So much to see and so little time! Sound familiar? This is especially true for first-time visitors to Southeast Asia. The dilemma starts with deciding which countries to visit and continues with what to see and do in those countries.

Vietnam is a great example. There’s so much to see that you could easily spend three or four weeks in Vietnam and not fit everything. But, let’s face it – not many of us have the luxury of spending that much time, let alone the funds to do so. For a first-time trip to Vietnam, I encourage people to allow at least one week, and preferably a week and a half, in order to hit the main highlights.

Here are what I consider to be the top must-see sites for first-time visitors to Vietnam, based on spending at least 10 nights in the country. These sites are listed from north to south, but the order can easily be reversed.

  1. Hanoi ~ This is a city of lakes, parks, ancient buildings, artists – including a whole new art scene, street food and reminders of both recent and imperial history. The Ancient Quarter is a photographer’s dream with its alleyways and colorful, rambling buildings. You could spend an hour or two just taking pictures of windows and doorways.
  2. Halong Bay ~ A gigantic bay that seems to go on forever, Halong boasts islets, caves and huge rock formations that rise from the bay. Not only is Halong Bay incredibly scenic, but it opens a window on a whole other way of life, when you realize that people actually live in floating villages and work at floating fish farms. Halong Bay is best visited as an overnight excursion, with accommodations on a private or share boat.
  3. Hue ~ This is the old imperial capital of Vietnam. It’s a very pretty town with lots of parks and other green areas. It’s the place to go to learn about Vietnam’s ancient history. The Royal Tombs and Imperial Citadel are great examples of imperial architecture.
  4. Hoi An ~ This 1,000+ year old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It also happens to be both on the sea and on a river, so you can explore the town and also have some beach time. Hoi An is known for its tailors and food, including a variety of cooking classes. Not far from Hoi An is the town of Da Nang, which also boasts beautiful beaches.
  5. Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by the locals) ~ Saigon has grown into a cosmopolitan and busy city. Some people bypass Saigon because they think it has become too westernized. That’s true up to a point, but it’s still a must-see for anyone who’s interested in recent history. An excursion outside the city to the Cu Chi Tunnels will give you fresh insights into the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call the American War). Saigon has tons of foodie experiences and a bustling nightlife. There are a number of opportunities to see old Saigon by exploring neighborhoods (including at night) that are off the radar for the vast majority of visitors to the city.
  6. Mekong Delta ~ Though the Delta can be visited as a day trip from Saigon, it’s much better to spend at least one night there. As you travel further down the river, you’ll see people living very much as they have for decades or longer. And, by staying overnight in Can Tho town, you’ll be able to see the early morning floating markets.

If you opt to stick with a 10 night itinerary, but prefer to focus on just three or four of the above destinations, here’s how you can expand your time at each.

  1. Hanoi ~ Add a day trip to Cuc Phuong National Park to visit the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. Or, take a day to the Perfume Pagoda.
  2. Halong Bay ~ Add a night at Cat Ba Island.
  3. Hue ~ Add a bicycling excursion to the surrounding countryside. Or, visit Zen House for meditation and a vegetarian lunch. Or, for history buffs, add a day trip to the former DMZ.
  4. Hoi An ~ Add an excursion to My Son or the Cham Museum, if you’re interested in ancient history. Or, how about rappelling or rock climbing at Marble Mountain or a cycling excursion into the countryside?
  5. Saigon ~ Add a day trip to Can Gio Ecological Forest. Or, visit Cao Dai Temple to see the daily ceremony.
  6. Mekong Delta ~ Continue beyond Can Tho to Chau Doc and take a day trip to Tra Su Nature Reserve.

Diane Embree
October 15, 2016