Vietnam travel tips – Must-visit cities

Hanoi

The capital Hanoi, located in Vietnam’s north, is the second most populous city in the country with approximately 11 million people. Compared to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is more traditional and refined. Today it is best known for its thriving contemporary arts scene and French architecture, visible by the many colonial villas scattered throughout the city. While it is rapidly developing, the city has retained many of its cultural traditions. Observe elderly people practicing Tai Chi by the lake or witness traditional festivals during the Lunar New Year. Hanoi has a vibrant “street culture” where daily activities, such as hair cutting and eating at food stalls, take place on cramped sidewalks. As Hanoi is becoming more populated with people and automobiles, the city is experiencing more traffic congestion, particularly in the Old Quarter.

Halong Bay 

A visit to the north is not complete without experiencing the spectacular views of more than 3,000 limestone karsts in Halong Bay.  Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994, Halong Bay is a naturalist’s dream. Sculpted into strange shapes by the wind and weather, the karsts hide deserted beaches, many magnificent caves, and hidden lagoons that may only be reached by chinks in the cliffs that are revealed at low tide.

Getting here: A 3.5 hour drive by car from Hanoi through urbanized areas. You’ll transfer to the docking station. Since this is a popular destination, expect bustling scenes of boats and large crowds. All this will be left behind once you sail away to a more serene environment in the midst of Halong Bay. Another classy option is to take a 30 minute Sea Plane flight from Hanoi to Tuan Chau pier in Halong Bay

Ninh Binh

Often referred to as “Halong Bay on land” with its natural beauty and karst limestone mountains, Ninh Binh offers a world of cultural heritage to explore. Take the opportunity to be rowed on a sampan to Tam Coc along a peaceful stream while having time to admire views of majestic limestone cliffs, mysterious caves and lush rice paddies. Nearby Hoa Lu was the former capital of Vietnam over a thousand years ago. Although the ancient temples have become time worn, the natural beauty of this area and some precious antiques still remain. With an area of nearly 3000 hectares, Van Long eco-tourism area offers stunning scenery of local villages dotted among the limestone karsts and caves and is the largest wetland reserve of Northern Vietnam. There are many other attractions in Ninh Binh – take a ride on a buffalo cart through the karsts to a beautiful pagoda, hop on a bike through sleepy villages, pass by emerald green paddies and winding rivers or make a trip up to Cuc Phuong National Park.

Getting here: Ninh Binh is a 2 hours drive from Hanoi.

Mai Chau

Nestled in a valley amongst verdant hills in the northwestern highlands, Mai Chau’s stunning scenery offers excellent opportunities for trekking and mountain biking while providing a glimpse into the village life of the H’mong and White Thai ethnic hill tribes.

Getting here: Mai Chau is a 4 hours drive from Hanoi, although the drive can be strenuous due to the mountainous roads, it does offer a good view of the countryside.

Sapa

Set high in Vietnam’s northeast mountains, the hamlet of Sapa offers spectacular views of jagged mountain ridges, terraced rice paddies and green valleys inhabited by people of various ethnic minority groups, most of whom congregate in Sapa’s colorful market. Each group has its own distinctive style of dress. From early childhood, girls learn to grow and weave hemp, to dye cloth with indigo, to sew the family’s clothes, and to decorate items with traditional embroidery motifs. Sapa is becoming more and more popular with tourists. Many local people have limited income, therefore selling souvenir items can often be seen as another way to earn money. Expect hill tribe vendors to follow you and to be persistent in persuading you to buy their handicrafts. If you’re not interested, just say ‘no’ and ask your guide to walk you away.

 

Getting here: The first option is to take a 10 hour overnight train from Hanoi. Departing at night you wake up the next morning near Sapa in Lao Cai ready to begin your adventure. Visiting a more remote hill tribe market requires a 2.5 to 3.5 hours drive on partly bumpy dirt roads through mountains. The trip is for the adventurous; otherwise enjoy your time in nearby hill tribe villages. Another option is to take a 5-hour drive on the new highway from Hanoi to Lao Cai and then one hour to Sapa town.

Cao Bang

Cao Bang is a province of northeastern Vietnam. It is home to many ethnic minority groups and the most notable of these are the Tay, Nung, Dao & H’mong. Cao Bang is relatively poor compared to other Vietnamese provinces. Most of the province’s economy is centered on agriculture & forestry. Cao Bang has several points of historical interest as well as many natural features such as the stunning Ban Gioc waterfall & Nguom Ngao grotto.

Getting here: Head to the North East, going through Highway N4D passing Lang Son then reach Cao Bang provinces, with total of 320km in distance & 7 hours drive, the rest of 100km to Cao Bang will be hard as bad road condition & land slide possibilities sometimes.

Ha Giang

Ha Giang is a town located on the east bank of Lo River in Northeastern Vietnam. It is the capital of Ha Giang. It has many high Rocky Mountains, limestone formations and springs. Travel around the province can be difficult. Much of the province is too mountainous for agriculture, leaving much of the land covered by forests. Aside from the Viet (or Kinh), the most numerous ethnic groups in Ha Giang are Tay, Dao, and H’mong. Some highlights are Quan Ba Valley, Dong Van Karsts plateau and Vuong Dynasty memorial house.

Getting here: Head to North East, you will get there by Highway N2 through Phu Tho, Tuyen Quang provinces where you can see along mountains & rice fields, with  total of 300km in distance & 7 hours drive duration

Hoi An

Set near the coast in central Vietnam, from the 16th to 19th centuries the riverside town of Hoi An once drew merchants from as far as Japan, India, Indonesia and Europe who bought the area’s silk, spices and porcelain. Hoi An still retains remnants of its trading days as evident in the bustling market and abundance of souvenir and tailor shops. What makes Hoi An remarkable today is that its Old Quarter has been beautifully preserved, the streets still lined with old tile-roofed shop houses, shady pagodas and colorful communal halls earning it the status as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Hoi An is surrounded by attractive countryside where you can observe the traditional way of life of farmers and fishermen.

Getting here: Hoi An is a 30 minutes drive from Danang International Airport in the Central part.

Hue

While imperial rule ended more than six decades ago, the central city of Hue still bears the marks of its royal past. From 1802 to 1945 Hue was home to 13 Nguyen emperors, whose palaces and tombs provide fascinating glimpses into the luxurious and secretive world of the court. During this period, the Imperial City was built according to the practices of Feng Shui that dictates the location and shape of spaces in harmony with both the physical and spiritual. Visitors may explore the red-lacquered pavilions of the Citadel, wander through ancient garden houses, or feast on delicacies once served in the royal palaces.

Getting here: Hue has a small domestic airport. It is a 1 hour flight from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Quy Nhon

Quy Nhon is a coastal city in the Binh Dinh province of central Vietnam and once served as the capital of the Kingdom of Champa in the 11th century and was an important US naval and military base during the Vietnam War. Today Quy Nhon is a port city with a population of a quarter of a million and is becoming better known for its secluded beaches. A recently-built international hotel offers the possibility of a relaxing break well away from other more traveled paths.

Getting here: Quy Nhon has a small basic domestic airport. It is a 1 hour 45 minutes flight from Ho Chi Minh City and 1 hour 40 minutes flight from Hanoi

Nhatrang

Located in central Vietnam, the sun-washed town of Nha Trang hugs a seven-km-long stretch of golden sand, making this the perfect place to get a dose of sun, surf and fresh seafood. Clear blue seas dotted with offshore islands offer excellent opportunities for diving, fishing and snorkeling, while the town itself is home to some interesting sites, including a massive white Buddha statue and a cluster of Cham towers built between the 7th and 12th centuries. For a truly dirty pleasure try the mineral mud baths warmed by natural hot springs.

Getting here: A 45 minutes drive from the international airport located in Cam Ranh. It is a 1 hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City and 1 hour 40min from Hanoi.

Phan Thiet

Located on an arm of the East Sea, Phan Thiet is a large fishing village best known locally for its fish sauce production. Phan Thiet is also a gateway to nearby beaches which are popular for both local and tourists alike. Mui Ne, a nearby resort town, has 21 km stretch of sandy beaches lined with hotels, resorts, restaurants, and nightclubs. Mui Ne is subject to onshore winds from the East Sea and is especially breezy from November to May, which may not be ideal for swimming but is popular for wind and kite surfing. Other attractions in the area include the white and red sand dunes, Po Klong Garai Cham tower, and Ocean Dune’s Golf Club, a 6746-yard par 72 course designed by Nick Faldo.

Getting here: Phan Thiet is a 4.5 hours drive or a 5 hours train ride from Ho Chi Minh City.

Dalat

Set in Vietnam’s picturesque Central Highlands, this former French hill-station boasts cool mountain air, some of the best-preserved French colonial architecture in Indochina, and stunning natural beauty. Year-round, the temperature hovers around 20˚C (68˚F), making this a favorite destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Mountain bikers and hikers will delight in the area’s trails, as well as in views of pine-covered hills, organic farms and lush tea and coffee plantations. Dalat hosts a flower festival every other year which normally takes place in mid-December for one week and features a flower exhibition and a flower parade around Xuan Huong lake.

Getting here: It is a 45 minutes flight or an 8 hours drive from Ho Chi Minh City. From Hanoi the flight takes 1 hour 40 minutes. From Danang the flight takes 1 hour 30 minutes.

Buon Ma Thuot

Buon Ma Thuot in Dak Lak province is the biggest caffeine capital of Vietnam. A large percentage of the area’s population is made up of Montagnards. There’s not a lot to do here, but it makes for a good base to explore tribe villages by elephant ride through lake and several stunning waterfalls in the vicinity. The rainy season around Buon Ma Thuot lasts from May to October, though downpours are usually short.

Getting here: Buon Ma Thuot has a small domestic airport. It is a 45 minutes flight from Ho Chi Minh, 1h40’ from Hanoi, 5 hours (200km) drive from Dalat or Nha Trang

Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City, in southern Vietnam, is a sprawling metropolis of approximately 12 million people. Formerly known as “Saigon” prior to 1975, today the city is Vietnam’s commercial center. The city’s dynamic energy is apparent in the bustling street scenes with thousands of people on motorbikes constantly on the move. Although Saigon has rapidly developed into a modern city with skyscrapers and shopping centers, there are still remnants of its past visible in the historic landmarks and beautiful French colonial buildings dotted throughout the city. You’ll find great nightlife and a palpable energy in this fast-changing city which is home to people from all aspect of Vietnamese society. You’ll see women dressed in Vietnam’s traditional ao dai tunic stroll past modern trendy boutiques and crowded cafes. You’ll see newly wealthy entrepreneurs in their luxury cars driving past shoe-shine boys on the street side. From Saigon you can make a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels and Cao Dai Holy See temple.

Getting here: Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport is the gateway to most domestic destinations.

Mekong Delta

Life continues in Vietnam’s agrarian heartland much as it has done for centuries.  Farmers cultivate paddy fields, tend their orchards of tropical fruit and fish in the rivers and canals that criss-cross this fertile plain. Offering an ideal opportunity to adopt the pace of local life, choose to slow down and cycle along the flat roads of the Delta, the region in southwestern Vietnam. You may also choose to visit a farmer’s home, try your hand at fruit picking or explore the myriad waterways on a typical small (but loud) boat as used by locals for their daily transportation. Located 1.5 hours from Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho/Ben Tre is the gateway to the Delta and is ideal for those who are seeking a glimpse of agrarian river life. Traveling 0.5 hour further south, you reach Cai Be, best known for its trading activities at the floating market and traditional craft villages. A 4 hours drive from Ho Chi Minh City, you reach Can Tho, the heartland of the Delta. Can Tho is famous for its floating market, the largest in the Delta, and its numerous fruit orchards.

Getting here: A 2 hours -10 minutes flight to Can Tho from Hanoi

Phu Quoc Island 

Located off the tip of Vietnam’s south coast, Phu Quoc is a haven for nature and sea lovers looking for a place to unwind. The island is considered “off the beaten track” as it remains remarkably undeveloped. Phu Quoc’s virgin forests and pristine white sand beaches make this an ideal place for trekking, diving, and snorkeling. The infrastructure remains basic with dirt roads and a small number of four-star properties. If you’re looking for a relaxing beach getaway without any distractions or a noisy nightlife then Phu Quoc is the ideal place to visit. Phu Quoc is the only destination in Vietnam where visitors can enjoy exemption for entry, exit and transit visas up to 30 days.

Getting here: 45 minutes flight from Can Tho (Mekong Delta) on selected days or 50 minutes flight from HCM City.

Con Dao Island 

Con Dao, an archipelago in southeastern Vietnam, is possibly the best kept secret in Vietnam. Currently virtually undiscovered, Con Dao offers stunning virgin forest, deserted tropical beaches, unique sea life, forgotten prisons being consumed by the jungle, and the possibility to experience a castaway lifestyle without any of the pains normally associated with life 180 kilometers from land. The Con Dao archipelago is an ideal place for nature lovers and an opportunity to visit unspoiled tropical islands before they become developed.

Getting here: Con Dao has a small modern domestic airport. It is a 50 minutes flight from HCM City and 55 minutes flight from Can Tho.

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