Of all the things I love about Vietnam, the one which takes the top spot is the fact that everywhere you go is completely different. Within just a few hours you can travel from the bustling streets of Hanoi to the tranquil hills of Mai Châu, or from the smoky streets of Haiphong to the beautiful landscapes of Ninh Bình.
Vietnam is a country like no other, and with so much to see and do it truly is full of surprises. With this in mind, here are five experiences that only Vietnam has to offer:
Take a boat ride through the City of Lanterns, Hội An Ancient Town
The beauty of Hội An, much like the rest of Vietnam, cannot be captured by camera. It’s the kind of place that charms you straight away, with an abundance of independent coffee shops, tailoring businesses, and of course, magical handcrafted lanterns to be found on every street corner. It’s these lanterns which really bring the city to life, illuminating the streets in soft shades of red, blue, purple and yellow as soon as the night draws in.
For a small fee (I think we paid the equivalent of £3 or less), you can light your own paper lanterns as you cruise through the city centre on a small, wooden boat. This is one of the most popular activities to enjoy in Hội An, so expect the river to light up fairly quickly as soon as the sun goes down. Light your lantern, make a wish, and finish the evening in one of the many water-facing restaurants nearby.
Ride the Hải Vân Pass, Huế to Da Nang
When my boyfriend and I decided to travel the south of Vietnam after five months of living in the north, we both agreed that driving the Hải Vân Pass was something we had to do. The Hải Vân Pass is part of a route that curves through the mountains along the coast, and can be reached by travelling between the cities of Huế and Da Nang. After a bit of research, we decided that we’d travel from Huế all the way to Hội An, stopping in Da Nang for a late lunch along the way.
I loved the idea of enjoying the route from the comfort of a train, but as my boyfriend was pretty confident on a scooter we decided to drive it ourselves with a bike we’d hired from Motorvina. We weren’t too lucky with the weather, but that didn’t stop the views from being incredibly beautiful; we kept pulling over to take photographs and enjoy views of the coast, despite the gloomy skies. Whether you decide to take the train or hire a bike, make sure you’ve got a good camera with you to capture the sights!
Go caving in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng
Of all the unforgettable experiences I had while travelling through Vietnam, caving in Phong Nha was definitely one of my personal highlights. Unfortunately, we only had one full day in the national park, so we decided to visit just the one cave. After reading hundreds of travel blogs and trawling through Instagram, we opted to visit Hang Toi, the Dark Cave, which is a must-do for all adrenaline junkies.
The cave’s entrance is reached by a combination of zip-wiring and swimming, so the adventure begins before you’ve even stepped (or swam) inside the cave. Once you’ve reached dry land, you’ll be led through the cave – using only the torches on the helmets provided – navigating mud baths, narrow passages, and pools of icy water. The rocks are very slippery in places so take care not to fall over, as I did many times! It’s a fairly intense few hours so I wouldn’t recommend taking any belongings at all, unless you really have to.
Cruise through Tràng An, Ninh Bình
With verdant hills and luscious rice paddies, Ninh Bình’s charm took me by surprise every time I visited. During my time in Vietnam, I was lucky enough to spend many days cycling through Ninh Bình’s countryside, exploring some of Vietnam’s most spectacular temples and eating the world’s best summer spring rolls (thank you, Chookie’s!). The city has so much to offer, however, a trip to Ninh Bình wouldn’t be quite complete without a boat ride through one of its iconic rivers.
Tam Cốc is certainly the most famous river cruise, but, for me, it’s Tràng An which isn’t to be missed. For less than the price of a Starbucks, my friends and I spent hours cruising through the water, drinking Saigon Beer, and passing scenery that looked more like a painting than anything that could exist in real life. The route takes a couple of hours, winding through caves and majestic limestone karsts (Ninh Bình is often called the in-land Ha Long Bay), so make sure to tip your rower generously at the end of your trip.
Reach the peak of Mount Fansipan, Sapa
No matter how hard I try, I just can’t put the grandeur of Mount Fansipan into words. Tucked away in the clouds, the mountain, otherwise known as “the roof of Indochina”, truly is a sight to behold. As my boyfriend and I only had 24 hours to spend in Sapa (a real regret of ours!), we had no choice but to take the cable car to the mountain’s peak rather than attempt the famous hike to the top. This was more than fine with me, as the views from the cable car were so incredible that I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on much at all.
My top tip here is to wrap up warm, as at 3143 metres high the peak of Mount Fansipan is a pretty cold place to be. However, even the chilly temperatures couldn’t stop us from spending a good couple of hours taking in the views and marvelling at the beauty of Vietnam from such heights (for no more than £25 each). Take a coat, grab a hot drink, and make sure to pack your camera – you won’t be disappointed.