7 Things to Do in Vietnam

7 Things to Do in Vietnam - Ships in Ha Long Bay
7 Things to Do in Vietnam - Hanoi
Durian in Vietnam

To be honest, Vietnam was actually my alternate travel choice to Bali, Indonesia when I started making travel plans. Of course, I wanted to visit the country someday, but with my only knowledge being of that from a history book and no idea about things to do there, Vietnam wasn’t exactly the highest on my list. I had been picturing the blue-ocean beaches, sunshine and trendy cafes that sell acai bowls in Bali when I fantasized about my dream winter vacation. Before switching plans to Vietnam, I had already found all the things I wanted to do in Bali, the places I wanted to stay, and when I wanted to go…but, I didn’t have my flights booked.

So, when I could finally book a flight, the prices were a budget traveler’s nightmare! I quickly scrapped the idea of Bali for the year and moved on to my next choice–Vietnam. I’m glad I did, though, because I discovered much more to do than the main 7 things to do in Vietnam that I wrote below.

Vietnam is a country stretched 1,650km long and with things to see and do in each of its regions. Spending only a week in Vietnam doesn’t allow you enough time to see everything, but it does give you and Vietnam a lovely introduction. The best love stories always have a second date anyway, right?

Looking back, I’m so glad that I decided to ring in the New Year in Vietnam with a jam-packed schedule rather than by relaxing on a sandy beach. There were so many chances to laugh, feel exhausted, and relax all at the same time. If I could redo my trip, however, I would definitely do more! With 4 girls, our wants and interests are bound to be different, and even though most of the time our plans lined up, there were also things I didn’t do or would do over again.

One day, I’ll make it back over to Vietnam, but until then, I’ll look back on these 7 things to do in Vietnam.

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What is There to Do in Vietnam?

Vietnam after Christmas
Hanoi, Vietnam

1. Decide North to South or South to North

When planning your time in Vietnam, the first thing to do is to decide if you want to land in the north and travel south, land in the south and travel north, or even just stick to one region.

For my group, we decided it was easier (and a little cheaper) to land in the North, Hanoi, and depart from the South, Ho Chi Minh City. I’m sure there were cheaper ways to get to Vietnam, but because of our contract restrictions on travel and our school schedules, we weren’t able to book as early as recommended. The life of a teacher. Instead, we booked our flights in early November through expedia.com and Hong Kong Airlines. 

I have to say, Hong Kong Airlines can rival ANA with the amount of food they give you. We had about a 3-5 hour layover in Hong Kong going to Vietnam and coming back, and each time we were fed with a full meal–for free!  Other than that, it was super easy to get from each airport to our hotels because I made sure to book with budget hotels that had a shuttle service.

One-Week Vietnam Itinerary: Vietnam Itinerary Map

After you’ve decided what direction you want to travel, the next step is to decide on transportation. We decided that instead of worrying about travel insurance and motorbikes, we would largely use our own two feet! Google Maps works just fine in the country, so all you have to worry about is internet.

2. Visit Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is short of breathtaking. With it’s charismatic junk boats lining the harbor and the beautiful mountains jutting out from the bay, Ha Long Bay gives you a little bit of beach away from the quiet hustle and bustle of Hanoi. Most visitors to Ha Long Bay book with a tour that includes riding on a junk boat. You can even book overnight stays on these boats, but for our trip, we decided to do a 1-day tour with Halong Bay One Day.

7 Things to Do in Vietnam - Ha Long Bay at Sunset
7 Things to Do in Vietnam - To the Caverns
Boat View of Ha Long Bay

For this tour, we were picked up at our hotel and rode on a coach bus to Ha Long Bay. The ride included about two stops at rest stops before we made our way to the main harbor port. When I say it was packed…It. Was. Packed. You can insert the clap emoji in between to get the full effect. There were buses and tourists every when we arrived, and we had to make sure to stay together. Our tour guide bought our tickets at the ticket office for us and led us over to where our boat would port.

Tip

Getting from the front entrance of the building to the boat section of the harbor is a crazy confusion of tourists, guides and port attendants, so be careful to keep up with your group, otherwise you could end up on the wrong boat entirely!

Once we got onto our boats, we were briefed on where we would be stopping and on some safety instructions. Our tour guide made sure to point out the ‘Fighting Roosters,’ two large rock formations that–if you look just right–you’ll see two roosters fighting. The tour with Halong Bay One Day not only includes cruises around Ha Long Bay. It also includes Vietnamese-style lunch, a kayaking or basket boat experience in the Ba Ham area, and a tour of Thien Cung Cave, famous for its stalagmites and stalactites. All together, this was about $45 USD a person.

7 Things to Do in Vietnam- Waiting Boats
7 Things to Do in Vietnam - To The Grotto

Cruising along Ha Long Bay was a perfect way to take a day off from our busy travel schedule and just relax. It’s a perfect place for a couple on date night (or day), for a group of friends, or even if your by yourself. 

3. Take a Cooking Class

Starting with my trip to Thailand, I decided that I wanted to learn how to cook in every country I visit. Because food is such a vital part of culture, I find that I learn the most about a country’s people from their food, markets, cooking practices and habits. I was able to gain a better appreciation of the food I commonly see in those family-run and expensive restaurants in the U.S. because I was able to take the time and learn from a local. Most likely, the cooking practices I learn are ones that have been passed down for generations.

Tip

Check Happy Cow for vegan and vegetarian-friendly places in Vietnam.

When researching cooking classes, their were a few we saw in Hoi An and in Ho Chi Minh, but we decided on Apron Up Cooking Class in Hanoi as it had great reviews and a viable website.

The class is actually held on the third floor of the restaurant. During the class, we actually cooked alongside the women who were cooking for visitors eating at the restaurant. Also, as one of us was vegetarian, the class offered the perfect menu for her to eat Vietnamese food without compromising on her dietary choices. They were very accommodating when substituting meat for non-meat sources.

Hanoi Cooking Class
Papaya Salad
7 Things to Do in Vietnam: Cooking Class
Top 8 Foods in Vietnam: Cafe Phoung Trung

We chose the 11:30 to 3:30 group class that included guidance in English, a market tour, and a cookbook of all the recipes we cooked. Our group chose to cook Pho (beef noodle soup), Bun Cha (bbq pork noodles), Nem Ran (fried spring rolls), Nom Du Du (papaya salad), and Cafe Trung (Egg Coffee). It was a really enjoyable class and the teacher was very friendly and straightforward. We all got our hands dirty and enjoyed the food we cooked together at the end of the class. If you’re someone who likes to take a hands-on approach to learning about different countries and cultures, the cooking class is something that shouldn’t be skipped.

4. Get Tailor-Made in Hoi An

Friendly Fruitseller in Hoi An
7 Things to Do in Vietnam - Hoi An Lanterns

Now everyone, and I mean everyone, told me to get something made in Vietnam. From all the blogs and guides I read to the people I knew who were from Vietnam or traveled there, the biggest suggestion was to set aside time to get something made or tailored. When we reached Hoi An, the group consensus was to eat and find the nearest beach, but I was focused on finding the best tailor. As we were looking for a vegetarian-friendly place in Vietnam (in case I haven’t told you enough, one of my friends is Vegetarian), we were suddenly approached by a woman who just so happened to have a tailor shop.

I have to say, when I’m abroad, I’m always on high-alert. I think when you’re in Japan, you’re lulled into this sense of ultimate safety and security, so I try to get out of that mindset whenever I travel outside of Japan (no matter the country!). I was very skeptical, but she gave us the name of her shop and was on her way. As we were exploring the area after lunch, she found us again and dragged us to her shop.

Although I was unstrusting at first, all four of us decided to get something made at her shop. It was a pretty wide open store in an open market full of other shops selling hand-made or made-to-order items. I decide to get a traditional Vietnamese dress made, called an “Ao Dai,” while my friends decided to get pants, rompers, and full suits made.

Tip

When negotiating services such as getting something tailor-made in Vietnam, be assertive and know what you want. The experience can be overwhelming and rushed because the tailors are trying to make as many sales as possible. Often times, they are jumping from one customer to the next, trying to show you tons of fabrics and styles, and trying to convince you to get your wildest dreams made.

One thing I can say about her shop was that her and her other tailors made sure the product fit perfectly. We were able to pick up our orders the next day, and even when my friend’s measurements were incorrect, they made sure to rush re-sew her full suit and deliver it to us right before our flight to Ho Chi Minh. If you want to get something made in Hoi An, check out Cloth Shop No. 41, but please be adviced that they are very pushy. On another note, this is also where we made a split-second decision to get our nails done by Tina.

5. Eat, Eat and Eat Some More

Maybe this should be at the beginning of the list, but the first thing you do when you land in a country is…eat! Vietnam has not only a rich cultural history, but also a rich menu of cultural foods. The international favorites are warm and heavy foods like Pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) and Banh Mi (Vietnam’s french hybrid), but Vietnam has an abundance of other rich and tasty foods that you should try.

Phở: is a beef bone broth soup with rice noodles and beef. 

Bánh mì: is a Vietnamese baguette sandwich filled with savory fixings.

Bún chả: is a dish with grilled fatty pork meatballs (chả), white rice noodles (bún) and herbs that originated in Hanoi. 

Cà phê trứng: is Hanoi’s famous “egg coffee.”

Nem rán: is Vietnam’s fried spring rolls.

Cao lầu: is a regional dish from Hoi An that includes pork and greens atop rice noodles.

Sinh tố bơ: is an avocado smoothie made with ripe avocados, condensed milk and regular milk.

→ Bánh tráng nướng: is grilled rice paper filled with vegetables, herbs, quail eggs and dried small shrimp. It’s commonly called a Vietnamese pizza or quesadilla.

Top 8 Foods in Vietnam: Cao Lau

Tip

Two vegetarian-friendly restaurants were Hum Vegetarian Cafe & Restaurant that we found in the ritzier area of Ho Chi Minh City, and Annen Yoga & Vegetarian near the center of Hoi An.

6. Learn a Little History and Culture

In my opinion, one of the most important activities when visiting a country is learning its history. Vietnam has a rich and labored history full of influences (welcome and unwelcome) from countries around the world. Most of us know the two biggest influences within Vietnam: French colonialism and intervention from outside forces (namely the U.S.) during the Vietnam War.

As a result of these historical factors, there are many museums and memorials that offer in-depth history from Vietnam’s perspective and can often be quite chilling. When visiting Vietnam, here are a few things that you can go to and see.

History

Ho Chi Minh Museum (Hanoi) – A museum dedicated to the late leader Ho Chi Minh and the country’s struggle against foreign influence and intervention. 

The Ho Chi Minh City Mausoleum (Hanoi) – The resting place of Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh.

The War Remnants Museum (Ho Chi Minh) – A museum dedicated to the history of the Vietnam War. It is cautioned to be an overwhelming and emotional museum with many graphic images of the war. 

Independence Palace (Ho Chi Minh) – A museum that was the home and workplace of the former South Vietnam’s president during the Vietnam War. 

Chu Chi Tunnels (Ho Chi Minh) – An expansive network of tunnels that lie underneath Ho Chi Minh and where used in the Vietnam War.

Temple Architecture in Hoi An, Vietnam

Culture

Old Quarter (Hanoi) – A major commercial district where most nightlife and such is centered.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Hanoi) – A Roman Catholic church built in the 1880s to serve Vietnam’s Catholic population. The church was the first structure built by the French colonial government and was built to resemble the Notre Dame de Paris.

Train Street (Hanoi) – The street has its name because there are train tracks that run right down the center of this residential neighborhood. The train on this street goes by twice a day.  Check the official website (using Google Translate unless you speak Vietnamese) for more information.

Water Puppet Theater (Hanoi) – Water puppetry (Múa rối nước) began around the 11th century in Northern Vietnam. The show is performed in waist-deep water using long bamboo rods to control the lacquered wood puppets. At this theater, shows begin at 3PM and cost from 100,000VND  ($4 USD) to 150,000 VND ($7 USD) each. 

Ngoc Son Temple (Hanoi) – the Temple of the Jade Mountain is a buddhist temple built on a small island in Hoan Kiem Lake. There were four giant turtles that used to live in the lake near this temple; however, since 2016, all of the giant Swinhoe Softshell turtles have sadly died. Locals revered the turtles as they believed they were connected to the legend of King Le Loi which signifies Vietnam’s struggle for independence. 

Old Town (Hoi An) – The UNESCO World Heritage Site was once a Southeast Asian trading post in the 16th and 17th centuries. The riverside at night is lit up with lanterns.

Japanese Covered Bridge (Hoi An) – Located in Hoi An’s Old Town, the bridge is lit with lanterns at night. It is preserved along with the many Japanese and Chinese buildings in the area. 

Ngọc Hoàng Pagoda (Ho Chi Minh) – The Jade Emperor Pagoda is a Taoist pagoda built by Ho Chi Minh’s Chinese community in the early 1900s to honor the Taoist god, Ngoc Hoang. It is also known for its Chinese name as Phước Hải Tự and as the “Tortoise Pagoda.”

Saigon Central Post Office (Ho Chi Minh) – An old post office that was built in the late 19th Century when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. 

Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) – This is a cathedral located in the downtown of Ho Chi Minh city. Any current construction of the cathedral will end by 2020. 

Ben Thanh Market: Day and Night (Ho Chi Minh) – A marketplace in the center of Ho Chi Minh City. It is one of the earliest surviving structures of Saigon and is a symbol of the city.

Mekong Delta (Ho Chi Minh) – Home to floating markets and Khmer villages, the Delta is a connected maze of rivers, swamps and islands.

Ha Long Bay (Hanoi) – Consisting of emerald waters and limestone islands with rain forests on top, the Bay is popular for scuba diving, junk boat tours, climbing and hiking, and sea kayaking.

7. Get a Little Lost

Ok, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to actually get lost. What I mean is to explore your surroundings. I went to Hanoi, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh and each city had endless miles of city/town to explore. I left all locations feeling as though there was still more miles my feet needed to travel! From getting lost trying to find Hanoi’s Train Street and stumbling on a small store that sold fresh coconuts, to walking down the winding roads of Hoi An and finding all the little Buddhas and incense lining the streets, to even that time when we met a nice young Vietnamese guy who spoke English and agreed to be our tour guide for the day because we got a little lost trying to catch a bus, “getting lost” became some of our best stories. 

The best stories are those you don’t plan for.

I’m very “Type A”, so I usually have everything planned down to the minute, but I think the best part of travel is those unplanned unexpected moments. Of course, if that unexpected moment is terrifying or negative, it doesn’t become funny until after the fact (like the time I was yelled at by the bus attendant in Vietnam because she thought I didn’t pay). Vietnam was the first trip where I kind of went with the flow and enjoyed the moment. Although maybe not my number 1 favorite country, Vietnam is high on my list of favorites right now. When you go, maybe it’ll become your favorite, too.

Before you finish planning your trip to Vietnam, check out my Ultimate Travel Guide to Vietnam for more useful information and travel tips!

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6 thoughts on “7 Things to Do in Vietnam”

  1. What a great name for a restaurant! Happy cow! lol I have always heard Vietnam is beautiful. Love your photos,they really tell the story . Good job!

    1. Lauren, happy Cow is a cute name, isn’t it! It’s not a restaurant, but a great online database of restaurants all over the world that are vegan or vegetarian-friendly! And, thank you!

    1. Tara, in Luang Prabang? It looks like a beautiful place to be based in! I’ve never been to Laos, but I’m going to put Luang Prabang on my list now! 🙂

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