Where to Go in Vietnam

Sunset over Phu Quoc's Long Beach. Photo © Dana Filek-Gibson.
Sunset over Phu Quoc’s Long Beach. Photo © Dana Filek-Gibson.

Vietnam is a thriving country where the old sits contentedly alongside the new, a place to explore nature as well as culture, to shop, eat and play, to relax and enjoy. In the cities, life is fast-paced, bustling. The countryside is as vibrant, but takes life at a slower pace. Where you go in Vietnam depends very much on what type of experience you want from your travels.

Hanoi

Regal and refined, Vietnam’s thousand-year-old capital offers a hodgepodge of historical sights from across centuries, not to mention top-notch shopping in the vibrant Old Quarter, where you’ll find plenty of mouthwatering cuisine alongside some of the city’s best local color. Circle by Hoan Kiem Lake, the elegant, aging Temple of Literature, and somber Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum for the city’s best sights, and get an introduction to Vietnam’s array of local culture at the excellent Museum of Ethnology.

Travel map of Hanoi's Old Quarter in Vietnam
Old Quarter

Ha Long Bay and the Northern Coast

The mysterious, mesmerizing waters of the north coast form a seascape like no other, draped in lush, mist-covered jungle and dotted with gravity-defying limestone islands. Kick back on an overnight cruise around Ha Long, cycle your way across Cat Ba Island, climb the jagged cliffs of Lan Ha Bay, or admire these labyrinthine landscapes from a kayak. Even inland, the karsts of Ninh Binh provide the perfect backdrop for a peaceful rowboat ride through rice paddies and beautiful northern countryside.

Ha Long Bay is an enigmatic maze of blue-green waters. Photo © Dana Filek-Gibson.
Ha Long Bay is an enigmatic maze of blue-green waters. Photo © Dana Filek-Gibson.

The Central Provinces

Replete with crumbling imperial tombs, trendy modern shops, sleek contemporary skyscrapers, and the riotous colors of ancient pagodas, the central provinces are a jam-packed juxtaposition of old and new. Hue, former capital of the Nguyen dynasty, boasts impressive royal relics, while everything from winding, picturesque Hai Van Pass to the jaw-dropping Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park sits within striking distance. Farther south is Danang, Vietnam’s latest ultra-cool urban center, and the charming town of Hoi An, an oasis for shoppers, shutterbugs, and foodies.

The South-Central Coast

The south-central coast has all but cornered the market on beach destinations in Vietnam. From hip and happening Nha Trang Beach, brimming with nonstop energy and aquatic activities, to the tranquil shores of Mui Ne, a resort enclave to the south, the belly of the “S” is where travelers flock for a few days of R&R between more hectic destinations. Water sports are popular here, with plenty of snorkeling, diving, and kitesurfing. Dalat, the anomaly of the region, boasts a mixture of cool mountain air, rural charm, and off-the-beaten-path adventure.

Ho Chi Minh City

The high-octane commercial hub of the country, Ho Chi Minh City (known to locals as Saigon) buzzes from morning until night, caught up in a whirlwind of motorbikes, street vendors, mega-markets, and miniature local shops. The colossal Reunification Palace (also known as Independence Palace) and Notre Dame Cathedral break up the chaotic clutter of downtown District 1. Chinatown kicks the pace up a notch, its 21st-century residents careening past hazy, incense-filled ancient pagodas and ramshackle houses. Hop on the back of a xe om and breeze through local traffic, enjoy an ice-cold ca phe bet (sidewalk coffee) in 30-4 Park, or dine at any one of the city’s thousands of street stalls for the best cuisine the country has to offer.

Travel map of Pham Ngu Lao Street in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Pham Ngu Lao Street in Ho Chi Minh City

The Mekong Delta

The nine spidering veins of the mighty Mekong branch out across western Vietnam, creating a bizarre fusion of water and land where markets float, boats become houses, and narrow, winding tributaries wend through lush fruit orchards. The area’s leisurely, laid-back attitude captivates many a traveler seeking a glimpse of local life. Navigate the early-morning Cai Rang Floating Market, overnight with a local family on lush An Binh Island, tour the Khmer pagodas of sleepy, seductive Tra Vinh, or step into the storybook setting of Sa Dec. Angkor-bound travelers can explore the riverine sights of Chau Doc, while beachgoers should cast off for Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s fastest-growing island destination.


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