Filled with color and wonder, mystery and majesty, culture and context, Vietnam blends Asian and French influences. Travelers flock to this picturesque Southeast Asian country to mingle among its welcoming people, eat its incredible cuisine and experience its vibrant culture. Indeed, determining what to do in Vietnam can prove challenging, especially if this is your first trip. To help you, we’ve assembled a list of Vietnam’s most popular spots as well as a few hidden gems to discover.
Vietnam is a country of 93 million people located on the Indochina Peninsula that juts into the South China Sea. After millennia of dynastic rule, the French colonized Vietnam in the 1800s. The country gained independence in 1954, but divisions caused a decade-long war between the country’s two factions. Today, Vietnam has put the wars of the past behind it and enjoys one of the highest economic growth rates in the world. It’s also a popular destination with an estimated 3.77 million international tourists in 2009.
With dense tropic forests, massive mountain peaks, beautiful beaches and alluvial river deltas, Vietnam has a remarkable amount of biodiversity. The official language is Vietnamese but many speak indigenous and regional languages; some still speak French as a second language. The official currency is the dong, and it’s preferred in most places over credit cards.
Vietnam consists of 58 provinces roughly categorized into eight larger regions: Red River Delta, Northeast, Northwest, North Central Coast, Central Highlands, South Central Coast, Southeast and Mekong Delta. The climate varies depending on the elevation with the northern regions being cooler. It tends to be drier in the winter months from November to April; the summer is quite hot and wet thanks to monsoon rains that fall between June and November, depending on the location the in the country.
Can’t Miss Attractions in Vietnam
Northern Vietnam’s most popular tourist destination is Halong Bay. Located near the border with China, the bay is filled with geologic wonders. Visitors encounter towering rock pillars, wave-carved grottos and emerald islands scattered throughout the crystal blue waters. Overnight cruises and daily boat and seaplane tours are popular. Nearby, bustling Halong City offers budget-friendly hotel accommodations, casinos and karaoke. For a more isolated experience, head for Cat Ba Island’s Lan Ha Bay. It’s further from Halong City so there are fewer tourists but the same white-sand beaches, limestone outcroppings and unique ecology. Excursions are best planned in Cat Ba City.
Phu Quoc Island
A island paradise located in the Gulf of Thailand, Phu Quoc has emerged from relative secrecy to become a premier beach resort. Turquoise waters, expansive beaches, a laid back atmosphere and some of the best scuba diving in Vietnam draw visitors from around the world. Most of the island is a nature reserve, offering raw and untouched rainforests and wildlife. There are also five-star resorts that cater to every whim. The island is located about 30 miles off shore, accessible only by plane or boat.
Cu Chi Tunnels
During the Vietnam War, villages in the district of Cu Chi north of Ho Chi Minh City dug an expansive network of tunnels where resistance fighters lived. Today, two of these tunnels at Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc are open to the public for exploration.
Hue served as Vietnam’s capital from 1845 until 1902 and still retains some of the dynastic accouterments of its past. Royal mausoleums and the seven-story Thien Mu Pagoda are popular destinations. The city is divided into three distinct districts. The walled Citadel on the banks of the Perfume River contains the relics of the former Imperial City. Phu Cat is the merchants’ district where ships once docked, bringing goods from elsewhere in Asia. The modern administrative center is located in an area once called European City. You’ll find most hotels and tourist-related services here, including delectable culinary delights. Hue is also a good place to embark on an excursion to the DMZ.
Old world charms abound in Hoi An. No motorbikes are allowed in this central coastal city, and businesses are required to hang traditional lanterns outside. Hoi An is also a great place to buy tailored silk clothing. Inexpensive tailors abound, and their skilled hands will whip up made-to-measure suits and dresses in no time. You’ll also want to see the popular Japanese Covered Bridge and Chinese assembly halls where the ethnic Chinese population gather for civic and spiritual activities.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
Known to his people as “Uncle Ho,” Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in the capital city of Hanoi is a very popular place for the Vietnamese and visitors alike. The tomb of the iconic leader was built in 1973 and modeled after Lenin’s tomb in Russia. Visitors to the granite structure must dress respectfully — no shorts, short skirts or sleeveless tops. It’s always busy and visitors aren’t allowed to stop moving to observe the space. Important note: Ho Chi Minh’s remains are sent each year to Russia for maintenance so the site is closed from October to December.
The Sand Dunes of Mui Ne
The red and white sands dunes of Mui Ne are reminiscent of the Sahara. Kite flying, sand sledding and picnics are popular activities at the dunes, which are located in the central coastal area of the country. Whether you take an organized excursion or go on your own, be sure to take plenty of water and consider going in the morning or evening to avoid the heat.
Vietnam’s highest peak of Fan Si Pan towers over the hamlet of Sa Pa where members of the ethnic minorities like the Red Dao and the Black Hmong stroll about in colorful headdresses. The climate here is refreshing, especially when compared with other areas of the country that roast in the tropical heat. The town’s daily markets where visitors buy handmade indigo waist coats, hats and dense silver jewelry are extremely popular.
Ride the Reunification Express
While in Vietnam, you should make time to see the sights in the cities of Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. A great way to get from one to the other is riding the Reunification Express. That’s not the name of an actual train, but a railway line that traverses the length of the country. It’s a great way to see the countryside, cities and the jungle. If you ride the entire route, you’ll see everything from rice paddies to frosted mountaintops to serene villages, rivers and beaches.
Once a backwater, Danang is Vietnam’s fastest growing city. The metropolis’s beaches, nightlife and street food vendors draw visitors from far and wide. Modern hotels line the Han riverfront, and beach resorts in the southern part of the city make for a relaxing holiday. Be sure to check out the city’s quirky bridges while you’re there.
Trying to decide what to do in Vietnam? In this country filled with rich history, stunning geologic sites, stunning beaches and friendly people, you’ll find plenty of interesting things to see and do on a Southeast Asian holiday.
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