Vietnam was one of those countries that I didn’t know too much about going into it. Upon my arrival in Hanoi, I still really had no idea what there was to do. As much as I stubbornly refuse to read travel guides, I’ll admit that it would have been helpful to have somewhat of a grasp on such a chaotic country. I was winging it for the entirety of my trip, as was evident by the unconventional route I ended up taking that probably left me on cramped sleeper buses twice as long as I needed to be.
Despite the ups and downs and endless night buses, Vietnam ended up being one of my favorite countries. With its lush nature, rich culture, friendly people, and amazing food, there is little more you could want from Vietnam. The scenery is incredibly diverse, too. You’ve got beaches, mountains, complex cave systems, and the list goes on.. It is hard to believe that many of these are even in the same country. Here are 18 travel destinations that you can’t miss in Vietnam.
I settled on the number 18 because originally I had 20 and then I got too lazy to write stuff for the other two places. Anywho…
Sa Pa Rice Terraces
The rice terraces in Sa Pa go on seemingly endlessly. The lush valleys and mountains with rivers running through it are among the most stunning landscapes I have seen anywhere in the world. The rich culture and indigenous inhabitants in Sa Pa just add to the beauty of the place. The locals are friendly and sweet, and those pestering but cute little kids make it hard not to walk away with all of the souvenirs they offer you. No matter how strong your will is, you will definitely be convinced that you need at least ten different colorful woven souvenirs.
Thiên Đường, Phong Nha (Paradise Cave)
The central part of Vietnam is just as beautiful as the rest of the country. Phong Nha used to simply be a stopping point for travelers trying to get from one side of the country to the other. Ravaged by war not too long ago, it’s hard to imagine that the vast forests of the area were once barren not too long ago. The more Phong Nha gets explored, the more people realize it has a lot to offer. From the recently discovered world’s largest cave to the endless expanses of Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, Phong Nha is the perfect place for adventurers to explore.
Cu Chi Tunnels
This massive tunnel complex beneath Ho Chi Minh City played a huge role in the Vietnam War. They served as supply routes, communication lines, military bases, and hideouts for the Viet Cong soldiers. Nowadays, the 75+ miles of tunnels in the Cu Chi District of Saigon cater mostly to tourists. It’s worth checking them out just to get a glimpse of the remnants of the war that devastated the country. You can still see some of the booby traps throughout the tunnel and even shoot some guns at the shooting range.
War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City
It took about three minutes of walking around this place before someone started peeling onions. This museum was one of the most somber, heartbreaking, and eye-opening places I have ever been. After taking pictures with all of the badass military vehicles and bombs outside, I felt ashamed once I started reading the stories of the Vietnam War (or War of American Aggression as it’s known in Vietnam). This is something you absolutely can not miss. This was one of the few places that made me feel legitimately sick to my stomach. The atrocities described in stories and pictures are beyond what I could describe here.
Often affectionately known as Ha Long Bay on land, Ninh Binh is another of Vietnam’s natural wonders. Ninh Binh is as scenic as it gets. It is also not yet as touristy as other jaw-dropping areas of Vietnam, meaning you can still get a very local experience. Stay at a homestay, take a river tour of the countryside, and gape at the natural scenery to your heart’s content.
The Old Town of Hoi An
A popular backpacker’s destination, Hoi An combines a lot of what makes a destination great. Nice beaches, exciting nightlife, and a lot of markets. Hoi An has a lot to offer. The Old Town of Hoi An is draped in yellow and filled with strings of lanterns. The lanterns of Hoi An are an iconic sight.
The Abandoned Water Park in Hue
Now here’s something that you probably weren’t expecting to be on the list. There’s something intriguing yet eerie about exploring abandoned places. Walking through the desolate park and climbing through the water slides and amusement park rides is definitely a weird experience, but one that is definitely worth doing while you’re here.
Ha Long Bay
What would this list be without one of Vietnam’s biggest claims to fame? Ha Long Bay, named one of the seven natural wonders of the world, is so beautiful it is almost hard to believe. Ha Long Bay lives up to the hype. You’re probably going here anyway so I won’t dwell on this one.
Ha Giang Motorcycle Route
Tucked away in the very northern part of Vietnam, Ha Giang’s most popular activity is perfect for thrillseekers. The motorcycle loop takes you through some of the world’s most majestic landscapes. It takes several days to complete but by the time you’re done, you’ll wish it took longer. I highly recommend staying at a homestay and trying to outdrink your local hosts. Just don’t be too hungover the following morning or the challenging motorcycle route becomes significantly tougher to deal with.
Arriving in Da Lat was quite the relief. Why? Unlike the rest of Vietnam, Da Lat’s temperatures are a lot cooler. After sweating my way through most of Vietnam, Da Lat was definitely a welcome change. Tucked away in the lush green mountains, Da Lat was intended by French colonizers to become their next Paris. The diversity of the city is what makes it one you can’t miss. The coolest bar I’ve ever been to also happens to be in Da Lat. Crazy Bar (and the popular tourist attraction Crazy House) is a winding maze to navigate but is hands-down one of the most intricate and unique bars ever.
The massive Mekong River comes to its majestic end at the Mekong Delta. The landscapes here are gorgeous, with rice paddies, water buffalo, and local culture in full display. It’s a unique way of life here and definitely not a bad place to immerse yourself in the culture and beauty of Vietnam. Despite the river being brown, the endless forests and mangroves are among the greenest landscapes you will see in your life.
Imperial City of Hue
Although considered a part of South East Asia, I did notice that Vietnam was lacking a unique and prevalent style of architecture. You had all of the Buddhist Wats in grandiose temples all over Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Vietnam had none of that and up until I saw the Imperial City, I didn’t think their architecture was anything to gawk at. However, the Imperial City and the other pagodas in the area are as impressive as anything you’ll find in this region of the world.
It takes you back in time to when Hue was the seat of an empire. Imagining the dynasties and history that took place here is one of those experiences that reminds you of your tiny place in this world and history.
The Marble Mountains
If you’re up for a sweaty adventure, hiking up the Marble Mountains is the one for you. It gives you a killer view of the area. The temples and pagodas nestled in these beautiful mountains are pretty damn dope too. There’s a lot of caves to explore within these mountains as well. This is a good activity if you’ve got a couple of hours to spare, or if you want to take a break along the lengthy Hai Van Pass.
Hai Van Pass
For the brave, this is a famous motorcycle route that you can take. The views are stunning, taking you from Hue to Hoi An. It is definitely not one for the faint of heart, though. Vietnam is notorious for its motorcycle traffic, with motorbikes outnumbering its actual human population. The journey also takes around six hours, but those six hours are made easier with views of the ocean, mountains, and of course, essential pit stops for pho and banh mis.
Phu Quoc Beach
This picture should tell you all you need to know about Phu Quoc’s stunning scenery.
Mui Ne Sand Dunes
Another example of Vietnam’s varied ecosystems, the Mui Ne Sand Dunes are like a bonus to everything you have seen thus far. You’ve seen stunning beaches and lush valleys, limestone mountains and rice terraces, underground caves and beautiful architecture, so why not just throw a desert into the mix, right? Some people will argue that Mui Ne is not worth visiting but if you’re in the area, I’d say it’s worth the stop.
Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison)
Don’t let its name deceive you. The Hanoi Hilton is far from a five-star hotel. This was the nickname for Hoa Lo Prison, which housed countless prisoners of war and political prisons for a large part of Vietnam’s history. It was used by the French colonists and then later, by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. It is notable for being the prison where John McCain was kept. This is another one of those places that doesn’t seem like much from the outside, but upon hearing the stories and walking where countless atrocities have occurred, it becomes eye-opening. My friend who I went with, a soldier in the German army, asked to leave before we could even finish walking through the prison because it made him feel so uneasy and shaken.
Cat Ba Island
The biggest island in the Southeastern region of Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island is home to a stunning national park and some beautiful viewpoints of the bay. You can go for a scenic bike ride throughout the untouched countryside, go on a hike to catch some sick views of the Bay, and explore some cool nature throughout the national park.
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