As a backpacker of Vietnam and now a resident, I can say that there are countless amazing places to visit. Vietnam is a country filled with breathtaking sights, delicious foods, and gracious people. This blog is a list of the “must-see” spots of Vietnam for those travelers who are on a time crunch. If you hit up these regions, I can assure you, you will not be disappointed!
The country’s capital, Hanoi, is by far my favorite city in Vietnam. So much so, that I chose to move here two months ago. Hanoi was founded over 1,000 years ago, and it is truly charming. During our tours, many of our clients say that Hanoi is their favorite stop. Unlike Saigon, Hanoi seems to move at a slower pace. Wake up early, and you'll find locals exercising (from dancing to tai chi) around Hoan Kiem Lake, a picturesque focal point of the city. Stroll through the maze that is the Old Quarter region of Hanoi and find amazing local foods (be sure to try Bun Cha for lunch) and a plethora of different shops. Each street in the Old Quarter is known for something. For example, Hang Gai street, nicknamed silk street, is where you can barter for beautiful silk outfits or even get them custom made. At sunset, grab a drink at a rooftop restaurant near the main roundabout and enjoy the smells, sounds, and sights of Hanoi. While in Hanoi, be sure to visit the Women’s Museum and visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where you can walk past Uncle Ho’s embalmed resting body (take note: Uncle Ho is sent to Russia for touch-ups from October to November).
Saigon is another must-see of Vietnam. Saigon is unlike any other city I have visited. With over 7.4 million motorbikes, Saigon is nothing short of a sensory overload. My favorite parts of Saigon are the museums, the bustling nightlife, and the food. If you are interested in learning more about the Vietnam-American conflict, Saigon is the place to visit. I highly recommend a visit to the War Remnants Museum and the Chu Chi Tunnels (the tunnels are several hours from the city, but tours run back and forth on a daily basis).
The nightlife of Saigon is also amazing! Be sure to grab a drink in the backpacking district and people watch (a word of advice - sit with an elevated view in order to see as much as you can without getting hassled by people selling knick-knacks on the street). Also, the food in Saigon is AMAZING…You can never eat enough Pho, Banh Mi, and Bot Chien. Saigon is known to be a foodie's heaven. If you see a local restaurant packed with Vietnamese, it is a good sign that you need to try it out! Don't worry if you can't speak any Vietnamese; God gave us fingers so we can point to delicious foods when we don’t speak the local language. Also, try out your bartering skills at the Ben Thanh Market...from sports jerseys to hand woven artwork this market has it all...just be careful to not get lost...it is massive!
Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City? If, like me, you have ever been curious about which name to use when referring to the city, I have discovered that most Vietnamese who live in the south refer to the city as Saigon, its former name, and people in the north call the city by its proper name, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). The name switched from Saigon to HCMC after the North’s communist government took over the country in 1975.
Another must-see of Vietnam is the UNESCO site Halong Bay. If you have seen the newly released King Kong movie, Kong: Skull Island, then you have seen videos of Halong Bay. Halong Bay is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. If you are on a tight budget, this would be the day to splurge and “treat yo self.” In Hanoi, you can easily book an overnight cruise on the Bay, and it is well worth it. There is nothing quite like waking up to the granite islands of the Bay! I would highly suggest doing a 5-star cruise. If you need any help booking this, just let us know! A word of warning, there are tours that go and come back in one day from Hanoi to Halong Bay, and they are not worth it. Sarah and I did a day tour once, and we felt like we were in the car for the whole day and only on the Bay for several hours.
A World Heritage Site, Hoi An is a picturesque town located in the central area of Vietnam. If you have ever seen travel bloggers post photos of colorful lanterns and boats on a quiet river, then it was most likely taken in Hoi An. Hoi An is famous for its Lantern Festival every full moon, when the town turns off its fluorescent lights and hangs colorful glowing lanterns all over the town. The river sparkles as people buy floating lanterns and make wishes for good fortune before letting them float away in the water. Hoi An is not just pretty lanterns, but it is also beautiful landscapes. The best and often most popular way to explore the city is by bicycles, which are available to use for free at most hotels and homestays. Sarah and I biked around and explored quiet rice fields, where water buffalo basked in the sun and locals sat with their fishing rods. We also biked to the beach, another great reason to visit Hoi An. Join in a game of beach volleyball, or eat at a local restaurant looking out at the ocean. In terms of accommodations, I would suggest staying at a homestay during your time in Hoi An. We stayed with the most wonderful family, and would be happy to share their information if that is something you are interested in. Our homestay mom was constantly cooking us delicious local meals. Hoi An is home to some amazing dishes that you will not find in other parts of the country…my personal favorite was cao lao…my mouth is watering just writing the words.
Last, but most definitely not least, you must visit Sapa while in the north of Vietnam. Sapa is one of the most beautiful and interesting places to hike in Vietnam. Home to many local minorities, such as Hmong, Giay, and Red Dao, Sapa is a great place to go and learn about different cultures in Vietnam. Most hotels here are located up in the mountains with a view overlooking magnificent rice terraces. Be sure to hire on a local female guide to take you hiking on the back and less tourist traveled areas of Sapa. If you are feeling more adventurous, there are many homestays that you can stay in. One of our close friends has an amazing homestay, and if you are interested, we would be more than happy to pass on their information. We use a Giay guide named Huong while hiking in Sapa. Huong is a close friend of mine, and she is extremely informative and kind. Huong grew up in Sapa, so she knows all the best hikes to go on that are less traveled. I would highly recommend using Huong as your guide during your time in Sapa. Also, a great way to get into Sapa is to take the night train from Hanoi. The night train is quite an experience...For example, usually the first question that the train operator will ask you is if you would like a beer. If you are wanting a solid night of rest and don’t care for the experience, there is a day bus called the Sapa Express that goes from Hanoi to Sapa in about 5 hours. For our tours, we take the night train from Hanoi to Sapa and then we take the bus from Sapa back to Hanoi…it seems to be the best of both worlds.
I hope that you have a wonderful time traveling Vietnam. If you have any questions or would like any more suggestions, please do not hesitate to ask...I am happy to help!