Things to Do in Northern Vietnam
A UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Gulf of Tonkin, Ha Long Bay is renowned for its spectacular scenery. One of the most popular tourist attractions in northern Vietnam, Ha Long Bay is home to sparkling emerald waters, more than 1,600 towering limestone islands and islets, caves, and traditional floating villages.
The Old Quarter, a triangular area surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake, has been the cultural heart of Hanoi for nearly 2,000 years. Daily routine starts early and builds to a friendly bustle in this ancient neighborhood, where streets have distinct character and are named after the crafts once made there, such as silver, silk, and paper.
Over a century old, the Hanoi Opera House (Nha Hat Lon is a national landmark due to its neoclassical French architecture and Gothic embellishments. Home to the Vietnam Symphony Orchestra, the opera house also hosts the Hanoi Philharmonic Orchestra, the National Ballet, and both traditional and modern local productions.
Remote Lan Ha Bay (Vịnh Lan Hạ), situated off the southeast coast of Cat Ba Island, is an idyllic spot and quieter alternative to the popular and often busy Halong Bay. The area features some 300 karst islands and limestone outcrops, as well as several white-sand beaches. Active travelers come here for swimming, rock climbing, hiking, and kayaking.
Just half a mile (800 meters from Tuan Chau Pier, Dau Go Cave (Hang Đầu Gỗ is one of Halong Bay’s most popular caves, praised by colonial-era tourists and Vietnamese emperors alike. Ninety steps lead from the jetty to three distinct chambers, dripping with stalactites: the last, which is colorfully lit, boasts a freshwater lake.
Amid the lush islands and karst cliffs of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Halong Bay; Surprise Cave (Hang Sung Sot) is one of the most memorable highlights. The bay’s largest cave earned its name for its startling natural scenery—a trio of immense caverns adorned with stalactites, stalagmites, and karst formations.
Surrounded by dramatic gorges and stepped rice terraces, the landscapes around Sapa (Sa Pa) are some of northern Vietnam’s most striking. Visit Sapa to hike scenic trails past tumbling waterfalls, shop colorful traditional markets, and learn about Vietnam’s cultural heritage of Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay, and Yi minority groups.
The fairy-tale limestone seascapes that made UNESCO-listed Halong Bay famous continue into Bai Tu Long Bay (Vinh Bai Tu Long). Quieter, less developed, and more difficult to reach than its famous sibling, Bai Tu Long Bay is an increasingly popular choice for day cruises and overnight adventures.
A national park made up of dense jungle canvasses half of mountainous Cát Bà Island, the largest island in Halong Bay. Recognized by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve and known for its golden sand beaches, the park is home to an extraordinary diversity of animals, including the endangered Cát Bà langur.
Ninh Binh, located in the Red River Delta of Northern Vietnam, is an ideal base for exploring the nearby karst scenery, particularly at Tam Coc (Three Caves). At this UNESCO World Heritage Site, limestone formations tower above verdant rice paddies in what is considered one of Vietnam’s most spectacular areas.
More Things to Do in Northern Vietnam
Named in honor of Russian astronaut Gherman Titov during his 1962 visit to Halong Bay, Titop Island (Đảo Titop) offers a striking sight from a distance—a swooping tower of limestone rising out of the sea and blanketed with thick rain forest. Its main highlight is the crescent of pristine white sand lining its shore.
Nestled among the forest-shrouded peaks of Ninh Binh, Hoa Lu served as Vietnam’s capital during the 10th and 11th centuries. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site encompasses the crumbling Nhat Tru Pagoda, the King Le Temple, and the King Dinh Temple—all of which offer insight into the far-reaching power of the Dinh dynasty.
One of the most visited attractions in Hanoi, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the final resting place of “Uncle Ho,” the beloved founder of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He lies here in state, embalmed and in a glass case, with a military honor guard watching over him and the many visitors who come to pay their respects.
Located in Hoan Kiem district, the neo-Gothic St. Joseph’s Cathedral is the oldest Roman Catholic church in Hanoi and the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hanoi. Modeled after Notre Dame in Paris, St. Joseph’s Cathedral is one of the most famous and striking landmarks in Hanoi from the colonial era.
The art form of water puppetry originated at least 1,000 years ago in the rice fields of north Vietnam. Particularly if you’re traveling with kids, you’d be remiss to leave Hanoi without catching a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. A Vietnamese orchestra accompanies the water puppets, with some modern special effects.
A key landmark in the historical center of Hanoi, charming Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) offers a peaceful escape from the hectic pace and crowds of the city. It’s a popular meeting spot, and also makes a great place to people watch and experience local culture.
Few truly historic buildings exist in Vietnam, which makes the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam) extra special. First built as a Confucian temple in 1070 AD, it became Vietnam’s first university (Quoc Tu Giam) and operated as one for more than 700 years. Between ponds, gardens, and tranquil courtyards, it’s a haven in the heart of the Hanoi
Designed by the same architect responsible for the Eiffel Tower, Long Bien Bridge (Cau Long Bien) was the first bridge to span the Red River in Hanoi, providing a vital transport link between cities and towns in Northern Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the bridge was bombed in American air attacks, and yet today, it still stands as a testament to the nation’s tumultuous history.
West Lake (Ho Tay), the largest freshwater lake in Hanoi, provides a tranquil escape from the chaos of Vietnam’s capital. Lakeside cafés offer gorgeous views; historic attractions such as the Tran Quoc Pagoda and Quan Thanh Temple provide insight into Vietnam’s past; and 5-star hotels offer fine dining and luxury accommodation.
One of the oldest pagodas in Vietnam, and the oldest in Hanoi, Tran Quoc Pagoda (Chua Tran Quoc) was built in during the reign of Emperor Ly Nam De (AD 541–547) and moved to its present location in 1615. Located on an islet within West Lake, Tran Quoc Pagoda offers beautiful architecture, historic relics and artifacts, and a serene and scenic environment.
Built by the French in 1896 to hold Vietnamese political prisoners and known originally as Maison Centrale, Hoa Lo Prison was taken over by the Vietnamese in 1954. During the American War (Vietnam War), it housed American POWs, who referred to it as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Today, parts of the original prison have been turned into a museum.
Learn about Vietnam’s 54 different ethnic groups at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (VME), one of Hanoi’s most interesting museums. Featuring a range of exhibits, from replicas of homes and everyday objects to priceless antiques and multimedia displays, the museum offers valuable insight into the culture and heritage of the country’s many groups.
Hanoi’s largest indoor market, Don Xuan Market is jam-packed with stalls selling everything from clothing and cosmetics to household goods, pets, and plants. Although geared more toward local Vietnamese and wholesalers, it’s a great place to get a pulse on local life, and there’s also a lively food court and weekend night market.
The closest village to Sapa, Cat Cat Village is a popular trekking destination to experience the distinctive culture and traditions of the Black Hmong tribe. Located in Vietnam’s Muong Hoa Valley, at the base of Fansipan Mountain, Cat Cat Village is also known for its stunning scenery of terraced fields, rolling hills, and waterfalls.
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