I first visited Vietnam 15 years ago, backpacking through the country over several weeks. Now, I’ve started to plan my next trip with my family and started doing some serious research. I wanted to make sure I visited all my favourite places from last time as well as discovering some new spots – all the while enjoying the delicious noodles and dumplings that Vietnam is famous for. Here are my picks of the best places to visit Vietnam.
Although Hanoi the perfect gateway for places such as Halong Bay and Sapa, it also deserves to be given a few days itself. With direct flights from the UK and excellent links to the rest of Asia, Hanoi is an ideal start or end point to a Vietnam adventure. With classic French colonial architecture next to ancient Chinese Pagodas and a dash of modernism, Hanoi is an ancient city embracing the new generation and all it brings with it.
Stroll of any jet lag around Hoan Kiem Lake or learn more about Vietnamese culture through a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre then get lost on foot in the maze of narrow streets in the Old Quarter as you dodge scooters, bikes and street vendors.
Take a seat on a tiny red stool at one of the food stalls instead where you can sample local favourites such as Pho, Bahn Mi or Vietnamese hot pot and thanks to a certain President Obama make sure you don’t miss out on trying the famous bun cha.
Whilst Hanoi has plenty to fill the days, for me the city really comes into its own at night. With many fond memories of sitting on a tiny balcony of some small bar, the sound of motorbikes buzzing just beneath my feet and the smell of something delicious cooking on a grill across the road rising up to greet us. Usually, with a glass of whiskey and coke in my hand, playing cards and enjoying the slight relief from the daytime heat that night-time brings, I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of being in busy Asian cities like Hanoi.
I’m heading back to Vietnam next year and have included Phong Nha in my itinerary as I missed out on my first visit. The perfect place for any traveller, whether you’re a first-time visitor digging a little deeper into the country or a returning traveller who wants to experience old-school Vietnam. Think emerald green rice fields, friendly locals and rural villages with families who want to show your little ones a real Asian adventure.
Only an hour from several train stations which are on the overnight route to/from Hanoi, Phong Nha is easily added into a Vietnamese itinerary. There is also a small airport if you are short on time but still want to include this hidden gem.
The landscape is dominated by limestone karst which hide the mammoth caves and underground rivers the area is famed for. The huge range of caves means there is something to suit everyone. Here you could choose a relaxed boat ride to visit Paradise Cave or test the theory that you’d make a brilliant Bond by zip-lining, swimming and kayaking your way into Hang Toi Cave.
If you want to explore for longer, why not take a 5-day trip to Son Doong Cave which involves jungle hikes, scrambling and rope climbing with the reward of an overnight stay in the world’s biggest cave. Thank goodness there are plenty of beautiful places along the river to eat, drink and sleep once you’ve had your adventure!
The Mekong Delta encapsulates everything that you imagine Vietnam to be. You’ll see lush rice fields with a glimpse of a traditional cone hat perched on the head of a hard-working local, floating markets packed with colourful fruit and vegetables, and a warren of rivers lined with stilt houses.
Whilst it is possible to take a day trip from Ho Chi Minh I would really recommend spending at least a couple of days exploring this vast waterway. Having a local guide here is so worth it - as soon as you get away from the crowds, life becomes much slower and you can get a real glimpse into the local life. Hop in a pandan boat to explore the mangroves or jump off the water and onto a bike as you cycle through small villages.
This beautiful area is a fragile ecosystem and a lifeline for the people of Vietnam, providing them with much of the counties staple foods like rice and fish. Not only is it wonderfully scenic but also an opportunity to take a glance into Vietnamese and Khmer life, heritage and traditions.
There are many ways to travel along the Mekong, from simple converted rice barges to small luxury cruise boats like the Aqua Mekong. It’s also a much more leisurely way to cross the border into Cambodia. I took a 2-day cruise from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh and I can safely say relaxing on deck with nothing to do but take in the surrounding beauty and wave to some children playing on the riverbank beats check in queues and airport security any day.
I fell for Hoi An’s atmosphere and charm instantly. Strolling by the lantern-lit river alongside the untouched architecture, the streets bathed in golden light from the traditional yellow buildings you feel like you have stepped back in time by two or three hundred years. This town was a busy trading port in the 15th – 19th century and the Ancient Town is amazingly well-preserved with streets and wooden buildings unchanged in centuries.
Food is a huge part of Hoi An’s appeal with a bustling wet market and some unique dishes you won’t find anywhere else in Vietnam such as Cao Lau noodles and White Rose dumplings. I would highly recommend doing a cookery course here, the local insight to the market, ingredients and cuisine makes for some delicious dishes and lots of fun.
Hoi An is also famous for its tailors, who will tempt you with books filled with celebrities’ pictures to help you choose your design. Decide whether you want a suit like George Clooney or a dress like Audrey Hepburn and a few days later it’s ready to be collected. I can say from experience that the quality definitely varies but it’s a wonderful feeling when your holiday memories come flooding back each time you wear it at home.
As if the town itself isn’t enough you only need to drive 15 minutes and you have access to some beautiful beaches. You can either stay in an elegant French Colonial hotel in the town and make the easy bike ride to the beach or base yourself in one of the beachfront hotels who offer a sleeker and more modern feel with excellent spas, restaurants, and facilities. There aren’t many places where you can get your cultural, foodie and relaxation fill all in one small area.
There are some places in the world that are instantly recognisable and Halong Bay is one of them. With its seascape of limestone pillars jutting out of the sea, mythical stories of dragons and emeralds, mysterious grottos and wonderful kayaking opportunities, Halong Bay is so much more than a cruise destination.
The most popular way to see Halong Bay is by taking 3-hour drive from Hanoi and then hopping aboard a Junk Boat cruise. We had a 1 night/2-day trip booked but after our first few hours we realised we needed at least another night to really explore this unique area and extended our trip. This gave us the opportunity to explore further into the lush forests of Cat Ba Island and wonderful beaches Quan Lan Island offers.
For a more secluded trip but with equally beautiful scenery you could choose to visit Bai Tu Long Bay or Lan Ha Bay instead. They might be Halong Bay’s lesser-known neighbours but offers the same iconic views, luxury boats and activities with fewer visitors. You’ll be much more likely to have these other bays to yourself.
The junk boats vary a lot in size and quality so I would recommend a smaller, traditional boat where intimate, high-level service is combined with luxurious rooms and off the beaten track itineraries. Wake up and refresh yourself with a morning Tai Chi lessons on deck and after a day exploring the islands enjoy the remarkable sunset with a glass of wine in hand from your private balcony. Before dinner why not join the chef for a cookery lesson and end the day with night-time squid fishing from the boat.
I always think that Halong Bay is the perfect way to finish a Hanoi stopover or Vietnam trip as everything is taken care of for you. If you are a little jet-lagged or travel-weary, then a carefree few days is just what you need. When we include this in your itinerary you’ll be picked up from your hotel in Hanoi, drive to the boat and then taken care of by the fabulous crew. The most strenuous thing you’ll have to do is decide whether you want to stay on the beach or take a kayak out on the emerald green waters and whether you should have a back massage or make the most of happy hour before dinner.
I know it’s unbelievable, but you can still visit a beautiful island in Asia that is mostly untouched. Whilst there is some development around the island, over half of Phu Quoc is taken up by UNESCO-listed National Park which included tropical rainforests, mountains, wetlands and coral reefs. So if you want fewer people sharing that idyllic beach with you or the opportunity to explore pristine waterfalls and unspoiled coral reefs then Phu Quoc should be high on your list of stops in Vietnam.
The island ticks a multitude of boxes. Passionate about wildlife? Take the time to swim with turtles, spot manatees or search the trees for macaques. If it’s food that takes your fancy then make the most of the fresh seafood or prepare all your senses for a visit to Duong Dong Market. Should you want to escape it all then take a day trip to one of the many uninhabited islands in the district for your very own castaway experience.
Phu Quoc is all about quality and you’ll be spoilt for choice when deciding which luxury hotel to stay at. Trusted hotels such as Vinpearl, Pullman and Intercontinental all offer lovely stays. Pair this with some of Asia’s best sunset views and you’ve got an untouched island experience very few places in the world can still offer.
With easy links to mainland Vietnam, Phu Quoc is the perfect peaceful ending to your Vietnam itinerary whether you’re on a luxury honeymoon, a family adventure or as part of your round the world travels.
I hope I’ve inspired to you to plan a trip to Vietnam. I know I can’t wait for my next trip! Whether it’s diving into the clear waters of Phu Quoc, wandering the pretty streets of Hoi An or exploring the caves in Phong Na, we can plan your dream Vietnam holiday. If you want to start to plan, give us a call on +44 1273320580 or request a quote. We are experts in planning tailor-made holidays to Asia, as well as round the world flights, so we can work together with you until we’ve created your perfect trip.