Top things to do in Vietnam: 13 essential travel experiences

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(CNN) — When it comes to variety, Vietnam is in a league of its own.

A trip to the capital, Hanoi, will be wildly different than modern Ho Chi Minh City, just as the lantern-lit streets of Hoi An vary dramatically from the nearby citadels of Hue.

Then there are the tea plantations, coffee farms, stunning bays, caves and coastlines — all promising distinct adventures.

Lest we forget the food. Vietnam is home to some of the freshest and most delicious cuisine on Earth — one steamy bowl of pho devoured on a plastic stool, and you’ll understand.

From can’t-miss essentials to adventurous side trips, we’ve shortlisted a few of the most memorable experiences in Vietnam:

Light a lantern in Hoi An

Hoi An is famous for its beautiful handmade lanterns.

Hoi An is famous for its beautiful handmade lanterns.

Dale de la Rey/AFP/Getty Images

As one of the most beautiful destinations in Asia, Hoi An promises no shortage of photogenic scenes. But none is more mesmerizing than the Full Moon Lantern Festival.

At this monthly festival, the city shuts off its electric lights to let thousands of rainbow-hued lanterns glow against an inky black sky — both throughout the little lanes of Old Town as well as on the Thu Bon River.

Held to honor the full moon, the festival takes place along Old Town’s waterfront promenade, where music, games and entertainment energize the atmosphere.

Alternatively, travelers can hire a sampan boat to glide along the water for a quieter experience.

Either way, it’s easy to take part: You’ll simply need to purchase a paper lantern and candle for a couple of dollars — depending on your bargaining skills — light the candle, set it inside, then send it down stream accompanied by wishes for happiness and luck.

Search for the best pho in Hanoi

We hit the streets with a tour that’s educating visitors about Hanoi’s best street food, from bun ca (fish noodle soup) to iced coffee.

A taste of pho is a must on every journey, whether it’s your first time or your 50th.

Hanoi is located in northern Vietnam, which is thought to be the birthplace of the de facto national dish, so it makes sense to start your search for the best bowls in the capital.

Wedged between grand colonial French buildings in the labyrinthine Old Quarter, the best pho shops are often the most unassuming, filled with modest furniture, if any at all, and epic cauldrons of bubbling broth.

We’ll give you a couple hints: Hanoi institutions like Pho Gia Truyen (49 Bat Dan, Old Quarter) or Pho Thin (13 Lo Duc, Ngo Thi Nham) should satisfy your pho cravings.

Trace history in Ho Chi Minh City

23_War Remnants Museum_Ho Chi Minh City_Vietnam_01

Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum opened in 1975.

An estimated two million Vietnamese civilians died in the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam), which was fought across nearly two decades from 1954 to 1975.

No matter where you’re from, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the country’s recent history to better understand, and appreciate, modern Vietnam.

We’d recommend spending a few hours at Hoi Chi Minh City’s museums and monuments to commemorate lives lost in the war and better understand the conflict.

The War Remnants Museum, opened in 1975, traces several wars through graphic photographs and military equipment — including a collection of helicopters, tanks and fighter jets — as well as reproductions of prison conditions, accounts of chemical warfare and a French guillotine.

Ride the Reunification Express

Vietnam tour

The Reunification Express offers a unique opportunity to experience Vietnam’s wonderful diversity.

Mark Eveleigh, CNN

It might not be the fastest way to get around, but the Reunification Express (officially known as the North-South Railway) is certainly the most scenic.

This 1,072-mile rail line chugs from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, passing countless landscapes and landmarks along the 35-hour journey.

There are several different cabin options on the train, including sleeper cabins for those making the full journey.

More commonly, travelers will take the opportunity to hop on and off the train across several days to explore the country’s beautiful natural scenery and historic towns.

A few of the highlights include Van Long Nature Reserve in Ninh Binh, where magnificent rice paddies and limestone scenery await, the ancient imperial city of Hue, and the beach town of Nha Trang on the central coastline.

Take an aerial tour of Halong Bay

Halong Bay helicopter tour 37

Helicopter tours of Halong Bay began operating this year.

courtesy Bell Flight

Halong Bay is considered one of the most breathtaking destinations in Vietnam, and it’s easy to see why.

The jade-toned bay is home to thousands of limestone islands, mysterious caves and wildlife.

Most travelers tour this natural wonder aboard a cruise, but now there’s another way to explore: by helicopter.

Launched earlier this year, Halong Heli Tours showcases the unique seascape from on high.

Travelers can choose from eight- to 40-minute sightseeing tours that soar over the bay’s many islands, beaches and fishing villages.

While you’re in the region, we’d also recommend a detour to Bai Tu Long or Lan Ha bays — Halong Bay’s lesser-known neighbors — where you can kayak, swim and trek in near total seclusion.

Beach hop in Phu Quoc

Phu Quoc is home to the world's longest sea cable car route.

Phu Quoc is home to the world’s longest sea cable car route.

Shutterstock

If clear water and powder-soft sand sounds right up your alley, Vietnam’s “Pearl Island” is for you.

Located in the Gulf of Thailand off the southwest coast, Phu Quoc promises dozens of beaches in all sizes and shades.

Among them, Sao Beach is often praised as one of the best in Vietnam thanks to its clear water, palm trees and sugar-white sand.

Ong Lang beach, on the west coast, tends to be quieter and more rustic — the kind of place where you’re more likely to share the water with a wandering cow or local fishing boat than other travelers.

Come sunset, snag a spot on Long Beach to enjoy the island’s famously fiery sunset alongside chilled beers and live music.

Cruise down the Mekong

Aqua Expeditions, Mekong River

Cruise company Aqua Expeditions offers Mekong River journeys through Cambodia and Vietnam.

Holger Leue & Lars Böhnke/Aqua Expeditions

The Mekong, which is the 12th longest river in the world, has been the lifeblood of Southeast Asia for millennia.

Still today, it’s flanked by fishing villages and rice paddies, lush islands, food markets and ancient imperial cities.

Ideal for those who prefer to travel at a slower pace, a Mekong River cruise provides easier access to less-visited rural communities and hard-to-reach natural attractions.

Beginning in Hoi Chi Minh City, we’d recommend a five- to 18-day cruise through the southern corner of Vietnam, up through Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodian and on to Luang Prabang, Laos if time allows.

Explore the world’s largest cave

Hang Son Doong Largest cave

Vietnam’s Hang Son Doong is the world’s largest cave.

Alesha Bradford

It’s not every day you have a chance to explore the world’s largest cave.

We’d highly recommended putting up an out-of-office message and succumbing to the full experience of Son Doong: a four-day expedition led by adventure tour company Oxalis.

As the world’s largest cave, Son Doong is over three miles long and 650 feet tall — spacious enough to fit a 40-story skyscraper, according to Oxalis.

Given its size, the stunning cave offers countless natural treasures from 262-foot-tall stalagmites to subterranean rivers, unique species, enormous rock walls and even its own jungle — all of which travelers will experience during their trek.

Take a motorbike ride through the majestic north

Vietnam by motorcycle

Northern Vietnam is filled with mountainous landscapes.

Alesha Bradford/CNN

In Vietnam, motorbikes rule the road. And though it might make it challenging to cross the street in Hanoi, the country’s affinity for scooters has given way to countless opportunities for adventures on two wheels.

Many avid riders agree that Vietnam’s Ha Giang Loop in the far north, near the border with China, is among the most satisfying routes.

On a four- or five-day trip, you’ll cruise by everything from imposing mountain ranges to local villages, deep canyons and scenic back roads.

Soak up tea culture in Sapa

Mountainous Sapa has become one of Vietnam’s hottest tourist destinations. Here’s a look inside its newest luxury hotel, the stunning Hotel de la Coupole.

If you’re up north, we’d recommend stopping for a few nights in Sapa.

In this former French-colonial hill station, it’s easy to fall in love with the temperate highland climate, misty green tea terraces, waterfalls and hiking trails — including the two-day hike up Mount Fansipan.

The region’s lush hillsides play host to hundreds of tea farms that produce green, black, oolong and cinnamon teas, among others.

To really get to know the region’s unique culture, we’d recommend trying a homestay in one of the mountain villages, though luxury hotels are now also on the travel menu.

Go crazy for coffee in Dalat

In Vietnam's South Central Highlands, Dalat is known as "the city of eternal spring."

In Vietnam’s South Central Highlands, Dalat is known as “the city of eternal spring.”

Richard Castka

As the second largest coffee producer in the world — right behind Brazil — Vietnam also dedicates some of its highland territory to coffee plantations.

A few days in Dalat, a mountain town northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, will show you just how prolific the country’s coffee industry really is.

There are several plantations peppered throughout these highlands, including Son Pacamara, Trai Ham Da Lat Weasel Coffee and Cau Dat Plantation — all of which offer guided tours.

You’ll learn how farmers cultivate coffee berries and roast them to perfection, then taste the coffee for yourself.

Whether sweetened with condensed milk or served through a filtered brew, earthy and aromatic Vietnamese coffee is known to satisfy even the most ardent of coffee connoisseurs.

Make vermicelli noodles in Cu Da village

Visit the centuries-old craft village of Cu Da, which produces hundreds of tons of glass noodles each year.

From springy vermicelli to clear rice noodles, egg noodles, glass noodles and fettuccine-like banh pho, noodles are a staple in Vietnamese cuisine.

And nowhere are noodles more ubiquitous than in Cu Da Village.

A noodle lover’s paradise, this ancient village south of Hanoi produces incredible volumes of white and yellow vermicelli to keep up with demand.

It’s quite the sight: As you wander around the French colonial-era buildings, racks and racks of spaghetti-thin noodles can be seen drying in the sun.

To showcase the traditional techniques, several noodle tours include hands-on cooking classes where you can learn top tips from a local family.

Cycle around Hue’s ancient ruins

Historic Hue is Vietnam's former imperial city,

Historic Hue is Vietnam’s former imperial city,

HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Having served as the former imperial capital during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802–1945), Hue is one of the best places in Vietnam to admire ancient architecture.

The highlight for most is the UNESCO-listed Complex of Hue Monuments — a walled fortress on the banks of the Perfume River that encloses ancient temples, royal tombs and countless pagodas.

Given the complex’s massive size — stretching across 778 acres (315 hectares) — one of the most pleasant ways to explore is on a bicycle.

Starting in the misty morning hours, travelers can pedal along the peaceful canals, break for coffee and soak up the grandeur of the inner citadel, outer walls and many altars before the crowds roll in.

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2019-09-12 00:14:10

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