21 Amazing Experiences You Can Only Have in Vietnam

Vietnamese fishing fleet | © Lucas Jans/Flickr
Vietnamese fishing fleet | © Lucas Jans/Flickr
Photo of Matthew Pike
Writer19 October 2017

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.

Go to the Cái Răng Floating Market

Market, Vegetarian
Map View
Cai Rang floating market in the Mekong Delta
Cai Rang floating market in the Mekong Delta | © oft-quoted Mandrake Silvertongue/Flickr
There are many floating markets throughout the Mekong Delta in Southwest Vietnam, but the Cái Răng market is the largest. It’s located in Cần Thơ, the fourth-largest city in Vietnam, which should be a stop on your tour through Vietnam, anyways.

Ride a motorbike over the Hai Van Pass

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.

Visit a Hmong family

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.

Hmong family cooking dinner | © audrey_sel/Flickr

Take a Xe Ôm ride

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.

Xe om driver awaiting his next fare | © Dương Hoàng Dĩnh/Flickr

Take a boat tour on the Saigon River

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.

The Saigon River | © 一人寿司-Hitori Sushi/Flickr

Kayak through Ha Long Bay

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.

Kayakers in Halong Bay | © Caitriana Nicholson/Flickr

Visit Hội An

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.

The beautiful Hoi An | © Matthew Pike

Eat seafood within sight of a turquoise fleet

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.

Vietnamese fishing fleet | © Lucas Jans/Flickr

Ride on a cyclo

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.

Cyclos for hire | © David Bacon/Flickr

Go to an Elephant Race

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.

On your marks, get set… trample! | © Vietnam Stock Images/Shutterstock

Climb Fansipan

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.

The roof of Indochina | © Jan Kozlowski/Flickr

Check out Hanoi’s Train Street

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.

If the ground starts to rumble, get out of the way | © melis/Shutterstock

Go to the Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve

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.

Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve | © Tho nau/WikiCommons

Ride the Reunification Express

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.

Reunification Express near Danang | © Matthew Pike / Culture Trip

Check out Bui Vien Street

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.

A shot of Bui Vien during the safer hours | © Frank Fox/Flickr

Try some egg coffee

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.

Egg coffee | © shankar s./Flickr

Explore the world’s largest cave

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.

Son Doong Cave | © Doug Knuth/Flickr

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