Written in collaboration with Matt Cowan, Thomas Barrett and Nick Ross.
We all have dreams, lists or ideas of things we would like to do during our lifetime, or during a certain period of our lives. Some of us even go so far as create bucket lists.
So, dreamers to the end, and with the knowledge that our subject matter is wonderful, whacky, endearing Vietnam, we decided to create one ourselves.
From setting up a business to eating weird food, climbing mountains or getting married to a local, we’ve covered everything. We’ve even covered getting drunk in a brewery.
In all its fine, chaotic glory, we give you the Vietnam bucket list.
To see the print version of the Vietnam Bucket List and download a PDF, click here.
01 Do the trip to Son Doong
It’s the largest cave in the world, and a trip here is like travelling to another planet. It’s surreal, otherworldly, beyond anything you will have ever experienced in the past. The trip doesn’t come cheap, although we reckon it’s worth every penny. It’s also worth every ache, pain and scratch gained scrambling through caves, trekking through jungle, and wading through rivers.
02 Climb Fansipan
The roof of Indochina, Fansipan (Phan Xi Pang in Vietnamese) towers 3,143m (10,312ft) over north-western Vietnam, making it the highest mountain in the region. Climbing it is a stunning achievement, but if you had one-too-many nem with lunch, just take the fancy new cable car, get the selfie done, and pretend you climbed it like a boss.
03 Spend a few days in Con Dao
Vietnam has many islands, but few are as wild and relatively untouched as the islands of Con Dao. The reason? Part is the location — way out there in the East Sea. And part is their geographical significance. The Vietnamese navy is out there and much of the land and marine habitat is protected by national park. Which means development doesn’t get a look in. Long may it stay that way.
04 Chill out in Phong Nha
Phong Nha is all about the caves, right? Well, yes and no. Thanks to an area called the Bong Lai Valley, it’s also the best spot in the whole country to chill in the middle of the Vietnamese countryside while swaying upon a hammock and staring into the peaceful, idyllic views beyond. You want rural relaxation? This is it.
05 Go Birdwatching in Tra Su
Sat on the Cambodian border just south of Chau Doc, Tra Su Bird Sanctuary is a twitcher’s paradise, especially when the water is high. Imagine taking a canoe, in Apocalypse Now-style silence through the swamps, while all about you birds flap and search for food. Surrounding you are vines, lotus, strange mosses, mangrove trees with gnarled roots, and odd flowers peaking out of the gloom.
06 Go Diving
07 Drive the Ha Giang Loop
Ah, Ha Giang. Hands down the most beautiful province in Vietnam. A place where heaven meets earth, a place you’ve got to visit if you like your motorbike trips and want jaw-dropping scenery thrown in along the way.
There are a number of ways to do the loop. When we went we chose the four-day option, renting motorbikes in Ha Giang City. We then took in Quan Ba, Yen Minh, Dong Van, Meo Vac and Bao Lam before heading back to Ha Giang City. Five stops in Ha Giang Province, one stop, Bao Lam and its cattle market, in neighbouring Cao Bang. And in between, soaring, breathtaking views, ethnic minority peoples eking out a living and still in their traditional dress, the Ma Pi Leng pass, more terraced paddy fields than you can shake a conical hat at, and a sense that here, at the foot of the Himalayas, you are on the edge of the world.
08 Fly on a seaplane or helicopter above Halong Bay
Have you ever been on a plane that’s landed on water? Most likely not, unless you’re Austin Hatch, the only person in the world to survive two plane crashes. Hmmm. Let’s not go there. If you want to head to Halong in style, with exhilarating views along the way, then the Hai Au Seaplane (seaplane.vn) is the way to go. Alternatively, the helicopter (vietnamhelitours.com) is a great option, as it stays lower in the sky giving you a close-up, drone-like view of the land below.
09 Learn to make pho
How hard can it be? You’ve slurped down loads of the stuff since you’ve been here. And you’ve watched the ladies in action. Throw a few old beef hocks into a pot with some onions and garlic, boil it up for a day or three, pour it over some rice noodles, squeeze on some lime juice, sprinkle in some cracked pepper and chilies to taste (forget the beansprouts), then load it up with a bunch of basil. That’s all there is to it, right?
10 Get your caffeine fix on egg coffee
For anyone who’s spent time up north, or at least anyone who’s lived up there, drinking ca phe trung ain’t nothing new. Allegedly the idea to plop an egg in coffee came about when milk was scarce in Vietnam; its invention attributed to a bartender working at Hanoi’s Metropole Hotel in 1946. How he got away with dropping a chicken’s ovum in a guest’s (presumably) morning coffee is nothing short of ballsy and it remains surprising, if not a touch sad, that the inventor isn’t a household name in Vietnam these days. Perhaps then at least, the thing we know as egg coffee would sound just a little more palatable.
11 Take the reunification train from Hanoi to HCMC in a hard seat
What better topic for that travel blog you’re writing about travelling through Vietnam? The deprivations. The toilets. The people. The terrible music. The stares. The rattling of the train. The screams of the children as you try to get to sleep. It’s all just so ‘out there’.
12 Do a tour of the churches in Nam Dinh
When Alexandre de Rhodes, the missionary who invented the Roman script for Vietnamese, first came to Vietnam, he spent his time preaching in Nam Dinh, an area south of Hanoi on the Red River Delta. In terms of spreading Catholicism, his efforts worked. To this day, Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh Provinces are the heart of the religion in Vietnam.
Yet, followers of the Catholic creed have taken their fervour to whole new levels. Each village has its own church. We’re not talking about any old churches, here the structures are huge, cathedral-size huge, with colonial-style wedding cake décor and bright garish paint.
The jewel in the faith-driven crown is Phat Diem in Ninh Binh, a church built in the late 19th century by Father Six that mixes European architecture with the traditional designs of dynastic Vietnam. But head to the west of this and you see the churches rearing their spires above the flat skyline. The irony is the cathedral in Nam Dinh City. Smaller than the majority of churches over which it has dominion, it is the local seat of the faith.
To do a tour is simple. Start at Phat Diem and then head west towards the ruined church in the sea in Hai Ly. On the way you will see monolith after grandiose monolith rising into the sky. Stop, go inside — the doors are usually open — and explore. The experience is surreal.
13 Go on a day trip to Halong Bay
The Top Gear lads took amphibious scooters. Tom Hiddleston went by helicopter. However you go, just go; no visit to Vietnam is complete without it.
14 Eat a snake
Although we officially condemn eating any endangered animal, which make up most of the offerings from this country’s best-known snake restaurants, it’s still a popular experience for daring foodies.
15 Try dog or cat meat
Despite the abhorrent side effect of driving up the theft of pets and maltreatment of farmed animals, understanding why it’s so popular is on many people’s to-do lists.
16 Catch a flying cockroach with a pair of chopsticks
Channel your inner Mr. Miyagi (or should that be Ong Minh?) and prove you are the ultimate Kung Fu Badass of pest control.
17 Motorbike down the Ho Chi Minh Trail
It’s a long road, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, so long in fact that it goes almost all the way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, hugging the border between Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in between. It’s also the safest route if you want to motorbike north to south, with breathtaking scenery, hairpin bends and that sense of freedom you get when you’re away from civilization.
Just don’t expect much in the way of modern amenities. Some stretches, like from A Luoi heading south and between Phong Nha and Khe Sanh have little in the vicinity. And don’t expect top-notch accommodation or anything other than local food. And if you do find yourself complaining, just remember that under attack from bombers, Viet Minh and Viet Cong soldiers walked this route during the war. North to south took three months. Which makes this even more of a bucket list kind of thing to do.
18 Get drunk at the Heart of Darkness brewery
Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness. Francis Ford Coppola. Apocalypse Now. There’s something to be said for getting drunk in a brewery with a name that so closely ties itself to jungle, war and Vietnam. [Editor’s note: For the uninitiated, Apocalypse Now was based on Heart of Darkness]. Okay, fine, you’ll be going to the industrial zone in Binh Duong rather than into the jungle. Although you’ll definitely get to meet Colonel Kurtz, in his IPA form, that is.
19 Head to Ban Gioc Waterfall on the Chinese border
A cascade of 20 or so mini waterfalls coming down into a river and surrounded by jungle-clad, limestone karsts, Ban Gioc is bang on the border, and is truly one of the most beautiful sites in Vietnam. Even National Geographic thinks so. Check out their photos. The problem is getting there. It requires a long road trip from Cao Bang City down bad roads to the border. But then, that’s all part of the fun?
20 Start your own website about Vietnam
And if you do, we reckon you’ve got a one in hundred chance of keeping it going. Just remember that unless it’s a true labour of love, you’ve got to make it pay. That’s the difficult bit.
21 Go to Co To or another very hard-to-reach island
What better way is there to earn an island paradise getaway than by enduring an eight-hour journey consisting of buses, boats, taxis and electric buggies?
As the bird flies, Co To is 270km east of Hanoi — getting there is no walk in the park, but once you’re there, the good times will roll. The island isn’t as developed as tourist hotspots like Cat Ba or Monkey Island, but the few resorts which have been opened offer beach bungalows, sunset BBQs and picturesque cycling routes sure to satisfy the most obsessive of Instagrammers.
Besides Co To, Quan Lan Island and Cai Chien Island are two other similar destinations, both beyond Halong Bay and near the Chinese border; getting there will require a good deal of preparation and patience, but the payoff is more than worth it if you go for at least two to three nights.
22 Punch a rat to death in your kitchen
You turn off the lights, get into bed, and hear something scurrying along the floor.
Your options are: ineffectual sticky-back humane traps, waste good cheese on a spring trap, or commence a Tom & Jerry-style hunt, with marigold-covered clenched fists.
I’ll get the gloves.
23 Eat bun bo Hue in Hue
So you’ve eaten hamburgers in Hamburg, spaghetti Bolognese in Bologna, Wiener schnitzels in Vienna, black forest gateau in the Black Forest and pizza in, erm, Pisa. So naturally the next step is to eat bun bo Hue in Hue, of course. Just don’t expect the version you get elsewhere, although it’s something to tick off the list. As the dish has weaved its way around the country it’s been altered to fit the local taste buds. Our favourite version? In Saigon. Sorry Hue!
24 Found a foreign-language magazine
And fulfil that dream you had as a teenager.
25 Visit a luxury resort
Once upon a time, Vietnam was considered an A-grade destination for shoestring travellers, tight backpackers and those looking for an off-the-beaten-track experience.
These days, however, Vietnam is home to some of the most sensational luxury resorts in Southeast Asia.
Hanoi’s Metropole Hotel offers guests a taste of classic French class, while the legendary Park Hyatt Saigon, a city-centre hotel complete with luxury spa and tropical garden outdoor pool, redefines the five star experience.
For a more resortish resort experience, check out Danang’s InterContinental Sun Peninsula, a resort so spectacular, it has its own Wikipedia page.
On the resort island of Phu Quoc, the recently opened J.W. Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay is already wowing anyone lucky enough to check in there. Designed by Bill Bensley, the same award-winning architect behind the InterContinental Sun Peninsula, it’s a slice of chic paradise with a strong tropical vibe.
26 Eat Pho Chua in Lang Son
Pho chua or sour pho, really is the best version of Vietnam’s national dish there is. Or at least we think so. The fresh pho noodles are served with ground peanuts, sliced herbs, pork, Chinese-style roasted pork (xa xiu or heo / lon quay) and the most essential part — the sour sauce. Many variations can be found around Vietnam, but to eat it in Lang Son, the city on the Chinese border where it is supposed to have originated, is something else. Wow does it taste good.
27 Sunbathe on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake or the Saigon River
Ever wanted to be publicly ridiculed in the local media? Do you crave unfavourable attention on Facebook groups? If so, then get on your best bikini/banana-hammock, sprawl out on a grassy bank like no one’s around, and wait for the cameras to click.
28 Pilgrimage to the Perfume Pagoda
Whether you identify as spiritual or religious is insignificant; a pilgrimage to one of Vietnam’s most sacred spiritual sites is not to be missed.
Around 70km southwest of Hanoi, the Perfume Pagoda is a complex of Buddhist temples, caves and shrines spread throughout the Huong Tich Mountains.
If you want the full, in-your-face, sardines-in-a-can experience, then visit between the sixth day of the first lunar month and ending during the last week of the third lunar month; this period guarantees the most crowds, coming for the Perfume Pagoda Festival.
Whether you go by motorbike or with an organised tour, the final stretch of the journey involves a 45-minute boat ride along Suoi Yen, a lotus-lined river.
Wish for good fortune, barter away your soul for greater fertility, or just go for the stunning views, tacky souvenirs and fresh air.
29 Drink at every bia hoi in the capital
Vietnam is one of the cheapest locations in the world to drink beer — at least it was until craft beer arrived. Fortunately for the ‘I’m not paying those prices’ brigade, bia hoi is still alive and kicking. So why not make a night or five of it and pub crawl your way around every bia hoi in Hanoi? After all, it’s hardly going to break your wallet. And just think of all those drunken selfies you could share on Facebook.
30 Hot Air Ballooning in Mui Ne
Balloons have been all the rage in the party scene for a little while now, but not these ones. For the first time in Vietnam you can now take flight over the southern coastal towns of Phan Thiet and Mui Ne. Known for its beaches, sand dunes, kiteboarding and dragonfruit, the best parts of Binh Thuan Province can now be seen from the air in a basket.
Balloons lift off daily at 5am either from the centre of Phan Thiet or somewhere close to the sand dunes, all depending on weather conditions of course. For around VND3 million per person for four hours, you get transfers, a light breakfast and some bubbly, along with some amazing views taking in desert lakes and colourful rural landscapes.
Vietnam Balloons applies European safety standards to everything it does, including European pilots with tons of experience. The company also caters for special occasions like birthday parties and even weddings. So why not tie the knot in the sky before you die… err leave?
31 Rescue an abused pet from a neighbour
It’s the compassionate busybody’s dilemma; you hear your neighbours beating their dog. You have no right to get involved, he owns it. Your code of ethics doesn’t apply here, but you can’t stand those whimpering cries any more. Who you gonna call? Try Hanoi Pet Rescue, on 01234 524650.
32 Eat street food three times a day for a week without getting diarrhoea
No one wants squirty-bum, but who can resist BBQ meatballs, salad and noodles for US$2? If you buy it in bulk, toilet paper is super cheap. #protip
33 Drink the local water (NOT)
Many of us have been there — hungover and parched for thirst, you stumble into the kitchen to fill up a glass of water before quickly realising the error of your ways as you spurt it out. A lucky escape, as the water in Vietnam features all sorts of chemical nasties that are guaranteed to at the very least, upset your stomach, or at worst, send you to hospital.
34 Eat something “weird”
35 Eat at Bun Cha Obama
If you ever needed more evidence that TV chefs prioritise fame over food, then Anthony Bourdain’s awful choice of bun cha for some people’s favourite ex-president is it.
Overpriced, sub-par quality and now the seed for a hundred copycats, Bun Cha Huong Lien (24 Le Van Huu, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi) will be reaping the benefits of Mr Obama’s visit for years to come.
If you’re not put off by the sound of the Obama Combo, the most cringe-worthy name of a food special ever to stain a menu, then by all means go and see what all the fuss is (or isn’t) about.
It’s open daily from 8am until 9pm, and if you want to call them up while you’re bent double over a toilet exploding from both ends to ask where they get their seafood from, their number is (024) 3943 4106.
36 Visit the Lai Xa Photography Museum
No-one would see Vietnam as a country that has produced some amazing photographers. After all, most of the imagery we see of Vietnam outside of Vietnam is either war-themed or based around food and travel.
Which is what makes the Lai Xa Photography Museum so interesting. Located in Hanoi, the museum plays homage to the nearby village of Lai Xa which produced a wealth of talented photographers, making it one of the more unusual visitor attractions in this country, and certainly one to put on the list.
37 Go to a fortune teller
If you’re the type of person who is in perpetual state of mild panic and apprehension about everything from where you will live next year to what colour socks you will wear in the morning, then let one of Vietnam’s many fortune tellers lighten the load by giving you the answers you require.
Note — what they tell you is not legally binding. So if they promise you great riches and a year later you’re just as skint as before, don’t go looking for a refund.
38 Buy Vietnamese grandma pyjamas and wear them
Ao ba ba are the humble Vietnamese pyjamas worn by women of a certain age up and down the land. The brighter the better, and if you squint, watching a group of women chatting away can look like tropical birds showing off their feathers. Finding a pair that fits, especially if you’re a 6ft-tall foreigner could be challenging.
39 Cut the head off a chicken to impress your in-laws
Here’s how you do it. In the Bong Lai Valley just outside of Phong Nha, there is a chillout spot called The Pub With No Name. Go there and the lady who cooks up the ever-so-freshly barbecued chicken may even let you kill the chicken yourself. Now, if you’ve never done this before, you’ll need to line this one up for your bucket list. It’s something to talk about afterwards.
But there’s another benefit. When you go to the countryside to spend Tet with your in-laws, you might just be the person charged with the responsibility of killing the chicken. For at Tet, people here like to cook up roosters, who can be a little more flighty than their female counterparts. So, unless you want to find yourself hacking indiscriminately at a head that just refuses to be hacked off, better hone your skills early. Only then will your in-laws truly be impressed.
40 Urbex in ghost town
There is something exciting about exploring abandoned places. Yet the disused townships on the edge of Hanoi are a little different. They were never completed. Unlike most of the buildings that urban explorers find a way into, they don’t have history.
One such suburb is Lideco, an urban area of 500 to 700 houses sitting 16km outside of Hanoi off the Highway 32. Only 100 houses are occupied and a third were never finished.
Wandering the town is eerie. Some of the empty houses have become homes for chickens and ducks. The vegetation has taken over, but there are still isolated areas of human activity, and the occasional sound of a child’s laughter.
For urban exploration, places like Lideco are a dream, especially when it comes to seeing development gone wrong. Other places to check out for your bucket list are Van Canh in Hoai Duc and Bao Son Paradise on the edge of My Dinh.
41 Wax lyrical at the Wax Museum
Now you know you’ve made it in Vietnam when they make a wax model of you. Recently opened and inspired by Madame Toussards, this District 10 museum features a plethora of Vietnamese painters, artists and comedians in wax form — and their likenesses are uncanny.
42 Visit Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum
43 Try trung/hot vit lon
Despite being a common dish in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, the humble fertilised duck egg often finds its way to the top of any ‘weird food’ compilations.
Perhaps the appearance has something to do with that. On the outside, regular old boiled egg. Nothing scary at all.
Peel away the shell, however, and something resembling the foetus of Alien and Predator’s lovechild stares up at you.
Easily recognisable parts, including feathers, beaks and claws are all folded in to this yellow, grey and white ball of OMG.
It’s honestly not as bad as it looks, though; in Hanoi, it’s usually served with a handful of herbs plus a few shreds of ginger and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. There’s a range of soft and chewy textures, a rich fatty punch from the centre and an all-round eggy taste.
44 Sleep in an ethnic minority homestay
And tell all your friends and family how you spent a night with the ‘true’ locals of Vietnam.
45 Scale Long Bien Bridge
Not recommended for even the most sprightly of souls. But then, the bridge is so iconic and it wasreportedly built by Gustave Eiffel.
46 Go canyoning in Dalat
Put on your wetsuit and helmet, attach yourself to a rope, abseil down the side of canyons, jump off a cliff, waterslide down a river and zipline over a gorge. If this kind of adrenalin-fuelled outdoor activity is for you, then canyoning in Dalat is one for the list. Only problem is licensing and insurance. Which means best to go with Phat Tire (ptv-vietnam.com), who are the only fully licensed operator in the area. Three people died in early 2016. Make sure you’re not the fourth.
47 Visit a crocodile farm
Chances are you’ve already visited one, especially if you’ve been living in the south. The Delta (and most theme parks) have quite a few of them. One of the memorable ones, and a rite of passage for many unsuspecting newbies to Vietnam, is the crocodile farm at Monkey Island (Dao Khi) in Can Gio. Here you can feed the crocs and watch them fight for their bits of fish. Not an attractive sight, although some tourists seem to get a thrill out of it.
48 Fire a light machine gun in Cu Chi
No visit to Vietnam would be complete without a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, networks of underground passageways dating back to 1948 that were used by pro-Union forces. Appealing to some will be the firing range, where trigger happy tourists can have a go at firing off some of the weaponry used during the war — from AK47 to the M30. The bullets are pricey at US$1 a pop — but it’s a fun way to unleash your inner Rambo. Just don’t forget to wear your ear muffs, as it can get pretty noisy.
49 The drudgery of a Cambodia visa run
You’ve got 3 days to go before your visa runs out and you can’t avoid it any longer. The dreaded Moc Bai visa run will have to be broached. A two hour bus ride that seems to spend most of its time trying to get out of the quicksand that is Saigon traffic, you arrive to be welcomed off the bus by a hive of scum and villainy trying to drag you along for a price. Once your past their clutches you’ll be greeted by a queue followed by queue followed by another queue. Maybe you enjoy the process of queuing? In that case, this could be a top day out. After a seemingly endless traipse through red tape, you return to Vietnam, tired, grumpy and swearing you’ll never do it again. 3 months later…
50 Go quad biking on the sand dunes in Mui Ne
With all the steep inclines and falls, driving a quad bike as it skids and slides over the dunes is both scary and fun, especially if you can close your eyes to the environmental degradation that comes in its wake. But take note. You have to hire a driver — usually a teenage kid — to take you on the ride as you won’t be allowed to go off on your own. And if you do get the chance to drive the bike, you’ll be expected to give a tip.
51 Plank or dab on the train tracks on Long Bien Bridge
And make sure you make a video of it. Or even better. Post it to Facebook Live
52 Visit the haunted house on Kim Ma
If you want to take a risk, and you believe in ghosts, this is the Vietnam bucket list option for you.
Home to what was once the Bulgarian Embassy, the building at 300 Kim Ma is built on a former cemetery. When the land was repurposed, the authorities moved the graves elsewhere, but some tombs remained because the families couldn’t be traced.
The embassy sleeping quarters were in the basement. Every night at midnight the beds would move and would stand vertical — no one could see how it happened. At a Christmas party a secretary heard a strange noise, he tried to move and see where it was coming from, but then he was paralysed without any reason. The embassy stayed for only one year before moving down the street.
The Bulgarian government paid 50 years rent upfront, which is why the building sits there abandoned. Yet the stories continue.
Six or seven years ago two young people climbed over the fence to look for ghosts. Just after they left the building they were in an accident and both died. Five years ago a monk came to try and chase the ghosts away. She talked with them and diminished their power, but according to locals they are still there.
Visit at your peril.
53 Try aerobics, Tai Chi or ballroom dancing in the park
You know you’ve got to. Come on, you’ve got to give it a try!
54 Convince your cyclo driver to let you ride their cyclo
Just make sure you’re the person driving them. It gives you bargaining power.
55 Survive for a day on VND50,000
Want to know how the majority live? Well, here’s a menu for you. Breakfast — banh mi thit or banh my trung. Lunch, com sinh vien or com binh dan from one of the cheap rice restaurants. Dinner xoi thit if you’re in Hanoi, or bot chien down south. If you’re lucky, you’ll have some change for some traor possibly even a ca phe da on the street. Do this for one day, easy. For a week or even a month, you’ll be pulling your hair out.
56 Do a Vietnamese-style engagement photo shoot
Because your engagement is all about the photos, right?
57 Follow the defunct railway from Dalat down to Phan Rang
Unfortunately, visions of a locomotive chugging along through Dalat’s rolling mountains is little more than a memory for most, as the line closed for good following reunification in 1975. But there are still reminders of the former route that went 84km from Dalat to Thap Cham.
This impressive feat of engineering was built by the French to transport goods and people up to the then colonial retreat of Dalat, and the route took over 30 years to be completed. You can visit dilapidated old railway stations that still retain remnants of colonial class, and you can head into long abandoned tunnels that cut through some of Dalat’s highest peaks.
It’s on off grid tour that you’ll have to organise yourself, but for the train enthusiast or romantic it’s an evocative trip down memory lane.
58 Go to the flower market at 4am when all the wholesalers are arriving
But only if you’re still awake at such a ridiculous hour.
59 Cycle to Cambodia
If you’re in Hanoi, hmmm. But if you’re in Saigon you can get there in a morning. 70km to Moc Bai on the border and then lots of places to stay at casino-friendly Bavet on the side. Just bear in mind the roads. The one leaving Ho Chi Minh City via Tan Binh is not all that pleasant. Still, getting there is an accomplishment.
60 Paraglide around Hanoi
Soar through the skies, hold your heart in your mouth, see the rice plots, hills and townships below like you’ve never seen them before. Paragliding could just be for you. Just make sure you’ve got the wind with you — you’ll need it. Wanna know how? Click on hanoiparagliding.com.
61 Go to a meditation retreat in Dalat
Meditation and yoga retreats have the words Chiang Mai and Thailand written all over them. But why head to the Land of Smiles when the Central Highlands and Sivana Yoga is on your doorstep? Weekly, monthly and long-term residencies are available, and the people who’ve been come back are positively glowing.
62 Start a travel blog with the original concept of ‘doing’ Vietnam North to South
‘Cos your trip is just so cool, dude, and your writing and photos are even cooler, and you just reckon that everyone out there is going to want to read about it, and that by reading your blog it will be really beneficial to them — a life-changing event, like your travels were for you…
63 Dye your hair black so you don’t stand out when you’re on the street
And then realise that everyone else is dying their hair brown or orange. You just can’t win, can you?
64 Drive a vintage Vespa
Just make sure you know how to change the spark plug, or that you should mix oil in the fuel tank with the petrol you’ve just put in. Otherwise, you might find yourself flagging down help on the side of the road.
65 Attend a Catholic mass in Vietnam (it’s very different)
Even better, attend the mass on Christmas Eve, when the crowds of worshippers swell out of the doors. Just don’t expect to understand anything, unless you speak Vietnamese. Although the rituals are mostly the same.
66 Go trekking in the national parks
Vietnam has scores of national parks if you’re the kind of person who likes to go for a trek or two. The largest is Yok Don in the Central Highlands. Yok Don is said to be the most biodiverse park in Vietnam and is home to endangered Indochinese tigers and leopards, Indian elephants and gaur.
Might be best to take out life insurance before you go? From Saigon, the best known national park is Cat Tien, approximately 150km north. The park is home to a surprisingly large number of animal species that include monkeys, bears, elephants, deer, birds, snakes and insects and once upon a time, the Javanese rhino. But the park on everyone’s lips at the moment is Phong Nha-Ke Bang in Quang Binh, about 500km south of Hanoi.
Comprising over 300 caves and grottos, it is home to Son Doong Cave, the world’s biggest cave. Aside from the park’s major attraction, Phong-Nha-Ke Bang is home to a vast array of vulnerable animal species, and trekking is well set up here.
67 Buddhist meditation
Australian writer and practising Buddhist Walter Mason in his delightful memoir of his time in Vietnam, Destination Saigon, reveals that before his travels here, he used to imagine Buddhist monasteries as “transcendent places of deep spiritual advancement” only to discover they are “hotbeds of intrigue, gossip and pettiness, just like everywhere else.” Intriguing indeed.
Mason has a strong connection with Vietnam and holds this country close to his heart. He describes a number of Buddhist monasteries and pagodas in his book that leave even the keenest of sceptics thinking about planning a visit themselves. The Ambassador’s Pagoda in Hanoi is one, named as it was the official residence for foreign visitors to the city in the 15th century. He mentions Binh Dinh Province and its fame Vietnam-wide for its martial artists, monks and temples. And his humorous but moving description of his outing to the big Buddha in Phan Thiet is a highlight as he retells his emotions on hearing the power of the female monks’ voices as they chant the Great Compassion Mantra of Kwan Yin.
The point is, you don’t have to be a Buddhist adherent to get a kick out of visiting one of Vietnam’s hundreds of pagodas. And if you want to learn or practice Buddhist meditation, simply go to the pagodas and ask.
68 Rock up to the abandoned water park in Hue
South of Hue lies an amusement park, Ho Tuy Thien. But its popularity with visitors lies not in the amusements, but in the fact that it’s abandoned. You won’t be the only ones there, as its creepy charm which includes overgrown water slides and a mechanical dragon, have turned it into popular tourist attraction in its own right — but it’s a gem, nonetheless.
69 Learn Chinese chess
If you’ve ever Wiki’d Chinese chess, you’ll have noticed you need two things to be any good at this: 1) The IQ of Garry Kasparov; 2) The legs of Garry Kasparov (he’s quite short). Chinese chess is all about strategy and who can put up with the pins and needles in their legs the longest. As a starter, we suggest you hit your local park in your white singlet, black dress slacks and slippers, and at least try and look the part. Get that right, and you’re on your way.
70 Go ice-skating in a tropical country
It might seem odd the concept of ice-skating in a country where the temperature regularly hits 35 degrees, but thanks to Vincom, it’s not. As far as we know, at least two Vincom Centers have ice-rinks — Royal City in Hanoi and Vincom Mega Mall Thao Dien in Saigon. There might be more. Regardless, there’s something to be said to go from the immense heat of the tropical outdoors to the immense cold of an ice rink. Just ask all the skaters.
71 Fishing in Saigon River
In a city of rivers and canals, it’s no surprise that one of the favourite pastimes of many Saigon dwellers is to rock up to their nearest stretch of water with a fishing rod. In a city of hustle and bustle, it looks genuinely relaxing. It could be just the ticket after a stressful day in the city.
72 Spend a night in an Airbnb
Still quite a young concept in Vietnam, a country famous for good value accommodation, Airbnb is starting to build a strong presence here.
Treehouses, homestays and capsule hostels all offer an alternative stay, if you prioritise quirkiness over comfort, security and hygiene.
73 Visit the My Son ruins near Hoi An
Located not far from Hoi An, the My Son ruins are a group of abandoned Hindu temples constructed between the 4th and 14th century AD, and they are one of the historical jewels in Vietnam’s crown. The temples are dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva, and were built by the now extinct Champa people. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, was the religious and political capital of the Champa kingdom for most of its existence. It’s tranquil experience strolling around the ruins these days, but during the war it was hit heavily by US carpet bombs, so look out for the craters that are still dotted about the site.
74 Get married with a local
75 Learn to speak Vietnamese like a local
Ok, perhaps not like a local, but at least someone who sounds like they are trying. Most of us have given up sounding like the locals by now, at least in Vietnamese anyway, but learning another language exercises the brain in different ways. It’s extremely social, and hey, you might just learn something positive about the culture.
76 Set up your own business
It’s what everyone’s doing these days. Start-up costs are relatively low — especially if the business has a virtual component to it — and Vietnam is imbued with the spirit of entrepreneurship. All making this country a fantastic environment for doing something on your own.
Now as for making money, that’s a different issue. As most businesspeople will whisper over a quiet beer or a glass of wine, their business model allows them to make enough to survive and muddle by. Getting rich, however, is a little bit more complicated. Do something successful, and the whole world and his dog will try and get a piece of it. Did anyone say the word ‘copy’?
77 Blag your way into a top corporate job in real estate or finance
Watch the Netflix series Suits, where a young upstart with a photographic memory blags his way into a job with one of NYC’s top law firms, and you can probably work out how this is done. So, in time-honoured fashion, this is something you’ve got to try in Vietnam. You certainly won’t be the first to talk your way into a top job in real estate of finance. After all, bullshitting is a highly sought after skill in those fields. So, get yourself down to all those networking events and become a regular on the expat bar scene. You never know what you might be offered.
78 Go to a Vietnamese wedding and be the last to leave
As everyone knows, Vietnamese weddings are an in-and-out affair. They are often two hours of ceremony, food and drink where guests are expected to down crates and crates of Tiger and devour mountains of goi ngo sen (lotus stem salad). Which all means leaving last shouldn’t be that difficult.
But you do need a strategy. Once you notice the oldies starting to leave and the mot, hai, ba, dzos tapering off, hit the toilets for a while, make some phone calls and catch up on Facebook. By the time you get back to your table, the tables will be cleared and you will be the last man (or woman) standing.
We know this one is a bit of a cliché (and the only person I know who has been to Vietnam and not taught, is my mum), but it’s still worthy of a place on the bucket list.
We’re not suggesting that every unwashed bogan with a backpack and a biro becomes a teacher; but if you know what the future perfect continuous tense is, and you understand what signing an employment contract means, by all means tick this one off the list.
These days, it’s not even just English teaching that attracts foreign workers; there are foreigners coaching basketball, teaching maths and science at international schools and even teaching American history to students preparing to study abroad.
If you put the effort in, the reward you get out of it can be really life-affirming. Plus, the money is damn good.
80 Open a restaurant
It’s easy. Everyone’s doing it, especially those without any F&B experience whatsoever. The most successful of these DIY restaurateurs know what they like, and don’t need advice from anyone. They stay on top of service quality by trolling Foodies and Expats on Facebook, and terrorise anyone who is remotely critical of their dining experience. If it’s your dream to open a restaurant, it could just be you!
81 Open a bar
It’s crossed our minds… many times. Like our imaginary rock band, we have a name for it already and know exactly where and how we’d set it up. The theme would be different from everyone else’s, probably tiki with sand on the floor and coconut shell bikini tops for the staff. It would always be packed and the bills would never get screwed up. Then your wife calls…
82 Get a haircut from a street barber
83 Try traditional acupuncture
There are many potential benefits to traditional acupuncture, like giving you more energy, releasing pent up stress, promoting a better night’s sleep, increasing productivity, and allegedly even make you more open-minded. There are even stories in Vietnam of stroke patients being able to walk again after paralysis, and stories of children who were able to identify parts of their body after an acupuncture treatment.
Hmm… Scepticism aside, there’s the nagging issue of having a bunch of needles poked into your body. And the advertorials don’t seem to help much: “You’ll see an acupuncture patient with dozens of needles stuck in their body, but they’ll only be feeling good.” Go on then, you go first.
84 Explore the DMZ
The air base in Ta Con, the prison at Lao Bao, the mine museum in Dong Ha, the La Vang and Long Hung churches in Quang Tri, the tunnels in Vinh Moc and the bridge over the Ben Hai River. Some of the places to visit in the DMZ in Quang Tri Province in Central Vietnam.
The scene of some of the most intense fighting during the war, to this day the unexploded ordnance in the area continues to claim innocent lives. If you really want to get a sense of wartime Vietnam and how it affected everyday Vietnamese, both then and now, spend some time in the DMZ.
85 Clean up the country’s beaches
Vietnam is blessed with some truly outstanding stretches of beaches and coastline which can rival anywhere else in the world, but the sorry fact is many of them are dangerously polluted which makes the prospect of going for a dip pretty unappealing.
The Thailand-challenging island paradise of Phu Quoc has been criticised for allowing 28 of its hotels to dump its raw sewage and waste directly into the ocean. And it’s not just a case of out of sight, out of mind. From Vung Tao to Danang, litter and trash is a depressingly familiar sight on Vietnam’s beaches.
Fancy doing your bit? In 2015 photos of two Spanish tourists collecting litter from in Cat Ba beach went viral.
86 Carry the contents of your house on a motorbike
For most of us, driving ourselves on a motorbike is challenging enough. Add a girlfriend or boyfriend and perhaps a backpack onboard, and that’s about as far as we’re willing to go. That’s pretty cool (in most countries) until at the traffic lights the drinks lady pulls up with two massive eskies full of ice and drinks, and snacks in shopping bags tied to every spare non-moving part of the vehicle. Just look ahead and pretend you haven’t noticed.
87 Watch sunset from a rooftop bar
Two years ago, Hanoi was ranked 39th in the world for cities with the most skyscrapers over 100m tall. That should make for some moist reading for those who appreciate a good sunset to the tune of cocktails and olives.
Try the Chill Skybar in Saigon or Lotte’s Top of Hanoi.
88 Check out the turtle nesting season on Con Dao Island
There can’t be too many things more exhilarating than experiencing the turtle nesting season in Vietnam. Every year from May to October, 400 turtles from the East Sea and the Philippines swim to Con Dao to lay their eggs on a beach on the island of Bay Canh. 55 days later the turtles hatch and crawl to the sea where the survivors embark on a 100-year cycle of doing the same thing over and over again.
The fact that you can watch this happen is amazing, but it means a night-time boat trip from the main island to Bay Canh, and then hours waiting in the dark for nature to take its natural course. It’s worth every second.
89 Volunteer for a charity or NGO
Sometimes one’s sense of community is diminished by living in a far-flung city or country. Volunteering and getting involved in a charity or NGO can one way to help alleviate that feeling. That’s not to say that volunteering should be all about you. There are a great number of charities and organisations that could do with your experience and skills, so hit one or two up and see where it leads.
90 Learn to ride a horse at Hanoi Horse Club
We think Clint Eastwood missed a trick by not casting Vietnamese cowboys in 1992’s Unforgiven. Learn to ride at CLB Ngua Hanoi (facebook.com/nguahanoi.vn).
91 Make your own knife
You know all of those times you were in your kitchen slicing mushrooms, and you thought, “Damn, I wish I had made this knife myself!”
No? Ok, us neither, but making your own knife is still a pretty sweet way to get hold of an original souvenir that has some real practical use.
92 Get published in a magazine
It gets you more SMP (social media points) than a lousy blog or Facebook check-in; just don’t try to take our job.
93 Make your own leather products
Another chance to get a souvenir a bit more interesting than some faux-lacquer chopsticks.
Passport holder and handbag, or whip and gimp mask, it’s really up to you. Either way, Hanoi’s DIY Box (33 Ngo 135, Doi Can, Ba Dinh) will sort you out with instructions and materials.
94 Set up a party night
Much of the time parties go off without a hitch. Everyone has a good time. They drink, dance, chat, get drunk, go home. But behind the scenes, it’s a different story. Most likely there have been issues with the venue, licensing with the authorities. Equipment hasn’t arrived or been put together properly, the DJ’s had a problem with their visa, ticket sales have been poor, it’s all gone over budget and nothing else will move unless the sound guy who’s been dragging his arse all day long doesn’t get paid upfront for working overtime. But if you’re determined to do it, we did warn you.
95 Start a band
This country is made for aspiring rock bands and punk bands. In the West, you’d have to line the garage with egg cartons and practice when no one’s in the vicinity. In Vietnam, the louder, the better — noise pollution is acceptable here. Even better, there are hundreds of venues looking for bands for free. Oh yeah, don’t expect to get paid.
96 Pretend you’re a world famous DJ
It’s easy. Just put the initials of a country after your name: (GER), (US), (UK), (FR), (AUS). Then you KNOW you’re in with a shout.
97 Drink home-brewed rice wine
Or moonshine, to me and you. Just make sure it’s the brewer knows what they’re doing and your stomach can deal with it. There are too many stories of every single male guest at a countryside wedding getting poisoned because the rice wine was dodgy. Still game?
98 Try stand-up comedy
With promoters in Hanoi and Saigon desperate for local talent, Vietnam is a great place to get into stand-up. The audiences are supportive, every promoter is keen to give you a chance, and the venues are small, warm and friendly. As of yet, unlike elsewhere in the region, no-one who’s honed their skills in Vietnam has made it to the next stage, the pro stage.
But a few of the present batch of local comics here are knocking on the door. After all, if you like comedy, it’s worth giving it a try. You might just discover you’re the next Bill Bailey or Ellen DeGeneres.
99 Go to Hanoi’s Playboy Establishment
Upholder of outdated misogyny and cheap objectification? Or classy club venue with incredible live performances?
Well, you’ll have to be the judge of that yourselves, but at least everyone can agree that Hugh Hefner’s Playboy brand is a global powerhouse, which makes its arrival in Hanoi quite the occasion.
Situated at 136 Hang Trong, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, it’s open every day except Monday, from 7pm until 2am.
With people so beautiful your eyes may need to be realigned, and cocktails so ostentatious you would be excused for thinking sorcery was afoot, one thing is certain; you won’t forget your first visit to Hanoi’s Playboy bar.
And if that’s not enough of a reason to try it out, we’ve heard a few Careless Whispers that one of the owners looks like George Michael.
100 Do a bar crawl along Pasteur and Ton That Thiep streets
Not so long ago, a bar crawl along Pasteur Street would’ve been unthinkable, mostly because — save for Bar Number 5 and the now long gone Moon Bar — there simply weren’t any bars along here. They were mostly concentrated along Ho Tung Mau, a couple of blocks over towards Nguyen Hue Street, and in and around Ton That Thiep and Ton That Dam Streets.
How times have changed. When the lads from Vinyl Bar bravely took over the lease from Moon Bar and threw caution to the wind almost five years back, it flagged the beginning of a gold rush along that section of Pasteur Street running the length of two blocks. It has now become a strip in its own right with new bars popping up and closing down and popping up again all the time.
When you include the bars in the connecting streets nearby, the number could quite likely tally 50. Now that’s a big night out.
101 Go to Quest Festival
Photos by Nick Ross, Jesse Meadows, Bao Zoan, Mike Palumbo, Julie Vola, Olga Rozenbajgier, Thomas Barrett, and Sasha Arefieva.