When you think of Vietnam, vivid images of endless rice fields, pointed straw hats, and steaming bowls of pho likely come to mind. You might even reminisce about the friendly Vietnamese war veteran living next door, who used to buy you lollipops on lazy Sundays. All of these iconic scenes perfectly capture the essence of Vietnam.
Why Visit Vietnam?
Despite its tumultuous history with the West, Vietnam is incredibly welcoming to Western travelers. Even in the bustling cities, you’ll be approached by groups of enthusiastic students eager to practice their English and engage with visitors.
The Vietnamese people take immense pride in their culture and nation. They appreciate any efforts you make to learn their language or understand their country better.
When it comes to food, Vietnam’s national dish, pho, a flavorful beef or chicken noodle soup, can be found on almost every corner. The country offers a wide variety of cuisine to suit all tastes and diets, with the French influence from the colonial era leaving a lasting mark on Vietnamese menus.
Beer and coffee are also integral parts of Vietnamese culture. The Vietnamese are among Asia’s biggest beer drinkers, thanks in part to the prevalence of bia hoi (homemade, inexpensive draft beer) available on many street corners. Vietnam is also the world’s second-largest coffee exporter, and the traditional Vietnamese coffee is known for its strong flavor and generous use of sugar.
Where to Go in Vietnam
As a first-time visitor, you’re likely to arrive in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi, with its iconic red bridge over a serene lake, narrow streets of the Old Quarter, and intriguing lotus seed beverages, is the epitome of an Asian city. The Old Quarter can be easily explored on foot, while the peaceful lakefront gardens offer a respite from the city’s lively atmosphere. Don’t miss attractions like the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the former Hoa Lo Prison (nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton), and the captivating water puppet theatre.
Ho Chi Minh
In contrast, Ho Chi Minh City, resembling a European metropolis with its towering skyline, is a melting pot of cultures. It offers a deeper understanding of Vietnam’s fierce patriotism and recent history. The War Remnants Museum is a must-visit, showcasing powerful exhibitions on the wars with France and the US, leaving a lasting impact on visitors.
Ha Long Bay
For natural beauty, Ha Long Bay is a mesmerizing destination. Despite the weather, the bay, adorned with countless islands, remains breathtaking. You can reach Ha Long Bay directly from Hanoi or from Haiphong, the country’s third-largest city. Exploring this UNESCO World Heritage site through an overnight boat cruise is the best way to experience its charm.
Sapa, the major city in the far north, is a paradise for trekking enthusiasts. The stunning countryside and opportunities to meet indigenous people attract many tourists. Despite its popularity, Sapa manages to retain an atmospheric and off-the-beaten-track feel. Be prepared for chilly weather and bring warm clothes for your trekking adventures. Bac Ha is another great destination for trekking, and its Sunday market is a vibrant spectacle where locals trade the region’s famous produce.
Where to Go If You Like…
In Central Vietnam, Danang serves as an excellent base for exploring the region. The area’s best beaches, including the famous China Beach (My Kye), lie to the east of the city center. Nha Trang is a popular beach town, perfect for relaxation and diving. Phan Thiet, known for its fresh and affordable seafood, attracts local tourists. However, the highlight of the area is Mui Ne, the kite-surfing capital of the world.
While not the first Southeast Asian country that comes to mind for tropical islands, Vietnam has its share of hidden gems. Phu Quoc Island, although closer to Cambodia, boasts idyllic beaches, with Sao Beach being the best among them. Con Dao Islands offer excellent snorkeling opportunities and a chance to spot turtles. For those seeking quieter beaches away from the mainland crowds, islands like Hai Tac and Nam Du are ideal.
Hue, the former imperial capital, houses the magnificent Imperial Citadel. This vast complex of palaces, temples, and gardens once served as the home of the Nguyen dynasty and is worth a day of exploration. Nearby, you can visit the tombs of past emperors, accessible by boat or bicycle. Hoi An is a charming town known for its lantern-lit streets, delectable food, and vibrant markets. A day trip to the ancient Cham ruins at My Son, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is also recommended.
The town of Dalat, situated in the Southern countryside, offers a European ambiance. It was a popular retreat for the French during colonial times and continues to attract Vietnamese visitors. The nearby hills provide opportunities for activities such as riding the stunning cable car to Thien Vien True Lam Monastery. Although the town is generally warm and dry, evenings can be cool.
Vietnam boasts 30 national parks, primarily located in the north and south regions. These parks offer abundant wildlife, lush greenery, and some of the world’s most impressive caves. Popular activities in these parks include caving, trekking, biking, and canoeing.
Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s first and largest national park, is a haven for birdwatching. Spending a couple of days here is recommended to fully appreciate its natural beauty. Tam Coc village in the Ninh Binh province, near Cuc Phuong National Park, offers breathtaking vistas of karst mountains.
Cat Tien, easily reachable from Ho Chi Minh City, is perfect for hiking and canoeing. The park is known for its astonishing biodiversity and well-preserved environment.
The Cham Islands, located close to Hoi An, are renowned for their lush greenery. A short boat trip takes you to this verdant oasis, although it’s best to avoid visiting between September and April due to challenging weather conditions.