Last year, I spent a month backpacking solo through Vietnam and had an amazing time! There is so much to see and do, but the 30 day maximum visa makes it difficult to do absolutely everything. So, here is my list of the must see/do things in Vietnam for your upcoming trip!
Enjoy some street food in Vietnam
Eating is one of my all-time favorite activities, and SE Asia is like heaven when it comes to food! I’d heard great things about the food in Vietnam, and I wasn’t disappointed. One thing I really miss about the UK is bread, so I was excited to try a Banh Mi. It’s a baguette filled with pork, coriander, vegetables and chili sauce. They are incredible and only cost a few dollars! Another well-known Vietnamese dish is Pho, which is a broth with noodles, herbs and beef. I loved enjoying a bowl sitting on a little stool curbside watching the world go by. My absolute favorite dish has to be Bun Cha, which is a specialty in Hanoi. It’s fried pork with noodles in a fragrant broth, and it comes with deep fried spring rolls and a sweet chili sauce on the side. It’s so good that even Obama tried it in Hanoi last year!
Bun Cha for lunch in Hanoi
Hang out at Bia Hoi Corner
I’ve never experienced something quite like Bia Hoi Corner in Hanoi. It’s made up of about four bars, all selling fresh beer for peanuts, and it can get a bit crazy! This is partly because the bars are around a busy intersection, so there are motorcycles flying everywhere, and it’s jam-packed with hundreds of tourists and locals. I really loved the atmosphere and it’s a great (and cheap) way to enjoy the local nightlife culture.
Experience rural Vietnam in Mai Chau
When visiting the North, most people choose to go to Sapa for trekking, as the views are supposed to be epic. It’s quite the drive though to get there, and I was running out of time, so I chose to go to Mai Chau instead. It has similar countryside, with paddy fields and tiny rural villages, but none of the crowds or hassle from people trying to sell you souvenirs (which I heard is quite a problem in Sapa). I spent three days in Mai Chau, cycling and motorcycling around the countryside, and it was idyllic. It was so peaceful and beautiful, and the homestay (very easy to arrange) made a great change to my usual hostel accommodation. It was great to hang out with a Vietnamese family and enjoy the sounds of the countryside. If you want to enjoy some cycling, relaxation and excellent scenery then Mai Chau is for you.
Cycling in beautiful Mai Chau
Cruise Halong Bay
For most tourists, Halong Bay is the main reason to visit Northern Vietnam. It was designated a World Heritage site in 1994, and it’s not hard to see why. Everywhere you look, gigantic limestone karsts jut out of the emerald waters of the lagoon. It felt like I was in Jurassic Park or some other fantasy land! The best way to visit and beat the crowds is to stay on Cat Ba Island and organize a cruise around the karsts. It’s definitely a case of ‘you get what you pay for’, so if you can afford to splash out it will be worth the extra cash. One of the best ways to explore the area is to book a tour that includes visits to both Lan Ha and Bai Tu Long Bay, where you can explore caves, grottoes and secluded beaches without the crowds.
Explore caves in Phong Nha National Park
If you like caves and beautiful countryside scenery, then you HAVE to visit Phong Nha National Park for a few days. There are several cave options, including Paradise and Dark Cave. I visited Dark cave (Hang Toi), and had such a fun day. First, we zip lined to the entrance of the cave and then were treated to a mudbath at the end of the cave. You could actually float in the mud, it was a bizarre but awesome experience! I also visited Tu Lan Caves, where we climbed down a 15m ladder, swam through cave tunnels and trekked through buffalo fields. It was a fantastic day, and the company Oxalis also offers longer cave experiences with camping and trekking. If backpacking, stay at Easy Tiger – it’s super social, they have a pool, and they organize a trip to watch the sunset every evening.
Ride the Hai Van Pass
The Hai Van Pass is a really famous road that runs between Hoi An and Hue, and its perfect for motor biking. The views are breathtaking, and in terms of scenery, it’s possibly one of the best things you’ll do in Vietnam. I didn’t feel confident enough to ride my own bike so I paid for someone to drive me to Hue. He was very safe and also knew a lot about Vietnamese history, so it was worth every penny. We stopped at a few other attractions before reaching the Pass and it took about 9 hours in total. It was definitely one of my favorite days of my whole three month trip. Do not get the bus, you’ll regret it!
A view from the top of the Hai Van Pass. Pretty lanterns in Hoi An
Cycling in Hoi An
Hoi An was my favorite Vietnamese town, and the best way to explore it is definitely by bicycle. Most hostels will allow you to rent a bike for a reasonable price, and then you are free to roam both the town and surrounding countryside. The ancient town is picturesque and car free, so you can cycle around without any worries. I spent most days in Hoi An sampling the street food and drinking lots of Vietnamese coffee! At night, the place really comes alive, with lots of street vendors and food stalls. If you want to go a little more upmarket, make sure to visit Streets Restaurant, where disadvantaged youths are given the opportunity to train in the restaurant industry. All revenues go towards the program.
Eat home cooked food in Da Lat
Da Lat is a good place to stop off for a few days before heading to Nha Trang or Ho Chi Minh.It’s up in the mountains, so a great for a spot of cycling if you are up for the challenge! My favorite thing about Da Lat was that most of the hostels offered a home cooked meal every evening for a few dollars. It was so nice to sit with all the other guests and share a meal, it felt like being back home (great when you feel homesick!). After dinner, we would usually go to 100 Roofs cafe. It’s a cross between a bar and a crazy labyrinth. It feels Wonderland-like, with lots of spiral stairs to climb and mini water features. Very cool.
Family meal time in Da Lat. An authentic boat trip down the Mekong
An authentic boat trip down the Mekong
Take a boat trip on the Mekong Delta
If you want to find out how people live off the land and also enjoy a leisurely boat trip, then a visit to the Mekong Delta is a must. I booked a tour through my guesthouse, and spent the day with a lovely Vietnamese man who knew the Delta like the back of his hand. It was great to experience rural Vietnam and try some local products – coconut candy is delicious! The best part of the day was a huge lunch of various traditional dishes. I was full halfway through the meal but I just couldn’t stop eating, it was so good!
Visit the Vietnam War Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh
Before visiting Vietnam, I didn’t know too much about the history of the country, but I was keen to learn more. The war museum really opened my eyes to the horrific atrocities that happened in Vietnam, and how people are still being affected by it today. I think it is very important to visit the museum so that you have a real understanding of why Vietnam is the country it is today. The Cu Chi tunnels are also very interesting, helping you to understand how the Viet Cong succeeded in combat. If you are claustrophobic though, avoid going in the tunnels!
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