The Best Things to Do in Vietnam

From ancient kingdoms to reminders of the period of French colonial rule and the “American War,” Vietnam is filled with UNESCO World Heritage landmarks and architectural wonders, like royal palaces and fishermen’s stilted houses. Add in traditional markets, ethnic villages, and otherworldly landscapes, and you have a country that promises surprises at every turn.

28 Võ Văn Tần, Phường 6, Quận 3, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Despite its sobering focus, this museum that looks at the devastating effects of the Vietnam War—known locally as the American War—is very popular. Displays of military equipment and defused ordnance outside the main building are reminders of the huge number of weapons employed during the conflict; they also prime visitors for the powerful exhibits inside. The most disturbing of these are the many graphic photos displayed in galleries that highlight seminal moments of those years (including the infamous My Lai Massacre) and the catastrophic effects of the chemical weapons that were used against the Vietnamese.
135 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Phường Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam
Also known as the Reunification Palace, this Vietnamese landmark was constructed on the site of an old French-colonial governor’s residence. It has a remarkably varied past; it housed Japanese officials during World War II and was later the home of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The imposing, broad, angular building played a seminal role in Vietnamese history: It was here on April 30, 1975, in an episode that came to be known as the Fall of Saigon, that a North Vietnamese army tank smashed through the gates, symbolically ending the Vietnam War. A tour of the palace is a step back decades in time—you’ll encounter grand, formal rooms used as banquet halls, reception rooms, and government offices. You can also navigate through basement tunnels and former bunkers.
Chợ, Lê Lợi, Phường Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam
Bến Thành market has been around Saigon in one form or another for over 300 years. At some points it neighbored bodies of water including a small lake. It is a monster, overwhelming at first. If you come to Saigon and you love to shop, this is the one-stop shop you are looking for. Personally nothing is more thrilling at Bến Thành than the art of “The Barter.” It’s a strategic game of wits of where you pit product desire against pocketbook ability and the house always wins. It’s not always easy, in fact it’s never easy. Hot, stagnant air ripe with the smell of fish and squid always seems to hang in the air right over that gift you can’t live without. You’re constantly walking that fine line between feeling like you got ripped off or feeling you’re further oppressing the local population. Bến Thành is the stadium packed with hundreds of thousands of pieces of clothing, jewelry, and art- and they’re all yours to play for.
07 Công Trường Lam Sơn, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam
This spellbinding, Cirque du Soleil–style production at Ho Chi Minh City’s Municipal Theater, also known as the Opera House, turns to rural Vietnam for its inspiration. Mixing muscular acrobatics, visual artistry, juggling, and modern dance, the show employs the materials commonly found in villages as the basis for its routines. Recurring motifs include the bowl-shaped coracle-style boats still widely used in the country, and bamboo poles (used for balancing and as tracks during one particularly confounding, Rube Goldberg–style, conveyor-belt-type passage). As memorable as the nonstop action on stage is the live music, dominated by the haunting sounds of the dan bau, or gourd lute.
Hòa Thành District, Tây Ninh Province, Vietnam
While this complex for the Cao Dai religion—which was founded in Vietnam in 1926 and combines elements of a number of other faiths—includes offices and a clinic, the real draw for tourists is the great temple. The giant, bright, surreal building is located some 50 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City and it is the most important shrine for the religion’s 2 million followers. The temple has an eclectic design, with front towers that resemble those of a mosque coupled with pagoda-style roofs along the sides. More striking still are the interiors, with brightly colored dragons wrapping themselves around columns and the ubiquitous symbol of a giant eye (the movement’s emblem is an eye inside a triangle), including on the large, orblike main altar.
7, Bitexco Financial Tower, 2 Hải Triều, Bến Nghé, Hồ Chí Minh, 700000, Vietnam
An emblem of the new Vietnam, this 68-story skyscraper, named for a Vietnamese conglomerate and designed by Venezuelan architect Carlos Zapata, is easily identified in Ho Chi Minh City’s skyline—a helipad juts out from near the top, looking a little like a flying saucer crashed into the building. Upon completion in 2010, it was the tallest building in Vietnam; it can no longer claim that title (which now belongs to the Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower), but its construction remains an impressive achievement. The 49th-floor wraparound Saigon Skydeck offers expansive views of the river and the city’s concrete sprawl; you’ll find the same fine views at the somewhat pricey café-restaurant-bar Eon, located on floors 50, 51, and 52.
55 Bát Sứ, Hàng Bồ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Situated to the south and east of Lake Hoan Kiem, the French Quarter has a different feel from the rest of Hanoi—one characterized by a profusion of space. The French began shaping this part of the city in the late 1800s (in part by knocking down Vietnamese buildings and monuments), and by the early 20th century had firmly established their imprint. Today, the district retains the broad avenues, wide sidewalks, and colonial architecture from the era of French rule. Highlights include the Sofitel Legend Metropole, with its distinctive white facade and green shutters, and the iconic Hanoi Opera House, modeled on the Palais Garnier in Paris.
2 Hùng Vương, Điện Bàn, Ba Đình, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam
Though the venerable Vietnamese leader asked to be cremated, Ho Chi Minh’s remains now reside embalmed inside this imposing, pillared, gray-granite memorial. His resting place is hugely popular, drawing Vietnamese in droves as they pay their respects to the most important figure of contemporary Vietnam. The mausoleum only opens in the mornings, and visitors must abide by a number of rules (these include no hats, no shorts, and no photos inside). Yes, it’s a chance to see the actual remains of a hugely influential leader, but the experience of queuing up for entry is also a way of mingling with ordinary Vietnamese.
Hanoi, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi, Vietnam
Also known as the 36 Streets (though it’s made up of more than 36 streets), this neighborhood is a warren of alleys and lanes that was, according to some legends, home to 36 artisans’ guilds; streets here were named after the artisan items that were once sold on them (Hang Bo was the location for bamboo products; Hang Ma was where paper objects were sold). Each road today still specializes in a particular category, with some still related to the traditional item. Streets especially popular with tourists shopping for souvenirs, as well as those in search of photo opportunities, are Hang Bac (silver goods, now also filled with gift shops), Hang Ma (religious paper wares, then and now), and Hang Dau (oil products, though currently a center for shoe vendors). Among these timeworn businesses, visitors will also encounter outlet stores selling Gap, Banana Republic, and North Face clothing—some authentic and some fake. The quarter is also packed with hotels, hostels, restaurants, and bars, making it a busy destination at all hours.
Hội An, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam
A short drive south of Da Nang, Hoi An is a spellbinding UNESCO World Heritage site, with intact 16th-century architecture that celebrates its origins as a trading port that long welcomed merchant ships from China, Japan, and Europe. The Old Town on the Thu Bon River has a number of sights that visitors must check off their lists. These include the covered bridge, also known as the Japanese Bridge; gorgeous riverside French-colonial buildings; traditional merchant shop-houses; historic pagodas and temples; ornate assembly halls where Chinese immigrants would congregate; and the town’s tailors, for custom garments. But the greatest joy of Hoi An comes from wandering round its quiet streets—the town center is car-free and a blissfully pleasant place to walk, especially at night, when it’s lit by red lanterns strung on the exteriors of buildings.
Da Nang, Hải Châu District, Da Nang, Vietnam
The country’s third-largest city, and the largest in central Vietnam, Da Nang has become one of the country’s key ports thanks to its location on both the coast and the Han River estuary. The city itself is a typical bustling Vietnamese metropolis with relentless scooter traffic, but a number of attractions make visiting worthwhile. The town’s Dragon Bridge opened in 2013, but what makes it special is that every weekend evening the steel-arch dragon that forms a part of the structure spits out real fire from its head (the bridge is closed to traffic at the time, allowing crowds to see the spectacle up close). The Marble Mountains—five hills that seem to have just sprouted up in the south of the city—are an arresting sight. The Son Tra peninsula, with a marquee attraction known as Monkey Mountain, offers some good hiking and excellent sea and city views; you’ll also find the 220-feet-tall, gleaming-white Goddess of Mercy statue here. The sandy stretch east of the city center (given the nickname China Beach by American soldiers during the war) is crowded with restaurants, bars, and some seaside hotels.
Qui Nhơn, Binh Dinh Province, Vietnam
Situated roughly halfway between Da Nang and Nha Trang, Qui Nhon is a quiet coastal town with a curvy beach that is refreshingly low-key. It doesn’t get the hordes that visit Nha Trang to the south (the stretch of sand isn’t quite as alluring here), and certainly lacks the development that is a feature of Da Nang’s beaches, resulting in a city that is remarkably unaffected by the unstoppable reach of tourism—note the number of fishing boats that still dot the water here. There are some fine Cham ruins in the vicinity, including the Thap Doi (meaning Double Towers) and the Banh It Towers, as well as the Long Khanh Pagoda, constructed by a Chinese businessman in the 18th century.
Dalat, Lâm Đồng, Vietnam
Vietnamese love the cool climes of this town 5,000 feet above sea level in the highlands of southern Vietnam. Da Lat was “discovered” as a site for a potential town in 1893 by French bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin; before long, it was established as a refuge where French Indochina’s colonial administrators living in Saigon could cool off during their downtime. French villas—many still standing today—and summer palaces of Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai, soon followed. Today many visitors still come to escape the tropical heat typical of most of the country, wander round the man-made lake in the heart of town, and enjoy the locally grown fruits and vegetables sold at the morning market—strawberries, peaches, avocados, artichokes, and more. The Hang Nga guesthouse here is a small hotel with an unusual surrealist design. Da Lat is also a great destination for adventure travel, with outfitters offering mountain-biking, kayaking, white-water-rafting, and canyoning excursions; Phat Tire Ventures is the best operation in town.
Dương Tơ, Phú Quốc, tỉnh Kiên Giang, Vietnam
Situated closer to Cambodia than Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand, Phu Quoc has arguably the best beaches in the country. An international airport opened in 2012, raising the island’s profile and bringing in droves of visitors. Despite this, the island retains a laid-back, underdeveloped charm, and its coast is still dotted with small fishing villages with brightly painted boats. The interior of the island includes plenty of forest, while some of the land is earmarked for growing black pepper—pepper from here is famous throughout Vietnam. The best beach lies to the west of the town of Phu Quoc; it’s a 13-mile long straight stretch with golden sands, coconut palms, and clear turquoise waters. The An Thoi Islands, south of Phu Quoc but still part of its marine park, offer excellent snorkeling and diving during the dry season from December through May.
57B Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam
While the art of puppetry is common throughout much of Asia, Vietnam has the unique discipline of water puppetry. These puppets are carved from wood and then lacquered to protect them from the water. The stage for a show is a pool of water, with the puppeteers standing behind, hidden by a screen, manipulating and moving the figures with rods and strings. Water puppetry is believed to have originated in northern Vietnam in the 11th century, possibly in the rice fields around the Red River Delta—flooded paddies were the original stages—and themes often explore the daily routines of rural or coastal life or old folktales. Today visitors can most easily catch a performance in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City at one of a handful of well-established theaters.
Hue
Huế, Thua Thien Hue, Vietnam
The royal capital for more than 140 years during the 19th and 20th centuries, Hue is a not-to-be-missed stop on any itinerary in Vietnam. It was a political, religious, and cultural center for the Nguyen dynasty, the last to rule the country before Vietnam proclaimed itself a republic in 1945. The city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, features a dizzying array of tombs, pagodas, and monuments—but perhaps the most impressive, and certainly grandest, sight is its citadel. Surrounded by a moat and hefty stone walls, the citadel contains the Imperial City, with fortified ramparts, brightly painted pagodas and gateways, beautiful carved-stone dragons, and a palpable sense of the history that unfolded here.
Bordering China and mostly populated by ethnic minorities, Ha Giang province is undoubtedly one of the country’s gems, yet it gets only a trickle of foreign visitors each year. Reasons for this include the distance (it takes a minimum of six hours to drive here from Hanoi, and there are no trains), and the need for a permit to access the more-remote (read more-beautiful) parts of the area. The scenery here seems taken from the pages of a geological fantasy: jagged peaks, rice paddies, twisting roads that improbably wind through the landscape. Highlights include the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark and Heaven’s Gate—a viewpoint that looks down on a patchwork of terraced rice fields backed by row upon row of forested limestone hills. From its elevated position, you can take in a vista dotted with villages, home to the ethnic peoples whose lifestyles have little changed over the centuries.
Vĩnh Thạch, Vĩnh Linh, Quảng Trị, Vietnam
This labyrinth of tunnels between what were North and South Vietnam during the war is a testimony to the defiance and ingenuity of the Vietnamese resistance. Vinh Moc was a village that the U.S. troops believed to be sympathetic to the Communist North, so when the Americans planned to remove the villagers, the locals dug tunnels to relocate their abodes underground. What resulted is a tight warren of underground paths stretching more than a mile in total, some as deep as 100 feet below the surface. The subterranean village included kitchens, rooms, and wells, and was home to more than 50 families; a number of children were even born in this subterranean hamlet.
Kon Tum Province, Vietnam
An ethnic minority living in the Central Highlands provinces, the Bahnar are as renowned for their musical prowess, achieved with bamboo instruments that include the fiddle and xylophone, as their soaring, thatched-roof rongs (meetinghouses used for community activities), some of which climb as high as 50 feet. The quiet town of Kon Tum, located a couple of hours from the point where the borders of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam connect—and the border-crossing station into Laos at Bo Y—is a good base from which to explore the numerous Bahnar villages nearby. For the less adventurous, there are a few villages within Kon Tum itself. The nearest airport to Kon Tum is in Pleiku, about 25 miles away.
Buôn Đôn, Đắk Lắk, Vietnam
The biggest nature reserve in the country, Yok Don spreads across 450 square miles next to the Cambodian border and west of the town of Buon Ma Thuot, an important center for Vietnam’s coffee industry. The park is largely a dry dipterocarp forest of towering deciduous trees that provides a habitat for an array of flora and fauna—including some leopards and tigers, though you shouldn’t anticipate spotting any. Much more visible are deer, buffalo, some semi-tame elephants (the highlight for many visitors), plenty of avian life, and crocodiles that inhabit the Srepok River, which slices through the park. Great hiking and the chance to visit a handful of ethnic-minority villages are guaranteed. Visitors are required to use the services of a park guide.
Vietnam
Spoken of in almost reverential terms by people that have traveled there, Sa Pa is often seen as a holy grail of destinations in Vietnam. Part of that is because of the environment—a cool mountain town that has lured visitors with its salubrious air and alpine scenery since the early 20th century, when the French constructed facilities for sick officers to recover—as well as its remoteness, located close to the Chinese border in the country’s extreme north. Most visitors come to Sa Pa for the hiking in the nearby valley peppered with minority-ethnic-group villages, or to climb Mount Fansipan, the country’s tallest peak, which is located just southwest of the town. Conquering the summit once required a two-to-three-day hike, but now can more easily be reached with the help of a cable car (opened in 2016) that gets you most of the way.
Xuân Trạch, Bố Trạch, Quảng Bình, Vietnam
Spelunking isn’t all about exploring dark, damp places. Case in point: Son Doong. A cave system that boasts the largest passage in the world, Son Doong was first mapped by caving experts less than a decade ago, before it was opened to the public in 2013. It’s difficult to do justice to the immensity of the system, but consider these facts: Some chambers are large enough to house a commercial passenger plane or a 40-story skyscraper; there are numerous microclimates within the complex of caves, and parts are home to subterranean jungles; and not just one but many rivers run through the network. In order to safeguard its structure and unique ecosystem, authorities limit access to this wonder—only 800 permits are granted to visitors each year.
Described as an inland Ha Long Bay, this sublime area west of the town of Ninh Binh, about 60 miles south of Hanoi, was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2014 on account of its “spectacular landscape of limestone karst peaks permeated with valleys, some of which are submerged, and surrounded by steep, almost vertical cliffs.” While the description is accurate, it doesn’t adequately capture the experience of a visit. Boats tackle the waters of the Red River Delta, passing hulking karst mountains and stopping at grottoes along the way. Also popular are the boat trips that depart from Tam Coc, south of Ninh Binh, and wind up a twisting river flanked by limestone peaks and verdant fields.
Thom island, Hòn Thơm, Phu Quoc, Kien Giang, Vietnam
The An Thoi Islands, south of Phu Quoc but still part of its marine park, rise from the sea, gentle hills covered by tropical forest. It’s possible to charter a boat and go snorkeling and diving during the dry season (November through April), or just enjoy a sail among these idyllic specks of dry land. Most tours of the 15 islands depart from the village of An Thoi, on Phu Quoc. The largest island in the archipelago is Hon Thom, or Pineapple Island, and it’s also the most populous with some 4,000 residents. Hon Rut is another popular island for day-trippers, with opportunities to visit its pearl farms.
1 phố Hoả Lò, Trần Hưng Đạo, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam
Perhaps the most relevant museum in Hanoi for American visitors is the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, popularly known as the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War. Its exterior is a strangely cheery yellow, and it was part of a complex built by the French around the turn of the 20th century. You’ll know you’ve reached the building when you see its original French name, Maison Centrale, in bold letters above the entrance. The exhibits cover both the French treatment of Vietnamese prisoners and the U.S. soldiers and pilots housed here during the Vietnam War—including Senator John McCain, who was detained here from 1967 to 1973. (His flight suit is among the displays.) A visit can be a powerful, and at times emotionally difficult, experience.
40 Nhà Chung P, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam
Though it is just outside the French Quarter, St. Joseph’s Cathedral is one of the most famous landmarks of the colonial era in Hanoi. The neo-Gothic church was modeled after Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral and sits on the west side of Lake Hoan Kiem. The church dates from 1886, making it the oldest church in the capital city. (Vietnam has a Catholic population of around 4 million people.) After the Viet Minh officially took control of North Vietnam in 1954, following the Geneva Accords, Catholic leaders and institutions were repressed and St. Joseph’s was closed for decades. In 1990, services resumed, and now several masses take place each day, sometimes drawing more worshipers than can fit in the building.
22 đường Trần Bình
The two-story Binh Tay Market is an impossible-to-miss Chinatown landmark on the edge of Ho Chi Minh City’s District Six; it boasts a distinctive Chinese-inspired clock tower, yet it was a French patron who financed the construction of the market in the 1880s. It isn’t geared toward foreigners like the more popular (among travelers, that is) Ben Thanh Market, so there are fewer souvenirs for sale—on the upside, that means prices are already low. The focus here is more on fresh food, though items like bags, clothing, and handicrafts are also sold; even if you don’t plan on purchasing anything, it’s a fascinating place to visit.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: United States
Journeys: Sports + Adventure