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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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460 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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Bai Tu Long Bay
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The dramatic karst cliffs and iridescent waters of Bai Tu Long Bay are just as mesmerizing as the neighboring Halong Bay, but the comparative lack of crowds adds a tranquillity often lost amidst Halong’s sea of junk boats. Part of the Halong Bay UNESCO World Heritage site and largely dominated by the lush Bai Tu Long National park, Bai Tu Long Bay makes a worthy addition to any cruise, and with such striking scenery, it’s unlikely to stay off-the-beaten-track for too long.

Highlights of Bai Tu Long Bay include Van Don Island, the bay’s largest and most visited island; the traditional fishing village of Vung Vieng; the white sand beaches of Quan Lan Island; and the remote Co To Island, while popular activities include trekking through the jungle in the Bai Tu Long National Park, spotting wild butterflies on Tra Ban Island and kayaking to Thong Thien Cave.

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Hanoi Opera House (Nha Hat Lon)
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241 Tours and Activities

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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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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Hon Ga Choi Island (Fighting Cocks Island)
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A distinctive pair of karst islets jutting out from the calm waters of Halong Bay; the unique Hon Ga Choi Island has become one of the bay’s most memorable landmarks and among the most photographed attractions for cruise visitors. Located right in the heart of the bay, the jagged rock formations loom 12 meters over the water, improbably perched on narrow, weatherworn bases and appearing to lean towards each other.

It’s this peculiar creation of nature that afforded the island its name - Hon Ga Choi (Fighting Cocks Island), or Trong Mai Island (Cock and Hen Island), depending who you ask. For the full effect, pass by the islands at sunrise or sunset, when the dreamy sunlight casts a red hue over the rocks, further enhancing their cockerel-like appearance.

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
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At this mausoleum the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh, founder of unified Vietnam and the country's liberator from Western colonialism, lies in a glass case for public viewing.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex was built with assistance from the USSR and the austere and impressive architecture is recognizably Soviet/Communist in design. Around the building lie 240 ordered squares of manicured grass cut with concrete walkways. This dedication to 'Uncle Ho,' as he is affectionately known, is unsurprisingly one of the nation's most revered sites and as such this is a moving, and eerie, experience. Nearby is the popular Ho Chi Minh Museum dedicated to his life and work.

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Temple of Literature (Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam)
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The Temple of Literature (or Quoc Tu Giam) was originally built as a Confucian Temple in 1070 AD. Six years later on the same grounds was founded Vietnam's first university to educate the administrative and military warrior Mandarin classes.

Over the years buildings have been added and renovated but much of the architecture dates back to the Lý (1010 - 1225) and Trần dynasties (1225 - 1400). The university operated for more than 700 years but today you can experience the tranquility without its warrior students, with its beautiful gardens and pavilions in a series of courtyards.

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One-Pillar Pagoda (Chua Mot Cot)
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Legend has it that while Emperor Ly Thai Tong was troubled about being childless, he dreamt that he met the bodhisattva, Quan Am, who, sitting on a lotus flower, offered him a son. Soon after he married a peasant girl who bore him a son, and in gratitude he built the One Pillar Pagoda (or Chua Mot Cot) in the design of a lotus flower on its stem rising from a square pond.

The original temple was destroyed by the French Union in 1954, it was rebuilt on a single concrete pillar of 1.25 meter (4 foot) diameter. The temple itself is made from wood and bears a statue of Quan Am, to whom it is dedicated, inside.

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Presidential Palace
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Travelers looking to experience a bit of royalty can venture to the Presidential Palace in the heart of Hanoi. Built in the early 1900s, this French Colonial-style structure, protected by impressive wrought iron gates, was meant to house local dignitaries. But in 1954, after leading Vietnam to independence, Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the palace’s gilded halls and instead built a rustic stilt house on the royal grounds.

Today, travelers can explore the area surrounding this ornate government structure, which includes well-kept botanical gardens and lush fruit groves. Guides are available for hire, but visitors are not allowed into the palace. Those looking to learn more about the history and life of Ho Chi Minh can visit his silt home, which also sits on palace grounds.

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Lake of the Restored Sword (Hoan Kiem Lake)
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The Lake of the Restored Sword holds as big a place in local folklore as it does in Hanoi’s city culture. According to local legend, an ancient emperor was once floating along the lake when the Golden Turtle God requested his magic sword. It’s an age-old story that locals still tell to curious tourists who wander the lake’s scenic shores. It marks the divide between Hanoi’s Old Quarter and French Quarter and is also home to an endangered species of massive soft-shell turtles that gave nearby Turtle Temple its name.

Today, travelers flock to the lake to escape the hustle of the city. And while the morning hours prove a calming way to greet the day (locals like to gather at one of the many quiet cafes to sip cups of strong, sweet coffee as the sun rises), it’s worth sticking around after dark to capture pictures of Hanoi’s skyline aglow with glittering white lights.

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More Things to Do in Vietnam

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (VME)

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (VME)

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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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Vietnam National Museum of History

Vietnam National Museum of History

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Housed in the former École Française d’Extrême Orient one block east of the Opera House in Hanoi, the Museum of History (Bao Tang Lich Su) recounts Vietnam’s often overlooked millennia of history. Nearly 7,000 artifacts fill the 23,680-square-foot (2,200-square-meter) exhibition space, laid out chronologically from prehistory through the August 1945 Revolution. A second exhibition space recounts the history of the communist party in Vietnam.

The building itself, designed by French architect Ernest Hebrard, was completed in 1932 and was one of the first in the country to blend Chinese and French design elements into a single facade.

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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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Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saïgon)

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saïgon)

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The Gothic twin bell towers of this classic cathedral stretch high into the skyline, marking this as a destination for those looking to escape the buzz of Ho Chi Minh and find some quiet contemplation. Saigon Notre-Dame’s striking red façade and towering stone archways were constructed with materials imported from France in the 1800s. But its unique architecture is not the only draw to this iconic city landmark. In 2005, visitors reported seeing tears flow from the eyes of a statue of the Virgin Mary here, making it a destination for Catholics on religious pilgrimage.

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Saigon Central Post Office

Saigon Central Post Office

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Few major cities count the post office among their top tourist attractions, but the classic interior of Saigon Central Post Office continues to be a favorite destination among travelers visiting Ho Chi Minh City for the first time.

Completed in 1891, the design of this architectural landmark mimics an old world European railway station with mile-high ceilings, a larger-than-life portrait of Ho Chi Minh and a centrally located clock face. These rich details are what manage to draw even the travelers who arrive with plans to purchase stamps or mail postcards, to pause and soak up the brilliant interior, which includes hand-painted maps of the old city.

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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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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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Jade Emperor Pagoda

Jade Emperor Pagoda

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Built at the turn of the 20th century and dedicated to the Taoist god, Emperor Jade Chua Ngoc Hoang (or the God of Heavens), the Jade Emperor Pagoda is a working temple that’s widely considered to be one of the finest and most atmospheric in Ho Chi Minh City.

Beneath a roof adorned with elaborate depictions of dragons, birds, and animals, this fascinating pagoda is filled with exquisite gilt woodcarvings and reinforced papier maché statues of various Buddhist and Taoist deities.

The statue of the Jade Emperor, shrouded in robes and flanked by his guardians, resides in the dramatically named Chamber of 10 Hells. Out the door and to the left of this main chamber is a semi-­enclosed room presided over by Thanh Hoang, the Chief of Hell, sitting alongside his red horse, while the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, an important part of any Taoist temple, has an altar on the top floor.

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Dong Khoi Street (Duong Dong Khoi)

Dong Khoi Street (Duong Dong Khoi)

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The colorful cafes and cheap hostels of Pham Ngu Lao Street may attract a budget-friendly crowd, but the well-heeled set know that Dong Khoi Street, with its elite boutiques, French architecture and trendy cafes is the premier commercial center of the city to see and be seen.

Travelers can wander through up-market shops selling silks and other handmade items, or comb through the stocks of high-end luxury brands at more mainstream stores. Visit the polished storefronts and quaint cafes off the hidden side streets for a less touristy vibe, and head to the nearby opera house, Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office to take in some of the city’s most popular sites.

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