Dramatic landscapes, ancient buildings, a sea of motorcyclists zipping through the city, mouth-watering food, pristine beaches and islands teeming with wildlife, and the BIGGEST cave in the world – those are but a few unique attractions Vietnam promises to all visitors.
Hectic and serene, thrilling and relaxing: the country boasts all sorts of juxtapositions that will turn your trip into an unforgettable experience. We have 9 reasons why you should fly to the Land of Blue Dragon.
1. Breathtaking Scenery
As soon as you land, you’ll be treated with unique scenes of motorcyclists carrying bulky items that rightfully should have been loaded onto vehicles with more than two wheels – from piling four adults on a scooter to pulling a crate of goats and pigs, or building materials like oversized doors or ladders – nothing unusual for the locals.
Amid newer attractions in the city, visitors must hop over to old markets or historic sites like Hoi An Ancient Town in Da Nang to experience a more rustic lifestyle of Vietnam.
Look out for Train Street hidden in Hanoi Old Quarter as big trains (not your average tram) pass through a residential street so tiny, you can feel the vibration when the train arrives. Upon approach, you’ll find yourself a mere feet away from the passing train. Since the tracks are set so close to people’s homes, there are no barrier gates or fences here. Instead, residents clear the street and area – moving items or sending their children away – according to the train schedule, which are 3.30pm and 7.30pm daily . Definitely a cool thing to see.
Speaking of trains, for breathtaking views of nature, hop on the overnight service from Hanoi to Sapa Valley. The journey takes eight hours from the Tran Quy Cap (Hanoi Station B) to Lao Cai. From there, you can take the bus or taxi to Sapa 38 kilometres away. There are plenty of rail carriers to choose from and tickets can be booked online.
Plenty of things await visitors in the mountainous region of Sapa – rice terraces as far as the eye can see, villages of indigenous communities like the Hmong, Red Dzao and Phu La and, picturesque waterfalls such as the Love Waterfall and Silver Falls, to name a few. This is also home to the 3,143-metre tall Mount Fansipan.
Dubbed the Roof of Indochina for being the tallest peak in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, it takes between one and four days of trekking via three trails, namely Tram Tron (easy), San Sa (normal) and Cat Cat Village (hard). You may skip the arduous hike by taking a 20-minute cable car from Muong Hoa Valley and a short tram ride to the summit. For those who are physically fit, ditch the tram and hike up 600 steps to get to the top.
Another natural highlight in Vietnam is located 320 kilometres from Da Nang. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park features the WORLD’S LARGEST CAVE called Hang Son Doong. It is so big that it has its own weather system. At its tallest height, the cave can fit a 40-storey building while the widest point can be turned into a runway for a 747 aircraft.
It was reported that Hang Son Doong was carved by an underground river. The five-kilometre tunnel here also boasts 80-metre tall stalagmites (also biggest in the world) and spherical calcium deposits known as cave pearls as big as a baseball.
While scientists estimate the cave to be young at three million years old, giant sinkholes have created huge openings to the outside world, and plants thrive in the ensuing humid conditions. In other words, this place is the real-life version of Pandora from James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar. Although open to public since 2013, only 500 visitors are allowed inside via sole tour operator Oxalis.
According to Oxalis, a 4D/3N exploration costs USD3,000 per person. A more budget-friendly alternative would be Thien Duong or Paradise Cave also located inside the national park. At 31 kilometres, it is the longest cave in the park.
Another option is 70 kilometres away from the park. The area called Tu Lan features lush jungle, beautiful limestone mountains and caves. If you’re wondering how beautiful the place is, just watch Kong: Skull Island (2017) as Tu Lan is the exact location of the fictional Skull Island.
2. Vibrant Nightlife
Casino hopping, pub crawling, dining on a cruise ship, or family-friendly live performances – Vietnam has it all! You can always catch one of the many beautiful cultural shows that showcase the rich facets of Vietnamese culture.
In Hanoi, the Saigon Opera House and Golden Bell Theatre often feature traditional dance shows. You can also visit the Water Puppet Theatre and Vietnam Central Circus to catch animal performances, clowns and acrobats.
The famous water puppet theatre is a must see performance when visiting Ho Chi Minh City.
Destinations like Ho Chi Minh City, Halong Bay, Mui Ne and Phan Thiet are never short of lively watering holes. The good news is Vietnam brews some of the cheapest draft beer in the world, so you won’t break your wallet if you drink responsibly. For a local experience, sit on a tiny plastic stool and enjoy a bottle of Saigon Beer alongside delicious snacks served by street vendors.
If you’re feeling lucky, casinos are available in big hotels in the country. Most of the hotels also provide childcare services so the kids will stay entertained while daddy and mummy go gambling.
3. Adventures on Land, Water and Air
Vietnam is a mecca for adrenaline junkies! First on the list is canyoning in Dalat, about 130 kilometres from Nha Trang. Tour services offer activities in several waterfalls in Dalat. If you pick Datanla Waterfall that’s only 10 minutes away from Dalat, activities here include abseiling down waterfalls as tall as 25 metres, jumping off cliffs between seven to 11 metres (that’s like jumping off a three-storey building) and natural water slides.
A number of beaches in Vietnam like Tuan Chau Island in Halong Bay, Nha Trang, Phan Thiet and Vung Tau offer a plethora of activities. Other than popular watersport activities like parasailing, wakeboarding, surfing, banana boat, jet skiing and snorkeling on popular beaches, different beaches here offer their own unique experiences.
For instance, you can explore the staggering sights of Halong Bay (around 150 kilometres from Hanoi) by kayaking on the shimmering emerald waters to get up close with the limestone cliffs, hidden caves and deserted beaches. This UNESCO World Natural Heritage site boasting over 1,600 limestone karst islands is also a haven for rock climbing enthusiasts. There are over 120 climbing routes on 13 crags on Cat Ba Island and, the beaches of Halong Bay, as well as over 230 deep water solo lines on 24 cliffs. Remember to pace yourself!
A four-hour train ride from Ho Chi Minh City takes you to Mui Ne, a quaint fishing town that also has two massive attractions, namely the Red Sand Dunes and White Sand Dunes. They may not be as big as the Sahara, but the sights are just as spectacular. You can get on a four-wheel drive jeep tour or rent an ATV for that Dakar Rally feel, even ride an ostrich at the White Sand Dunes!
4. Family-friendly Fun
While there are a lot of cultural attractions and sights mentioned here, you can treat the kids to “real fun” at some of the theme parks across the country. Dubbed the Vietnamese Disneyland, Vinpearl Land in Nha Trang and Phu Quoc are filled with fun rides like roller coasters, water slides and colourful live shows for the entire family. Getting to Vinpearl Land Nha Trang is already an adventure where visitors will get on the world’s longest over-sea cable car at 3,320 metres long!
If you’re in Danang, head up to the Ba Na Hills. This mountaintop resort takes you back to medieval times with castles and French villages. Don’t be fooled by the old architecture – once inside, you’ll see the place is filled with modern-day luxuries from accommodations to world-class restaurants and of course, fun rides at Fantasy Park and Alpine Coaster.
About 40 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City is Suoi Tien or Fairy Stream. This fairytale concept theme park not only boasts indoor and outdoor games, it also hosts cultural festivals like the Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival, among others.
5. Road Trips
Being on the road allows you to see things beyond the highlighted attractions. Be it a day trip or a journey that takes days or weeks, this is a great way to soak in the country’s life and culture. Traffic in major cities may be a nightmare, but with a little patience, the roads eventually will clear up and that’s when the adventures begin. Tour agencies provide various road trip services from the classic US military Jeeps to scooters.
For those who love motorcycle touring, Vietnam DEFINITELY should be on your list. Since the roads may take you through winding mountain passes, the weather will invariably get cold, so bring your own gear like gloves, jacket, boots and helmets with anti-fog visors (especially for those wearing glasses). Most tour agencies provide basic items like rain jacket and helmet, but there’s no harm in bringing your own for that familiar comfort. To save yourself from unnecessary issues especially when it comes to driving in a foreign country, only approach licensed tour operators.
That cleared, here are six of the favourite routes:
O Quy Ho Pass
With a stretch of 50 kilometres, O Quy Ho is the country’s longest mountain pass that connects Lao Cai in Sapa to the sparsely populated Lai Chau that shares a border with China. The highest point at this pass, known as the Heaven Gate, rises 2,000 metres in altitude. As you ride along the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, stunning scenery greet you at every turn (and several hairpins you need to watch out for) with streams and waterfalls. Another nickname for this road is Cloudy Mountain Pass, as it is covered almost all year round. If you’re riding without a tour, make sure to stay off the road if the fog diminishes visibility. More time to enjoy those strong Vietnamese coffee.
Hanoi to Mu Cang Chai
This three-day tour covering 280 kilometres takes you from bustling Hanoi Old Quarter to the highlands of Yen Bai province. The route passes through Mu Cang Chai’s 32 kilometre-long Khau Pha Pass that goes up as high as 1,500 metres above sea level. A visit to the La Pan Tan village is a must – home to one of the most beautiful rice terraces in the country.
Ho Chi Minh City – Dalat – Nha Trang
In a span of four days, you will cover 600 kilometres of quiet and scenic route passing through rural Vietnam from coastal to highland roads. The attractions from Ho Chi Minh to Dalat include the famous Cu Chi tunnels, mangrove forests, pristine beaches, as well as Dai Ninh and Prenn mountain passes, while the second leg of the journey to Nha Trang promises scenes like farmlands, rolling hills and another adventurous mountain run via Long Lanh Pass.
A man enters the historic Cu Chi Tunnels made during the war in the 60s.
Danang to Lang Co via Hai Van Pass
Spanning a 30-kilometre stretch, this route is perfect for daytrippers. Don’t let the short distance fool you. Lang Co is considered one of Vietnam’s most beautiful beaches and the journey takes you through the stunning Hai Van pass. Translated as ‘Sea Cloud’, the pass gets its name thanks to the mist that rises from the South China Sea all year round. Imagine one side of the road covered in lush jungle while the other with astonishing views of the sea and Danang itself.
Hai Van Gate sits atop the Hai Van Mountain Pass in Lang Co. The gate was built by Emperor Minh Mang in the 19th century.
Ho Chi Minh Trail
For those who love a grand tour, this is it. When motoring journalists Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond hosted television series Top Gear, their Vietnam Special (season 12, Episode 8) saw them covering nearly 2,000 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh to Halong Bay on three rundown motorcycles. Their journey was simply epic. The Ho Chi Minh Trail provides a similar experience minus Halong Bay (tour operator can certainly add the route if you’re willing to ride that far). Built during the Vietnam War in the 60s, the trail was an intricate network of roads and tunnels in the western Truong Son mountain range connecting Vietnam’s north and south through neighboring countries Laos and Cambodia. However, the trail was abandoned when the war ended. The Ho Chi Minh Highway was introduced about 15 years ago where the route still takes you from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi with clean tarmac roads without even leaving Vietnam. Those who want to experience the old trail can pick the routes that pass through the Annamite mountains into Laos and even further into Cambodia. Although the old trail sounds like an amazing adventure, the new highway route still has its charm. Coffee plantations, rice fields filled with water buffalos, reed-covered lakes and fascinating hill-tribe villages are among the highlights of this trip. It will also take you to the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park mentioned at reason #1.
The Road of Happiness: Ha Giang
A three-day trip from Hanoi to Ha Giang province covering 330 kilometres takes you to Highway 4C also known as the Road of Happiness. While there are plenty of turns and corners with dramatic views, some of the hairpins over precipices can be dangerous for beginners. What makes this trip special is that you get to venture into the remote areas of Vietnam that shares borders with China’s Yunnan province. Along the way, you will pass through the Dong Van karst plateau Geopark with impressive limestone walls, granite outcrops, rice terraces and hill tribe communities like the Black Hmong. The climax of this tour lies between Dong Van and Meo Vac – the 20-kilometre long Ma Pi Leng Mountain Pass that reaches an elevation of 1,500 metres. Completed in the 60s, it took 11 years to construct what the locals call The King of Vietnam’s Mountain Passes where every inch of the road perched on cliffs offer views you don’t see every day.
6. Steeped in History
Military relics from the past showcased at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.
You’ll be surprised at how much of post-war and colonial infrastructure still exists in Vietnam. For instance, Hanoi’s rustic and quaint character comes from old buildings, which transport you back in time. Immerse yourself in Vietnamese culture and visit historical places such as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – the final resting place of Vietnamese Revolutionary leader of the same name whose body was embalmed and laid out in a glass case – or get acquainted with Vietnam’s colonial past at the French Quarter filled with hidden shops and curious alleyways.
7. Tasty Street Food (and Coffee!)
Pho (pronounced ‘fur’) is a popular street food in Vietnam comprising broth, rice noodles and herbs topped with slices of beef (pho bo) or chicken (pho ga).
Vietnamese cuisine is known to be light, refreshing and with touches of flavours borrowed from the French and neighbouring Asian countries. So, don’t be surprised if you down a few bowls of pho and still eat banh mi all by yourself!
The French might have introduced coffee to Vietnam, but other than the strong traditional coffee, the country has developed its own variations by adding yoghurt, eggs and even fruits including mango and banana into the bitter brew.
When dining out, be smart! If you feel uncertain or uncomfortable at the eatery over hygiene, quality or price, trust your instinct and leave. For peace of mind, get travel insurance and some medication handy for any untowards incident.
Fun fact: Vietnam is second largest coffee exporter in the world after Brazil.
8. Pristine beaches, Uninhabited Island and Fun Dives
Islands and beaches in Phu Quoc are considered Asia’s best-kept secrets.
Considered Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets, Vietnam’s Phu Quoc (pronounced ‘foo kwok’) is the biggest island in the Gulf of Thailand. Not only are the beaches unspoilt, the district off the coast of southern Vietnam comprises 28 islands that are mostly UNINHABITED – granting deserted locations at every turn.
Charter a boat to An Thoi islands, an archipelago of 15 islands and islets off the southern coast where you’ll find secluded coves, soft white sand and no people. Another island to consider is Hon Xuong, also known as Robinson Crusoe island after the novel of the same name. For those who love snorkelling or diving, Phu Quoc is home to 108 species of corals, 135 species of coral reef fish and 132 types of mollusks, as well as migrating fish and marine mammals in its surrounding waters.
If you’re lucky, you may come across dugongs, hawksbill turtles and green turtles. There are a lot of fishing villages on the island and some tours include fishing with the locals at the north or southern An Thoi Archipelago. By nightfall, try your hands at squid jigging – a cool fishing method that uses bright overhead lights to attract the catch. For that life-at-sea feel, just BBQ your haul on the boat!
9. The Mekong Delta
Hop on a boat in Mekong Delta to see Vietnam in simpler times.
The mighty Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia and the 12th longest in the world stretching 4,350 kilometres. It starts from the Tibetan Plateau and meanders through Laos and Thailand to the equatorial flood plains of Cambodia and Vietnam before flowing into the South China Sea.
The Mekong Delta in Vietnam covers a whopping 40,500 square kilometres, making it country’s most productive region in agriculture and aquaculture. Cruising along the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam gives visitors the insight to the traditional Vietnamese life, passing through rice fields as far as the eye can see, wooden houses on stilts lined along the river’s edge and floating markets, to name a few. Mekong Delta is accessible from Can Tho located between Phu Quoc and Ho Chi Minh City.
GETTING THERE: AirAsia flies to various destinations in Vietnam from Kuala Lumpur. For details, visit airasia.com.