My favorite “Must See’s” in Vietnam.
Whether you come for a holiday or like me an ex-pat who has lived in Vietnam for 15 years, there are myriads of places to see and adventures to experience. These are some of my favorite places I have visited and some of the experiences I have encountered.
Vietnam is almost the same area as New Zealand and could easily fit into the United States 25 times over, yet with nearly 100 million people and a spectacular landscape, there are a million things to do.
Here are some of my favorite spots to visit in Vietnam, ranging from jagged highlands in the north to tropical beaches in the south, and with a wealth of history and culture in between you will never be left bored.
A Little Background First.
I came to Vietnam over 15 years ago and it still feels like yesterday. The day-to-day life is funny, frustrating, complex but never boring.
I still remember stepping off the Vietnam Airlines plane where the seat felt like torture because it had a metal rod inserted in the middle of the chair. Vietnamese love a firm chair.
When I stepped off the plane in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh city, the first thing I noticed was the smell. The people smelled cleaner and fresher somehow.
It wasn’t until some time later I realized this was because of the diet. To Vietnamese most foreigners smell like meat sacks.
The smell of the streets though is a different matter. Mixed in with the aromas of great food you will find the smells of rubbish, and worse affronting your nose. You will get used to it.
Off the Plane.
After catching a bus from the plane to the interior of the airport I had to get my bags to go to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.
Hanoi is an amazing place, although I did have a guard point an automatic assault weapon at me when I climbed the steps of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. My first of many out-of-the-ordinary experiences. I am sure he would have not shot me.
After a week in Hanoi, including “bia a hoi’ing” (Drinking homemade beer with the locals) it was off to Halong Bay and then so many other places that I have come to love. So let’s dive into my favorite spots.
My Favorite Spots in Vietnam.
The Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem Lake in Vietnam’s capital city is rich in history and culture. With market streets, a thriving nightlife, and some of the best Vietnamese food on the planet, this is the city’s tourism epicenter.
There’s a lot to see and do here, but the most important thing is to immerse yourself in Hanoi’s pulsing heart. Go bia a hoi’ing and eat on a plastic seat while slurping up a bowl of hot noodles and nodding furiously to other patrons.
The people in Hanoi are more reserved than those in the south but there is no animosity about the war years so you can relax and enjoy your “Pho”. It is nice that they are more reserved as it is not as much of an in-your-face city as Ho Chi Minh.
I took a taxi from Hanoi to Halong bay, which shows you how cheap taxis are in Vietnam. But that was 15 years ago, although the prices are still amazingly cheap.
This journey was an eye-opener as I had never seen a huge pig on the back of a motorbike before. Have I said this already, this country has great opportunities for the photographer in you?
Got to Halong bay and got on a Junk and sailed around the karst systems of Halong Bay, absolutely one of the wonders of the world.
Halong Bay is breathtakingly magnificent, and you can book overnight cruises that not only take you to the most remote regions of the Bay but also include activities such as kayaking or, if you’re like me, just sunbathing.
You may explore this gorgeous location on day trips, two-day trips, three-day trips, and even longer getaways.
After the excesses of Hanoi and the overeating and sun baking in Halong Bay, it was nice to get to Da Nang. Da Nang was and still is a very touristy place but it has a nice underbelly of life once you get to know the area a bit more.
When I first went to Da Nang I stayed in a 5-star hotel and had a wonderful time. Since then, I have been back a few times and stayed in less expensive accommodation and probably have had more fun.
However, for your first trip, I would recommend a beachfront hotel with all the amenities. It worked for me.
Da Nang is Vietnam’s third-largest city, and it is the country’s commercial, tourism, and educational hub. Locals consider it to be the most worthwhile place to live in Vietnam, and many ex-pats consider it to be one of the best places to retire.
But, whatever the hype, it’s definitely worth visiting and, depending on your mood, partying in or just relaxing.
The next stop was Hoi An and I had a great but expensive time. My fault entirely, the clothes are so cheap and you get them made to measure in 24 hours. I still have my silk nightgown.
My only unpleasant experience here was a young lady who tried to exchange foreign coins with me and got quite aggressive. So I gave her $5.00 and threw them into the water, I am sure she went swimming later.
Apart from that touristy event, yes it is a very tourist place now and charges just to get into some areas, you can have a great time.
Hoi An is noted for its celebrations, with the Full Moon Festival, held on the 14th of each lunar month. This is one of the most well-known nights before the full moon. During this time “Old Town” becomes much more festive, bustling, and magnificently decked with lighting.
And what I enjoyed the most was the floating lanterns next to the hotel I stayed in. I was told that Graeme Green also stayed in the same riverside hotel as me. So it was dinner on the patio with a bottle of red.
Those who wish to make a day trip from Hoi An to other tourist attractions in the vicinity such as My Son will be blown away much like I was.
This place is old and amazing. When I visited I was told not to stray off the paths as some old bombs had still not been found or diffused. It certainly livened up the whole experience.
My Son is a photographer’s delight and you will be pleased you made the effort to get here. But if you don’t want hundreds of people in your pictures do what I did and get there early.
My Son History.
Between the 4th and 13th centuries, a unique civilization formed on the coast of modern-day Vietnam, with spiritual roots in Indian Hinduism.
The ruins of these spectacular towers and temples are built in a spectacular jungle setting and served as the Champa Kingdom’s religious and political capital for most of its existence.
Unfortunately, it was bombed by the Americans during the liberation of Vietnam from foreign aggressors, much like the Ukraine of today.
When I last visited they were still unsure as to how the construction and mortar were combined to make it as long-lasting as it is. Another lost art. And the photos I shot are still some of the best I have ever done.
Nha Trang nearly ruined me, and it was here that I famously lost an eyebrow. When you have to join a full group for breakfast with only one eyebrow, it doesn’t look good.
This place is much busier than some of the other southern beach towns, which means there is a lot more to see and do. The nightlife is vibrant, and adrenaline enthusiasts will enjoy a variety of extreme activities such as jet skiing, surfing, and even fly-boarding.
There’s a lot to do, so take it slowly.
During the holidays, Nha Trang is filled with local families on vacation as well as international visitors.
The water here is clean and clear for swimming, and with dedicated swimming areas and landscaped sunbathing areas, this makes it a terrific choice for restful days at the beach.
If you get tired of sunbathing, head north across the Xom Bong Bridge to the historic Po Nagar Cham Towers, which have been utilized as a place of prayer since at least the 7th century.
There is also an excellent museum dedicated to Alexandre Yersin’s work, who discovered the cause of the bubonic plague and built the Pasteur Institute in Nha Trang.
There was a lot to see and a lot to do, but now it was time to head even further south. Into the bowels of the wicked city and wonderful nightlife.
Ho Chi Minh City.
My home town, if you can call it that. Overcrowded, bustling, and smelly in good and bad ways. I love it. I have spent the majority of my time in Ho Chi Minh City and it is all the best of Vietnam and all the worst at the same time.
I live in a district called Go Vap and it is not foreigner-friendly but in nice ways. Most foreigners will not move from districts 1, 2, 7 and the surroundings but the blessing of moving further out is you get to understand the culture and see what real Vietnamese life is like.
So what is life like here? Interesting to say the least.
Ho Chi Minh City, originally Saigon, is the economic capital of Vietnam and the southern region’s major center.
HCMC’s dynamic cityscape, a freewheeling, global metropolis, brings old and modern Vietnam together in the smallest of areas, signifying the city’s past as well as its future.
The Notre Dame Cathedral, the city’s Central Post Office, and the Saigon Opera House are all located near Dong Khoi street. The more upmarket end of town.
‘Pham au Lau” is or was the famous or infamous, depending on your point of view, backpacker area of Ho Chi Minh City. In the past, it has been notorious for prostitutes, drugs, and petty crime. But also great nightlife and amazing experiences.
These days it is a sad area with most businesses being closed because of high rentals and no visitors. All thanks to Covid.
The Chinese neighborhood known as Chợ Lớn is still great for exploring on foot. Head for Bình Tây Market, a wholesale trading center, and Thiên Hậu Pagoda, a temple that pays homage to the sea goddess.
And if you come, it is always appreciated if you try to speak a few words of the local language. Correct or not you will get respect for the attempt.
And there is so much more. If you come to Vietnam on holiday or for work take the time to explore the country and get to know some of the people and culture of this wonderful country.
Who am I?.
My name is Stephen and I have lived in Vietnam for 15 years and have my own school here as well as having an amazing Vietnamese family. I am also the author and owner of this website. I hope you have enjoyed this short article about Vietnam.
If you want to have a look at walking around Dong Khoi street and looking at the TET Flowers click on the YouTube button below.
Any or all links on this site may be affiliate links, and if you purchase something through those links I will make a small commission on them.
There will be no extra cost to you and at times due to my affiliation, you could actually save money.
You can read our full affiliate disclosure here.