Vietnam is your ideal holiday destination: Beautiful and diverse landscapes, a unique culture, mouth-watering food, and a very interesting history. It is also home to 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites: 5 cultural, 2 natural and 1 mixed site.
Becoming a UNESCO site is really not easy. The organization defines the word “Heritage” as “Irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration… our touchstones, our points of reference, our identity” (World Heritage 2008). World War 1 saw a lot of damage and destruction around the world, and this demanded an international movement aimed at protecting the world’s heritage.
In 1972, after a long conference in Sweden, a list of World Heritage Sites was made, with more and more being added with time and discovery. The world is a large place, and as of July 2019, there are a total of 1,121 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of which 869 are culturally and historically significant, 213 are natural and 39 are mixed properties. Eight of them are in Vietnam alone. Let’s get to them.
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long in Hanoi was established during the 11th century, a time when the Le Dynasty reigned. From then on it served as the center of political power in Vietnam for 13 consecutive centuries.
The 18,000 square meter complex consists of two main parts: The archaeological site at 18 Hoang Dieu Street, and the central area where you can explore various structures, including the 40 meter tall flag tower (Ky Dai), South Gate (Doan Mon), Kinh Thien Palace, Princess Pagoda (Hau Lau) and the North Gate (Bac Mon).
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is an important relic of Vietnam’s history and in 2010, it was officially inducted into the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.
Address: 19C Hoang Dieu Street, Ba Dinh District
Entrance fee: 30,000 VND (US $1.30)
Hours of operation: Tuesday – Sunday from 8:00 am – 5:00 am
What’s nearby? The citadel is a 15 minute walk from both Quan Thanh Temple and Vietnam Military History Museum, and just 2.5 kilometers from Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter. Make it a day of walking around Hanoi!
Citadel of the Ho Dynasty
This beautiful citadel was built using auspicious feng shui principles in the 14th century and rests on a valley that is protected by two mountain ranges: the Don Son and the Truong Son. The Ma and Buoi Rivers flow on either side. Once upon a time, it was a very picturesque site, however not much of it remains today.
Unlike many other citadels found in Vietnam, the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty was built purely from huge stone slabs from nearby mountains. Construction took only three months and the bricks were laid together without the use of any mortar.
Up till the 18th century the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty served as a political, economic, cultural hub of Vietnam and took until 2011 to be recognized by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage site.
Address: Vĩnh Tiến, Vĩnh Lộc District, Thanh Hoa
Entrance fee: 10,000 VND (US $0.43)
Hours of operation: Monday – Sunday from 7:30 am – 6:00 pm
What’s nearby? Sorry, but absolutely nothing. You can explore the countryside and watch the farmers in action, but don’t expect any other landmark in the area. The best way to get here is either by tour or by arranging a private car. If you’re looking to rough it out, then head to Thanh Hoa city and catch the 90 minute bus to Vinh Loc.
Complex of Hue Monuments
Hue was the capital city of Vietnam in the 19th century and home to the Nguyen Dynasty, the last reigning dynasty of Vietnam that ended in 1945. Taking inspiration from the Forbidden City of Beijing, the Imperial City was strategically built along the banks of the Perfume River, against a backdrop of dense green hills. Within the complex are palaces, temples, administrative offices, military headquarters, and even their own tombs.
The complex is still in great condition and it was the first to be inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage list out of the eight in Vietnam.
Address: Thành phố Huế, Thua Thien Hue
Entrance fee: 360,000 VND (US $15.61) (for the whole city + 3 tombs). 100,000 VND (US $4.34) extra per tomb
Hours of operation: Monday – Sunday from 8:00 am – 5:30 am
What’s nearby? The whole complex of monuments is quite large, you would probably need to spend at least half a day cycling from tomb to tomb and exploring the whole complex of Hue Monuments.
Trang An Landscape Complex
Ninh Binh is a peaceful retreat, away from the chaos of Hanoi, where you can hop on a boat and paddle through an extensive river system to a backdrop of mountains and peaceful rice paddies.
Three elements come together to render Trang An Landscape Complex, one of Vietnam’s top heritage sites: The Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, which served as the national seat of power in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Trang An Scenic Complex, and the Hoa Lu Forest. In 2014, it was added into the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, for its cultural and natural value.
Address: Tràng An, Ninh Xuân, Hoa Lư, Ninh Bình
Entrance fee: 150,000 VND (US $6.51), Hoa Lu: 20,000 VND (US $0.87), boat tour costs vary depending on rower
Hours of operation: Monday – Sunday from 7:00 am – 4:00 pm
What’s nearby? Plenty! Bich Dong Pagoda, a series of 3 pagodas built into a cave is worth your visit, and then after lunch, you can work a sweat and climb up 500 steps to Hang Mua Peak. A 360 degree view of the whole region is what you get. And cute mountain goats. You can get to Ninh Binh with a 2 hour ride from Hanoi. Either take the train (only 3 per day), or take a comfortable private transfer.
Hoi An Ancient Town
Hoi An (a 40 minute drive from Da Nang) was once a bustling trading port between the 15th and 19th centuries, welcoming traders from all corners of the world. The buildings and street plan reflects a unique fusion of local and foreign cultural influences.
Weathered, yellow-colored shop houses line the streets, tightly packed alongside ancestral homes and temples. Cyclos peddle curious tourists past the colorful lantern lit alleyways. Residents quietly go about their day – sweeping the streets, having a meal on tiny stools by a street stall, or sipping a cup of coffee while people-watching.
Places of special note include the Japanese-covered bridge that connects the town’s Japanese and Chinese quarters, the Hoi An market and the old houses such as Tan Ky, Phung Hung and Duc An. Stay till sundown and watch as the glow of a thousand lanterns light up the city in all kinds of colors. Book your tickets to Hoi An during the full moon for an extra special experience.
Entrance fee: 120,000 VND (US $5.20) for the Ancient Town
Hours of operation: 24/7
What’s nearby? Tra Que Organic Vegetable village lies between An Bang beach and the Hoi An Ancient Town. Here you can be a farmer for a day and partake in a cooking class to take home some delicious recipes of Vietnamese favorites. An Bang beach is great for watching the sunrise, and has a couple of beachside cocktail bars for a chill afternoon.
Halong Bay has become the most visited tourist site in Vietnam. With about 1,600 limestone isles and islets in various shapes and sizes, emerging from emerald waters all under clear blue skies, the bay looks as if it’s a work of art by Bob Ross.
There’s more: Hidden stalactite and stalagmite caves, colorful fishing villages and lonely beaches are scattered throughout the bay. All this scenery is only further enhanced by the local life that continues – children rowing to school, men fishing for a living, and women cooking and selling their wares. All this is just 4 hours from Hanoi.
Recognized as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, Halong Bay has also been a UNESCO protected World Heritage site since 1994, which means many of the islands are preserved and protected. There are only a handful that you can visit, each offering a plethora of activities, including trekking, rock climbing, cave exploring, kayaking, and snorkeling.
Entrance fee: 807,000+ VND (US $35.00+) based on what tour you choose.
Hours of operation: 24/7
What’s nearby? Many, many islands and of course the Halong Bay mainland. There is not much to do there except eat and sleep. All the adventure happens when your boat leaves the port.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a 126,000 hectare mostly untouched piece of land of lush forest, sprawling rivers, and mysterious caves within an outstanding limestone karst ecosystem. It is a part of the Annamite mountain range, along the border with Laos, and the karst system is around 400-450 million years old.
Within this system lies hidden the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong (English translation: Mountain River Cave), which stretches over five kilometers and reaches heights of 200 meters. Inside is a world that has barely been visited by humans for millions of years – giving you a glimpse into what Earth was like in the very ancient past. The world’s third largest cave, Hang En, is also located.
While these scientifically important colossal caves are the main draw to the park, venturing deep into the jungle will reveal adventurous trekking trails, countryside lanes, and rivers perfect for kayaking. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is also home to a wide variety of endangered animals including Asiatic black bears, tigers and saola. It first appeared on the UNESCO World Heritage site list in 2003.
Entrance fee: Varies depending on where you would like to go.
Hours of operation: All caves (that allow visitors) are open from 7:30 am – 4:00 pm
What’s nearby? Many, many caves and a tribal village. The national park is divided into three main sections and cave systems: Phong Nha Cave system, Vom Cave system and Ruc Mon Cave system. Within these you will find other must-visit caves such as Hang En Cave, Paradise Cave, and Dark Cave. Ban Doong is the only village located inside Phong Nha and is also worth your time. Here reside about forty members of the Bru-Van-Kieu ethnic minority.
My Son Sanctuary
The My Son Sanctuary is a complex of partially ruined and abandoned Hindu temples, often referred to as the Angkor Wat of Vietnam. This complex of temples was built over a period of 400 years, between the 4th and the 14th century, by the Champa kingdom that once reigned over a large chunk of Vietnam. The complex served a religious purpose and also was once the political, economical, and cultural capital of the country.
My Son stood intact till excavations in 1898, but since then was heavily bombed and destroyed during the Vietnam War. The moss-covered ruins are extremely photogenic as they lay against a backdrop of mountains, and you will see craters of explosions and rubble from what was once an ever-lasting structure. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and efforts to restore the structures carry on until today.
Pro tip: Do not veer off the enclosed area as there may be unexploded ordnance.
Address: Duy Phú, Duy Xuyên District, Quang Nam Province
Entrance fee: 150,000 VND (US $6.51)
Hours of operation: Monday – Sunday from 6:30 am – 5:30 pm
What’s nearby? Da Nang is the closest city to the My Son temple complex and here you can give yourself the perfect beach holidays. In the region lies the Ba Na Hills and the Marble Mountains. Of course, how can anyone forget Hoi An, possibly the most magical town in all of Vietnam?