Vietnam is often an underrated destination that has much to offer travelers from beach hoppers to culture vultures. Vibrant cities have enchanting traditional architecture, and colorful villages are filled with friendly people. The landscape is amazingly diverse featuring jagged peaks, rice paddies in surreal shades of green, and over 2,000 miles of tropical coastline. Food stalls fill the streets with delicious smells and markets with vendors in conical hats sell ethnic fashions, crafts, and flowers. History buffs are fascinated by one of Southeast Asia’s oldest cultures and its history of thousands of years.
As more and more curious travelers discover Vietnam, the list of what the country is famous for grows longer. Check out this list of places, products, and experiences that define Vietnam.
Fans of big, bustling cities love visiting Ho Chi Minh City. The shopping and dining are cosmopolitan while the old district of Da Koa features fine examples of surviving French colonial architecture. Dong Khoi, the city center, is easy to navigate and has some must-see sites including the HCMC Museum that tells the story of the city and the grand Notre Dame Cathedral. Just outside the city center, the Reunification Palace (formerly Independence Palace) is famous as the place where tanks from North Vietnam stopped on April 30, 1975, to officially end the war.
Vietnam’s trademark street food is best described as an experience for all the senses. You won’t have to look hard for them as food stalls are in every busy part of each city. Vietnam cuisine is fresh, healthy, and tasty. Some treats you’ll find to try include spring rolls, sticky rice, fresh seafood delicacies, and bun cha which is rice noodles spiced with an herbal sauce and topped with pork. After being served, small plastic stools offer a place to sit and eat.
In most cities of the Western world, cars far outnumber motorbikes. Things are just the opposite in Vietnam where the streets stay crowded with motorbikes, or what you may call motorcycles. The slim bikes give motorists the advance of maneuvering easily through traffic. It almost looks like a crazy game of bumper bikes as they come within inches of each other. Pedestrians have to use caution when crossing the street. Watch how the locals do it and copy their actions to stay safe. You’ll especially see this in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. If you plan to walk the streets a lot, a mask will help avoid breathing in dust and fumes.
If you want to get completely immersed in the culture of Vietnamese city life, Hanoi is a good place to do it. Motorbikes crowd the streets and the clamor of street vendors is constant. The architecture reflects Chinese, French, and Southeast Asian influences, and the run-down section of the old quarter has a certain charm. History Buffs will have an excellent group of museums to explore. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum chronicles the founding of modern Vietnam and the Fine Arts and Museum of Ethnology introduces visitors to the culture and art of the nation. Small temples are scattered throughout the city including Bach Ma which honors a legendary horse.
All the cities in Vietnam have elaborate open-air markets that are as much of a tourist attraction as the museums and mausoleums. Rows and rows of merchandise offer local shoppers and tourists an array of things to buy from dried baby shrimp to brightly patterned fabrics. One could literally spend all day browsing the markets. You’ll find most shoppers in the early morning or early afternoon when it’s not so hot. And in the afternoons, you may stumble upon street vendors napping by their stalls.
For breathtaking seascapes, take a cruise on Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The bay has a karst topography created by dissolving water-soluble rock such as limestone and gypsum that creates underground drainage systems featuring caves and sinkholes. In the Gulf of Tokin, you’ll witness thousands of limestone pinnacles carved by centuries of wind and water. The views are iconic and best experienced with an overnight cruise. However, day trips are available.
Vietnam’s lush green countryside is the site of amazing rice terraces. The mountainous area of Sapa has the most dramatic ones. Sapa is located in the northwest region of the country where there is an abundance of vegetation. The perfectly preserved geometric formations have been cultivated over hundreds of years. Together with a backdrop of towering peaks, the effect is stunningly picturesque. Thanks to the short and easy trip from Sapa from Hanoi and a train that takes you there, the area is popular with tourists.
Vietnam’s coastal locations, especially Van Phong Bay and Ha Long Bay are the sites for pearl farming. Saigon Pearls, with headquarters in Nha Trang, has several showrooms featuring the authentic homegrown gems. Fabulous rings, pendants, bracelets, and earrings sell at prices starting at VND 3,000,000 which translates to about USD 130. They are sold along with jewelry made of gold and other gemstones.
Hoi An is another popular UNESCO World Heritage Site in Vietnam. The relatively small city is sometimes called the “Venice of Vietnam” because of its romantic atmosphere and idyllic beauty. Travelers to the country should not miss this place along the Thu Bon River lit up at night with colorful lanterns. Fortunately, it’s not in a remote part of Vietnam and is easy to get to from Da Nang. Hoi An is heavily visited for its history as well as its beauty. Some of the features you’ll see are the result of an eclectic mix of different Vietnamese cultures. For example, the canal setting so reminiscent of Venice is due to the former rulers of the French colonial regime.
Vietnam’s beaches are just as gorgeous as the more crowded one of Cambodia and Thailand with white sand and striking vistas. Nha Trang and Mui Ne are the best-known ones. Mui Ne is a quaint former fishing town turned beach resort and features unique red sand dunes. Nha Trang has diving spots and off-shore islands. For more seclusion, visit the quieter ones like Phu Quoc and Con Doa. As more and more people discover these beaches, they are destined to become as crowded as other Southeast Asian beaches.
Vietnam is home to a plethora of temples, shrines, pagodas, and religious sites. These enchanting structures range from Hindu shrines to Buddist monasteries. Visit these temples in cities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, and others. It’s a great way to appreciate the nation’s history and culture. Some no-miss ones include the Buddist shrine Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi, and the Jade Emperor Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh, a representation of Mayanist Buddism. The Temple of Literature in Hanoi was built in 1070 to honor Confucious.
If kayaking is one of your favorite outdoor adventures, Vietnam is the perfect destination for you. Rivers, lakes, and streams with spectacular scenery are plentiful and rentals are readily available. The West Lake of the Ho Tay in Hanoi is a good choice for beginners. The water is calm with no large waves to maneuver. Other excellent places for kayaking in Vietnam include Phong Nha Cave of the Quang Binh Province, Ha Long Bay in Quang Ninh Province, and the famous Perfume River.
One of the most popular features of Vietnamese cuisine is the delicious noodle soups. Pho is the most popular one and graces breakfast tables across the country. You can get Pho any time of the day at street food stalls, and the noodles are available uncooked in supermarkets along with the broth, herbs, and meat needed in the recipe. Bun Ho Hue is another popular Vietnamese noodle soup. Especially delicious and nutritious, this iconic noodle soup is made with beef bone broth. The legendary late Anthony Bourdain traveled to the town of Hue where it originated.
Vietnam has an extensive system of caves, and mammoth caves are still being discovered around the country. In fact, the world’s largest cave, the Son Doong Cave wasn’t discovered until 2009. Geologists, archaeologists, and historians were astounded by the vastness of the cave. Son Doong Cave was opened to the public in 2012. Despite its size, the number of people entering the cave at one time is limited. Another good place to explore caves is in Halong Bay where you’ll find the Hang Sung Sot and the Hang Doo Go with fascinating stalagmites and stalactites.
Those whimsical conical hats you see so often in Vietnam are more than a novelty. They serve as protection from the country’s scorching sun and sudden downpours. If you are lucky enough to travel to Vietnam, pick up one to take home. They do double duty as a great souvenir. The hats have been around since the 1700s and are woven from bamboo, the bark of Moc trees, and palm fronds. Local markets sell them for less than VND 10,000 (USD .43). They’re more expensive in souvenir shops and may cost up to VND 100,000 (USD 4.32).
National Parks are always top spots to visit in any country, and Vietnam is no exception. One of the most stunning is peaceful Be Ba National Park in the Northeastern province of Bắc Kan. The park protects three interlinked lakes and is surrounded by thickly forested hills and karst peaks. Explore caves, kayak on the lake, or go hiking in the hills. You’ll have the option of spending the night in traditional stilt-house accommodations. If you visit on the 10th and 11th days of the first lunar moon, you’ll get to witness the Long Tong Festival where ethnic tribal groups perform and play traditional games.
One of the reasons Vietnamese dishes are so delicious is the extraordinarily fresh meat. Whole pig heads and other meats sold in markets have no odor because it was butchered no more than five hours earlier. You can recognize the freshness by the bright red color. Meat that is browning is probably a day old and cost less. Most locals and restaurants purchase their meats freshly butchered for tasty dishes and a pleasant market experience. The same holds true for fish and other seafood.
An unusual experience while traveling in Viet Nam, especially those interested in military history is a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. The Viet Cong troops used the extensive network of 250 kilometers of tunnels to communicate and operate in the area around Ho Chi Minh City. Travelers can explore two sections of the tunnels with a guide. At some points, you have to crawl on hands and knees, so the experience isn’t for the faint of heart. Access the tunnels from Ben Duoc Village or Ben Dinh Village.
Intricately patterned Vietnamese silk is made with manual looms from the cocoons of silkworms. If you like genuine silk, Vietnam is the place to buy silk shirts, ties, dresses, and accessories at affordable prices. Vietnamese silk material costs about VND 70,000 per meter (USD 3.02). Counterfeit products are common here so shop at places like the Van Phuc Silk Village near Hanoi or the Hoi An Silk Village to ensure you get authentic silk products.
Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee, and the coffee culture thrives in cafes and on the streets. Moreover, is of a high quality, inexpensive, and said to rival the coffee in South America. In Hanoi, the coffee culture capital of the country, a bag of whole or ground robust beans can be purchased for USD 4.00. Trung Nguyen is a popular local brand in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Hoi An. Vietnamese coffee beans can be bought almost anywhere from local markets to the international airports. It is often served with sweetened condensed milk.