Looking for pointers on what to do in Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hanoi and Da Nang? Whether you’re after street food, beaches or museums, Vietnam has something for you.
Whether you’re stirred by spiritual places, love to haggle for souvenirs or just want to decompress on one of Asia’s finest beaches, Vietnam has it all. So much in fact, that it can be hard to choose what to do. Hence we’ve curated can’t-miss activities in the country’s key cities.
In 2018, TripAdvisor confirmed what those who have visited already knew: Vietnam is a destination not to be missed. The travel site has ranked Vietnam among the 10 best places to visit in the world, and it’s not hard to see why.
If You Want the Best of the City, Immerse Yourself in Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Think of this sprawling district as Hanoi, distilled. It’s got museums, parks, temples, markets and more, so it’s the perfect way to kick off a trip and orient yourself. As the historic merchant’s district of town, the streets were named after the main product traded there, from Hang Trong (the Street of Drums) to Hang Bac (the Street of Silver). So it’s no surprise you’ll find the imposing St Joseph’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Hanoi, on Nha Tho — Church Street.
And if this bustling quarter gets a bit overwhelming, find respite in an authentic Hanoi café. Try Café Giang, known for their unusual brew that includes an egg yolk whisked with sweet condensed milk, cheese and butter. There’s a guaranteed pick-me-up for you.
If You Want to Soak up Ancient Learning, Stroll in the Temple of Literature
Built in 1070, this was the site of Hanoi’s first university. A millennium later, its quiet courtyards and lush gardens remain a calm oasis in the centre of the city. But during the summer it’s common to find the spot swarming with local students, some sneakily rubbing the heads of turtle statues in a move thought to bring good luck. Don’t copy them though, as this is prohibited!
If You Want to Window-shop Like a Local, Visit Dong Xuan Market
Some markets are unabashedly geared towards souvenir-hunting travellers. Dong Xuan Market isn’t really one of them; hence why it’s so enticing. Most of its wares are bought in bulk by locals, which makes the stalls a pleasingly surreal sight. Walk past pyramids of shoes, squadrons of silent mannequins and acres of plush toys, and don’t miss the food section, brimming with pungent ingredients and exotic Vietnamese spices. If you want a knowledgeable guide to offer tidbits of food and historic facts to these sights, many walking tours of Hanoi include a visit to Dong Xuan.
If You Want a Slice of Asia (and Sky-high Views), Head to Asia Park
True to its name, Asia Park recreates wonders from across the region. You can wander through a mock-up of Shanghai in the 1920s in the China zone, and marvel at a miniature Angkor Wat in the Cambodia section. While the high-octane rollercoasters may be great fun, don’t miss a ride on the Ferris wheel, particularly at night. Past sunset, you can drink in the twinkling nightlife of Da Nang from 115 metres up.
If You’re a Hiker and a Shutterbug, the Marble Mountains are for You
The five impressive marble and limestone peaks known as the Marble Mountains represent the elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Each one boasts stellar views of the landscape, so don’t forget to ready your camera. There are breathtaking sights inside too, such as the cave-set Trang Nghiem Tu Temple. Here you’re likely to spot local couples quietly praying to the Goddess of Loyalty for a long and happy relationship.
If You Just Want to Chill, do it at the Sun-kissed My Khe Beach
My Khe Beach’s main selling point is its solitude, particularly if you arrive earlier in the day. For the moment at least, it lacks many of the touts and outdoor music you would find in Bali or Phuket. So if you want to soak up the sun in peace and quiet, this is the spot for you. Manned by several sharp-eyed lifeguards, it’s also a good beach to take the kids to, if you want an added sense of security.
If You’re Keen on Comfort Food, Slurp a Bowl of Pho (or Six)
Pho (pronounced “fuh”) is perhaps Vietnam’s most famous food export, and one they take seriously. Even today, a Vietnamese mother might judge her daughter-in-law by her ability to make a strong pho broth. But where do you go to find the best pho in Ho Chi Minh City? Pho Phuong 25 in District 1 is one eatery that gets a lot of love, thanks to its rich, flavourful broth and tender noodles. Pho favourites differ from person to person, and every local has their own top spot for this traditional Vietnamese food — so ask around.
If You Love to “Window-shop”, Walk Through Ben Thanh Market
The sprawling Ben Thanh Market is crowded for a reason — it’s a shopaholic’s dream, an exciting sensory overload and a great place to stretch your haggling muscles. Coffee aficionados should pick up a phin filter, to feed the memory of authentic Vietnamese brews post-holiday. Tip: stick around after sunset, and the area turns into a giant food court, perfect for sampling as much Vietnamese street food as you can manage.
If You’re Interested in History, Experience the War Remnants Museum
A stirring place to learn more about the Vietnam War (though if you want to be respectful of local sensibilities, you may want to refer to it as the American War, as they do), the War Remnants Museum houses an amazing range of exhibits. View guillotines used by the French colonial authorities, get face to face with US fighter jets, and watch documentaries on the after-effects of Agent Orange. There are also regular culinary programmes that showcase how the beleaguered population ate during wartime.
If You Want to Eyeball Ancient Architecture, Visit the Japanese Covered Bridge
Legend has it that the Japanese Covered Bridge, a gorgeous piece of 16th-century architecture, was started by the local Japanese community in the Asian zodiac year of the dog, and finished in the year of the monkey. Hence why you’ll find the bridge bookended by a hound on one side, and a simian on the other. After snapping a romantic sunset selfie here, stroll around the Hoi An Night Market, a mere three-minute walk away across the river.
If You Want to Indulge in Classic Fusion Food, Bite Into Banh Mi
Ah, banh mi: proof that fantastic is born when East meets West. The classical French baguette is the perfect vehicle for a spectrum of Vietnam’s most delicious fillings. While each stall mixes up their own style, the star ingredients include creamy paté, rich warm pork, and a handful of veggies like crisp cucumber, coriander and carrots. Result: a taste sensation with every bite, and portable Vietnamese street food that’s perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Banh mi stands are everywhere, but the best banh mi in Hoi An is reputedly found at Banh Mi Phuong. They sell a staggering three to four thousand sandwiches a day — clearly, they’re doing something right.
If You Want Exercise with a View, Visit An Bang Beach
Need to burn off some calories? Do it at An Bang Beach. Here, the imaginatively named Sup Monkey stand-up paddleboard school offers lessons that promise to be a highlight of the trip. There are a variety of classes and tours, but a standout is the Aloha Sunrise. Yes, you have to start at 4.45am, but you’ll be rewarded by a golden sunrise on the waves (and a well-deserved breakfast afterwards as part of the package).
Tempted to make these Vietnam experiences a reality? We thought so. Now all you need to do is book the perfect hotel for your trip.