Vietnam in South-East Asia is a magical place full of history and culture. Because of this, eight incredible landmarks in Vietnam are listed by Unesco as World Heritage Sites.
Locations must meet strict criteria to appear on this coveted list, ranging from social, ecological and cultural requirements.
When I visited Vietnam, I explored some of the historic Vietnam Unesco sites on the list. Several may appear on Vietnam travel itineraries as they are some of the most popular places to visit in Vietnam. Other Unesco historical sites in Vietnam are off the tourist trail and not so well known. Visiting these will allow a glimpse into Vietnam’s diverse history away from mass tourism.
If you’d like to learn more about the eight Vietnam World Heritage Sites, read on for my full guide.
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Hoi An Ancient Town – Unesco World Heritage Site #1
How to Get to Hoi An – From Da Nang take a private taxi or jump on a local bus and explore on your own or book a guided tour of Hoi An
Hoi An Ancient Town is a perfect example of a 15th-century coastal trading port in South-East Asia and is one of the most popular Unesco sites in Vietnam. The pastel-coloured buildings and street layout reflect both the indigenous and foreign influences of this unique heritage site.
Hoi An is affectionately known as the “City of Lanterns” due to the amount of beautifully coloured lanterns that hang all around town. Its surviving 17th and 18th-century yellow timber-framed buildings and cobbled streets add to its unique and charming setting along the Thu Bon river.
Cross the fabled 18th century wooden Japanese Bridge created by the Japanese to reach the Chinese quarter of Hoi An and follow the heritage trail to discover ancient temples, historic houses, assembly halls and museums dedicated to exhibits on local traditions.
Cycle around the rice fields to glimpse everyday life in Hoi An or head to An Bang and relax on the beach.
My Son Sanctuary – Vietnam Unesco Site Ruins #2
How to Get to My Son Sanctuary – Book a Guided Tour – more economical than hiring a taxi as may have to pay the driver an additional fee to wait around for you while you explore the site. By booking a tour, you get a guide thrown in as well!
One of the most revered Unesco sites in Vietnam is My Son World Heritage Site. It was the political and religious epicentre of the Champa Kingdom for almost 1000 years between the 4th and 13th centuries.
The complex contains various shrines, temples and walkways associated with Hindu worship with inscriptions outlining the historic Champa Kingdom. The buildings that are still standing mostly date from the 10th century onwards, but its tower temples’ impressive ruins are still a dramatic sight.
Over time My Son Sanctuary fell into disrepair and was covered in jungle foliage becoming another world ruin reclaimed by Mother Nature. The site was rediscovered in the late 19th century but then mostly destroyed during the Vietnam War. Thus, it is not as well preserved as other similar sites worldwide, such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Out of 70 original temples, only a few ruins remain however a visit to My Son Unesco Heritage Site deserves a place on your Vietnam Travel Itinerary.
The Complex of Hue Monuments – Vietnam World Heritage Site #3
How to Get to the Hue Unesco Heritage Sites – By Taxi – pre-arrange a fee for your taxi driver to take you to the Imperial Tombs. Ask him to wait outside each one while you explore. We did this, and it worked out perfect – he even lent us his fan as it was so hot!
If you want to visit the Imperial city, then get your hotel to arrange a taxi to take you there. To get back hail one from outside the complex.
Book a Hue Day Tour
Established in 1802, as the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue was the political, cultural and religious centre under the Nguyen dynasty for nearly 150 years until capital status was moved to Ho Chi Minh City in 1949. Unesco declared the Hue monuments a World Heritage Site in 1993 consisting of the Capital City, the Imperial City, the Forbidden Purple City and the Inner City. The iconic buildings within the Imperial City are all in pretty good condition, although damage to some structures due to the Vietnam War is still evident.
There are plenty of things to see in Hue’s Imperial City from pagodas and royal buildings to lakes, gates and shrines. It is like travelling back in time and definitely worth a visit.
The Unesco title also covers the Hue Imperial Tombs, all located near the Perfume River. We visited four of the seven royal tombs on a self-guided tour and found them fascinating. They are large, so make sure you give yourself enough time to enjoy them without being rushed.
I would recommend visiting all of the monuments scattered around Hue to gain an in-depth knowledge of its cultural and spiritual history.
Halong Bay – Vietnam Unesco Listed Site #4
How to Get to the Halong Bay – Book onto a Halong Bay/ Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise
Known for its spectacular limestone monoliths, Halong Bay has always been a popular travel destination and perhaps the most visited UNESCO World Heritage Site in Vietnam.
Located in the Gulf of Tonkin, Halong Bay includes over 1,600 mostly uninhabited islands forming an area of both outstanding beauty and important biological factors. Fishing communities live on many of the smaller islands, some having never trodden on land.
Cruising in Halong Bay’s waters is on most travel bucket lists and to sail on the South China Sea and further on to Bai Tu Long Bay is simply incredible. The natural features including the limestone towers, caves and grottos and cultural fishing heritage, are why Unesco named Halong Bay as a World Heritage site.
Halong Bay is a tourist magnet and so to avoid the crowded waters book a cruise to sail further out to Bai Tu Long Bay. This area is quieter and really does allow you to immerse yourself totally in this amazing seascape.
Curious to find more out about Bai Tu Long Bay? Check out my Bai Tu Long Bay Cruise Guide for more information.
How to Get to Thang Long – Walk or grab a taxi. This Unesco World Heritage site is located 2km outside Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
Established in 1010 by the Ly Dynasty, the complex of historic royal buildings is located in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. The Imperial Citadel remained in Hanoi as the Vietnamese royal court’s centre and regional political power until 1802. The Nguyen dynasty then moved the royal court to Hue where the Imperial City was constructed. It became the new capital of Vietnam until 1949. After this time, Ho Chi Minh City became the capital of Vietnam for a time.
Thang Long’s royal palaces and surrounding buildings were mostly destroyed in the late 19th century following France’s conquest of Hanoi. The remaining citadel buildings were then used as a prison by the Japanese Imperial Army in 1945 to imprison over 4000 French soldiers captured during the Japanese/French fighting in Indochina.
Following excavations in the 21st century, a few remaining structures can now be seen. These are the Doan Mon gate, marking the southern entrance to the royal palace, the Flag Tower, Kinh Thien Palace’s steps, and the Hau Lau (Princess’ Palace). Many artefacts from the 6th – 20th century were discovered during these excavations, including foundations of old palaces and ancient roads.
Interested in finding out what other historic places can be seen in Hanoi? Check out my 3-Nights in Hanoi Travel Itinerary Guide for more information.
Ho Dynasty Citadel – Vietnam’s Smallest Unesco Site #6
How to get to Ho Citadel – 3 hours by taxi from Hanoi
The 14th century Ho Dynasty citadel is unfortunately not as impressive as the other seven historic Unesco sites. It is possibly the least recognised of these historical landmarks of Vietnam. Its four arched gateways facing north, east, south and west, are designed in keeping with the principles of Feng Shui. They are still intact, highlighting the skill and craftsmanship of the Vietnamese’ builders of that era. Large stone slabs hewn from the mountains nearby were installed without the use of any mortar.
Climb the stone steps to the top of the Southern gate for a mesmerising view of the Vietnamese countryside. From here, you can walk along the wall, and enjoy the peace and tranquillity of this rural area of Vietnam and see villagers working in sprawling rice paddies and cattle working the land.
Ho Citadel is definitely one of Vietnam’s Unesco Sites that is a site which is off the beaten track and with only four gates remaining you have to really want to tick it off your things to do in Vietnam list to warrant the drive to get here.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park – Unesco Natural World Heritage Site #7
How to Get to Phong Nha – Trains taking up to 10 hours or 1-hour flights go to Dong Hoi from Hanoi or Hoi Chi Minh City. Check flights on Skyscanner. From Dong Hoi it is a 40-minute taxi ride to Phong Nha’s hotels and homestays.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang is located in the centre of Vietnam. It covers more than 800 square km of limestone plateaux and thick jungle foliage. Be thrilled by the natural wonders found in Phong Nha, including the world’s biggest cave, Hang Son Doong. The only way to visit this magnificent cave is by taking the traditional dragon boat from the Xuan Son boat dock or booking a tour of the cave.
Explore rivers, waterfalls and small villages and be astounded at the biodiversity of this area of Vietnam. You will definitely find plenty of things to do in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park on your visit.
How to Get to Trang An – To reach Ninh Binh from Hanoi, you can travel by bus, train or taxi. The journey takes between 2 and 2.5 hours. From Ninh Binh, it will be a 7km taxi journey to reach Trang An.
Book a Day Tour
Trang An in Ninh Binh is a magical location and one of Vietnam’s 8 world heritage sites. Called the “Halong Bay on Land”, its impressive landscape is similar to its more famous counterpart nearly 100 miles away.
Rice paddies connect Trang An’s limestone karst mountains, and one way to navigate them is by pedal power! Another less strenuous way of seeing the mountains and valleys’ true beauty is by booking onto a boat tour. Locals will row you around the winding channels allowing you to immerse yourself in the tranquil landscape all around.
Trang An’s magic is evident as you pass caves, temples and pagodas along the route; and not forgetting the monkeys that watch you sail along from the jungle canopy.
Trang An is less busy than Halong Bay and a good alternative, allowing you to experience a watery wonderland. It is definitely one of the best things to do in Ninh Binh.
EXPLORE MORE OF VIETNAM WITH ME
- How to visit the Marble Mountains in Da Nang
- Hai Van Pass: the best route by road from Hue to Hoi An
- Hoi An Lantern Festival
- Naman Retreat Review: the best boutique resort in Da Nang