Vietnam is a Southeast Asian country squeezed in between the South China Sea and the Laos and Cambodia borders. It’s a land known for its blissful beaches, lush rice terraces, fertile delta and rivers, endless cave systems, Buddhist pagodas, mouth-watering cuisine, and a combination of ancient and dizzying cities.
Add to that the friendly people, mouth-watering cuisine, and extreme affordability, and it’s no surprise that the country is seeing a rise in tourism.
Dating back 20,000 years, Vietnam has a rich but often troubled past. Ruled over for thousands of years by Chinese dynasties, then a French protectorate in the 19th century, the Indochina War, and of course, the American/Vietnam War, the country has been reunified since 1976.
From wandering through the winding alleys, trekking through rice paddies, or the frenetic, never-ending motorbike traffic, the choice of attractions in this diverse country will take your breath away. Jaw-dropping natural beauty will overwhelm you and the nearly infinite number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites makes exploration a dream.
With so much to see, do, experience, and eat, deciding where to go in Vietnam can be overwhelming, especially for first-time visitors. Our picks below can be done in two weeks, however, there are even more places worthy of visiting for those lucky tourists who have more time.
Vietnam at a Glance
- Capital: Hanoi
- Population: 97.47 million (2021) World Bank
- Currency: Vietnamese dong
- Government: Republic, Socialist, Communist, One-party state
- Official language: Vietnamese
- Religion: Buddhism and Catholicism
- Climate: Tropical climate and temperate climate zones, annual monsoon
- Borders: China, Laos, and Cambodia
Visitors can’t simply arrive in Vietnam and get stamped into the country. US Citizens will need a visa, either an eVisa (recommended for less than 30 days in the country) or the Visa on Arrival, both of which require approval before arrival in Vietnam.
Vietnam is a cash-driven country and rarely accepts credit cards. There are lots of ATMs, but they charge a transaction fee, so if you can change money before you enter the country you’ll do better.
Located in the far north, Sapa, sitting in the highest mountains of Vietnam, is famous for its dramatic natural beauty.
Visitors can ride a cable car to the 10,311-foot summit of Mount Fansipan, explore the Love and Silver waterfalls, hike along lush terraced rice paddies, explore the hills on a motorbike, and wander through rural villages untouched by tourism.
In the town of Sapa itself, there are attractive French colonial sites worth visiting such as the Gothic church, the town square, and the city hall. Sapa is also a market town where indigenous tribes sell their handicrafts and souvenirs.
Named after the revolutionary of the same name, Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam, with a population of around nine million in 2019.
Although not the capital, the sprawling metropolis now stands as the most populous city in the country and the perpetual whir of the 7.43 million registered motorbikes is staggering. The former Saigon operates at a breakneck speed with a visceral energy that will either thrill or paralyze you.
The city is packed full of interesting sites such as the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, the Ch Chi Tunnels, Independence Palace, Ben Thanh Market, museums, parks, and temples. Saigon Skydeck is the place to go for an amazing 360-degree view of the city, at night when the neon lights glimmer below.
A great way to get introduced to this frenetic city is on a cyclo tour. A cyclo is similar to a rickshaw but with the bicycle/driver in the back of the carriage.
We cruised on our cyclos to some of the city’s most famous landmarks, such as the Reunification Palace, Cholon Chinese quarter, Nguyen Hue Street, Union Square, Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, and Saigon Opera House.
We were hoping to get to Dalat on way to Ho Chi Minh City (the last stop on our Vietnam trip), but unfortunately we ran out of time. If you get the chance, here’s an itinerary for best things to do in Dalat.
8 My Son
My Son is an abandoned and partially ruined ancient Hindu temple complex built between the 4th and 13th centuries by the Kings of Champa.
One of the most interesting archaeological sites of Southeast Asia, My Son, is believed to have once had over 70 structures with decorative carvings and sculptures of the ancient Champa civilization, mostly dedicated to the deities of Shiva.
Hue is one of the most charming towns in Vietnam, sitting peacefully on the banks of the Perfume River. This area of Vietnam has a long and rich history as it used to be the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty and housed the last of its emperors.
During the time Vietnam was still an empire, Hue was the capital. Although the city has endured much damage from war and natural disasters, much of the old glory is still on display.
Hue’s crown jewel is the sprawling 19th-century Imperial Citadel which encompasses the Forbidden Purple City, Thai Hoa Palace, the Ngo Mon Gate, shrines, temples, and palaces. Although much was destroyed during the Vietnam War, many parts are under restoration and worth exploring.
Hue was right in the center of the Vietnam War. The longest and bloodiest battle took place here and thousands of people were killed by the Viet Cong if they were suspected as being sympathizers of the south.
Situated about halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, Hue is less polluted and industrial than Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, as well as less crowded with tourists than Hoi An or Ha Long Bay.
As far as culinary delights, one of the best things I ate in Vietnam was local favorite Bun Bo Hue – a spicy and delicious soup containing noodles and all sorts of meats.
The highlight was my motorbike tour through Hue. What an epic adventure! We zoomed through the city and breezed past villages, local children, various wildlife, and nature. We stopped in parks, and ancient monuments such as the seven-tiered, 17th century Thien Mu Pagoda, and indulged in delicious ginger tea with locals and chatted while we watched them hand-make traditional conical hats.
6 Mekong Delta
Exploring the 15,000 square miles of the Mekong Delta is a must-do in Vietnam. This meandering network of waterways is a fascinating fusion of nature and culture, including a lush maze of murky canals, swamps, mangrove forests, colonial villages, and traditional floating markets filled with colorful wooden canoes selling their wares. It’s easily one of the most picturesque and photographed regions in Vietnam and one of the best places in Vietnam to visit if you want a more traditional experience.
We sailed in a junk boat and then transferred to a small wooden canoe to explore some of the narrow canals. We stopped at a couple of small islands to engage with locals and enjoy their special offerings of coconut candy, fresh honey, and even snake wine!
5 Golden Hands Bridge
Da Nang is getting more and more visitors of late with the construction of the Golden Bridge – a giant bridge that appears to be held up by two hands which became an instant Instagram sensation.
Suspended high in the clouds, the surreal pedestrian bridge soars 3,280 ft. above sea level in the Ba Na Hills Resort (think Disney). The bridge is a creative masterpiece with golden-hue gilded railing frames curving for 500 feet.
Aside from its most famous attraction, Da Nang is Vietnam’s third-largest city offering white-sand beaches, the Marble Mountains, caves, and fabulous nightlife. The Dragon Bridge is illuminated at night and the whole place looks incredible from the vantage point of one of its many rooftop bars.
Vietnam’s charming capital served as our entry point into Vietnam. An interesting mix of French and Sino-Vietnamese influences, the vibrant 1000-year-old city was the perfect jumping-off place to give a taste of Vietnam’s culture, landmarks, architecture, and cuisine. Despite its war-torn history, Hanoi has emerged as one of the most bustling and interesting cities in all of Asia.
We really enjoyed wandering the streets of the Old Quarter and nearby Hoan Kiem Lake, stopping at street vendors to sip an egg coffee (coffee prepared with egg yolks) and slurp on a hearty bowl of bun rieu cua (a sour crab noodle soup).
We visited in November, which is one of the best times to visit Hanoi. The weather is pleasant, with milder temperatures. March/April is also a good time to visit.
I thoroughly enjoyed the crumbling decadence of the colorful French Quarter, somewhat reminiscent of old Havana, Cuba.
In full transparency, I was more than a little panicky at the utter chaos within the streets (PTSD from my horrendous car crash in South Africa). Trying to cross the mad tangle of cars, motorbikes, scooters, and tuk-tuks is literally taking your life into your own hands; there appear to be no traffic rules, but rather an understood code of honor.
Built in 1070, Văn Miu (aka Temple of Literature) is a temple dedicated to Confucius in Hanoi. It’s an expansive complex with lots of beautiful things to see. The temple also hosts the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university.
One of the highlights of Hanoi is its cuisine. If you like pho and bun cha, the street versions are arguably the best in all of Vietnam.
3 Phu Quoc Island
Located in the Gulf of Thailand, Phu Quoc Island is picture-perfect with white-sand beaches and spectacular ocean sunsets.
Phu Quoc has alluring tropical nature in the form of stunning waterfalls, turquoise beaches with vibrant reefs for snorkeling, dense jungle, undulating hills, and red-dirt roads for biking.
The island has a captivating history, having served first as a French missionary base and later as a French colonial wartime prison that you can visit.
Still relatively untouched by tourism, the island has been subject to considerable construction to appease the recent flood of tourists and is forecast to become Asia’s top vacation destination in the future.
2 Halong Bay
Does Halong Bay even need an introduction? Located in northeast Vietnam, this iconic UNESCO Heritage Site is known for its dreamy landscape of emerald waters and more than 1600 rugged karst limestone islands rising up in the natural bay and topped by rainforests. The landscape is simply surreal.
Known as the “Bay of Descending Dragons,” Ha Long Bay was officially recognized as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in 2011 and enjoys popularity on many, many travelers’ bucket lists and one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam.
Embarking on an overnight cruise through the emerald waters on a traditional Chinese junk is an experience like no other. Sunsets over the bay are glorious and the fog climbing up from the still emerald water creates an ethereal element to this natural beauty. Some even claim this seascape is the most beautiful in the world.
Must-do activities include trekking through mythical caves, floating fish farms, and exploring the cliffs, lagoons, and grottos by kayak.
Bo Hon, one of the gorgeous limestone islands, has the most incredible views. It is considered to be one of the most scenic and largest islands in the bay but it’s actually a group of islets that are linked together. Tropical beaches, soaring cliffs and lush rainforests make this island a must-see.
Sung Sot Cave (aka Surprise Grotto) is the largest, most beautiful, and most famous of the many caves in Halong Bay. Located on Bo Hon Island, it was discovered by the French in 1901.
Sung Sot Cave is divided into two chambers; the first chamber, known as the “Waiting Room” is a kind of amphitheater adorned by a carpet of stalagmites rising up from the floor, and stalactites in the shape of chandeliers. The chamber is illuminated by multicolored lights positioned to complement the chamber’s structural magnificence.
Twice as large as the first chamber and even more astonishing, the second chamber is known as the “Serene Castle” and is reached by walking down a narrow passageway. This chamber is large and grand with an extremely high ceiling and has many interesting rock formations. Along with the brilliant light from all the corners of the cave, you see what appears to be a wonderland garden, full of sunlight, fresh air, and color.
1 Hoi An
The place I was most looking forward to visiting in Vietnam is the UNESCO ancient Hoi An, and the charismatic town did not disappoint! Indeed, it ranks #1 of the most beautiful places in Vietnam, in my opinion.
This immensely picturesque and historic city on Vietnam’s central coast is known for its well-preserved and beguiling 15th century Ancient Town, cut through with canals. It has preserved its incredible legacy and melting-pot history, reflected in its mixed eras of architecture which included ornate Vietnamese, beautiful yellow French colonial buildings, as well as Japanese merchant houses and bridges, Chinese teahouses, assembly halls, temples, and lots of tailor shops.
Built in 1593, Chua Cau is a footbridge with a temple atop, located in the Old Town section of Hoi An, Vietnam. It is also referred to as “Cau Nhat Ban” or “Japanese Covered Bridge.” The iconic bridge, although being built in Hoi An, Vietnam, is the harmonious and perfect combination of Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese cultures.
The bridge was built to worship Bac De Tran Vo. According to local myths, this is the god of happiness, wealth, and health.
Don’t miss trying what turned out to be my favorite thing to eat in all of Vietnam: delicious bahn mi from Bánh Mì Phng restaurant in Hoi An. My warm crusty French baguette stuffed with BBQ pork, pate, secret sauces and herbs, crispy cucumber, lettuce, and onion was utterly divine!
Sunset along the Thu Bon River displaying the kaleidoscope of lanterns hung from every shop and on the longtail boats lends a vibe of romance to the already exquisite town.
After dark, the city comes to life with the night market and with a Vietnamese lantern ceremony that will warm your heart!
At night, the energy of the Hoi An old town reaches its peak. The highlight for me was the opportunity to do the lantern boat ride along the Thu Bon River shimmering in the glow of colorful lanterns.
I was excited to light up two paper lanterns and then release them into the canal. I even purchased an ao dai (traditional Vietnamese dress) for the ceremony. While some tourists do this just for fun, the local tradition is to make a wish as you release the lamps.
I made two wishes, one on the pink lantern for my daughter, Jill, and then the blue one for my son, Nick. They are the two most amazing young people you could ever meet, and I love them more than I can say.
It is a simple but beautiful ritual and experienced a great deal of joy in doing it.
Outside of town, you can rent a bike to explore the countryside, go to the beach, or take a ride in a coconut boat…
The coconut boat adventure outside the old town is also known as basket boats. Legend has it that these quirky Vietnamese basket boats originated as a way for local fishermen to avoid paying taxes imposed during French colonial rule.
Our guide skippered us through the Cua Dai River, meandering through its eight-hectare maze-like network of channels, canals, and coconut palms.
I had the opportunity to paddle the boat, throw a fishing net, and best of all experience the high-speed spin! Yee Ha!
We only had time for one beach day on mainland Vietnam – An Bang Beach in Hoi An. It was crazy windy, but we had a great time walking the golden sand beach and eating at one of the many fun beach bars.
Best Things to Eat
- Pho – slightly sweet soup dish consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and meat.
- Bún bò Huế – spicy noodle soup with several kinds of meat
- Banh mi – filled baguette (recommended by Anthony Bourdain)
- Cà phê trứng – coffee beaten egg yolk and sweetened condensed milk
- Banh Bao – steamed pork dumpling/bun
- Snake wine
- Spring Rolls
All photos ©Kary Kern unless otherwise indicated.
Click below to PIN so you can find the most beautiful places in Vietnam again:
The author was honored to partner with G Adventures while in Vietnam, but the opinions in this article are solely her own.
This article may contain affiliate/compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer.
About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and the southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.
She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is tentatively scheduled to premiere in 2023.
Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.