Bucket-List Experiences You Must Have in Vietnam

Ha Long Bay is a bucket list item for most travellers visiting Vietnam and we're sure it'll be on yours, too
Ha Long Bay is a bucket list item for most travellers visiting Vietnam and we're sure it'll be on yours, too | © Anthony Shaw / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Sam Roth
5 September 2021

Vietnam means something different to everyone. It’s the thousand-year history and diverse culture – or perhaps the limestone mounts and rice terraces. Maybe it’s the crazy-cheap, mouth-watering food or the all-night parties in the glow of neon lights. If time is no obstacle, why not experience it all?

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Explore Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Located in the middle of Hanoi is the Old Quarter, with a history that dates back 1,000 years, when King Ly Thai To had his palace built here. Craftsmen and artisans set up shop nearby and within a few hundred years, the romantic, narrow, winding streets grew from a marshy swampland. Each twisting lane is named for the different crafts sold or produced there. Today, the mix of ancient yellow buildings is the historical and cultural hub of the north, drawing flocks of travellers.

Street vendors are a common sight in Hanoi’s Old Quarter | © Nicola Ferrari RF / Alamy Stock Photo

Visit Floating Markets on the Mekong

Drifting through any of the fantastic Mekong Delta floating markets is an experience. It’s a frenzy of activity, a shot of energy across muddied waters and a full spectrum of colours, sights, and sounds. More importantly and more personally, this is how life exists for much of the country. It’s an eye-opening adventure that everyone visiting Vietnam should do, including you.

The floating market on the Mekong Delta | © David Noton Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Have Clothes Made in Hoi An

Walking through Hoi An’s Old Town can feel somewhat like a movie — almost like walking back in time. The hanging lanterns and well-preserved streets are some of the most charming Vietnam has to offer. Originally a trading port dating back hundreds of years, today the town is renowned for its tailors. Having a suit, dress or jacket custom-made at can’t-beat prices is some of the best fun you can have in central Vietnam.

Ride the Hai Van Pass

Just north of Danang, the Hai Van Pass is renowned as one of the most scenic stretches of coastal road in the world. All along the coast, hostels and bike shops advertise the route popularised by Top Gear years ago. For those visiting, renting or purchasing a motorbike and twisting along the hairpins that hang out over the placid East Sea has become a bucket list box that needs to be checked.

An aerial shot of Hai Van Pass, Da Nang | © Madeleine Jettre / dbimages / Alamy Stock Photo

Explore the Caves in Phong Nha Ke Bang

In central Vietnam – along the less explored border with Laos – lies Phong Nha Ke Bang. It’s Vietnam’s greatest national park and a Unesco World Heritage Site and for good reason. Hidden within the fields of limestone peaks lie some of the largest caves in the entire world. They open up into magnificent caverns that stretch for hundreds of miles throughout the region.

The ancient Paradise Cave near Phong Nha | © Mikołaj Michalak / Alamy Stock Photo

Take a Boat Ride Through Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is by far Vietnam’s most famous tourist destination. However, the never-ending popularity of the region shouldn’t deter you from visiting. This massive gulf is home to thousands of jungled limestone peaks jutting up like daggers from the sea. It’s an enchanting experience, unlike anywhere else in the world.

The natural beauty of Ha Long Bay | © Felix Choo / Alamy Stock Photo

Trek the North

Whether you decide to visit Sa Pa, Mu Cang Chai, or Ha Giang, the north of Vietnam is truly beautiful. September and October are peak harvest seasons with the towering rice terraces turning an incredible shade of yellow. Hiking throughout the region is an adventure not to be missed.

An aerial view of the rice fields on terraced of Mu Cang Chai | © Nhut jangnhut / Alamy Stock Photo

Eat and Drink in HCMC on Tiny Stools

This one can be accomplished cheaply, easily and practically anywhere in Vietnam’s largest city. Find a spattering of plastic stools and tables, take a seat, order a Saigon Red and point at some food on the menu. Repeat those final two steps over and over and you’ll be a local in no time. The best of Ho Chi Minh is on the neighbourhood streets – take yourself out at least one night and eat and drink with the locals.

There’s nothing like a night out in Ho Chi Minh City on plastic stools with a beer in hand | © Sam Roth

Explore the Pagodas of Hue

Hue is one of the rich gems of Vietnam – all around the city lie ancient pagodas, tombs, shrines and palaces. The city is home to some of the most well preserved historical sights in all of Vietnam and should certainly be a stopover on any visit.

An insight inside the Khai Dinh Tomb | © AHowden - Vietnam Stock Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Eat Everything

Another easy one to check off that list: eat like a local. Try Pho, Bahn Mi, Bun Bo Hue, Mi Quang, Banh Xeo and anything else you can get your hands on. Eat on the streets and you’ll save money – and have far more fun than you would at any restaurant. The food in Vietnam is utterly delicious.

Ride the Ho Chi Minh Highway

For many backpackers, riding from Hanoi to Saigon is the reason they’ve come to Vietnam. This should be one of the best trips of your life. To best see the country, mix between the coast and the less travelled Ho Chi Minh Highway along the Laos border. Thick jungles, limestone karts and an abundance of nature will have you smiling the whole way.

An aerial view of Ha Noi Highway in Ho Chi Minh City | © Quang Ngoc Nguyen / Alamy Stock Photo

Fall in Love With the Coffee

No one does coffee like Vietnam. Perhaps it’s the Robusta bean, maybe it’s the brewing process, or the condensed milk – the only definite is that it will change your understanding of coffee. Wherever you visit, start your day with a cà phê sữa đá and watch the motorbike madness go by.

Lounge on a Ho Chi Minh City Rooftop

As Ho Chi Minh has modernised, a whole spate of rooftop bars has popped up. Generally, these are quite a bit more expensive than the usual street beer. However, they’re a welcome reprieve from the non-stop action of the streets. Whether you’re looking for class and sophistication or a wild dance party, there’s a roof for you in Saigon.

Rooftop dining in Ho Chi Minh City is a must | © Peter Treanor / Alamy Stock Photo

Ride Ma Pi Leng

Nestled way up in the northernmost stretch of Ha Giang – the northernmost region – a 12mi (20km) twist of road clutches some of Vietnam’s highest peaks. This is Ma Pi Leng, the most fabulous ride the country has to offer. Any traveller who makes their way to northern Vietnam would be sorry to miss riding along this jaw-dropping road.

A mountainous view of the Ma Pi Leng Pass in the north of Vietnam | © Daniel Lester / Alamy Stock Photo

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