In our globalized world, you can get tastes of most cultures in any urban center—their fashions, cuisine, art, and even their crafted goods—but there’s just so much you’ll miss if you don’t get out and travel. Here are 21 experiences you can only have if you hop on a plane, train or boat and make your way to Vietnam.
Lovers of the Top Gear television show will already know this is a must-do in Vietnam. For those who haven’t seen the episode, here is why the Hai Van Pass should be on your itinerary.
The moment you get off your bus in Sapa, in the north of Vietnam, you’ll be accosted in a friendly way by Hmong women in colorful garb. If you’re a seasoned traveler, your instinct might be to shoo them away—but don’t. They offer immersive tours where they bring you to their villages to show you their traditional ways of life. It’s an intimate experience, and you’ll be glad you didn’t wave them off.
The Mojito Bar & Lounge Restaurant in Hanoi has taken the iconic bowl of noodles and made it into a cocktail. This drink will probably mess with your head a bit, but it’s actually pretty tasty.
All through Vietnam you’ll see these leathery old men napping on their motorbikes, catching some midday snoozes in the shade. They’re motorbike taxis, and there’s no feeling that quite matches the full-on adrenaline rush of cruising through insane traffic on the back of a moto. Be sure to negotiate the price first, though. They’re notorious cheats.
It’s surreal to watch palm trees and sheet-metal huts drift away to reveal the downtown skyline of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s like going through a time warp. There are numerous companies offering tours on the river, and most of them you can book through your hotel or hostel.
Although Ha Long City is an underwhelming place, the limestone islands jutting out off the bay are a spectacular sight to behold. Lounging on a tour boat is a fine way to go, but a kayak is a more intimate experience.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most sought-after locations for tourists in Vietnam—and for good reason. It’s a special place, and even though it’s about as touristy as you can get, it doesn’t feel wrong because the town has a sort of timeless charm.
You can find quaint fishing villages the whole length of Vietnam’s coastline. There’s just something very humbling about eating seafood in a place where you can see the boats that went out before dawn to catch your meal.
This is a sobering experience, but one which captures the visceral pain of the tumultuous years when tiny Vietnam fought against the strongest military in the world.
You can find these holdouts from the French colonial days near most urban tourist landmarks, especially in Ho Chi Minh City, Hue, and Hanoi. They’re a bit bumpy, but the drivers are excellent guides with detailed knowledge of your surroundings.
This is a weird one. Every March in Đắk Lắk province, there is an Elephant Racing Festival, with gongs and horns and gentle giants competing for a wreath.
Looming over Sapa in North Vietnam is Fansipan, the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia. There are many options available for people who want a guided trek up to the summit, and unless you’re a veteran hiker, you should try to spread it out over two or three days.
These tunnels were the hideouts of forces loyal to Hanoi, fighting against the Americans and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam—South Vietnam’s army. The tunnels are a stark reminder of how the war had to be fought, relying on subterfuge and guerilla tactics.
It’s amazing how Vietnamese utilize space, and this is a perfect example of the pragmatism that seems to be in their DNA. Hang around long enough and you’ll get to see a train roll through.
This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is a short haul from Ho Chi Minh City, and after any amount of time in Saigon’s madness, you’ll love escaping to mangroves, wetlands, salt marshes, mud flats and sea grasses.
If riding a motorbike the length of Vietnam sounds like your idea of hell, then perhaps a ride on the Reunification Express is more for you. Catch the train and rumble through countless picturesque scenes.
The Bitexco Tower in downtown Ho Chi Minh City is an unmistakable landmark, and it also provides for an amazing view of the sprawling city.
Saigon Skydeck, 36 Hồ Tùng Mậu, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City +84 28 3915 6156
For a look at some debauchery, you can’t do much better than the infamous Bui Vien Street in the backpackers area of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s the epicenter of vice in Vietnam, and pretty well anything goes. Be careful with your belongings, though. Petty criminals are always watching for you to let your guard down.
Egg coffee is a specialty in Vietnam. Not too many coffee shops serve it, but it’s worth looking for because of its interesting texture and taste.
The Sơn Đoòng Cave, which is 150m wide and approximately 5km long, was only discovered in 1991 when a man heard a whistling noise and rushing water. The entrance was impassible without climbing equipment, so locals never knew what was hiding from them.