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Things to Do in Vietnam

As chaotic as it is captivating and as fast-paced as it is traditional, Vietnam is a country of contrasts. However, one thing is indisputable—there’s no place on earth quite like it. Hanoi, Vietnam’s bustling capital, with its atmospheric Hanoi Old Quarter, striking Do Temple, and West Lake, is best explored on foot or by motorbike, cyclo (three-wheeled taxi), or scooter. Hanoi is also a convenient jumping-off point for junk boat cruises on Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Red River Delta, home to remote tribal craft villages. Continuing down the east coast, the Forbidden Purple City in Hué is a glorious reminder of Vietnam’s Imperial past; the Old Town of Hoi An—arguably Vietnam’s prettiest city — is a hotspot for Vietnamese street food; and Nha Trang is known for its idyllic beaches. Hanoi’s southern rival, Ho Chi Minh City, is Vietnam’s largest and most modern city in which sightseeing tours reveal cultural treasures such as the Saigon Opera House, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Vietnam Cookery Center—great if a cookery course is on your travel menu. Plus, just a short drive away from Ho Chi Min City, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a poignant reminder of the tragedies of the Vietnam War, and the winding canals, lush rice paddies, and traditional villages of the Mekong Delta stretch all the way to border of Cambodia, allowing you to continue your South East Asia adventure with ease.
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Cu Chi Tunnels
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445 Tours and Activities

The Cu Chi Tunnels are a network of underground passageways that run to more than 120 miles (200 kilometers) in total length in this area alone. Work by the Viet Cong commenced in 1948 as a means of shelter from the French air attacks during the Indochina conflict.

The network provided vital access and strategic control over the large rural area surrounding Ho Chi Minh City; over the following two decades the tunnels became a complex underground city including hospitals, defenses and living quarters. This meant despite all the bombings in the area many of the local people could still continue to live underground. In its prime and at its most impressive the Cu Chi Tunnels stretched from the southern Vietnamese capital all the way to the Cambodian border to the west, and in places was dug to 3 stories deep.

Much of the original tunnel system was destroyed in bombing raids during the 1970s but existing parts have been restored and opened.

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Nha Trang Beach
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Sometimes called the beach capital of Vietnam, Nha Trang is known for its scenic shores and few are more delightful than the yellow sandy stretch of Nha Trang Beach. This 6-km destination is ideal for swimmers, sunbathers and snorkelers, who will likely find uninterrupted turquoise blue waters to explore on their own. While a slightly more social scene can be found at jumping beach joints like Sailing Club and the local brew house, deserted island vibes can be found further down towards the south side. A popular promenade offers a scenic place for an evening stroll and the nearby town comes alive with plenty of entertaining nightlife options once the sun goes down.

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Hanoi Opera House (Nha Hat Lon)
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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.

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Bach Dang Wharf (Ben Bach Dang)
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Bach Dang Pier is located next to the ferry terminal and close to the Renaissance hotel in central Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a popular launching point for boat trips along the Saigon River.

From the area, visitors can get involved in all manner of trips and activities. From accessing various parts of the city to explore, to weaving through its canals on a sunset dinner cruise, both tourist and trade boats bustle in and out of Bach Dang Pier throughout the day and night. Some operators also arrange trips to attractions further afield, such as the Cu Chi Tunnels.

As well as being a good place to find out more about tours and activities available on the river, Bach Dang has an appeal all of its own, with a number authentic coffee shops, bars, and eateries on offer. It’s a bustling area where you’ll find locals doing tai chi in the mornings and sipping drinks overlooking the river come the early evening.

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Marble Mountains
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The five limestone hills that make up Vietnam’s famed Marble Mountains are each named after one of the five elements: fire (Hoa), wood (Moc), metal (Kim), water (Thuy) and earth (Tho). And while their shadowy caves and hidden tunnels draw thousands of travelers to wander this destination each year, its proximity to beautiful and ancient Buddhist and Hindu grottoes and access to a stunning summit are other reasons to make the voyage.

Travelers can climb the more than 150 steps that lead to the summit of Thuy Son, where incredible views of natural landscapes as well as access to these grottoes. Visitors can explore Huyen Khong and Tang Chon, as well as the Tam Thai pagoda, which was built in 1825. These ancient religious monuments showcase the region’s age-old tradition of stone carving, thanks to relief work chipped away from the mountain’s marble façade.

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Lady Buddha
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Impossible to miss, Lady Buddha dominates the landscape of Da Nang. The marble statue, perched on the side of Monkey Mountain and visible from nearly anywhere in the city, stands 220 feet (67 meters) tall and measures 56 feet (17 meters) in diameter. Inside the statue, a flight of stairs leads up to 17 floors, each representing a different aspect of the Buddha.

The name Lady Buddha is a bit deceiving. The statue in fact depicts Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy can be found in coastal areas throughout Asia, as she is believed to bring calm to the sea. The giant statue stands in front of the beautiful Linh Ung Pagoda, with its gardens and small souvenir shop operated by monks.

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Hue Citadel (Dai Noi)
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295 Tours and Activities

Constructed in 1804, this massive fortress designed for the Gia Long Emperor, is surrounded by a zigzag moat and defensive barrier that’s 21 meters thick. But visitors to this citadel-in-a-citadel-in-a-citadel won’t need to swim across rivers or scale towering walls to get a look inside. The Imperial Enclosure is accessible by crossing one of the 10 pedestrian bridges into the once royal land. Pass through Ngo Mon (Noon) Gate, once reserved for those in power, then wander through Flag Tower (Cot Co) and stare up at the nation’s tallest flagpole before weaving through the Nine Dynastic Urns representing different Nguyen kings.

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More Things to Do in Vietnam

Minh Mang Tomb

Minh Mang Tomb

87 Tours and Activities
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Dong Ba Market (Cho Dong Ba)

Dong Ba Market (Cho Dong Ba)

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On the north bank of the Huong River is Hue’s lively Dong Ba Market, stretching out for 16,000 square meters. Still retaining its old bell tower from when it was first opened by King Dong Khanh in 1887, the atmospheric market is divided into separate sections, with the whole upstairs floor dedicated to clothes.

Though Hue has plenty of supermarkets, Dong Ba is an important market for locals and a great place to experience Vietnamese life, with 5,000 to 7,000 people coming here to barter daily.

While you’re at Dong Ba Market, look out for popular local handicrafts like non la bai tho (conical hats with poems woven in the design), xung sesame candies, and Tuan black tea. Dong Ba is also a great spot for trying traditional regional food like beef vermicelli. You’ll find the street vendors serving specialty dishes on the ground floor of the market, on the street parallel to the river.

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Perfume River (Song Huong River)

Perfume River (Song Huong River)

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The Perfume River may have gotten its fame from the film Full Metal Jacket, but visitors to Hue traveled on this scenic body of water even before the movie’s 1987 debut. Each fall, blossoms from nearby orchards drop into the river, producing the unique fragrance that gives this river its name. The unpolluted waters offer cooling breezes for cyclists riding along the winding banks of local rice fields, and breathtaking views of Ngu Binh Mountain. Watch the sun go down and the city light up while you enjoy a cool beer on a late-afternoon dragon boat ride through Hue.

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Royal Antiquities Museum

Royal Antiquities Museum

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War Remnants Museum (Bao Tang Chung Tich Chien Tranh)

War Remnants Museum (Bao Tang Chung Tich Chien Tranh)

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Opened in 1975, just a few months after the liberation, the War Remnants Museum is one of the most popular attractions in the city. Laid out in 8 themed rooms are different aspects of the war from imprisonment, to chemical warfare and military might.

In the grounds there are military equipment, weaponry and aircraft on display including fighter planes, helicopters and tanks. Some of the exhibits are shockingly gruesome, explicit photos and prisoner cages detail a war-torn history. This is the story of the Vietnam War told from the other side which mixes the atrocities of war with the reality of military hardware.

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Reunification Palace (Independence Palace)

Reunification Palace (Independence Palace)

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The Reunification Palace is an important site of political and cultural significance, built by the French in 1868 to mark the newly established colony of Indochina.

In 1945, it briefly became the headquarters for the Japanese after their defeat of the French. In 1962, two Vietnamese rebel pilots bombed the palace - the president survived but the palace did not. He commissioned a new one to be built. It was renamed Independence Palace and the design became a Modernist icon. In 1975 the palace was the symbolic site of the triumphant liberation of Saigon. Vietnam was then reunified; since then the building has been known as Reunification Palace. Today it is a working government building as well as having areas open to the public. Tour the private quarters, the president's former office and the War Command Room. You get a real sense of what happened here and its importance in Vietnamese history.

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Ben Thanh Market (Cho Ben Thanh)

Ben Thanh Market (Cho Ben Thanh)

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Let the spirit of Ho Chi Minh City lift you up and carry you through this network of colorful bustling activity. Cho Ben Thanh, or Ben Thanh Market, comes alive every evening with a thrum of tireless energy that never ceases to enthrall.

This is the most celebrated and regularly visited of the markets. It is also the most central, located in one of the liveliest parts of the city where the streets and alleyways surrounding the market place fill with food stalls.

At Ben Thanh Market you can expect to find almost everything that the locals might need in their day to day lives: from fresh meats and vegetables to clothes, domestic items, pots, woven baskets and bamboo ladders. This is a feast for the senses.Take in the sounds: the excited chatter of shoppers and the pitch of vendors’ voices rising into the steaming night.

Breathe in the sweet spiced air - chili, tamarind, ginger - and witness the bright array of colors from exotic fruits to beautiful silks.

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Saigon Opera House (Opéra de Saïgon)

Saigon Opera House (Opéra de Saïgon)

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East meets west at this stunning example of French Colonial architecture in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. The gleaming white municipal theater, which is home the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet and Symphony Orchestra, was built in 1897. Its well-lit façade casts a brilliant glow on nearby city streets. Visitors can file into the 1,800 seat theater to catch regular dress rehearsals, or buy a ticket for one of the weekly cultural shows the theater is known for. On weekends, free public performances take place on the opera house steps and the nearby park offers travelers a perfect spot to stop and enjoy the music.

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Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre

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Don't leave Hanoi without seeing a Thang Long Water Puppet Theater show. These musical stories portrayed are of historical legends and folk tales. These ever-popular performances are given by a troupe of talented actors and accompanied by a traditional Vietnamese pit orchestra. Great entertainment for all ages. Charming, curious, and enchanting - you'll be pleased you experienced it.

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Dong Xuan Market

Dong Xuan Market

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Three stories of wholesale and traditional goods, local food and hand-tailored clothes, as well as cosmetics and crafts, make the massive Dong Xuan Market a true experience of southeast Asia.

Both locals and tourists hustle through the jam-packed stalls of Dong Xuan during daylight hours, bartering for better deals on just about anything imaginable. But it’s after dark that the market truly comes alive, as travelers gather to sample traditional foods while watching cultural performances that include music, dance and plenty of energy, too.

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St Joseph’s Cathedral (Nha Tho Lon)

St Joseph’s Cathedral (Nha Tho Lon)

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Amid the congested streets of Hanoi, the neo-Gothic facade of St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Nha Tho Lon) seems somewhat out of place. Located in the French Quarter of the Vietnamese capital fronting a small plaza near Hoan Kiem Lake, the Roman Catholic cathedral was built between 1882 and 1886, shortly after the French conquered the city.

The most striking characteristics of the building are its twin bell towers reminiscent of Notre Dame in Paris. The interior of the cathedral features stunning stained glass windows and an intricate alter where mass is held several times each day. Visitors to Hanoi around Christmastime will find the cathedral a bustle of activity, and the small plaza in the front takes on a street fair-like atmosphere.

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Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son Temple)

Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son Temple)

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Dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao, who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century, the picturesque Ngoc Son Temple on Hoam Kiem Lake is one of the most-visited temples in all of Hanoi. A brilliant red bridge connects the mainland to the temple’s tiny island, where cooling waters and shaded trees circle the place where locals gather for worship and contemplation.

Also known as the Temple of the Jade Mountain, Ngoc Son offers breathtaking lake views and picture-perfect shots of the storied Tortoise Tower, as well as a rare glimpse of richly colored wall paintings, handcrafted sculptures and the Pen Tower. Although crossing the bridge is free, there is a small fee to enter the temple.

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Hoa Lo Prison

Hoa Lo Prison

85 Tours and Activities

Once used by French colonialists to house political prisoners—and later by North Vietnam to hold activists rallying for independence—what now remains of Hoa Lo Prison has become a popular destination for travelers visiting Hanoi.

Sometimes sarcastically called the “Hanoi Hilton,” Hoa Lo once held more than 2,000 prisoners in subhuman conditions within its crowded quarters. Prisoners included a number of leaders from Communist North Vietnam, as well as American pilots and soldiers during the Vietnam War. Hoa Lo became a school for revolutionaries once its prisoners were released, before being totally demolished in the 1990s. Today, the original gates to Hoa Lo lead to a replica of the prison, where travelers can tour cells, explore prison culture and better understand the conditions political captives lived under.

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Hanoi Old Quarter

Hanoi Old Quarter

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The Old Quarter is the cultural heart of Hanoi where the pulse of life has constantly beat for nearly 2,000 years. Daily routine starts early and builds to a friendly bustle. Streets have distinct character and are named after the crafts once made there - silver, ladder, silk, paper.

St. Joseph's cathedral rings for mass regularly throughout the day, follow the bells to check its Neo-Gothic style. Huyen Thien Pagoda is another of the many temples peppered around this part of town. The Old City Gate is one of four original entrances to the heart of the Royal City to survive over a thousand years.

Take time to sample the spirit, atmosphere and shopping on offer here - nothing says Hanoi like its Old Quarter.

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