The food is outstanding, the people welcoming and the country itself is as beautiful as it is diverse. From trekking with the Hmong in Sapa, to abseiling down waterfalls in Dalat and admiring all the colourful lanterns in Hoi An there are an innumerable amount of incredible experiences and unique things to do in Vietnam. I want to share some of my favourite Vietnam experiences with you, and this post is the result of my two extended trips there in both 2014 and 2016. Whether you are travelling Vietnam on a budget or are planning to do it in style, I suggest you check out as much of these experiences as possible.
Escape to paradise on Phu Quoc Island
Phu Quoc is similar to Mui Ne in that it is not what people imagine when you ask them to picture travelling in Vietnam. Located off the southern tip of this unusually long country, Phu Quoc is a hidden paradise unknown to many and loved to those in on the secret. Think unspoilt beaches lined with palm trees with perfectly positioned hammocks hanging between them, fresh coconut cocktails and sleepy beach bungalows that open right onto the soft sand. Much of the island is still an immense jungle, while the rest is covered in perfect beaches and turquoise water perfect for snorkelling!
Visit a traditional fishing village
There fishing villages the entire length of the Vietnamese coastline and they are all as interesting as each other. I visited one just outside of Hoi An and it was interesting to see both men and women at work, catching, sorting and drying the fish. You can also do fishing tours or sunrise photography tours that bring you to small fishing villages as the fishermen see out in their traditional wooden boats at the crack of dawn. Whether you are looking to get involved and actually try your hand at fishing to you just wish to watch the action from a safe distance, a visit to a fishing village is a must on your list of things to do in Vietnam as it’s a first hand look at how a large proportion of the population make a living.
Walk down Hanoi’s famous train street
This was one of my favourite finds in Hanoi, mainly because so few people know about it. Essentially there’s a very narrow residential street near the train station that an absolutely massive train passes through twice a day. There are lots more videos and photos in this post here, but trust me, this is one seriously unique experience that you cannot miss out on. It is sure to get your heart racing if you happen to visit at 3.30pm when the train passes by, and even at other times it is pretty much a photographers heaven. If you plan to travel Vietnam by train, be sure to book your ticket in advance!
Top tip: Get there 30 minutes before the train and expect the train to arrive early!!
Kayak through caves in Cat Ba National Park
Most tours to Halong Bay organise a kayaking trip around the islands and through the cave formations. Do your research and MAKE SURE that your Halong Bay tour does this as it’s a real highlight of the trip. On my first visit to Halong Bay things were quite tame and we just spend an hour kayaking slowly around the bay, taking in the beautiful scenery. My second visit involved drinking while kayaking as it was party of a party cruise, so that experience was…slightly wilder. Either way, it’s one of the most unique things to do in Vietnam, an experience you can not have any where else!
Treat yourself to a some daily Pho
Speaking of Pho, you can’t travel around Vietnam without having a bowl in every town and every city. Why? Because the taste, flavour and texture of traditional Pho changes throughout Vietnam. You can have it as clear soup or dark soup, with a lot of vegetables and herbs or very little at all. With beef, with pork, with chicken and sometimes hot enough to make you scream. It really is the darling dish of Vietnam, known the world all over but best tasted on home territory! Enjoy with a cool Hanoi Beer to cool your mouth down after too much chilli sauce.
Go on a Vespa Adventure in Hoi An
One of my favourite things to do in Hoi An was this half day Vespa Adventure we did through the rural countryside with Buffalo Tours. Sadly both myself and my friend Claire weren’t feeling too well that day, but once we were flying through rice paddies and over bridges, the fresh air had cured us. On out Vespa adventure, we stopped by a Vietnam War Hero with a wooden leg who sang us songs with his guitar and wouldn’t stop smiling. We visited a very local eatery and tried the ladies special homemade shrimp pancakes. We learned to make rice noodles and how they make locally brewed rice wine and stopped off at a beautiful fishing village to take photos. All in one morning! The Vespa’s were super comfy and our guides were full of information about the local area and their way of life.
See Ho Chi Minh from a rooftop bar
By the time most visitors reach Ho Chi Minh city, they are tired, dirty and longing for a taste of home. The city has many spectacular rooftop bars, where visitors can sit outside enjoying panoramic views of the skyline and feeling, even just for a few minutes, like their normal citizens again and not just scruffy backpackers. I loved throwing on my favourite dress and heading up to Chill Skybar, even if the purpose was just to take some cool photos!
Party all night at Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel
I actually can’t count the number of times I have stayed in this hostel. The biggest backpackers hostel in Vietnam, pretty much anyone visiting the country under the age of 25 has probably stayed here. The perfect base before heading off on trips both South and North, this hostel also guarantees a wild night out. It’s a pretty mad place, if I’m honest. Sorry of like walking into a nightclub that is in fact a hostel. It’s impossible not to make friends here and every last staff member is totally bonkers. If you’re a guest they give out FREE BEER every night at 5pm and they have more happy hours than I can count on both hands.
Jump off a boat in Halong Bay
Halong Bay, one of the new 7 natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO world heritage site, is best enjoyed from one of the many amazing boats that cruise around its waters. Whether you choose 5 star luxury or a backpackers party cruise, take some time to jump off your boat into the warm waters of the bay. It will give you an entire new perspective of how tall those limestone cliffs are and just how many islands (1000’s…that’s right 1000’s!!) there are in this fascinating world wonder.
Learn how to ride a buffalo
I saw this advertised as part of many tours and local operated day trips but never got the chance to try it out myself. Learning to ride a buffalo is surely a great life skill, perfect for when you become a farmer and need to plough your fields! Or, heaven forbid, your horse is lame and you need alternative transportation! Places that offer this kind of activity include: Mai Chau, Sapa and Hoi An. Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg sees the value in riding a Buffalo! You can even do a short Basket Boat and Buffalo ride trip with Jack Tran Eco Tours to conquer two Vietnam Bucket List items at once.
Ride the Hai Van Pass on a motorbike
Made famous in an episode of Top Gear, the Hai Van Pass and coastal road between Hue and Hoi An is one of the most fun rides in Vietnam. Whether you have your own bike or choose to sit on the back of someone else’s (you can hire motorbike drivers called Easy Riders to take you along the route), this 200km stretch of spectacular coastline is a thrilling ride full of hair pin bends, narrow roads and even a change in climate as you pass from North to South.
Light a lantern in Hoi An
The prettiest town in Vietnam, Hoi An is so full of colour that it can be difficult to believe it’s all for real. Walking through the pedestrianised streets, which smell of incense and fresh flowers (that grow up the side of the ancient buildings), you get the immediate feeling you are in a very special place. You can buy paper lanterns on the main bridge or anywhere along the river, light them and set them to sail down the river. There are also lots of fun bars and clubs along the riverfront which really come alive after 10pm each evening.
Top tip: Don’t buy from kids, it encourages child labour.
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