There are many things to do in Vietnam, but the country has such a well established backpacker trail that a real immersion into the local culture can seem impossible. Sometimes it’s hard to see past the famously cheap beers, tourist tours and gaudy souvenirs. But if, like us, you’re a lover of all things authentic, the question still remains - what are some local things to do in Vietnam?
If you have ever visited Vietnam, you will know that the Vietnamese population still relies very much on traditional processes as they go about their daily life. Even in the country’s metropolitan hub Ho Chi Minh City, with its transnational chains and fusion of Western and Vietnamese lifestyle, many locals still cook traditional Vietnamese food, wear traditional dress, use traditional tools and run businesses which date back tens of generations. Vietnam is well known for its rich and still thriving culture, and its past is very much a part of its present. There’s just so much to see!
In light of this, we’ve compiled a list of 10 local things to do in Vietnam that will get you off the beaten track and immersed in the country’s unique past and present. There’s nothing touristy about this list of must-sees...
Meet local people with amazing life stories
Explore the countryside and experience the thrill of getting lost amongst the rice paddies. You never know what you might find. In the outskirts of Hoi An, you have the opportunity to stumble upon an astonishing 300 meter handmade bamboo bridge, with its builder sitting by peacefully, smoking a cigarette, and waiting to collect a small toll of 10,000 VND. Local people in the countryside are friendlier than you may think, so feel free to say “Xin Chao” and shake the hands of people like this bridge builder, Thanh. He repairs this bridge every year by hand so that local people can have a safe way to cross the river.
Learn how to cook rice crackers
One of the top things to do in Vietnam is eat. But why not try cooking the food you eat yourself? Vietnamese rice crackers are a popular snack throughout the country. They are made with rice flour, chili, salt, pepper, and sesame seeds. First, the batter is steamed and then laid in the sun to dry. The final step in the cooking process is lightly toasting the crackers over an open fire. Banh Dap is a popular dish made with rice crackers and rice noodles. To eat Banh Dap, you smash the center of a large cracker to turn it into bite-sized pieces, and then dip those pieces into classic Vietnamese fish sauce. To experience this firsthand, check out Vespa Adventures’ countryside process behind that piece of culture. Vietnam Vespa Adventures provides the chance to get tours in Hoi An
Weave your own Vietnamese sleeping mat
Vietnam is known not only for its healthy and deliciously fresh cuisine, but also for its handicrafts. Hand-made goods are a significant aspect of traditional life here, and are still used today especially among the rural community. Many people visit Vietnam every year to purchase a piece of the country’s creativity for themselves, but what if you could be a part of the design and creation involved. Learn how to weave Vietnamese cloth and rush mats, understand the process and ask as many questions as you like while working with the smiling local women who have been weaving these mats for generations.
Sleep on a traditional rush mat
A typical bed in Vietnam isn’t a plush mattress like many people may imagine when wishing for a nap or a good night’s sleep. Here, a bed is usually a thin sleeping mat made of dried reeds. These reeds are dried in the sun and dyed with vibrant colors that are weaved into intricate patterns. If you want to experience the real local way of living, try sleeping on a rush mat for a night. It’s pretty hard to find a hotel with these traditional mats, but you can always grab one at the market for a few dollars and try it out. Alternatively, using your mat to dine picnic-style is a great local experience for those who’d like to keep their cushiony mattress.
Tailor a traditional dress: A unique thing to do in Vietnam
Ao Dai is the traditional Vietnamese dress that you will often see women wearing to work or to formal events. With tailoring prices being surprisingly low, we suggest getting one of these iconic dresses made. Pick a fabric, typically silk, with a traditional design for a fun and unique outfit. If you don’t know what kind of design you want, swing by the Women’s Museum in Ho Chi Minh City to see some beautiful displays of Ao Dai’s and more. Buy your fabric in the local market, but make sure you bargain! Some tailors offer their own range of materials.
Seafood is a staple in Vietnamese cuisine, being both fresh and widely available throughout this skinny country. Hundreds of local families are employed, either privately or commercially, to supply local Vietnamese markets, restaurants and households with the best of the country’s seafood. And what if, aside from filling your stomach, you could understand the process behind that whiskery piece of catfish on your plate? Vietnam Vespa Adventures provide the chance to visit a local fishing village and watch as the men build and repair their fishing boats using unbelievable traditional methods, bring in their catch or head out in the early morning for a day of salty sea-spray and Southeast Asian sun.
Mai Chau is a spot that’s not to be missed. The iconic scenery makes this a perfect place to travel for a few days of relaxation. There are a variety of cultures in Mai Chau, including Vietnamese, the White Thai and other ethnic minority tribes. With Mai Chau Ecolodge you can interact with the locals and help out with the rice harvesting. This authentic experience in Vietnam will show you first hand how hard harvesting rice is, but as you connect with the local people around you and gain real insight into how they live, it could also be the highlight of your travels. To really get in touch with the nature of Mai Chau, staying at Mai Chau Ecolodge is a must-do.
Go night fishing on local boats
If you’re a fan of fishing, and even if you’re not, night fishing for squid on Phu Quoc Island is both intrepid and eventually delicious. There are many opportunities to head off for a few hours with a local operator and catch your own fresh squid, before barbecuing it on-site. Catch, cook and sample some traditional Vietnamese seafood, as you float on gentle water and watch the sun fall behind the horizon.
Image by Sheraz Sadiq
Lounge in Vietnam’s second Halong Bay
Vinh Hy Bay on Vietnam’s central coast is usually off the radar for the typical backpacker. Far less popular than Halong Bay but with similar majestic scenery, towering rock faces and strips of white sand, this bay is protected from the tourist trail by its proximity to the Nui Chua National Park. Visit this quiet bay for a quiet getaway, and take in the area’s vibrant marine life with a glass-bottomed boat or a snorkel.
Drinking with Vietnamese people is one of the best ways to interact and learn about local life. Find a busy restaurant with those iconic little red chairs and grab a seat. Although the locals might not speak perfect English, you’re bound to have a good time. In Vietnam, it’s common to put a large ice cube in your glass of beer, especially since usually they don’t keep the cases in the refrigerator. Also, you’ll notice a lot of ‘cheers!’ going on because it’s considered rude to drink by yourself. After a few hours at restaurant and a lot of beer, the locals will most likely invite you out for karaoke, a favourite here in Vietnam. Make sure to learn “Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!” (Means 1,2,3, cheers!) before you experience the nightlife, and this will surely be one of the top things that you do in Vietnam.
This list of top 10 things to do in Vietnam may seem unusual to travelers, however these experiences are actually very common to the locals. We encourage travelers to discover something new, and these authentic experiences will without a doubt be the highlights of your Vietnam trip.