Things to Do in Northern Vietnam
A UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Gulf of Tonkin, Ha Long Bay is renowned for its spectacular scenery. One of the most popular tourist attractions in northern Vietnam, Ha Long Bay is known for its sparkling emerald waters, more than 1,600 towering limestone islands and islets, caves, and traditional floating villages.
Ninh Binh, located in the Red River Delta of Northern Vietnam, is an ideal base for exploring the nearby karst scenery, particularly at Tam Coc (Three Caves). At this UNESCO World Heritage Site, limestone formations tower above verdant rice paddies in what is considered one of Vietnam’s most spectacular areas.
Named in honor of Russian astronaut Gherman Titov during his 1962 visit to Halong Bay, Titop Island (Đảo Titop) offers a striking sight from a distance—a swooping tower of limestone rising out of the sea and blanketed with thick rain forest. Its main highlight is the crescent of pristine white sand lining its shore.
Remote Lan Ha Bay (Vịnh Lan Hạ), situated off the southeast coast of Cat Ba Island, is an idyllic spot and quieter alternative to the popular and often busy Halong Bay. The area features some 300 karst islands and limestone outcrops, as well as several white-sand beaches. Active travelers come here for swimming, rock climbing, hiking, and kayaking.
Amid the lush islands and karst cliffs of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Halong Bay; Surprise Cave (Hang Sung Sot) is one of the most memorable highlights. The bay’s largest cave earned its name for its startling natural scenery—a trio of immense caverns adorned with stalactites, stalagmites, and karst formations.
Over a thousand years ago, the stretch of sleepy countryside around Hoa Lu (Hoa Lư) in northerly Ninh Binh province was a lot livelier as the site of the country’s former capital. Reportedly chosen by the Dinh dynasty (AD 968-80) to ensure enough distance between it and its northerly neighbor China, today much of the capital’s former splendor—fortress walls, temples, shrines and more—have been lost to time.
Still, visitors can explore two surviving temples built to honor emperors Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Dai Hanh and the dynasties they represent; the latter includes a small museum housing some artifacts excavated from an old earthen city wall. The Dinh Tien Hoang temple, perhaps the more impressive of the two, got a facelift in the 17th century. Just outside you’ll find the pedestal from his throne, and inside a statue of the emperor depicted with his three sons. A short walk away, some vestiges of the old palace’s foundation, unearthed by the Vietnamese Archaeology Institute in 1998, remain.
To truly soak in the full expanse of the just-over-a-square-mile complex, take the 20-minute walk up Ma Yen mountain via the path near the Hoa Lu ticket booth, it leads to the tombs of the temple’s two namesake emperors and overlooks the region.
The fairy-tale limestone seascapes that made UNESCO-listed Halong Bay famous continue into Bai Tu Long Bay (Vinh Bai Tu Long). Quieter, less developed, and more difficult to reach than its famous sibling, Bai Tu Long Bay is an increasingly popular choice for day cruises and overnight adventures.
A national park made up of dense jungle canvasses half of mountainous Cát Bà Island, the largest island in Halong Bay. Recognized by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve and known for its golden sand beaches, the park is home to an extraordinary diversity of animals, including the endangered Cát Bà langur.
The Old Quarter, a triangular area surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake, has been the cultural heart of Hanoi for nearly 2,000 years. Daily routine starts early and builds to a friendly bustle in this ancient neighborhood, where streets have distinct character and are named after the crafts once made there, such as silver, silk, and paper.
Not your average Vietnamese temple, the Bai Dinh Pagoda (Chùa Bái Đính) is actually an almost-three-square-mile complex of temple buildings and gardens dominating the slopes of a rounded hill in Ninh Binh province. The impressive site—whose three-tiered-roof hall leads to attractions such as 30 foot, 200,000 lb. bronze Buddha statue statue; intricate laquerwork and stone carving; a 72,000 lb. bronze bell housed in the 13-story Phap Chu pagoda; and 500 arhat (wisened Buddhist) statues—is a relatively new attraction. Though a much older temple exists up 300 stone steps and tucked into caves at the back of the complex, some of the larger and showier additions, including the bell and its tower, were built only in the last 15 years.
Thousands of Vietnamese pilgrims flood the site regularly, particularly during an annual Bai Dinh Pagoda Festival combining new and old rituals around the sixth day of the first lunar month. Some sources duby this the largest pagoda complex in Vietnam, but regardless of ranking, there’s no question this superlative site is worth a visit. Just don’t expect to have the place to yourself.
More Things to Do in Northern Vietnam
Surrounded by dramatic gorges and stepped rice terraces, the landscapes around Sapa (Sa Pa) are some of northern Vietnam’s most striking. Visit Sapa to hike scenic trails past tumbling waterfalls, shop colorful traditional markets, and learn about Vietnam’s cultural heritage of Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay, and Yi minority groups.
The Hanoi Opera House (Nha Hat Lon) is a 100-year-old performance hall with architecture modeled on the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris. Nha Hat Lon was erected by the French colonial administration at the turn of the 20th century and is a landmark building in Hanoi. It was built in a typical French style with classic gothic features.
In 1997, the modernization and repair of the building was undertaken by Vietnamese French architects, and the decorative designs on the ceilings, arches, walls, and doors were renewed. Home to the Vietnam Symphony Orchestra, the Opera House also hosts the Hanoi Philharmonic Orchestra, the National Ballet, plus both traditional and modern local productions.
No tours of the building are offered but the exterior makes for some good photo opportunities. In terms of atmosphere, the Opera House is best seen at night when it is illuminated by lights.
One of the most visited attractions in Hanoi, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the final resting place of “Uncle Ho,” the beloved founder of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He lies here in state, embalmed and in a glass case, with a military honor guard watching over him and the many visitors who come to pay their respects.
A key landmark in the historical center of Hanoi, charming Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) offers a peaceful escape from the hectic pace and crowds of the city. It’s a popular meeting spot, and also makes a great place to people watch and experience local culture.
The art form of water puppetry originated at least 1,000 years ago in the rice fields of north Vietnam. Particularly if you’re traveling with kids, you’d be remiss to leave Hanoi without catching a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. A Vietnamese orchestra accompanies the water puppets, with some modern special effects.
Few truly historic buildings exist in Vietnam, which makes the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam) extra special. First built as a Confucian temple in 1070 AD, it became Vietnam’s first university (Quoc Tu Giam) and operated as one for more than 700 years. Between ponds, gardens, and tranquil courtyards, it’s a haven in the heart of the Hanoi
South of Hanoi, the Trang An Landscape Complex is considered Vietnam’s “Ha Long Bay on land.” A UNESCO World Heritage Site for both nature and culture, the complex features a spectacular landscape of caverns and tunnels among limestone karsts, rice paddies, villages, and historic sites.
Built on a single pillar and rising out of a square-shaped lotus pond, the One Pillar Pagoda (Chua Mot Cot) is said to resemble a lotus flower. Originally built in the 11th century, the pagoda has been rebuilt over the years, most recently in 1955 after it was destroyed by the French, and remains one of Hanoi’s most iconic pagodas.
A distinctive pair of karst islets jutting out from the calm waters of Halong Bay; the unique Hon Ga Choi Island (Fighting Cocks Island) has become one of the bay’s most memorable landmarks and among the most photographed attractions for cruise visitors. Located right in the heart of the bay, the jagged rock formations loom 12 meters over the water, improbably perched on narrow, weatherworn bases and appearing to lean towards each other.
It’s this peculiar creation of nature that afforded the island its name - Hòn Gà Chọi (Fighting Cocks Island), or Hòn Trống Mái (Cock and Hen Island), depending who you ask. For the full effect, pass by the islands at sunrise or sunset, when the dreamy sunlight casts a red hue over the rocks, further enhancing their cockerel-like appearance.
One of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam, and the oldest in Hanoi, Tran Quoc Pagoda (Chua Tran Quoc) was built in during the reign of Emperor Ly Nam De (AD 541–547) and moved to its present location in 1615. Located on an islet within West Lake, Tran Quoc Pagoda offers beautiful architecture, historic relics and artifacts, and a serene and scenic environment.
Designed by the same architect responsible for the Eiffel Tower, Long Bien Bridge (Cau Long Bien) was the first bridge to span the Red River in Hanoi, providing a vital transport link between cities and towns in Northern Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the bridge was bombed in American air attacks, and yet today, it still stands as a testament to the nation’s tumultuous history.
The closest village to Sapa, Cat Cat Village is a popular trekking destination to experience the distinctive culture and traditions of the Black Hmong tribe. Located in Vietnam’s Muong Hoa Valley, at the base of Fansipan Mountain, Cat Cat Village is also known for its stunning scenery of terraced fields, rolling hills, and waterfalls.
Built by the French in 1896 to hold Vietnamese political prisoners and known originally as Maison Centrale, Hoa Lo Prison was taken over by the Vietnamese in 1954. During the American War (Vietnam War), it housed American POWs, who referred to it as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Today, parts of the original prison have been turned into a museum.
Located just over 6 miles (10 kilometers) from Sapa, the emerald green Muong Hoa Valley (Thung Lũng Mường Hoa) features some of the most breathtakingly picturesque landscapes in Vietnam. Home to Ban Ho, Lao Chai, Ta Van, Hau Thao, Ta Phin and Su Pa ethnic minority populations, the valley is one of the biggest rice-growing areas in the region. The rolling emerald hills, epic views and fascinating traditional villages are just part of what greets travelers who opt to trek here.
Journeys ranging from two to six hours wind through low-lying grasslands, rice paddies and quiet villages where local women share fascinating stories about life in the countryside of Vietnam. Visitors can get an up-close look at the Hmong people’s way of life while peeking into homes, exploring farms and tasting traditional dishes. A voyage into Muong Hoa Valley is a multi-sensory experience that is not to be missed.
Trekkers follow the path of the Muong Hoa River through rice fields and sleepy villages, with stops to visit homes, taste traditional local dishes and learn about day-to-day life in a place that seems immune to the passage of time. Trekkers can participate in a homestay in one of several villages, where a local family plays host and offers a home-cooked meal.
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