The most exhilarating things to do in Vietnam
There’s a special magic about Vietnam. Yes, the landscapes are spectacular, and the food is insanely delicious (the Pho we’ve grown up with doesn’t compete). But the best part of Vietnam is its people: their warmth and genuine love for their country mean that you will never be short of new friends and opportunities to learn about this fabulous country. Here are 15 things to do in Vietnam that are so amazing, you’ll never want to leave.
1. Go wild at Da Lat’s Crazy House
H?ng Nga Guesthouse – commonly known as ‘Crazy House’ – was created by the architect ??ng Vi?t Nga, who wanted to design a building that would mimic the natural beauty around Da Lat. The best way to describe Crazy House is a cross between Gaudi, Dr Seuss and a fairytale. When you walk through its halls, it feels like you are walking through a building that’s actually alive. You can visit for a small fee – or you can stay here overnight as it’s also a guesthouse. There are 10 different themed rooms, with names like Ant, Tiger and Land Eagle.
2. Cruise the Hai Van Pass on two wheels
One of the most scenic motorbike routes in Vietnam is the Hai Van Pass (you may have seen it on the tv show Top Gear in 2008). It’s a mountain pass that spans almost 21km, connecting Hue and Da Nang. Don’t worry if you can’t ride a motorbike or don’t have a licence as there are plenty of companies that will take you as a pillion on the back. Driving in Vietnam can be a little crazy, so you’ll probably feel much safer riding with a local who’s done it plenty of times before. Sit back, relax and enjoy the epic mountain views.
3. Ride the wave at Vinpearl Land in Nha Trang
Nha Trang is Vietnam’s beach city, which is both beautiful and full of tourists lining the sandy beaches. If you want a little bit more excitement in your day or even just an emptier beach, take the gondola ride across the water to Vinpearl Land, a water and amusement park on a nearby island. This water park is an awesome way to spend a day in the heat, with thrill slides, a wave pool, and a family-friendly lazy river. The park also has private beaches, which are a lot less crowded than Nha Trang. The gondola ride itself has incredible views and it’s the longest over-water cable car in the world.
4. Feel the rush of Hanoi’s Train Street
This street in Hanoi looks like any other, except for one thing: the train tracks that run right down the middle of the street. No, they’re not abandoned – and yes, people really do live here. Twice a day, a train comes rushing through the street, right through the crowds of people living and working. Locals bring their washing in, pull their children away and press themselves right up against the walls in a scene of coordinated chaos. It’s easy to find in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and is a fascinating sight to see.
5. Learn how to rock the wok in a cooking class
Vietnamese cuisine is out of this world. The flavours, recipes, and ingredients are so fresh and intense, it’s not hard to eat, and eat…and eat. If you want to take this style of cuisine home with you, there are lots of cooking classes offered around Vietnam. These classes are a popular activity in Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City. You’ll be able to master recipes such as rice paper spring rolls, Bánh xèo (crispy pancake), sauces and more. And the best part of all? Eating it at the end.
6. Immerse yourself in Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is filled with limestone rock formations that have been carved by the water for millennia. It’s so unique that it has been named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. No matter what the weather is like, the bay is beautiful; it looks moody in the rain and it sparkles in the sun. There are lots of cruises that go through Ha Long Bay, and some operators offer kayaking and cave tours. Floating between the giant rock formations is one of the most peaceful experiences you can imagine.
7. Get lit in Hoi An
Hoi An is one of the most popular cities in Vietnam, with good reason. It has a charming Old Town that is filled to the brim with authentic Vietnamese architecture, plus it has an ancient and beautiful tradition – every night of the year, silk lanterns light up the city. Hoi An truly comes alive at night, with splashes of glowing colour everywhere. You can try your hand at making your own lantern – or just admire them from afar. One of the best ways to enjoy Hoi An is by taking a boat ride on the river, surrounded by floating lanterns. The boats usually have their own lanterns that you can light and add to the flickering river.
8. Go chasing waterfalls in Da Lat
Vietnam can be ridiculously hot at certain times of the year, so if you want to see some stunning scenery but need a break from the heat, Da Lat is the place to go! Sitting at an altitude of 1,500m, Da Lat is slightly elevated and gives you some sweet relief from the humidity. Best of all, it’s surrounded by tons of incredible waterfalls. For something magnificent and huge, check out Elephant Waterfalls or try the famous Pongour Waterfall, which is made up of lots of terraced cascades of water.
9. Eat your way around Can Tho’s Floating Markets
If you want to see a real floating market, head to Can Tho and find the famous Cai Rang. This floating market is the biggest one in the area with lots of vendors. The market starts early, so it’s perfect for avoiding the heat and picking up delicious local food. It’s not hard to see what each boat is selling – look for the pole sticking up out of the boat. The sellers tie a sample of what they have to trade to the end of these poles. There’s such a range of products to buy, from full meals and coffee to fruit or even candy. Make sure you come with an empty stomach.
10. Freshen up with a beer in Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Vietnam is famous for its fresh beer (or ‘Bia h?i’) and you can find lots of Bia Hoi spots in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. This type of beer is brewed daily without preservatives, meaning it needs to be consumed on the same day it was made – making it the freshest beer you’ll ever find. It’s also extremely cheap and therefore very popular with both locals and tourists. You won’t have a problem finding a place to drink Bia Hoi in Hanoi’s Old Quarter – just look for lots of blue or red plastic stools on the sidewalk filled with people drinking. Grab a seat, order some fresh beer, make new friends and enjoy.
11. Try a basket boat ride in Hoi An
The story goes that when the French occupied Vietnam, the tax imposed on anything considered a ‘boat’ was too high for the local fishermen to pay. By using these seaworthy baskets in place of boats, the fishermen didn’t have to pay the tax and could continue to make a living. Jump into a basket boat in Hoi An and discover this traditional way of fishing in Vietnam. The boats are created by weaving bamboo together and take quite a bit of practice to steer. It’s fun and unlike anything else on the water.
12. Trek through Sapa
The North-western town of Sapa is easy to get to but still fairly free of tourists, so take advantage of this gem while you can. Sapa is known for its luscious rice fields, and there are many hikes that allow you to experience the terraced fields and learn about the rice farming process. To get the full Sapa experience, consider staying with a local H’mong family in their village. You’ll get to see how they live, share their food and gain an insight into their rich culture. There’s something so special about wandering the streets in the evening – like being given a window into a different world. It’s important to note that locals will often trek with you through the rice fields, to offer help and to sell you their handmade goods. A little goes a long way here, so consider offering them a tip instead of taking their products.
13. School yourself at the War Remnants Museum
Visiting a new country is a great opportunity to learn so much about the people, culture and way of living through their history. Vietnam has an extremely sad and rich history, full of violence and war – which helps you understand the resilience and strength of the Vietnamese. The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is one of the best places to learn about the country’s history, showing the full effects of the war by telling Vietnam’s side of the story. One of the most affecting sections is the large photography exhibit showing the effects of Agent Orange on the community; be prepared as it’s heavy but important to understand.
14. Go underground in the Cu Chi Tunnels
It’s strange to think that these tunnels that were once used in the Vietnam War have now become a tourist attraction. You can actually go through the very tunnels that the resistance fighters used during the Vietnam War – although, be warned, they’re extremely small. The use of the Cu Chi Tunnels led to the defeat of South Vietnam and the withdrawal of the occupying American troops. It’s an important place to learn about the war and discover how the tunnels were created by the Viet Cong.
15. Pay your respects at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
There aren’t many places in the world where you can see an embalmed body but in Hanoi, you can visit the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh, one of the most revered and loved leaders in the country’s history. If you want to beat the crowds you’ll need to come early – the line wraps around the block, full of tourists and Vietnamese people wanting to pay their respects to Ho Chi Minh. It’s a slick operation as the workers usher people in and out of the mausoleum – but it’s definitely something you won’t forget in a hurry.
There are so many more things to do in Vietnam – this is just a taste. It’s such a special country with diverse landscapes and incredible things to explore from top to bottom. We fell in love with Vietnam and hope you will too.
About the author
Rachel and Jeremy are a married couple from New Zealand who have been wandering the world since 2014. They hope to one day adopt a few cats and take them on their travels. Follow their adventures on Instagram and their blog, The Kiwi Couple.