Vietnam is a fascinating country that wears many hats – there are bustling, industrializing cities, rural villages, sweeping landscapes, and a massive coastline. Not to mention a rich history, vibrant culture and incredible cuisine.
*This post may contain affiliate links, as a result, we may receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you) on any bookings/purchases you make through the links in this post. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. Read our full disclosure
The downside of the rapid rate of industrialization – and the fact that it’s one of the largest manufacturers of textiles and garments in the world – is the overwhelming amount of pollution in Southeast Asia. The presence of excess waste and air pollution can be discouraging, but it should not discourage you from visiting Vietnam.
There are so many things to do in Vietnam that are eco-conscious and exemplify responsible tourism – you’ll have no problem putting together an eco-friendly itinerary! Here are some tips we’ve put together for how to visit Vietnam as a conscientious traveler.
Places To Visit In Vietnam As A Responsible Traveler
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
We know what you’re thinking – how on earth can you visit the largest, most polluted city in Vietnam responsibly?! But trust us, there are good options for eco-friendly things to do in Ho Chi Minh City!
There are actually more green spaces within these city limits than there are in Hanoi – including our favourite, Tao Dun Park, and the city’s botanical gardens. Just walking around neighbourhoods like District 1 (where most of the major tourist spots are) and sightseeing is a great way to minimize your carbon footprint and cover a lot of ground.
If you’re looking to learn more about Vietnamese culture and history beyond museums, attend a show! The Saigon Opera House puts on incredible shows that encompass a range of genres. We recommend the AO Show – it’s like Vietnam’s version of Cirque du Soleil!
You can also easily take a tour of the Mekong River – the river running from Tibet all the way to the South China Sea – from Ho Chi Minh City. Mekong Eco Tours provides single- and multi-day tours that are jam-packed with food, fun, and eco-friendly experiences.
To learn more about how political events have shaped modern Vietnam, you can visit the War Remnants Museum. Located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, this museum features several artifacts and exhibits that demonstrate the horrors of the Vietnam War. It can be shocking to see, but this is an important part of Vietnam’s not-so-distant history.
For a more personal take on history, consider joining a guided tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta. A local guide will bring you to the tunnels, where you’ll learn their fascinating history and significance during the Vietnam War. Then, you’ll go on a boat ride down the mighty Mekong River to see daily life of the locals and how vital these waterways are. You’ll also sample some Vietnamese dishes, local fruit, and honey tea.
Traveling Soon? Here is a list of our favourite travel providers and accessories to help get you ready for your upcoming trip!
Hanoi has been the capital of Vietnam for just over 70 years, but the incredible history of this ancient city stretches much farther back.
For most people, it is solely a gateway to Halong Bay and other typical Vietnam destinations in the north, but Hanoi deserves at least 3 days of your holiday to fully explore!
One of the easiest and most popular ways to make your time in Hanoi more responsible is to rent a bike and do a cycle tour of the Old Quarter. There are a number of places where you can simply rent a bike and be on your way.
Start your tour at Hoan Kiem Lake, located directly east of the Old Quarter. If you go early, you’ll see locals practicing tai chi along the shore. There are carved stone gateways surrounding the lake and the iconic Ngoc Son Temple, which is connected to the north shore with a classic red Vietnamese bridge. On weekends, Hoan Kiem Lake becomes a vibrant social scene in the evening, with traffic bans allowing pedestrians to roam freely.
To experience more Vietnamese culture, consider taking in a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. This cultural tradition is thought to have originated in the Red River Delta over 1,000 years ago, and the theatre keeps water puppetry alive with performances that depict traditional Vietnamese folk tales. This is a popular attraction in Hanoi, so book tickets in advance.
If riding your own bike isn’t your thing – try a Cyclo! Hanoi Cyclo Tours offers not only cycling tours of the town but walking, food, and combination tours, too!
Hanoi Eco Tours offers many different tour packages in the greater Hanoi region that give you a unique peek into Northern Vietnamese life and culture. They have a tour for every taste, duration and budget!
Bai Tu Long Bay – A Halong Bay Alternative
Halong Bay is at the top of pretty much every Vietnam travel itinerary to exist. And while there is no denying the unique beauty of the region, there is lots of evidence of the detrimental impact that mass tourism has on this natural wonder of the world.
Fear not! You can still experience this region’s beauty without contributing to any irresponsible tourism practices by visiting Bai Tu Long Bay instead. We went on a 3 day/2 night cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay and had an incredible time – knowing that their responsible business practices were helping protect the region!
Cat Ba National Park
Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located along the coast of northeast Vietnam. While in the area, you should absolutely spend a day in Cat Ba National Park! It is a protected area that is home to the largest system of mangroves in the country, expansive marine life, and one of the most endangered species in the world – the Vooc (white-faced monkey).
The park is situated in the Cat Ba Archipelago Biosphere Reserve, which consists of around 366 islands. A must-see in the archipelago is Cat Ba Island, the largest in the reserve and one with a fascinating history. According to legend, three women of the Tran Dynasty were killed while fighting invaders, and their bodies washed up on the island. Locals built temples honouring the women and went on the name the island Cat Ba, meaning “Women’s Island.”
There are many ways to experience the park – from kayaking to rock climbing to trekking to extreme watersports – but it’s often overshadowed as a top Vietnam destination due to its proximity to Halong Bay.
If you prefer hiking over watersports, check out the Kim Giao Ngu Lam Trail. This 3 km hiking path takes you through the lush jungle of Cat Ba island to the top of Ngu Lam Peak. From the viewpoint at the summit, you’ll be able to take in the breathtaking scenery of Halong Bay in the north, Lan Ha Bay in the south, and the gorgeous archipelago.
While you’re on the island, it’s worth taking a self-guided walking tour of Trung Trang Cave. The hike up to the cave entrance winds through some beautiful scenery, and the cave itself is about 300 metres of chambers. If you have time, consider visiting Hospital Cave, which is about 2 km from Trung Trang Cave. Hospital Cave has an interesting history, as it was used to shelter and provide medical treatment to soldiers during the Vietnam War.
Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park
This national park is a UNESCO World Heritage site – and with good reason. It’s home to the largest cave in the world – the Son Doong! (Unfortunately, that cave is pretty hard to access. Only one company gives tours of the caves, and you cannot explore them freely on your own.)
Fret not – Phong Nha National Park has plenty more to offer! There are mountains, rivers, jungles, and caves aplenty. The biodiversity here is off the charts, too! The limestone caves have formed over the last 400 million years – the mountain range running through the park is the oldest in all of Asia.
Because this national park is so massive – and so jam-packed with things to see and do – we recommend at least 3 days here.
If you’re wanting to squeeze a peek at the park into an already-packed itinerary, check out this 1-day tour from the nearby city of Hue. After picking you up from Hue, your guide will show you the famous Hien Luong Bridge and Ben Hai River, then you’ll head out on a boat trip to the Phong Nha Cave to see its beautiful grottos and limestone formations.
Tra Su Melaleuca Forest
Located in the Giang province about 10km from the Cambodian border, the Tra Su forest is widely considered the most beautiful mangrove along the Mekong Delta. There are water ferns and water lilies floating atop the water as you float through it on a boat tour. You’ll have the opportunity to bird watch, row through the most beautiful parts of the forest, and visit a watchtower that gives an unparalleled view of the entire mangrove. Bonus: the tour guides are all locals who live inside the forest!
Located in central Vietnam, Da Nang is a seaside town and one of the country’s most important ports. It has become a bit of a tourist magnet, with resorts and theme parks popping up, but there is plenty of local culture and natural beauty to appreciate.
Located just 7 km from downtown Da Nang, Marble Mountains is a wonderful area to explore. These five limestone peaks are culturally significant to locals, and the area has been a spiritual site for centuries. Caves, tunnels, and pagodas were built into the Marble Mountains, and they are open to visitors today.
The best way to see the Da Nang area is with a guided day tour that brings you to the local attractions. This tour includes the Marble Mountains, the iconic Lady Buddha, the Coconut Jungle, and a visit to the ancient town of Hoi An. You’ll also take a basket boat ride, enjoy local dishes for lunch and dinner, then explore the Hoi An night market.
If you have time, a day trip to the Imperial City of Hue, also known as The Citadel, is worth it. This ancient city was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen dynasty, and a lot of the buildings are still standing. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a huge complex encircled by a 10 km-long moat, and inside are palaces, gardens, and villas that housed the royal family.
Phu Quoc Island
The largest island in Vietnam, Phu Quoc is famous for its white sand beaches, lush tropical jungle, and traditional fishing villages. Phu Quoc Island is also known for its addictive fish sauce! This condiment is an important part of lots of Vietnamese dishes, and it’s made right on the island.
While the island has become popular, and resorts have been popping up, there are still natural areas to explore. Phu Quoc National Park covers about 70% of the island, and was established to protect the rich ecosystems of Phu Quoc’s tropical forest, mountains, and northern coastline.
To learn about the local culture, visit the fishing village of Ham Ninh. Located on the east coast of the island, this is a wonderful place to watch the sunrise and observe local fishermen start their day.
Top Eco-Conscious Activities In Vietnam
Most of the country of Vietnam is composed of incredible, diverse landscapes. An incredible way to connect with the unfamiliar nature surrounding you is to go on a trek – one of the most underrated things to do in Vietnam!
We went on a trek in Sapa which ended up being one of the most incredible travel experiences we had in Vietnam. It was an organized trek, and we hiked almost 20 km each day! Nestled in Vietnam’s mountainous north, it was a wonderful break from the bustling cities and crowded historic sites to the south. If you do decide to explore Sapa, don’t skip Bac Ha’s Sunday Market. This is a great way to try local cuisine, and pick up craftworks, brocade, and souvenirs made by local communities.
- Vietnam Responsible Tourism offers guided treks of the Hoang Su Phi and Cao Bong regions
- Mr Linh’s Adventures offers extended treks through several different regions in Northern Vietnam
- Sapa Sisters is an incredible social enterprise that will take you through the Sapa region, and there are plenty of other tour operators out there with the perfect trek for you!
Beyond the Old Quarter of Hanoi, there are countless other Vietnam destinations that are perfect for cycling. These cycle tours of Mai Chau and the Mekong Delta are just a couple of prime examples!
Take A Cooking Class
When compiling a list of what to do in Vietnam, trying Vietnamese cuisine is probably right up top. It’s known as one of the freshest, unique cuisines in the world!
Why not take that one step further – why not try your hand at cooking some of the most famous Vietnamese dishes? Taking a cooking class is one of the most fun ways to learn about the culture of the country you’re visiting because, usually, the chef will teach you about the origin of the dishes, eating etiquette, and how to locally source the ingredients.
A great option if you’re visiting Hoi An is the Hoi An Eco Cooking Tour – you’ll go on an eco-tour of the area to collect ingredients and then dive into cooking right in the kitchen! There are tours like this available in pretty much every major tourist area in the country, and each will teach you how to cook their local dishes.
Take A Sustainable Cruise
Based out of Ha Long Bay, Bhaya Cruises has launched the area’s first sustainable cruises and drives several initiatives in combating pollution and the protection of the endangered White-headed langur. Bhaya Cruises also runs community and conservation projects on land, including the establishment of organic farms in the village of Viet Hai.
An experience with Bhaya Cruises includes cycling, kayaking, and a tow boat ride through Cua Van floating village. You’ll also visit with locals and learn about the Bhaya community farm.
Being a more responsible traveler regardless of where you visit in the world is more important now than it ever has been. Making small changes to your itinerary to opt for a responsible tour guide, shared transportation in Vietnam, or an eco-friendly hotel or a restaurant that has sustainable practices really do make a difference!