening gown, or causal dresses to wear every day, this is the place to get it. You will literally be spoiled for choice as you browse the rows upon rows of shops showcasing their beautiful creations on mannequins in the window, but among the most renowned are A Dong Silk, which is strongly affirmed by Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor, Kimmy Tailor, which has been in the business since the 70s, and Tuong Tailor, a family-run business which has been making clothes and shoes for three generations. Before you choose, make sure to shop around for the best prices, read the reviews on travel forums, and bring along a photo of what you want. It's also a good idea to thoroughly check the fabric samples first, and allow plenty of time to collect your new outfit – otherwise you might have to arrange shipping.
With more than 2,000 miles of coastline, Vietnam is brimming with white sandy beaches, secluded coves, and crystal clear waters that are calling out for a dip. While Nha Trang is generally recognised as Vietnam’s premier beach destination, with City Beach boasting six kilometres of sand that is lined with cafes, restaurants, and tour boats, My Khe and Non Nuoc in Da Nang are often packed with locals and tourists during weekends and public holidays. Similarly An Bang Beach in Hoi An (pictured) is known for drawing in the crowds around peak season with its white sand, palapas, lounge chairs, and eateries. If you're seeking more secluded waters away from the city, however, then Long Beach on the island of Phu Quoc has captured the hearts of many travellers with its beaches alone. Not far from Ho Chi Minh City, the Con Dao islands offer pristine shores, coral reefs, and surrounding mountains that are partially covered by rainforest. Among this cluster of islands, Dam Tram Beach and Bai Nhat Beach are highly rated among those seeking serenity and the perfect ocean sunset.