Last Updated on 4 August 2022
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Vietnam is a diverse country full of bustling cities, historic towns, lush-green jungles, unspoiled beaches, ancient temples, and some truly breathtaking natural landscapes (and the list could go on). From experience, I know how hard it can be to narrow down the must-see places to visit in Vietnam into some sort of organised Vietnam itinerary. So to help you pick which places make the cut, I’ve composed a list of 9 of the absolute best places to visit in Vietnam on any trip, so you don’t miss any of the quintessential experiences or good stuff!
1. Halong Bay in northeast Vietnam
Unsurprisingly, Halong Bay is the no. 1 of the absolute best places to visit in Vietnam, and an overnight cruise should definitely be on your bucket list for Southeast Asia. Located in the north of Vietnam ~180km (~112 miles) east of the charming capital of Hanoi, Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of over 1,600 islands. These karst islands are covered in lush-green jungle, have secluded beaches, and are mostly uninhabited, and meandering around them on an overnight cruise is a truly enchanting experience (especially when fog falls over the bay, creating the most mystical aura).
Tip: Be sure to check out these 5 super useful tips for how to choose a Halong Bay cruise, to help you pick the best cruise for you and avoid Halong Bay overwhelm! But whichever you book, I’d suggest going for 2 nights to give you enough time to absorb your surroundings.
2. Train Street in Hanoi
A visit to the world-renowned train street is one of the very best things to do in Hanoi. Hanoi is one of those cities in Asia that you’ll love, and nestled within its Old Quarter you’ll find train street in between Lý Nam Đế and Phùng Hưng street. If you input Hanoi Train Street into Google Maps, it should pick it up straight away, but if not it’s usually marked on any local map you might get from your hostel or hotel.
Train street is a functioning 117 year old railway track, and is one of the quirkiest Hanoi attractions. A narrow track separating homes and cafes on either side, when the train hoots its horn to warn that it’s approaching, you will see vendors swiftly pack away their tables and chairs, and visiting tourists hold their bodies tightly parallel to the wall as the train passes at speed just inches from them.
Tip: Check local sources before you visit to ascertain whether train street is open. In 2019, train street was closed due to safety concerns, but I have read rumour that it is beginning to reopen to tourists again (just do your own research to be sure).
3. Cafe Giang in Hanoi
Egg coffee (ca phe trung in Vietnamese) is a speciality in Vietnam, but nowhere is it more famous than in the northern capital of Hanoi. Egg coffee is usually made up of egg yolks, sugar, condensed milk and robusta coffee, plus a few other secret ingredients depending on where you purchase your mug. One of the absolute best places to visit in Vietnam to sample this Vietnamese speciality is at the welcoming Cafe Giang in Hanoi.
Founded in 1946, Cafe Giang is one of the most notable places to enjoy this dessert-like, luxurious and creamy coffee in Hanoi and is a hotspot for locals and travellers alike. If you’re heading to this popular cafe, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the sign that leads to it down the alleyway. And if you fancy an alternative to coffee, try and egg hot chocolate (yum)!
Tip: If you fancy an egg coffee, I’d suggest you go during the day and not an hour before you’re going to go to bed. Take it from someone who doesn’t drink (or even really like) coffee – it was a bit like rocket fuel, and it completely interfered with my sleep that night!
4. Tam Coc in Ninh Binh province
Words cannot describe just how breathtaking Tam Coc is. Located in Ninh Binh province around 100km (~62 miles) southeast of Hanoi, Tam Coc is one of the most unique places to visit in Vietnam. Comparable to Halong Bay but on dry land, in Tam Coc you will see jungle-cladded karsts burst out of the lush-green rice fields that line the river which meanders between the limestone towers.
The view from Mua Cave Viewpoint is nothing less than spectacular, and will give you a panoramic bird’s eye view for miles. One of the best experiences when visiting Tam Coc is to take a boat ride down the Ngo Dong River, where you can bob by the rock formations and paddy fields whilst in awe of the beauty that surrounds as the oarsman rows you with their feet (true story).
Tip: Tam Coc one of the most popular and easiest day trips from Hanoi. Many tour operators offer this, and it can be booked online before you arrive in Vietnam, (usually) with your hotel, or in a travel agency in the city.
5. Hoi An to An Bang Beach by bicycle
If you’re looking for a destination to add to your Vietnam itinerary which oozes charm, then Hoi An might be for you. Located in central Vietnam on the coast of the East Vietnam Sea, Hoi An is an ancient port town rich in Oriental and French Colonial influence. The town itself is world-famous for the array of colourful lanterns which light its streets, boats and the Thu Bon River at night, but it’s also well known for the colonial buildings and Chinese temples which line the (mostly) pedestrianised streets.
And one of the best things to do in Hoi An is to head away from the historic town and cycle through the surrounding rice fields to An Bang Beach. The paddy fields that surround Hoi An have a complex of footpaths and cycle routes which span their length and width (I believe they are actually farmers lanes), leading to little settlements and eventually to the beach (if you go the right way, of course). You’ll likely see water buffalo, ducks and a whole lot of other natural beauty on the way to An Bang Beach!
6. The Cu Chi Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City
Located ~46km (~29 miles) northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), the Cu Chi Tunnels are one of the most popular Vietnam tourist attractions which snake below the ground. The Viet Cong (or communist guerrilla troops) began to dig the Cu Chi Tunnels in the late 1940s to try and combat South Vietnamese and American forces. By the early 1960s, the Cu Chi Tunnels were expanded and spanned all the way from the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City to the Cambodian border.
What makes these tunnels so incomprehensible is that they were often dug by hand, the Viet Cong would live in them (they had living quarters, kitchens and even hospitals), and booby traps would be set within them to capture enemy troops. Imagine living underground throughout the course of the Vietnam War where disease could be rampant and tunnels occupied by poisonous scorpions and venomous snakes?!
As a tourist, you can now crouch through a short section of the Cu Chi Tunnels to experience what life must have been like for the Viet Cong, but it’s still a dark, humid and claustrophobic experience. Through the small section of the Cu Chi Tunnels which tourists are allowed in, there are exit points where you can come back up to ground level if you need (note: the tunnels begin to get smaller the further you go). If you’re looking for must see places in Vietnam, then a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City to the Cu Chi Tunnels should be at the top of your list!
Tip: Even if you don’t feel comfortable crouching through one of the tunnels itself, I would still highly recommend going. The tour guides are so informative and you will learn a whole host of interesting information about the tunnels and the Vietnam War.
7. My Son Sanctuary in central Vietnam
Located ~42km (~27 miles) southwest of Hoi An, My Son Sanctuary is a UNESCO World Heritage and ancient spiritual site situated amongst the dense jungle and lush-green mountains of central Vietnam. My Son was constructed between the 4th and 13th centuries by the Champa Kingdom (also known as the Chams), who were once the ruling population of the region. The complex was dedicated to Hinduism, but also acted as an important political centre and burial ground.
Unfortunately, My Son has been destroyed by weather and war over the years, but what remains is an abundance of red-brick temples which are partially or fully intact. The scenery surrounding My Son is awe-inspiring, and the complex itself bursts with historic and religious significance – wandering beside the temples is a captivating experience in itself and makes for one of the best things to do in Vietnam.
Tip: There are an abundance of day trips you can do from Hoi An to My Son Sanctuary. Consider packing or pre-spraying yourself with an insect repellent because the jungle environment can mean there are some bugs around.
8. A Water Puppet Theatre
I went to a Water Puppet Show one evening during my trip to Vietnam at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi, and it was a completely unique experience. Although water puppetry originated centuries ago in the north of Vietnam you can catch performances in Ho Chi Minh City, but Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is one of the best places to visit in Vietnam for this.
Water Puppet Shows derive from a time when villagers would use the flooded rice fields to create performances over the water for entertainment. Now transferred into theatres, performances are accompanied by the soothing sound of a traditional Vietnamese orchestra and depict stories and tales with the use of colourful wooden puppets. The puppeteers remain behind a screen throughout the performance, which makes the show quite mystical as the puppets bob around seemingly on their own!
Tip: If you’re going to the Water Puppet Show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi, pre-book your tickets in advance directly at the theatre ticket office. It can get very busy, and if you turn up without booking you’re likely to miss out.
9. The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City
The final of the best places to visit in Vietnam and one of the top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City is the War Remnants Museum. For its sheer educational experience and to help you understand the utterly devastating impacts of the Vietnam War, it is worth some time out of your day. The War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes) was opened in 1975 and contains an abundance of military equipment and graphic photographs.
Some of the most shocking exhibits are the tiger cages which were used by the South Vietnamese Government to imprison those they had detained, and the images of the victims who suffered the notorious Agent Orange which was a strong pesticide and chemical spray which caused birth defects. A couple of hours wandering around the War Remnants Museum is one of the must-do Ho Chi Minh City attractions, but it is not for the faint-hearted.
Tip: Although the War Remnants Museum is one of the best places to visit in Vietnam, it is a truly sobering and shocking experience. It contains photos which visitors are highly likely to find disturbing and upsetting so please look after yourself if you decide to visit.
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