Jagged limestone karsts (natural towers created by erosion), small villages with tiered rice paddies, more than 2,000 miles of coastline, nearby pristine islands, and cultural sites that date back more than 1,500 years—Vietnam has so much to offer, and with three international airports, getting there has never been easier.
“I would move to Hoi An today,” says Amy Hardie, travel program coordinator for REI Adventures in Asia. However, if you’re not yet ready to move, but you are looking to get an overview of what’s worth seeing and doing in Vietnam, this guide has tons of useful info for planning your excursion, including:
- Why Visit Vietnam?
- The Top Outdoor Activities in Vietnam
- The Best Places to Visit in Vietnam
- How to Plan Your Trip to Vietnam
Why Visit Vietnam?
Vietnam is a long, thin, north-south, S-shaped country that lies just south of China and to the east of Laos and Cambodia. The nation has 30 national parks and has long been popular on the backpacking circuit due to its rich culture, history and incredible exchange rate. A U.S. dollar is worth about 23,000 Vietnamese dong. A pint of domestic beer runs about 20,000 dong (about $1), and an inexpensive meal runs about 40,000 dong (about $2).
Much of the country is warm and humid throughout the year, though the northern mountainous regions near the town of Sapa can get chilly in the wintertime. Outdoorsy travelers will have much to explore in the country, from lush green forests and high, walkable peaks to clear, scuba-friendly waters. When visitors head to a city, they have their choice of amenities and cultural activities, like luxury hotels and 4th-century ruins.
The Top Outdoor Activities in Vietnam
“Hiking and biking are the biggest adventure activities,” Hardie says. But unlike in the U.S., trails can be difficult to navigate for tourists due to lack of signage. “They’re basically trails that the locals use to get to and from villages and to their farmland.” Thus, according to Hardie, a guide can be invaluable in order to have the best experience.
Some of the most popular established trekking routes include:
Sapa is the place to go if you’ve dreamed of those tiered rice paddies, tropical forests and limestone topography. Located in northwest Vietnam, Sapa has grown from a hidden gem to a popular tourist destination with many of the amenities you’d expect, like local tour operations, homestays and restaurants.
Mount Fansipan, located southwest of Sapa, is the tallest mountain in Vietnam at 10,311 feet. A multiday trek was once the main way to attain the peak, but now a cable car, completed in 2016, can ferry you most of the way up in 15 minutes. Guides still offer hiking tours to the top of the mountain for those who prefer a continuous footpath. Even if you take the cable car, there are still 600 steps to climb to reach the top.
Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003 and is home to more than 64.6 miles of underground rivers and caves. One of the park’s more notable treks is through the Paradise Cave, where tours go as deep as 4.3 miles before turning back to retrace your steps, and might include swimming and/or boating through part of the cave.
Bạch Mã National Park is located in central Vietnam near the city of Huế. Three of Bạch Mã’s must-do trekking destination are the top of 4,757-foot Hải Vọng đài mountain, the highest point in the park; the beautiful Do Quyen waterfall; and Ngu Ho, a series of crystal-clear pools and streams.
Pu Luong Nature Reserve is located just under 100 miles from Hanoi. This rural area encompasses mountains, valleys and terraced rice paddies. A short hike to Thác Hiêu waterfall is a nice way to cool off in the heat. For a bigger challenge, hike up 9,793-foot Mt. Phú Lương or work with a guide to create a multiday trek to explore all the reserve has to offer.
Sơn Trà Mountain, also known as “Monkey Mountain,” is just outside of Da Nang and home to more than 300 red-shanked douc langurs (a species of monkey). Cars can take you most of the way to the top, so trek lengths vary, but you’ll likely see plenty of monkeys and a sweeping view of Son Tra peninsula from the peak.
It’s simple and inexpensive to rent a bicycle in major cities like Hội An, Hardie says, but the real benefit of cycling is that it’s an excellent way to see rural towns and experience the culture and people—and that’s much better accomplished with a guide.
A two-week cycling trip between Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and Hanoi is popular. Homestays and hostels sometimes offer bike rentals in areas like Mai Chau, and the flat Mekong Delta area is friendly to cyclists of all ability levels.
Thanks to plentiful lakes and coastlines, water sports have taken off in Vietnam. Kitesurfing has long been popular in the little beach town of Mũi Né, and stand up paddle boarding has emerged as a popular means of aquatic exploration all across the country. Ha Long Bay, considered a must-see area of Vietnam, is a superlative kayaking destination, though most trips are part of larger multiday cruise excursions. Ba Be National Park, which is home to three small lakes and many caves, is also a popular area to kayak.
Although not a human-powered adventure, motorbiking in Vietnam is a popular pastime for tourists and a main form of transport for locals. It’s an excellent way to see more of the country with relative convenience, though the dirt back roads can get flooded in heavy rains and large cities can be chaotic and dangerous for the inexperienced. You’ll also need to make sure you have the correct driver’s license.
Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
Nha Trang is the best-known area for diving and snorkeling, with seahorses and stone fish in shallower water and stingrays—and if you’re lucky, eagle rays—deeper down. Still recovering from decades of dynamite fishing and an emerging diving destination in its own right, the island of Phú Quốc has clear and relatively current-free waters for beginners who want to see coral and reef fish. As new dive sites are discovered every year, Phú Quốc is likely to grow in popularity.
For more experienced divers, the nearby An Thoi islands have opportunities to spot bamboo sharks and blue spotted rays. The Con Dao Islands are even less well known, but visitors can explore a shipwreck and keep an eye out for marine animals such as great barracuda, hawksbill sea turtles, giant cuttlefish and the endangered dugong.
The Best Places to Visit in Vietnam
Considered the cultural capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is the second-largest city in the country with more than 7 million people. The city was founded 1,000 years ago and is located in the north of the country.
One Pillar Pagoda is also near the center of Hanoi, next to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and is an important symbolic structure dating back to 1049 A.D.
Đồng Xuân Night Market is a bustling event that takes place Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from roughly 6pm local time to 10:30pm. It’s a great stop for finding handcrafted items and local foods.
Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most recognizable areas in Vietnam. The bay contains more than 1,600 islands and islets, many of which rise steeply out of the water. Ranging in price and duration, cruises are one of the most popular ways to explore the area.
Cát Bà Island is the largest of many islands comprising an archipelago of the same name. Most of the island is a national park and UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Visit its 15,200 hectares of tropical virgin forests, teeming with monkeys, birds and medicinal plants.
The Mai Châu district is a rural mountainous region about 90 miles east of Hanoi. A popular option is an overnight stay in one of the local stilt houses with a visit to the local market.
Ninh Binh is sometimes called “Ha Long Bay on land.” Geographically, it’s about 60 miles south of Hanoi and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site called the Trang An Landscape Complex. The area stands out thanks to its sharp limestone mountains carved by a winding river surrounded by rice paddies.
“I fell in love with Hoi An,” Hardie says. And it’s no wonder: the city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site, preserving the 15th- to 19th-century port town. And if you decide to visit, there are a few things that are worth putting on your itinerary:
Hoi An Night Market is much like any other tourist market, and is a nice place to wander if you’re looking for souvenirs. But the colorful, luminous lanterns are what really make the market stand out.
Japanese Bridge was built in the 1590s to connect Japanese traders with the Chinese community. Now, it’s one of the most recognizable pieces of architecture in Hoi An.
Cửa Đại Beach is located only about two and a half miles from Hoi An, and the beach is worth a bike ride for the scenery even if beach-lounging isn’t your cup of tea.
My Son Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage site, makes a worthwhile day trip. Now a fascinating complex of ruins, the ancient temples here were inspired by Indian Hinduism and date back to the fourth through the 13th century in what was once the Champa Kingdom.
Cham Islands requires a ferry ride, but part of the eight-island archipelago has been named a World Biosphere Reserve thanks to its more than 947 species. Explore the island’s pagodas or get in the water for swimming, kayaking or scuba diving.
The Marble Mountains just a few miles north of Hoi An are a popular pilgrimage site. Hard to miss, the five prominent crags are named after metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Hike up the largest, Thuy Son, and see caves, altars and viewpoints. You can even hire a guide and do some rock climbing.
Situated right in the center of Vietnam, Huế (pronounced: way) is an excellent destination for history buffs: The last dynastic royal family lived here for more than 100 years. Huế is sometimes called the “land of the Perfume River,” thanks to the slow-moving river that runs through the area for more than 18 miles.
Dong Ba Market is the largest commercial market in the area and has a food court with a wide selection of different dishes. It’s also a great place to buy local cultural gifts, like small pointed hats with poems woven into them, called “nón lá bài thơ.”
Tomb of Tự Đức is a picturesque monument created for Emperor Tự Đức, who ruled for 35 years in the mid-1800s. The many pavilions and other structures are set in landscaped grounds that include a lake.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Located in south Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is the official name of this area, though many locals and visitors still call it Saigon. Hardie points out that the largest city in Vietnam feels very much like Southeast Asia’s New York City—their populations are about the same at more than eight million inhabitants.
Thích Quảng Đức Monument: If you’ve ever felt moved by the 1960s image of the self-immolated monk, Hardie suggests a visit to the Venerable Thích Quảng Đức Monument. At this fascinating city retreat, the garden offers quiet contemplation in an otherwise busy atmosphere.
Ben Than Market is the central market in the city and features foods, textiles and souvenirs for locals and tourists alike.
Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica was built by the French in the 1860s, and followers still light candles and pray to the Virgin Mary at the front of the building today. Located in the downtown area of the city, it’s an easy, quick stop if you’re on your way elsewhere.
How to Plan Your Trip
Best times to visit: Daily temperatures vary greatly from north to south in Vietnam. September through December is considered the best time frame to visit north Vietnam, but it can be especially rainy anywhere south of Huế. December through March will be a bit on the chilly side north of Hanoi (temperatures range from the high 50s to 70s), but still balmy and humid to the south, with relatively fair, clear days. June through early September tends to have the harshest weather with regular, severe rains and unrelenting heat.
Where to stay: Hostels, poshtels (fancier hostels with upgraded amenities), homestays, room sharing services like Airbnb, hotels and resorts are available all over the country, and they’re all considerably less expensive than you would find in the U.S. Hostels are a top choice for backpackers for both the inexpensive lodging (they run about $5 a bunk per night) and the social interaction.
But it’s really up to you. “You can stay at a four-star hotel for $50 or $60 U.S. a night,” Hardie says. “It just depends on what the traveler prefers.”
What to pack: Check the typical weather of the region you’ll be visiting, since it changes so much between areas, but generally, Hardie says you should pack:
- A good pair of walking shoes
- Ankle-strap sandals that you can wear in the water
- Warm-weather clothing like shorts and/or a skirt
- One pair of pants
- Tank tops or t-shirts
In your backpack, consider having a sarong or other lightweight cover-up if you’ll be going into any temples, which require shoulders and knees to be covered. Sometimes guides will carry smocks for guests in a pinch, Hardie says. But if you’ve missed an essential on the list, most necessities, save for prescription medications, will be easy to find in any large town or city.
How to get around: The easiest way to get around in cities is the GRAB App, which is like Uber for Southeast Asia. If you’re trying to get from one major city to the next and can afford it, the easiest mode of travel is by plane, with flights averaging about $50. For travel to smaller areas, taking a bus is a good bet. There is a long-distance train that runs north and south that is also an option, but it tends to be around the same price as air travel and takes longer, so if you go this route, it’s worth the extra money for a sleeper car.
Money: You can probably get away with U.S. dollars in Vietnam, but you’ll likely get better prices if you exchange your money instead. There are credit card machines in larger cities, which often charge a 3% transaction fee, but cash still goes farther, especially in more rural areas. If you do exchange your cash, be sure to request plenty of small bills, Hardie says, as it can be difficult to break larger denominations of currency.
What to eat and drink: Aside from the epic landscapes and rich cultural heritage, the food alone in Vietnam makes the trip worth it. “Eat as many bánh mì as you possibly can!” Hardie suggests. Each region has its own specialty, so try out different local items. Hardie recommends you focus on foods that are cooked, but she also clarifies that she’s never had any issues with food safety. As far as what to drink, bia hơi is a popular daily-brewed light draft beer that you can find on many street corners and in small cafes. For non-alcoholic options, check the local menus. Hoi An, for example, has a ginger lotus water that is sold in many places. Vietnamese iced coffee—known locally as cà phê đá, or cafe da—is not to be missed.
Visas: U.S. citizens can apply for visas in advance online or by email or mail. You’ll need a recent photo and a passport with at least six months left before expiration. In terms of cost, visas start at about $17 for the approval fee, plus an additional fee for passport stamping upon arrival, starting at $25. Visa prices are dependent on your duration of stay and number of planned entries.
Key phrases to know:
Hello: chào | say: chow
Thank you: Cảm ơn | say: gauhm uhhn
Yes: Vâng | say: vuhng
No: Không | say: kaumng
Goodbye: Tạm biệt | say: tam byet