- The Ultimate Vietnam bucket list: Rice paddies, floating markets, street food and so much more!
By Joseph Francis
Ranging from the wild karst mountains and cascading rice paddies of mist-shrouded Sa Pa in the north to the postcard-perfect landscapes of Ha Long Bay, the UNESCO-loaded cityscapes of Hue to the sprawling waterways of the Mekong Delta in the south, Vietnam has risen and grown in recent decades to become one of the most alluring destinations on the entire Southeast Asian circuit. Yes sir, ravaged by war and political upheaval in the 20th century, the S-shaped nation that forms the very backbone of the Indochina peninsula now entices visitors with everything from powdery white beaches to dense jungle hikes, chilli-packed noodle soups to floating markets. Here is a Vietnam travel guide to the ultimate bucket list experiences on the menu! Enjoy…
Get lost in Hanoi’s Old Quarter
A maze of criss-crossing lanes and tight-knit alleys that forms the beating heart of the Vietnamese capital, the Hanoi Old Quarter is awash with lively backpacker hostels, fresh beer bars, artisan boutiques touting wood carvings from Sa Pa and intricate oriental jewellery, rattling cycle rickshaws and more street food options than you can shake a bowl of steaming pho noodles at. Hanoi tour guides often recommend starting your visit to the city here, delving into the mysterious Bach Ma and Dong Huong temples, gawping at the Ly Dynasty pagodas and haggling through the stalls of Dong Xuan Market.
Cruise around Ha Long Bay
A bucket list topper that’s on the menu of most all Vietnam tour guides, Ha Long bay is the veritable jewel of the north. Rising from the shimmering, aquamarine waters of the South China Sea, it’s formed from a series of more than 2,000 sheer-cut limestone islets, all soaring dramatically from the ocean bed in a medley of chiselled limestone and macaque-dotted ridges. These are best explored by boat, while there are also hotspots like the Thien Cung caves and countless bobbing fishing villages to see too.
Hike the hills of Sa Pa
Set deep in the verdant valleys of the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains, the quaint hill station of Sa Pa has garnered a reputation as Vietnam’s ecotourist hub. Famed for its location close to the sweeping Muong Hoa rice paddies, the town is awash with Sa Pa tour guides eager to lead travellers out to the misty trekking trails that abound here, all of which weave past traditional tribal towns and some of the most beautiful backcountry in Southeast Asia as a whole.
Sample the street foods
Cooking up a medley of pho bo beef noodles, sweet and sour sticky rice, chilli-topped papaya salads, prawn spring rolls, boiled corn ears, curiously Francophone baguettes with just a hint of old colonialism, soy-doused yellow noodles and steamed South China Sea fish cuts, Vietnamese street food surely deserves its reputation as one of the most flavoursome arrays of dining on the globe. What’s more, the options are cheap to boot, with average dishes costing around just $1-$2 apiece!
Head for the beaches of Phu Quoc
Lapped over by the crystal-clear waters of the Thai Gulf on the extreme southern end of Vietnam, the island of Phu Quoc is now hailed as the home of some of the finest beaches in the entire region. A land of glistening golden sands and swaying palm groves, it’s also tantalisingly accessible by air from Ho Chi Minh City. For some of the top beaches, make a beeline for Truong, with its lively collection of surf bars and hotels, or Ganh Dau, nestled neatly and secluded on the north coast of the island.
Cool off in HCMC’s Dam Sen Water Park
Once you’re done exploring the curious post-colonial French relics, sprawling parks and sleepless backpacker streets of downtown Ho Chi Minh City, be sure to head for Dam Sen Water Park, which sits around just 15 minutes by car from the center. Covering a whopping 3,000 square meters, the attraction boasts disconcertingly named rides like the Kamikaze and Black Thunder, while also offering up a wave pool, relaxing lazy river, Jacuzzi baths and an artificial beach. A real off-the-beaten-track gem on the edge of erstwhile Saigon.
See Hoi An’s beautiful center
Hoi An is arguably the most beautiful town in all of Vietnam and a bucket list topper if there ever was one. Tagged by UNESCO and home to a truly enchanting old town of curiously French cottages and cobbled streets, it throbs with cultural interest. What’s more, the city boasts one long stretch of palm-backed beach on its peripheries, not to mention some of the most famous tailors in the country. Get your Hoi An tour guide to show you around the bustling night market, the silk emporiums and gorgeous Thu Bon River banks.
Visit UNESCO wonders in Hue
Home to the vast UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Imperial City, Hue was once the capital of Vietnam as a whole and enjoyed its golden age under the patronage of the Nguyễn kings. Today it’s unquestionably one of the most culturally-rich hotspots in the country, offering a glimpse at gorgeous 19th century architecture that finds its zenith in the Purple Forbidden City. And as if that’s not enough, Hue also boasts the soaring Thiên Mụ Pagoda and opulently adorned tomb of Khải Định.
Explore the tumultuous modern history
No trip to Vietnam could be complete without at least encountering the visceral histories of the last 100 years. Torn apart by civil war and foreign invasions alike, the nation was split between the communist north and anti-communist south. Today, the so-called Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that separated these two forces can still be visited just outside of Hue, while the legendary Cu Chi Tunnels reveal a vast subterranean network of passages dug out by the Viet Cong.
Haggle in the floating markets of the Mekong Delta
Rise early and take to the meandering waterways of the famous Mekong Delta to catch one of Vietnam’s unforgettable floating markets. Bursting with smells, tastes and colour, these are awash with traders straight from the fruit and veg farms of this veritable bread bowl region of the nation. Expect a cacophony of melons, papayas, bananas, flowers, durian and jackfruit as the sellers drift by on their hand-carved timber canoes. Be sure to get in early though – the popular markets of Cai Rang and Cai Be both trail off around late morning.
Joseph ‘Rich’ Francis is a freelance travel writer who has travelled extensively in Asia and Europe. He particularly enjoys the jazz bars of Poland, the ski slopes of Austria and the beaches and cities of India.
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