Vietnam Travel Guide

Vietnam is a fascinating country to visit. After five weeks of travel, our overwhelming impression is one of redefinition. This Southeast Asian country redefines everything: cities and caves, traffic and driving, markets and commerce, music and noise. Everything is louder, faster and livelier.

Vietnam also impresses with its scenic and cultural diversity. The mountainous north feels utterly different from the river-abundant south. The rural areas are animated with water buffalo, pigs and cows. The cities are energized with steady, endless streams of motorbikes. If there is one unifying force in Vietnam, it’s Karaoke. Wherever you are, you will hear confident voices singing.

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Vietnam Travel Guide

Vietnam Travel Guide Overview

  • Getting Around 
  • Vietnam Basics
  • Where to Go (Interactive Map)
  • What to Experience in Vietnam
  • What to Eat & Drink in Vietnam
  • First Time in Vietnam
Vietnam Travel Guides
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Rice Harvest, Northern Vietnam

Getting Around Vietnam

Getting around Vietnam is rather effortless. At each destination, you’ll see booking agencies that offer bus trips to other tourist destinations. You can also directly book your transit through your hostels and guesthouses. It’s a good idea to compare prices, before making a decision. And most importantly, know that listed prices are flexible. We’ve learned (rather slowly) that negotiation always works and will guarantee a discount.

The exception is Ha Giang Province. As of November 2017, the only way to complete the Ha Giang Loop is by motorbike or by hiring a driver. There’s no public transit between Dong Van and Meo Vac.

Boat Ride in Ba Be National Park, Vietnam

Vietnam Basics

Official Name: The Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Capital: Hanoi

Government: Communist Party-dominated constitutional republic 

Regions: Vietnam is divided into 58 different provinces. 

Population: 92.7 million 

Language: Vietnamese 

Currency: Dong 

Tipping Etiquette: Tipping isn’t customary among the Vietnamese. 

Water Quality: Poor. Only drink bottled water. Also, remember to brush your teeth with bottled water. When ordering an iced drink, make sure the ice is filtered.

Something Interesting: The largest cave in the world is located in Vietnam: Son Doong.

White Hmong, Meo Vac Market in Ha Giang, Vietnam

Where to Go in Vietnam

Click the dots to explore specific destinations.
National Parks & Geoparks
  • Ba Be National Park
  • Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark
  • Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Regions & Islands

Chứng nào tật nấy






Vietnamese Saying

(Photograph: Snake Wine)

Who drinks, will drink again.

What to Experience in Vietnam

Our favorite things to see and do
Paradise Cave in Vietnam
Paradise Cave

The Cave System of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

The extensive cave system of Phong Nha-Ke Bang cannot be imagined; it must be seen. Entire cities could fit inside some of these caves. But, it’s not just their size and depth that impresses. It’s their column-like stalactites and stalagmites that literally take your breath away. A stalactite is a type of formation that hangs from cave ceilings. It appears to be dripping. A stalagmite is like a stalactite, but instead of dripping from the ceiling, it rises from the cave floor. These formations are created over millions of years by the deposits of calcium carbonate from water. They vary in shape and size. Some look like bones and cake frosting, others look like cauliflower and mushrooms.

There are several different ways to visit the caves. Some can be accessed independently, and others only with a guided tour. 

Things to do in Phong Nha-Ke Bang

  • Take a boat ride into Phong Nha Cave.
  • Hike to Tien Son Cave from the opening of Phong Nha Cave.
  • Rent a motorbike and bike to Paradise Cave. (This should be your #1 priority)
  • Take a guided trekking tour to the Dark Cave and swim in the E Cave.

How much time do you need? We happily spent four days in Phong Nha. Most travelers spend 2 days here.

Look for accommodation in Phong Nha.

Meo Vac Sunday Market, Ha Giang, Vietnam
Meo Vac Sunday Market

The Ethnic Minority Markets in Ha Giang Province

Ha Giang Province is home to 17 different ethnic minorities, including Tay, Dao (Yao), White Hmong, and Black Lolo. These groups intermingle weekly at regional markets, resulting in a colorful display of traditional ethnic dress and commerce. Livestock, meat, vegetables, herbs, clothing, corn, and rice wine are bought and sold. The majority of the sales are negotiated by women, though men typically tend to the livestock. We visited the Meo Vac Sunday Market and the Bao Lac MarketWitnessing the market scenes felt like entering a parallel universe. Unlike so many other places, it’s not contrived or set up for tourists. It’s real. 

In Meo Vac, White Hmong men, women and children enthusiastically shop for clothing, drink rice wine, smoke out of bamboo pipes, and sell livestock. Dressed in vibrantly patterned skirts, pants, and sequin-decorated tops, White Hmong women shimmer as they walk. Boys carry their purchased chickens upside down. Men lead pigs and cows through the packed streets. Buyers evaluate raw meat with a poking technique. Inside the covered market area, noodle soups are prepared and devoured.

At the smaller Bao Lac market, Black Lolo, Dao (Yao), Tay and White Hmong come together every six days based on the lunar calendar to buy and sell their home-grown food. 

Look for accommodation in Ha Giang Province.

Read Next: 5 things to experience in Ha Giang Province

Hanoi, Vietnam


Cities are usually anonymous places where people ignore each other. Not in Hanoi. You’ll be greeted and locals won’t hesitate to start conversations with you. 

Exploring Hanoi isn’t for the faint-hearted. You’ll need nerves of steel to cross some streets, or even walk on the sidewalk. The sidewalks of Hanoi are chaotic spaces. Some operate as motorbike parking lots. Others function as wedding venues. In four days, we saw 6 different wedding tents on the sidewalk. Pedestrian streets also serve as restaurant space. You’ll see locals tightly packed together, sitting on mini-plastic stools, on the curb.

Hanoi is also a city of hidden treasures. The storefronts of Hanoi are like book covers. You can marvel at the front and make a guess about what’s inside, but until you start reading, you won’t understand it. For example, you’ll enter a restaurant, and you’ll find a hidden vintage shop on the third floor. Or, you’ll walk into a textile shop, ascend four stories, and you’ll find yourself in a café specializing in egg coffee. The old quarter is a layered labyrinth of small businesses. On one block, there are silk and North Face factory outlet shops. On the next, there are graveyard plaque and medicinal herb shops. And scattered in between, are tourist booking offices.

Things to do in Hanoi

  • Visit the Vietnamese Women’s Museum 
  • Visit the Ethnology Museum. You can see a traditional water puppet show here too.
  • Eat pizza at Pizza 4P’s – a Japanese-Italian restaurant (when you need a break from Vietnamese food)
  • Drink egg coffee

Look for accommodation in Hanoi.

Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam
Lan Ha Bay

Cruising between Limestone Islands in Lan Ha Bay

We explored Lan Ha Bay and Halong Bay via an organized one-day tour operating out of Cat Ba Island. The tour included a guide, lunch on the boat, kayaking through caves, visiting Monkey Island, and swimming. We were surprised about how serene and secluded the experience was. Many of our friends, who had done Halong Bay tours, recommended doing an overnight tour, in order to access more remote areas of the bay. By accessing the bays from Cat Ba, there was absolutely no need to do an overnight. The whole experience was secluded and remote. Another benefit of taking a day tour from Cat Ba is the competitive pricing. You’ll only pay $15 – $20 per person.

For us, the highlight of the trip was seeing a Langur family swinging and jumping across the karst landscape. Another highlight was seeing a floating fishing village.

Look for accommodation in Cat Ba.

Monkey Island, Cat Ba, Vietnam
Monkey Island

Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba Island is the gateway to Lan Ha Bay and the secret passageway to Halong Bay. There’s plenty to do here to occupy a few days. For us, it was a great place to relax, catch up on sleep, and go on a few independent excursions.

Here are a few things we recommend:

  • Walk the coastal pathway from Cat Ba Town to the beaches. Head towards Lepont Bungalow Hostel and keep hugging the coast.
  • Hike up to Canon Fort for excellent views of the bay.
  • Rent a motorbike and go to the Cat Ba National Park. You can independently hike to the lookout points. It takes about 40 minutes to get to the top.
  • Cruise from Lan Ha Bay to Halong Bay. Visit Monkey Island. 
  • Visit the local market in Cat Ba Town. It’s housed in a covered pavilion. 

Where to Eat in Cat Ba

  • Eat the pancakes and drink the espresso at Like Coffee.
  • Eat authentic Vietnamese food at Green Bamboo Forest.
  • Eat the daily vegetarian plate at Buddha Belly.
  • Drink a coconut iced coffee at Mona’s rooftop terrace.
  • Drink a cocktail at Oasis Bar.
  • Drink a beer and watch the sunset at Bungalow Hostel.

Look for accommodation in Cat Ba.

Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An

Dining in Hoi An

Hoi An, an old trading port, is at its most beautiful at night. Silk lanterns light up the streets and the traffic seems to die down (at least a little). The old town itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are many historical houses, temples and assembly halls squished between tailor shops and souvenir stores. While this lantern town is indeed visually charming, the sales pitches quickly become tiresome. There’s a constant barrage from locals to get you to eat, or buy something. 

The good news is that Hoi An has an exceptional food scene. We ate so well in this city. The food is fresh, flavorful and absolutely delicious. 

Where to Eat in Hoi An

  • Eating vegetarian food at Minh Hien Quan Chay
  • Sipping coffee at Mia Coffee
  • Eating street food specialties at Morning Glory
  • Eating regional cuisine at Miss Ly Café
  • Drinking smoothies at Cocobox
  • Savoring a coconut coffee at The Espresso Station

Look for accommodation in Hoi An.

Cai Rang Floating Market, Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Cai Rang Floating Market

Secrets and Lies of the Mekong Delta

In the Mekong Delta, the sun shines brighter and the Vietnamese smile wider. Palm trees arch over waterways and boats with painted eyes move silently over pale brown water. You’ll see trees bearing magnificent durian and jackfruit. Seafood markets, floating markets and night markets are vibrant and full of life.

The Mekong is also full of lies and secrets. Floating market commerce is disappearing as more bridges are being constructed. If you visit, you’ll likely be disappointed by the size and diversity of the floating markets. No doubt they will continue to exist as tourist attractions in the years to come. The Mekong is also a place of slaughter. Luxury European brands source exotic skins (python, crocodile) from this region of the world. It’s ghastly to witness. With consumer demand fueling this industry, more Vietnamese will begin farming animals for their skin.

We explored the Mekong independently. From Saigon, we traveled to Can Tho to visit the Cai Rang Floating Market. Next, we visited Ben Tre, before returning to Ho Chi Minh City.

Look for accommodation in Mekong Delta.

Read Next: Mekong Delta Itinerary 

Thon Tha Village, Ha Giang Province, Vietnam

What to Eat & Drink in Vietnam

Vietnamese Etiquette

Rice bowls and chopsticks. The Vietnamese eat “family-style.” You’ll always be given your own rice bowl. Serve yourself rice and food from the communal platters into your bowl using your own chopsticks. If you’re at a homestay and eating with the family, the host will likely serve you rice. Typically, there are small dishes of fish sauce, fresh chili sauce, and soy sauce in the middle of the table that are meant to be shared.

Bones & sunflower seed shells. At local places, it’s common for Vietnamese to discard their waste on the ground of restaurants and on streets. Some restaurants provide waste-baskets, but they’re not always used.

Vietnamese Dumplings & Rolls

White Rose Dumplings – Soft steamed rice flour dumplings filled with ground shrimp. This is a Hoi An specialty.

Bo Nuong La Lot (Beef in Betel Leaves) – these rolls are stuffed with beef and wrapped in green betel leaves.

Vietnamese Soup

Bún riêu – crab noodle soup. This is Hanoi’s soup specialty.  It’s savory and a bit sour. It’s the perfect thing to order on a cold day.  

Vietnamese Rice

Cơm tấm (broken rice) –  fragmented rice served with grilled pork. You can get a fried egg on top too. 

Vietnamese Noodles

Cao Lau – thick noodles, roast pork, fresh herbs, and croutons. Eat this in Hoi An.

Stir-Fried Vietnamese Food

Leafy Greens, or flowers stir-fried with garlic and ginger – At local eateries, look for the baskets of fresh leafy greens. Menus usually list water spinach, green mustard, pumpkin flower, watercress. 

đậu sốt cà chua  (Tofu in tomato sauce) – cubed tofu is stir-fried with tomatoes and onion, resulting in a flavorful dish that is a good addition to a meal.

Tay Woman with Water Buffalo in Ha Giang, Vietnam

First Time in Vietnam

Traveling throughout Vietnam is rewarding, but at times challenging.

You feel like locals are trying to sell you something all the time: guided tours, transit, tailored clothing, boat rides, etc… It’s hard to access objective (no strings attached) advice.

In certain areas, selling tactics are charmless and you might feel slightly harassed. More often than we’d like to admit, we felt like we were being taken advantage of. You really need to armor yourself with knowing what things cost before engaging in a sale. The price you get is the price you negotiate for.


There are one-month and three-month visas available. You can choose between a single-entry, or a multiple-entry (more expensive) visa.

Unless you’re arriving at certain international airports, you must obtain your visa before arrival. We arrived in Vietnam in Dong Hoi Airport. We had to secure our visa before arrival, because Dong Hoi doesn’t process visa on arrival.

Water Safety

Only drink sealed, bottled water. However, if you can find filtered water, opt for that. Some tour operators and guesthouses offer filtered water for a small fee. 

Brush your teeth with bottled water.

When you order iced drinks (cocktails, iced teas, iced coffees, etc…), make sure the ice was made with filtered water. If there’s a whole through the ice cube (shaped more like a cylinder), then it has been purified. 

Food Safety

Only eat fruits which can be peeled (mango, pineapple, coconut etc…)

When eating street food, go to the stalls where locals are eating, and where there is a high turnover of food.

Wipe down your eating utensils with an antibacterial disinfection disposable tissue.

Stray and Guard Dogs

There are a lot of stray dogs and guard dogs in rural Vietnam. Most dogs wander about freely, though some are chained to the entrance of a property. Most don’t pay attention to you. But, if you venture off-path, you will likely encounter more aggressive dogs, protecting their property. 

Locals informed us that it’s a good idea to carry a stick, especially if you’re walking alone in rural areas.

It’s also advisable to never run away. That will trigger the dog’s instinct to chase. Simply, back away slowly.

Motorbikes in Vietnam

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