To help all of you who are considering visiting Vietnam in the near future, here are some recommendations about the best things to do in Vietnam. Proposals about what I recommend to see and do in this wonderful country that, like all, has its good and less good things. But which dazzles and enamors and catches. And, if you don’t think so, you just have to keep reading… How about starting with its capital?
1. Walk around the old quarter of Hanoi
If you want to take the pulse of the Vietnamese capital as you should go into its old town without maps or plans. Get lost. Let your instincts take you where they take you. And open your eyes wide.
As you walk through this commercial area with thousands of years of life you will come across street vendors and street food stalls where the Vietnamese, sitting on small colorful plastic benches, devour bowls of noodles as they watch life go by. You will discover the real artisans as they carry out their work, all spread out on the streets according to their trade. The mixture between the Asian and the French -due to the influence of their colonial past- will appear hidden in the corners you least expect. And you will end up surrounded by an atmosphere that will captivate you without you even being aware of it.
2. Get to know the capital’s attractions
And now it is: beyond the old Hanoi area, investigate. Enjoy the lakes, the temples, the bridges. Of their puppet shows, for which you’ll have to be careful not to run out of tickets. Go up to the terraces on the top floors of the highest buildings and discover the city surrendered to you. Walk to the one-pillar Pagoda and spy on the faithful as they perform their prayers. Take a deep breath and recognize the smell of incense from the offerings. Visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and discover the charming temple of literature and its history. Enjoy the chaos and peace of the city. Its greens and greys. And learn to love it as it is, even though it may happen to you without you being able to avoid it.
3. Throw yourself across the street in the most absolute biker chaos
Some people say you haven’t had a borderline experience until you’ve ridden in a taxi in Cairo, the Egyptian capital. And to that statement, I usually add: “or tried to cross the street in Ho Chi Minh”. Because although I don’t know the number of motorcycles that can exist in this city, I assure you that there are many. So at that moment when your body is paralyzed by the terror of taking a step forward, think about that famous saying “wherever you go, do as you see”. I assure you that in this corner of the world it cannot get any stronger. So get your courage up, take a deep breath and go across the street just like they do, little by little and with patience. If you don’t do anything unusual, the bikers will manage to avoid you as best they can. And so, between bikes in both directions that cross diagonally, on the right and on the left, whichever direction the signs indicate, you will manage to reach your destination: the pavement in front of you.
4. Earn a few pounds by enjoying its cuisine
Whether it’s rolls, noodles, beef and rice or chicken and vegetables. Even, why not, snake! Vietnamese gastronomy is a great treasure and you have to know that, feeling it very much, you will probably return from the country with some extra kilos. Because you won’t know how to say no to anything and you’ll want to try everything, I’m telling you from experience. But, although in general, I know how to eat well almost anywhere, there are several places that I recommend with all the love of my stomach. So take note:
- Little Hanoi 1, in Hanoi. I was recommended by a couple I met in Halong Bay and we did well to come and try it out. It’s a family restaurant without much of a history. With a wooden decor and a rather old and overdone style, there were hardly any people when we went, but the food was delicious. Whatever you order, you’ll get it right, but please don’t forget to try the sesame-breaded aubergines – incredible! By the way, open your eyes wide when you’re looking for this restaurant, because it’s a fairly common custom in Vietnam that when a business is doing well, others close to it copy the name to try to confuse people. This is exactly what has happened to this particular restaurant. Until 2009 there were two more restaurants on the same street trying to imitate it, watch out for impostors!
- And Thao Garden, in Hué: We got there with our rented bikes. Apart from the fact that they were great at phoning the company where we had rented them to say that we would return them a little late, the restaurant beat us from the start: it had a cosy garden that captivated us. A bit different from what we were used to, here the menu was closed and had a fixed price. For 10 dollars per person we had different dishes that were each more delicious. Rolls, vegetable soup, battered shrimp or grilled beef. Everything was presented in a special way and seasoned with spices that gave it incredible flavors. There’s a reason why Hué is known as the gastronomic capital of Vietnam: Emperor Tu Duc was a great foodie and the great chefs of the time had the goal of doing everything possible to satisfy his appetite. What began with him has remained to this day, which is why the best restaurants in the country are in this city.
- The Café des amis, in Hoi An, is another place you cannot miss. By the river, this little restaurant has become so famous that you better try to book before you go to make sure you get a table. What makes it a different place? Mr. Kim, the owner and master of the place, will not give you a menu to choose what you want to eat: he will decide what he wants to prepare every day and that will be the only option. So trust him and relax. You’ll tell me about it later.
5. Discover Ho Chi Minh on two wheels
The second most important city in Vietnam -and the largest-, with its details that remind us of the influence received from the French, its museums that do not forget the horror lived during the Vietnam War and its enormous and long avenues, also has a hellish traffic. But don’t let that detail deter you from discovering many other corners that are well worth a visit. If you don’t dare to ride a motorbike yourself amidst all this madness – we were talking before about the adventure of just crossing the street – it’s easy for you: raise your hand and in less than three seconds you’ll have several bikers ready to take you wherever you need to go for a few dongs. That’s how we took a tour around the most representative monuments of ancient Saigon: the beautiful colonial building of the Post Office, the Jade Emperor’s Pagoda, the Reunification Palace or the Notre Dame Cathedral are just some of the attractions of this chaotic city.
6. Venture into the surroundings of Sapa
And here comes the crown jewel. 90% of the e-mails I get asking me about Vietnam are asking me about the trek we did in Sapa. So if you want to know more, just click here and read the post I wrote about it at the time. It’s definitely one of the plans you can’t and shouldn’t stop doing on a trip to the country!
The huge terraces full of rice crops are one of the images that can transmit more peace, I assure you. Green floods everything wherever you look. The villages, dotted with mountains, bring life and colour to the landscape thanks to the clothing of the locals, who use different shades depending on the ethnic group they belong to (the H-mong or Dao Do, for example). Spending the night in one of the families’ houses is essential to get closer to their way of life and to understand their culture. It is a great experience.
7. Walk around Sapa and its market
Before or after doing your trek -or rather, on both occasions- you will have to pass by the village of Sapa, where women, men and children from the different ethnic groups in the surroundings meet. It is here that they take advantage of the opportunity to sell their handmade products to travellers: from blankets and shirts to bracelets and bags.
The women’s groups usually meet on the stairs of the shops or in the main square of Sapa. There they display their colourful merchandise, always designed in bright colours, and exchange a few words with foreigners who may be interested.
Take advantage of this opportunity and take a walk through the few narrow streets that make up the small town. Get into the most rural version of Vietnam. If it’s market day, take a look at their stalls: you will find a wide range of products -even thousand euro bills to give as offerings to the spirits of their ancestors! Talk to them, find out about their culture and learn. Places like these are real gifts for those of us who like to learn about ways of life that are very different from our own.
8. Get to know the essence of Hoi An
You only have to set foot in the small and charming village of Hoi An and you realize that this is not just any enclave. The traffic is forbidden because of its historical center, which allows you to walk around in a relaxed way and enjoy every detail that makes the place special. Its wonderful bridges, its ancient Chinese temples, its tailor’s shops run by young -and not so young- tailors, its small river full of boats and its tiny facades belonging to ancient Japanese families… Every corner of Hoi an is a box of surprises that will make you want to stay there forever.
And while I’m on the subject of tailors, a word of advice: if you feel like taking a suit or custom-made shoes back from Vietnam, this is the place. Of course, it’s usually only possible if you plan to spend a few days there, because the process takes time – and you don’t want to have to do it against the clock, because it has its risks.
9. Discover the ruins in the heart of the jungle
It was clear to us that we wanted to visit the My Son ruins during one of the days we spent in Hoi An. And we did not think about it when we decided to get up early to reach the temples just at the time of their opening: this way we would manage to avoid the groups of tourists that would arrive later by bus -and the intense heat, it must be said-.
These are the most important ruins of the ancient kingdom of Champa, and not because they are the best preserved, but because they are the largest enclosure and because the surrounding landscape, being immersed in the forest, is beautiful – there is a reason why it has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
This is a very unique example of the cultural exchange that took place between the 6th and 13th centuries and shows how closely the spiritual roots of the Champa people were linked to Hinduism. In fact, you only have to see the remains of some of the towers and shrines to prove it. It was precisely here that the city that was the political and religious capital of the kingdom of Champa for almost its entire existence was located.
10. Step into the most imperial Vietnam
Echoes of the Vietnamese imperial past still echo in the city of Hué. And that’s despite the fact that most of its buildings were destroyed during the war that pitted the country against the Americans. However, thanks to the reconstruction work, treasures such as the Citadel and its Imperial Palace can still be visited today, a clear example of what this city came to mean centuries ago.
This complex of temples and residences was the home of the emperor. In it there are corners with names as suggestive as the Purple Forbidden City – rooms that were reserved for the exclusive use of the emperor that were almost completely destroyed, that is why today they are invaded in great part by vegetation – or the Thai Hoa Palace, in whose immense hall all the ceremonies and official receptions of the emperor were celebrated. You’ll have to book quite a few hours to enjoy the whole complex, but it’s well worth it.
11. Watch the sunset from the Perfume River
I don’t quite remember how we got there, but I do have images in my mind of how the road went. We crossed paths on our bikes through lush forests, suspension bridges full of motorcycles in both directions, people and animals, even street food stalls. We got into the most rural Vietnam, the one around the city of Hué, following a map that was more intuitive than following it. And we arrived. Just at sunset. And, as if they had prepared a surprise just for us, we were impressed when hundreds and hundreds of little lights started floating over the Perfume River. Small lanterns that contained a flame inside them as they were swept away by the current, which also carried with it the wishes and prayers of many people.
12. Travel through Hué’s past on a bicycle
Cheer up, rent a bike and ride the two kilometers that separate the city of Hué from the first royal tombs by the Perfume River. But don’t stop there: this is only the beginning. Keep digging, because you will be able to visit the mausoleums of the different rulers of the Nguyen dynasty along no less than 16 kilometers.
Emperor Tu Duc’s is one of the most impressive. This ancient ruler had no less than 104 women and an infinite number of concubines – although no descendants. Despite the fact that the tomb was designed by Tu Duc himself – and due to the fateful conditions under which it was built, it was almost a coup d’état – the truth is that the emperor was never buried there. “And where are his remains then,” you may be asking. The reality is that it is not known, it is only known that they are lying in some secret place next to a great treasure, and that the reason why the site has never been revealed is to prevent possible robberies. In fact, the 200 servants who buried the emperor were later decapitated so that they could not tell about it by revealing it.
13.Visit a floating market in the Mekong Delta
This was probably the least motivating part of the whole trip, it has to be said. Although that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a beautiful experience -that’s why I’m including it in this list. Every morning, from early morning, some sections of the Mekong are filled with a multitude of boats buying and selling all kinds of goods, transforming the river into a veritable floating market. Tomatoes, watermelons, pineapples or papayas, any food that passes through your mind you will find in one of these houseboats – many of these families live in them – from where the merchandise is shouted and haggled over. Take advantage and try the piece of fruit that you most desire: I assure you that the flavor will be something incredible.
To visit one of these markets you can do it by organizing yourself from Ho Chi Mihn: it will be easy, nowadays there are a thousand transportation and accommodation options, as well as boat rentals to take you to visit the floating markets first thing in the morning. Another option is to hire an organized tour from the city, which is what I did -and probably wouldn’t do today-. If you do it this way, you’ll spend two days touring the Mekong Delta, getting to know the way of life along the river, and visiting some rice fields. It may be funny, I’m not saying no, but if I could turn back I would probably do it on my own.
14. Dreaming in Halong Bay
Truly, there are no words that can properly describe this amazing place and do it justice. So I will be direct: don’t think about it and hire a trip of at least two or three days to navigate the waters of one of the most beautiful bays you have ever seen and will ever see.
In Halong huge rocks emerge from the water as if they had been put there deliberately, creating an absolutely spectacular landscape. Nature seems to have worked conscientiously in taking care of every detail of this place so that no one leaves it without remembering it forever. Among small islands, floating villages appear without waiting for it, where their inhabitants perform the most daily tasks before the attentive gaze of the tourists who slowly pass by on their boats. Also, why not, some angler who, mounted on his tiny boat, fishes patiently with his rudimentary rod.
Spending the night in a boat -if it has only a few passengers, much better, there are some that look like cruise ships and at night they throw parties that end up with the peace and harmony of the place- is a must on your trip to Vietnam, so write it down in CAPITAL LETTERS. You can also discover the caves that hide some of its islets, white-sand beaches and viewpoints with indescribable views.
15. Enjoy the adventure of traveling by train
“Real Madrid or Barcelona?” I had lost count of how many times I had been asked the question since I had landed in Vietnam, but I can assure you that many times. Once again, that teenager looked at me with expectant eyes before knowing my answer. Sitting on his bunk in the train car we shared on the way to Sapa, he was squelching the few words he knew in English and translating to the rest of his family – sisters, mother, and grandmother – what he could.
They kept their eyes on us. They examined us so carefully that it seemed they had never seen a Westerner in their lives. And they were excited. Happy because they had been given the chance to share the space with us, even though communication was complicated.
At one point they offered us nuts in a bag and we accepted. I offered them some crackers. And they kept looking at us. And smiling. Meanwhile, through the window, the landscape was mutating.
If I had written down and accounted for the destinations that I have been asked about during the years that this blog has been in existence, without a doubt Vietnam would win by a landslide. It’s strange that I don’t get many questions about this Asian country that is attracting more and more interest among travelers. My experience corresponds to a few years ago. I was there in the summer of 2019 – it has already rained – but I still remember every place I visited on my trip as if I had just returned from there.
The experience of traveling by train for countless hours is something that any person visiting Vietnam will experience at some point in their journey. A different way of getting to know not only the country but also its culture, its people and its way of life. All of them unique and special ingredients that will make your trip to Vietnam a precious memory forever. I assure you.