From intrepid explorers to those seeking a laid back beach paradise, few can resist the charms of Vietnam. It stretches down the southeast coast of Asia beneath China and curves around Laos and Cambodia. It is unfortunate that for many, the country is still strongly associated with the Vietnam War but in truth, the country is made of spellbinding emerald mountains, delicious food, and rich culture all waiting to be enjoyed during a volunteer program in Vietnam.
If you are contributing to a meaningful project by volunteering in Vietnam, it's important you dedicate some of your free time to seeing the beauty, the culture, and more of the people of this great country. Here's our outline of your must-have experiences as a volunteer in Vietnam—outside of your project site. Here's your volunteer in Vietnam bucket list!
1. Explore City Life in Hanoi
In the capital of Vietnam, Old and New Asia collide – and get along just fine. Hanoi is managing the rarest of feats which is elegant and sensitive modernization. Hip restaurants, nightclubs, and tech start-ups sit next to ancient monuments, temples, and pagodas, blendly harmoniously together.
Traditional entertainment is provided by water puppets (literally puppets that dance on water), and thirsty travelers can sample the local brew, bia hoi, meaning fresh beer. Start the day by slurping on beef-and-noodle breakfast soup, pho, with the locals at a street kitchen. Then end it by browsing trinkets at the sprawling night market running north-south through the heart of the Old Quarter.
2. Float Into the Sunset at Ha Long Bay
This surreal seascape, one of the most recognisable vistas in Vietnam, was recently named one of UNESCO’s Natural Wonders of the World, and for good reason. Here 500-year-old limestone pillars emerge from the turquoise waters, forming thousands of tropical islands festooned with lush jungle. Some are home to fishing villages, others are hollow, containing enormous caves and stunning grottos. The largest, Cat Ba, is home to a glorious national park and a beach resort. Pass the day here kayaking and swimming, then spend the night in a converted junk and watch sunset from the deck.
3. Get Crafty at Sa Pa: French Villas in Vietnam?
Sa Pa is a former French colonial hill station and frontier town, built to provide the residents of Hanoi with summer respite from the sweltering heat of the plains. This settlement of 1920s French villas, in all their faded grandeur, is slung down the Hoang Lien Son Mountains. The town is perfectly positioned for incredible views across a vertiginous valley of rice terraces and pine forests. The hills are home to many of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minority groups, each with their own dress, customs, and dialect. You can support them by purchasing a little piece of Sa Pa to take home in the form of locally-made handicrafts at one of the many local markets.
4. Holiday Like a Local at Nha Trang
Locals flock to Vietnam’s Ocean City during the summer months. Do as they do and discover a swathe of palm-tree-hemmed white sands, a bay enviably encroached upon on one side by mountains, and on the other by tropical islands. And if you’re after more than simply beach-bumming you’re in luck. This is the center of water sports in Vietnam’s so enjoy some scuba-diving and snorkeling.
When you’ve had your fill of sun, sand, and sea, there’s a bustling city to explore, with some impressive local cuisine, buzzing nightlife, and cool boutiques. Beyond the beaches and the bars, a little out of town, you’ll find hot springs, a cable car (the world’s longest cross-sea ride!) and a beautifully picturesque fishing fleet.
Go natural at Cuc Phuong National Park which Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, declared Vietnam’s first national park in 1963 with the words: “Forest is gold. If we know how to conserve it well, it will be very precious.” As it turns out, this was rather prophetic. This national park encompasses two limestone mountain ranges across three provinces. The flora and fauna to be found here includes 307 bird species, 133 kinds of mammal, 122 species of reptile, and more than 2000 different species of plant. There’s an excellent primate rescue centre and in April and May visitors can enjoy the butterfly festival, when thousands of butterflies swarm the forest. Entrance fees are put into helping protect the park’s wildlife.
5. Catch the Buzz in Ho Chi Minh City
HCMC – or Saigon, as it’s called amongst locals – is a high-octane and heady commingling of East and West perched on the banks of the Red River Delta. It’s a cosmopolitan and commercial powerhouse that moves as fast as the motorbikes that throng the streets. All human life – the weird and the wonderful – is here.
There are several excellent museums for history buffs and those fascinated by the long and complicated past of the city: the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, the Vietnam History Museum, and the War Remnants Museum are all worth a look.
6. Celebrate the Full Moon Festival at Hoi An
In this dreamy tourist town, which boasts UNESCO World Heritage Status, the big draw is the remarkably unspoiled Old Town of traditional wooden merchants’ houses. Visit during a full moon and see the traffic-free streets lined with silk-lanterns, traditional food stalls, street games, and music and dance performances. Some of the best eats and stays in Central Vietnam can be found here.
7. Sail the Mekong Delta
Vietnam’s “rice basket” yields enough of the grainy stuff to feed an entire country and then some. The Mekong River is in a very real sense Vietnam’s life-blood. It’s so gargantuan that by the time it flows into Vietnam, it’s already taken the scenic route from its source on the Tibetan Plateau, through southern China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. Attune yourself to the pace of life lived by the rhythms of the two daily tides. Explore its vibrant floating markets, lush sugarcane, and coconut plantations. You can live the delta life as a homestay guest, or enjoy an idyllic retreat at a beachside bungalow.
8. Create Traveler’s Tales in Phu Quoc
Visit Phu Quoc and relive a time when the paradise of South Asia was being discovered. This tear-shaped island in the Gulf of Thailand and close to the shores of Cambodia, is the biggest in Vietnam. It’s wall-to-wall wild seas and white sands, and once you leave behind the resorts that line Long Beach, the shores are augmented by the merest straggle of tumbledown cottages. There are plenty of sublime spots to while away the days; check out Dai, Ken, and Sao for starters.
9. Peer into Vietnam’s Past in Hue
It’s easy to orient yourself in this former royal capital, set bang in the middle of the country. The evocatively named Perfume River bisects the city; the old city and Citadel on the one side, and the new town with its hotels and restaurants, on the other. Hue remains intimately acquainted with Vietnam’s imperial past, to which the plethora of stately colonial palaces, pagodas, and tombs – and its UNESCO World Heritage status – attest. What’s more, once you’ve explored Hue’s monuments you can lie back and enjoy some of Vietnam’s best beaches.
What else would you add to a Volunteer in Vietnam bucket list?
Learning some Vietnamese, participating in a homestay, creating tangible change for the project you're working on, making at least one close local friend. These are all absolutely a part of your volunteer in Vietnam experience. Get to work on the meaningful stuff before you turn too much attention to these other activities. Follow our advice and in the end, you will have fully experienced Vietnam. Heck yeah! Time to plan a return trip... 😉