Vietnam has long captivated travellers with its heady mix of history, intriguing culture, fabulous food, and heartfelt hospitality. Here's a handy checklist of top experiences to tick off on your first visit. And trust us, it won't be your last!
Vietnam offers such a diverse range of travel experiences that it can be difficult to know where to begin.
Novices and newbies must weigh up their choices carefully, depending on the time they have available. This is a country that bursts at the seams with things to see and do, and from walking in the footsteps of our Vietnam War veterans, to soaking up the extraordinary culture and natural beauty of this nation of 100 million people, you’ll have your holiday work cut out for you.
That said, there are several experiences that should be on every first-time visitor’s to do list. Here are ten top things to do in Vietnam on a first visit, travelling from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south, to capital Hanoi in the north.
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1. Pay your respects at the War Remnants Museum
Many Australians feel a connection with Vietnam because of the Vietnam War. Sixty thousand of our troops served alongside South Vietnamese and US forces, and some 80,000 Vietnamese migrated to Australia after the conflict — many as refugees. As our collective memory of the conflict grows dim, the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is a shocking, confronting, and necessary reminder of the realities of what occurred here over the course of two decades in the mid 20th century.
Given the museum’s original name — ‘Exhibition House for the Crimes of America and its Puppet Government’ — you might expect its narrative to be somewhat one-sided. However, there’s no missing the ferocity of the atrocities committed by both sides. If ever there was a reminder to future generations to strive for peace with compromise and compassion, this is it.
2. Step back in time at the Reunification Palace
Ho Chi Minh City’s must-see Independence Palace (also known at the Reunification Palace) has a fascinating history. The construction of the original French Governor’s palace on this spot in the 1870s saw most materials imported from France. During the Vietnam War, the palace served as the residence and workplace of the president of South Vietnam. Part of the building was destroyed in 1962 by two rebel South Vietnamese pilots, who tried to bomb their president rather than heading north towards the enemy. As a consequence, the palace was demolished and rebuilt in typical 60s style. The fall of Saigon in April, 1975 saw communist tanks crash through the front gates, signalling the end of the almost twenty-year conflict.
Today the building is open to the public and offers an incredible opportunity to step back in time to the war’s final dramatic hours. The communications equipment sits silent, the state rooms are largely undisturbed, and light reflects through coloured glass shutters casting long shadows across the parquet floors.
3. Go below in the Cu Chi Tunnels
The Vietnam War left shocking scars on the population, troops, and landscape. The Cu Chi Tunnels, located north-west of Ho Chi Minh City, provide an insight into the minds and determination of the Viet Cong (the southern revolutionary force that fought alongside the communist north). They burrowed hundreds of kilometres of tunnels under the jungle — allowing them to literally pop up out of holes to ambush the enemy, then disappear back underground.
Sections of the surviving tunnel network are open to visitors, and despite feeling a bit like a war-themed theme park, they are worth seeing. Crawling into the tunnels is not for the faint of heart, and anyone with even a hint of claustrophobia will want to sit this one out.
4. Connect with rural life in the Mekong Delta
Big city life in Ho Chi Minh City quickly gives way to a more traditional existence in the watery embrace of the Mekong Delta — affectionately known as the ‘rice bowl of Vietnam’. Here, a network of small tributaries snake out from the mighty Mekong River before it empties into the South China Sea. You’ll see Khmer pagodas, tiny villages, and floating markets made up of sampan boats (an experience unparalleled anywhere else in Vietnam).
The Mekong lies south of Ho Chi Minh City and makes a great day trip. However, if you have the time, consider staying overnight and delving more deeply into local culture. This will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of your trip.
5. Get lost in old Hoi An
It’s a short flight north from Ho Chi Minh City to Danang on the central Vietnamese coast. From there, drive south past iconic China Beach to the historic port town of Hoi An. Lining the banks of the Thu Bon River and its tributaries, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town is a delight. Lose yourself in the jumble of atmospheric laneways, historic homes, merchant stores, assembly halls, and pagodas — most dating from the 1800s. The distinctive and much-photographed Japanese Covered Bridge was built sometime in the early 17th century and is thought to have linked Chinese and Japanese communities on either side of the canal.
As night falls, the entire town is transformed into a glittering kaleidoscope of coloured lanterns and night markets. This is what travel dreams are made of.
6. Do a cooking class
Regardless of the language barrier, there’s an easy way for every visitor to connect with the Vietnamese people, and that’s over a steaming bowl of pho. The country’s defining dish is so much more than a bowl of rice noodles. It’s a way of life; some might even say a state of mind. Pho is central to Vietnamese culture and the act of tucking into this simple chicken or beef broth infused with fresh herbs and lime, elbow to elbow with local diners at a traditional noodle house, is a simple but significant shared experience. Take up your chopsticks, smile, and dive in.
If you want to learn the secrets of preparing authentic Vietnamese cuisine yourself, consider doing a cooking class in Hoi An. They’re hugely popular and offered by many local restaurants. Taste Vietnam runs classes at the popular Morning Glory Restaurant and incorporates a guided visit to the Central Market to shop for ingredients. There are vague similarities in the fruit and vegie section, but this is about as far from the sanitised meat department at your local Woolies that you’re ever likely to get. Back in the kitchen, your teacher will show you how to cook up a selection of fresh and feisty dishes — often remarkable in their simplicity. And you’ll get to feast on the fruits of your labour afterwards.
7. Walk in the footsteps of royalty in Hue
Heading north from Hoi An, it’s a 130-kilometre trip by road to the former imperial capital Hue. The seat of power of the Nguyen emperors is packed with history and heritage highlights, including the World heritage-listed citadel — a sprawling walled complex that fortified the imperial buildings of state and the home of the royal family.
Early pieces of the puzzle regarding the origins of the Vietnam War fall into place here. The last Nguyen emperor, Bao Dai, gave up his thrown in August 1945 and handed control of the country to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh independence coalition, which vehemently opposed existing French colonial control. A year later the French War broke out, finally resulting in victory for the Viet Minh in 1954. They controlled communist northern Vietnam, while the south — underwritten militarily by the US, and with Bao Dai back in power as president — became the Republic of Vietnam. The stage was set for the outbreak of war between two irreconcilable ideologies.
The imperial structures in Hue were badly damaged in the Vietnam War, but what remains has lost none of its power to impress. A guided tour of the citadel will ensure you get the most from your visit.
8. Explore Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Wing or train your way north to the fabulous Vietnamese capital Hanoi, which also served as the capital of French Indochina for much of the colonial power’s rule. The characterful Old Quarter is the beating heart of the city, and blends seemingly complete chaos with French-inspired chic. This network of small streets is a maelstrom of sights, sounds, and smells, and again, a guided tour is the way to go. There is method to the madness; half the fun is working out what it is!
Hanoi’s much lauded café scene is a remnant of French rule, and there are awesome spots to get a caffeine fix across the Old Quarter. Seek out Café Pho Co, which has a rooftop terrace overlooking the Hoan Kiem Lake and famous Red Huc Bridge. Pho Co is actually a private home that doubles as a café and is a great spot to try traditional Vietnamese egg coffee. Don’t think of it as egg in your coffee; sweetened with condensed milk, it’s more a melding of coffee and dessert.
9. Cruise Halong Bay
It sounds like a cliché, but no first visit to Vietnam would be complete without cruising between the towering limestone karsts of World Heritage-listed Halong Bay — two hours’ drive east of Hanoi. All manner of junk-style boats ferry guests out to this azure waterworld, which is dotted with some 1,600 islands and islets — most of them, uninhabited. Halong Bay can be done on a day tour from the city, but be warned: it involves a lot of driving. Again, an overnight stay will give you more time to appreciate the sublime setting. The region is particularly beautiful at sunset — something you won’t see on a day visit.
10. Meet the hill tribes of Sapa
Vietnam is made up of 54 recognised ethic groups, six of which reside in the mountainous region on the country’s northern border with China. Easily distinguished by their colourful traditional dress, each of these ancient hill tribes has a distinct cultural heritage and maintains a traditional way of life. A visit to the hill town of Sapa — nine hours by train or six hours by bus from Hanoi — offers numerous opportunities to connect with hill tribe culture. Guided hikes and village homestays are popular, and will immerse you in a landscape defined by terraced rice paddies, mist-clad mountain peaks, and densely forested valleys.
Top Oz Tours offers a great range of Vietnam day tours, guided experiences, and attraction tickets and passes. There are no booking or credit card fees when you book through us, and you’ll have access to the widest choice of activities and most competitive prices.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of top things to do in Vietnam on a first visit? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours and Travel Ideas, and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger, and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.
About the writer
As a travel blogger and photographer, Neil Brook travels the world looking to meet interesting people, taste great food, and find different angles from which to write about his adventures. He is privileged to have lived in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the United Kingdom. More a traveller than a tourist, Neil prefers to mix with the locals, learn their history and culture, and walk the backstreets to uncover hidden gems worthy of praise in words or quiet moments of private reflection.