Vietnam's top destinations are located all across the country: from Sapa and Hanoi in the mountainous north, to the coastal towns of Hoi An and Nha Trang in central Vietnam, and down to eccentric Dalat and cosmopolitan Saigon in the south.
All these top places to visit in Vietnam have their own unique charms, but they are also all distinctly Vietnamese. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are two very different examples of a country steeped in tradition but rushing into the future. Hoi An and Hue are both rich in history and stories of eras past. Rural towns like Sapa and Mai Chau can teach you about the country's cultural diversity. Then, there are Vietnam's astounding natural wonders, including Halong Bay and the Mekong Delta, where many Vietnam adventures begin.
If you are looking for the best things to do in Vietnam and want to get a feel for this diverse nation, you would not go wrong in starting with these top destinations.
Step out of your hotel in the center of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and you'll be met with a thousand sights, sounds, and smells. The rev of motorbike engines and the scent of petrol mix with the clatter of chopsticks and the aroma of grilled meats and fresh herbs. Vietnam’s capital is a curious mix of charming and chaotic, with an energy all of its own.
Wide, tree-lined boulevards and narrow shop-lined streets full of curiosities make it a joy to wander between the city’s many sights. The area around Hoan Kiem Lake is even pedestrianized at weekends when it becomes an even more popular hangout for families, couples, locals, and travelers.
Indeed, while there are plenty of must-visit attractions that help you understand the history and culture of the city, the real joy in Hanoi is finding the local experience. Watch the sunset over Tay Ho with the Hanoi expats and drink coffee in hidden cafes with the local hipsters.
#2: Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam’s sprawling, über-cosmopolitan southern capital is a city characterized by picturesque squares lined with historic colonial buildings, tiny alleys bursting with delicious food, and a handful of skyscrapers standing proudly above the motorbike congested chaos.
It is where modern Vietnam thrives and where history is honored in must-visit museums and monuments. And, if you've come to Vietnam to eat, as many do, then you'll be in heaven in the restaurants and markets of Saigon. In fact, creating an itinerary around your meals and wandering between them is a sure way to really enjoy the city.
As a base, Ho Chi Minh has excellent connections to the Mekong Delta to the south, and a number of lovely beaches on the coast.
#3: Hoi An
Hoi An is often regarded as most travelers’ favorite city in Vietnam. Spend just a minute under the glowing lanterns of the Ancient Town, and it isn't hard to see why. Vietnam’s unofficial cultural capital has charm and atmosphere in spades.
The iconic yellow colonial buildings that were once under Japanese and French rule now house craft shops, cafes, and restaurants offering all kinds of local specialties. Hours can be lost wandering the streets and the riverside, and uncovering your own hidden gems.
Outside the old town, picturesque farmland gives way to an expanse of beach that stretches all the way to Da Nang City. A cycling tour is the best way to experience this quiet part of Hoi An.
#4: Halong Bay
For most first-time visitors to Vietnam, there is likely one image in their minds: the iconic karst islands of Halong Bay. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of those travel destinations that is as truly awe-inspiring as it looks in those glossy travel magazines.
Classic junk boat tours begin in the capital Hanoi, taking you across the countryside to the various ports around Halong City. They range from uber-budget to super-luxe and offer all kinds of Halong Bay activities in their multi-day itineraries.
Among the thousands of emerald islands, you can take a kayak out on the bay, or step on land to lounge on white-sand beaches and explore deep into limestone caves. And, when your schedule is empty, you can sit back and take in the majesty of this unique landscape.
Travel to the mountains of northern Vietnam, and you'll enter a world far removed from the busy streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city. Here, the rugged landscape has been tamed into miles of elegant rice terraces and homes have been built on the most unlikely of slopes.
The residents of the Sapa Valley arrived in the mountains centuries ago from all over Asia, and their unique cultures have lived on as Vietnam has begun to become more global. Today, the locals welcome tourists to catch a glimpse of their lives and better understand Vietnam’s diversity. They’ll also be more than happy to share their local rice wine with you!
Hiking between villages, among the rice paddies and mountain peaks, is the best way to experience the region.
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- What Are the Top Destinations in Vietnam?
Get an idea of the top destinations before you plan your vacation. These are some of the top places you can experience Vietnamese culture as well as the natural beauty of its unpredictable landscape. Halong Bay is one of the most famous destinations in Vietnam. Boating tours take you to see the spectacular limestone formations and the limestone caves that surround the bay. You may also get to stop and kayak around the blue-green water. Your guide will tell you the folktales that go along with the limestone karsts and cave formations — the most famous are said to resemble fighting roosters.
Hoi An has one of the best-preserved historic centers in the country. Its colorful lanterns make it one of the most idyllic places to stroll and see historic homes, temples, and city halls. You can walk into the old homes of wealthy merchants and visit an incense-filled shrine on the iconic Japanese bridge.
Travel to the mountainous highlands of Sapa to meet members of Vietnam’s indigenous communities. You can stroll through scenic villages where locals sell embroidered textiles as well as plenty of less traditional souvenirs. Hotels and rooftop restaurants look out over mountains covered in rice paddy terraces.
Ho Chi Minh City , formerly known as Saigon, has some of the city’s most interesting monuments to the Vietnam War. Go here to see the Reunification Palace. Its upper floors preserve the stately remains of the South Vietnamese government, and the basement has a 1960s bunker — frozen in time since the fall of Saigon. Downtown you can find beautiful examples of colonial architecture and restaurants that serve some of the country’s best meals.
Go to Hanoi to see some of the oldest temples in Vietnam and the legendary shores of Hoan Kiem Lake. Near the lake you can find performers putting on traditional water puppet shows. This city is home to the country’s most interesting city tours, museums, and shopping.