From vibrant Ho Chi Minh to the dramatic karsts of Halong Bay, the appeal of Vietnam is incredibly diverse. Whether your perfect holiday features sun and sand, a fantastic food scene or ancient temples, Vietnam will certainly deliver – and then some. Explore the fascinating history of Hanoi, relax on the beaches of Phu Quoc and take in the lantern-lit bridges of Hoi An – and don’t forget imperial Hue and traditional Lang Co: Vietnam truly has something for everyone. Our Vietnam expert, Paris, recently returned from a trip to Vietnam with her partner where they explored both popular tourist destinations and lesser-known secret spots for an itinerary that was the perfect blend of unmissable sights and hidden gems. Read on to discover her top things to do in Vietnam…
Experience the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh
Known to locals as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh is Vietnam’s capital in all but name. The hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh can be a bit daunting at first, but I personally love the buzzing energy that engulfs this vibrant and unique city. One of our highlights was Tao Dan Park: try to get there bright and early at 6 am to see the city waking up, before visiting the Bird Cafe where locals come together to show off their birds and enjoy a traditional Vietnamese coffee (a dark strong brew that’s sweetened with condensed milk). A walking tour with a local guide is also an absolute must: take in the key sights such as the War Remnants Museum, Presidential Palace, the Old Saigon Post Office, City Hall and the Opera House, before enjoying a delicious traditional morning Pho. In the evening, return to the 120-year old Opera House and prepare to be blown away by the stunning AO show and their Cirque-du-Soleil-meets-contemporary-dance performance, complete with live folk music and a delicate touch of humour. Or, if you fancy something a bit different, you could try the Craft Beer Tour, where you zoom around the city like a local on the back of a vintage Vespa, sampling craft beers from four different breweries.
Relax in beautiful Phu Quoc
Next up, we ventured to Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s largest island that sits just over 10 miles off the Cambodian coast. Almost 70% of the island is designated as a National Park, which means there are beautiful white sand beaches, fantastic diving, bubbling streams and lush green surroundings galore. It’s also one of the very few places in Vietnam where you can enjoy the sun setting over the sea. We rented out a Vespa to explore the island and zoomed off towards Phu Quoc National Park where we trekked to the Suoi Tranh Waterfalls before rewarding ourselves with a refreshing dip. Unfortunately, we didn’t stay in Phu Quoc long, but other activities to try on this beautiful island include a visit to one of the fish sauce factories to learn about how fragrant fish sauce, the main industry of Phu Quoc, is produced. And that’s not all: there’s also the Phu Quoc Pearl Farm where you can learn all about the history of pearl farming, or, if you’re a wine lover, the Sim Wine Factory offers a chance to taste delicious local fruit wines.
Amble around historic Hoi An
For many people – myself included! – Hoi An is the jewel in Vietnam’s crown thanks to its cobbled streets, traditional merchant houses, riverside cafes and incense-filled temples. As one of Southeast Asia’s major trading centres during the 16th century, there’s a strong Chinese influence from the merchants that settled here. However, it was the Japanese who built the curious bridge (Chùa cầu), which is the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist pagoda attached to one side. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1999, Hoi An is pedestrianised in the centre, making it the perfect place to explore at your leisure: meander the winding streets, eat delicious food, go for a gentle bike ride along the river, or browse the shops – just take your time and really soak it all up. Make sure you visit at night too, when the town is illuminated by hundreds of silk lanterns. When it comes to excursions, a highlight for us was a private cycle tour around the rice paddies that took us across islands on the Song Thu river delta. During the tour, we met with local families that make rice wine, learnt how old-style wooden boats are made and discovered the secret of weaving the colourful straw “Hoi An” sleeping mats. We also had lunch with a local family and learnt all about their customs and traditions.
Experience traditional life in Lang Co
Next, we ventured over the famous Hai Van Pass to the traditional fishing village of Lang Co – and I have to admit, the Hai Van Pass is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, with winding mountain roads, greenery, and incredible views of the city below. Although many visitors drive through Lang Co, very few ever take the time to really discover it – but trust me, it’s worth the time, especially for the fresh, juicy oysters that the village is famous for. If you do get the chance to spend a night here, I’d thoroughly recommend an excursion to one of the fisherman’s homes. During the trip, you head out on a local wooden fishing boat to learn traditional fishing techniques in action on the lagoon, and when you reach your host’s fishing station, you also have the chance to dive down for an up-close underwater look at a real oyster farm before climbing back up to enjoy a traditional seafood lunch – delicious!
Discover the heritage of imperial Hue
From the awe-inspiring Citadel and Forbidden City, Hue is Vietnam’s most culturally and historically significant city. Once Vietnam’s Imperial City, it was built in 1803 by Gia Long on a former royal site and remained Vietnam’s capital until 1945, when Bao Dai, the last of the Nguyen emperors, abdicated from the throne. These Emperors modelled their capital on the Forbidden City in Beijing – however, unfortunately, Vietnam’s imperial palaces haven’t fared well over the years, which means today we have to make do with the well-restored ruins of the Citadel on the banks of the Perfume River. For a closer look at Hue’s rich heritage, I’d recommend a trip to Bao La, a 500-year-old village famous for its bamboo weaving. Here you can watch the locals use traditional techniques to create high-quality products that are sold throughout the world, before heading over the Thanh Toan bridge, one of two remaining covered bridges in Vietnam, to browse the stalls of the village market. Phuoc Tich is also well worth a visit: once a thriving pottery village, this 500-year-old site seems frozen in time with its historic temples and worship halls.
Visit vibrant Hanoi
Entrenched in French colonial history with wide tree-lined boulevards in the French Quarter, combined with a hotchpotch of tangled streets in the old quarter and western districts that are very much in the 21st century, Vietnam’s capital is nothing short of fascinating. Founded by Emperor Ly Thai To in 1010, Hanoi is also rich in history and home to one of the oldest universities in the world. With an abundance of parks, lakes and a vibrant café culture, it’s also one of Asia’s greenest cities – and one of my personal favourites too! Take a ride on one of the thousands of motorcycles swarming through the city’s streets to get a sense of the daily buzz of this energetic city, and make sure you immerse yourself in the food culture – something that’s not hard to do with food stalls everywhere you turn! To get a proper feel for the city, we went on a walking tour around the Old Quarter. Our tour took us to Hoan Kiem lake followed by colonial St Joseph’s Cathedral, before venturing onto Nha Chung alley where we met with a local man in an old French house to hear his story and the history of his family life in the city. If you can, make sure you take the time to explore the railway. Built in the 1880s under French colonial rule, it played an incredibly important role during the Vietnam War. But for me, the most fascinating part of this city and one of my top things to do in Vietnam was simply strolling through the old town and observing a completely different way of local life.
End on a high in Halong Bay
Finally, we arrived in Halong Bay for the final leg of our trip. Steeped in myth, ‘Ha Long’ translates as ‘descending dragon’, with legend saying that the infamous islets were created by a lashing dragon’s tail. In actual fact, Halong Bay was formed as a result of millions of years of erosion. When the last Ice Age finished and the glaciers melted, the seas rose and the entire area was flooded, transforming the peaks into the islands we see today. There are nearly 3,000 of these limestone karsts and islands of various shapes and sizes, covering an area in excess of 600 square miles. Here, the shimmering turquoise waters play host to a great diversity of ecosystems including offshore coral reefs, swamp forests, mangrove forests, small freshwater lakes and sandy beaches. This surreal seascape is an absolutely iconic image and without a doubt one of the top things to do in Vietnam. Ignore the reports of crowds – Halong Bay is still a must-see, and the authorities are doing a fantastic job of keeping waters clean and the large crowds of boats away from each other. There is also a threat that in the next few years cruising on the bay overnight will be stopped, which means now is definitely the time to go! We enjoyed an overnight trip so we could take in all the sights at leisure – the perfect end to a perfect holiday.
Vietnam is one of the most diverse destinations in the world and no matter how many times I go, there’s always something new to experience. From iconic destinations such as Halong Bay to small traditional villages that are steeped in history, if you’re interested in a holiday in Vietnam, our team will put together the perfect tailor-made package that combines unmissable sights and secret hidden gems.
Ready to start planning your trip? Contact Paris today.