1. Discover Ninh Binh
Ninh Binh is without a doubt my favorite of all the places to visit in Vietnam.
You can get there with a bus ride of about two hours from Hanoi (+/- $12 / €10 to $18 / €15 per person for only the bus, a day tour with transport, guide and admission tickets costs $35 / €30 pp).
Once you’re getting closer to the overwhelming landscapes of Ninh Binh, your transport starts to gently sway around the gigantic rocks that seem to rise up from out of nowhere and create this mysterious landscape. Outside the city of Ninh Binh, there is a lot more natural beauty to discover. The razor-sharp limestone rocks are located right next to the wet rice fields where you can see the Vietnamese with their famous hats work hard and almost non-stop. A little further you‘ll find slow flowing rivers where tourists are taken onto to discover the inaccessible parts of Ninh Binh.
Nature is certainly the most impressive feature here, but also the many temples are worth a visit (you can find the largest Buddhist temple in Vietnam here, for example). However, my personal favorite place to visit in Ninh Binh are the Hang Mua Caves. After a steep climb (500 steps!) you get an unobstructed view of this beautiful natural wonder of Vietnam.
2. The rice terraces of Sa Pa
Hanoi seems like the perfect basecamp for all hour adventures in Vietnam. From the capital it’s a six hours drive to the highest point of Vietnam. With the (night) bus (or train) you are taken along winding mountains to some of the most beautiful landscapes of this country. Sapa is a valley area that was transformed into one giant staircase with thousands of shades of green and yellow.
The rice terraces cover this entire area and are only interrupted by winding rivers that are formee by roaring waterfalls. A few villages have nestled between all this natural beauty. They are often not more than simple huts and often they look a bit depressing and quite dull. Luckily, the residents are anything but that! Their colorful attire would make rainbows jealous! Striking pink, yellow, green and blue hues adorn the tiny women of the mountain tribes who live in this area.
These same locals are only too happy to guide you through the vast mountain areas of Sapa. On the way you are rewarded with fantastic views, but also the cooking skills of the women are something you must make yourself familiar with! You can plan a guided tour in Sapa itself, or book in advance and online. You usually have options for one, two and three days. During the multi-day tours you stay in (authentic) homestays with the tribe families. What an experience!
If you’re interested in visiting this gorgeous place, then make sure to also read this blog post that I’ve written about it.
3. Cruise along Halong Bay
Halong Bay is perhaps the best known place to visit in Vietnam. In this turquoise bay, thousands of gray and green islands float and create a mysterious and magical landscape.
From Hanoi it’s a very popular tour to spend one or more days in Halong Bay on a luxurious cruise. Personally, I recommend to go for at least two days, because a one-way trip from Hanoi to Halong already takes six hours. If you’re not planning a boat trip between this World Heritage site, then you can arrange a bus from Hanoi to Halong for about $20 / €17 per person. Do keep in mind that booking everything seperately is not necessarily cheaper.
I personally enjoyed my cruise with Emeraude Classic Cruises very much. You can read more about my own experience in this article. During your two day cruise, everything is taken care of for you so that you can enjoy some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Along the way you will be spoiled with excellent food and quite some fun activities. I definitely recommend to rent a canoe to get a little closer to the islands. The climb to the top of one of the islands for beautiful views is also quite worthwhile (and on some islands you can see the caves from the inside) .
If you really can’t get enough of this beautiful landscape, then I really recommend to book a flight above Halong Bay together with your cruise. Hai Au Aviation takes you above these magical waters for about half an hour and makes sure that you’ll never forget about your visit to Halong Bay. The views are phenomenal!
4. Go crazy in Hanoi
The Vietnamese capital is one of the busiest cities I have ever visited. From the moment you arrive in Hanoi you are overwhelmed by honking daredevils on scooters and motorcycles, crammed shops that completely take over the curbs and the smell and colors of all the delicious food.
Hanoi is huge, but the most beautiful part for me personally is the old city center. Between the imperturbable traffic you find some remnants of the turbulent history of Vietnam. Interesting museums about wartime, souvenirs from communism or just remnants of colonial times.
During your stay, try to stay in Hanoi for at least one weekend.
Another must-see is the weekly ‘night market’. But beware, because it’s yet another attack on all of your senses! Stalls with all kinds of gadgets try to sell you pretty much everything, delicious street food is offered everywhere and once everyone is chased away by the police (around midnight) you can continue the party in one of the nice clubs. Beer and other alcoholic drinks are very cheap here and the DJs never seem to stop.
Hanoi is nice, but after three days I had enough of all the crowds. Moreover, the intense heat and the ever-present smog isn’t exactly good for your health either…
Fortunately, there are a lot of trips from Hanoi that can perfectly justify a longer stay in this city.
5. Visit a Water Puppet Theater Show
One of the nicest things to do in Vietnam is without a doubt to see a Water Puppet Show. These wonderful performances hardly cost $10 per person, so for the price you should definitely not leave it.
A few invisible actors stand behind a large water basin, and make the handmade dolls in all sorts and sizes come to life with the most intricate tricks.
During the 45-minute performance you see scenes from Vietnamese daily life and local mythology. The hard work on the rice fields, unhappy fishermen who can’t seem to get hold of the scaly animals or synchronous dances in the water. Phoenixes, golden sea snakes and other fabulous creatures brighten up the theater performance even more, all while live music is being played and unintelligible Vietnamese gibberish is spoken all the way through the performance.
Before you know it, the Water Puppet Show is over! Unfortunately, because I thought it was one of the best things to do in Vietnam.
6. Marvel at the insane driving of the Vietnamese
I saw only one accident happen during my stay in Hanoi and I think that really is a miracle. At any time of the day, hundreds of thousands of scooters (and cars) are honking and maneuvering along the narrow streets without taking any account of pedestrians, cyclists or other road users.
If you want to cross as a pedestrian, it’s actually best to just walk straight-ahead without ever stopping or looking back. The drivers take this more or less into account, but still… It’s quite scary!!
It seems impossible, but around four o’clock it becomes even more crowded. Quite often there’s just a few inches between you and the next driver . If you plan to drive here yourself, you definitely need good driving skills!
There are no rules according to me. Red lights are (mostly) ignored, driving in the opposite direction is completely normal and honking uncessantly seems to be the national sport. In the beginning I thought it was fantastic to see this chaos, but after three days you get quite sick of it.
One thing is certain: after a visit to Vietnam you‘ll never again be annoyed by wild drivers back at home!
7. Watch and indulge on the fantastic street food
This may not be one of the sights, but it sure is one of the best things to do in Vietnam. The Vietnamese cuisine is incredibly tasty (and so beautiful to look at)! Often the dishes are quite simple, but yet so yummy!
Rice noodles, fried rice, lots of vegetables, soups, sweet sauces, peanuts, … The combinations that thes stalls and shops come up with are almost incalculable and yet I have to admit that I liked every single one of the dishes that I tried.
Be sure to try ‘Pho’, ‘Bun Cha’ and ‘Bánh cuốn’; three of the most popular dishes in Vietnam. For delicious noodles I can definitely recommend the restaurant ‘Nha Hang Bach Phuong Bún Bò Nam Bo’, but actually it’s even better to make yourself comfortable on one of the small plastic seats and let yourself be surprised by the specialties of your cook.
In addition to pampering your taste buds, many street foods are also a treat for the eyes (and all your other senses).
Colorful stalls and chairs, unknown fruits, meat and vegetables or dishes that are impossible to pronounce. I think it’s perfectly possible to travel around for a few months without even coming close to trying everything!
Don’t forget to practice eating with chopsticks, because it really isn’t that easy!
Ready for your adventure to Vietnam? Fly in comfort with Cathay Pacific
A flight from Europe, the Americas or Oceania to Vietnam will take quite some hours, so it’s not a bad idea to be seated comfortably. With Cathay Pacific you can fly to Hong Kong and then connect to Vietnam in comfort. Especially if you opt for Premium Economy! You can read my own experience with that special class here.
Especially for the return flight it is a good idea to indulge on that bit extra of luxury, because believe me… After a visit to Vietnam you’ll be completely exhausted!!
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Hi, I'm Sam Van den Haute. The last three years I've been traveling the world almost constantly. Heading out for an adventure and visiting the most beautiful places are what I love to do! Let me inspire you with great stories, beautiful pictures and handy tips from my adventures and travels. On my facebook page and instagram account you'll get to see the latest updates and photos to inspire you for your next vacation.