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.
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 Hanoi Opera House (Nha Hat Lon) is a 100-year-old performance hall with architecture modeled on the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris. Nha Hat Lon was erected by the French colonial administration at the turn of the 20th century and is a landmark building in Hanoi. It was built in a typical French style with classic gothic features.
In 1997, the modernization and repair of the building was undertaken by Vietnamese French architects, and the decorative designs on the ceilings, arches, walls, and doors were renewed. Home to the Vietnam Symphony Orchestra, the Opera House also hosts the Hanoi Philharmonic Orchestra, the National Ballet, plus both traditional and modern local productions.
No tours of the building are offered but the exterior makes for some good photo opportunities. In terms of atmosphere, the Opera House is best seen at night when it is illuminated by lights.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of Vietnam’s most important pilgrimage sites, the Perfume Pagoda is a vast complex of Buddhist temples, grottos, and shrines dotted around Huong Tich Mountain. The shrines lie amid a flooded valley of towering karst cliffs and lotus fields—a stunning backdrop that makes for some incredible photo opportunities.
More Things to Do in Northern Vietnam
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.
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.
Located in the Hoan Kiem district of Hanoi, the Vietnam National Museum of History forms part of the Vietnam National Museum. With an extensive collection of over 200,000 objects, including numerous precious artifacts and antiquities, it traces the history of Vietnam from prehistoric times to the present.
Home to spectacular limestone panoramas and terraced rice paddies, Pu Luong Nature Reserve is the ideal choice for travelers looking to get off the beaten path. Although the reserve is a popular weekend getaway for Hanoi locals, Pu Luong sees few foreign visitors and has therefore managed to maintain an authentic feel and tranquil atmosphere.
Not your average Vietnamese temple, the Bai Dinh Pagoda (Chùa Bái Đính) is actually an almost-three-square-mile complex of temple buildings and gardens dominating the slopes of a rounded hill in Ninh Binh province. The impressive site—whose three-tiered-roof hall leads to attractions such as 30 foot, 200,000 lb. bronze Buddha statue statue; intricate laquerwork and stone carving; a 72,000 lb. bronze bell housed in the 13-story Phap Chu pagoda; and 500 arhat (wisened Buddhist) statues—is a relatively new attraction. Though a much older temple exists up 300 stone steps and tucked into caves at the back of the complex, some of the larger and showier additions, including the bell and its tower, were built only in the last 15 years.
Thousands of Vietnamese pilgrims flood the site regularly, particularly during an annual Bai Dinh Pagoda Festival combining new and old rituals around the sixth day of the first lunar month. Some sources duby this the largest pagoda complex in Vietnam, but regardless of ranking, there’s no question this superlative site is worth a visit. Just don’t expect to have the place to yourself.
Established in 1992 as Vietnam’s eighth national park, Ba Bể National Park protects nearly 39 square miles (100 square kilometers) of rainforest, lakes, limestone peaks, caves, waterfalls and a sprinkling of ethnic minority villages, many of them part of the Tay minority. What’s often referred to as Ba Be Lake is in fact three interconnected lakes linked by wide channels.
Visitors to Ba Be National Park have their choice of a variety of experiences — lazy boat tours on the lakes, treks to caves and waterfalls, homestays in minority villages and kayaking trips through the park. The park also boasts surprising biodiversity, with some 550 plant species, 65 species of mammals, 353 butterflies, 233 birds and more than 100 types of fish. While some of the wildlife can be quite shy and difficult to spot, it’s common to see macaque monkeys, colorful parrots and herons near the banks of the lake.
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.
Over a thousand years ago, the stretch of sleepy countryside around Hoa Lu (Hoa Lư) in northerly Ninh Binh province was a lot livelier as the site of the country’s former capital. Reportedly chosen by the Dinh dynasty (AD 968-80) to ensure enough distance between it and its northerly neighbor China, today much of the capital’s former splendor—fortress walls, temples, shrines and more—have been lost to time.
Still, visitors can explore two surviving temples built to honor emperors Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Dai Hanh and the dynasties they represent; the latter includes a small museum housing some artifacts excavated from an old earthen city wall. The Dinh Tien Hoang temple, perhaps the more impressive of the two, got a facelift in the 17th century. Just outside you’ll find the pedestal from his throne, and inside a statue of the emperor depicted with his three sons. A short walk away, some vestiges of the old palace’s foundation, unearthed by the Vietnamese Archaeology Institute in 1998, remain.
To truly soak in the full expanse of the just-over-a-square-mile complex, take the 20-minute walk up Ma Yen mountain via the path near the Hoa Lu ticket booth, it leads to the tombs of the temple’s two namesake emperors and overlooks the region.
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
Located just over 6 miles (10 kilometers) from Sapa, the emerald green Muong Hoa Valley (Thung Lũng Mường Hoa) features some of the most breathtakingly picturesque landscapes in Vietnam. Home to Ban Ho, Lao Chai, Ta Van, Hau Thao, Ta Phin and Su Pa ethnic minority populations, the valley is one of the biggest rice-growing areas in the region. The rolling emerald hills, epic views and fascinating traditional villages are just part of what greets travelers who opt to trek here.
Journeys ranging from two to six hours wind through low-lying grasslands, rice paddies and quiet villages where local women share fascinating stories about life in the countryside of Vietnam. Visitors can get an up-close look at the Hmong people’s way of life while peeking into homes, exploring farms and tasting traditional dishes. A voyage into Muong Hoa Valley is a multi-sensory experience that is not to be missed.
Trekkers follow the path of the Muong Hoa River through rice fields and sleepy villages, with stops to visit homes, taste traditional local dishes and learn about day-to-day life in a place that seems immune to the passage of time. Trekkers can participate in a homestay in one of several villages, where a local family plays host and offers a home-cooked meal.
South of Hanoi, the Trang An Landscape Complex is considered Vietnam’s “Ha Long Bay on land.” A UNESCO World Heritage Site for both nature and culture, the complex features a spectacular landscape of caverns and tunnels among limestone karsts, rice paddies, villages, and historic sites.
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.
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.
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.
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