What to see in Vietnam: Cities and landmarks to visit

Over the past few months, we have received several requests from our blog readers about what to see in Vietnam. Questions related to the main cities of the country, the must-see destinations, and the best itineraries to visit Vietnam in two weeks without giving up a beach stay or a cruise in Halong Bay. Useful information and curiosities on what to visit in Vietnam covering a route that goes from the extreme north of the country to the south, including the most significant locations and places of cultural and natural interest, must-see destinations on your next trip. Hoping to have answered some of your questions, here is a guide to the main places and cities in Vietnam.

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Vietnam cities to see and main destinations

Bac Ha (North Vietnam)

In the far northeast of Vietnam among rugged mountains, deep valleys and photogenic terraces of rice fields we find Bac Ha. The city is the capital of the homonymous district inhabited by the Mong Fiore ethnic group, one of the 54 officially recognized ethnic groups in the country. Out of all the Vietnam cities featured in this guide, Bac Ha retains the laid-back, rural atmosphere typical of most mountain towns in northern Vietnam. A lot more than in the plains, people here, notwithstanding the growing tourist boom, are welcoming, smiling and easygoing. The market is at the heart of it all, while a spectacular nature setting encourages travelers to trek and explore Bac Ha’s surroundings.

What to do and see in Bac Ha:

  • The Sunday market;
  • Chay River Cruise;
  • Trekking to tribal villages.

Tribal village in North Vietnam
Tribal village © Gabriele Stoia

Sapa (North Vietnam)

Sapa is an old city in North Vietnam that still retains traces of the colonial era with its French-era stone church. The city sits in the middle of a landscape so exhilarating that it looks like it was deliberately set there by a travel promotion office. Instead, nature and human activities, first and foremost those of the ethnic groups living in the area, have shaped the landscape with lovely terraces, cornfields and paths trodden by the locals; and then valleys and waterfalls, rivers and streams, pine forests making Sapa so picturesque that you regret the unavoidable moment of departure. If you suffer from nostalgia, better watch out for Sapa.

What to do and see in Sapa:

  • Muong Valley Trekking;
  • Ethnic products market;
  • Excursions to villages: Zday, Red Dao and H’Mong ethnic groups.

To see in North Vietnam: Trekking Muong Valley
Trekking Muong Valley

Hanoi (North Vietnam)

The cities in Vietnam that we have talked about so far are mostly villages in the far north of the country. Once in the plains, in the city of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, the crowded streets of cars and mopeds (tons of mopeds), the ubiquitous vendors, the ever-present street food stalls, could cause a shock. Past the initial shock and made it out alive from the road crossing, we are ready to visit one of the most intriguing and crazy cities in Vietnam. The best place to start is the Old Quarter with its 36 streets, traditional stores and night market. After this immersion in the tradition of Hanoi, the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the curious single pillar pagoda, the Temple of Literature (built in the 11th century) and in the old part of the city the Lake of the Returned Swordawait us.

What to do and see in Hanoi:

  • a tour of the Old Quarter;
  • street food;
  • the Single Pillar Pagoda;
  • crossing Hanoi’s romantic red wooden bridge;
  • the Temple of Literature;
  • the imperial citadel of Thăng Long;
  • the Lake of the Returned Sword.

Things to see in Vietnam: Tran Quoc Pagoda, West Lake Hanoi
Tran Quoc Pagoda, West Lake Hanoi

Huè (Central Vietnam)

Poetic Huè owes much of its poetry to the river that flows through it. In the autumn, orchid flowers fall into the water of the Huong River (Perfume River), from which comes the sweet scent that gives its name to the river. A stroll along its banks and a stop on the many stone terraces overlooking its waters are a great way to appreciate this charming city in central Vietnam. Not to mention the numerous monuments it houses, architectural examples of when the city was the capital of the united Vietnam during the reign of the 13 emperors (1802-1945).

What to do and see in Hué:

  • a walk along the Perfume River;
  • a visit to Thien Mu (the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady);
  • the Imperial Citadel;
  • the Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang.

Citiy to visit in Vietnam: Hue and its imperial citadel
Imperial Citadel, Hue

Central Vietnam tour
Hue, the Perfume River and the ancient trading city Hoi An

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Hoi An (Central Vietnam)

Better known as the city of lanterns, Hoi An is a concentration of magic and romance, whose most precious treasure lies in the city’s historic center. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, it retains all the characteristics that have made this central Vietnamese city rich and famous. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Hoi An gained wealth and prestige thanks to the Thu Bon River that flows through it, becoming a crossroads of trade with Japan, China and the European colonies of Southeast Asia. Indulge in the magic of wandering around aimlessly through the narrow streets of downtown for a trip back in time to the glories of one of Vietnam’s most impressive cities.

What to see and do in Hoi An:

  • the exquisite Japanese Bridge, one of the symbols of Hoi An;
  • the nearby Cau Cha Pagoda;
  • the Fukien Temple built in the 17th century;
  • the Phung Hung House dating from the 19th century.

The Thu Bon River, Hoi An, one of the most impressive places in Vietnam
Thu Bon river, Hoi An


Ho Chi Minh (South Vietnam)

Located in the extreme south of the country, Ho Chi Minh is the city of Vietnam that more than any other became part of the Western imagination. Founded as a small fishing village Khmer and known as Prey Nokor, in the 17th century, with the arrival of the Vietnamese, was renamed Sai Gon. In 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War, the city paid tribute to the father of liberation by acquiring its current name of Ho Chi Minh. It takes time to get used to the crowded and often chaotic Ho Chi Minh, but this southern Vietnamese city offers fine monuments, delicious street food, and a home base for those planning to explore the Mekong Delta.

What to do and see in Ho Chi Minh:

  • the colonial-era Ben Thanh Market;
  • the Palace of Reunification;
  • the Post Office and its Gothic and Renaissance-style architecture;
  • Notre Dame Cathedral;
  • the Thien Hau Pagoda, an example of Chinese architecture;
  • the War Museum, essential evidence of the recent history of Vietnam.

What to see in Vietnam from north to south

The cities of Vietnam are a must-see during a trip to the country. Both for logistical reasons and for the many places of interest that they hold. But if you are wondering what to see in Vietnam, we can only answer by including in our guide also the spots that offer landscapes, monuments, cultural, naturalistic and archaeological destinations, making a vacation in Vietnam unforgettable. Here is an overview from north to south of the most important landmarks in Vietnam.

North Vietnam: districts of Sapa and Bac Ha

If you prefer the countryside to the cities, if you love rural landscapes and can’t wait to take great photos of rice fields and traditional markets, and if you’re still wondering what to visit in Vietnam, here’s your solution. A tour in the far north of the country: valleys nestled in the mountains, tribal villages and wild nature as a backdrop. Inhabited by dozens of different ethnic minorities, the districts of Sapa and Bac Ha in northern Vietnam are ideal for adventurous trekking. From Ma Phi Leng, the highest mountain pass in all of Vietnam, there are incomparable views. The impressive Ban Gioc waterfalls mark the natural border between Vietnam and China. Trails weave through the Muong Valley in one of the most scenic landscapes in North Vietnam.

Ma Phi Lang Pass, the highest in Vietnam, from which you can enjoy a breathtaking view
Ma Phi Lang Pass © Gabriele Stoia

Colours and traditions of North Vietnam
Discover the ethnic populations and landscapes of Halong Bay

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Ha Long Bay (North Vietnam)

If one of Vietnam’s landmarks has earned its place among the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, we can hardly put it aside during one of our trips to northern Vietnam, regardless of the huge number of visitors. A necessary premise when we talk about Halong Bay, one of the natural treasures of Vietnam, a must-see destination that sticks in the mind and heart. Halong Bay is in the Gulf of Tonkin and in 1994 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site [1]. Within the protected area there are 775 islands and a population of about 1600 inhabitants divided into four main fishing villages. Halong Bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles, rising hundreds of meters above the water like towers. An ancient landscape still preserving archaeological remains of the first inhabitants who lived here over 7 thousand years ago.

Halong Bay, one of the must-see landscapes in Vietnam
Halong Bay © Gabriele Stoia

Surroundings of Ninh Binh (North Vietnam)

The real treasure that Ninh Binh City holds is its surroundings. With its rural landscapes of caves, waterfalls and fairytale scenery, Ninh Binh is at its best. A destination that is not among the main things to see in Vietnam, therefore it has preserved an authentic and laid-back atmosphere. No matter where you look, you’ll find karst pinnacles that look like straight out of a painting, as those along the Tam Coc River Valley do. At the top of a rocky outcrop, we find Hang Mua Temple, while in the morning and afternoon thousands of birds flock to the treetops in Cuc Phuong Nature Park. Truly one of Vietnam’s most poetic destinations.

Hang Mua Temple, Tam Coc. Place of interest in North Vietnam
Hang Mua Temple, Tam Coc

My Son (Hoi An)

What to see in Vietnam if you are a history buff?

Forty kilometers southwest of Hoi An there is the site of My Son, the most important archaeological destination in Vietnam. Nowhere close to a visit to the Angkor ruins, but if you’re not too picky and want to spend half a day on an archaeological exploration, My Son is the place for you. Around Vietnam, you won’t find any others. The temples were built between the 4th and 14th centuries as a place of worship for the Champa dynasty. The temples are surrounded by vegetation, right in the middle of a small valley surrounded by hills, making the landscape very suggestive.

My Son ruins, the most important archaeological destination in Vietnam
My Son ruins

Cu Chi Tunnels (Ho Chi Minh)

Approximately forty kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh, lies an intricate and invisible network of underground tunnels used during the Vietnam War as protection against American attacks. The construction of the tunnels began in the 1940s during the Vietnamese conflict against the French colonial authorities. Their current extension is the result of the expansions carried out during the 60s and 70s with the escalation of the Vietnam War. The tunnels of Cu Chi were used both as a shelter and for the storage of weapons, supplies and as a connecting route. The underground network was so vast that it even reached the Cambodian border which was over two hundred kilometers away [2].

South Vietnam, Saigon and Mekong Delta
The best of South Vietnam

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Mekong Delta (South Vietnam)

Vietnam’s destinations can be many, but what represents both a majestic natural landscape and a source of sustenance for millions of people is the vast lake area of the Mekong Delta. The city of Ho Chi Minh is the best place to start, with several buses leading south to the region’s major sights. The cities of Ben Tre, Can Tho and My Tho with their floating markets and characteristic houses on stilts offer a fascinating atmosphere. Old colonial buildings, merchandise of all kinds, people and wildlife crowd a landscape in which the ubiquitous Mekong is the backdrop, in the Land of the Nine Dragons (Cuu Long). You might find our guide “Visiting the Mekong Delta and South Vietnam” useful if you want to know news, trivia and information about the region.

Floating Market on Delta Mekong
Floating Market, Mekong Delta

Note

1 Ha Long Bay, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/672/, (21st April 2020).

2 Cu Chi Tunnel, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C%E1%BB%A7_Chi_tunnels, (21st April 2020).


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