6 Key Cities in Vietnam to Visit and Why

 

Vietnam is one of the most culturally enriching places to visit and a trip to Vietnam is surely something you’ll remember for a lifetime. Containing several World Heritage sites, Vietnam also boasts some of the most richly diverse landscapes, cultural history and opportunities for adventure of any country we’ve ever visited.

This is before we’ve even mentioned the food! With an area of 331,689sq. km, Vietnam has a huge variance from North to South and everything in-between, which is one of the things that makes it such an incredibly vibrant country to visit. Simply put, there’s something for everyone in Vietnam.

Below, we’ve highlighted 6 key cities in Vietnam and their provinces/regions that deserve to be on your itinerary.

Cities to visit in Vietnam

1. Hanoi – Vietnam’s Capital City

Set in the North of Vietnam, Hanoi is full of wonder, intrigue and a massive sense of culture – both around its heritage and its food. If you’re a foodie, you won’t be disappointed as Hanoi is well renowned for its massive street food scene.

Being one of the biggest cities in Vietnam, you’ll find a whole range of street food vendors all over the city, but some of the best known ones are populated in the Old Town, in the backstreets around Hoan Kiem Lake.

Here you’ll find tiny street vendors offering things like Banh Mi, BBQ, as well as slightly larger cafes offering traditional menus of hot pots and family style cooking.

What’s more, Hanoi is famous for the ever comforting Pho, a noodle soup which consists of steaming hot broth, boiling hot stock, protein and is usually topped with onions and cilantro/coriander. Hanoi is a great place to visit if you want to be right in the hustle and bustle of things – quite frankly it never seems to stop!

Hanoi is also known as the cultural capital of Vietnam, being home to over 15 museums which focus on everything from art to history. Simply put, a visit to Hanoi will enhance your cultural and historical understanding of Vietnam, and hopefully yourself too. Read our full guide on things to do in Hanoi.

Why visit Hanoi?

Other than Hanoi being the capital of Vietnam, if you’re into food, Hanoi is one of the best cities in Vietnam you could possibly visit with absolutely out of this world street food all the way through to fine dining restaurants with bold and exuberant menus.

If you’re vegan or vegetarian it’s one of the best places to visit in Vietnam as Hanoi also has a great food scene for you. Whilst Vietnamese culture and food typically includes a lot of meat, fish sauce etc., you’ll also find a big vegetarian scene (largely due to the large Buddhist population).

Vietnamese food can naturally be very vegan friendly, and you’ll find a whole host of restaurants and street food vendors offering vegan or ‘chay’ food.

Whatever your tastes, you’re likely to come back from Hanoi with a renewed love of food. Many people will spend a couple of days in Vietnam once they arrive in the country from the airport, before leaving for somewhere else.

However, if you’re into people watching and soaking in culture, you could easily spend a much longer amount of time in Hanoi. Hanoi is also very accessible for day trips or overnight trips to locations such as Ha Long Bay, Bai Tu Long Bay and also Ninh Binh amongst others.

traditional vietnamese junk boats sailing near Bai Tu Long Bay Vietnam

Less touristy Bai Tu Long Bay, close to Ha Long Bay is just a couple of hours drive from Hanoi and makes a great excursion when visiting the city

What is the best time of year to visit Hanoi, Vietnam?

The best time of the year to visit Hanoi is between the months of October and April where the North of Vietnam is at a much lower level of humidity, making daily activities much more enjoyable.

December and January are really popular months to visit Hanoi also, due to many westerners visiting around Christmas Holidays and the vibrant New Year celebrations that also happen around this time.

Related: When is the Best Time to Visit Vietnam?

2. Cao Bang – one of the must see places in Vietnam

270 km (170mi) from Hanoi, Cao Bang is located on the bank of the Bằng Giang river. One of the main reasons that most people will travel through Cao Bang is to visit the incredible Ban Gioc Waterfall, however there is a lot more to see and it is one of the most interesting provinces of Vietnam to visit.

Cao Bang itself makes a great base for exploring the area for a few days, and from here you’ll get a true glimpse of Vietnamese countryside life.

Once more, Cao Bang province seems to be off the beaten track in terms of tourism, making it in our opinion one of the best cities in Vietnam for a quiet, more peaceful experience. Here are some of the main locations we’d recommend visiting from Cao Bang to learn more about Vietnamese culture and see some truly jaw dropping landscapes:

a baby amongst incense sticks in traditional incense village Phia Tap in Cao Bang Vietnam

A baby sat amongst incense in traditional incence making village, Phia Tap in Cao Bang, Vietnam

Phia Tap village: Cao Bang is surrounded by small villages where traditional crafts still sit strongly as cultural identifiers, with some villages dating from French Colonial times. Phia Tap incense village is one such place to take in and learn about the traditional craft of incense making and how the village works as a community to create their own product.

smaller waterfall next to Ban Gioc Waterfall Cao Bang Vietnam

Smaller waterfall next to Ban Gioc Waterfall

Ban Gioc Waterfall: Ban Gioc is one of the more popular places in the region, and absolutely one of the best places to visit in Vietnam. What makes Ban Gioc Waterfall so interesting is that it sits on the border between both Vietnam and China. Near the waterfall, you can also visit the Phat Tich Truc Lam Ban Gioc Pagoda where you can see the entire Ban Gioc Waterfall from above.

Nui Thung Mountain: Also referred to as Angel Eye Mountain. The small road that takes you up to see this magnificent limestone structure is quite the experience. You’ll drive through small villages to get to the mountain and from there the views open up to stunning vistas, jungle, mountains and at certain times of the year, a lake that reflects the eye of the mountain.

Nui Thung Mountain or Angel Eye Mountain Cao Bang Vietnam

Nui Thung Mountain otherwise known as Angel Eye Mountain

Phong Nam Valley: Close to Ban Gioc Waterfall, Phong Nam Valley is rarely visited, but gives a stunning feel of the Vietnamese countryside. With rice fields, rivers, mountains, small villages and everything in between that traditional life has to offer, you will feel really off the beaten track. Plus, a visit to Phong Nam Valley wouldn’t be complete without a spending the night at Lan’s Homestay for a traditional, welcoming and warm experience.

gift ideas for hikers and backpackers

Why visit Cao Bang?

If you like peace and quiet, Cao Bang is away from the busiest Vietnam tourist spots. Cao Bang also fits in a lot – especially when you take into consideration that it’s home to some the most incredible natural sites and experiences that Vietnam has to offer such as Ban Gioc Waterfall, Nui Thung Mountain and Phia Tap village.

However, due to the traditional practices you’ll encounter in this province, you’ll also find incredible food and drink – such as herbal teas, green tea all the way through to arrowroot noodles.In our opinion, it’s one of the best places to visit in Vietnam.

When is the best time of year to visit Cao Bang, Vietnam?

Much like the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, Cao Bang is best visited from October through to April due to lower humidity levels making for a much more pleasant experience. In fact, it is possibly the best time to visit Vietnam in general.

It’s worth noting that you’re more likely to experience cloudy days between October and April though, but you’ll have more chance to get through your days rain free too.

3. Hoi An

Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site for a reason as it is steeped in history and it feels in many ways like it has been frozen in time. It’s also quite a different experience from the bustling centers of the big cities in Vietnam like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City! Hoi An was traditionally a trading port, but this fell into decline toward the end of the 18th century.

Hoi An today is one of the best cities in Vietnam to visit if you want to experience temples, tea houses and merchants with an exquisitely ancient feel.

Spending some time in the old town of Hoi An is a must, and whilst busy, it puts you right in the heart it all where you can indulge on the street food and restaurants as well as the unique attractions the city has to offer.

However, if you’re looking for a more off the beaten track experience, Cam Chau offers a more authentic experience of Hoi An situated between the old town and beaches.

brightly colored lanterns in Hoi An

Brightly colored lanterns in Hoi An

Why visit Hoi An?

From beaches that feel like a tropical paradise to iconic architecture and trade that feels like it has been frozen in time, Hoi An is one of those Vietnam cities that feels like it has it all.

It’s the perfect balance between history, culture, food and relaxation and has a very different feel from places like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. For more inspiration in this area, you may also want to read our article on things to do in Vietnam.

When is the best time of year to visit Hoi An, Vietnam?

Hoi An is one of the more popular Vietnam vacation spots, but the best time of year to visit Hoi An is between January and March. This is because temperatures are cooler at this time of year, ranging between roughly 18-24c, making it easier to enjoy everything Hoi An has to offer from beaches to sight seeing.

4. Hue

Hue is steeped in history, it’s also incredibly unique. A visit to Hue will have you learning about Vietnam’s royal history – more specifically the last royal family who survived a 143 year reign. Imperial Hue has a lot to offer, and you can easily take a step back in time as you visit theatres, palaces and pavilions as well as exploring Vietnam’s Buddhist roots.

However, there’s so much more to explore in Hue than the citadel alone. Whilst Hue’s traditional and historical roots are of prominence, you’ll also find an emerging scene of modern Vietnamese artists as well as developing pop culture and innovative food.

It also feels much less polluted, maybe even quieter than other cities such as Hanoi, and it’s also less touristy than places like Hoi An.

The food you’ll find in Hue is much different to some of the other cities in Vietnam – with a much richer, sweeter feel. You’ll also find a wealth of vibrant street food vendors as well as colorful markets that are itching to be explored all around the city. Hue is one of the best cities in Vietnam for its sense of vibrancy and contrast.

typical architecture found in Hue Vietnam

Typical architecture found in Hue Vietnam

Why visit Hue?

If you want to explore Vietnamese cities enchanted by history as well as emerging and ever growing arts and cultural scenes without the crowds you’ll find in places like Hanoi, then Hoi An would be well worth your time to visit. It’s beautiful, a little bit quirky and has a massive sense of creativity.

What’s more, the food scene is absolutely wonderful, and if you’ve already visited Hanoi, you’ll enjoy tasting how the food subtly and not so subtly develops and changes.

When is the best time of year to visit Hue, Vietnam?

The best time of year to visit Hue is between October and April where the weather is cooler and more manageable for taking in the sights. Whilst there is likely to be some rain at this time, you’ll also feel much more comfortable and will likely be able to enjoy all of the outdoors activities on offer as much as possible.

5. Ninh Binh

If you’re into outdoor adventures and spending time in nature, Ninh Binh is one of the best cities in Vietnam for you and you’re going to want to make it into your Vietnam itinerary! There’s simply so much to do here and you’ll get to experience Vietnam for all its majestic natural beauty.

You’ll find endless adventure based tours in Ninh Binh, and it’s even possible to take day trips from Hanoi, as it is located less than 100km southeast of the capital of Vietnam.

If you’re looking for something more off the beaten track away from the tourist crowds, spending a few days in Ninh Binh is a really worthwhile thing to do. Here are two experiences we’d recommend to anyone visiting Ninh Binh:

sailing down Tranh An Ninh Binh Vietnam

Sailing down Tranh An, Ninh Binh

Trang An: Take a boat in Trang An to experience some of the most incredible scenery that this province has to offer. You’ll be able to relax as your boater paddles along whilst you check out the densely covered rock outcrops, temples and arches along the way in the gentle waters. One of the absolute best places to go in Vietnam!

Mua Cave: A hike that allows you to head up 486 steps to the top of a majestic limestone mountain which gives you an amazing view over Tam Coc. The hike up is magical, even on a foggy day and along the way you’ll find lots of interesting sculptures punctuating the walk.

Why visit Ninh Binh?

If you’re looking for adventure, especially close to Hanoi, Ninh Binh is one of the best cities in Vietnam for nature based experiences. That aside, it’s also steeped with rich history. A trip to Ninh Binh will have you feeling like you’ve learnt about Vietnam, connected to the landscape and in turn, hopefully yourself!

When is the best time of year to visit Ninh Binh, Vietnam?

Whilst Ninh Binh is a great place to visit all year round, especially if you’re tying this into a trip to Hanoi later in the year, you’ll have the best weather between May and August. If you want to take in some of the best views, especially if you plan to go hiking, try to plan your trip during the harvest season which happens in October.

6. Ho Chi Minh City

Whilst Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is actually the biggest city in Vietnam with a sprawling population of over 9 million and counting. of Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known as Saigon in the south of Vietnam is home to commerce, culture and references back in time to French colonialist architecture.

If you want to get a real glimpse of one of the best cities in Vietnam, Hoi Chi Minh City is really worth a visit.

Ho Chi Minh City has a very different feel in terms of food from Hanoi, with each having its own individual style. People in Ho Chi Minh City tend to use and combine ingredients and flavors from different regions to create their dishes.

Here, you’ll find dishes from all over Vietnam to try at the vibrant street food markets, stalls and restaurants that permeate the city.

Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, sees two main seasons – sunny and rainy but experiences year round sun too. Again, Ho Chi Minh City is often a location that many people visit on the way to other Vietnamese vacation spots, however, a visit to Ho Chi Minh City opens up the possibility of exploring off the beaten track in nature.

Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve is just 40km outside of Ho Chi Minh City and gives the opportunity to see monkeys, crocodiles and gibbons amongst interesting wetlands and tall palms.

Whereas a few hours out of Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll find the incredible Mekong Delta which gives a wonderfully different perspective to Vietnam that you won’t see anywhere else. Surrounded by rivers, swampland and endless green, it really is a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

elevated viewpoint over Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

Elevated viewpoint over Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Why visit Ho Chi Minh City?

Firstly, Ho Chi Minh City is actually the largest city in Vietnam. That aside, the bustling vibrant markets to the quant chaos of everyday life make Ho Chi Minh one of the best Vietnam cities to feel at the heart of culture at its richest.

The food is also inventive, taking traditional practices from all over the country and harboring new, innovative takes making it one of the best places to visit in Vietnam.

If you’re into fusion food, Ho Chi Minh City may well be the place for you. What’s more, Ho Chi Minh City comes alive at night – a walk around the city center at night can be full of vibrant scenes, rich culture and a place to experience off the wall food choices.

When is the best time of year to visit Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam?

Ho Cho Minh City is one of the best cities to visit in Vietnam between December and March where the weather is much more settled than at other times and you’re less likely to experience extreme rain.

It’s wise to try and plan your trip outside of April and May, which are some of the hottest months and can make exploring the city and the neighboring natural resources on offer much more stifling and less pleasant.

typical Vietnamese street scene

Typical street scene in Ho Chi Minh City

Conclusion

Of course, this guide to the six key cities in Vietnam to visit barely scratches the surface of just what is available in Vietnam. Vietnam is such an incredibly varied place to visit, but what we love the most is just how much access to incredible, other worldly landscapes the main cities of Vietnam have (even within a few hours travel).

We hope this guide has given you some inspiration as to which cities in Vietnam to base yourself around depending on your trip plans and what you want to experience. Whichever you visit, you won’t be dissapointed!

 

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