Best of Vietnam Rusty Compass

A travel guide to Vietnam with independent reviews and recommendations. No sponsored content, no advertorial.

Best of Vietnam


Last updated 06 Jun 2019

A travel guide to the best of Vietnam - from buzzing cities and historic towns, to natural wonders, beaches, rural life and delicious cuisine.

Travellers to Vietnam are spoiled for choice. The country is packed with options. Explore food, history and culture and then take a break in a luxury resort on the beach, or a beautiful mountain lodge.

Here are some of our highlights -

The mountainous north
Spectacular mountains, rice terraces and traditional minorities
Vietnam’s north around the capital Hanoi, is home to some of the country’s most awe-inspiring scenery. Mai Chau, Pu Luong, Ninh Binh, Dien Bien Phu, Ha Giang and Cao Bang are spectacular and unique and dotted with quaint ethnic minority villages. Stay in a traditional longhouse with a few comforts.

Pu Luong in Vietnam's spectacular north
Photo: Mark Bowyer Pu Luong in Vietnam's spectacular north


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Chaotic charismatic cities - Saigon and Hanoi
Saigon and Hanoi are a perfect study in contrast.
Hanoi the communist capital and Saigon the centre of commerce and a former US outpost, may share intensity and chaos - but from cuisine to character to heritage and architecture, they’re profoundly different. Read about the differences here.

Hanoi's streets
Photo: Mark Bowyer Hanoi's streets


Natural Gems
There's Halong Bay - and much more
Waking up amidst the majestic limestone islets of Halong Bay is an established travel rite. Halong Bay is Vietnam’s most famous natural landscape - but there are plenty more. The caves at Phong Nha Ke Bang, stunning beaches and limestone mountains are among Vietnam’s natural treasures.

Halong Bay day trip - Indochina Junk
Photo: Mark Bowyer Halong Bay day trip - Indochina Junk


Tasty regions
Exploring the rich and varied flavours of Vietnam's regions. Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Saigon and the Mekong Delta all sport unique culinary traditions. Whether eating on the streets or in upscale eateries, food will be a highlight of your Vietnam travels. You can check out food tours and cooking schools on Rusty Compass too.

Cao Lau - a tasty specialty of Hoi An
Photo: Mark Bowyer Cao Lau - a tasty specialty of Hoi An


Cycling rural countryside
Vietnam’s rural countryside is where you’ll connect with the warmth of the locals and the beauty of their communities. Hue, Hoi An, Phong Nha and the Mekong Delta are all perfect for casual cycling. Getting your hands on good bikes can be a challenge - but there are always cheap hotel bikes around.

Cycling Hoi An
Photo: Mark Bowyer Cycling Hoi An


A paradise for history buffs
There's much more to Vietnam's story than the long bloody conflict with the US
One of the things that drew me to Vietnam thirty years ago was the country’s incredible history. And travellers can experience that history whether you want to reach into the distant past of Cham ruins, artefacts at Hanoi Citadel, the Nguyen Dynasty ruins in Hue, the French colonial period, or the American War. And once you start diving into Vietnam’s history, you’ll be hooked.

World Heritage listed Hoi An
Photo: Mark Bowyer World Heritage listed Hoi An

Architectural delights
Vietnam is a museum of architecture. French colonial architecture, especially visible in Hanoi, Hoi An and Dalat, has received plenty of attention. There are also remains of the ancient Cham civilisation, traditional temples and pagodas and the imperial edifices of the last dynasty in Hue. We’re also very partial the least acknowledged period - modernist architecture. Modernism first surfaced during colonial times but local architects ran with it after the French left and created some amazing buildings - especially in the south.

Modernism in Saigon - Reunification Palace
Photo: Mark Bowyer Modernism in Saigon - Reunification Palace


Action and adventure in Vietnam
Vietnam is developing a name as an adventure destination
Vietnam’s north is perfect for trekking - anything from half days to, well, as long as you like. Rock climbing is popular on Cat Ba Island and in Dalat. Phong Nha caves and the surrounding National Park are perfect for adventurers of all stripes - cavers, climbers, cyclists.

Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
Photo: Mark Bowyer Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park


Beach life
Vietnam's one long line of coastline - spend some time getting to know it.
There are some glorious beaches. Overdevelopment’s a problem on some. Head to Quy Nhon, Con Dao or Cam Ranh for something a little less impacted by tourism. Hoi An’s An Bang beach is developing fast but still has a cool low-rise vibe.

On the beach - Quy Nhon
Photo: Mark Bowyer On the beach - Quy Nhon


And the not so good......

No info
There’s a disappointing lack of information at major historical sites. Sometimes nothing is available in English. Vietnam is sitting on one of the most incredible stories of any nation on the planet. But it’s a tad timid about discussing it.

An obsession with rebuilding Disneyesque historical sites rather than preserving rundown but atmospheric ruins. This is shaping up as a major problem in Hue. Saigon’s been far too ready to demolish its heritage. Hanoi’s massive heritage stock is in better shape - but local temples and pagodas have been upgraded with little regard for the original character.

Proliferation of plastic
It’s everywhere - streets, beaches, rivers and some of the most scenic spots you’ll visit - and thus far, little has been done to address the problem at official level. More businesses - including Rusty Compass - are pushing for change.

Chain smoking

Vietnamese are big smokers - especially men. And the country's health officials seem to have missed the memo - especially in Hanoi and the north. Saigon’s made huge progress in enforcing non-smoking areas. Hanoi remains a stubborn stronghold of tobacco libertarianism - a model capital for global tobacco.

Deadly roads
They’re an amusing novelty during your first few days but you’ll tire of having to jump out of the way of cars and motorbikes whether you’re crossing the road or on the sidewalk. Pedestrians are the lowest on the hierarchy of the road. A chronic problem in Saigon and Hanoi that gets worse by the day. Too many over excited young travellers jump on motorbikes too, voiding their insurance and risking injury and worse. An alarming number of young Westerners don’t live to share the stories of their Vietnam motorcycle adventure.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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