Even though the paths and trails around Vietnam are well beaten by thousands of international visitors who come here every year, it is still an exhilarating country to visit. Diverse natural beauty, dynamic cities, vibrant streets lined with delicious food stalls, pristine beaches, and inspiring culture are attracting adventurers, backpackers, and high-end travellers because this country has something for everyone.
From trekking epic landscapes in the countryside, where life still follows in the rhythms of the rice harvest, through exquisite cuisine, to ancient pagodas and more recent history of the tragic Vietnam War (in Vietnam it is referred to as the American War), unforgettable experiences in Vietnam are everywhere.
It was my dream to visit this country for a long time, so when I finally managed to plan my trip here in June last year, I wanted to see as much of it as possible.
These are my top most favourite things I did in Vietnam, which I will surely never forget. I hope they will inspire you to visit Vietnam and help you to plan your next trip.
1. Climb The 500 Stairs Up To The Hang Mua Caves
Hang Mua means the “dancing cave” and it is related to the story of a prince from the Tran dynasty, who was coming here to this spot to watch local beauties dance and perform. Today, Hang Mua is the top attraction in Ninh Binh and an ultimately unmissable place to see in this area. However, if you are expecting to explore some amazing caves in Hang Mua, I have to stop you right there.
Even though its name suggests that you can visit a cave, it isn’t what people are coming here for. It’s quite the opposite actually!
After conquering the 500 zigzag steps carved in stone in the extreme heat and humidity, you will find yourself on top of a mountain with its scenic views spreading wide and far over the picturesque rice paddies, small villages, limes stone hills and twisty river of the Ninh Binh Province. The climb is not easy but the spectacular views are worth it.
The ticket costs 100,000 Vietnamese Dong (~$4.50) and it is paid at the entrance, or you can book a tour in advance where the fee is included in the price.
2. Explore Trang An Grottoes On The Traditional Rowboat
Trang An Grottoes is not only a set of few caves – it is an outdoor geological museum and eco-tourism complex with numerous mountains, hills, rivers, some unique plants, and historic relics.
The little caves, or “grottoes”, are almost exclusively located on the river so taking a boat ride to explore them properly is a must. Apart from the breathtaking natural scenery, riding the small wooden motor-less boat is a unique experience too, because the boats have a long tradition in the Ninh Bing region and they are solely operated by older Vietnamese women. One boat can take up to 4 passengers and if your group is “too heavy” for the lady, she will ask you to help her paddle.
Trang An Grottoes is a vast land and a UNESCO heritage site, spreading across 1,500 acres of Ninh Binh region. While paddling through the waterways, you will witness some amazing low-ceiling caves, limestone hills, ancient temples and absolute peace of the beautiful Vietnamese nature.
There are a few routes you can choose from and they last for about 2 to 3 hours each. You can see on the map at the entrance how many caves and pagodas you will explore during each tour.
The tickets are 200,000 VNG (~$8.50) per person or your can book a full day tour that includes tickets. Fun fact about this place is, that at some parts, they were shooting the movie Kong: Skull Island, so you will actually find yourself at the movie set!
3. Visit The Most Extravagant Cemetery In Hue
There are many reasons to visit Hue and many amazing places to see around the city. From the tombs of ancient emperors, through the Citadel to the countless pagodas, this former capital of the Nguyen Empire reminds us of the times of imperial Vietnam in all its glory.
The city centre is particularly picturesque with the flowing Perfume River, modern hotels, old city walls, and charming temples. However, the most unforgettable experience I got in Hue was visiting An Bang cemetery, also called “the city of ghosts”.
The cemetery is not located directly in Hue, but in the An Bang village about an hour’s drive on a motorbike from the city. After Vietnam’s reunification after the war in 1975, many inhabitants of An Bang emigrated to Europe and America and were sending money back home, which made An Bang one of the most affluent villages in the country.
It’s not rare to see big houses with expensive cars in the driveways here. And when every family member had their fancy house, but money from abroad kept coming, they started to build tombs. Tombs, like I’ve never seen before! Extremely extravagant, super colourful, few stories high, some of them with toilet, shower or even kitchen inside and most of them are still empty.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I came to this place. Besides us, there was absolutely no one, no locals nor other travellers. The cemetery is massive, it runs along the beach for 3 km and I have a strong suspicion that it’s actually larger than An Bang town itself. This place is definitely the most unusual one I’ve visited on my travels across South East Asia.
4. Admire The Beauty Of Halong Bay From A Kayak
Halong Bay is a true natural wonder that doesn’t need an introduction. With its towering limestone cliffs and hundreds of islets covered with lush green jungle, that rise up from the emerald waters of Gulf of Tonkin, it’s not a surprise that this place is listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.
Halong Bay is the number one tourism hub in northern Vietnam and for me, it was a must place to see. We opted for a two-night cruise, which took us to many places around the bay with very little or no other boats at all.
However, the best way to explore the hidden coves and wind-shaped grottoes of Halong Bay is definitely from a kayak. You can take your time and soak in the wild beauty of this area.
If you decide to take an overnight boat trip in Halong Bay, most of the boats have kayaking in the itinerary. Because Halong Bay is fairly large, there is a good chance that they will take you to a cove where they have special access guaranteed so there won’t be too many other people.
5. Get Lost In The Little Alleys Of The Old Town In Hoi An
Known also as the Venice of the East, Hoi An belongs to the most atmospheric towns in Vietnam (if not in whole South-East Asia). The Ancient Town is cut through with canals and has been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.
The city centre is a perfect very well-preserved example of a traditional Asian port with old historical buildings that blend of local and foreign influences. Yes, it is touristy, but the old town is surprisingly spacious with many little streets, so it can accommodate even bigger amounts of visitors without feeling too crowded.
Besides the historical old town, Hoi An is also famous for its local cuisine, hundreds of lanterns hanging literally everywhere, beautiful beach nearby and for its skilled tailors whose craftsmanship and reasonable prices are well-known wide and far. This city is simply an excellent place to break your journey midway through Vietnam.
6. Enjoy The City Views From A Sky Bar In Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is attracting thousands of visitors, ex-pats, celebrities, and locals all year round and it’s, without doubt, one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam. The city is pulsing with energy, history, adventure, and culture.
You can find here sleek designer malls, fancy restaurants, and modern skyscrapers, as a contrast to the well-preserved French colonial architecture, ancient temples and tiny street food stalls serving simple yet delicious dishes… Either you choose to explore the city, take a day trip to Delta Mekong or go in the footsteps of the war, every day in Saigon will bring you a new memorable experience.
Moreover, HCMC is also renowned for its nightlife and cool sky bars. There’s nothing like watching the sunset from an outdoor terrace of a nice rooftop while enjoying a delicious cocktail. Personally, I was doing South East Asia on budget, but in HCMC I decided to treat myself and splurge a little and I have no regrets.
7. Ride A Bike Through Wild Nature Of Cat Ba National Park
Cat Ba is the largest of 367 islands comprising the Cat Ba archipelago in Halong Bay. Approximately half of the surface of this island, together with adjacent waters, has been protected National Park area since 1986.
The national park is home to a great variety of natural ecosystems, pristine beaches, lagoons, coral reefs, limestone cliffs, tropical jungles, swamp forests, few endangered animals, like Cat Ba langur and tiny fishing villages.
In recent years, tourism started its boom in this area and in the biggest city you can find some hotels and nice restaurants, however, most of the island is still untouched.
We spent one day cruising through the island on our bicycles, discovering the villages, admiring nature and spending time with the locals over a glass of snake wine (yes, there was a dead snake in the bottle, but I didn’t dare to try!).
Cat Ba is definitely a place to visit and I regret a little bit that we didn’t stay for longer than just a day. Even though tourism is booming, it’s still pretty much undiscovered by masses.
8. Eat All The Traditional Street Food In Hanoi
Hanoi is Vietnam’s famous capital and the second-largest city in the country.
Located on the banks of the Red River, the city is a fascinating mix of well-preserved French-colonial architecture, Chinese influences, Buddhist pagodas, and some modern skyscrapers, that grew up quite quickly after the ravages of the war were over. The streets are always busy with rushing scooters, loud horns, ever-present merchants, a myriad of street food stalls and rickety food carts that will delight your taste buds.
Street food is the ‘heart and soul‘ of many Asian nations and Vietnam is surely not an exception. Hanoi has rich culinary traditions and many famous Vietnamese dishes originated here, for example, well-known beloved Vietnamese soup pho was firstly cooked in Hanoi and sold at dusk by street vendors right from their carts.
If you are not very fond of eating in the streets and you are not sure what to get, I would advise joining a food tour to really experience the authenticity of Hanoi and get a deeper knowledge of the dishes.
9. Sunbath On One Of The Stunning Beaches
There’s no doubt that Vietnam has some of the most pristine beaches with soft sand, warm sea, and endless palm trees. Add a little bit of sunshine and a fresh coconut and you’ll get the perfect beach day!
You can find some of the best beaches of Vietnam in the middle part around Hoi An and Da Nang, on the South, or on the smaller Vietnamese islands like Phu Quoc, Quan Lan or Con Dao. Vietnam offers its visitors lots of incredible sightseeing, which can get tiring after a week, so spending a lazy on a beach will help you gain energy and recharge the batteries!
What To Know For Visiting Vietnam
Getting a tourist visa to Vietnam is easy, however, the process is a little bit more complicated than with other Southeast Asian countries. There are a few steps to follow:
- You have to fill out an application form online, which is very easy. You need only your date of arrival to the country, which airport you will arrive at and you have to pay a service fee, which is 7.50 USD per person.
- Within a week or so (in my case it was only 3 business days), you will get your official Vietnam visa Approval Letter issued by the Vietnam Immigration Department.
- You will have to print it and have it ready together with two passport size photos of yourself (4 x 6 cm) and bring it with you to Vietnam.
- When you arrive at the airport at your destination in Vietnam, you have to show your Approval Letter, together with photos and passport at the Immigration office. After that, they will stick the valid tourist visa directly to your passport. You will have to pay an additional 27 USD in cash (you can pay in Vietnamese dong). If you don’t have cash on you, there should be ATMs available.
The process for tourist visa application should be the same for most of the countries. I travelled with an EU passport.
For more information, you check the official website of the Vietnamese embassy.
If you own a universal adapter, you should be fine to use it for all your electric appliances.
Vietnam uses its own currency – Vietnamese Dong (VND), but at some places, you will be also able to use USD. 1 USD to approximately 23,000 VND, and you can check the latest exchange rate.
In Vietnam, it is essential to have cash, as many establishments, including some smaller hotels or hostels, don’t have EFTPOS terminals. I would advise you to withdraw money at an ATM or in a bank, rather than an exchange in an agency to avoid scams, plus withdrawing money is often more convenient. My MasterCard worked in any ATM just fine and I didn’t have any issues with it.
Best Time To Visit
Vietnam is a year-round destination and can be enjoyed at any time of the year, however, weather can play a big part if your focus is on trekking and outdoor activities. Because of its long and narrow shape, there are different types of seasons throughout the country.
Generally, the best time to visit is from December to February, when the temperatures are milder, although if you are planning to do hiking in the north, you can be surprised by cold weather. The monsoon season starts in April and lasts till October, but I visited Vietnam in June and the weather was splendid, sunny and warm. The only time we experienced occasional rains was in Halong Bay, but they never lasted longer than 30 minutes.
There are many different tourist sim cards to choose from in Vietnam. We usually get one right at the airport after getting off the plane.
Because I was travelling with my husband, we opted for two different telecommunications companies Mobifone and Viettel in case one of them would have weaker reception in certain parts of the country. Luckily we didn’t have to worry, because the signal was good anywhere we went.
Vietnam is well connected by air, rail or bus, so if you plan to travel the whole length of the country, you have many different options which will suit your travel style and budget.
You may be surprised that there are more than 20 airports in Vietnam with many low-cost domestic airlines such as VietJetAir, Vietnam Airlines or Jetstar to take you around. Flying is a great idea especially if you are travelling on a tight schedule.
If flying is not your cup of tea, for long distances I would recommend sleeper trains and buses. Sleeper train from Ninh Binh to Hue was my favourite mean of transport during our trip around South East Asia, but you have to make sure to book the first-class ticket in advance to get a comfy bed, clean sheets, pillow, and breakfast.
Overnight buses are also quite comfortable as the seats are made for sleeping rather than sitting. To book your long-distance transport I found a website called 12go the most user-friendly and it’ll show you different price options and comparisons as well as reviews from other travellers.
To get around a city I found Grab the most reliable and convenient means of transport. If there was no Grab driver available anywhere near me, I went to a taxi driver and haggled the price to the one that the Grab app showed me for my route.
For day trips outside the town you can rent a motorbike – the prices for one day usually start at about 100,000 VND.
Vietnam is an overall safe country even for a solo female traveller, but one has to be always aware of its surroundings. Petty crimes and scams targeting tourists are happening on a daily basis anywhere in the world.
It happened to me in Ho Chi Minh that a man put a piece of tape on my shoes and then asked for money because “he fixed it for me”. In this type of situation, you have to be firm but polite and refuse to give them anything. They will not harm you.
Where To Stay In Ho Chi Minh City
- MAI HOUSE Saigon
- Caravelle Saigon
- An Lam Retreats Saigon River
- Find the best price on hotels in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
- Sign up to AirBnB and receive US $35 off your first booking
More Articles About Vietnam
- Things To Do In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
- Vietnam’s 5 Most Instagrammable Spots
- How To Experience Halong Bay For $12
- 10 Budget-Friendly Things To Do In Hanoi
- Hoi An – The Venice Of The East
Things To Do In Vietnam Wrap Up
To conclude, I would like to mention a quote from Anthony Bourdain: “Vietnam. It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever.” I loved our stay in Vietnam and I would love to come back one day!
We hope that this article has helped inspire you to visit and things to do in Vietnam. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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