My Top 10 Best Things to Do in Vietnam

I visited Southeast Asia for my 40th birthday this year and we spent about 10 days in Vietnam. We had the best time! I didn’t know much about the country before I left, but Vietnam is a country that completely surprised and delighted me. It was full of culture and history, and some of the most incredible food! If you’re planning to visit Vietnam, here are what I think are the top 10 best things to do in Vietnam.

Light a Lantern in Hoi An

Our first stop in Vietnam was the charming city of Hoi An in Northern Vietnam. We flew into Da Nang Airport and took a Grabb car (like UBER) into Hoi An. It was late at night and we were all so excited to see the colorful lanterns lit and the old town literally glowing with light!

Serioiusly obsessed with all the lanterns in Vietnam! They make everything prettier!

We spent several days in Hoi An exploring sites and trying out restaurants. On our first night we took a boat ride and set lanterns free on the river. It was truly a magical experience! I loved Hoi An and its old-world charm, colorful buildings, and fun nightlife! It was a great introduction to Vietnam! So if you’re wondering where to travel to in Vietnam, definitely put Hoi An at the top of your list! You can book boat rides in Hoi An here, or just find a boat along the river if you’re in the old quarter. Just be prepared to barter. We paid about $20 USD, which was too high, but still worth it!

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Take a Lantern Making Class

They turned out so cute. It was such a fun souvenir to bring home!

The history of lanterns in Vietnam is deeply intertwined with the country’s culture and traditions, symbolizing joy, luck, and hope. Originally introduced from China, lanterns have been adapted and embraced within Vietnamese culture, becoming an integral part of many festivals and celebrations throughout the country.

We booked a lantern making class while we were in Hoi An. Our hotel had bikes, so we hopped on and made our way to our class. This was one of my favorite things to do in Vietnam! It was something that helped us connect to the culture of Vietnam and gave us a really special souvenir to take home with us. The lantern making was more difficult than I thought it would be and I have so much more respect for the people who make them! I also bought a few extra lanterns to take home with me. They’re just so beautiful! We booked a class in Hoi An and it was only $10 and so worth it!

Get Custom Clothes Made in Hoi An

Look how cute my friend’s dress turned out. She made this in less than 48 hours!

One of the best things to do in Vietnam is to get custom clothes made, and the best place to do that is in Hoi An. I was so impressed with the quality of the clothes that I had made and the speed at which they made them. You will find hundreds of tailor shops in Hoi An where you can get custom clothing made. Some tailors specialize in suits, some in dresses, but most of them produce great pieces. I chose to use Rosa Tailor in Old Town Hoi An, mainly because they were located across the street from our hotel, which made multiple fittings convenient for us.

I had two linen sets and two skirts made and I love them all! Someone in our group had 4 pairs of her favorite pajamas replicated, and another one had a custom dress made that turned out beautifully. Even if you’re only in Hoi An for a day or two, you can get something made depending on the difficulty. If you’re having a suit or formal gown made, give yourself a few days to go in for extra fittings to get it just right.

Take a Tour in a Vietnam War Jeep

We loved riding in these historic jeeps

If you’re visiting Vietnam and interested in war history and also experiencing local life, then I highly recommend taking a Vietnam War Jeep Tour from Hoi An. This was one of my favorite experiences of our trip. We were picked up from our hotel in authentic restored US Army Vietnam Jeeps and driven around and outside of Hoi An.

We got to visit a home where they made rice paper and rice noodles. We got to learn and take part in the process from turning the rice into milk to cooking the rice paper on an open fire.

I’m so good at making rice paper, I can do it with my eyes closed!

We also visited a family who weaves bamboo mats and got to participate in the weaving process. It was harder than it looks! I purchased a set of 12 bamboo placemats which the family delivered by scooter to my hotel later that night!

My weaving buddy. She was the sweetest lady!

Our guide took us to a family’s traditional government-issued garden, which was fascinating! The gardens were very well kept and were able to feed a family. We learned about the different plants and herbs that were grown and what they were used for.

We also got to ride in a coconut basket boat and catch crabs which was really fun! Our basket captain was born deaf as a result of Agent Orange used in the Vietnam War. That was a really sad reminder that the war is still affecting the people in Vietnam today.

One of my favorite dinners on the water in Hoi An

At the end of our tour, our guide took us to dinner along the river for a traditional Vietnamese family-style dinner. Everything we ate was absolutely delicious!

Explore Hanoi

Hanoi is the second largest city and one of the top places to visit in Vietnam. This bustling city was alive with activity! It was a great place to see historic sites and take a street food tour.

I’ve never seen so many scooters in my life!

Hanoi mixes old Asian traditions with French architecture, showing its rich history. Its lively Old Quarter is full of shops and street food, and landmarks like Hoan Kiem Lake. The city is famous for its cultural arts and delicious food. Despite modern changes, Hanoi keeps its old charm.

Hanoi was a very busy city and if I’m being honest, a little overwhelming. And the driving there was…insane and I felt like I was in a game of Mario Kart! We were able to get around the city easily using Grabb and just walking.

We visited the Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” It was used as a prison for both Vietnamese and Americans throughout its history.

A portion of the original prison has been preserved as a war museum, where you can see insights into the prison’s history and the conditions endured by those held within its walls. The museum presents a complex narrative, focusing on the prison’s use during both the French colonial period and the Vietnam War, aiming to provide a broader understanding of Vietnam’s struggle for independence and the complexities of war.

It was interesting to have a glimpse inside the Vietnam War and Vietnam’s history from a Vietnamese perspective. It’s one of the top places to visit in Vietnam if you’re interested in war history.

If you want to visit the prison, be sure to bring cash, as they do not take cards. The cost is 50,000 dong (about $2 USD).

Another fun activity we did in Vietnam was to see a Water Puppet Show. It was fascinating and a little strange, but very unique to Hanoi and something you can only find there! This is an ativity that you’ll want to book in advance. We booked a few days before and the theater was full. If you want to get an English headset, bring cash. They cost around 100,000 dong ($4 USD).

Explore Ninh Binh

Wondering what to see in Vietnam that’s not in the city? While we loved exploring the cities of Hoi An and Hanoi, we really wanted to see more of the countryside in Vietnam. We booked a private tour of the Ninh Binh area and I’m so glad we did. We were able to see and do so much just outside of Hanoi.

Our private guide, Tri (pronounced tree) showed us around the area where he grew up living with his grandparents. He taught us about traditional life, took us on a bike ride through the rice paddies, took us to visit the ancient town and original capital city of Vietnam, Hoa Lu, hiked up to the Lying Dragon mountain with us for a bird’s eye view of the rice paddies and mountains, and took us to Tam Coc to ride through the rice fields. It was a magical day visiting Ninh Binh, one of the most beautiful places to see in Vietnam.

Many tours will take you to Ninh Binh and most tour operators will take you in large groups, but if you can afford it, I recommend booking a private tour. We saw large groups throughout the day and it didn’t look nearly as fun, especially with different levels of biking and hiking. But it’s a must see in Vietnam so you should definitely go!

See the Rice Paddies of Vietnam

You probably can’t think of Vietnam without thinking about the rice paddies and the people who work in them. It’s such an iconic image of the country, both in ancient and modern times. These terraced fields are not just agricultural wonders; they are a testament to generations of Vietnamese farmers working in harmony with the land to cultivate rice, the staple food of the country.

Rice paddies are more than just agricultural sites; they are a symbol of Vietnamese culture and resilience. They play a crucial role in Vietnamese festivals and traditions, and the rhythms of rural life often revolve around the rice planting and harvesting seasons. The image of the rice farmer, knee-deep in water, tending to the fields, is a powerful symbol of Vietnam’s connection to both land and water.

Rice paddies can be found throughout Vietnam, from the Red River Delta in the north to the Mekong Delta in the south. Each region has its unique methods and cycles of cultivation, influenced by local climate and topography.

In mountainous regions, such as Sapa in the north, rice terraces are carved into terraces that climb the hills and mountains. These terraced fields are engineering marvels, maximizing arable land area and water distribution.

Since we were visiting Vietnam in January and February, we knew it would be too cold in Sapa, so we opted to visit Tam Coc, also known as the “Halong Bay on land.” Located in Ninh Binh Province, just south of Hanoi, this incredible landscape is famous for its limestone cliffs rising out of the rice paddies and winding rivers. The name Tam Coc means “three caves,” which are formed by the Ngo Dong River cutting through the mountains.

You can hire a paddle boat with a driver and row through the rice paddies and caves. The paddlers row the boat with their feet, which is extra impressive! This was such a relaxing journey and I loved seeing the traditional rice paddy workers in the fields and enjoying the mountain scenery. This was a must do in Vietnam for me!

We saw most of the rice paddies in Vietnam during our Ninh Binh tour.

Take a Halong Bay Cruise

The highlight of our time in Vietnam was probably cruising Ha Long Bay. I know it’s a “touristy” thing to do in Vietnam, but for good reason! It’s totally worth experiencing these iconic scenes! And the prices are surprisingly affordable for a cruise.

Located in northeastern Vietnam, this UNESCO World Heritage site is known for its emerald waters and thousands of limestone islands topped with rainforests. This natural wonder covers an area of about 1,500 square kilometers and features nearly 2,000 islets, each with its unique shape and form.

The name “Ha Long” translates to “Descending Dragon,” inspired by local legends that dragons descended from heaven to protect Vietnam, creating the bay’s islands with their tails. And when you see Ha Long Bay, heavenly is certainly a word that comes to mind! It’s one of the most beautiful things to see in Vietnam.

We cruised with Mon Cherie Cruises. There are dozens of companies doing Ha Long Bay cruises and it was really difficult to choose from all the boat trips and cruise companies, but in the end, I was really happy with our choice.

The rooms were great and we had our balconies, the staff was kind, funny, and helpful, the food was great, and the day tours were really fun. We were able to visit Cat Ba Island and bike through the middle of the island and learn about the local culture, kayak in the ocean, and visit private, untouched beaches. It was seriously a memorable experience and a Vietnam must see!

Take a Food Tour

Wondering what to do in Vietnam if you’re a foodie? Take a food tour! I knew that I liked Vietnamese food before going to Vietnam, but tasting it in its original country was even better! We were able to try a large variety of food on our own, but it would be even better to book a food tour and have a local show you around the best food in Vietnam! Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), and Hoi An would be a great place to take a food tour since you have so many options!

Some Vietnamese delicacies that you should try are Vietnamese egg coffee, pho (a tasty rice noodle soup), banh mi (a perfect Vietnamese-French fusion sandwich on a baguette), goi cuon (spring rolls), bun cha (pork and rice noodles- this is usually what I have at home), and coa lau (a pork noodle dish with a dark broth).

Here are some great food tours in each city:

Hoi An – Food Tour & Boat Trip

Hanoi – Street Food Walking Tour

Ho Chi Minh – Private Walking Food Tour

Book a Photoshoot in Vietnam

Vietnam is beautiful inside and out and deserves to be captured, and preferably with you in the picture! Booking a Flytographer session is a great way to do that!

Book a Photoshoot

We always love to book a photoshoot when we’re traveling. As a mom, it’s tough to get in the photos since I’m always behind the camera. We love using Flytographer to capture our memories. You can get $25 off your shoot by booking with this link or using code WANDERLUST.

One thing we didn’t get the chance to do in Vietnam was to book a photoshoot, and I was kicking myself while we were there. If we didn’t have such a packed schedule, I would have quickly booked a last-minute photoshoot in Hoi An. The city was absolutely stunning and photogenic! Don’t miss the opportunity to capture your memories there! Check out these stunning photos by the Flytographer there! The lantern ones, my goodness!

Some Frequently Asked Questions about Vietnam

Do I need a visa to visit Vietnam?

Visa requirements vary by country. Many visitors need a visa, which can be obtained via the Vietnamese embassy or consulate in your country or through an online e-visa process. Some nationalities are eligible for visa exemptions for short stays. As an American, I needed a visa. Be sure to put the correct date on your visa application. One of my friends put the day after and ended up having to sleep on a bathroom floor in the Bangkok airport because she wasn’t allowed to fly to Vietnam with her visa that was one day off.

Is it safe to travel in Vietnam?

Vietnam is generally considered safe for travelers. Common precautions should be taken, especially in busy cities, to guard against petty theft. Road safety can be a concern, so be cautious when crossing streets and consider the quality of transportation options.

Where did you stay in Vietnam?

Here are the hotels that we booked during our stay in Vietnam. Hotels were VERY affordable!

Hoi AnQ Villas Hotel

This was a very basic family owned and run hotel right in the heart of the old quarter. It was perfect for our stay. I stayed in the family room and it was large and could have easily fit 4 people. There aren’t very many fancy or chain hotels in the center of Hoi An so this was a good choice for us.

HanoiMovenpick Hanoi Center

This was a very fancy hotel in the center of Hanoi and it only cost us $100 a night. It was great and the service was amazing. They ended up holding our bags for a day after we got back from our cruise and we weren’t even staying there. I was very grateful.

Ha Long Bay Cruise – Mon Cheri Cruises

We loved our cruise with Mon Cheri. It was great for the price and the service and activities were top notch!

I’d love to get back to Vietnam and check out Ho Chi Minh and the rest of southern Vietnam. We just didn’t have time, but I loved everything that we were able to fit in.

As you can see I really fell in love with Vietnam. Not only its natural and historic beauty, but with the people. They were so kind and welcoming and I could tell that they were really glad to see us and share their culture with us. I hope my 10 best things to do in Vietnam will be helpful to you! Did I miss anything that you loved? I would love to hear from you!

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