The Ultimate Travel Guide to Vietnam
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Vietnam is a country of dramatic contrasts — from the bustling cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh to the emerald waters of Halong Bay, the country is shrouded in both beauty and rich cultural traditions. Last month, Acanela Expeditions had the opportunity to host a trip to northern Vietnam with an incredible group of influencers, travel bloggers, photographers, and content creators. This group was blown away not only by the majesty of Vietnam’s natural surroundings, but also by the country’s delicious culinary traditions, astounding history, and the friendly hospitality of the Vietnamese people. Our adventure was so incredible that we wanted to provide you with the inside scoop on our itinerary through some of the most breathtaking places in northern Vietnam--we hope it will convince you to pay a visit to this exciting and underrated destination, too!
BACK STORY: VIETNAM
The easternmost country of the Indochina Peninsula, Vietnam is known for its pristine beaches, luscious rice fields, delectable cuisine, and beautiful Buddhist pagodas. Yet this vibrant and alluring country has suffered a tragic past: colonized by the French in the 1850s, Vietnam was rocked by years of oppression, violence, and war, only finding true peace in the 1990s. And although its history has marred many individuals’ perceptions of the country, travelers today would be advised not to overlook the unbelievable beauty and resilience contained within Vietnam’s borders!
WHAT TO SEE IN VIETNAM: A SAMPLE ITINERARY
Hanoi (Recommended stay: 3-4 days)
Located in the northeastern region of the country, Vietnam’s capital is one of the world’s most ancient cities. Full of exquisite colonial architecture, temples, and museums, this busy city is known for its sprawling markets and mouth-watering cuisine. The city’s blend of Chinese, French, and Vietnamese influences gives it a unique feel and flavor, making it best explored on foot (or by motorbike, if you’re brave enough to dare the traffic!).
Must-See Sites in Hanoi:
Train Street: Hidden in the narrow streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Train Street is a quirky residential and shopping area through which a high-speed train passes twice a day! Enjoy some delicious street food and a cold drink and watch the chaos ensue when the residents hear that train coming down the tracks — it is a sight to behold!
Ho Chi Minh's house: The small stilt house, in which the Vietnamese leader lived sporadically throughout his life, is open as a museum to the public. Tour the home and gardens of this famous Northern Vietnamese hero for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
One Pillar Pagoda: The lotus-shaped One Pillar Pagoda is one of Vietnam’s most special structures. Located near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, this iconic Buddhist temple, originally built in the 1000s and reconstructed in the 1950s, is a must-see symbol of Vietnam’s 1,000-year civilization.
Temple of Literature: A Temple of Confucius, this famous temple was built in the 1000s and is a lasting example of ancient architecture. Today, the Temple of Literature hosts the Imperial Academy, the country’s first national university, and is one of Hanoi’s most picturesque attractions.
Hoan Kiem Lake: When seeking a brief respite from the hustle and noise of the city, Hoan Kiem Lake is the place to go! This peaceful and quiet area located in the center of Hanoi city contains a lovely freshwater lake, which surrounds the picturesque Ngoc San Temple, a beautiful pagoda nestled on a small island in the center.
Ninh Binh (Recommended Stay: 3-4 days)
Three and a half hours south of Hanoi, you will find yourself in one of the most beautiful landscapes in Northern Vietnam (and a local secret that is unknown by many tourists!). Nestled amidst the karst mountains and stunning rice paddies, Ninh Binh is a natural paradise that will take your breath away and allow you to rest and relax outside of the busy city of Hanoi. Though we recommend staying for three or four days in this region, once you get there, you may decide to never leave!
Must-See Sites in Ninh Binh:
Trang An: Situated on the Red River Delta, Trang An is known for its spectacular boat tours. Board a local Vietnamese boat and travel through thousands of limestone islands and caves that make up some of the most stunning scenery in the world. During your tour, you can visit floating villages, share a meal with local Vietnamese people, and learn all about how they live their whole lives on the water. It is an experience you will not soon forget!
Pro tip: Beat the tourist crowds by arriving in Trang An early in the morning. You’ll also avoid the hottest part of the day.
Hoa Lu: Once the capital of ancient kingdom of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries, this city is full of temples and relics of the Dinh and Le dynasties. Due to the protection of the towering limestone mountains surrounding it, Hoa Lu was a natural choice for a capital and citadel. Filled with brilliant architecture and structures that pay homage to famous emperors, this city provides travelers with an immersive cultural and historical experience.
Tam Coc: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Tam Coc (or “three caves”) region is commonly known as the ‘Halong Bay on land.’ This area’s endless rice paddies, limestone towers, and the mystical Ngo Dong River will awe you. During your visit, you can climb the Lying Dragon Mountain (500 steps) to visit the Hang Mua Caves and to reach one of the most spectacular views over the bay. Also make sure to visit the Bich Dong Pagoda, a set of three temples enclosed in a mountain and set against a backdrop of rice paddies and karst mountains.
PU LUONG (Recommended stay: 2-3 days)
Located on the edge of Hoa Binh and Thanh Hoa provinces, Pu Luong is a popular getaway for locals. Pu Luong Nature Reserve, which is famous for its rice paddies and enchanting water wheels, is filled with endless mountains, green jungle, and fertile valleys. Remote and tranquil, Pu Luong is one of the best places in the world to truly unplug.
Must-See Sites in Pu Luong:
Rice Paddies: The sprawling rice paddies of Pu Luong are perfect for trekking and multi-day hikes. Your eyes will never tire of the vast rice fields that will lead you through quaint villas and hamlets, which are scattered throughout the lovely countryside.
Water Wheels: Part of this area’s charm comes from the large bamboo water wheels that dot the landscape. But these wheels are not just there for decoration — watch and learn as the local workers use these wheels to harvest the water from the low-lying streams to irrigate the vast rice crops.
Chieng Lau: Take an easy trek to the small village of Chieng Lau, where you can cross the beautiful hanging bridge and get a perfect glimpse of the flowing Cham River below!
OTHER VIETNAM HIGHLIGHTS THAT YOU CANNOT MISS ON OUR ACANELA VIETNAM TRIP:
A name that means “descending dragon” in Vietnamese, Halong Bay is a national treasure. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is located in the northeastern part of Vietnam approximately 100 miles from Hanoi. Best traveled on a two-day boat tour, this beautiful bay is famous for its emerald waters and thousands of uninhabited limestone islands that are topped with luscious rainforest. The region is a popular place to scuba dive, kayak, rick climb, and hike throughout the inlets and various islands. It is a true paradise!
Ho Chi Minh City
Previously known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City was once the capital of French-controlled southern Vietnam. Known for its French colonial architecture and landmarks (including a version of the Notre Dame Cathedral!), Ho Chi Minh is a hub of modern Vietnamese culture and commerce. From the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace to the famous History and Fine Arts Museums and the iconic pagodas (notably the Giac Lam Pagoda and the Jade Emperor Pagoda), Ho Chi Minh City will overload your senses in the very best way!
Mekong River Delta
Located in southern Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is one of Vietnam’s two most famous rice bowls. The delta is a vast array of rivers and islands that are full of floating villages and markets and picturesque pagodas. Board a long-tail boat and explore little fishing villages, narrow canals, and beautiful natural surroundings.
Vietnam’s vibrant culture and fascinating history will draw you in, while its dramatic landscapes, friendly locals, and delicious food will truly make you fall in love with this small country. Don’t miss out — join Acanela Expeditions for a chance to experience the full majesty of Vietnam!
This trip was in part made possible thanks to some of our favorite travel brands, content creators, and influencers who joined us. Special thanks to the brands: Acanela Expeditions, Brics Milano (our favorite travel luggage), Summersalt (our partner in swimwear), Instasize (best photo editing app), and Roolee (incredible travel clothing); the influencers: @malloryonthemoon, @anniesbucketlist @courtneysteeves, @oneworldjustgo, @suzyshattuck, @marisahampe, and @kytrisha; and the content creators: @kytrisha, @talandavid, @jakenackos , @anjroo .