We can bet our bottom dollar (or dong – the currency of Vietnam), that if you mention the name of this misunderstood and mysterious land around the world, the first thing that people think of is the twenty-year conflict that ravaged the country. That and the hundreds of Vietnam War movies it spawned, including the Robin Williams cult classic that is as funny as it is poignant. While the war will always leave a scar on the region – and indeed many attractions are a result of it – there is so much more to Vietnam than its darker past.
After all, this is the country that inspired Cez to realize that a desk job was not for him and he wanted to travel the world instead. So to encourage you to visit Vietnam, we’ve put together a list of the must-see attractions from this stunningly diverse culture.
Ho Chi Minh City
More commonly abbreviated to HCMC, the capital of Vietnam is perhaps more famously known as Saigon – star of stage and screen for its role in the Vietnam war. Now named after Ho Chi Minh – a revolutionary communist leader – the city has a colorful history reflected in its attractions today.
A must see is the War Remnants Museum, housing some incredible educational exhibitions relating to the conflict, and the famous Cu Chi Tunnel, a network of underground tunnels used to hide Vietcong fighters and villagers.
It is now the most visited attraction in the city – but not for the claustrophobic! But it’s not all doom and gloom in the city, as you’ll enjoy some delicious food on the streets of this vibrant, multicultural metropolis. See if you can work up the courage to try the spiders – but you simply can’t miss HCMC if you’re visiting Vietnam.
Cez believes that Tam Coc is the most beautiful place in Vietnam, and he’s certainly got a good case, with its dramatic rock formations, caves, and river systems. Translated into English, the name literally means three caves, and is one of the country’s most popular destinations with locals. You won’t find that many western tourists here, but that is likely to change – so see it when it is still relatively unspoiled. The whole region is a UNESCO world heritage site, and it consists of three, natural caves sitting on the Ngô Đồng River. You can hire boats with local women as guides to explore the limestone Karst system and the surrounding paddy fields for a really authentic Vietnamese experience. It is simply stunning and not to be missed.
Tam Coc is actually located in the province of Ninh Binh and is accessed from the area, but don’t overlook the rest of this gorgeous region in the north of the country. We visited this sumptuous scenery during our Vietnam cycling trip when we covered most of the country from the back of a saddle.
Make sure you visit the Bai Đính Temple complex, which is home to the largest Buddha statue in Southeast Asia. Phát Diệm Cathedral is reputed to be the most beautiful church in the country and took 24 years to complete. The Trang An Grottoes are a larger cave system than Tam Coc but nowhere near as beautiful, and don’t miss the nearby 15th Century Bich Dong Pagoda – located here because of the beauty of the landscape. Beautiful photographs guaranteed.
Ha Long Bay
It was a tough ride for us to Ha Long Bay, mainly because of the heat, but it was so worth it and no visit to Vietnam would be complete without it.
Like Tam Coc, it is also a UNESCO world heritage site and consists of thousands of caves, islands, and grottoes dotted into the sea that transforms the area into an ethereal paradise.
Perhaps the best way to experience the limestone pillars and karsts is with a paddle in your hand sitting in a sea kayak, or from the deck of a traditional Junk – but be aware that scenery this stunning will always attract the tourists – so you’re not going to be alone!
The third largest city in Vietnam is also home to its friendliest Nationals, arguably one of the most hospitable places we’ve ever experienced in all our travels. When you’re not enjoying the warm welcome, make sure to cross the famous Dragon Bridge, a 666-metre long crossing that literally looks like an enormous dragon making its way over the River Hàn! It even lights up and spits fire during the weekends! You won’t be able to miss Da Nang Cathedral if you tried – because it’s colored bright pink! Built by French Catholics, you’ll find great views from the top of the city from the bell tower.
If you’re still hankering after nature, make the 7 km trip to the Marble Mountains, for a further fix of marble and limestone caves, peppered with Buddhist pagodas. Check out the surrounding villages for marble sculpture souvenirs – a specialty in these parts.
We’ve not yet mentioned beaches, and if you’re visiting Vietnam – you need to mention beaches. Nha Trang isn’t going to be for everyone, especially if you’re looking for a quieter experience, but the stunning setting, beautiful sandy beach, and brilliant blue waters are worth a look alone.
It’s not all beach bar and nightlife though, and if you’re not all “pagoda’s out”, visit the Long Son Pagoda to see a 79ft, white Buddha. There’s some modern dining to be found too, with the center enjoying a recent renovation. Nearby, you can take an excursion to Monkey Island. Have a guess why it’s called that?!
Although it’s been a while since we first cut our teeth on travel adventures together and completed our cycling adventure there, Vietnam still lives long in the memory, and we’d go back in a heartbeat. From the hospitality to the cuisine, the culture to the landscape, the activities to the sights, this country has an abundance of attractions to suit every traveler and is likely to be one of the most inspiring places you could visit. If you’ve not been you need to go, and if you have been, you need to go again!
Who has been to Vietnam and do you have any top picks for places to see that we should have included?