Varied landscapes, friendly locals and delicious cuisine - when it comes to Vietnam there is so much to love. Because there is so much to do and see in this diverse little country, narrowing down your itinerary can be particularly difficult, especially if you only have a week or two.
So if you're planning a trip and don't know where to start then let me help you decide which destinations should be at the top of your Vietnam bucket list!
1. Halong Bay
At the top of any Vietnam bucket list should be a magical boat ride through Ha Long Bay. "Ha Long" translates to "Bay of Descending Dragons", an apt description for the 1,969 limestone rock formations rising up through the sea. Visiting this sight truly feels like an other-worldly experience, as though you have left reality to explore a more mythical and ancient realm.
Typically, most tours will leave from the city of Hanoi and go for two days and one night. You will stay overnight on the tour boat so you can enjoy both sunset and sunrise looking out at the scenery. It is important to do your research when it comes to which tour company you use, as there are some horror stories out there.
We went with the Dragon Legend luxury cruise company and it was excellent. It is one of the more pricey options but well worth it in my opinion since this is a once in a lifetime experience. Dragon Legend Halong Bay tours are all inclusive - so you won't be paying extra for any of your meals or drinks for the two days. They also offer complimentary transfers to and from you accommodations in Hanoi as well as free tai chi classes on the deck in the morning. The cabins are spacious and beautiful.
Another reason to fork out for a more reputable tour company is that they more expensive ones tend to visit quieter sections of Halong Bay, so your experience won't be hindered by being docked in an overcrowded area.
Hanoi was my favourite city in Vietnam. I felt an inexplicable connection to this bustling and culturally diverse capital. As always, food was my number one priority for this trip and the incredible options available in Hanoi didn't disappoint.
If you're a foodie like me, then don't miss the opportunity to spend 2-3 days in this lively, food-orientated city. To get an overview of the kind of meals on offer, I would highly recommend taking the Hanoi Street Food Tour to get your started. For only $20 USD, this tour is an absolute bargain and you're guaranteed to leave in the best kind of food coma. Some of the meals were so good, that we found ourselves returning to a number of the same places on our last night to re-order our favourite dishes.
Some other honourable food mentions also have to go to Bun Rieu Cau, a restaurant whose name is the sole dish it serves - Vietnamese crab noodle soup, as well as Cafe Nhi and Giang Cafe who both serve incredible Vietnamese coffee.
Enjoying the views of Hoan Kiem lake and exploring the nearby area is another highlight of Hanoi. If you would like to stay in a hotel on the doorstep of this ideal location then I would highly recommend the Apricot Hotel. Some rooms have a view of the lake, there is a rooftop pool and their buffet breakfast is divine. In addition to this, the actual hotel facade is stunning and if you choose to stay here you are within walking distance to most of Hanoi's top attractions.
Speaking of Hanoi's top attractions, here are a few that shouldn't be missed:
- Temple of Literature
- Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
- Hanoi Old Quarter
- Hanoi Opera House
- Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
3. Hoi An
Hoi An is quite literally a city frozen in time. Originally a major port, the town was brought to a standstill when its river silted up in the 19th century, preventing ships from being able to access the docks. Today, the entire Ancient Town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Sight and staying here has the feel of being completely immersed in history.
The best thing to do in Hoi An is simply to explore! The town is small enough to walk around, but hiring a bike is also an option since it's very flat. Aside from checking out all the old buildings and narrow streets, Hoi An is also famous for its cooking classes and its tailors. Tailors vary greatly in quality and price. I chose to get a few things made with Yaly Couture while I was there and was very happy with their service and products. Hoi An is small, so two days is enough time to get a feel for the place, however if you're getting stuff made you will want to stay three days to allow your tailor enough to get everything done.
We enjoyed many delicious meals during our time in Hoi An but my absolute favourite dining experience was at the restaurant Morning Glory. The white rose dumplings were a standout dish for me, but an honourable mention has to go to the sugarcane skewers and cocktail menu also. There are plenty of options here for vegetarians. Since there is always a queue I would recommend coming early to beat the crowds.
For accommodation we went with Anantara Hoi An Resort and absolutely loved the experience. The service here is unparalleled and the pool area is divine. There are free yoga classes each morning and the buffet breakfast is one of the best I have ever seen - not to mention its stunning location overlooking Hoi An's river. Is there a better way to start off a morning? I don't think so!
4. Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh, also known as Saigon or HCMC for short, is Vietnam's largest city and the former capital. It is a place rich with history - both good and bad. A lot of the sights to see here centre around the war events of the 20th century, which can at times be sombre but understanding what occurred is crucial in order to understand the incredible resistance and defiant positivity of the Vietnamese people. Spend at least 3 days here so that you have enough time to take it all in.
History buffs won't want to miss paying a visit to the War Remnants Museum which has heaps of information, displays and a photo gallery dedicated to the Vietnam War. You'll want to allocate about 2-3 hours here. Initially I wasn't too excited to visit this museum but in the end it was one of my favourite parts of the trip. I knew a little bit about the Vietnam War beforehand, but after visiting here I left with a much better understanding of what actually occurred. I highly recommend the War Remnants Museum to anyone planning a trip to Ho Chi Minh City.
Some other must-see sights in HCMC include:
- Reunification Palace (also known as Independence Palace)
- Binh Tay Market
- the Cu Chi Tunnels
- and the Jade Emperor Pagoda
Aside from visiting the major attractions, another part of Ho Chi Minh City that I really enjoyed was just doing a lot of aimless wandering - walking along the river, winding through the side streets and exploring the various markets. Some of my favourite photos from Vietnam were taken of the people I encountered during an afternoon where I did nothing but get lost in the city.
Like any city in Vietnam, HCMC has plenty of amazing food options on offer. A standout for me was Hum Vegetarian Cafe & Restaurant where I had the most delicious pineapple rice dish of my life. The food here is incredible and the restaurant's ambiance is a nice break from the hustle and bustle outside. Conveniently, this restaurant is located around the corner from the War Remnants Museum, so you can combine visiting the two in one half-day trip. Bookings are recommended for Hum if you're travelling in a larger group.
While in Ho Chi Minh City I stayed at Hotel Majestic Saigon - and boy did this place live up to its name because the best way to describe this colonial hotel really is 'majestic'! Not only were the rooms elegant, but this place also boasts a rooftop bar with unbeatable views of the city. If this hotel is a little outside of your price range then don't worry because the bar is open to the public, so you can still enjoy a cocktail looking out at the skyscrapers and stars.
5. Phu Quoc
Want to incorporate a bit of beach into your Vietnam trip but want to avoid Nha Trang's party scene? Then Phu Quoc is your answer. This island in Vietnam's south is the ultimate place to relax. The water is bright blue, the sand is a pristine white and the sunsets make the whole sky turn into a kaleidoscope of orange and pink. Avoid coming here between July and September, as these months are dominated by monsoons.
Phu Quoc is the ideal resort destination or the ideal adventure destination, depending on what you're in the mood for. If you want an adventure then you can go scuba diving or kayaking, or even hire a motorbike and search the island for hidden springs and waterfalls. The most common way to get here is by flight from HCMC, so you'll want to stay at least three nights to make it worth the trip.
When we came here we were in the mood for relaxation, since it was towards the end of our trip and we were a bit run down from all our other exploring. We decided to stay at the Salinda Resort Phu Quoc which was nothing short of magnificent, to say the least. This is the kind of hotel you check in to and then barely end up leaving because the rooms and pool area are so luxurious. The buffet breakfast here includes complimentary champagne and I am not afraid to admit that I took full advantage of this fact... Every day... Even though we usually ate at around 8.30am in the morning.
If you can muster up the energy, some other must-see sights on this island include:
- Duong Dong's market
- Fish Sauce Factory
- Long Beach
For eating I would recommend paying at least one visit to Dinh Cao Night Market whose stalls boast a delicious range of seafood, grills and even some vegetarian options. The businesses operating here are on frequent rotation, so look for a place with a decent local crowd to help you decide. For a fine dining experience The Spice House at Cassia Cottage is hard to beat in terms of both food and location (see picture above). The papaya salad was mouth-wateringly good but be wary if you can't handle your spice. Time your dinner with the sunset for the ultimate experience.
Image credit: The Blonde Abroad
I only had two weeks in Vietnam and knew that I definitely wanted to include Halong Bay, Hanoi, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh in my itinerary. This left me a few days spare and I had a choice between Phu Quoc and Sapa. Because it was cold in Australia, I decided to choose the beach option instead of the hills - although I'll admit when I see the other people's amazing pictures of Sapa I sometimes question my decision!
Sapa is about 8 hours by overnight train from Hanoi deep into the hills of Northern Vietnam. If you would like to learn more about what there is to do there then I would recommend reading the article I have linked in the image credit above.
Next time I am in Vietnam Sapa will definitely be at the top of my list!
Have you been to Vietnam? What were your favourite places?