Vietnam is notorious for chaotically vibrant cities, iconic limestone mountains, and enough crave-worthy local cuisine to inspire you to extend your visa. Seriously, that pho is downright captivating. But wait, there’s more, and I’m not here to just tell you about Ha Long Bay like everyone else. You’re going to want to make your way across the entire country to experience the best of the best (preferably by motorbike, at that).
With a broad variety in activities, Vietnam can please both adrenaline-seeking maniacs and cute elderly women who enjoy a nice tailored blouse. And should you ever come across someone who fits both of those groups, definitely buy them a beer.
Without further ado, here are 32 of the best things you can do in Vietnam:
Drink bia hoi right on the street with locals at Hanoi’s “Beer Corner”
After marveling over the amazing bun cha you ate for $1.50, make your way over to a street bar for bia hoi: Vietnam’s go-to (and cheapest) draft beer. You can find plastic stools strewn about at the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen Street in Hanoi’s unapologetically raw Old Quarter. This area is the epicenter for grabbing a brew for around $0.25, but it’s definitely not the only place you can enjoy it. My personal favorite bia hoi experience came from a lone wolf bartender with his own keg—origin unknown—right on the sidewalk. Embrace the squat stool life; it looks good on you.
Explore Dong Hoi, a city that sees little tourism
The only reason some people go to Dong Hoi is because of nearby Phong Nha Cave. Other than that, it’s not usually a destination seen on many itineraries. That’s a sore mistake though, because this seaside city offers immersive authenticity and warm soul to boot. After showing up for one night at the cozy waterside guesthouse of Barefoot Homestay (10/10 recommend), I found myself charmed by the lack of tourist-centric activity and ended up staying for another night. In Dong Hoi, your presence is welcomed and you get to be more of a fly on the wall.
Immerse yourself in the greenery of Sapa’s rolling rice terraces
Most people think of Bali when it comes to rice terraces, but Vietnam is stepping it up with some serious competition. The Hoang Lien Son mountain range houses Sapa, a quiet town with not-so-quiet views and lots of trekking opportunities. It’s pretty easy to get there from Hanoi, a straight shot northwest with busses leaving daily. Peaks, valleys, and a blanket of lush greenery make Sapa look like something that would be on the cover of a guidebook. All of that verdant vegetation comes with steady rainfall, so pack your spiffiest rain poncho and a positive attitude.
Abseil a canyon like an absolute lunatic
For those who like their adrenaline with a side of cascading waterfall, Dalat is the place and canyoning is the game. During my time in this misty mountain town, adventure tours to the Datanla waterfalls were temporarily suspended due to a recent fatal accident. Keep in mind that cliff diving and navigating slippery rocks is no joke. Now that we’ve covered the safety disclaimers, feel free to take the plunge at your own risk. The experience usually takes a full day and it’s best to arrange with a local company to ensure that you get the proper gear. Unless you’re a pro, it’s unlikely that you’ve packed proper rappelling gear.
Take a walk through Crazy House
It’s not everyday that you can walk through a real life storybook, much less one that looks like a trippy dream turned into reality. Enter Hằng Nga Guesthouse, aptly nicknamed Crazy House. It’s basically what would happen if Gaudí went absolutely mad and had access to unlimited building materials in Dalat, Vietnam (of all places, right?). I wouldn’t advise staying there as a guest unless you like a million picture-taking visitors walking through your living room. Having said that, tickets are available for short entry and an afternoon visit can’t be missed.
Take a swim in a shipping container pool
Just around the corner from Da Nang’s main street lies Rom Casa, a bar and hostel with a unique twist: it’s made entirely from shipping containers. If you’ve never taken a swim in one, it’s about time you gave it a try, not to mention it’s right across from the bar. Beyond the reinvented industrial splendor, Rom Casa also has a stellar rooftop with hammocks and ample space to hang out. The staff will make you feel right at home, whether you’re sleeping in a dorm bunk bed or just chasing a mojito on a sweltering day.
Leave your mark (literally) at The Note Coffee
Channel your inner remaining 8th grader and pass some notes at The Note Coffee, Hanoi’s Post-It Note covered café. No, seriously, when I say covered, I mean like April Fools Day prank level covered. This quirky little gem is like a giant time capsule, with eclectic scribblings from both locals and travelers from far away places. Take your pick between coffee, matcha, smoothies, and a variety of tasty pastry and lunch offerings. It’s a sight to behold, and the wall is awaiting your handwriting.
Up the adrenaline by riding a motorbike on Hai Van Pass
The Hai Van Pass is a 21-kilometer stretch of serpentine road that ascends the Annamite Mountain Range while staying just close enough to the sea to smell the fresh, salty air. The only thing that beats the pass itself is the experience of riding a motorbike across it. Backpacking road warriors trade tales of their experiences, while those hearing about it for the first time begin to formulate a way to work it into their trip. I have a penchant for persuading people into buying motorbikes in Vietnam, but you can easily rent one for a day if the commitment is too real. If you’re interested in the fine print of the experience, we’ve got you covered.
Check out Fansipan, the highest peak in Indochina
Fansipan sounds like some fancy candy, but it’s actually the tallest peak in Indochina clocking in at 3,143 meters of pure glory. It’s earned the nickname “The Roof of Indochina,” and what can I say? There’s nothing like a proper rooftop view. You might assume that getting to the top of Fansipan isn’t for the faint of heart, but there are a couple of ways to tackle it depending on your stamina (or willpower). It’s possible to trek on your own on a few different trails, go with a guide, or take a cable car through the clouds.
Step into a science fiction movie at an abandoned waterpark
Thuy Tien Water Park sits right outside of the Imperial City of Hue, but you won’t find any sunbathers here—only mildew crusted slides, decrepit aquarium remains, and murky, forgotten pools. It sounds fairly unappetizing, but there’s nothing like it. Running up and down the abandoned slides satisfied every remaining devious childhood desire that I had. Google Maps might say it’s permanently closed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a walk through the grounds to bask in the downright eeriness of it all. The hallmark sight is the massive dragon in the center of the lake, which you can actually climb into, or onto, if you’re feeling adventurous. Getting to the waterpark is fairly easy, and adds a sprinkle of intriguing post-apocalyptic vibes into your travels.
Eat Cao Lầu, the local noodles specially made in Hoi An
With Vietnam’s impeccable cuisine, this bucket list could easily be all about food. Proper Cao Lầu can only be found in the ancient port city of Hoi An because of the local water that must be used in the noodle recipe. Specific, eh? This heavenly bowl is a full on sensory experience, with fragrantly marinated pork, bright pops of green herbs, and intense chili sauce that you’ll inevitably get carried away with. I ordered it meatless and it was still up there in the top three foods I ate in Vietnam. Don’t miss this one.
Venture into an underground world at Phong Nha Cave
Caves are pretty crazy to begin with, but when you add 14 grottoes, 7,729 meters of length, and a 13,969 meter underground river, sh*t gets straight up ridiculous. When I said “underground world,” I really wasn’t kidding. Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight and it’s no question as to why that was decided. It has a unique history of military usage, and nowadays has a knack for inducing jaw-dropping reactions.
Get your groove on beach style at Sailing Club in Nha Trang
Nha Trang might not be the most representative city of Vietnam, mostly because much of it is catered towards the high volume of Russian tourists who visit the city year round. But if you’re looking for some fun nightlife, you’ll find it here. Sailing Club is right on the beach and the dance party often spills onto the sand (whether planned or not). Both locals and travelers hang out on the beach after hours, so you never know who you’ll befriend along the way. After a handful of way-too-late nights here, I can attest: they know how to throw a great party.
P.S. Yes, you probably should jump in the waves at 3 am.
Test your claustrophobia in the Cu Chi Tunnels
Vietnam has plenty of opportunities to learn about the history of the war, and the Cu Chi Tunnels are easily the most in depth, for more than just educational reasons. During the war, the Viet Cong dug thousands of miles of tunnels, spanning an extensive network just northwest of Saigon. With the extremely compact and narrow space, it’s a bit of a challenge (both physically and mentally) to enter the tunnels for some. It’s fascinatingly eye opening, but you might want to think carefully if small spaces aren’t your thing.
Navigate your way through the floating world of the Mekong Delta
Floating markets, swamp mazes, and Khmer pagodas, oh my! The Mekong Delta is an amalgamation of culture and nature joining forces to form an intriguing experience in a one-of-a-kind topographical setting. This vast, maze-like area is just south of Ho Chi Minh City but feels thousands of miles away from the concrete jungle of the metropolitan. This water world moves to the beat of its own drum, sort of like a Southeast Asian version of Venice. A general rule of thumb for belongings while visiting: if it doesn’t float on its own, you probably should put it in a dry bag.
Stay out all night on Bui Vien Street in Ho Chi Minh City
The only way to describe Bui Vien Street is the word madness, and lots of it. This street is popular with backpackers and pub crawlers, but they’re only a fraction of the crowd. It’s easy to write Bui Vien off as just another party spot, but it’s actually so much more than that. Street food vendors mill about up and down at all hours of the night selling foods you’ve never seen before, and longtime regulars post up at their favorite spots. You might start recognizing them if you go more than once. And if you are looking for a pub crawl, check out The Hideout. They have them nearly every night. Good luck.
Traverse the sand dunes in Mui Ne
Most people wouldn’t assume that Vietnam has sand dunes—I didn’t, at first. Mui Ne is an up and coming fishing town in southern Vietnam nestled right up on the beach with plenty of sand dune related activities. In recent years, the town has seen a boom in tourism, resulting in a growing resort and hostel selection. Sand boarding is wicked fun, and even if you can’t make it down the hill, at least you’ll have a laugh when you plummet butt-first into the red sand. If sand dunes aren’t exactly your shtick, try your hand at kite surfing, quad biking, or eating copious amounts of fresh seafood.
Go cliff diving at Ba Ho Waterfalls
A 40-minute drive from Nha Trang, plus a 30ish minute hike, will bring you to Ba Ho Waterfalls: a mecca of cliff diving, natural pool hopping, and boulder scrambling. Take your pick between three different natural pools, with each level becoming more secluded than the previous. You might find yourself climbing sideways at some point, but it’ll be well worth it to bask in the beauty of the top-level, tranquil waters. And the sweatier you get, the better—jumping into a natural rock pool after a jungle hike is a euphoric happening.
Explore various luxury hotels just for the hell of it
If you aren’t staying in one, it can be really fun to explore luxury hotels just because. Perhaps it’s the nonconventional explorer within me, but I get a kick out of checking out random, fancy rooftops whenever I can. After visiting a few cities in Vietnam, I began noticing a recurring logo on many large buildings. As it turns out, it was Muong Thanh: a mega chain with 53 luxury hotels across the nation. The hotel itself was stoically luxurious and almost a tad ominous due to its sheer size. There are far more than just this chain, many of which have gorgeous rooftops and infinity pools to boot.
Buy a lantern (or ten) at Hoi An’s night market
The lantern city of Hoi An is so captivating that you might just find yourself wanting to abscond with a piece of the town’s hallmark luminosity. The good thing is, there are ample opportunities to make this happen at the local night market. This town truly is for night owls, with post-sunset hours being the most magical time of the whole day. The market comes alive at dusk on centrally located Nguyen Hoang Street, with countless vendors offering eats, trinkets, and of course, a rainbow of ornately decorated lanterns, both petite and the size of your head.
Wander down the train track that cuts right through a neighborhood
I can’t decide if a train track running through a neighborhood is whimsically genius or somewhat questionable planning, but it doesn’t really matter seeing as the train street in Hanoi is unlike any other track you’ll encounter. The train passes through only twice a day, around 3pm and 7pm. You can try to strategically plan your visit around it, but a walk on the tracks without any worry of getting bulldozed over is nice too. The volume of intrigue has inspired some new local businesses, such as The Railway Hanoi and Hanoi Train Track Café. They’re equal parts cute, cozy, and inventive, so you might as well make an afternoon out of it.
Take in the views of Ho Chi Minh City from the 49th floor of Bitexco Tower
Whenever I get to a new city, one of the first things on my list is finding a bird’s eye view to take in the whole scope of the sprawl. Ho Chi Minh City is an absolute unit of a city, and the best way to see the spread from above is from the Saigon Skydeck at the top of the Bitexco Tower. This shiny skyscraper is the financial hub of the country, but it’s not all suits and ties. A visit to the 49th floor brings the scale of Saigon into perspective, much more than any map can do. If paying for observation isn’t your thing, there are also a handful of rooftop bars in HCMC that have wow-worthy views.
Visit the Marble Mountains in Da Nang
Most of us are used to seeing marble on kitchen countertops, but Da Nang does things a little…differently. The Marble Mountains are exactly what they sound like: a grouping of 5 mountains made up of marble and limestone. Not to mention, they’re more interactive than your average mountain, with several caves to check out, Buddhist temples, and a trail that leads to the summit of Mount Thuy. Local artisans can be found all over the area, selling impressive marble works ranging from trinkets to life sized sculptures. Don’t be surprised when some enterprising salespeople approach you.
Eat a bowl of pho somewhere off the grid and unsuspecting
Larger cities have a handful of restaurants catered towards tourists. Don’t get me wrong, most of these serve tasty food, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to try some hole-in-the-wall places. My travel partners and I affectionately nicknamed these spots “somebody’s kitchen” because they truly felt like you were stepping into a family home. The best part is when they bring you their signature dishes in a wordless interaction; an unspoken agreement in a pact of deliciousness. The best bowls of pho I had were completely in the middle of nowhere, but one of my small-kitchen favorites that actually is listed on Google is Pho Vui in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
Buy banh bao from a street vendor
Banh bao might be the only food you can hear before you actually see it. And when you hear it, you’ll likely have no idea what’s going on. The echoing call of the banh bao man was ever present in my neighborhood in Da Nang, and I didn’t even find out that it was a street food vendor until he biked right past me with his cart one day. Banh bao translates to “wrapping cake” and it’s essentially a Vietnamese version of dim sum. These tasty little creations are usually filled with a type of meat, egg, and occasionally vegetables. They’re available from men with carts, some convenience stores, and probably in your dreams once you hear the call enough. At a price of less than $0.50, you can’t pass them up.
Get absolutely lost at Maze Bar in Dalat
Maze Bar is more or less the equally-as-eclectic cousin of aforementioned Crazy House, despite being designed by different architects. Even if you’re not looking to have a drink, Maze Bar is worth a visit just to experience the oddities of structure alone. This centrally located creative feat is filled with twists and turns, multiple levels, and a back garden that reaches surprising heights. It was confusing enough to navigate while (mostly) sober, so I can’t even imagine how much of a clusterf*ck it would be after a few stronger beverages.
Get something new to wear from one of Hoi An’s specialty tailors
There are a myriad of things that are unique to Hoi An, with custom tailors being one special offering that draws visitors from far and wide. If you’re seeking a spiffy new suit or perfectly cut dress, look no further—this small town has plenty of opportunities to revamp your threads. There are many tailors that are completely off the map, but two of the most popular in town are Vanda Tailors and A Dong Silk. I’m not one for suits, but I can’t deny the opportunities here for such an incredibly reasonable cost.
Hop on a laid-back river cruise in Ninh Binh
You’re probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned Ha Long Bay yet. Is she crazy? No, my friends, I’m going to tell you about Ninh Binh instead. Many refer to this mountainous region as “Ha Long Bay on Land,” and it’s an accurate statement. If you can imagine what a forest of mountains looks like, that’s Ninh Binh. Slow-moving rivers meander their way through countless limestone karsts, and life moves at a much slower pace than at notoriously visited Ha Long Bay. River cruises are available in the area and they’ll show you the waterside caves and small corners where the road simply won’t take you. Don’t get me wrong: you need to see the glory of Ha Long Bay too, but Ninh Binh offers the same level of beauty with much less of the buzz.
Get a ton of fresh fruits and veggies in Quang Ngai
If you’re a traveler like me who prefers to experience the more obscure, off-track areas of a country, you’ll enjoy Quang Ngai. From a conventional tourist perspective, there’s not much here besides regular day-to-day life. That’s why I thought it was so awesome. The city center streets are lined with vendors selling fruits from all colors of the rainbow, verdant veggies, and assorted seafood. Locals will give you a quizzical look, wondering why you’ve chosen to visit Quang Ngai of all places. I was merely passing through for a night’s break from motorbiking, and I was happily surprised by how much I enjoyed roaming the streets.
Ditch your shoes on Phu Quoc Island
Unbeknownst to many, Vietnam extends into the Gulf of Thailand with Phu Quoc: an ultra laid-back island chain that usually flies under the radar from most trip planning. The archipelago consists of 28 islands, each bordered with fluffy white sand and balmy waters. You can snorkel, catch a sunset, and eat at a floating restaurant all in the same day. Take in the sights from ground level, or hop on the world’s longest oversea cable car for a different perspective. Interestingly, Phu Quoc is a visa-free destination (unlike the rest of Vietnam), so if you feel like showing up unannounced from another country, go on and do it.
Learn how to make fresh spring rolls at a cooking class
Surprisingly, you don’t have to be a wizard in the kitchen to make a tasty spring roll. Cooking classes are available across the nation, but I heard the most buzz about offerings in Hoi An. If you’re in the area, swing by Tra Que Garden to learn the art (and enjoy the flavor). I tried my hand at spring rolling at Tribee Kinh Hostel at their once weekly spring roll cooking class. After eating my weight in delicious deep-fried nuggets of joy, I can attest: even a haphazardly crafted rookie roll can be delicious.