Best and Incredibly fun things to do in Vietnam: Through a Sketch Artist’s Eyes

Looking for a Vietnam Tour Package? Look no further, here’s our detailed guide for things to do in Vietnam. 

Vietnam is a Southeast Asian country on the South China Sea known for its rivers, beaches, bustling cities and Buddhist pagodas.

Right from French Old Quarters to climbing up Mua caves mountain and visiting the Imperial Citadel with a Forbidden City, our Guest Blogger Seema Misra, gives you an adventurous and interesting 2 weeks itinerary with recommendations on awesome things to do in Vietnam. Seema reminisces her Vietnam trip through her beautiful water colour sketches.

The words, sketches, photos and the opinions on this blog post are all that of the author’s.

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Vietnamese woman on cycle for pinterest for things to do in Vietnam

I have always wanted to visit South East Asia, and when we finally planned a 2 week trip this year my husband immediately said “Let’s do Vietnam.” Anthony Bourdain’s enticing depiction of Vietnamese cuisine drew him to the country.

For me, it was a book, called Saigon which had been on our bookshelves since I could read. When I grew up, and finally read the book, it took me to a place both familiar and exotic.

The maps were pulled up on our laptops and we started planning our journey. Vietnam is a thin narrow strip of land, like Kerala – so it made sense to do a cross country trip.

We chose to travel from North to South (as most travellers do it the other way). This also made it easier to procure bus and train tickets.

Vietnam Map: Through a Sketch Artist’s Eyes

map of Vietnam in water colour
The joy of pouring over maps and sketching them!

Our Awesome Two-Week Itinerary for Vietnam

Day 1 – Reach Hanoi early in the morning. Explore the city. Night stay at Hanoi.

Where to stay in Hanoi

We stayed at See You at Lily’s, a budget accommodation for backpackers. They also have some bigger rooms for families. Snowy, their in-house travel guru, is the best person to untangle any international travel snafu – she’ll get you sorted on tours, currency conversions, and local SIM, and even give you some friendly opinion on Water Puppet Theatre shows.

Day 2 – Leave for Ha Long Bay cruise. Night stay at Ha Long Bay.

Which cruise to book for Ha Long Bay

We booked a Bellezza cruise through Snowy. So we got to keep our luggage for free in the hotel and some discount on the rooms. It is good to reach Hanoi and then book the cruise as you will have plenty of options. Don’t forget to bargain hard!

Day 3 – Return from Ha Long Bay cruise. Explore Old Quarter night market. Night stay at Hanoi.

Day 4 – Hoa Lu- Trang An – Mua cave trip (day trip morning 7 to evening 8). Night stay at Hanoi.

Day 5 – Explore Hanoi. Leave by 5:30pm for bus to Phong Nha. Travel overnight.

Day 6 – Reach Phong Nha at 4.00 am in the morning. Paradise Cave and Phong Nha Cave. Night stay at Phong Nha.

Where to stay at Phong Nha

We stayed at the Song Que homestay which was just by the river. Great location, clean rooms, good food, and a super friendly family. I loved it! Price is INR 1200.

Day 7 – Bong Lai Village. Night stay at Phong Nha.

Day 8 – Early morning bus to Hue. Reach Hue by 10.30 am. Hue Walk of Revolution tour by BeeBee tours. Enjoy night life with some pub hopping. Night stay at Hue.

Where to stay at Hue

Thai Binh II hotel for its stunning views of the Huong river. From here you can walk to the Imperial Citadel in 10-15 minutes. The rooms are squeaky clean, air conditioners top notch, and breakfast is included. You also have access to computers, few English books, some on the house tea, and a water refilling station (which I loved).

Most tours and restaurants use plastic water bottles. Its heart-breaking each time I’m forced to buy one. So I was really glad to see the water filling station.

Day 9 – A day tour of Hue. (Touristy, but well organised. You get enough time for each place.) Night stay at Hue.

View from Thai Binh II hotel in Vietnam depicted through water colour sketch
View from Thai Binh II hotel

Day 10 – Drive from Hue to Hoi An via the scenic Hai Van pass. Night stay at Hoi An.

Where to stay Hoi An

Dong Nguyen Riverside Homestay which is a relaxed homestay by the river.

Day 11 – My Son Temple. Explore Hoi An ancient city. Night stay at Hoi An.

Day 12 – Explore Hoi An city. Night stay at Hoi An.

Day 13 – Take a train from Da Nang to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh city. Night travel in train. (The most non touristy bit of our travel!)

Day 14 – Reach Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon early in the morning. Night stay at Saigon.

Where to stay at Saigon

Thanh Ha Guest House

Day 15 – Cu Chi tunnels day tour. Night stay at Ho Chi Min.

Day 16 – Ho Chi Min sightseeing. Take a bus to Can Tho in the afternoon. Spend the night in Can Tho.

Where to stay in Can Tho

Thanh Ha Guesthouse run by the remarkable Mrs. Ho. It’s a functional hotel in the city. The pier, night market and other attractions are all close by.

Day 17 – See Cai Rang Floating Market (Mekong Delta) in the morning and return to Ho Chi Minh city. Night stay at Ho Chi Min.

Where to stay in Ho Chi Min

For our last day in Vietnam we splurged a bit and stayed at the Avanti ­hotel.

Day 18 – Return flight from Ho Chi Minh city.

Also Read: Magical Family Skiing holiday in the Alps

Should you visit Vietnam & Cambodia together or not?

When I told friends I’m planning for a 2 week long Vietnam trip, the most common question was “What will you do there for so long?” or “Why don’t you club it with Cambodia.

However, I found so much to see, and explore, and enjoy in Vietman that I plan to go back for more.

So my personal recommendation would be not to club the two and enjoy the beauty of each independently.

Top Things to do in Vietnam

"Vietnam. It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever."

things to do in vietnam hanoi

Streets of Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam
Streets of Old Quarter, Hanoi.

The French Old Quarters is the heart of Hanoi. It feels straight out of Arabian Nights, with old buildings, temples, pagodas, and markets. Most travellers stay here. It is close by popular destinations, such as the Temple of Literature, Hanoi opera house, National Museum of Vietnamese History, and many temples and pagodas. The best way to see this area is on foot with frequent stops for iced coffee, banh mi1, and bun cha2.

1 Vietnamese version of a sandwhich made with baguette filled with a mix of meats, vegetables, and condiments.

2 A dish comprising grilled pork, rice noodles, herbs, broth, and a dipping sauce.

St. Joseph's Cathedral in the Hoàn Kiếm district, Hanoi, Vietnam
St. Joseph’s Cathedral in the Hoàn Kiếm district, Hanoi. 

St. Joseph’s Cathedral in the Hoàn Kiếm district is a popular spot for portraits. Newlyweds and couples are often found posing for carefully composed photographs.

Other popular attractions are the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which is free but with a lot of security checks (I skipped this) and the West Lake. It’s the city’s biggest lake with a small island called the Tran Quoc pagoda. Around the lake are several cafes and restaurants. We even saw some local eateries with makeshift hammocks.

At the Dragon’s Favourite Haunt - Ha Long Bay

Movies and travel websites have made this iconic bay with Karst formations jutting out the symbol of Vietnam. Though extremely touristy, it’s still worth every minute you spend amongst those magical rock formations in the sea. Most tours include activities such as swimming, kayaking, cave exploration, fishing, cooking lessons, and tai chi(!)

Hạ Long Bay in northeast Vietnam
Caption: Many hues of Halong Bay

Kayaking in this surreal landscape is one of my most beautiful travel experiences. The ships parked in the gulf feel like an open air theatre where the performers are Karst formations and the majestic sea.

night view from the deck of halong bay in watercolour painting
Night view from the deck.

things to do in ninh binh, vietnam

From Hanoi, there are several day trips to the nearby Ninh Binh district. During this tour, we had some fun experiences:

  • Visiting the ancient capital of Vietnam at Hoa Lu. The unique architecture is a fine example of Feng Shui principles in architecture.

  • Climbing up 500 steps to the top of a Mua caves mountain. After the arduous climb, we saw a panoramic view of rivers, fields, and mountains, and a magical Dragon statue, which inspired us to climb even in the intense heat.

View from Mua Caves of farms and water in Ninh Binh in Vietnam
Climbing up Mua caves mountain
  • After all this exercise, we relaxed on a boat trip post lunch. We sailed through fascinating caves and grottoes.

Boat ride in green coloured lake with green mountains around in ninh binh vietnam
A scenic boat ride.

Ultimate Vietnam Adventure: Exploring Vietnam Caves at Phong Nha

Phong Nha is the entry point for Phong Nha Ke Bang national park, famous for its caves.

There are four caves open to public –

  • Paradise cave (largest and a must visit),
  • Dark cave (you have zipline to its entrance),
  • Phong Nha cave (which was once a hospital), and
  • The Cave of Eight Ladies (which also has a temple nearby).

Paradise cave, a guide boasted, is big enough to park a plane in!!

The fascinating formations, some of which are around 400 million years old, made me feel like I am in a space adventure movie. I saw alien hands and spaceships everywhere. An animator could get inspiration for a dozen characters here, quite the ideal Pixar field trip!

Water Colour painting of a walk inside paradise cave southwest of Son Trach in Vietnam
Walking inside Paradise cave.

While there are many tours to visit these caves, it is easiest to hire bikes and explore them yourself.

If you want to opt for more adventurous cave treks and tours, you’ll have to go with a tour operator and a higher price of course.

Things to do in Hue, Vietnam

Hue is famous for the Imperial Citadel with a Forbidden City, modelled after the one in China. On our second day in the city, we went on a typical 8 dollar tourist bus that took us to all the major destinations around Hue:

  • Pagoda of the Celestial Lady

  • Tomb of Khai Dinh

  • Tomb of Tu Duc

  • Thai Hoa Palace

  • Cung Dien Tho

We started at 7.30 am and ended at 3 pm at the Imperial City, which gave us plenty of time to explore the sprawling royal complex. Though the ticket counters close at 5 pm, those inside the citadel can stay till 7 pm. Most of the visitors left at 5. We lingered on, and got to witness some breath-taking sunset views. The citadel tops were silhouetted making me feel like a thousand dragons were about to take flight from the roof tops.

water Sketch of Imperial Citadel where a couple sits and watches sunset in Vietnam
Skyline at the Imperial Citadel – Romance in unexpected moments.

A young couple had also stayed back right till the end. And, when the place was lit up they broke into a waltz. The romance in unexpected moments. 

The Perfect Drive through Hai Van Pass

The journey from Hue to Hoi An is a scenic one, with roads and railway lines just beside the beach. On the way we also saw some lovely lakes, lagoons, pagodas, and bridges.

View of journey from Hue to Hoi with roads and railway lines just beside the beach water colour sketch
View from Hai Van Pass

Hoi An - a perfect Honeymoon Destination in VIetnam

water colour sketch of yellow houses in HOi An in Vietnam's central coast
Houses in Hue

Hoi An is steeped in history – an old port perfectly preserved. Days are spent wandering amidst yellow buildings and nights on a river lit by many, many lanterns. It is pure romance.

water sketch of a Vietnamese woman on cycle
And it was all yellow …

Train Travelling: The Way Locals Do It

We had an 18 hour train journey, from central Vietnam to Saigon.

Our coach had sleeper seats (like the ones in Indian buses) and huge windows. We were the only tourists in the coach.

Even though we had language limitations, we made friends with the people sitting around us. And the attendants who would bring the food and refreshments.

Though hard on our backs and little harsh on our beer-fed bellies, this travel was one of the most authentic moments of my trip, as we got treated to fabulous views of the countryside, beaches, mountain valleys, and more importantly life in the villages and farms from up and close.

Railway station for journey from central Vietnam to Saigon
Journeying down south

Scintillating Saigon

The very last bit of our journey was at the fast and furious Saigon.

This huge city is a world of its own and comprises of many districts, each with its own attractions.

We stayed and shopped at District 1 (Quan 1) and spent a few hours in the china town of District 5 (chosen based on the iconic book, The Quiet American).

District 1 has the famous museums, where you can learn about the American War, the French imperial rule, and Vietnamese art and culture.

In the evening, the lights and high rises are a lovely backdrop for the eat streets and party culture. It’s also a commercial hub with the popular Ben Thanh market providing hours of fun times if you like getting lost in noisy vendors selling everything from coffee beans to exotic foods to souvenir T shirts.

Incense sticks at a pagoda in China Town in Vietnam
Incense sticks at a pagoda in China Town.

A Testimonial to Endurance - Cu Chi Tunnels

Almost everyone has heard of the guerrilla warfare techniques of the Viet Cong soldiers – you can get a first hand experience at the Cu Chi tunnels.

As you step underground into this vast tunnel system, you’ll see how people survived in the harshest of conditions. These tunnels had beds, hospitals, schools, training units, booby traps, and kitchens for the Viet Cong. And were central to the Viet Cong’s victory in the American war.

There are two entry points to the tunnel, Ben Dinh (50km from Saigon) and Ben Duoc (70km from Saigon). The latter has fewer tourists as most group tours avoid it.

I would suggest hiring a car and going to Ben Duoc – it’s worth a full day exploration instead of clubbing it with other destinations.

water colour depicting a woman inside an underground tunnel well camouflaged
Amazing camouflage

A Glimpse of the Mekong Delta at Cai Rang Floating Market

This floating market is at its best early in the morning. From Can Tho pier, take a wooden boat at 4 am and go to the floating market.

It is best if you fix one the day before, to save time. You will be greeted with boats of all sizes, selling a variety of items – from fruits to fuel to clothes.

Breakfast boats hand out steaming bowls of pho to travellers. The sunlight falls in golden ripples on the water. It is a moment of calm amidst chaos. The few hours I stayed on the Mekong river enthralled me and I can’t wait to explore it again.

sellers selling fruits and vegetables at Mekong Delta at Cai Rang Floating Market a sketch in watercolour
A glimpse of the famous floating market.

Here’s Some Awesome Tips for Travelling in Vietnam

  1. It is difficult to exchange Rupees in Vietnam. So it is better to carry Dollars or Vietnamese Dong. Where ever possible, make online payments. You can also withdraw money from ATMs though it is a good idea to compare transaction fees before your trip so you can choose the best option.

  2. I booked all my bus tickets through See you at Lily’s travel agent, Snowy. This saved a lot of time and she helped me with some valuable tips.

  3. When in Vietnam bargain on everything – even if you are buying wine from a convenience store!

  4. While visiting Pagodas, wear something that covers your shoulders and knees. I noticed many travellers who wouldn’t follow these rules, but I feel it’s good to respect the local customs.

  5. Local eateries often have only chopsticks, so practice using one before your trip.

  6. If you are travelling with kids, look for good workshops and classes. For example, the Temple of Literature at Hanoi conducts art activities such as bamboo dragonfly making and decorating, kite making, writing calligraphy, and other activities. Cooking classes are also popular and can be found at all cities.

a ship sailing in the calm waters of Vietnam with the sky having an orange hue of sunset
See you again, Vietnam!
This is a Guest Blog by Seema Misra who is a self-taught artist and writer. She is as passionate about travel as she is about her art. She figured that the best way to combine her two passions would be through a self-illustrated travelogue of her cozy and enchanting sojourns across the country. She also undertakes freelance projects for illustrations, content, and social media marketing through her blog Lonely Canopy.

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Vietnam map in water color for pinterest with title things to do in Vietnam

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2 thoughts on “Best and Incredibly fun things to do in Vietnam: Through a Sketch Artist’s Eyes

  1. Your sketches are beautiful! I actually once bought a small notebook with slightly similar sketches, and I bought it in Vietnam 🙂 You should sell it as postcards or something!
    Thanks so much for sharing – makes me miss Vietnam.

  2. LOVE THIS POST!!! 1. Vietnam holds a special place in my heart, and I agree – 2 weeks is hardly enough time to embrace it all. 2. Thank you for sharing your sketches. They are BEAUTIFUL. I too use art to recreate places I’ve been and things I’ve seen on trails around the world, but usually I take just take photos for reference when creating acrylic paintings when I get home. I sketch a bit with pen, but haven’t broken out the watercolours in a while! This is so SO lovely.

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