Vietnam is a country that has started to appear close to the top – or even at the top – of many travelers' bucket lists.
Many people will say it’s their favorite country in Southeast Asia, and with dramatic nature, delicious food and a fascinating (and quite heartbreaking) history, it’s no wonder why.
There are loads of lessons we can learn from Vietnam.
It’s a country of endurance – it has coped with invasions, occupation, and one of the most brutal wars in history.
Yet it has risen, stronger than ever, and now there is no doubt about Vietnam’s strong sense of identity.
Of course, this means that there are lots of must-visit places in Vietnam – so many that it is hard to whittle them down to a top ten.
But when planning your Vietnam itinerary, it is a great idea to include a diversity of attractions: cities for culture and food, and nature for exploration and relaxation, as well as small villages and beachside towns, should all be on your list.
We’ve put together this list of the top 10 places to visit in Vietnam (running from north to south) to help you plan your Vietnam trip and give you some major Vietnam inspiration!
The Best Places to Visit in Vietnam
Sapa is one of a kind. The gorgeous rice terraces seem to go on forever, broken up only by the occasional native village.
Trekking in Sapa is a bucket-list experience, and although the town is very touristy, keen hikers can take on multi-day trips, staying in authentic homestays along the way.
There are plenty of tour operators, but I highly recommend ETHOS.
They employ Black H’mong guides who are native to the area and live in some of Vietnam’s most impoverished communities, and their profits go into sustaining the villages and several of their social development programs.
Other attractions around Sapa include Mount Fansipan – the highest mountain in Indochina – that can be climbed up but only with a guide. It’s also possible to take a cable car to the top of the mountain.
If you’re comfortable with riding a motorbike, there are also plenty of waterfalls and villages that can be biked to.
Sapa is located about six hours from Hanoi and one hour from Lao Cai, on the Chinese border.
The climate in Sapa is very different from elsewhere in the country, with much cooler weather in the summer and occasionally snow during the winter!
Hanoi is Vietnam’s chaotic capital and is a must-do location in the country.
It’s home to some of the continent’s best food, incredible architecture, lots of history and of course – millions of motorbikes.
While in Hanoi, make sure you check out its range of museums (the woman’s museum is particularly good) and temples, pay your respects at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, enjoy the lakes, learn about the nation's history and eat as much pho as you physically can, washed down with a 50 cent Bia Hoi!
Hanoi is the cultural capital of Vietnam, and there are so many things to do here.
Related: Hanoi City Guide
3. Ha Long Bay
Probably Vietnam’s most renowned tourist destination, and for a good reason, Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s home to beautiful limestone formations and pillars – many big enough to be islands (there are 1,969 islands here, to be exact).
The best way to see Ha Long Bay is by a cruise around the islands – most tours are two or three days long.
Ha Long Bay tours typically involve attractions like seeing caves and fishing villages and activities like kayaking and swimming.
And the liners are either luxury, with features rivaling five-star hotels, or backpacker-friendly and great for parties.
The best boats also include entertainment, fantastic food, cooking lessons, spas, and helpful guides.
Ha Long Bay is very touristy, but its sheer beauty makes it one of the best things to do in Vietnam.
4. Ninh Binh
Ha Long Bay’s cousin on land, Ninh Binh is also home to dramatic limestone pillars, but jutting out of the land rather than the sea.
While tourism in Ninh Binh is increasing, it is still relatively quiet here.
The best things to do in Ninh Binh include cycling through the countryside, ascending to gorgeous viewpoints over the local area, taking boat trips through the rivers amongst the formations and visiting quiet – seemingly forgotten – temples.
It’s situated just an hour and a half’s drive from Hanoi, making it the perfect trip from the capital – or a pit stop before venturing further south!
5. Phong Nha
This area is home to the world’s largest cave, Soon Dong.
Visiting Soon Dong would be a once in a lifetime opportunity – it is nine kilometers in length and is home to jungles, beaches, and rivers – but it’s not for the faint-hearted, at all.
Explorers in Soon Dong have to go with a tour – these tickets are rare and are some of the fastest-selling in the world (apparently, they sell out faster than tickets for Beyoncé concerts), and they’re incredibly expensive.
Tours involve climbing and abseiling, hiking in complete darkness, and other hair-raising activities. And if you run into a problem deep in Soon Dong – you have to sort it yourself.
However, there are plenty of caves worth exploring in Phong Nha, including Phong Nha Cave, Paradise Cave, and Dark Cave.
They’re not quite as epic as Soon Dong Cave, but they’re still an adrenalin-boosting adventure in Vietnam that makes this central region well worth the visit.
Vietnam’s old capital, Hue is a must-visit for history lovers.
The city is home to many attractions and relics that hark back to the grandeur of Vietnam’s old dynasties. These include the imperial citadel and the tombs of various emperors.
Also in Hue is the Perfume River – cruises travel up and down, enabling visitors to see both the wildness of the nature around Hue and the city’s attractions, and the Thien Mu Pagoda, which is beautiful in itself but also commemorates Thích Quang Duc, the monk who set himself on fire as a form of protest.
A favorite day trip from Hue is the DMZ, which is where the border between North and South Vietnam was located during the Vietnam War.
Hue is also the gateway to the Hai Van Pass, considered to be one of the most epic motorbike routes in the world.
7. Da Nang
One of Vietnam’s most modern cities, Da Nang gives visitors a hint about what the future of this South East Asian country could look like.
While it has plenty of resorts and places to kick back with a coconut (which are basically the national soft drink of Vietnam by the way, they’re so good!), there are also plenty of nearby attractions to visit.
The Golden Hand Bridge has made Da Nang famous in recent years; many people are flocking to the monument to get an Instagram-perfect photo of the hands in the clouds.
It’s located in the Ba Dinh Hills Park, which is worth checking out.
Near to Da Nang, there are also lots of beach resorts and the Marble Mountains, which make for a great day trip from the city.
8. Hoi An
The charming old city of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is many people’s favorite place in the country.
It’s home to streets lined with historic buildings, temples, a lovely market, and a river and various beaches.
Travelers love strolling around the quaint streets of Hoi An and learning about its ancient history.
Many nations have called the city home, which can be seen both through its architecture (the covered Japanese Bridge is a favorite photo spot) and its delicious food.
Most people opt to explore Hoi An by bike, as cars and motorbikes are banned in the historic center (making walking around the streets absolutely dreamy after experiencing Vietnam’s other chaotic cities).
As well as visiting the temples and museums of the center, tourists can also cycle through rice terraces to the beaches of the city.
9. Ho Chi Minh
Vietnam’s largest city, and the old capital of South Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh is modern and booming, with even more motorbikes than Hanoi (if you can believe that), fancy Skybars and restaurants, Vietnam’s best bars and lots of luxury hotels.
That being said, there’s a historical side to Ho Chi Minh city too.
It’s the best place to learn about the Vietnam War.
Check out the War Remnants Museum for a sobering lesson about this conflict, as well as the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are commonly visited in a half-day or full day trip from the city center.
10. Mekong Delta
The mighty Mekong is the most significant river in South East Asia.
It crosses through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and its delta is located in Southern Vietnam, about two hours from Ho Chi Minh City.
It’s one of the most scenic places to visit in Vietnam; tourists to the region can get to know local, regional life by experiencing the authentic floating markets, sampling delicious fruit grown in the area, and getting to know local people through homestays.
For a more off-the-beaten-path experience, there are hiking trails to enjoy and mountains to climb. And from here, it’s only a short journey to neighboring Cambodia.
These places in Vietnam will give you a real sense of all aspects of the country’s culture, nature and lifestyle.
You’ll get to enjoy tropical beaches, mountains, busy cities, small villages and of course, plenty of Vietnamese food!
This story was brought to you in partnership with Bookaway.
Claire Martin is a British travel blogger and freelance writer. She blogs about eco-travel and overland adventures on her blog Claire’s Footsteps. She has driven around the whole of Australia and is currently planning an overland trip through Asia and Europe.