I lived in Hanoi for almost 3 years. It wasn’t a long time, but long enough, I think, to understand and fall in love with this city. For many, Hanoi can be a pulsating and bustling city on the first impression. However, there are corners that just ooze with simple beauty and natural elegance.
The modern pace of life entwining with the traditional, archaic features creates the charm of the thousand year old capital.
For me, Hanoi is prettiest in autumn, which is around late August till November. At this time you can avoid the scorching summer heat and the bitter cold of Northern Vietnam’s winter.
Most of the main attractions are near to each other and reachable by foot if you choose to stay at the heart of the city the Old Quarter. Other options to get around include local buses (Around 30 cents per ticket), taxi and Xe Om (Motorbike taxi). If you are brave enough, rent a motorbike and explore the city at your own pace. As much shameful as I feel, I must state the fact that traffic in Vietnam is notorious for its insanity and lawlessness!
There are many things to see in Hanoi so I would recommend spending 3 days to explore its fascinating center and get a sense of the city. Try one of Hanoi specialties “Ca Phe Trung” (egg coffee), wander around the beautiful shady canopy roads of Phan Dinh Phung, Hoang Dieu, visit Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum; see a Vietnamese water puppet show, admire the magnificent French colonial architectures including the famous Opera House and St. Joseph’s Cathedral, visit the temples, the harrowing Hoa Lo prison, spend time people watching by Hoan Kiem Lake, enjoy a beautiful sunset by West Lake, stroll around the Old Quarter. The list could go on and on but there’s one thing you definitely shouldn’t miss a “Bia Hoi” at the busy beer corner Ta Hien. It can be as surprisingly cheap as 30 cents USD per glass.
And let’s not even start talking about the food. Make sure you don’t miss out famous Hanoian dishes such as the internationally famous Pho, Bun cha (Vietnamese grilled pork with vermicelli), Cha ca La Vong (grilled fish with turmeric and dill) and so on.
- The Old Quarter can be a challenging maze especially for those whose sense of direction as poor as mine. It’s best to use either a paper map or google map to navigate yourself.
- Bargain, bargain and bargain! That’s the best advice I could give if you plan to take a motorbike taxi or do shopping in any local shops and market.
Sapa is a mountainous town located in Lao Cai – a North Western province of Vietnam. The town is home to a great diversity of ethnic minority groups, usually distinguishable by their distinct colorful tribal garments. Sapa is also one of a few spots that has snow in the winter. Being a tropical country, it is understandable why Sapa still receives lots of domestic tourists even during the coldest months of the year (December till February).
The town is an overnight train/ sleeper bus ride from Hanoi and is a perfect getaway from the crazy, hectic capital. The most ideal times to visit Sapa are around March – May and September – November. Most travellers come here for a tranquil mountain escape and hike the picturesque rice terraces. If you happen to be here in May, you’ll be able to see the interesting scenes of farmers planting their new crops. This is also the blooming season of many kinds of flowers, a great time for photography lovers. End of September is the rice harvesting season, when you’ll find Sapa being coated in a splendid golden yellow of the ripe rice terraces.
I would highly recommend spending 3 days and staying at homestays in the villages over staying in the town. Phơri’s House is my favourite, which has such a cozy setting, offers amazing view and never fails to make me feel like home every stay. In my opinion, it is best to explore the top attractions and get the best mountain views if you do it on a motorbike, which can be easily rented. Highlights include Cat Cat, Ta Phin, Ta Van, Sin Chai villages, Love and Thac Bac waterfalls, Muong Hoa valley.
One of the top activities you might consider doing while in Sapa is to hike the “Roof of Indochina” – Fansipan Mountain (3143 meter). I had the opportunity to do this in 2013 and it was a great experience. However, this is something I do not recommend. The summit is now flooded with suitcase tourists as a result of a newly opened cable car in early 2016. This has pretty much devalued the experience of hiking. Sapa is great, but when it comes to trekking, there are much more desirable options in the region.
- Avoid going during Vietnamese public holidays. The town is a popular destination for local tourists and prices will inevitably rocket.
- If you decide to rent a motorbike, be extra careful, the foggy and winding roads are no joke!
- Don’t forget to pack insect repellent! Malarial mosquitoes can be a major threat during some times of the year.
3. Ha Giang
Ha Giang is a Northeastern province bordering China, known as one of the most remote regions in Vietnam. This is one of the few places on earth that I would never get tired of visiting. The majestic beauty of the limestone forest has forever captured my heart. Ha Giang is still relatively untouched by mass tourism. However, in recent years, due to the development in infrastructure and services, its popularity is definitely growing.
There is no direct railway from Hanoi to Ha Giang. Only two transport options are available: either by an overnight sleeper bus or a 7 – 8 hour motorbike ride. I have done both and would absolutely recommend taking a bus. Once in Ha Giang city, you can rent a motorbike and start your adventure.
There are two main routes to be explored: Northern and Western Ha Giang. Most travellers choose the Northern route. It covers the iconic Quan Ba Twin Mountains, the stunning Dong Van limestone plateau, Dong Van Old Quarter, the magnificent Ma Pi Leng Pass and finally takes you to the Northernmost point of Vietnam – Lung Cu Flag Tower. If you have more time and are adventurous enough, continue onto Cao Bang, Bac Kan province and complete the Northeast Loop. The Western route of Ha Giang is remote, much less frequented by travellers but not any less beautiful. It boasts breathtaking winding roads and is extremely famous for the spectacular views of rice terraces in Hoang Su Phi during May and September. You can continue to Lao Cai province and expand the trip further to do a Northwest loop.
Ha Giang is not only known for its natural beauty but also for the authentic, well-preserved cultures of various ethnic minority groups. If you get a chance, try immersing yourself in a local market. Best days to visit are Saturday or Sunday. This is a great opportunity too see people of different ethnic backgrounds gathering with a great display of local produces.
- When renting a bike, check the brakes, pay attention to fuel level. Make sure you refill in time to avoid running out of gas in the middle of nowhere.
- Beware of the extreme winding roads. These are not for the faint-hearted.
- Pack warm clothes.
4. Ha Long Bay
Recognized as a world heritage by UNESCO, considered one of the new Seven Natural Wonders of the world, it is no surprise Ha Long Bay is such a popular tourist hotspot. The bay is famous for its scenic limestone cliffs towering out of emerald waters. Located in Northern Vietnam where the weather has 4 distinct seasons, for me the best time to visit Ha Long is from August to October. This is when it is transitioning from summer to fall. Most days are clear, sunny and you will get the most amazing view. April – May is also a good time but can be a bit too hot. Meanwhile, there are likely to be storms in June – July.
You can find plenty of options for boat tours while in Hanoi which normally include breakfasts, kayaking and accommodation on the boat. Ha Long can also be easily approached by motorbike, train or bus as it is only 170km from Hanoi. While boating on the bay, visiting caves, islands is a must, I would strongly recommend climbing up Bai Tho Mountain in the heart of Ha Long city. From here you can admire a panoramic view of the city and the magical bay.
2 days is enough for Ha Long but if you wish to fulfill your bay experience, catch a ferry from Tuan Chau island and visit Cat Ba island, spend 2-3 more days here. The island is located in Cat Ba National Park so there is a range of activities for you to do here from island hopping to rock climbing or hiking in the Park.
If you are into water park activities, there is the newly opened Dragon Park which I haven’t had a chance to visit yet but looks pretty exciting.
- When eating in restaurants, make sure you check the prices in menus and make it clear with the restaurants first. Halong is notorious for tourist scams.
- My best advice is to limit shopping while on the bay. Things are ridiculously expensive.
- Absolutely avoid public holidays. It will be flooded with local tourists and chances are high that you’ll get ripped off for everything.
5. Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is labelled as Ha Long Bay on land and only two hours away from the capital city. Located on the North South backbone Highway, it is easily assessable by bus, train or motorbike and very affordable to travel. Back in May 2013 I did a 2 day 1 night motorbike trip and it costed me only USD 40.
Best time to visit is February till early June. Especially early June when the rice is ready to be harvested. You will be carried away by the beauty of the imposing limestone mountains dotted on a background of golden rice paddy fields.
Major attractions include Trang An Grottoes and the complex of pagodas & caves of Tam Coc Bich Dong. Another highlight is the 120 year old Phat Diem Cathedral. A little bit off the beaten track but will definitely worth the detour. This isn’t your average Catholic Cathedral and can be called a chur-goda instead due to the harmonial blend between a Gothic European style church and a traditional Vietnamese pagoda.
2 to 3 days is enough if you want to see the main attractions but there are more to explore. An interesting suggestion for those nature lovers is to do bird watching in Thung Nham bird sanctuary or visit more wildlife in Cuc Phuong National Park. And if you are an anti crowd kind of person just like me, don’t skip the underrated Van Long Nature Reserve. You will surely fall in love with this peaceful and mesmerizing “bay without waves”. If lucky enough you might come across the much endangered Langurs in this area.
My two favorite places to stay in Ninh Binh is Chezbeo Valley Bungalows, which will be a perfect stay during blooming lotus season (late May to July) and Nguyen Shack homestay.
- If you are a fan of the latest Kong movie, which I highly doubt, or just curious about the scenes shot in Ninh Binh, you can find the movie setting here at one of the two tour options for Trang An.
- If you go to Van Long Nature Reserve on a beautiful day. Try going a bit late in the afternoon to watch sunset. It’s purely tranquil and magical.
- Thung Nang is where you can get the best view of the paddy fields. You can either choose to do a boat tour or ride around to enjoy the nature.
- To get a panoramic view of the landscape, climb up Ngoa Long mountain in Mua Cave. The Cave itself is not that exciting but it’s the view from top of the mountain that worth the climb.
- Insect repellent is essential
6. Quang Binh
Located in the central strip of Vietnam, Quang Binh is the narrowest part of the country with a distance of only 50 km from East to West. From either Hanoi or Saigon you can get to Quang Binh by flight or train or bus. You can easily book the all inclusive tours from Hanoi, Hue or Da Nang. Quang Binh has dry and rainy seasons. Located in the storm prone region where an average of 10 storms can hit annually especially towards the end of the year, the best time to visit is during summer April and August.
The many impressive cave systems in Quang Binh is truly a generous gift from Mother Nature.
The most tourist trodden caves include Phong Nha Ke Bang and Thien Duong (Paradise) Cave. Both are considered must see attractions and can be visited on a one day tour. There are others which require more time, physical stamina, caving techniques (and budget!) to explore such as Tu Lan Cave and the world’s largest cave Son Doong (which costs $3000 for a 4 nights 3 days tour). As much as I would love to have the experience, I have unfortunately not able to afford that much.
One great place to spend a few hours is definitely the Dark Cave Chay river. There are lots of fun interesting activities to do here such as zip lining, kayaking, canoeing, swimming into the cave, mud bathing. Another ideal destination to get away from the heat brought by Foehn wind from Laos is Mooc Spring where you can enjoy swimming in emerald water.
From Dong Hoi city, you will pass by the main attractions in this order Phong Nha Cave, Dark Cave, Mooc Spring and Thien Duong Cave. It’s best to explore all if you rent a motorbike. 2 to 3 days is good enough for this trip.
If you are staying in Dong Hoi city, I recommend Nam Long Hotel. In case you opt for a homestay off the main town for a change, Nguyen Shack is my number one choice.
- Domestic flights from Hanoi or Saigon to Dong Hoi can be dirt cheap during airline promotion. But of course it has to be booked long in advance. I once got a one way ticket Hanoi to Dong Hoi at USD 11 with Vietjet Air.
- Although summer is the most ideal time to visit Quang Binh. It can be blazing hot. And the heat in Central Vietnam cannot be underestimated.
- If you are weighing between Phong Nha Ke Bang and Paradise Cave, I recommend the latter. It is located further but much more interesting and beautiful in my opinion.
You will be surprised to find out central Vietnam has a very similar city to the Forbidden City in China. Once the Imperial capital of Nguyen Dynasty the longest Dynasty reign in Vietnam history, Hue is famed for the incredible Imperial City, Royal Palaces, Ancient Kings’ Tombs and many interesting Temples and Pagodas.
Spring time which is from February to April is the best time to visit Hue in my opinion. September to November is also a good time but there can be rainy days. Mind you that the city can be depressing during rainy season. I would not recommend summer as the heat and humidity can be unbearable.
The top sight to visit is of course the Imperial Citadel. This is a complex of palaces and residences where the royal life took place. Unfortunately many buildings were either damaged or destroyed during both the French and American war. There have been lots of renovation work going on within recent years.
Then you can’t miss a visit to Thien Mu Pagoda. Overlooking the poetic Huong River, the towering 7 storey pagoda is a very religious site for local Buddhists and another trademark of the city. Another popular activity to do while in Hue is to visit the Kings’ Tombs. Some with impressive architecture include Tu Duc King’s or Khai Dinh’s King.
Visiting a local market is an typical authentic Vietnamese experience and Dong Ba market in Hue is a great option. You will find a fascinating selection of local produce, souvenirs and street foods here.
It will be a miss if you are in Hue and not trying the food here. Hue is very famous for its unique and diverse cuisine such as rice or noodle with baby clams, Bun Bo Hue (Spicy Beef Noodle Soup), Bun Thit Nuong (Noodle with grilled pork) etc. If you have a sweet tooth, don’t forget to try “Che” Vietnamese sweet desserts which you can find in various tastes and flavors.
A visit to the main attractions only would only take 1 to 2 days. In case you prefer to spend longer time, rent a bike and drive towards the scenic Lang Co Bay. The beaches in this area are very beautiful and much less spoiled compared to other regions in Vietnam. Regarding accommodations, hotels in Hue are cheap and there are lots of choices. I used to stay in Deja Vu Homestay and strongly recommend it.
- If you don’t have a strong stomach, watch out when eating street food in local vendors markets.
- Hue is a very vegetarian friendly city where you can find many great options. Lien Hoa restaurant is my favorite.
- Bargain hard if you want to buy anything from Dong Ba market. Be prepared the shop keepers can be very pushy and will not waste any chance to rip you off!
8. Da Nang
This beautiful port city has been growing so fast and become one of the biggest tourist hubs in Vietnam within recent years. I mean, how can you resist a city that has everything evergreen mountains, amazing beaches, peninsular and romantic bridges. That is not to mention an affordable exciting lifestyle, delicious cuisine and one of the finest people in the country in my opinion. I had the opportunity to live and work in this amazing coastal city for 2 years and loved every moment of it.
Da Nang is not only a gateway to central Vietnam from where you can easily access Hoi An, My Son, Hue or Quang Binh. There are so many things to do in this city that I can recommend spending at least 2 to 3 days here.
Visit the Marble Mountains a complex of mountains, temples, caves only 7 km to the South of the city, drive up the hilltop of Son Tra Peninsular and visit Linh Ung Pagoda, hike the Ban Co peak to get the panoramic view of the city, enjoy the glorious view along the longest and highest cable car ride in the world to Ba Na Hill, swim or take a long stroll along the amazing beaches. If you are a history buff, a visit to Champa sculpture museum is well worth it.
Da Nang is famous for its many bridges spanning over Han River Han bridge first swing bridge in Vietnam, Dragon bridge watch the dragon breath fire and water every weekend at 9pm. Thuan Phuoc bridge longest suspension bridge in the country.
One place that you can’t possibly miss is Hai Van Pass. This natural border between Hue and Da Nang can be best visited on a motorbike. Once on the pass, you will be taken away by the breathtaking ocean view. Being a coastal city, Da Nang no doubt has an abundance of seafood. On top of that, don’t miss out the local food, which you can check out in this video.
- Go to the beach early in the morning you can see interesting scene of fishermen casting their nests.
9. Hoi An
Once a major trading port during the 15th to 19th century in South East Asia, Hoi An hasn’t lost any of its charm of an ancient town. Nowadays, Hoi An has become so popular that it filled with tourists flocking from everywhere all year round. Apart from the emblematic attraction of Japanese Covered bridge, Hoi An is also famous for handmade lanterns which light up the town at night. You will find it even more sparkling during full moon nights.
Hoi An is a prime example of a well preserved heritage site. You will be amazed by the unique architecture of hundred year old houses and temples that stand the test of time. On sunny days, the yellow buildings create such a bright contrast against the clear blue sky. Being such a picturesque town, it is no wonder Hoi An is chosen as a favourite spot for wedding photos by many Vietnamese couples.
I never get tired of wandering the narrow lanes at any time of the day or strolling along the river watching life happening all around. If you can, try waking up in really early morning, you will see Hoi An with a different eye. No longer buzzing with activities, the town is now appealingly peaceful with local leisurely sipping their morning coffee, women on their bicycles to the market.
When it comes to food, don’t forget the world’s best ‘Banh Mi’ (Vietnamese sandwich) at Banh Mi Phuong (although I believe any other Banh mi stall here is equally great), Cao Lau (Unique Hoi An dish), Com Ga (Chicken Rice) and various choices of street food. Yes I am drooling while typing these.
The best time to go to Hoi An is from February till April when the weather is moderate. May to July is also good if you don’t mind the heat and looking for beach days. An Bang, Cua Dai, Ha My, Binh Minh are the most beautiful beaches only a short ride from Hoi An. Cham Island is a day tour from the old town, where you can dive and snorkel in the clear water.
In recent years, Hoi An has also been strongly promoting eco tourism such as farming, fishing tours. My top recommendations if you want to take a break from the old town for a change is to visit the Bay Mau Coconut Forest, known as the mini South West of Vietnam. Or you can experience Vietnamese farmers’ life by booking a tour to visit the rural countryside and plough the rice fields on a water buffalo.
- My favorite place for a tea break is Reaching Out Tea a tranquil rest, delicious tea & snacks and at the same time you will be contributing to a good cause.
- Hoi An is a mecca for tailored clothes and custom designed shoes. Some shops can provide express service as fast as 24 hour.
10. Nha Trang
Located in the South Central Coast, Nha Trang is a top destination for beach fun in Vietnam. The city is best to visit from July till early September when the temperature is mild with less chance of storms. Nha Trang is very accessible by affordable flights from either Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi. Other modes of transport include train or bus.
Being a popular touristy city, Nha Trang has a lot of to offer. Religious influences by different groups of cultures can be seen in Long Son Pagoda or the unique Po Nagar Cham Towers. Typical water activities include island hopping tours or a variety of water sports such as snorkeling, scuba diving, jet skiing, parasailing, windsurfing. More water fun can be found by visiting Vinpearl Land Amusement Park. Most of the beaches in town are great but commercial and packed with tourists (mostly Russian and Chinese). Only an hour drive from the city centre you will reach magnificent Ninh Van Bay which boats pristine water and stunning landscape.
If you are into a muddy bath, visit Thac Ba hot springs on the outskirts of the city.
There are a variety of choices for accommodation from budget hostels till world class resorts. If you are looking for a budget place not too far from the beach and away from the touristy centre, I would recommend Little Home Hostel
- Fancy a visit to Ninh Van Bay but not a big fan of driving? The Bay is accessible by only a 20 minute express boat.
- Nha Trang’s top must try specialty is fish noodle soup, which is widely available in town.
11. Phan Thiet
Mui Ne is a coastal fishing town 12 km away from Phan Thiet capital of Binh Thuan Province. This beach haven is only a four-hour train or bus ride from HCMC, that explains the reason it is fairly crowded at weekends and fully packed during national holidays.
Apart from amazing, windy beaches which are great for kite surfing, the most famous attraction in Mui Ne must be its gorgeous natural sand dunes. While the Red sand is located in the centre of town, the White sand dune is 30km further North along the coast and more impressive. Amidst the sand hills located a calming oasis of lotus flowers. I remember watching a glorious sunset last time I was there. Activities you can do at the sand dunes include sand boarding, jeeping or quad biking. You can get to these sand dunes by jeep tours, taxi or motorbikes.
Another interesting site I would recommend seeing is the Van Thuy Tu Temple, a whale worship temple and museum largest of its kind in Vietnam and South East Asia. Fishing is one of the main source of income for the local here so this temple holds special religious meaning to them.
Being in a beach city and suddenly missing the mountains? No worries! Just an hour drive from Mui Ne you can enjoy the amazing nature in Ta Cu mountain, take a cable car ride and visit the largest reclining Buddha statue in Vietnam.
- If you are riding a motorbike to the White Sand Dune, you will most likely encounter a police check point on the way. They will try to stop you and pester for a bribe before letting you go. My best advice is to either “play blind” (keep driving through) or “play dumb” (pretend you don’t know their language)!
12. Da Lat
City of Love, City of Fog, the most romantic city in Vietnam or Thousand Flower City. Those are among nicknames given by locals which reflect the true nature of Da Lat city. Da Lat is a 7 hour bus ride from Saigon. Flights are available from both Hanoi and Saigon. Motorbike trips from Saigon is also a popular choice of the youth.
Lying at an elevation of 1500 m in Central Highland Vietnam, Dat Lat is bestowed with not only a refreshingly cool and equable climate throughout the year but also astounding natural beauty. With valleys, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, Da Lat has all it takes to be a perfect retreat location.
The city features many beautiful, unique landmarks. Much of the influence under the French Colonialism is evident through buildings such as the Cock Church, the Pedagogical College of Da Lat, Da Lat Railway Station or the French Quarter.
In Da Lat you will be able to experience 4 seasons within a day. Wake up to a tranquil morning, start your day with a cup of Central Highland coffee, stroll along Xuan Huong Lake in the heart of the city to feel the peaceful pace of life here. In order to fully explore this charming city and its surroundings, you can rent a bicycle (Beware that the roads are hilly) or motorbike. The ride through silent pine forests under deep blue sky, along twisting roads through lush green mountain passes will give you a wonderful experience. My favourite spots include Tuyen Lam Lake, Truc Lam Monastery, Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Cau Dat tea plantation and the many spectacular waterfalls.
Possessing a pleasant climate and fertile soil, Da Lat is famous for a wide variety of agricultural produces and being a main distribution hub all across the country. Be sure to drop by the market and check out the local specialties.
I have been to Da Lat at different times of the year and find it attractive all year round although some might advise against going during rainy season (Mid April till October). I would recommend spending at least 3 days here. And if you are looking for an authentic homestay experience, look no further than A Little House.
- A cable car ride from Robin Hill will offer you a great view of the entire city.
- One of the popular snack foods in Da Lat is grilled pork skewers, one of the best in town is at Ba Hung restaurant 254 Phan Dinh Phung street.
13. Ho Chi Minh City
When I first arrived in HCMC as an 18 year old girl leaving home for college, I wasn’t immediately smitten. It took me some time to get used to the frantic pace of life here before slowly exploring the calming beauty amid the chaos. HCMC, formerly known as Saigon, capital of Southern Vietnam during United State of America and Vietnam war, is the biggest city in Vietnam nowadays. This bustling and exciting city has a unique blend of traditional and modern values.
With two distinct seasons dry and monsoon season, the best time to visit Saigon is when it’s dry, December to April. Spending 2 to 3 days here is enough for you to experience the youthful energy of the city. Spend time wandering the historic heart of the city where you can find plenty of French inspired buildings Opera House, City Hall, Saigon Notre Dame Basilica, Central Post Office. To get a glimpse of the history of United State of America and Vietnam war, visit the Reunification Palace, the harrowing War remnant museum or do a day trip to Cu Chi Tunnels.
In contrast to the historical sites, Saigon has a different face of a modern metropolis with state of the art skyscrapers, luxurious shopping malls and a vibrant nightlife. Restaurants in Saigon offer you a wide variety of cuisines but of course Vietnamese food comes as my top recommendation. There are also lots of options for cheap local eateries around Ben Thanh market or the backpacker area in District 1.
- Cheapest way to get from airport to downtown is by Bus No.152. They pass right through the backpacker area so very convenient.
- Be extra careful with your personal belongings, crime ranging from petty to violent is a hot issue in the city.
- Saigon is divided into 24 districts, while the main touristy districts include district 1 and 3. Expats live mostly in district 2 and 7.