Destinations: Asia

The Southeast Asia Edition: Vietnam in a Nutshell – Top 5 Things to Do

October 13, 2014
Vietnam has quickly grown in popularity as a top destination. From the beautiful stretches of beaches to the ancient cities and limestone islands–Vietnam’s diversity is astounding. If you are looking for a country with profound history, cuisine, and natural beauty, then look no further. Vietnam is your answer. Here are the top things you should do during your visit to Vietnam.

Take an Overnight ‘Junk’ Boat Tour of the Ha Long Bay 

Ha Long Bay literally translates as “bay of descending dragons”. This UNESCO World Heritage Site located in northern Vietnam is one of the natural wonders of the worlds. With thousands of limestone islands emerging out of the waters, Ha Long Bay makes for a surrealistic seascape that looks like it came straight out of a movie.

Ha Long Bay is best explored via an overnight ‘junk’ boat tour. While you can easily take a day cruise of the bay, an overnight tour allows you to experience the most wondrous moments of Ha Long Bay: sunrise, sunset, and a clear, moonlit evening. Be sure to pre-book your tour. While it might sound like a good idea to try to bargain for tickets at the pier, it is not set set up for independent travel and hawkers will rip you off with premium-priced tickets. Also be sure to find a good operator who does not oversell you or lie about what the boat looks like or the amenities on the boat. You do not want to be one of the many tourists thinking that you are about to embark on a luxury cruise ship only to find yourself on a dingy boat.

Float Through The Mekong Delta

The swamplands of the Mekong Delta, also known as Vietnam’s “rice basket” or a “biological treasure trove”, supplies over a third of the country’s annual food crop from its abundant fish farms, orchards, rice paddies, and plantations. Life in the Delta revolves around the river and many of the villages are often accessed via rivers and canals versus roads. A visit through the Mekong Delta is awe-inspiring with the bustle of the colorful floating markets, the laughter of children as they ride on the backs of water buffalo, and the peacefulness of boats gliding through the maze of channels. 

If your time is limited, one-day trips of the Mekong Delta can easily be organized from Ho Chi Minh City. If you have more time, partake in a farmstay where you will get the opportunity to learn about life on the Mekong Delta from a local family. The best times to visit are during dry season from December to May.

Get Lost in the Chaotic Hanoi Streets

Hanoi, capital of Vietnam, is a mixture of French colonialism with Eastern influences. A visit to the History Museum and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum are highly encouraged during your stop in Hanoi. A must-do, is exploring the labyrinthine streets of the Old Quarter. Drop in to a Parisian style Vietnamese coffee shop, then join the locals at one of the many restaurants filled with low tables and seats that spill onto the sidewalk–it’s the only way to really experience dining in the Old Quarter of Hanoi!  Before arriving, be prepared to handle the hustle and bustle in the streets of Hanoi city’s Old Quarter. The traffic made up of hundreds of scooters, cyclo bikes, and pedestrians lasts all day. To safely cross streets, just close your eyes and go! Don’t change your speed and trust that the locals will be able to time themselves perfectly to barely whiz by you. It is like nothing you will ever experience anywhere else.   

Explore Vietnam’s History and Modernism in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh, also known as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam. With a blend of war-torn history and modern beauty, the city offers a vibrant shopping, dining, and nightlife experience. While in town, be sure to visit the Ho Chi Minh City Museum and the War Remnants Museum for a flavor of the country’s history. Then wander through Dong Khoi, a colorful stretch of road lined with beautiful colonial architecture and a span of shops and bars. Do not forget to stop through the markets for bargain shopping and food stalls. Then take a break to grab some Vietnamese Coffee from one of the numerous coffee shops that dot the city. 

From Ho Chi Minh city you can take a trip to the Mekong Delta or visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, an immense system of underground tunnels used as a hiding place by Viet Cong guerrillas during the Vietnam War. 

As with any other major city, be aware of your surroundings and watch out for pick-pocketers in Ho Chi Minh. As tourism has grown, so has the number of wallet-swipers.

Eat Foods Beyond Banh Mi and Pho

There’s more to Vietnamese food than Banh Mi’s and Pho. Vietnam has a reputation for having some of the yummiest street foods in the world. So skip that pricey restaurant and sample some good eats from local street stalls. Be sure to try:

  • Banh Xeo, a crispy crepe filled with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, and other fresh herbs and garnishes
  • Ga Nuong, honey marinated and grilled chicken wings that are crispy on the outside while maintaining a tender inside
  • Che, Dessert served with layers of beans, jelly, coconut milk, fruit, and ice — one of my absolute favorites!
And do not forget to find the Lunch Lady AKA Nguyen Thi Thanh–a street vendor in Ho Chi Minh who is well-known from having been featured by Anthony Bourdain. She makes a mean noodle every day of the week and is well worth the hunt. She is so famous, her location can now be found via Google Maps!

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