City-Hopping Around Vietnam: Hanoi, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City, Done Differently

Sam Peet
Sam Peet | © Culture Trip
Josephine Platt

Commissioning Editor

Culture Trip brings you City Loops, Done Differently – the trending multi-destination routes for 2020 with a twist. Deep-dive into the culture of a destination and discover how to get the most out of your itinerary, from what to see and do to what to eat and where to stay.

Beaches, bays and backpackers are synonymous with Vietnam, but this is only the tip of the iceberg of what the Southeast Asian country is about.

Discover how locals live at night markets, drink beer for less than 50 cents, soak up contemporary art, and check out traditional Vietnamese costume. Block out two weeks and book three short flights to see what we’re talking about.

Floating villas dot the water in Vietnam


Vietnam’s capital and the country’s second largest city, Hanoi is where you will find some of the country’s most magnificent buildings and landmarks, including the Temple of Literature, Hanoi Opera House and Hoa Lo Prison. Pay a visit to these main attractions, but also take cues from locals.

The Temple of Literature, or Van Mieu, was built in 1070 in honour of Confucius

Sample street food on Phùng Hưng Street

Street food is a big part of Hanoi’s culture and is where many Vietnamese dishes originate. To dine like a local, sidestep touristy areas like Ha Tien Street and favour local hang-out Phùng Hưng Street, which is lined with options. Drawing on herbs, lime juice and chilli for the bulk of dishes, Vietnamese food is considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.

A street vendor sells fruit in Hanoi

1. Visit Long Biên Market at night

Market, Food Stall, Vietnamese

Long Bien Market
© Julie Mayfeng/Shutterstock
For a window into local customs and culture, visit Long Biên Market, where many restaurants in the region source their produce. It’s unlikely you’ll want to buy anything from this wholesale market, but it’s worth the trip for the insight. Adopt a ‘look, don’t touch’ policy.

Make like a backpacker

Vietnam is well trodden by backpackers from across the world. To connect with other English speakers, stay at the Luxury Backpackers Hotel. It’s a popular option for its proximity to the Hanoi Railway Station and Đồng Xuân Market.

Vendors ply their trade outside the Dong Xuan Market in the Old Quarter, Hanoi

Hoi An

The smallest city in the loop, Hoi An is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its traditional architecture. Alongside its protected buildings that date back to the 15th century, you’ll find contemporary art in corners of the city.

Hoi An has been an important port for 600 years

2. Trace Vietnamese traditional dress at The Precious Heritage Museum and Art Gallery

Art Gallery

The culmination of seven years’ work from French photographer Réhahn Croquevielle, the Precious Heritage Museum and Art Gallery showcases traditional costumes of all 54 ethnic groups in the country. Having spent time with 45 of these groups – who are divided by region in the exhibition – Croquevielle has put together the most comprehensive documentation of its kind. It also happens to be free, and museum labels are translated into English and French.

Eat banh mi at Banh Mi Phuong

Vietnam’s answer to the baguette, banh mi (translating as ‘sandwich’) is Hoi An’s speciality. Banh Mi Phuong makes the best in town – they’re usually filled with cold cuts of minced meat, liver pâté, fresh vegetables and pickled carrots. There are plenty of variations on offer here, but the classic banh mi is the best of the bunch.

Banh mi, famous the world over, has its origins in Hoi An

Stay at the Hotel Royal Hoi An

Inspired by the ancient love story and marriage between a Japanese merchant, Sotaro, and a Vietnamese princess, Wakaku, the Hotel Royal Hoi blends design references from both countries. The hotel is split into two wings to reflect this hybrid, with the Sotaro Wing nodding to Japanese tradition and the Wakaku Wing rooted in Vietnamese heritage. Neighbouring the Old Quarter of Hoi An and Thu Bon River, it’s in a prime location for exploring.

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is a non-stop city that serves food, architecture and partying in equal measure. Get up close and personal with famous landmarks before gazing at them from a rooftop bar.

Ho Chi Minh City is about as energetic as they come

3. Visit the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica

Cathedral, Church, Post Office

The two towers and red brick exterior of the Notre Dame Basilica in Ho Chi Minh City, with cars passing next to it on the street
© kevin hellon / Alamy Stock Photo
Built in the late 19th century, during the time of French colonial occupation, Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica is one of the remaining bastions of Catholicism in Ho Chi Minh City. With neo-Romanesque features like two bell towers and stained-glass windows, the church is a must-see archetype of French colonial architecture.

4. Stay at the Alcove Library Hotel

Boutique Hotel

As its name suggests, the boutique Alcove Library Hotel has a literary theme. During your stay, guests are invited to borrow from the extensive floor-to-ceiling collection of fiction and non-fiction books. When not getting stuck into a read, head out to landmarks like the Opera House and the War Remnants Museum, both within 20 minutes by car.

5. Drink at a pared-back bia hoi bar

Bar, Beer

Bia hoi bars are one of Ho Chi Minh City’s oldest drinking traditions. With a name that means ‘fresh beer’, these bars do what they say on the tin with the beer brewed daily. Head to Beer 102 Bui Vien at Bui Vien Street, where you’ll find plastic chairs and beers for as little as 17p.

For some great accommodation in Hoi An, check out the best hotels in the city, bookable with Culture Trip.

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