13 Things You Must Do in Vietnam – Vietnam Bucket List

From exploring the depths of a mysterious subterranean world to bargaining in a Mekong market, from sleeping under a bamboo roof in the mountains to scaling waterfalls in the Central Highlands, Vietnam is bursting with exciting things to do. In this XO blog post we outline the very best activities across the country – from the thrilling to the serene – in order to create the ultimate bucket list of things to do in Vietnam.

 

1: CANYONING:

Scaling waterfalls in Dalat

Dalat might be famous as a former French colonial hill station in the Central Highlands, but these days it’s becoming the extreme sports capital of Vietnam. The rugged, mountainous terrain, forested hillsides, and mild temperatures make it perfect for outdoors activities: in particular, canyoning. Regular rainfall creates dozens of rivers and waterfalls in the area: canyoning essentially involves following the course of a river: clambering over boulders, climbing up rock faces, being taken along by the current, and – most thrillingly of all – abseiling down waterfalls. Check out dalat-canyoning.com for more details.

Walking on waterfalls: canyoning in Dalat

Walking on waterfalls: canyoning in Dalat

 

2: STREET EATS:

Take a food tour in Saigon

Street food is a highlight of Vietnam, and Saigon is the street food capital of the country. Every night, thousands of informal eateries, serving hundreds of dishes, grace the city’s streets. The variety and choice is dizzying. But don’t worry, street food tours do all the hard work for you, and XO’s Foodie Tour is the original and best. As the neon lights of the city flicker on, we roll our guests out on the backs of our motorbikes, and head to the lesser-known districts, where all the best street snacks are found. From the classic to the unusual, our all-female staff will guide you through a culinary adventure of Vietnamese flavours, textures and colours.

XO Food Tour

Street Eats with XO Tours

3: HIGHLAND HOMESTAY:

Spend the night in a stilt house

A night in a traditional wood, bamboo, and palm-thatched stilt house, perched on a mountainside or in a verdant valley of rice fields, is unquestionably the most romantic accommodation in Vietnam. Nestled in the Tonkinese Alps of northern Vietnam, homestays offer a genuine glimpse of rural life, and the chance to interact with Vietnam’s significant population of ethnic minorities. Prices are typically around $10 per person, and include delicious home-cooked meals. Sapa and Mai Chau are famous homestay hotspots, but for a bit more authenticity, we recommend branching out into nearby Pu Luong Nature Reserve.

Highland accommodation: a homestay in northern Vietnam

Highland accommodation: a homestay in northern Vietnam

 

4: SKY COCKTAIL:

Drink at a rooftop bar in Saigon

Saigon is Vietnam’s biggest, busiest, most intense city: a cauldron of noise, food, construction, people, and pollution. But seen from the top of a multi-storey building – with a Martini in hand – the city is beautiful and serene. Many new high-rise buildings host uber-cool bars on their rooftop. Take advantage of sunset happy hours and sample a slice of the high-life. We recommend Glow Skybar and OMG Bar.

Highlife: enjoy a 'sky cocktail' in Saigon

Highlife: enjoy a ‘sky cocktail’ in Saigon

 

5: GO UNDERGROUND:

Explore the Phong Nha-Ke Bang Cave Systems

In central Vietnam, a spectacular landscape of limestone mountains covered in jungle, straddles the border with Laos. In 2009, led by a Vietnamese farmer, named Ho Khanh, a British expedition discovered the largest cave system in the world here. Son Doong Cave is on a biblical scale: great hangers carved out of the limestone by underground rivers. Inside there’s a remarkable subterranean world of strange rock formations. Extremely exclusive tours spend days trekking through the cave. If this doesn’t suit your budget, the area boasts many more extraordinary caverns: trek to Hang En, an equally impressive cave with its very own beach and turquoise water; take a subterranean boat ride through Phong Nha, the Cave of Teeth; walk along the plank-way and admire the sparkling stalactites of Thien Duong, Paradise Cave. Oxalis and Phong Nha Farmstay offer excellent tours.

Subterranean: Son Doong Cave is another world

Subterranean: Son Doong Cave is another world

 

6: MASTER CHEF:

Take a cooking course in Hoi An

Increasingly famous throughout the world, Vietnamese cuisine owes much to the freshness of its ingredients, but don’t underestimate the obsessive attention to presentation, and the sophistication of preparation, involved in rustling up some of the country’s most popular dishes. Cooking courses in Hoi An give you a chance to try your hand at making a classic Vietnamese meal. Starting early in the morning at the local market to find the best ingredients, you’ll learn plenty of culinary tricks to take back home with you. Check out Green Bamboo Cooking School for more details.

Master chef: learn to cook classic Vietnamese dishes in Hoi An

Master chef: learn to cook classic Vietnamese dishes in Hoi An

 

7: HIT THE ROAD:

Take a motorbike road trip

An icon of Vietnam, the motorbike is the nation’s preferred mode of transport. With over 40 million and counting, motorbikes are one of the first things that any visitor to Vietnam notices. Get involved and get in the saddle: take a xe ôm (motorbike taxi) in the middle of Hanoi rush hour to experience the impossible jigsaw puzzle that is Vietnam’s urban commuter traffic; hop on the back of an Easy Rider for a tour of the Central Highlands; or go solo and hit the road on your own set of wheels, venturing into the spectacular scenery of the northern mountains. Check out Flamingo Travel for bike rental and tours.

Hit the road: tour the mountains on two wheels

Hit the road: tour the mountains on two wheels

 

8: A NIGHT AT SEA:

Spend a night on a junk in Halong Bay

As one of Vietnam’s most popular attractions, Halong Bay can get crowded with tourists during the day. But at night, it’s peaceful and calm. Avoid the booze cruises, and spend a night aboard one of the elegant wooden vessels, known as junks, floating among the limestone islands in the moonlight. In the morning, watch the sunrise from the deck with coffee and breakfast. Check out Indochina Junk and Bhaya Cruises for cruise information.

Serenity: a night afloat on Halong Bay

Serenity: a night afloat on Halong Bay

 

9: TOMB RIDER:

Cycling the Royal Tombs in Hue:

The last royal dynasty of Vietnam ruled from the imperial capital of Hue. After their deaths, the emperors were laid to rest in extravagant mausoleums on the outskirts of the city. Set in beautifully landscaped gardens along the Perfume River, the royal tombs are strewn over a large and scenic area, best explored by bicycle. Pedal your way through history as you ride from one emperor’s resting place to the next. The most elaborate is Minh Mang’s mausoleum, but the most mysterious is Emperor Gia Long’s forgotten tomb, reached via a wooden boat across the Perfume River.

Royal grandeur: Tour the emperors' tombs by bicycle

Royal grandeur: tour the emperors’ tombs by bicycle

 

10: SHOP LIKE A LOCAL:

Bargain in a Mekong market

Local markets still play a central role in most Vietnamese people’s daily lives. The Mekong Delta is home to the most colourful, bountiful, frenzied markets in the country. Prices are rarely fixed so bargaining is a rule, and this is a great chance to really act like a local. Learn a few numbers – it’s not that difficult – and try your hand at bartering. Pick up some exotic-looking fruit, ask how much it is, and let the contest begin. Be polite and keep a smile on your face – bargaining is expected so there’s nothing rude about it: in fact, it’s great fun! Our tip: settle for roughly 60% of the original price offered, and keep it friendly and good-natured.

Hard bargain: bartering in a market is as local as it gets

Hard bargain: bartering in a market is as local as it gets

 

11: MAKE A SPLASH:

Swim in the East Sea

With a coastline stretching over 3,000km, you’re never far from the beach in Vietnam. The East Sea is balmy and blue year-round. Fine sand beaches, rocky coves, rugged islands, and hedonistic beach towns abound: pick a spot, and take a plunge. We recommend the white sand and cobalt blue waters of Doc Let, just north of Nha Trang.

Take a dip: Vietnam has plenty of beach to go around

Take a dip: Vietnam has plenty of beach to go around

 

12: INTOXICATION:

Ride the high with locals

Whether it’s caffeine or alcohol, getting your fix in Vietnam is easy, and it’s a great way to meet local people. Coffee is typically strong and sweet, and cafe culture is thriving in Saigon. Pop into one of the many cool local cafés to get your buzz; or join locals for cà phê bệt – essentially street coffee, where students sit in public parks, socializing in the cool hours of evening: try the park near Saigon’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Beer is cheap and plentiful. In Hanoi, bia hơi (fresh beer) is served in small glasses for a fraction of a dollar, and it’s the fuel behind many a great night out: try Hanoi’s ‘Bia Hơi Corner’. Rượu (rice liquor) is especially popular in highland areas, where locals say it keeps you warm. Like a fire in the throat, rice liquor is potent stuff: it’s offered to foreigners as a prelude to socializing, especially during homestays with ethnic minorities.

Get a buzz with locals: beer, rice liquor & coffee are plentiful

Get a buzz with locals: beer, rice liquor & coffee are excellent social lubricants

 

13: TRAIN IT:

Ride the railroad along the coast

The train has always been a romantic way to travel, and in Vietnam it’s no different. Stretching north to south – Hanoi to Saigon – the Reunification Express is a great way to travel between destinations on the coast, and it’s an experience in itself. The trains are in decent condition, clattering along at a leisurely speed, allowing time for passengers to watch Vietnam rattle by through the windows. It’s far more scenic and comfortable than the buses, and you’ll get the opportunity to interact with Vietnamese passengers. In the Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux travels the world by train, and Vietnam makes a deep impression: “Of all the places the railway had taken me since London, this was the loveliest.”  Check schedules and fares at vietnam-railway.com

A romantic way to travel: take the Reunification Express along the coast

A romantic way to travel: take the Reunification Express along the coast

 

We hope this bucket list of the top 13 things to do in Vietnam helps add some fun and excitement to your Vietnam itinerary. If you travel to Saigon, and you find yourself looking for something fun to do, please check out our 4 acclaimed tours.

3 reasons you should not book with XO Tours

Although we are very proud of the acclaim our tours have received over the years, we realize that they are not suitable for everyone. These are the 3 main reasons we think some guests should not book our tours:

  1. If you are looking for a typical food tour – All the dishes and stops on the “Foodie” tour are carefully curated to offer you the most unique experience possible. We are not trying to serve you the most popular dishes in Vietnam or even the dishes we think are the most delicious (although most people LOVE the food!). We want you to eat the exact same dishes that the locals eat every day, so those are the types of dishes we offer on the tour. We also want to show you the huge contrast between the different districts and give you a feel for what life is truly like for the Saigonese people. If you’re just looking for a food tour that jumps from one food stop to the next however, and you don’t care to venture outside the touristy districts in Saigon to see a side of the city that none of the other tours go to, then this is probably not the tour for you.
  2. If you are not interested in Vietnamese history – On our “Sights” tour, not only will we provide some interesting historical background for each location we take you to, we will also share unique local insights that you won’t find in most guidebooks. Rather than just throwing facts at you, we try to connect each place to a human event, so that you will remember each location for the impact it had on the Vietnamese people. If you find history boring however, then you probably shouldn’t book this tour.
  3. If you want the cheapest motorbike tour –  At XO Tours we want to provide you with a boutique experience that you cannot find anywhere else, combined with the best customer service in Vietnam. We hire the best possible staff and train them to be great ambassadors for Vietnam. We believe the time, effort and attention to detail we put into creating our tours is reflected in the high quality of the tours. Everything we do to make our tours special increases our costs which makes our tours a bit more expensive than our competitors. We accept this fact however because we believe that majority of our guests are willing to pay a little more for a superior experience. For guests that just want to drive around on a motorbike for the lowest possible price, there are many other options in Saigon to chose from.

If you are like travel writer, Graham Caldwell or the majority of the 50,000 + guests that have gone on our tours however, we think you will love your time with us!

Why you should book with XO Tours

How to stay safe and avoid scams in Vietnam – Part 2: South Vietnam

In this, the second part of our two-part series on avoiding common tourist scams in Vietnam, we focus on popular tourist destinations in the south of the country. Saigon, Nha Trang and Hoi An all have their fair share of scams and safety hazards that travelers should be aware of. (Read Part 1 of this series HERE).

Famous for its beaches, the south has its fair share of scams to look out for

Famous for its beaches, the south has its fair share of scams to look out for

 

SAIGON:

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is Vietnam’s biggest, busiest, and most exciting city. In any such city there are always going to be scams and dangers to beware of.

Airport Taxi & Cyclo Scams: You can learn more about these notorious scams in this comprehensive blog post.

**** If you would prefer to avoid dealing with taxis altogether, or if you’re arriving to Ho Chi Minh City very late and/or you have young children, we can highly recommend Drive Vietnam for the best Ho Chi Minh City airport transfers ****

Hit-and-Run ‘Cowboys’: Drive-by snatchings (including backpacks, handbags, cameras slung around your neck, and ‘smart’ technologies held loosely in your hands) are pretty common in tourist hotspots, such as Ben Thanh Market, Pham Ngu Lao (the ‘backpacker’ district), and Le Loi street. Be particularly careful when crossing roads around Ben Thanh Market and when walking on the sidewalk close to the road in Pham Ngu Lao near the park. Always wear your backpack or handbag on your front, and don’t use your smartphones and tablets in crowded public areas. Another thing to look out for, especially in Pham Ngu Lao, are the adorable ‘street kids’ who wander the backpacker area befriending tourists and selling them chewing gum amongst other things. These children should be at school and the money they receive from you will only go back to the ring of adults (usually not their parents) who control them.

Street life in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is frenetic, but watch those valuables

Street life in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is frenetic, but watch those valuables

 

NHA TRANG:

Vietnam’s favorite beach party town, most of Nha Trang’s scams revolve around nightlife and the beach.

Spiked Drink Buckets: Communal drink ‘buckets’ are great fun for a group on a budget, but sometimes bartenders spike these cocktails with their own ‘medicines’, which may lead to more than just a bad hangover. There have been instances where foreigners are robbed after drinking spiked bucket cocktails. Stay clear of the buckets or, at the very least, make sure you’re leaning over the bar staff as he/she pours the liquor.

Crowded House’ Pickpockets: Being such as party town, Nha Trang has more than its fair share of crowded bars and nightclubs. Naturally, this is a pickpockets dream. Keep your wits about you: if someone grinds up against you on the dance floor it’s not necessarily a prelude to hooking up; when the dance is over you might find your wallet and smart phone are no longer in your pockets. The same goes for busy bars where customers are cramped next to each other. Keep the cash you carry to a minimum (admittedly this can be difficult if you’re planning on a big night out). It’s a good idea to invest in a cheap ‘dumb-phone’ for nights out; a standard Nokia is only $20 in Vietnam. Or, quite simply, don’t get too smashed; it’s much easier to stay alert when you haven’t had 5 mojitos, 6 beers, and 3 shots of Jägermeister.

Beach Thieves: The long, lovely stretch of Nha Trang beach is fertile ground for opportunist robbers: a bag or phone left unattended for a couple of minutes while the owner paddles in the surf could be gone in seconds. As with nights out on the town, only take what you need to the beach. Also, drive-by bag snatchers can whip the bag off your back before you realize what’s happening, especially on the seafront road and the backpacker streets. Always wear your bag or camera on your front while in these areas.

Local Voyeurs: Young Vietnamese men have been known to take photos and videos of young foreign women in bikinis on Nha Trang’s municipal beach. Shooting from the beachside park, these people are not very subtle about it. There’s not much you can do other than ignore it, and it’s probably best not to sunbath topless, which is illegal anyway.

Long Son Pagoda: Don’t be fooled into a fake tour around this Buddhist complex by children with printed cards claiming to be guides working for the monks. After they’ve showed you around they’ll insist on a ‘donation’ for the monks or that you buy overpriced postcards from them. Say ‘no’ firmly and, if they persist, state clearly that you will not give them any money.

Nha Trang's beach is long and lovely, but beware of thieves

Nha Trang’s beach is long and lovely, but beware of thieves

 

HOI AN:

Thankfully, Hoi An is one of the safest tourist destinations in Vietnam. However, there are a couple of minor scams and inconveniences to look out for.

Tailors: Perhaps the thing for tourists to do in Hoi An is to get tailor-made clothes from one of the hundreds of fine tailors here. Prices vary from high-end to budget, but in general you will get what you pay for: if you go cheap there’s more chance of the fit not being quite right, the material being substandard, and the stitching coming apart as soon as you get back home to your country. Do your research and shop around before deciding where to go. (See this previous XO blog for more details)

Manicure scam: A common scam, run by very forceful ladies lurking in the old town, is to offer manicures and other beauty treatments for a dollar or two, only to demand far more once the job is done. Simple solution; do not get beauty treatment on the streets on Hoi An.

Thefts & Hassle: Hoi An may be a small place but it’s hugely popular with foreign and domestic tourists alike. The narrow old streets can get very crowded during peak months and public holidays. Pick-pocketing and bag snatching can be a problem at crowded places, particularly around the Japanese Bridge and riverfront during the full moon lantern festivities. Don’t carry too much cash or valuables, such as gadgets, on your person, and wear your bags and backpacks on your front. General hassle to buy things and book onto tours is fairly persistent, but strong-arm tactics are rare in Hoi An.

Floating lanterns for sale in Hoi An, one of the safest destinations in Vietnam

Floating lanterns for sale in Hoi An, one of the safest destinations in Vietnam

 

FINAL WORD:

Don’t let this list of scams scare you: Vietnam is an extremely safe place to travel, and its people are overwhelmingly hospitable, friendly and honest. Keep an open mind and if or when a scam occurs try to stay calm and put the relative loss of money or inconvenience into perspective. Remember that tourist scams mostly occur in tourist areas; the best way to avoid scams altogether is to get off the beaten path (see this previous XO blog for more details)

We hope you found this Vietnam blog post and our Vietnam Travel Tips useful. If you’re ever in Ho Chi Minh City and you want to see parts of the city that most visitors never get to see, you should consider booking either our “Saigon by Night” or extremely popular “Foodie” tour.

How to stay safe and avoid scams in Vietnam – Part 1: North Vietnam

Generally, Vietnam is a very safe country in which to travel. Compared to most major tourist cities in the West – Paris, London, New York, Rome – the streets of Vietnam’s urban centers are much less threatening. However, in some of the more popular tourist destinations in Vietnam, there are a handful of tourist scams and safety hazards that all travelers should be aware of. In this XO blog – the first in a two-part series – we describe some common scams in tourist hotspots in the north of the country; Hanoi, Halong Bay, and Sapa. This guide to avoiding common tourist scams will help you get the most out of this fabulous country and avoid any negative experiences. (Read Part 2 of this series HERE).

Even at night, Hanoi is safer than most cities in the West

Even at night, Hanoi is safer than most cities in the West

 

HANOI:

Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, is one of the busiest and most beguiling cities in Southeast Asia. But, as tourist numbers have risen steadily, so too have tourist scams.

Airport Taxi Scam: Many visitors emerge from Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport dazed after a long-haul flight. Scam taxis take advantage of this by picking up passengers at the airport arrivals gate and immediately saying that the hotel they’ve booked has closed down. They will then offer to take you to another, better, cheaper hotel. Inevitably, this turns out to be a substandard and much more expensive hotel. Bewildered and weary, travelers give in to the demands and check-in. Naturally, the taxi drivers get a cut of the room charge. The solution is either to prearrange your airport pick up through your hotel when you book it, or, at the airport arrivals, look out for the official airport taxi drivers (who wear bright yellow jackets). Alternatively, make sure you flag down a trusted taxi company, such as, Mai Linh, ABC, or Taxi Group. Other common taxi scams are covered in this previous XO blog post.

Fruit Seller Scam: Notorious in recent years, this scam involves local fruit sellers, who struggle along Hanoi’s streets carrying bamboo poles laden with tropical fruit over their backs. The fruit sellers offer tourists a ‘go’ at carrying the bamboo pole, presenting it as a good photo opportunity. When the tourist hands the pole back to the fruit seller they demand money for the ‘service’ or insist that you buy their outrageously overpriced fruit as compensation. Don’t pick up that pole! This common scam can also be found in Ho Chi Minh City.

Hotel Currency Rates: Some budget hotels in Hanoi have been known to swindle customers by switching the room price from dollars to dong, and massively inflating the exchange rate. They may also say that the rate quoted was per person, not per room. Double check when you book, and keep any email confirmation you receive as evidence. Hotels may also charge guests for any preexisting breakages in the rooms. If anything is broken when you arrive notify reception immediately so that they cannot claim you were responsible.

Hoan Kiem Hospitality: A walk around Hoan Kiem Lake is a favorite activity for tourists and locals alike. Young men and women will approach you to practice their English and ‘make friends’. While this is often a genuine attempt to establish friendly contact – I have good friends made exactly like this – it can sometimes lead to invitations to expensive meals or day outings, for which you will be given the bill. Use your ‘travelers’ radar’ to assess whether contact is genuine or not.

Hoan Kiem Lake, a popular meeting place in Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake, a popular meeting place in Hanoi

 

HALONG BAY:

Famed for its mystical limestone karsts rising from the sea, Halong Bay is a captivating sight. But, these days, it can get pretty darn crowded with boat tours. Before you visit you should take note of a few things.

Tours & Cruises: A day cruise (and usually a night too) around Halong Bay is one of the most popular tours in all Vietnam. Tourists often book all-inclusive tours from Hanoi. These vary wildly in price and quality. Travellers who book onto the cheaper ones are often disappointed: bad food, terrible accommodation, sloppy service. More importantly your major concern should be safety. Vietnam has a poor maritime safety record and there have been incidents in recent years in Halong Bay, including sunken tourist boats and on-board fires, which have led to tourist deaths. Our advice is to spend more on your tour, and thoroughly check its credentials before you book. Not only will this ensure better quality, it will also mean better safety standards. An all-inclusive tour to Halong Bay from Hanoi should be around $100-150, anything less and you run the risk of disappointment. Another point to be aware of is that boat tours are often cancelled due to bad weather, especially during the monsoon months from July to September. Good tour companies will reimburse you, but many of the cheaper ones do not. Make sure you understand the policy of your tour clearly.

Save 15%-16% off the best Halong Bay Cruises from Indochina Sails, Indochina Junk or Bhaya Cruises when you book an airport transfer or private tour with Drive Vietnam.

On-board Theft: Unsurprisingly, there are reports of belongings and valuables being stolen on-board some of the cheaper tour boats. Take care not to leave your valuables unattended. At night, tour boats should have lockers available to passengers so that you can sleep easy knowing that your possessions are safe.

Floating Restaurants: There are hundreds of floating restaurants in Halong Bay, where fresh, reasonably priced seafood is available. However, these restaurants represent the most captive market in Vietnam; with water on all sides, where are you going to run if your hosts decide to overcharge you? Establish in advance (before you’ve made the voyage there) the cost of meals, and whether drinks and the return boat fare are included in the price. The restaurants in Ben Beo, off Cat Ba Island, are said to be better and less touristy than others. A boat out and back should be around 150,000 vnđ, but don’t pay your fee before the return journey to dry land is complete, otherwise you might find yourself stranded at sea.

Halong Bay's limestone karst landscape draws huge crowds of visitors

Halong Bay’s limestone karst landscape draws huge crowds of visitors

 

SAPA:

A mountain town surrounded by towering peaks and plunging valleys, unfortunately Sapa’s natural beauty is undermined by the constant hassle to buy trinkets and book onto tours, as well as the odd tourist scam.

Bogus Hotel Bookings: Such is Sapa’s tourist boom that, in recent years, hotels struggle to serve the hundreds (even thousands) of foreign and domestic travellers they receive on any one night, especially on weekends and public holidays. Even if you have booked your room months in advance, you may still find there are ‘no vacancies’ when you arrive. Check the reputation of your chosen hotel before you book, and, if you’ve booked in advance, reconfirm your booking before your arrival. One of the best things about staying in Sapa is having a spectacular view of the mountains from your hotel balcony. When you make your booking check and check again that you will have a clear mountain view, and, as always, keep the email confirmation from the hotel. Many travelers arrive in Sapa only to find that their mountain view is no more than an air conditioning unit and a bare brick wall.

Train Station Pick Up: Don’t accept a ride to Sapa from Lai Cao train station from anyone except your pre-booked hotel or tour agent. If you don’t have prearranged transportation take a taxi ($25) or one of the reliable minibuses that wait outside the station (50,000vnđ).

A Helping Hand? A quiet walk around Sapa town or the surrounding countryside is now almost impossible. At each turn tourists are met with shouts of ‘You buy something?’ or ‘I take you go for beautiful walk’. The hassle is constant and out of control. Many tourists come to Sapa specifically to visit ethnic minorities who live in the nearby mountains. It may be difficult, but you should ignore approaches from friendly young minority girls telling you their life story and offering you a free guided walk to their village. Inevitably, these ‘free’ guides will demand, beg, and even cry for money once you arrive at their village. Don’t make payment for a service you did not ask for or in order to get the girls to leave you alone, as this only sets a precedent – these young girls’ time would be better spent in school, but, at the moment, it is simply more lucrative for them to prowl the streets of Sapa for the tourist buck. All this leaves travelers in a quandary: what’s real, what’s fake? Is hospitality genuine of just a ruse to a scam? Contact Sapa O’Chau (www.sapaochau.org) for more information about the situation and for tours with genuine local guides.

Mountain view from a Sapa hotel balcony; make sure you get yours

Mountain view from a Sapa hotel balcony; make sure you get yours

 

We hope you found this blog post, and our Vietnam Travel Tips useful. The 2nd part of our Vietnam scams and safety article, focusing on Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An and Nha Trang, can be found HERE.

This blog is sponsored by XO Tours – Vietnam motorbike tours; offering the most acclaimed food tour in Vietnam for 5 years running!

The Ultimate Hanoi Shopping Guide – What to buy and where to buy it

We wrote a very popular shopping article focused on Ho Chi Minh City 2 years ago, and have since had many requests for a similar piece for Hanoi. Shopping posts are difficult to do however, because there are so many unique things that you can buy in Vietnam that it’s impossible to include everything in a single article.

We think this blog post offers a fairly comprehensive list of things that most people will want to buy when they visit Hanoi however.

What to buy in Hanoi:

  1. Silk and Clothing
  2. Lacquerware
  3. Do Paper
  4. Embroidery
  5. Souvenirs
  6. Products of the Ethnic Minorities
  7. Bamboo and Rattan
  8. Lacquer Paintings and Cloth Paintings
  9. Luxury Goods (Real and Fake)
  10. Housewares and Ceramics

 

  1. Silk Goods, Clothing

Silk is everywhere in Hanoi. Scarves and sleeping bag liners are available at every tourist shop. Raw fabric is rolled and stacked, waiting to be turned into a creation of your choosing. Finished dresses, men’s ties and Ao Dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress, are so plentiful that shops have to display excess wares on the sidewalk.

Tailored clothes are another local specialty. Tailor shops will recreate designs from samples or pictures, and can make intricate dresses or high quality business suits in a matter of days. Check reviews online to determine a tailor’s quality, and be sure to leave enough time for multiple fittings and adjustments.

The best known area in Hanoi for silk is Hang Gai, aka “Silk Street”. Expect to pay 25-50 USD per outfit for dresses and ready to wear clothes. Be sure to drop into Khai Silk (96 Hang Gai) and Duc Loi (77 Hang Gai). Another option is the three-story Hang Da Market (1 Hang Da st). On the ground floor you will find flowers and wine; the upper levels contain fabrics and vintage clothes upstairs. Visit early and keep an eye out for Ao Dais and goods made from Do Paper.

For larger quantities or better deals on silk, cut out the middleman and take a trip out to the villages of Van Phuc or Ha Dong. Both of these villages produce silk and carry wide selections, and with skillful haggling a better deal can be gotten. Van Phuc is famous for silk sheets and is located in Ha Dong District, about 10 kilometers away from the centre of Hanoi. For other fabrics, try Ninh Hiep village.

Location of Khai Silk

Location of Hang Da Market

Hanoi Shopping1
  1. Lacquerware

High gloss tableware is one of Vietnam’s best known crafts, one that is recognizable to many people from around the world. Introduced to the world in 1930s Paris, Vietnamese lacquerware offers a better selection and is usually of a better quality than offerings from other Asian countries. Unfortunately many low quality mass-manufactured offerings have flooded the market. If you have a discerning eye, try your luck browsing along Hang Trong, Hang Hom and Hang Manh streets. For a more curated selection, visit MARENA Hanoi (28 Nha Chung). Minh Tam (2 Hang Bong), a 10 year old family business, offers top quality lacquerware. To buy directly from the source, visit Ha Thai village.

Location of MARENA Hanoi

Location of Minh Tam

Hanoi Shopping2
  1. Do Paper

Do paper, (pronouned yaw), comes from the bark of a wild river plant known as the Do tree. After a three month process, the bark is transformed into a durable, high quality paper. This paper is then turned into all manners of goods for you to enjoy. You can browse postcards, notebooks and stationary sets, all costing under $3, along Hang Gai or Hang Bac or check out at Craft-Link (43 Van Mieu). Another traditional craft to keep an eye open for is Dong Ho paintings, which celebrate the Lunar New Year. These woodblock prints on Do paper are made in the village of Dong Ho.

Location of Craft-Link

  1. Embroidery

Northern Vietnam produces some stunning embroidered cottons and linens. From the patterns of the many ethnic minorities to the fine art quality work found framed and hung in galleries, beautiful embroidery can be found on any budget. A large selection can be found at Dong Xuan Market (Dong Xuan St and Hang Chieu St).

For better quality purchases, a trip to a specialty store may be in order. Tan My, the oldest embroidery shop in Hanoi, is located at 66 Hang Gai, but watch out for similarly named shops nearby. Once there, enjoy the plentiful selection of pillow cases, tablecloths, placemats, dresses and more. Everything in this shop has amazingly detailed designs, all of which are made 100% by hand.

Two more highly recommended shops are May (7 Nha Tho) for the a nicely displayed selection and Chi Vang (17 Trang Tien) for the unbeatable quality.

Location of Dong Xuan market

Location of Tan My

  1. Souvenirs

Hanoi is full of interesting souvenirs; you are sure to find the right gift for everyone on your list, as well as something unexpected for yourself. For wooden puppets, paper lanterns and paper fans, wander the areas close to the Water Puppet Theatre (57b Dinh Tien Hoang). For t-shirts exalting Vietnamese traffic, milk coffee, and pho, browse along Ly Quoc Su st.

If you’re looking for something more unique, try out musical instruments at Thai Khue, (1A Hang Manh) or browse Communist Party propaganda posters at The Hanoi Gallery (several locations, try 17 Nha Chung).

If you need to purchase a few thousand conical hats, try Chuong village. Here you can also find the flat topped hats, often with intricate embroidery, known as Non Quai Thao.

Location of Thai Khue

Location of The Hanoi Gallery

Propaganda art
  1. Products of the Ethnic Minorities

Vietnam has over fifty ethnic minority groups, more than any other Asian country. Most of them hail from mountain villages in the north. If you’re not making a trip to Sapa, you can still find some of the clothing and handicrafts of these industrious peoples for sale in Hanoi.

Browse the woodwork, lacquer paintings, ceramics, textiles, carved Buffalo horn goods as well as a selection of clothes, bags and scarves at Craft-Link (43 Van Mieu). This not for profit organization specializes in fair trade products of a better quality at comparable products. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, visit their second location, which carries a different selection of products.

For more crafts and home furnishings, as well as fair trade coffee, try Indigenous (36 Au Trieu) who donates profits to disadvantaged children.

Another not for profit organization, Mekong Quilts (13 Hang Bac) focuses on offering employment and developing the community through the making of quilts. Growing from selling quilts in her friends homes, owner Thanh Truong now employs over 340 women in the northern provinces.

Location of Craft-Link

Location of Mekong Quilts

Hanoi Shopping3
  1. Bamboo and Rattan

Bamboo and rattan are incredibly versatile materials. The multitude of things you can find fashioned from them is astounding. From tiny chopstick rests to intricately woven full size chairs, rice paper drying trays to three meter tall vases, seemingly anything can be fashioned out of these materials by skilled craftsmen. A good place to browse these offerings is Bamboo Shop (4b Hang Hanh). Bargain hunters are advised to look for bamboo shops along Quang Trung st, near Tran Nhan Trong st.

To see the craftsmen at work, take a trip to Bang So village, famous for bamboo work. Another option is a short 35-km trip from Hanoi to Phu Vinh, well known for crafting rattan products.

Location of Bamboo Shop

Hanoi Shopping4
  1. Lacquer Paintings and Cloth Paintings

As the traditional artisans and craftsmen left Hanoi, a void emerged and today that void is filled by fashion and artwork. Lacquer paintings bridge the two worlds, creating contemporary art with ancient techniques. Hanoi has no shortage of art galleries featuring the glossy, richly colored, beautifully layered lacquer paintings, as well as high quality cloth paintings by local artists. Stroll down Trang Tien st between Hanoi Opera House and Hoan Kiem Lake and you are sure to find a number of galleries worth peeking into. One gallery you should definitely visit is Thanh Binh Gallery (25 Trang Tien), well known for high end contemporary fine art.

If history’s greatest artists are more to your tastes, Hanoi has a number of painting shops that offer recreations of famous paintings by the masters. Many of these shops take requests and will work with you to create something specific.

Location of Thanh Binh Gallery

Hanoi Shopping5

Luxury Goods (Real and Fake)

Do Manh Cuong is the most successful fashion designer to come out of Vietnam, and his Do Manh Cuong Boutique (88 Nguyen Huu Huan) is the best place to find his designs. After working for Christian Dior and Dominique Sirop in Paris, DMC returned to Vietnam, where he can be found judging on Project Runway and Vietnam’s Next Top Model.

High end fashions can also be found at Ipa Nima (73 Trang Thi, 2nd location on Nha Tho). Ipa Nima carries in house designed and made handbags from Hong Kong designer Chistina Yu, as well as Spanish designed fashions from Chula (6 Ven Ho Tay) if the latter’s West Lake location isn’t convenient.

Another can’t miss area in Hanoi for high end fashion is along Trang Tien st south of Hoan Kiem Lake. Be sure to check out Trang Tien Plaza, which has a large number of designer stores on the ground floor. Just watch out for locals taking wedding pictures on the sidewalk in this area. Speaking of weddings, if you’re preparing for the big day, check wedding fashions at David Minh Duc or Thu Huong, both on Yet Kieu street.

If your budget isn’t as high, there are an endless supply of fake North Face backpacks and clothing in Hanoi, mostly near Hoan Kiem Lake. Be sure to pull on the seams and slide the zippers before buying though.

Location of DMC Boutique

Location of Ipa-Nema

Hanoi Shopping6
  1. Housewares and Ceramics

Hanoi is full of interesting, high quality home decorations available at low prices. Check out Vietnamese House (192 Hang Bac) for a nice selection of stone carved vases and boxes. For birdcages, some with birds in them, find the small shop at the intersection of Hang Da and Hang Dieu.

Mosaique Decoration (6 Ly Quoc Su) has three floors of home furnishings, from trinkets to bedroom furniture. Nearby La Casa (2 Ngo Bao Khanh) also carries beautiful locally made furniture from Italian designers.

For a better selection of ceramics, take a trip to Bat Trang village. You can easily explore it on your own, as it is located just outside the urban districts and can be accessed by a taxi or bus (number 47 from the Long Bien bus station). It is a small village with endless shops. The prices are much more reasonable compared to those in the city.

Location of Vietnamese House

Location of Mosaique

Here are a few other things to round out your shopping trip:

Shoes:

Shoe lovers will find paradise just off the east side of Hoan Kiem Lake, listed under the name Hang Dau st. This street is nothing but shoes and sandals, many direct from the factory with minor imperfections equalling large discounts. Fake luxury brand handbags can be found at the intersection with Lo Su street.

Location of Hang Dau

Jewelry and Silver:

Hang Bac, which translates to Silver St, is a dazzling maze of silver of all shapes and forms: from plain, simple rings and necklaces, stylish teapots, beautiful décor plates; to worshipping articles, such as incense holders and the four sacred animals. Silver is considered a powerful element to drive away evil spirits in Vietnam, so it’s no surprise that the silver industry prospers so much.

For a finer selection, visit Phuc Tin (Hang Gai Street), a high quality silversmith with traditional Vietnamese jewelry.

Location of Phuc Tin

Books:

Bookworm (44 Chau Long) is the best place in Hanoi to refill on reading material before a long flight or bus trip. This decade-old English language bookstore is located near Truc Bac lake.

Location of Bookworm

bookworm

Snacks:

O Mai and Banh Com are special treats commonly offered by Hanoians to their guests during the Tet holidays.

O Mai was originally used as a remedy for sore throats in Vietnamese tradition medicine. It is made from dried apricots, seasoned with salt, sugar, ginger, chili and licorice, which gives it a nice mixture of many flavors. Nowadays, O Mai is not only a favorite treat for the Hanoian, but also a best-seller souvenir for any Vietnamese tourist visiting Hanoi. Aside from apricots, many other fruits are now used to make O Mai as well.

Banh Com is another variety of glutinous rice products. Banh Com has a soft and chewy texture, with light sweetness and a hint of the trademark “cốm” fragrance. Banh Com is normally made without any preservatives, so eat it within 5 days after purchase.

Shops selling these treats are found mainly on the Hang Duong Street (Street of Sweets/Candies). Some of the older and more prestigious shops are Hong Lam (11 Hang Duong Street), Toan Thinh (15 Hang Duong), Van Loi (34 Hang Da).

Location of Hong Lam

snacks

A guide to the Old Quarter:

For tourists of all ages, Hanoi’s Old Quarter can provide a fascinating look into the culture and history of Vietnam, making it a can’t miss destination even if you don’t plan on buying anything. For shopaholics and souvenir seekers however, this is one of the best area to wander, browse and haggle. Famously known as the 36 streets, this neighborhood’s roads are named for the guilds that use to occupy them.

Villagers in Vietnam’s small towns ofter produced one thing per village. When craftsman and merchants moved from these villages to Hanoi, they would end up living on the same street, selling the same products. Eventually the streets of Hanoi’s old quarter came to be known for the guilds occupying each street. Salt, sugar, copper and tin were all more than items on a shopping list, they were locations for where to find these items. Today, some of these streets retain the products of their ancient guild. Some of them have evolved to sell similar products, and some have no relationship to the past, but nearly all retain their ancient names.

The following is a list of streets in the Ancient Quarter. In italics is the guild or product this street used to be known for. Following that is what is currently sold on that street, if a common theme exists. Streets marked “Same Same” still carry the goods they were named for.

Bat Dan / Wooden Bowls

Bat Su / China Bowls

Cha Ca / Roasted Fish / Same Same (Cha Ca La Vong is world famous)

Chan Cam / String Instruments

Cho Gao / Rice Market

Gia Ngu / Fisherman / Underwear, Socks, Scarves (Asian Sizes)

Hai Tuong / Sandals

Hang Bac / Silversmiths / Same Same

Hang Be / Rafts

Hang Bo / Basket

Hang Bong / Cotton

Hang Buom / Sails

Hang Bun / Vermicelli

Hang But / Brushes

Hang Ca / Fish

Hang Can / Scales

Hang Chai / Bottles

Hang Chi / Threads

Hang Chieu / Mats

Hang Chinh / Jars

Hang Cot / Bamboo Latices

Hang Da / Leather / Produce Market

Hang Dao / (Silk) Dyer / Ready Made Clothes

Hang Dau / Beans, Oil Extracts / Shoes and sandals

Hang Dieu / Pipes

Hang Dong / Copper

Hang Duong / Sugar / Jam and Candied Fruits

Hang Ga / Chicken / Same Same

Hang Gai / Hemp / Clothes, Scarves, Handbags

Hang Giay / Paper & Shoes / Candles, Incense, Famous Beef Jerky

Hang Hanh / Onions

Hang Hom / Cases

Hang Huong / Incense

Hang Khay / Trays

Hang Khoai / Sweet Potato

Hang Luoc / Comb

Hang Ma / Counterfeit Papers / Votive Paper Products

Hang Mam / Pickled Fish / Tombstones

Hang Manh / Bamboo-screens / Traditional Musical Instruments, Cushions

Hang Muoi / Salt

Hang Ngang / Transversal Street / Textiles

Hang Non / Conical Hats

Hang Phen / Alum

Hang Quat / Fans / Funeral and Festival Flags, Religious Paraphernalia

Hang Ruoi / Clam Worms

Hang Than / Charcoal

Hang Thiec / Tin / Sheet Metal, Mirrors

Hang Thung / Barrel

Hang Tre / Bamboo

Hang Trong / Drum

Hang Vai / Cloth

Lang Ong / Herbs and Spices / Same Same

Luong Van Can / Children’s Toys / Same Same

Lo Ren / Blacksmiths / Same Same

Lo Su / Coffins

Ma May / Rattan / Tours, Hostels, White People

Ngo Gach / Bricks

Thuoc Bac / Herbal Medicine / Same Same

To Thinh / Wood Turners Street / Same Same

 

We hope you found this Hanoi shopping post helpful. For more great Vietnam travel tips, please check back with us often.

If you need help shopping in Ho Chi Minh City, please consider booking our popular Shopping Spree Tour.