After quitting my job in Canberra back in October of 2014, my first destination in Vietnam felt like an exotic choice. I allowed myself 4 weeks to explore the country from North to South and it turned out to be a memorable experience with some wonderful moments. I now consider Vietnam to be one of my favourite countries I’ve ever visited and I’m going to try to explain why with my top 5 things to do in Vietnam.
5. Climbing the Marble Mountains
While traveling between Da Nang and Hoi An along the coast in central Vietnam, we passed by these rather sudden and out of place mountains. I would later learn that they were the Marble Mountains, a collection of 5 marble hills that host many caves and temples. As a tourist, you are only able to climb up some of the mountains, the main one being Thuy Son.
Keen to see them, my hotel in Hoi An arranged a taxi to take me there and back, which in hindsight was probably an expensive way. Anyway, true to their name as we drove up to the mountains, we passed store after store selling giant carved marble statues. I was dropped off at the foot of Thuy Son Mountain and proceeded to climb umpteen stairs until I reached the first temples and towers.
Throughout the complex are multiple active Buddhist temples, where you will see monks coming and going. There are also various gardens, not to mention some seriously impressive caves. Inside some of the larger caves, you’ll even find their own temples. The Marble Mountains also seem like a popular spot for rock climbing and abseiling, as I saw people actually abseiling down into the caves which I thought was pretty cool. For me though, the real highlight was walking past the abseilers and climbing up the 156 stairs to the top of Thuy Son. From there you had long views of the coast and beaches stretching to Da Nang, but also back over the other Marble Mountains. It’s really great when you can explore a spiritual place, that also has a physical element and an opportunity for stunning views too.
4. Streets of Old Hanoi
My entry point into Vietnam was the nation’s capital in Hanoi. Given that I had never been to the country before and hadn’t seen much of Asia as an adult, I was expecting a significant deal of culture shock. However, by the end of my first day in Hanoi I already felt I had settled in. Ok, so the traffic took some getting used to and I got ripped off a couple of times, but I think that’s par for the course.
I quite liked wandering the narrow streets around Hanoi’s Old Quarter and out towards all of the surrounding lakes. Watching locals perform exercises and students practicing their English with passing tourists on the shores of Lake Hoan Kiem gave some great insight into local life. Quite possibly my favourite spot in the entire city was a busy five-way intersection in Hang Bo, where I just sat on the footpath with a beer, some Pho and watched the world (and traffic) pass by.
There’s plenty of truly interesting sights to visit around the city. There are plenty of temples to visit close to the Old Quarter from the Tran Quoc Pagoda out on the West Lake, to Ngoc Son Temple where you can see a mummified giant turtle. Another well-known sight is the Hanoi Hilton, where the French imprisoned Vietnamese political prisoners and later where the Vietnamese imprisoned American POWs. If you want to experience Vietnamese propaganda first hand, this museum is dripping in it, although it is still quite informative.
Despite the city bustle, there are also some patches of surprising serenity. A walk through the city’s Botanical Gardens and the gardens at the Temple of Literature will make you forget that you’re in a dense urban area. Overall, Hanoi was a great first stop in my Vietnamese adventure.
3. Cruising Halong Bay
The premier tourist destination of Vietnam is Halong Bay, home to magnificent limestone islands jutting from the water. Halong Bay had been one of my main drivers for visiting Vietnam, having seen photos and seen it on TV.
Originally, the day I was meant to head out on my overnight junk trip, the weather was poor and so they closed the bay. I had heard that this wasn’t so much for safety reasons as to ensure that visitors have the best experience possible, thereby protecting the country’s largest tourist attraction. What this meant was when I set out the next day, there were twice as many people and boats out on the water. At first I was a little disappointed as we set off and were constantly surrounded by other boats. As the day grew on and particularly the next day, we had more and more space to ourselves however and the beauty of the place more easily seeped in.
During the 2 day trip, we floated between the karst islands around the bay, but we also had chances to get off the boat too. Early on, we went kayaking out and around some of the islands and later stepped ashore to climb up into the Sung Sot Cave with its fascinating rock formations. As the day wound to an end, we were dropped off at Monkey Island for a hike to the island’s lookout which had an incredible view despite the sun having already set. In the evening we sat around chatting, drinking and failing to catch absolutely anything with our communal fishing rod. While all of this was fun, the best part of the trip had to be the next day, lounging on the top deck watching the islands go by with nary another boat in sight.
2. Forests and Waterfalls of Da Lat
Da Lat is kind of the dark horse of tourism in Vietnam. Compared to places like Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An and Nha Trang, it seems to get very little attention from international tourists. I wrote at length about my experiences in Da Lat here, but I’m happy to repeat myself. Situated in the highlands of South Vietnam, the town was once a resort destination for the French colonials and therefore has a particularly European vibe. Today, it sees a lot of domestic tourism and a lot of the attractions are marketed that way. Da Lat was the place in Vietnam I felt the most left alone by touts, tuktuk drivers and store people, which was a welcome break.
Regarding the countryside, I particularly like to be able to get out into nature and Da Lat is perfect for that. Surrounding the city are lovely pine forests and since the town is in the highlands, you find lovely hilltop views. I really enjoyed the fact that the nature was so accessible – that I could walk on foot and reach the nearby wilderness. Another great way to take in the natural scenery was with the cable car out to Truc Lam Monastery, with you soaring above and between the giant pine forest.
While the cable car was a lot of fun, my favourite moment was wandering along the back roads out in the forest to one of Da Lat’s other main attractions, the Datanla Waterfalls. There are several waterfalls able to be visited from town, usually by tuktuk or with a tour, but I really enjoyed the hike I ended up taking there. The waterfalls at Datanla were beautiful and I met some interesting people, including a Russian family that for some reason wanted to take a photo with me and two locals who told me they had noticed me walking around Da Lat (Yes, there are that few foreign tourists – I’m not that memorable!).
1. Trekking the Rice Terraces of Sapa
My absolute favourite time in Vietnam has to be hiking through the breathtaking landscapes around Sapa in far north Vietnam. I’ve already shared photos of my experiences in Sapa where I went on a 3 day tour that started in the mountain town of Sapa and went hiking through various terrains to small ethnic villages where we spent the night. I’m a big lover of getting out and walking among nature, so this trip was perfect for me.
With our friendly local guide, we set out walking through bamboo forests, along narrow ridges in the rice terraces, and down alongside waterfalls. As we walked, we got to know several Hmong ladies who walked with us, their main means of acquiring customers for the crafts they make. Rarely during the hiking was it ever very difficult which meant you were always able to look around and drink in the view. And what a view! As we walked along the valleys you could see the green rice terraces go all the way down to the river, meaning at some points there must have been 100 terraces. It’s the kind of view where you have to stop and let your brain properly register what you are seeing. Again, for more photos go here.
So those were my top 5 things to do in Vietnam. Have you been to Vietnam? If so, what were your favourites sights and places? Please share in the comments below.