In our globalised world, you can get a taste of most cultures in any urban centre, but there’s just so much you’ll miss if you don’t get out and travel. Here are some experiences you can only have if you hop on a plane, train or boat and make your way to Vietnam.
You can now book an exclusive adventure with Culture Trip to take in all that Vietnam has to offer on our specially curated small-group Vietnam tour, led by our local insider.
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, we assure you: the Hải Vân Pass should definitely 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 colourful garb. If you’re a seasoned traveller, 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.
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 Hạ 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 as the town has a sort of timeless charm. Keen to visit? It’s one of many fantastic destinations featured on Culture Trip’s specially curated Vietnam tour.
You can find quaint fishing villages along 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. On Culture Trip’s exclusive 12-day Vietnam adventure, you can enjoy a food tour by cyclo in Hue.
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.
It’s amazing how the Vietnamese utilise 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 seagrasses.
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.
For a look at some debauchery, you can’t do much better than the infamous Bùi Viện Street in the backpacker area of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s the epicentre 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.
The Sơn Đoòng Cave, which is 150m (492ft) wide and approximately 5km (3.1) 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.