Vietnam travel guide
From the vertiginous rice valleys of Sapa in Vietnam’s north stretching to the fascinating bustle of the Mekong Delta in the south, Vietnam is home to a wealth of attractions that will seduce both budget and top-range travellers.
Welcoming foreign tourists and their dollars since the late 1980s, enterprising Vietnam has rapidly developed a well-trodden trail of attractions. Vietnam’s war-torn history—the French, Americans and Chinese have all left their own unique and not-often positive stamps on the nation—as well as its stunning and varied geography, amazing cuisine, plentiful beaches and near-endless shopping are all reasons to travel to the fast-paced Communist nation.
Our Vietnam travel guide is here to help you get the most out of each and every one of your trips to Vietnam. We begin with some simple guidelines below, aimed at first-time travellers to the country.
There is a lot more to Vietnam than Ha Long Bay and Hoi An! It is a country, however, where it really pays to follow the maxim less is more. Don’t be overly ambitious in what you’re trying to see, especially if you’re factoring in a lot of long distance travel. If your time is limited, keep yourself to one area of the country as Vietnam doesn’t lend itself to high-speed travel. Slow down and try the soup!
Hanoi: One of the most beautiful of the colonial Indochinese cities, Hanoi is often the start or end point of a trip to Vietnam, and what a great welcome or farewell it is! Oozing with charm, the city has gone through wholesale changes since Vietnam swung open its doors to tourism, but it remains true to its essential personality and is an amazing city to experience.
Ho Chi Minh City: As cyclo drivers rest easy below vast neon billboards, the emerging Vietnamese middle class—smartphones in hand—cruise past, draped in haute couture on their imported motorcycles. Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City—Vietnam’s largest and most exciting city.
Hoi An: Canary yellow houses draped in bougainvillea, rickety wooden shops aglow with red silk lanterns, rippling green fields of rice, baskets laden with silver fish: Hoi An is redolent of a bygone era, or the 17th and 18th centuries, to be exact.
Phu Quoc Island: Lying in a hammock, looking out over a glassy Gulf of Thailand glowing amber from the setting sun, consider yourself lucky to be in the know about one of Vietnam’s best kept secrets. Sadly, developers have taken notice of the island’s potential and change is afoot and Phu Quoc is being primed for mass tourism—get here quick!
Can Tho: In the heart of the Mekong Delta, and often referred to as Vietnam’s rice basket, Can Tho is home to many orchards and farms, and it’s the goods from here tourists flock to see in the floating markets dotted around the city.
Ha Long Bay: A cruise on Ha Long Bay—or the Bay of the Descending Dragon—for many represents a pinnacle of their experience in Vietnam.
Sapa: Choice views of the Muong Hoa valley and Mount Fansipan are the prime commodity on sale in Lao Cai’s signature destination, Sapa, a hill station high in the mountains and a vestige of the French colonial era.
Hue: Straddling the truly beautiful Song Huong (Perfume River), Hue first rose to prominence in the 18th through 19th centuries when it was the seat of power for the Nguyen lords. It remained the national capital until 1945, when then-emperor Bao Dai abdicated as the nation was sliced into two.
Nha Trang: The beach is the star attraction, and the fact that Nha Trang is conveniently located right on the beach helps draw both domestic tourists and international visitors of all budgets. The downtown core stretches along six kilometres of palm-fringed white sand and the brilliant turquoise waters of Nha Trang Bay—and it’s all free.
Da Lat: A temperate climate and fertile soil have earned Da Lat the moniker “city of eternal spring” and it is one where the flowers bloom, birds sing and the air is clear, fresh and redolent of pine.
Cat Ba Island: Nestled on the periphery of Vietnam’s fabulous Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island is big—more than 350 square kilometres—but most tourists see but a sliver of it.
Bac Ha: It’s something of a shame that few tourists venture beyond Sapa, because to the east of Lao Cai city lies the other half of the province. The ground soars upwards again to the peaks of the Chay River Massif, where the town of Bac Ha is to be found.
Da Nang: Over the last almost two decades Da Nang has spiralled upwards and outwards as Vietnam’s third city and a distinct feeling that much more is to come hangs in the air.
Doc Let: Quiet, low-key, uncrowded, Doc Let boasts beachfront, ocean-view accommodation. If you dream of tumbling out of your bed at sunrise straight into the sea, this is the place to do it.
Buon Ma Thuot: Once a rustic backwater town and site of a decisive battle of the Vietnam War, Buon Ma Thuot has emerged from its war-torn roots and grown into a bustling, sprawling and relatively charmless city—but it makes for a handy base for exploring and has lots and lots of coffee.
Unlike neighbouring Cambodia, where all the islands are within relatively short distance of one another, in Vietnam they are all over the shop and the country is not really an island-hopping destination. Islands do make good bookends to a trip though; consider starting or finishing your trip on Con Dao or Phu Quoc, for example.
Con Dao Islands: Located off the southern coast of Vietnam, the remote and utterly beautiful Con Dao Islands offer visitors a rare experience not found anywhere else in the country.
Cham Island: Eight nautical miles off the coast of Hoi An, a cluster of eight islands known as Cham Island, or Cu Lao Cham, offers travellers a little getaway. If you’re impressed with Hoi An’s An Bang Beach, wait until you see Cham’s white sand and sparkling turquoise waters.
Nam Du: There’s an island in Vietnam where ice arrives daily in great big blocks, a feast of meaty lobsters costs a couple of dollars, the ocean is the colour of hemimorphite gemstones and electricity runs for only a few hours each day. This is Nam Du.
Hon Son: Rugged, lush, wildly beautiful—these words pop into your head as you stand atop the pass that cuts through the middle of Hon Son Island. The scope and details of the vista take a moment to sink in: your eye will follow as a carpet of thick impenetrable greenery sweeps down to blue water and a coast strewn with boulders and languid palms.
Hai Tac: You’ll be swimming in water as smooth and clear as glass, exploring deserted beaches that ring Hai Tac and feasting on fresh seafood before retiring to a hammock strung between palms.
Vinh Moc Tunnels: During bombing raids, village life carried on underground: kids attended school, women gave birth and families watched movies. The tunnels are an amazing achievement of human toil, engineering and perseverance. If you only have time to see one site in the DMZ, this is it.
Exploring the DMZ: Sightseeing the former Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) is revisiting an important chapter of Vietnam’s history. As the dividing line between North and South Vietnam, the area along the Ben Hai River saw some of the heaviest fighting of the entire war.
A Luoi: A Luoi is a mountainous district sandwiched between the A Shau Valley and the border with Salavan and Sekong provinces, Laos. Vietnam War veterans and historians will be familiar with the name, as it was the location of several US military bases that saw fierce battles, including Asho Airport and Hamburger Hill, immortalised in a 1987 film.
Quang Ngai: When we visit a city off the tourist trail, we try hard to uncover what makes the spot unique and worthwhile in its own right. But, when it comes to the provincial capital of Quang Ngai, we’re still looking—but it is the launching point for Son My—better known as the site of the My Lai Massacre.
Kon Tum: In Kon Tum, there’s nothing on display in careful glass boxes, no black and white photos to hammer home lessons of the past. Kon Tum is about ghosts and scars.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park: Nestled at the foot of limestone cliffs that began formation 400 million years ago, Phong Nha is the gateway to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, home to a series of world record-breaking caves.
Cuc Phuong National Park: Established in 1962, Cuc Phuong is the oldest national park in Vietnam and consists of more than 200 square kilometres of tropical forest and many grottoes, the reserve is rich in wildlife and natural beauty and also possesses historical significance, as prehistoric tools and ancient tombs have been discovered in some of the caves.
Bach Ma National Park: An old French Hill station stretching out over some 40,000 unspoilt hectares, Bach Ma National Park offers great hiking trails, waterfalls, slightly odd and very basic lodgings, a camp site and plenty of wildlife (keep that tent zipped up).
Nam Cat Tien National Park: A haven for lovers of nature and outdoor activities, Cat Tien National Park is one of six biosphere reserves recognised by UNESCO in Vietnam.
Yok Don National Park: Declared a national park in 1992, Yok Don is home to more than to 858 species of trees, 200 bird species, many reptiles, insects and 93 types of animal—unfortunately 32 of them are on the Red List. Large herds of gaurs, wild bulls, Eld’s deer and elephants once roamed Dak Lak province but deforestation, hunting and illegal wildlife trade has all but wiped them out.
What to do
You mean aside from eating non-stop right? All major tourist centres will offer a staggering range of short tours, courses and activities. What follows are just a few of the most popular options.
Diving and kitesurfing: Best not combined… While Vietnam’s diving isn’t the best in the region, you can learn to dive at both Nha Trang and on Phu Quoc Island (among other spots). For kitesurfing, Mui Ne is the premier location in the country.
Explore historic ruins: While Vietnam has nothing of the scale of Cambodia’s Angkor , it does have remnant of the Cham Empire still standing, best seen at My Son near Hoi An. Other Cham ruins can be visited at Phan Rang Thap Cham, Nha Trang and Mui Ne.
Cooking courses and food walks: Fancy a cooking course in Hoi An, a street food walk in Hanoi or a vespa tour in Saigon? We’ve got you covered.
Trekking: One of the main activities to do around Sapa is trekking, but which trek is the right one for you? We checked out two different day treks to narrow down your options.
When to go
There is no perfect time to visit Vietnam. Generally speaking, destinations in the north such as Hanoi and Sapa are great in October, November and December, as you’ll see little rain and should have clear skies and temperate conditions.
The coastal stretch from Hue down to Nha Trang is great in the first half of the year, from January through to July, while Saigon and the Mekong Delta are best from November through to February or March. Hoi An, Da Nang and Hue see heavy rain and frequent flooding in October and November.
How long to go for
How long have you got?! For a first time visitor looking to see just a small section of Vietnam — say north, central OR (not AND!) south, you can see quite a bit in a week, but as soon as you start travelling you really want to push for a longer stay—Vietnam is a deceptively large country.
We’d say a trip from north to south including Ha Long Bay, Sapa and the Mekong Delta (along with all the highlights in between) requires a minimum of two and a half weeks. You could do it in two, but you’d need a holiday at the end to recover. Four weeks is an ideal top to tail length trip.
If you are planning a longer stay, it pays to familiarise yourself with Vietnam’s visa rules. They change often and some rules are sometimes enforced haphazardly.
What it will cost
Your budget will depend very much on your style of travelling. If you’re comfortable in simple accommodation, eating street food, not drinking too much alcohol, travelling using cheap transport and steering clear of heavily touristed (and so more expensive) destinations, you can survive on around US$15 per day — less if you’re especially frugal and travelling as a couple. Watch out for fancypants dorms which are often way overpriced for the standard when compared to what you could pay for an air-con private room in a normal guesthouse.
Most independent travellers tend to spend a little more. That air-con room is tempting, as is the pool and WiFi, latte and occasional VIP bus or short domestic flight. All these conspire to push daily budgets up to around a more comfortable US$30 per day.
If your tastes veer more towards the luxurious, then Vietnam does offer terrific value for accommodation north of the US$100 to $150 mark, with food and entertainment costs potentially rising accordingly. Likewise, you can also spend a lot more a night for truly luxurious settings—think private pool villas—flying everywhere and fine dining the whole way along.
What to watch out for
Vietnam is a safe country to travel in. Petty theft is a problem in tourist centres, especially Saigon and Nha Trang where snatch and grab robberies are a major issue. Violent crime against foreigners remains rare, but use your common sense when out in the evening and stay in control. If you feel threatened, especially in a bar or club environment, swallow your pride and leave.
Scamming, especially by travel agents, is at plague levels in Vietnam and remains the number one source of complaints from Travelfish readers. Do your research, ask for personal recommendations and shop around. The Ha Long Bay tours out of Hanoi remain an absolute snake pit of dishonest wheelers and dealers. There is really little one can do other than ask around for recommendations from other travellers.
Having adequate travel insurance cover is essential.
Vietnam’s road toll is high. Drunk driving is common. Always, always, always wear a motorcycle helmet when on two wheels. Don’t ride (or drive) stoned or drunk. Drug laws in Vietnam are severe, but enforced haphazardly. Just because the tuk tuk driver who sold you a bag of pot didn’t get arrested doesn’t mean you won’t be.
Basically if you wouldn’t do it in your home country because it is stupid, why do it in Vietnam?