You’ll find many awesome things to do in Vietnam, but we picked five to get you started. As Vietnam continues attracting foreign investors and growing its economy, its popularity as a travel destination is increasing. Encompassed in this diverse region are secluded coral reef beaches, uninterrupted sand dunes, Amazonian-like jungles and foggy mountain ranges where hidden temples lie.
Vietnam is also one of the most culturally diverse countries in Asia, with more than 50 ethnic groups represented. As one of the most affordable destinations in Southeast Asia, and with a dry season that begins in November, Vietnam is the perfect place to visit to beat your winter blues.
Cat Tien National Park
If you’re in the southern region of Vietnam, the 177,915-acre Cat Tien National Park is a must-see. The park spans an impressive biodiverse area of lowland tropical rain forest and offers some of the best hiking, mountain biking and bird watching in the region. Many visit the park to see primates, specifically gibbons and langur monkeys. You’ll have to head in early or book a night tour to see most of the wildlife, or you can visit one of the park’s animal rescue centers, Dao Tien Endangered Primate Species Centre or Cat Tien Bear Rescue Centre. The park can only accommodate a limited amount of visitors so there’s no need to worry about overcrowding, but reservations should be made in advance. Entrance to the park is only 50,000VND, about $2.25, but be warned that fees into different areas of the park can add up and many tour guides offer inclusive rates.
Floating Markets at Cai Rang
Floating markets are one of the more touristy things to do in Vietnam on this list, but for good reason. The Cai Rang Floating Market is the largest in the Mekong Delta, starting around 5:00am and running through midday. It’s worth waking up before the sun to beat the boatloads of tourists. Cai Rang is a wholesale market and sellers tie their products to long poles above their boats to advertise to smaller traders.
Cai Rang can be seen from the road and there is even a bridge that offers a perfect perch for photography. Still, taking a boat to the market is a one-of-a-kind experience and well worth the $10-15 price tag. A boat tour includes a breakfast break at a local orchard, and you’ll be led around a fairly large garden growing a big variety of local fruits free for sampling. After breakfast, you’ll return to the boat and get to explore some of Mekong’s canals. The tour concludes around mid-afternoon just as humidity reaches its peak.
Temple of Literature
If you’re in the bustling city of Hanoi, the historical Temple of Literature is a rare example of well-preserved traditional Vietnamese architecture and honors the nation’s most esteemed scholars. Founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, the Temple of Literature is dedicated to Confucius (Khong Tu). Inside you’ll find a pond known as the ‘Well of Heavenly Clarity’, a low-slung pagoda and statues of Confucius and his disciples. It is the site of Vietnam’s first university, established in 1076, when entrance was granted only to those of noble birth.
After 1442, a more egalitarian approach was adopted and gifted students from all over the nation attended the university to study the principles of Confucianism, literature and poetry. In 1484, Emperor Ly Thanh Tong ordered that stelae be erected to record the names, places of birth and achievements of exceptional scholars. 82 of 116 stelae remain standing. Paths lead from the tiered gateway on P Quoc Tu Giam through formal gardens to the Khue Van pavilion, constructed in 1802. Admission to the temple is 30,000VND or approximately $1.50, making this one of the least expensive things to do in Vietnam on our list.
If you’re craving some local culture, look no further than water puppetry, a tradition that dates back to the 11th century, where it originated in the Red River Delta in Northern Vietnam. Many villages in Vietnam have communal ponds that are perfect stages for these impromptu performances, encouraging the widespread popularity of the art form. Water puppetry is shown in a pool of water with the water surface being the stage. The themes of the skits reflect rural culture with a strong reference to Vietnamese folklore, stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. The popular Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is located in Hanoi and ticket prices range from 60,000-100,000VND, or no more than $5.
Formally known as Hà Tiên Islands, this island group is located in the gulf of Thailand and earned its nickname from pirates who were known to plague the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. There have even been rumors that pirate treasure is hidden on the islands, and in 1983 two men armed with a 300-year-old map secretly scouted them for buried bounties. In 2009, some fishermen were surprised to stumble upon some ancient coins.
With less than 2,000 inhabitants spread throughout seven islands, Pirate Islands is certainly remote and probably one of the least touristy things to do in Vietnam on our list. There’s limited electricity until 10pm, after which the only light comes from candles and boat lights. While this may seem primitive to some, a nighttime boat ride allows for a beautiful view of sparkly fish leaping through the water, thanks to a phosphorescence phenomenon.
Pirate Islands are reachable by green cargo boat or passenger boat, both of which cost under $5. There are a few simple homestays on the islands and if you buy seafood from the fisherman, your hosts will gladly cook you dinner.
So there you have it. Five awesome things to do in Vietnam on a budget!