Today (July 10, 2017): Top 10 best things to see & do in Vietnam.
As most readers of my blog know, I recently enjoyed a great holiday in Vietnam, and started publishing a (large) series of trip reports regarding the most luxurious hotels in the South Asian country. Vietnam is a nation of huge contrasts, immense cultural diversity, and breathtaking natural wonders, that can keep its travelers – ranging from back packers to the world’s elite – entertained for weeks if not months. It’s also a rather long country, stretched out along the eastern coast of the Indochinese Peninsula. Needless to say that planning a trip to Vietnam can be a daunting task, especially if you’re a first time visitor. I hereby present you a list of Vietnam’s 10 highlights for visitors, so you know what to put on your itinerary.
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10. ADMIRE THE RICE FIELDS OF SAPA
Sapa – a town in Northwest Vietnam close to the Chinese border – is located at an altitude of 1600 m (5250 ft), about 350 km (220 mi) from the country’s capital Hanoi. The charming town is known as thé trekking destination in Vietnam, since the area surrounding Sapa is dominated by the towering The Hoang Lien Son mountain range, which includes Mt. Fan Si Pan, the highest peak in Vietnam and the entire Indochina peninsula with a height of 3143 m (10280 ft). Climbing the peak can be done all year round and no prior experience is required, although it is not an easy undertaking and you should prepare yourself for rough terrain and bad weather. The mountainous landscape and lush forests are also a nature lover’s paradise as the area serves as the habitat for a wide variety of animals. But even when hiking is not your thing, Sapa is well worth a visit for its famous terraced rice fields, which rank among the most beautiful and impressive ones of Asia.
9. IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE URBAN JUNGLE OF HO CHI MINH CITY
Ho Chi Minh City – still referred to as Saigon – is Vietnam at its most dizzying. With 7,5 million inhabitants, it is the country’s largest city and also one of Asia’s fastest growing cities. Although the city’s modern skyline is changing rapidly, with towering skyscrapers popping out of the ground like mushrooms, there’s still a lot of history inside the city that draws flocks of tourists. Many of the most famous attractions in Ho Chi Minh centre around the events of 20th century war and conquest, such as the Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, and the Chu Chi tunnels. The city also features some interesting classic French architecture (albeit less impressive as compared to Hanoi), such as the Central Post Office and the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception. With so many places of interest scattered throughout the city, every walk in Ho Chi Minh is a pure delight, and a testimony to the city’s past and future.
8. GO BACK IN TIME AT THE IMPERIAL CITY OF HUE
The City of Hue in the geographical centre of Vietnam is often referred to as the ‘Imperial City’. Established as the capital of unified Vietnam in 1802, Hue was not only the political but also the cultural and religious centre under the Nguyen Dynasty, the last royal dynasty of Vietnamese history, which ruled until 1945. Today, the city is a major tourist attraction because of its walled palace within a citadel, better known as the Complex of Hué Monuments, set along the northern bank of the Perfume River. The massive complex – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – features hundreds of monuments and ruins, such as the Forbidden Purple City, once the residence of the royal family and badly damaged during the Vietnam War, royal tombs, flag tower, pagodas, temples, a library and museum. The sophisticated architecture represents the five cardinal points (center, west, east, north, and south), the five natural elements (earth, metal, wood, water, and fire) and the five colors (yellow, white, blue, black, and red).
7. VISIT VIETNAM’S ANGKOR WAT, MY SON SANCTUARY
The My Son Sanctuary, one of the foremost Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia, if often dubbed Vietnam’s Angkor Wat and with good reason. The impressive ruins are located in central Quang Nam Province, not far from Na Dang city, and feature many beautiful stone sculptures, temples and towers in tropical jungle surroundings. The complex, which was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, dates from the 4th to the 14th century, when the kings of Champa contructed tower clusters as a dedication to the worship of the god Shiva. Despite their bad state of maintenance, the over 70 temples and tombs extant at My Son are a magnificent example of early Asian architectural design, with constructions in fired brick and decorations with sandstone bas-reliefs that depict scenes from the Hindu mythology. A must-visit for those who appreciate history.
6. WANDER THROUGH THE NARROW ALLEYS OF THE CAPITAL HANOI
Hanoi, the proud capital of Vietnam and also its second largest city, is an eclectic blend of East and West, a glamorous mix of authentic Sino-Vietnamese culture with a French ‘joie de vivre’ ambience. Remarkably, the metropolis has escaped largely undamaged from decades of ravaging wars, and is now going through a construction renaissance. Hanoi is actually over 1000 years old and has gone through several invasions, occupations, restorations, and name changes, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the wealth of history here is mind-boggling, with a diversity of temples, ancient citadels, unique theatre, and even a mausoleum. Nowhere is this more evident than in the city’s Old Quarter, where colonial mansions line narrow alleys filled with endless packs of scooters, street vendors and tourists. Don’t forget to catch a glimpse of the Opera House, arguably the most elegant buildings in all of Hanoi, modelled after the Paris Opera House.
5. GET A TASTE OF RURAL LIFE IN THE MEKONG DELTA
The Mekong Delta consists of a maze of small canals and narrow rivers interspersed with picturesque villages and floating markets, flowing through the southern region of Vietnam, not far from Ho Chi Minh City. The fertile region is the rice bowl of Vietnam, as it produces almost half of the country’s food crop from just 10% of its total land mass. In fact, the delta produces more rice than Korea and Japan altogether. Due to its short distance from Ho Chi Minh City (a merely 4 hours drive away), a visit to the Mekong Delta lends itself well as a day trip (or overnight stay). The picturesque riverside villages, Buddhist shrines, colourful floating markets, authentic fish farms, and large rice plantations represent a welcome respite from the overcrowded city. If you have more time, make sure to venture deep inside the Mekong Delta, since it’s only there that you get a true taste of Vietnam’s countryside life.
4. TAKE A STROLL THROUGH HOI AN’S ANCIENT TOWN
Hoi An Ancient Town in central Vietnam is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its decline in the later 19th century ensured that it has retained its traditional urban tissue to a remarkable degree. The town, which is now a UNESCO heritage site, reflects a fusion of indigenous and foreign cultures (principally Chinese and Japanese with later European influences) and comprises a well-preserved complex of more than thousand timber frame buildings, with brick or wooden walls. Hoi An includes architectural monuments, French-colonial houses, commercial and domestic vernacular structures, an open market, a ferry quay, a famous Japanese-designed bridge, and religious buildings such as pagodas and family cult houses. At night, the central streets are beautifully lit by quaint and old-fashioned lanterns, making it an atmospheric and beautiful spot.
3. STAY AT VIETNAM’S MOST EXCLUSIVE RESORT, AMANOI
In 2013, Aman brought the brand’s signature sleekness to its debut resort in Vietnam, a contemporary beachside resort alongside a full-service Aman Spa. Named for the Sanskrit-derived word for ‘peace’ and noi meaning ‘place’, Amanoi is a tranquil, ultraluxe retreat situated on a gorgeous golden sand beach overlooking spectacular Vinh Hy Bay in Nui Chua National Park, northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. The luxury hotel’s polished, slate pagodas peek out from a lush green landscape; its infinity pool segues into the sea; and its spa rests by a lotus-blossom-dotted lake. Amanoi offers total privacy in beautifully designed accommodations that are located in 31 Pavilions, a number with private swimming pools, and five Aman Villas, all positioned on the hillside with impressive views.
- Hotel website: Amanoi
- Other accolades: Amanoi also features in my lists of the hottest luxury hotel openings of 2013, the 10 best Aman hotels in the world, the 10 best beach retreats in Asia, and the best luxury hotels in Vietnam.
- Tip: Enjoy free VIP amenities when booking via Virtuoso (e.g. villa upgrade, daily breakfast, early check-in, late check-out, and one complimentary lunch for two).
- Review: read here my review of Amanoi.
2. EXPLORE THE CON DAO ARCHIPELAGO
The Con Dao archipelago is a group of 16 mostly uninhabited islands, located in the South China Sea some 140 miles (230 kilometres) from Ho Chi Minh City. The island group has a dark past, since its main (and only inhabited) island Con Sao served as a prison island for political prisoners during the French colonial era, when it was known as Poulo Condore, and in later years the Saigon regime imprisoned opponents of the regime in infamous cells known as the ‘tiger cages’. Today, the prisons are a thing of the past (although you can still visit them), and Con Dao is making headlines again for its awe-inspiring natural beauty. The islands – 80% of which are declared national park territory – are fringed by unspoilt beaches and beautiful bays, and remain partially covered in thick rainforests. Island-hopping, beach combing, and hiking are popular activities on Con Dao Islands, although most travelers take the journey to the islands to explore the coral reefs or to stay at the superb, 5-star Six Senses Con Dao Resort.
1. CRUISE HA LONG BAY
Ha Long Bay is located in the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin in the northeast of Vietnam, approximately a four-hour drive from the capital Hanoi. Including over 1600 jungle-clad islands and islets, most of which are uninhabited and unaffected by humans, Ha Long Bay forms a spectacular seascape of towering limestone pillars and wind- and wave-eroded grottoes, and is an ideal model of a mature Karst landscape developed during a warm and wet tropical climate. The bay’s ethereal scenic beauty is complemented by its great biological interest, hence why it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994. You can catch a glimpse of Ha Long Bay on a day trip from Hanoi, yet if you want to get the most out of your trip, you should allow at least two days and book an overnight cruise. This will allow you to see the world-famous Bay at its most beautiful during the sunset or sunrise, or under a starry or moonlit night.