Vietnam is a country that continues to surprise me. The people, the food, the culture, the language, and of course, the landscape. This is a place unlike any other, with such contradictory landscapes all squeezed into it’s slim, long borders.
I’ve been lucky enough to call Vietnam home since mid-2018 and during that time, instead of getting bored with staying put in one place for so long, my amazement for the country continues to grow. Every time I tick a place off my list, a new one takes its place. Every time I taste a new dish, someone tells me about one I’ve yet to hear of.
In my opinion, Vietnam has a unique blend of past, present, and natural beauty. If you get the chance, I highly recommend you add it to your travel bucket list. While most people might try to squeeze a lot into a week or two and combine this trip with checking out Cambodia or Thailand in the same go, I’d really urge you to stretch your trip and enjoy this country for as long as you can. I know 15 places might seem like a lot but I actually had to narrow this list down.
With that, here are 15 of the best places to visit in Vietnam. They’re not listed in any particular order, but instead, ranked geographically, from north to south.
1. Ha Giang
Simply put, Ha Giang is incredible. This is the northernmost province in Vietnam, sharing its border with Southern China. Ha Giang is also the capital of this province, so it’s a city and a province, which can be a bit confusing.
Ha Giang became famous for motorbike enthusiasts. The roads are super curvy, with exceptional views of mountains, valleys, rivers and rice fields. Now it’s fairly well known and referred to as the “Ha Giang Loop.”
Other than the city of Ha Giang, the rest of the region consists of fairly small towns. There is a highway that makes nearly a circle of the province, giving it the name, “loop.” You could take the loop fairly quickly and complete it in 3 nights or you could extend you trip indefinitely and break off to explore Ba Be National Park.
By starting in Ha Giang city, you can easily find a motorbike to rent and start and end your trip from there. I highly recommend the adventure but do think it’s important that you’re comfortable driving a semi-automatic or manual bike, otherwise, you can rent a driver as well and ride with him or her.
Sapa is another beautiful town sitting in the northernmost part of the country, just a bit more to the west than Ha Giang. Sapa became famous for its endless rice fields.
You have the option to either go and stay in a hotel or homestay in Sapa and explore the area by foot or by renting a motorbike, or you can trek through the region. Typically the guides are women from the H’mong indigenous community.
While Ha Giang remains relatively quiet in terms of tourism, especially on the backend of the loop, Sapa has gotten the reputation of being overly touristic. It’s still a beautiful region but if you only have time for one of these two places, Ha Giang would be better to feel off the beaten path, whereas Sapa might feel more relaxing, unless you opt for an intense trek.
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, although not the biggest city. Hanoi has maintained a lot of it’s ancient charm, especially in the “Old Town.” This area of the city retains much of it’s French Colonial Architecture and is really a beautiful area to simply walk without plan down the labyrinth of alleys.
Like most cities, if you’re looking to eat and drink, you won’t go without. If you're like me and love the taste of cake batter, grab an egg coffee on one of your breaks. While you’re there, treat yourself to a massage or manicure, you’ll be shocked by the high quality but low price tag.
If you’d like a break from the Old Town, Tay Ho is a neighborhood nearby where most expats and foreigners choose to live.
4. Ha Long Bay or Bai Tu Long Bay
Ha Long Bay might just be the most famous place in Vietnam. Here you’ll find limestone mountains rising up from the ocean. It definitely has the feeling that the area should not be underwater but instead is simply flooded.
Legend has it, Vietnamese people are descended from dragons, and “Ha Long” translates to “descending dragon.” Around the time Vietnam was formed, it faced threats of being overtaken by invaders. The emperor at the time asked the Gods to send Mother Dragon and her children to protect Vietnam. She quickly wiped out it’s enemies and left in her wake the teeth (some sources say eggs ready to hatch) of she and her children to create an impenetrable wall.
There genuinely is something mystical about Ha Long Bay that especially when the fog rolls in, you could image a place where dragons once roamed overhead.
While in Ha Long Bay, most people opt for an overnight cruise of the area. Others stay on the biggest island, Cat Ba. Unfortunately, do it a quick increase in tourism, this area is facing a serious issue with pollution.
When we went, we opted to go a bit farther north to Bai Tu Long Bay. It’s the same landscape, but because it does take a bit longer to sail to, most people on tight schedules opt out. It was incredibly quiet in that area, and usually, we were the only boat in sight.
5. Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is yet another stunning place in northern Vietnam. If you haven’t noticed yet, the north of Vietnam is full of natural beauty to soak up and Ninh Binh is no different.
You can take a day trip here from Hanoi if you’re low on time. Most of these trips will take you to Tam Coc. Tam Coc is an area of rice fields, limestone mountains, and a river full of caves. The river trip is unique because the women who’ll take you on the tour have mastered the art of rowing the boats with their feet. I tried and failed miserably but our guide explained they’ve learned this to protect their backs from being hunched over the oars all day.
Other than the river, Hang Mua Cave is the most popular place to visit in the area. From here, you can actually hike up a small but steep mountain to see incredible views of Tam Coc below.
6. Phong Nha
Now, we’ve left the north of the country and have made our way towards central Vietnam. Phong Nha is another place perfect for adventurers. Although famous for its incredible caves, Phong Nha’s national park, Ke Bang National Park, has plenty of hikes and rivers for kayaking.
Son Doong is recently discovered and is actually the world’s largest cave. It takes 4 days to explore the cave, so you’ll actually camp in the cave as you explore. This adventure comes with a steep price tag and I’ve heard it books up pretty far in advance, plus you won’t be able to go during rainy season (October-December).
Son Doong is just one of many caves in the region, including the 3rd largest cave in the world, Hang En.
Hue is right in the middle of Vietnam and is famous for the Imperial City. Hue was the capital of Vietnam before France’s colonization and the Imperial City was home to the royal family. It’s now open to the public and is a well-maintained place to walk around and glimpse into Vietnam’s past.
There are also massive mausoleums for the emperors and their families, which all seem like giant parks. You really good spend your entire time in Hue just checking out these and the Imperial City by foot, although, you’d need to drive in between them all.
Not only does Hue have a rich history in terms of politics in the country, it’s also Vietnam's gastronomical capital. You might find yourself walking quite a bit but you’ll be rewarded with delicious food and strong coffee. Don’t forget to try out “salt coffee” while you’re in town, trust me, it’s much tastier than it sounds!
Another atypical thing to see while in Hue is the abandoned waterpark. This waterpark was built not too long ago but was abandoned when it was nearly complete. It’s a unique place to spend a few hours but since it’s technically closed, you might have to bribe the guard to let you in.
8. Da Nang
I’ll be honest, I might be a bit biased, but in my opinion Da Nang is the best city in Vietnam. It really has it all, from beautiful beaches, to monkey-filled jungle, quiet alleys and a busy city, there’s something for everyone here.
Da Nang has been my home since mid-2019 and while I never thought I’d be here longer than a year, it’s been an amazing place to settle down a bit.
Da Nang is divided into two: the beachside and the cityside, divided by the Han River. Most foreigners choose to live on the beachside, with An Thuong as the main expat neighborhood. While An Thuong is a great place to speak English, listen to live music and eat all the food you’ve been missing, you really need to get out of there to experience the real Da Nang.
This advice is actually relevant to any of the places you’ll visit in Vietnam or the rest of the world. The expat area is definitely comfortable but if you’ve come all this way to experience Vietnam, get out of the bubble. Head to the cityside, grab some street food and get lost in the alleyways.
Other than the beach, Son Tra Peninsula is the perfect place to get some fresh air and spot the endangered Red Shanked Duoc monkeys that are so brightly colored and a privilege to see in the wild. They’ve recently changed the rules to driving the peninsula and now to access all of it, you’ll need to be on a semi-automatic or manual bike. If you only drive an automatic or want to take a taxi, you explore the Lady Buddha statue and the area around there.
9. Hoi An
Hoi An is another one of Vietnam’s crown jewels. Most people just pass through Da Nang or fly into the airport to go directly to Hoi An. While I do urge you to spend some time in Da Nang, I definitely understand the appeal of Hoi An. It’s seriously picturesque.
The Old Town has strict rules in place on the businesses that open there so all of the buildings have maintained the same yellow and brown architecture with lanterns hanging over all of the streets. The heart of the town is closed to traffic although you’ll still find motorbikes moving in between the people strolling around.
A river cuts the Old Town in 2 and that bridge area gets seriously popular at night. Good luck crossing it! Street food vendors set up stalls everywhere and you can even take a little boat ride down the river and drop a paper lantern in the water and make a wish.
Other than Old Town, a few minutes away is An Bang Beach. An Bang is relatively small but has plenty of beach bars and restaurants so it’s a really fun place to hang out and grab some beers. The prices are insanely different if you choose to drink in the sand vs. at a restaurant or bar.
From Hoi An you can also visit Cham Island, a very sleepy island just off the coast. The town is just one street but it’s a great place to camp on the beach, enjoy a homestay or simply pop in for a quiet day of snorkeling or scuba diving.
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10. Da Lat
Da Lat is one of the coldest spots in Vietnam and for that, it’s quite popular when it just gets too hot everywhere else. It’s near Ho Chi Minh City but up in the mountains. While given the reputation of a sleepy mountain town, I was genuinely surprised by the amount of traffic in the small center of the city.
Regardless of the amounts of bikes on the road, with the exception of the night market, the rest of the city does feel relatively quiet.
This is another place that’s best accessed by motorbike so you can drive out of the city and enjoy the fresh, cool, mountain air and even get some exercise in by hiking to the one of many waterfalls.
Da Lat is also famous for its flowers and fresh fruit and it’s actually one of the best places in the country that you can get fresh strawberries without paying half of your salary.
11. Mui Ne
There are quite a few beaches down the coastline, I mean just look at a map and you’ll see what I mean but to keep this list relatively concise, decisions had to be made!
I chose Mui Ne because, like Da Nang and Hoi An, it has more to offer than just it’s coastline. Mui Ne is home to red and white sand dunes that might make you feel like you’ve been transported to the Sahara or somewhere that is definitely not Vietnam.
You can enjoy the sand dunes for a few pictures or you can opt to rent an ATV or a sandboard to have a bit more fun.
There is also a “fairy river” that acts as a natural barrier between the sand dunes and a forest but really, it’s a creek that can be a cute spot to take a barefoot walk but not much more.
12. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Although not the capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the biggest city in the country. I loved this city far more than I expected myself to. After a year of living here, I really felt like I had just scraped the surface of what was there.
Most tourists are turned off by HCMC due to the insane traffic, insane heat and insane sense of chaos around you. Don’t be fooled, there is much more to the city than that. While it is all of those things, if you opt to embrace it all, you’ll really enjoy your time.
One thing I quickly learned while in the city is to look up. I was used to everything being at eye level, but here, you can find shops, cafes, and restaurants hidden inside apartment buildings, which really makes it feel like there is always something new to see.
The city is divided into districts. If you’d like to be able to explore mainly by foot, I recommend you stay in District 1. This is the heart of the city and where most of the touristic spots, bars, and restaurants are.
Most expats choose to live in District 2, or Thao Dien to be more specific. Head to this neighborhood if you’re craving foreign food and someone who speaks your native language. As you imagined though, prices rise in this district compared to the others.
13. Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta is a huge region that actually covers all of southern Vietnam, just south of HCMC. Just like the north of the country, the south is beautiful, but in a completely different way.
While the north is mountainous, the south is completely flat. The beauty here is in the colors. It’s such a lush area, fed by rivers, that it's labeled Vietnam’s breadbasket because most of the produce that feeds the rest of the country is grown here.
You might not be surprised when I tell you that yet again, the best way to explore this area, is by renting a motorbike and driving. Can Tho is the capital of this region and where many people opt to go for tours of the floating market and surrounding areas. To be honest with you though, Can Tho was my least favorite spot in the region since it really was just another big city.
If you go to the Mekong looking for bright green farms, tiny roads and endless rice fields, Can Tho is not your best bet. Feel free to start your trip here, but get a bike and get out. Do your best to avoid the highways and travel by backroads when you can. It might take you a bit longer but that’s the best way to really get a feel for the region.
Soc Trang was one of my favorite towns in the Mekong because it felt like an entirely different country. The indigeneous people here are the same you’ll find in Cambodia and Thailand which will be instantly obvious due to the beautiful Buddhist temples all over the town.
14. Phu Quoc Island
Phu Quoc Island is actually part of the Mekong Delta region and can be reached by ferry or by plane. We opted for the ferry from Rach Gia and it was a quick, easy trip. If you take a look on a map, Phu Quoc actually looks like it should belong to Cambodia since it sits under that country, instead of Vietnam.
Phu Quoc is much more touristic than other islands in Vietnam but it’s for good reason. The island is really quite beautiful, with clear blue water and white sand. It’s a great place to hop on a boat and do some snorkeling or enjoy one of the many hotels and use this spot of your holiday for some R&R.
Taxis here are expensive so either be strategic on where in the island you’d like to stay or again, hop on a bike to explore wherever you’d like. Keep in mind, most of the northern part of the island is a national park, so staying there won’t be an option.
15. Con Dao Island
Last but certainly not least on my list of best places to visit in Vietnam is Con Dao. Con Dao is actually an archipelago of islands off the southeastern coast of Vietnam. Like Phu Quoc, you can reach it by flight or by ferry, although this ferry ride is much longer.
Con Dao its primarily national park and since it’s harder to get to, is much more off the beaten path than Phu Quoc is. It’s also said to be the best scuba diving in the country. These islands might take the cake for most beautiful beaches in Vietnam so if that’s what you’re chasing, this is it.
These islands have an interesting past since they used to be home to a prison built by the French during colonization. For a while the island was considered cursed but over time that stigma has lessened.
There you have it, 15 incredible places from north to south to visit during your time in Vietnam. If you visit any of the places be sure to tag @a_wayabroad or use #awayabroad to share with us your adventures!