Don’t be fooled by its relatively small size - there are more than enough top things to do and see in Vietnam to keep you occupied - and the country also boasts some of the loveliest and most diverse scenery in Asia, too. From the bustling cities to remote rural landscapes, this enigmatic country bewitches almost everyone who encounters it.
1. Ha Long Bay
1600 limestone islands, almost conical in shape and topped by dense forest, draped in moss and surrounded by the deep green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin - it’s not surprising that this is one of Vietnam’s most sought-after natural attractions, and one that has featured in many films. Cruises of various lengths and duration are a popular way to take in this otherworldly scenery; seaplane is another, more recent, option, allowing passengers to glimpse the lakes and landscape beneath those verdant canopies. Boasting a huge array of biodiversity, most of the islands are uninhabited, with some stalactite-spiked caves to explore.
2. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Featuring the oldest karst mountains in Asia - some of the ridges rise to as high as 400 meters - this is an incredible area for those with a taste for adventure - there are underground rivers and pristine jungle, as well as extensive cave systems - including Hang Son Doong, which was only discovered in recent years and later confirmed to be the largest cave in the world. Exploration of this takes the sort of budget that most of us don’t have, but there are more affordable options, such as Paradise Cave, which features stalactites and stalagmites of such proportions as to be almost unimaginable from the tiny entrance.
3. Mekong Delta
As the source of a huge percentage of Vietnam’s food - rice and fish, in particular, is sourced from this area - the importance of the Mekong Delta can’t be overestimated. The mighty river that flows through it starts in the Himalayas and passes through four different countries before reaching Vietnam, where it creates suitably soggy rice paddies and completely informs the way of life of everyone who lives in its vicinity. Don’t miss the wonderful chaos and color of the floating markets - the best of these is to be found at Cần Thơ and, although this is by no means the loveliest city in the region, it makes a great base for exploring everything else that the area has to offer.
4. Ho Chi Minh City
Previously known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is probably not the place for a relaxing break - not, that is, unless you intend to hole up in one of the several excellent (mostly global chain) hotels and block the outside world from your consciousness. Manic in pace and seemingly always under construction, it takes on a vastly different aspect from the peace and seclusion of one of its many rooftop bars; it also boasts a wealth of cultural must-sees, such as the Independence Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral (a hangover from French colonial days, as is the Municipal Theater) and the stunning Saigon Central Post Office - as well as several markets in which to test your haggling skills.
Previously the capital of Vietnam, and the home of the Nguyen dynasty, Hue was horribly neglected after the Vietnam War, because such a glorified past was not held in high regard by the new communist authorities. Now, however, all that remains is eagerly sought out - the To Mieu Temple Complex, and the Citadel, which contains the temples and pavilions of the Imperial City, surrounded by its moats and walls. The recently restored Co Har gardens can also been found here, and at Thien Mu Pagoda, you can see the car driven by Thich Quac Duc to the Ho Chi Minh City intersection where, in 1963, he self-immolated in protest against Buddhist persecution.
6. My Son
Constructed over the space of 1000 continuous years, between the 4th and 13th centuries, this series of temples, located in central Vietnam, owe their origins to a unique culture, Cham, based on Indian Hinduism. Surrounded by mountains and streams, and made from fired red brick, the temples feature stone pillars and relief images showing scenes from Hindu mythology. Unfortunately, only about 20 structures still remain, whereas once there were around 70; the complex suffered greatly at the hands of bombers in the 20th century and restoration and conservation work is ongoing. A guided tour is recommended to get the most out of your understanding of the ruins and their symbolism; even the position that each one was built in relation to the others had a significance.
7. Hoi An
Accessible only by road (the closest neighbouring city is Da Nang), Hoi An was a major trading center in the 16th and 17th centuries and is now home to well-preserved architecture that gives the town something of the feel of an open air museum. Wooden-fronted buildings and some French colonial influences make for charming wanderings, as do pagodas and other Japanese nuances. The compact Old Town is easy to explore on foot, and is full of remnants of the city’s popularity with Chinese merchants in the past, such as signs featuring the ornate Chinese calligraphy denoting traders’ names. As well as being atmospheric and charming in its own right, the town also has a slew of talented tailors - a throwback to its historical importance as a port on the silk route - who can whip you up a fashion magazine replica in next to no time at all.
Sapa was established as a hilltown by the French in the 1920s; overlooking lush, green terraced rice fields, it makes for some pretty spectacular scenery-gazing. The town itself is rather unprepossessing - even less so in recent years, thanks to fairly aggressive development - but head away from the city to hike the surrounding area and feel the memory of congestion and high rises melt away. Often misty, you will definitely need waterproofs and sturdy shoes; homestays en route allow you a glimpse into the lives of some of the area’s remaining hill tribes, not to mention the opportunity to taste wonderfully authentic cuisine made by your host families. A two day hike will get you to the top of Mount Fanspian; there’s also a cable car for the short-on-time.
9. Ba Be National Park
Lakes and limestone mountains, dense evergreen forests and crashing waterfalls: it’s not difficult to see why this was declared a National Park in 1992. Located in the northeast province of Bac Kan, the area is home to a handful of ethnic minorities, who still live a traditional life, relying on the land and the lakes for their food. Terrain and wildlife are both incredibly diverse, and hikers will find plenty to enthrall, but of course, one of the most popular ways to explore the area is by kayak or boat tour; this option is also the only way of accessing some of the area’s incredible caves, many of which are populated by bats and sculpted by stalagmites and stalactites.
10. Nha Trang
As one of Vietnam’s premier beach resorts, Nha Trang has plenty to recommend it, from its clear turquoise waters studded with islands, to the hills that form its picture-perfect backdrop. Scuba diving is popular, although not world-class, and mineral-rich mud bathing, which will leave your skin refreshed and baby-soft, is a Nha Trang specialty. Some examples of Cham temple architecture, like that of My Son, can be seen here but on the whole, Nha Trang is very much “new Vietnam”; cosmopolitan and vibrant, you won’t lack for choice when it comes to drinking and eating. Head to the Skylight Nha Trang for a 45th-floor perspective of the scenery and relax with a drink at the 360-degree skydeck.
11. Ban Gioc Waterfall
Located within reach of Hanoi, this waterfall takes you right up to the border with China, as far northeast as you can go. Thirty meters high and a whopping 300 meters across, this is the widest (although not highest) waterfall in the country; utterly majestic yet still relatively off-piste for most travelers, which of course just adds to the feeling of awe that you get when you behold them. Local operators will take you to the base of the falls in bamboo rafts; swimming is not advised in some areas, although some of the calmer pools off to the side of the falls may be suitable, depending on conditions. An impressive limestone cave system, Nguom Ngao caves, complete with calcium carbonate-formed stalactites, can also be visited while you’re in the area.
12. Da Lat
A hillside location gives Da Lat its milder climate, making it a welcome reprieve from the often sticky, humid temperatures at lower levels. It’s frequently referred to as “Le Petit Paris’ - Little Paris - a name that hearkens back to its popularity with French colonialists who built holiday villas here for specifically that purpose, and traces of this past are still very much in evidence in the architecture. These mild climes also make the area ideal for growing flowers, so it’s a wonderfully pretty place to visit, with huge swathes of color at any time of year, although those seeking more of a thrill than florals may provide are also amply catered for, with lakes, waterfalls, and pine forests offering loads of opportunity to hike or participate in an organized adrenaline sport such as canyoning.
13. Phú Quoc
White sandy beaches and warm temperatures have long made this Vietnamese island, which is 48 km long and located close to Cambodia, popular with holidaymakers. Added to this, around half of the island has protected national park status, with dense jungle, crashing waterfalls, tropical rainforests and a jagged mountain landscape. Known for its fish sauce - the first Vietnamese product to ever be given Protected Designation of Origin Status by the EU - some travelers pay a visit to the factories to get a glimpse into the local life and economy; the smell is pretty overpowering though so be warned! Previously the sleepy refuge of backpackers and hippies, the island is slowly but surely getting an upmarket makeover, so visit soon if you want to see it at its unspoilt best.
The Vietnamese capital is richly jammed with architecture - and, for that matter, with traffic. The Old Quarter, with a history spanning back around 1000 years, is a hub of life and activity for locals; its 36 streets were originally arranged according to the type of good or service they provided and even today, you will come across a whole block occupied solely by people who make paper, for instance. Prices here are, by Western standards, absurdly low; you won’t be able to resist buying some mementoes of your visit. There are also several small temples to be visited, the night market to be wandered (and delicious street food to be sampled), plus Hoan Kiem Lake to be explored; walk across the bright red bridge to Ngoc Son Temple, situated on a tiny island in the lake.
15. Ha Giang
With a population primarily made up of ethnic minorities, this region, in the north, represents Vietnam at its untouched best. Towering limestone and granite mountains, richly forested and snaked around by winding roads, plus steeply terraced rice fields make this one of the country’s most spectacular landscapes - yet its relative remoteness makes it difficult to access by all but the most intrepid travelers and therefore, all the more beautiful and inspiring. Head to the top of Qan Ba Pass for epic views - the name means Heaven’s Gate and when you reach the viewpoint, you’ll see why.