Vietnam is a country with a wide spectrum of landscapes, cultures, food, and history. Deciding on the best cities to visit in Vietnam can be daunting because there are so many to choose from. In this article, I will give you my opinion on the 10 best cities you should visit in Vietnam and why based on my personal experience.
Summary of my experience traveling Vietnam
I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam on November 8, 2019, and made my way south to the Mekong Delta before traveling to Cambodia by boat on December 26, 2019. Within that time frame, I visited Hanoi, Cat Ba, Ha Long City, Ha Giang, Ninh Binh, Hue, Da Nang, Ho Ann, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho, and Chau Doc. My primary modes of transportation between cities were by bus and train. While in each city my modes of transportation whereby grab, motor scooter, bicycle, and foot.
Geography of Vietnam
Vietnam covers the east side of the Indochina Peninsula. In the northern part bordering China, you will find highland mountain terrain, lush terraced rice fields, and small valley villages. Head more toward the South and you will find limestone karst, beaches along the pacific ocean, and the Mekong Delta. Vietnam is a long narrow country, it ranges 1030 miles (1650km) from North to South, by comparison, the state of California is around 800 miles North to South. In terms of overall land, Vietnam is roughly about 82% the size of California.
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Ha Giang is a province to the north that borders China and often referred to as the final frontier. Most people start their travels to this region in the city by the same name Ha Giang. This region is home to 16 distinct ethnic minority groups that still practice their colorful traditions. This region, in general, has a dry season and a monsoon season.
Why visit Ha Giang?
Ha Giang city itself is quite a sleepy town with not much to do outside of hotels, hostels, and family-run small sidewalk restaurants. So the best way to experience this region is to rent a motorbike and ride along the Ha Giang Loop. Along the Ha Giang loop, you will experience jaw-dropping landscapes, steep mountain winding roads, beautiful terraced ricefields, and small valley villages with roaming farm animals. Visit my complete guide to the Ha Giang Loop.
Who’s Ha Giang for?
The adventure traveler comfortable riding a motor scooter through steep terrain. But for those not comfortable with riding a motor scooter there are other options like hiring a personal car driver or renting a car.
Best Time to visit Ha Giang
September to November and April to June
Hanoi serves as the capital to Vietnam and the second-largest city by population with approximately 7.3 million people. Hanoi has a mix of both old and modern architecture. With the Old Quarters French colonial architectural influence and the business district’s more modern influence. Hanoi still has an old-world charm it’s been able to preserve. Walk the bustling streets filled with street food vendors as scooters zoom by, visit the Hoan Kiem Lake where the locals hang out, or try an Egg Coffee originated in Hanoi.
Why visit Hanoi?
Hanoi is a bustling city with a lot of different options of things to do. Hanoi’s vibrant nightlife, thousands of restaurants, old historical buildings, and the land of some of the best coffee shops to name a few. A very walkable city with so much history, Hanoi should be on your list when visiting Vietnam.
Who’s Hanoi it for?
Foodies, party goers, and history buffs.
Best time to visit Hanoi
February to April and October to November
Ha Long City
Ha Long City is the starting point for many that want to see and experience the beauty of Ha Long Bay’s impressive amount of limestone karst islands. Enjoy a multi-day cruise and wake up to a glorious sunrise on the ocean. If you are more of a budget-conscious traveler you can opt for a day cruise along Ha Long Bay. Other attractions include cave spelunking, kayaking, and family-friendly amusement parks.
Why visit Ha Long?
Ha Long Bay is not only beautiful, it’s very unique to Vietnam. Sure there are other limestone karst island archipelagos in the world but none quite like Ha Long Bay.
Who’s Ha Long City for?
Ocean lovers, outdoor seekers, romantic couples, families, photographers, backpackers and seafood lovers.
Best time to visit Ha Long City
October to December during dry season
Cat Ba is an island located south of Ha Long City and is the largest island in Ha Long Bay. Cat Ba Town is essentially a smaller version of Ha Long City with fewer tourists, but more nature. Cat Ba National Forest encompasses the majority of Cat Ba island. To the south is where you will find the town of Cat Ba with rows of hotels, hostels, restaurants, and some nightlife options. Cat Ba Town’s main center is very walkable and situated right along the waterfront. Right off the coast is Lan Ha Bay which geographically is very similar to Ha Long Bay. Boat tours, scooter rentals, and other activities are easy to come by.
Why visit Cat Ba?
If you are looking for a Ha Long Bay like experience with less tourist Cat Ba has you covered. If you took a tour on Ha Long Bay and then immediately took a tour on Lan Ha Bay you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that much of a difference.
Who’s Cat Ba City for?
Ocean enthusiast, nature lovers, backpackers, outdoor seekers, photographers and seafood lovers.
Best time to visit Cat Ba
October to December during dry season
Ninh Binh is about a 2hr drive southeast of Hanoi and is often left off “Top cities in Vietnam” list. Why? I have no idea. If you can imagine being in Ha Long Bay but on land, there is a striking resemblance. Filled with limestone karst, caves, still rivers, rural rice fields, and pagodas. The towns of Trang An and Tam Coc are the most scenic parts in Ninh Binh and most likely where you will want to stay rather than the city of Ninh Binh itself. Take a boat cave tour down the river in Trang An, rent a bicycle or motor scooter, and explore the ricefields in Tam Coc. The beauty of this area is breathtaking.
Why visit Ninh Binh?
Ninh Binh is a little off the beaten path and not yet overrun with tourists. If you love natural scenery Ninh Binh in my opinion is not to be missed.
Who’s Ninh Binh for?
Anyone that likes to explore by bicycle, motorscooter or river boat, nature lovers, romantic couples, backpackers, photographers.
Best time to visit Ninh Binh
November to April are generally the drier months
Hue is a charming town located a little south of the Vietnamese DMZ with a long-standing history. Once an imperial capital during the Nguyen Dynasty there are plenty of impressive relics left behind to explore. The Imperial Citadel in the middle of the city is one of the main attractions with a surrounding moat, located right along the Perfume River. 7 known Tombs of the Emperors are located throughout the city, tours are easily available, but some of the tombs are less accessible. Hue is also where The Battle of Hue took place, one of the longest and most gruesome battles of the Vietnam War.
Why visit Hue?
Hue has a great significance to both the Imperial days of Vietnam as well as the Vietnam War. Visiting relics from the 19th-century Nguyen Dynasty and learning more about the Vietnam War is well worth crossing off the bucket list.
Who’s Hue for?
History buffs, backpackers and foodies.
Best time to visit Hue
January to April
Da Nang is in the central part of Vietnam and the 4th largest city. Da Nang is a modern city offering a lot of retail shopping, nightlife, and some of the nicer beaches in Vietnam. But there are other things worth exploring in and around Da Nang like marble mountain, or Ba Na Hills Fantasy Park. Driving to Hai Van Pass or Son Tra Mountain for panoramic views as also worth the effort.
Why visit Da Nang?
Beautiful beaches with the amenities of a modern city, with other family-friendly attractions nearby.
Who’s Da Nang for?
Family, beachgoers, backpackers.
Best time to visit Da Nang?
May to September
Hoi An is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam and for good reason. Ancient Town is the cities well preserved historic district and blocked off to cars and motorscooters, making it pedestrian-friendly. An old trading port from the 15th-19th centuries Hoi An is a very photogenic city lined with fresh produce markets, silk tailors, street food vendors, coffee shops and restaurants all along a water canal and river.
Why visit Hoi An?
Although very touristy, Hoi An has preserved a lot of its original architecture and not largely affected by the war. Even if you are the type to avoid crowds of tourist Hoi An is worth at least a few days to explore this picturesque city.
Who’s Hoi An for?
Foodies, families, romantic couples, backpackers, photographers.
Best time to visit Hoi An?
May to September
Nha Trang has roughly 6 kilometers of beaches with a lively nightlife filled with restaurants serving seafood and Vietnamese fare, beach bars, beach resorts, and retail. Nha Trang is also a popular destination for Russian vacationers seeking warmer beach weather. But Nha Trang also offers some cultural sites like the Po Nagar Cham Towers, Long Song Pagoda, and Nha Trang Cathedral. Among other things to do are visiting the Hon Mun Island Marine Reserve or Hon Khoi Salt Fields.
Why visit Nha Trang?
Nha Trang is known for having some of the best beaches in Vietnam, and relaxing on the beach sipping a margarita is never a bad way to spend your vacation.
Who’s Nha Trang for?
Beach lovers, families, backpackers
Best time to visit Nha Trang
January to August
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam and the former capital of South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City has become the financial powerhouse of Vietnam with many large companies choosing Ho Chi Minh as their headquarters. A megacity of over 7 million people living there can make this city quite intimidating to navigate. But that shouldn’t keep you from giving Ho Chi Minh City a try, as it has a lot to offer. The vibe in Ho Chi Minh City is more relaxed than Hanoi, and you have to dig a little deeper to find the pockets of the city. Expect to find rooftop bars overlooking the skyscrapers, world-class dining and retail, vibrant nightlife, museums, temples, pagodas, street food, and markets.
Why visit Ho Chi Minh City?
Whether you like large cities or not, chances are you will either be flying into or out of Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, so you might as well explore this grand city.
Who’s Ho Chi Minh City for?
Foodies, history buffs, backpackers
Best time to visit Ho Chi Minh City
December to March
Conclusion on picking the best cities to visit in Vietnam
Vietnam is a long and narrow country which can make getting to different cities time consuming especially if you are on a shoestring budget. Ultimate picking which cities you should visit in Vietnam will most likely be decided based on your timeframe, interest, and point of entry. In any case, I hope you have found my 10 Best Cities to Visit in Vietnam list at the very least insightful. If you have been to Vietnam before and have some favorite cities leave a comment, I’d like to know about them.