National parks

Vietnam's outstanding natural beauty

In 2003, UNESCO recognised Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park as one of the world’s most outstanding limestone karst ecosystems. The park is home to Hang Son Doong and Hang En, the largest and third largest caves in the world. While Hang Son Doong is out of reach for most (the expeditions are expensive and physically demanding), there are many other extraordinary caves and areas of the park to explore, including a section of the historic Ho Chi Minh Trail. Boats ferry passengers on an underground river through namesake Phong Nha Cave, while a kilometre-long boardwalk gives visitors an eye-full of the 31km long Paradise Cave.

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View of Crocodile Lake, Cat Tien National Park

Cat Tien National Park in south Vietnam offers nature, hiking and prime bird and wildlife viewing opportunities just 160km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. Covering 71,920 hectares and bound by the Dong Nai River, the lowland tropical rainforest and wetlands contain monkeys, civets, sambar, guar, langurs, wild crocodiles and a number of bird species like the endangered pitta. The park is also home to a Sun and Moon bear sanctuary, opening to the public in 2019. Visitors can do one-day or multi-day treks, boat trips and night safaris.

Remote and covered in jungle, Con Dao is an archipelago of 16 islands off the southern coast. Once used by the French as a prison, the largest island offers both a sombre history lesson and some of the best independent hiking in the country. Con Dao National Park covers 6,000 hectares of land and 14,000 hectares of the surrounding ocean. After registering with the park office, visitors can walk a number of marked forest trails that end at secluded beaches. Con Dao is also one of the best places for diving in Vietnam.

Hill tribes

Cultural Vietnam, ethically

Vietnam has staggering ethnic diversity. After the majority Viet (Kinh), there are 53 ethnic groups, many with their own language, traditions, spiritual beliefs and agriculture. The hill tribes in the north are the most well known; photos of them in their unique dress have been used to promote “exotic” Indochine since the French colonial era.

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Child wearing decorated tradition clothes hat of hill tribe in Sapa

Once a French hill station and retreat, Sapa in Lao Cai Province is the hub for northern hill tribe trekking and homestays, experiences that combine mountain scenery, lovely terraced rice paddies and ethnic villages. There are, however, serious concerns about over tourism, unbridled development and respect, with villages and the famed Bac Ha Sunday Market becoming human zoos.

A few tips if you do decide to visit Vietnam’s hill tribes: A visit to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi is essential to learn more about the ethnic groups and their culture. Instead of a one-night trek, spend the time and money to go further afield. Make an effort to interact with locals (and not just for a photo); a good guide can be instrumental in bridging the gap.

Seeing a fraction of the tourists, Ha Giang Province also has hill tribes and mountain landscapes. Hiking Mu Cang Chai is an excellent way to see stunning terraced rice paddies and learn about the Black Hmong. Kon Tum in the Central Highlands has eight minority groups. The Jarai are known for their fascinating burial rituals and towering thatch roof building used for village ceremonies. Treks and village stays will immerse travellers in this place where relatively few outsiders venture.

Halong Bay

Vietnam's star attraction

Located in the Gulf of Tonkin, Halong Bay is Vietnam’s star attraction. More than 1600 karst islands and islets jut up from the ocean, each tower of rock uniquely shaped by nature.

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Tourist "junks" floating in Ha Long Bay

Overnight cruises on traditional boats known as junks explore some of the 43,400-hectare UNESCO World Heritage Site, usually with stops to kayak the formations, visit caverns and explore traditional floating fishing villages. Two-night cruises allow for deeper exploration and a chance to get out of crowded waters.

In Hanoi, the hundreds of agencies that sell tours are middle-men who are not actually running the trip, so buyer beware. When choosing a boat, the size, level of comfort and service ranges from backpacker party boats to luxurious private cruises. The general rule of thumb is you get what you pay for when choosing a Halong Bay cruise.

The best time to visit Halong Bay is springtime from March to May/June, as well as September/October. These periods are most likely to have warm, dry weather. The peak tourist season of November to February can be good if you don’t mind cold temperatures (12 to 20 Celsius) and mist that reduces visibility. Halong Bay’s off-season coincides with the hot, humid, rainy months of June to August; operators offer discounts though cruises may be cancelled due to stormy weather.

When to go to Vietnam

When to go to Vietnam
By Cindy Fan

Seasons and climate

Stretching 1,650km, Vietnam is so long that it has three climate zones — north, central and south — each experiencing its own weather patterns. Tropical monsoons create two annual seasons: rainy and dry. Travellers should also be aware of the typhoon season. From August to December, there is a small chance of a typhoon or tropical depression rolling in from the ocean resulting in serious rainfall and flooding. October tends to be the most intense storm period.

There isn’t a bad time to visit Vietnam as there will always be differences within the country at any given time. For example, in January there can be snow in Sapa, torrential rain in Hue, perfect wind conditions for kiteboarding in Mui Ne and ideal beach weather in Phu Quoc. Choose a few destinations and activities and use the optimal time for those to decide when to visit Vietnam. For the rest, come prepared and take it all in stride like the locals.

High season is December to March; it is cool and dry in Hanoi and warm in the south, a reprieve from the heat and humidity. Attractions are busy and hotels charge higher rates. March and April may be the sweet spot: it is spring in the north, the rainy season has ended in the central coast and has yet to begin in the south. School holidays in July and August are a popular time for Vietnamese families to go on holiday. Expect resorts and tourist sites to be more busy than usual.

Month-by-month

North
The north including Hanoi has four seasons. The best times to visit are April to June (spring/beginning of summer) and September to December (fall/beginning of winter). It is oppressively humid, hot and rainy from June to August, while December to March is cold and indoor heating is rare. Hanoi dips to 10C while mountain regions like Sapa can experience snow. April is a terrific time for Sapa, as well as September/early October when the terraced rice paddies are vibrant, full and near to harvest.

Central
Central Vietnam has two seasons: hot and sunny; cool and wet. Generally, September to January/February is rainy and cool. Unlike the south’s short monsoon downpours, the rain here can drag on. Hoi An’s old town floods after particularly heavy rainfall. When the sun comes out from March to August, it is extremely hot -- the ideal time to hit the central coast beaches.

South
There’s a popular saying in the south: “There are two seasons: hot and hotter”. Temperatures here do not dip below 20C. Expect pleasant, warm, dry weather and tranquil oceans from November to February. The “hotter” part comes in March and April when temperatures soar.

The rainy season runs from May to September. Hotels offer low season rates and tourist attractions are less crowded so it can be a great time to visit by simply working around the daily downpour that lasts an hour or two. Temperatures cool down after the rain, and places like Cat Tien National Park and the Mekong Delta are lush and beautiful. However, lowland areas with rivers such as Ho Chi Minh City do experience flooding. The seas are rough around Phu Quoc Island. Those looking for beach time should head up towards the central coast to Qui Nhon, Da Nang, Hoi An and Nha Trang.

Known as the “city of eternal spring”, Da Lat in the Central Highlands is famous for its temperate climate, warm in the day and fresh at night throughout the year. Like the south, the rainy season is from May to September.

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Festival and events

Tet, Vietnamese New Year, is the country’s biggest celebration. Falling in February or March according to the lunar calendar, this public holiday lasts a week, sometimes longer, with the buzz of anticipation building weeks in advance. The New Year is traditionally celebrated by returning home to be with the family, but it has also become a popular time to go on holiday. That means hotels and transport are maxed out, and some tourist sites and restaurants are closed. Avoid travelling the week before and during Tet.

Taking place on the 14th and 15th day of the eighth lunar month, usually in September, the Mid-Autumn Festival (Tet Trung Thu) celebrates the harvest. It’s also known as the “Children’s Festival”. Youngsters play games, sing songs around the neighbourhood and receive treats. Families honour their ancestors and gift friends with moon cakes. Compact, charming towns such as Hoi An or Da Lat are ideal for taking in the festivities, which culminate in a lion dance procession through the streets.

National Day commemorates Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of Vietnam’s independence from France and Japan on September 2, 1945. Patriotic pride is on full display in the big cities Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang with flags, fireworks and a military parade.

Held on the 14th day of every lunar month, the Hoi An Lantern Festival transforms the already atmospheric town into a glowing wonderland. Locals set up altars in front of businesses and homes, and visit temples. On the touristic side of things, the streets are festooned with lanterns of all shapes, sizes and colours. The gimmick is undeniably pretty and photogenic.

What to eat in Vietnam

What to eat in Vietnam
By Cindy Fan

What to eat and drink


Vietnam is synonymous with eating. You can’t turn a street corner without encountering something that looks, smells and tastes delicious. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have hip, contemporary dining scenes, but the country is still best known for its street food and bolthole shops specialising in one dish.

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Street vendor selling fruit in Hanoi

Highlights

No trip should go without joining locals on the footpaths sipping tumblers of Bia Hoi draught beer or strong Vietnamese coffee, a national pastime. Enjoy it hot, iced or sweetened with condensed milk. In Hanoi, hot coffee whipped with egg and sugar transforms it into an indulgent sweet treat.

Pho has become the international ambassador for Vietnamese cuisine. Inexpensive and deceptively simple, the noodle soup is made by slowly simmering beef bones with charred ginger, onions and spices like star anise, cinnamon, black cardamom and cloves. Pho in the north is a simpler affair. Only sliced onions and scallions are added to the clear, delicate broth. Southern-style pho is sweeter and richer. Adding fresh herbs and bean sprouts are part of the eating ritual. Which is better? Try both to decide for yourself.

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Phở soup

Banh mi is an example of French colonial influence on Vietnamese cuisine. The East-meets-West baguette sandwich is a sum of many good things: crusty baguette, paté, a medley of cold cuts, pickled daikon and carrots, scallions, mayonnaise, chilli and coriander.

However, Vietnamese cuisine is much more than just pho and banh mi, and is extremely regional. A journey through the country could be told in noodle soups. Hue Province's signature is bun bo Hue, an umami and lemongrass rich soup of beef and rice vermicelli. Turmeric-infused mi quang is a staple in Quang Nam Province. Popular in the south, banh canh cua are starchy tapioca noodles and crab in a thick broth. Another southern soup is bun rieu cua, rice vermicelli, pork broth and a cake of freshwater crab.

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Vietnamese Pork Banh Mi Sandwich

Walk along any city street, river or beach in Vietnam and chances are there’s something sizzling on a charcoal barbecue. Joints where people can grill their own meat, fresh seafood and snails at the table are popular. So are places serving nem nuong, garlicky pork sausage that diners make into lettuce wraps. In fact, grilled pork is the star of several favourite dishes like com tam – pork and a helping of cooked broken rice grains, fried egg, pickles and tangy nuoc cham dressing. It tops bun thit nuong, a vermicelli noodle salad. In 2016, Barack Obama and chef Anthony Bourdain ate Hanoi bun cha – grilled pork patties and noodles dipped into a flavourful broth.

Finally, don’t leave Vietnam without trying the riot of tropical fruits like rambutans, mangosteen, pomelo, jackfruit, durian and dragonfruit.

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Vendors selling street food, Hanoi

Things to do in Vietnam

Cindy Fan

Cindy Fan is a writer specialising in experiential travel, food, culture and destination guides. The author of Travelfish’s Laos and Vietnam guides since 2014, her stories and guides have been published in CNN Travel, The Australian, The Toronto Star and various inflight magazines.

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