Vietnam might be a geographically narrow country, but there’s certainly nothing easy about narrowing down your decision on which spots to visit. With nearly 1,000 miles from the top to the bottom, this Southeast Asian country is filled with beautifully chaotic cities, towering limestone mountains, and absurd amounts phở whenever your heart desires.
Vietnam’s northernmost landscape is filled with rice terraces that make Bali jealous, jagged limestone peaks, and way fewer fanny-pack toting tourists. Hà Giang province sits on the China-Vietnam border, a prominent area for motorbike riders making their way around the northern loop. Envision zipping through remote valleys and rounding cliffside corners in some of the more untouched areas of the country. Sounds good, right?
Between rolling rice fields and trekking opportunities, this quiet mountainside town has seen more traffic in recent years due to tourism. Nearby, Fansipan Mountain is the tallest point in Indochina, even earning the nickname “The Roof of Indochina.” Who could argue against ascending above the clouds for a casual afternoon activity?
The capital city has it all: eateries that feel like at-home kitchens, ancient historical sights, ten cent street beers from old men with kegs, and pop-up pockets of vibrant nightlife. Head to the Old Quarter for some classic organized chaos that embodies everything to love about Vietnam, and check out the famed “Train Street” —where a train track runs right between homes.
If you Google image search Vietnam, you’re definitely going to see Ha Long Bay. Although a victim to excessive commercialized tourism, you’d be remiss to visit Vietnam without seeing this iconic, maze-like labyrinth on water. Tour boats are the only way to see it, but it’s possible to escape some of the crowds by heading to Cát Bà Island where you can find a bird’s eye view of the whole bay. Despite all of the selfie sticks, it’s still worth it.
Aptly described as “Ha Long Bay on Land,” Ninh Bình is a bit off the beaten path, but packs all of the same beauty. Come for the Tràng An Caves and stay for a boat ride down the Ngo Dong River, right next to steep vegetation-covered mountains. Many visit for a day trip, but mountainside homestays and ample tranquil lodgings make it an ideal place to recuperate from metropolitan madness.
Phong Nha is isolated from other regularly visited sights, but it’s highly worth going out of the way for. This network of caves is the largest in the world—to a ridiculous extent. You could probably fit a house in there. With underground rivers and room for boats, this monster of a cave basically has its own transportation system. Not to mention, the nearby town of Đồng Hới is severely underrated, meaning it’s highly authentic and you won’t find tourist crowds here. Stay at Barefoot Homestay, an oasis of calm sitting right on the riverbanks.
Vietnam’s Imperial City feels like a museum and a time capsule wrapped into one. With an ancient citadel composed of ornate structures surrounded by a moat and sturdy protective walls, the sights are still quite intact despite destruction from bombings during the war.
The whole country is full of stellar motorbike routes, but Hai Van Pass might take the cake. This serpentine road takes you between Huế and Đà Nẵng, right on the cliff side along the shimmering waters of the South China Sea. With fast turns and steep inclines up and down, there’s never a dull moment (or view) on this famous stretch. While it’s tempting to floor it the whole way, you’ll probably find yourself stopping to take a gander at the glorious views.
This small city is usually overlooked due to nearby Hội An, and it’s a sore mistake made by many. Đà Nẵng is everything you want in a beach city, plus $0.50 banh mi sandwich stands, eclectically illuminated buildings, and a bridge that resembles a dragon. Can your average beach town bring all that? Didn’t think so.
Vietnam’s ancient port city is for night owls, from the luminous lantern-lined streets to the pop-up bars that offer late-night mixed drinks after the crowds have gone to bed. If you need a tailored suit for a cheap price, it happens to be one of the city’s specialties. You can also find Cao Lầu, a noodle dish that’s specific to Hội An. This UNESCO world heritage site truly lives up to all of its rightfully earned hype.
In this active seaside city, you might think you’ve somehow fallen into a parallel universe where Vietnam is actually Russia. No, seriously—Russian tourism is so high in volume that there are many signs in Russian, and most menus are too. Talk about a culture shock within a culture shock. Prepare yourself for energetic nightlife—beach dance parties at the Sailing Club do not disappoint. If you’re looking for some adrenaline activities, you won’t have a hard time finding them here either, between jet skis and fly boards.
You need a jacket for Vietnam? That’s right, Da Lat is the “city of eternal spring” and the temperatures certainly reflect it. This small city is nestled in the mountains of the Lâm Đồng province. Come here for the expansive markets (both food and textiles), stunning waterfalls, and ample canyoning opportunities. It’s a popular holiday town for those who live in Ho Chi Minh City, and far quieter in comparison.
Just when you thought you understood the terrain in Vietnam, Mũi Né pops up: a surprising sight of rolling red sand dunes alongside a charming beach town. Whether you fancy a 5-star resort or a $3 hostel, there’s something for everyone here. The palm-lined coast is popular for water sports, including kitesurfing, windsurfing, stand up paddleboarding, kayaks, jet skis, and pretty much anything else you can float around on.
If Hanoi had a seriously crazy younger sibling, it would be Ho Chi Minh City. We’re talking traffic madness, insane nightlife, luxury offerings, rooftop bars with sweeping views, museums, markets, and so much more. This city has an electric vibe and actually might never sleep. For nightlife that will make you ask, “What have I gotten myself into?,” look no further than Bui Vien street.
When you’re ready to trade streets for rivers, the Mekong Delta is the place to go. This area is dubbed the “rice basket” of Vietnam due to, well, a ton of rice production, more than half of what the country consumes. With floating markets and amazingly fresh produce, the Mekong Delta is unlike anywhere else. Cần Thơ is the biggest city in the delta, serving as a proper jumping off point to see some of the smaller remote and diverse communities.
The diversity of Vietnam’s land continues into island paradise: enter Phú Quốc, sitting pretty right off the coast of Cambodia. Daily choices include bumming around the white sand beaches, trekking through the jungle, or exploring various markets before and after the sun goes down.