A Vietnam Travel Guide
Of all the places I’ve been, Vietnam has to be one of the most interesting and scenically diverse in the world. From the sleepy, muddy waters of Mekong to the green, mountainous landscapes of the north and everything in between, you could spend a lifetime here and still discover something new.
I’ve now been to Vietnam twice – once for 2 1/2 weeks in 2016 and recently for 16 months from 2020-21. I only meant to visit for a month, mainly getting to know Ho Chi Minh City better, but the world had other plans as you might guess! In that time I had a chance to visit places all over Vietnam and my bucket list grew exponentially!
I have quite the archive of posts to help you plan your trip to Vietnam, so just click around below to get started.
Just Starting to Plan Your Trip?
Check these posts if you’re just starting to plan your trip to Vietnam, especially my very long travel tips post which will give you quite literally everything!
Northern Vietnam (Bắc Bộ)
Northern Vietnam is best characterized by its incredible mountains, rolling rice fields, and a small but stunning coast. It’s the oldest of the three main areas as Vietnamese society began in the Red River Delta. The weather here does change and is much colder in the winter so bring at least a light jacket. Sometimes super far north like in Hà Giang and Sa Pa, you’ll see snow!
It borders China to the north and Laos to the west, and comprises of three major regions: the Northwest (Vùng Tây Bắc), the Northeast (Vùng Đông Bắc), and the Red River Delta (Đồng Bằng Sông Hồng).
Cuisine up north also tends to use less spices and is fairly light in comparison to central and southern Vietnam. For me the best part of visiting the more remote areas is getting to indulge in the simple, fresh foods!
Fun Fact: The way Northern Vietnamese is considered the proper way of speaking, and they often will use a “z” sound. For example, Hà Giang is ha zang in the north and ha yang in the south.
Central Vietnam (Trung Bộ)
As much as I love the south, I actually think Central Vietnam would be my favorite place to visit. Because it comprises of North Central Coast (Bắc Trung Bộ), South Central Coast (Duyên hải Nam Trung Bộ), and the Central Highlands (Tây Nguyên), it’s very long and thus has the most diversity in landscapes and things to do. You have royal history in Huế, the karsts and caves in Phong Nha, the beaches all along the coast, and the interesting mountain culture of the highlands. All in one region!
Central Vietnam shares a border with Laos and Cambodia on the west and the South China sea on the east. I’d say it gets pretty cold in the highlands while the coast stays fairly warm and at least pretty humid. If you visit Da Lat in the winter, you’re going to want a jacket!
Food wise, they have two benefits. One is that the highlands grow a number of spices, allowing them to make their food spicier than either the north or the south. Another is that because they were home to Vietnam’s last dynasty, they have the influence of royal cuisine in their dishes as well. I tend to find myself dreaming about dishes from this region the most.
Southern Vietnam (Nam Bộ)
I don’t know what it is, but I really just love Southern Vietnam. Maybe it’s because it’s properly hot and humid all year round that gives it this more languid, friendly vibe. I can’t really explain it, but you’ll see it once you visit. I remember reading some descriptions of the Mekong in The Lover and thinking, “Yes! This describes it perfectly.”
The South mainly comprises of the Southeast region (Đông Nam Bộ) and the Mekong River Delta (Đồng Bằng Sông Cửu Long). It borders Cambodia, the Gulf of Thailand, and the South China Sea. Since the Khmer Empire once had control of the Mekong Delta, you can actually see a lot of its influence still there.
For the foodies, cuisine here is best characterized by its its sheer variety and sweeter taste. Of all the regions, the south is home to a lot of farming, fruit and vegetable growing, and more. Dishes have a lot more flavoring and there’s definitely a more liberal use of sugar.
Hồ Chí Minh City / Sài Gòn
Part of Southern Vietnam, I had to move Saigon to its own section within this guide as I spent so much time exploring the city. It’s such a massive city with tons of things to do that I really recommending stepping out of District 1 to see more of it. If you only go to D1, you’ll find the city nice but maybe even a little boring. With a lot of French colonial buildings and high end shopping, it does tend to feel less charming than, say, Old Quarter in Ha Noi.
However, once you start exploring other districts, you’ll start seeing more of Saigon’s color. Thao Dien is like expat island with lots of pool cafes and restaurants. District 3 is home to a number of local spots. Binh Thanh has a cool, bustling vibe, especially around the canal. District 5 is home to Cho Lon (chinatown) and has a ton of temples and great Chinese cuisine. I really could go on and on!