15 Bucket List Experiences You Must Have in Vietnam

Your money will go a long way in Vietnam | © Jakob Owens / Unsplash
Your money will go a long way in Vietnam | © Jakob Owens / Unsplash
Photo of Sam Roth
29 March 2018

Vietnam means something different to everyone. It’s the thousand-year history and diverse culture, or the limestone mounts and rice terraces. Perhaps it’s the dirt-cheap, mouth-watering food, or the seas of motorbikes and all-night parties in the glow of neon lights. If time and resources are no obstacle, you could experience it all.

Explore Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Located smack-dab in the middle of Hanoi, the history of the Old Quarter dates back a thousand years to when King Ly Thai To had his palace built there. 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 mishmash of ancient yellow buildings is the historical and cultural hub of the north, drawing flocks of travelers.

The narrow streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter | © Richard Mortel/Flickr

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 colors, 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 have.

Wholesale floating markets in the Mekong | © Plusgood/Flickr

Have clothes made in Hoi An

Walking through Hoi An’s Old Town can feel somewhat like a movie — 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 most fun you can have in central Vietnam.

Hoi An is very well preserved | © Xiquinho Silva/Flickr

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 popularized 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 box that needs to be checked.

The Hai Van Pass is a spectacular ride | © Hung Ho Ba/Flickr

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 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 kilometers throughout the region.

Phong Nha Cave | Sam Roth

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 1500-square kilometer 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.

Mounts in Ha Long Bay | © Xiquinho Silva/ Flickr

A night out on Bui Vien

Bui Vien is Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacker street. It’s the place to go for wild parties, or just to people-watch. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year there’s something to see on this infamous bar street.

Neon lights hang over Bui Vien | © Soreen D / Flickr

Trek the north

Whether you decide to visit Sapa, Mu Cang Chai, or Ha Giang, the north is 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.

Trekking through Ha Giang | Sam Roth

Eat and drink in HCMC on tiny plastic 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 neighborhood streets; take at least a night and eat and drink with the locals.

Nothing like a night on plastic stools | © Sam Roth

Explore the pagodas of Hue

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

Ancient pagodas, temples and shrines are all over Hue | Sam Roth

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, you’ll save money and have far more fun than you would at any restaurant. The food in Vietnam is delicious.

Banh Xeo | © Stu Spivack/Flickr

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 traveled Ho Chi Minh Highway along the Laos border. Thick jungles, limestone karts and an abundance of nature will keep you smiling the whole way.

The Ho Chi Minh Road winding through the jungle | Sam Roth

Fall in love with the coffee

No one does coffee like Vietnam. Perhaps its 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.

Traditional Vietnamese coffee | © MomentumDiem/Flickr

Lounge on a Ho Chi Minh City Rooftop

As Ho Chi Minh has modernized, a whole spate of rooftop bars have 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.

Hotel Majestic Saigon | © Marufish /Flickr

Ride Ma Pi Leng

Nestled way up in the northernmost stretch of Ha Giang, the northernmost region, a 20-kilometer 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 traveler who makes their way to northern Vietnam would be sorry to miss riding along this jaw-dropping road.

Ma Pi Leng clings to limestone giants | Sam Roth

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