By Briana Seftel
Leave everything you think you know about Vietnam behind – this country will surprise you in more ways than one. From the historical cities of Hoi An and Hue to the rich flavors of bun cha, Vietnam is quickly becoming a must-see destination in Southeast Asia.
Don’t miss out on everything Vietnam has to offer – keep this article handy when planning your adventure! Don’t pho-get about Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Vietnam’s largest city is a bit of a misnomer: it’s officially named Ho Chi Minh City, but locals still refer to it by its former name of Saigon. Whatever you call it, this city is sure to excite. 21st-century skyscrapers, fragrant street food stalls, and sacred temples all fuse together to create a 24/7 city bursting with energy.
Vietnam’s capital may not have the buzzing energy of Ho Chi Minh City, but that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked. From the French colonial architecture of the Old Quarter to the ornate Temple of Literature, Hanoi is the ideal starting point to your Vietnam adventure.
Lying on Vietnam’s central coast, Hoi An was once a major port and to this day is one of the country’s most atmospheric cities. Its well-preserved Ancient Town, maze of canals, and pedestrianized streets all harken back to a time before noisy traffic and pollution.
As the former seat of the Nguyen Dynasty, Hue brims with history at every corner. The city is most well known for its 19th-century citadel, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A ride on a dragon boat and slurping noodles of bun bo soup complete the Hue experience.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Containing hundreds of cave systems, Phong Nha-Ke Bang isn’t your typical Vietnam experience – but it is an unforgettable one anyway. The area is also home to Asia’s oldest karst mountains, underground rivers, and untouched jungle.
Ha Long Bay
Perhaps the most iconic and popular site in Vietnam, Ha Long Bay is nonetheless spectacular. Towering limestone rocks jut out of the glistening waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, providing visitors with one incredible photo op after another. Tiny islands and quiet coves invite total relaxation.
Cat Tien National Park
A tangle of jungle flora and fauna meet together in Cat Tien National Park in southern Vietnam. Elephants, leopards, gibbons and a kaleidoscope of butterflies all call this national park home. Adventure seekers will want to spend a day trekking this natural paradise.
Witness the iconic image of Vietnamese fisherman wearing straw hats and floating on the Mekong River first hand. Encompassing southwestern Vietnam, the Mekong Delta has been called a “biological treasure trove” as well as the “rice bowl” of Vietnam.
Historical and Spiritual Places
Cu Chi tunnels
An eerie yet essential experience in Vietnam is a visit to the vast network of tunnels known as Cu Chi. Located in Ho Chi Minh City, the tunnels were used heavily during the Vietnam War by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots, as well as supply and communication routes.
My Son Sanctuary
This cluster of abandoned Hindu temples was once the longest inhabited archaeological site in Indochina, but the Vietnam War left many of its temples in ruins. Still, this site is a beautiful reminder of Vietnam’s royal past.
The Temple of Literature
Built in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius, the Temple of Literature in Hanoi is a sprawling complex that was Vietnam’s first university. A superb example of Vietnamese architecture, it is worth spending a couple hours strolling the peaceful grounds and spotting a student or two.
The most mesmerizing image of Vietnam has to be the emerald rice terraces. Providing essential food to local people, Vietnam’s centuries-old rice terraces are as practical as they are beautiful. Travel to the Muong Hoa Valley to see some of the country’s best rice terraces.
A visit to Vietnam without pho? Phogeddaboudit! This savory soup and popular street food consists of broth, rice noodles, herbs and meat, usually beef or chicken. No matter the day, time, location or weather, pho is always a good idea.
Popularized after the French brought baguettes, banh mi is now an iconic street food snack all over Vietnam. Variations abound, but the most traditional banh mi sandwich consists of pork liver pate and cold cuts piled high with cucumber, carrot, daikon and cilantro.
Thought to have originated in Hanoi, bun cha is a filling dish of thin vermicelli rice noodles, grilled pork patties, and lots of zingy toppings. Hey, if it’s good enough for a president, it’s good enough for the rest of us!