If there’s one thing to be said for Vietnam, it’s that the country really has everything. Stunning and diverse across cities, villages, mountains, rivers and beaches, it’s all wrapped up in a package for you to explore. But the appeal goes deeper than that; it’s the experiences you can enjoy that really make Vietnam unique. Young or old, backpacker or flashpacker, you’ll find an almost inexhaustible list of things to do in Vietnam. Here are some of our favourites, to give you a taste of this beguiling destination.
1. Set off on a Ha Long Bay cruise
Let’s start off with one of the most well known things to do in Vietnam: Ha Long Bay. Yes, it’s a top tourist draw, but it’s also a spectacularly impressive place. The bay – whose name means ‘descending dragon’ – is made up of emerald waters and towering limestone karsts speckled with greenery. Rather than a quick day trip, opt for a multi-day cruise so you can explore the outcrops at leisure. Watching the sun rise and set across the bay will make an indelible impression.
If the presence of other tourists will spoil your enjoyment, go alternative and visit Ha Long Bay’s less frequented neighbour, Bai Tu Long Bay. Located some 30km east, Bai Tu Long Bay looks almost identical and you wont have to fight for space. What’s more, you’ll have more time to swim and kayak around the rocks and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.
2. Take a food tour in Hanoi
Pho, bahn mi, cao lau, banh xeo… drooling yet? It’s no secret that Vietnam has an incredible foodie offering, mixing Asian ingredients with French influences. While you’re sure to grab some good grub all over the country, we recommend a food tour in Hanoi if you want to taste the creme de la creme of this delicious cuisine. You’ll find food stalls everywhere, so go on the look out (we recommend the French Quarter), pull up a stool and tuck in. Plus, Hanoi has gained a reputation as the pho capital of Vietnam, so you know you’ll be in for one of your best meals to date.
3. See a water puppet show in Ho Chi Minh City
Catching a water puppet show is definitely one of the most unique things to do in Vietnam. What to expect? The shows consist of wooden and lacquered puppets on a watery stage, with narrators, singers and musicians sitting at the sides. Yes, it might sound odd at first, but the tradition began in the 11th century and has stood the test of time. You may not understand much (performances are all in Vietnamese), the combination of the intricate puppets, choreography and music will nevertheless entertain. Head to Ho Chi Minh City, specifically the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, where show performances last 50 minutes and take place multiple times each evening.
4. Hike the hills in Sa Pa
Sa Pa is a township located in northwestern Vietnam, in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains. It’s well known to adventure seekers as a base for thrill-seeking activities. Plus, it’s famous for its vivid rice terraces, but that’s not all there is to this stunning area. Dig deeper and you’ll find some treasures. There are hikes ending in waterfalls and landscapes you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with Vietnam. What’s more, you can arrange to visit a tribe for an insight into local mountain life.
5. Light a lantern in Hoi An
Historic Hoi An is a kaleidoscope of colour with string lanterns hanging all around the town. This is accentuated ten-fold every year during Tết (Vietnamese New Year) and the Lantern Festival. Lasting seven days, the main festivities happen in the Old Town – between the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Cau An Hoi Bridge. Celebrations are not limited to lanterns and light, either – food stalls and singing groups bring the town to joyous life. Make sure you’re there to watch the hundreds of tiny lanterns making their way down the river during the festival. For a small price you can board a sampan boat and take a closer look and even light one yourself, watching as it floats peacefully away.
6. Float through the Mekong Delta
To get a different perspective on Vietnamese life and to simply experience a fun mode of transport, taking a boat through the Mekong Delta is one of the best things to do in Vietnam. The Mekong is Asia’s seventh longest river and flows through six countries, including China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Here, it slows down to a more languid pace, welcoming life in many forms. You can see floating markets, stilted villages, uninhabited islands and more – just hitch a ride with a cargo boat or go full-on cruise.
7. Drop into the largest cave in the world
In 1991, in Vietnam’s Quang Binh province, near Phong Nha, a local man discovered a long forgotten cave, but couldn’t find a way inside as the drop was so deep. It wasn’t until 2009 that an expedition to survey the mystery cave finally began. What the team discovered was the largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong, loosely translated to ‘cave of the mountain river’. It’s believed to be between two and five million years old and is so large it has its own ecosystem, with a subterranean river and even underground trees. Trips for tourists started in 2013, and while expensive, it’s certainly one of the most unique things to do in Vietnam and a biggie off the bucket list.