Best Things to do in Vietnam
There are plenty of great things to do in Vietnam. It’s a land of emerald paddy fields and white-sand beaches, full-tilt cities and venerable pagodas, vast caves, craggy mountains and friendly minority communities. Here is our pick of the best things to do in Vietnam.
Visit the markets
Spectacular traditional dress and a lively atmosphere make visiting the ethnic minority markets one of the best things to do in Vietnam – especially those in Bac Ha and Can Cau. Bac Ha’s Sunday market, the town’s one big attraction, gradually swells between 8am and 10am. Until lunchtime it’s a jostling mass of colour, mostly provided by the stunningly dressed Flower Hmong women looking for additional adornments.
One spot that’s rarely visited by foreigners is the Tuesday flower market where Nung, Flower Hmong and Dao women stand side by side selling carefully selected flowers to neighbouring minority groups.
Explore temples and pagodas (Thien Mu Pagoda)
Vietnamese temples and pagodas reflect the country’s diverse range of religions found in Vietnam. Long Son Pagoda in Nha Trang is a good example. The Long Son Pagoda is a 1930s creation whose entrance is marked by stone gateposts topped by lotus buds. The huge White Buddha, 180- odd steps up the hillside behind is the pagoda’s greatest asset – and Nha Trang’s most recognizable landmark.
Another must-visit pagoda in Vietnam is the seven-storey Thien Mu Pagoda (“Pagoda of the Celestial Lady”) which is possibly Hue’s most photographed structure. The pagoda is a peaceful place where the breezy, pine-shaded terrace affords wide views over the Perfume River.
The most important festival in the Vietnamese calendar, Tet sees the New Year ushered in with colourful flower markets, spectacular fireworks and exuberant dragon dances. Tet lasts for seven days and falls sometime between the last week of January and the third week of February, on the night of the new moon.
This is a time when families get together to celebrate renewal and hope for the new year, when ancestral spirits are welcomed back into the household and when everyone in Vietnam becomes a year older – age is reckoned by the new year and not by individual birthdays.
Examine Cu Chi tunnels
Look out for the spiked booby traps that Vietnamese guides reveal for visitors to the Cu Chi tunnels. During the American War, the villages around the district of Cu Chi supported a substantial Viet Cong presence. Faced with American attempts to neutralize them, they quite literally dug themselves out of harm’s way, and the legendary Cu Chi tunnels were the result.
Today, tourists can visit a short stretch of the tunnels for an insight into life as a tunnel-dwelling resistance fighter. Some sections of the tunnels have been widened, but it’s still a dark, sweaty, claustrophobic experience, and not one you should rush into unless you’re confident you won’t suffer a subterranean freak-out.
Visit the Citadel in Hué
The Citadel in Hué is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in exploring Vietnam’s rich history and culture. This 19th-century fortress was once the home of the Nguyen emperors and served as the imperial capital of Vietnam until 1945.
The Citadel’s impressive architecture features a unique blend of French and Vietnamese styles, with intricate gates, palaces, temples, and gardens. Visitors can take a guided tour to learn about the Citadel’s history and explore its many landmarks, including the Forbidden Purple City, which was once the private residence of the emperors and their families.
See the water puppets
Enjoy a performance of mua roi nuoc, an art form developed in the Red River Delta around Hanoi. The Thang Long Water Puppet Troupe is by far the most popular, and polished, of Hanoi’s water-puppeteers. Though aimed at tourists, their shows (100,000đ) feature modern stage effects to create an engaging spectacle. Catch them at this small, a/c theatre, located by the northeast corner of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Trek around Sa Pa
The tourist capital of Vietnam’s mountainous north, Sa Pa is perched dramatically at an elevation of around 1600 metres on the western edge of a high plateau, facing the hazy blue peak of Mount Fan Si Pan, Vietnam’s highest mountain, across the Muong Hoa Valley. The refreshing climate and alpine landscape struck a nostalgic chord with European visitors, who dubbed these mountains the “Tonkinese Alps”.
Go to Cat Ba island
Dragon-back mountain ranges mass on the horizon 20km out of Haiphong as you approach Cat Ba Island. The island, the largest member of an archipelago sitting on the west of Ha Long Bay, boasts only one settlement of any size – Cat Ba town, a buzzing tourist centre that was once a fishing village.
The wild terrain of Cat Ba Island lends itself to adventure sports, and if you are looking for active things to do in Vietnam come here for rock climbing, hiking, kayaking and mountain biking, as well as cruising around Ha Long Bay or the nearer Lan Ha Bay.
Visit Phong Nha caves in Phong Nha National Park
There are plenty of opportunities to visit caves in Vietnam – especially around Ha Long Bay – but for sheer scale, nothing can compare with those at Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The only way to visit Phong Nha Cave is by dragon boat, which wends their way 5km (30min) upstream to the cave entrance, after which the pilot cuts the engine and starts to paddle through.
Keep your eyes open for scars on the rock at the entrance caused by an American rocket attack. You’ll drift awhile between rippling walls of limestone, and see immense stalactites and stalagmites, all tastefully illuminated.
Find more information about Phong Nha caves with our guide to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park: Vietnam’s last paradise.
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