First Time Vietnam: 9 Things You Cannot Miss
Featured destinations: Vietnam, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hue, Mekong Delta
Published 22 June 2016
Planning your first trip to Vietnam and not sure where to go? Fear not! We’ve collated nine of our favourite Vietnam must-sees to help you plan your ideal Journey.
Vietnam’s long, thin shape means that itineraries here practically design themselves. You can choose to fly into Hanoi in the north and travel south to Ho Chi Minh City, stopping off at various towns, beaches and attractions along the way, or vice versa. Of course then there’s the option of adding a side trip to Cambodia or Thailand…
Hoan Kim Lake, Hanoi
Elegant Hanoi’s leafy boulevards are alive with the energy and buzz of the people – motorbikes horde, street hawkers sell their wares and the scent of freshly-cooked noodles wafts through the air. To find peace among the chaos, just head to Hoan Kiem Lake, a serene spot in the heart of the city with a pretty temple at its centre, the location for dawn tai chi sessions.
Water puppet show
First performed in the 11th century, water puppetry originated in the flooded rice fields of northern Vietnam. Colourful, lacquered wooden puppets are operated by hidden puppeteers in a waist-deep pool, so that the characters appear to float on the water. Shows usually tell the story of life in rural Vietnam, and are accompanied by live music and traditional songs. A convenient place to catch a performance is at Hanoi’s Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.
The hills around the former French hill station at Sapa are home to a number of ethnic minority groups, each with their own customs and traditions. Set off on a trek to a nearby village or wander around the local market to see their handicrafts and colourful costumes, and to meet some of the hill tribe members themselves, usually in their traditional dress.
Halong Bay, whose name means ‘Bay of Descending Dragons’, is one of the world’s most beautiful natural wonders. By far the best way to explore is on a traditional junk boat; an overnight cruise is best to experience it in all its glory. Sail through the gently lapping waters and admire the picturesque karst peaks and craggy ocean rocks that rise skywards from the emerald waters. Explore the many grottoes, either by kayak or by boat, watch the fishermen go about their daily business and perhaps cool off with a refreshing dip.
Evocative Hue’s crumbling citadel walls encompass a treasure trove of sights, as this UNESCO-listed town is home to an astonishing collection of dynastic palaces and pagodas dotted along the winding Perfume River. Imagine this town restored to its past glory as you explore the exquisite tombs of former Emperors, discover the commanding Imperial City, and soak up the splendour of the Forbidden Purple City.
Immerse yourself in a bygone era and admire the splendid architecture in Hoi An, a graceful old-world trading port with cobbled streets, traditional homes and tiny shop houses. A World Heritage site, whose name translates to ‘peaceful meeting place’, it is just that – a tranquil riverside town filled with boutique restaurants, hip waterfront cafés, delightful craft shops and some of Asia's best bespoke tailors.
The unapologetic beach capital of Vietnam, Nha Trang has attracted local holidaymakers for years, and now international travellers are getting in on the action. Lined with palm trees, pristine Nha Trang Bay offers world-class snorkelling and diving. But this young and lively tourist city is more than just turquoise water and white sand. Venture inland to discover a buzzing urban landscape of quality shopping, excellent eateries and vibrant nightlife.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a complex warren of passageways and chambers, criss-crossing confusingly underneath the Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City. The tunnels were used as a base by the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive of 1968, and by locals as protection from bombing raids. What surprises visitors is just how narrow and claustrophobic the tunnels are – when you crawl through one, remember that they have been widened for tourists and the originals would have been even smaller.
Ho Chi Minh City is also a good base for forays into the Mekong Delta, a lush system of waterways surrounded by rice fields, palm trees and orchards. Your best entry point is Can Tho, four hours’ drive from the city, from where you can board a boat and cruise the tranquil waters, watching daily life on the river go by. Many tours stop off at local coconut businesses where you can see how the oils, fibre and flesh are separated. If you don’t wish to return to Ho Chi Minh City, it’s possible to continue up the Mekong to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.
If you’re inspired to visit Vietnam, check out our Vietnam Journeys, which include a trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh and, if you’ve got more time, an epic adventure through Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos: Indochina Explorer.