A Guide to 6 Natural Wonders of Vietnam

From Ha Long Bay to the Mekong Delta, Vietnam is home to some of the world’s most extraordinary natural wonders.

May 11, 2024By Cameron Mason, MA Social Anthropology, MSc Comparative Public Policy

natural wonders vietnam


A long, thin country situated at the eastern edge of mainland Southeast Asia, Vietnam’s topography is spectacular, to say the least. A medley of karst mountains, artisanally crafted rice terraces, and diverse ecosystems, few countries in the world can boast the same variety of pure natural wonderment as Vietnam. Though impossible to fit it all into one article, for those with a love for the artistry of the natural world and its unique relationship with human beings, here is a guide to 6 natural wonders in Vietnam.


1. Ha Long Bay, Quang Ninh

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Ha Long Bay by Malingering, 2011. Source: Flickr


Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, Ha Long Bay is a sublime collection of 1,600 mostly uninhabited karst islands that extend 120 kilometers into the Gulf of Tonkin from the mainland. Protruding from the sea to a height of up to 100 meters, these forest-covered islands collectively form a dramatic and mesmeric seascape unrivaled elsewhere on the planet. In Vietnamese, Ha Long translates to “where the dragon descends into the sea,” where, according to local legend, the unique rock formations were shaped by a noble mountain dragon dropping from the heavens to defend the Viet people from invaders.


A combination of the dragon’s fire and tail subsequently carved out the valleys and crevasses enjoyed by millions of visitors every year. While a more prosaic explanation can be attributed to millions of years of tectonic activity and erosion, it takes nothing away from the sheer magnificence of the scenery.


How to Get There


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Ha Long Bay is located 103 miles from the capital Hanoi and is accessed best by two or four wheels. Trains run but not directly, which means an exhausting 8-hour journey. Overnight boat trips are best organized from Hanoi to avoid the excessively commercialized Ha Long City. Be warned, with Ha Long Bay now a major global tourist destination, ditching the crowds is difficult. However, the few moments you will get alone make it worthwhile, especially for the otherworldly sunsets and sunrises.


When to Visit


The best time to visit is March to May and September to November when temperatures are hospitable, and the rains are absent.


2. The Mekong Delta

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Fishing nets line one of the delta’s many waterways by Sylvain Marcel, 2014. Source: Flickr


Known as the “rice bowl” of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is one of the world’s largest and most significant. Comprising a vast area of approximately 55,000 square kilometers, the delta is one of the most productive and intensively cultivated areas in Asia and is home to some 20 million Vietnamese. As a result, its biological and cultural significance cannot be understated. A mix of acid green vegetation intersected with innumerable canals and waterways that crisscross the landscape, the delta is home to a truly unique way of life.


Houses either float or are built on stilts, and world-famous markets buoy in the middle of the river and its tributaries. These markets, an example of the way the waters of the Mekong govern all ways of life here, are the product of the tapestry of rice paddies, fruit orchards, and shrimp farms that the river sustains. There is also an enormous range of natural biodiversity here, which makes the delta home to a stunning array of birdlife, aquatic animals, and unique flora and fauna.


How to Get There


While the region is vast, a great place to start is the market town of My Tho, situated one and a half hours south of Ho Chi Minh. Great for a day trip to experience river life, it can also serve as a springboard to delve deeper into the delta or to kick on to the region’s cultural and economic heartland Can Tho (also home to the famous floating markets). Buses and taxis can easily be arranged from Ho Chi Minh City. Again, by far the best way to see the delta is by motorcycle, which will let you experience the essence of local life.


When to Visit


The best time to visit is during the dry season, which runs from December to April. However, despite the rain and humidity, a visit in the wet season (May-November) means the delta will be a lush green water world teaming with life.


3. Trang An Complex, Ninh Binh

trangan photo
Trang An by John Ragai, 2012. Source: Flickr


Found in the serene Van Long Nature Reserve, seven kilometers west of the regional capital Ninh Binh is the spectacular Trang An Complex. Known as “Ha Long Bay on Land,” this 250-million-year-old geological collection of limestone karsts, grottos, and tropical forests is another UNESCO Heritage Site known for its 200-meter-high rock towers and subterranean cave passages.


The complex also holds important cultural significance as the site of Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s ancient capital under the Dinh Dynasty. Under Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang, the geological landscape of Trang An provided a practical natural barrier to protect the Emperor’s Imperial Citadel. With archaeological evidence of human civilization dating back 30,000 years, Trang An is a fine example of human interaction with the natural environment over the millennia.


One of the best ways to experience Trang An is by taking a boat along the Sao Khe River, where jungle-covered limestone peaks rise on either side amidst verdant green and yellow rice fields. It is no surprise the Park is a favored destination for filmmakers.


How to Get There


Trang An is located 20 kilometers west of the provincial capital Ninh Binh, and 90 kilometers south of Hanoi. Ninh Binh is easily accessed by train or bus from most major Vietnamese cities. The Van Long Nature Reserve is then just a short distance away. There is a host of accommodations both in Van Long and Ninh Binh.


When to Visit


The best time to visit is spring when the temperatures are mild, and the sky is clear. However, for those happy to brace the summer heat, a visit in late May or early June will reward you with fewer crowds and beaming golden rice paddies.


4. Phong Nha National Park, Quang Binh

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Phong Nha Cave by Edgardo W Oliviera, 2018. Source: Flickr


Located in the middle of the dramatic Annamite Mountain Range, Phong Nha National Park comprises an area of 324 square miles. Protecting over 104 kilometers of caves and underground rivers, it is also one of the oldest and most spectacular limestone karst ecosystems in the world. Phong Nha is also home to a diverse range of aquatic and land-based ecosystems, dense tropical forests, and the largest cave on the planet.


At a length of 5.6 miles and measuring over 200 meters at its widest point, the world’s largest cave, the Son Doong, is vast enough for a jumbo jet to comfortably pass through it. While visitor numbers to the Son Doong are tightly regulated (and prohibitively expensive at $3,000 per person), other caves are more easily accessible and almost as spectacular. With the Phong Nha cave system measuring an astonishing 44.5 kilometers (one of the longest in the world), it houses the Tu Lan, Hang Va, and Hang En caves, which can be explored by overnight tour. The large number of faunae, flora, and animal species found in the park also means Phong Nha is a trekker’s paradise.


How to Get There


With Phong Nha’s popularity soaring both domestically and internationally, there are now plenty of ways the park can easily be reached. The nearest train station and airport are found 45 kilometers east, in Dong Hoi city, which services connections with the rest of Vietnam. The park can also be reached directly from Hanoi by bus.


When to Visit


While the park can be visited all year round, the best time, of course, is in the dry season between April and August. It also makes many of the treks safer. Note that the caves close in the wet season between mid-September and late-November.


5. Ha Giang 

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Ha Giang Province by Nhi Dang, 2012. Source: Flickr


Widely regarded as the final frontier of Vietnam’s spectacular natural landscape, Ha Giang is as breathtaking as it is endless. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in the far north of the country, Ha Giang is a mindboggling collection of 1,200-meter karst mountains linked by death-defying mountain passes and dotted with the villages of the H’Mong, Nung, Giay, and Lo Lo, among others.


The region is also another fine example of human’s relationship with the natural world. The Dong Van Karst Plateau is the main draw with its juxtaposition of dramatic karst peaks set amid rice terraces that tumble down the valley walls, while exploration of the surrounding area and the magnificent Vuong Palace will reveal a largely untold history of colonial resistance and opium trading. In a country where mass tourism has begun to firmly take hold, Ha Giang is one final destination in Vietnam, if not the world, where one can embrace and be immersed in a truly unique natural world with little intrusion.


How to Get There


The only way to get to Ha Giang is by road, which means either booking a trip from Hanoi or hiring your own transport. If you pursue the latter, for most, a car is probably the most comfortable way to travel. However, to truly appreciate Ha Giang, it is all about two wheels. Motorcycle hire and tour providers can easily be found in Hanoi or Ha Giang.


When to Visit


The best time to visit is between October and November, as temperatures are cool. May to September is also dry, but it can be hot. Take care in the rainy season between June and August, as the rains make the roads slippery and muddy.


6. Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai

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Mu Cang Chai in the Summertime by Bk, 2016. Source: Flickr


A symbol of national pride and the country’s agricultural heritage, there is arguably no better portrayal of Vietnam’s natural beauty than Mu Cang Chai. Recently designated by the government as a site of national importance, Mu Cang Chai is layer upon layer of finely tailored rice terraces that snake the landscape with flawless proficiency. Not only a spectacular sight, these collections of terraces are also an integral part of the local culture, some of which have been cultivated for generations.


Timed right, this can be experienced by visitors during the Rice Fields Festival in late September, where one will be exposed to an array of colors, music, and dance. For many, however, the primary reason to visit is “Photographers Road” (National Road 32), which stretches between Tu Le and Mu Cang Chai and is home to some of the most picturesque rice terraces in Southeast Asia.


Again, much like the rest of Vietnam, there is no better way to explore this geological and anthropological marvel than by motorcycle, but it can also be done by car. There are also numerous treks and homestays scattered throughout to allow one to enjoy Mu Cang Chai for as long as one wishes.


How to Get There


Roughly a six-to-eight-hour journey by road, Mu Cang Chai is located 300km (186 miles) northeast of Hanoi. Buses and private transport can easily be arranged through your accommodation, as can motorcycle hire. If traveling by public transport (train is also an option), head to Yen Bai and then grab onward transit to Mu Cang Chai.


When to Visit


Mu Chang Chai can be visited all year round, with each season endowing a unique set of characteristics on the landscape. Summer is characterized by verdant acid-green surroundings, while in Autumn, arguably the most spectacular time to visit, the hills turn bright yellow as the rice approaches harvest. In winter, as the terraces fill with water and wait for the spring, it can be a photographer’s dream as sunrises and sunsets create endless reflections that stagger the hills like a hall of glowing mirrors.

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By Cameron MasonMA Social Anthropology, MSc Comparative Public PolicyCameron is a freelance writer currently based in Vietnam. He has an MA in Social Anthropology and an MSc in Comparative Public Policy, both from the University of Edinburgh.