Vietnam, a name too long associated with the horrors of war, has finally won its last battle – to capture the imagination of the travelling public. Elegant Hanoi now vies with its dynamic sister, Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by the locals), for the attention of visitors drawn by the eclectic mix of old and new. In both cities the streets are jam-packed with motorbikes and scooters, often carrying whole families, and the markets are chaotically busy.
Elsewhere, the scenes are timeless. Early morning on the Mekong Delta brings the daily floating markets where fruit and vegetables are peddled. Everywhere the green patchwork of rice paddies stretches into the distance, broken only by the silhouette of water buffalo and conical-hatted farm workers bending down to tend the young plants.
The soaring mountains in the north of the country tower over tiny villages where life continues much as it has done for centuries, with traditional costumes still proudly worn. Old French hill stations survive throughout the country offering welcome respite from the heat of the plains below.
The ancient former imperial capital, Hué, takes visitors back to a time of concubines and eunuchs. In every town, young women wearing the simple but feminine national dress, the “ao dai”, weave their way through the traffic at the controls of a motorbike.
Only in Vietnam could the past and the present be encapsulated so perfectly!
Top Things to Do
Taking a bicycle tour
Take a bicycle tour as Vietnam is an ideal place for cycling – much of the country is flat and the shortage of vehicles makes for light traffic. The easy part for cycling is the Mekong Delta area, Hue and Hoian in the center. For more challenging cycling adventures lovers, Sapa and the Northern part will be the perfect choice. Caution is needed however, especially on busier roads or in mountainous areas.
Relax on one of the many beautiful beaches, such as Vung Tau, southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, Phu Quoc island, one of top ten beaches in the world (by Travel and Leisure travel magazine), Da Nang and Nha Trang beaches are great too in the central region, where there is some superb snorkeling around the many offshore islands. Onother great one is Mui Ne, Phan Thiet, one of most favorite beach in Vietnam for both locals and foreigners.
Get a made-to-measure outfit in one of the many tailors of Hoi An, beautiful with its narrow trafficless streets lined with ancient houses and temples. Relax in one of the many cafes and watch the world go by.
Go hiking or horse riding in the beautiful countryside around Da Lat. Be pleasantly surprised at the emerald green lakes surrounded by mountains. Hike through Ba Be Lake National Park and Cuc Phuong National Park (near Hanoi), trekking to Sapa, and Cat Ba National Park on Cat Ba Island bring you another wonderful experience.
Go kayaking in spectacular Halong Bay and paddle through the limestone karsts dramatically rising up out of the sea. Padlling on Ba Be lake, one of most well-known National park in Vietnam.
Taking a Boat Trip
Take a boat trip to explore the intricate network of rice paddies, swamps and forests interlaced with canals and rivers in the Mekong Delta. Enjoy junk cruise in Halong Bay, “the 8th World Wonder”.
Visiting War Sights
See some of the Vietnam War sights. Walk part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, used as supply routes by the North Vietnamese during the war. Go underground into the claustrophobic network of tunnels used by villagers and guerrillas during the war at Cu Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh city or Vinh Moc tunnels in the central region.
Taking the local train
Journey at least part of the route from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City on the Reunification Express to sample life on Vietnam’s railways. Or travel from Hanoi to Laocai with overnight train will be a great experience too.
Learning Vietnamese cookery
Learn the subtleties of Vietnamese cookery at a class in ancient Hoi An. Submerge into the hustle and bustle of the market to buy provisions before retreating to the calm of the kitchen. Courses are available in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city too.
Top Things to See
Hanoi, the capital
Start with the capital, Hanoi, which retains an air of French colonial elegance, with pretty yellow stucco buildings lining leafy streets. Wander round the Old Quarter of 36 streets, a fascinating maze of tiny shops, markets and cafes. Pay respects at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and visit his final resting place in a house on stitls.
Sail through Halong Bay and be amazed by the 3,000 limestone islands rising out of the gulf of north Vietnam. The area is strange, eerie and very beautiful. Many of the islands contain bizarre cave formations and grottoes.
Sapa mountain retreat
Savor the alpine scenery around Sapa, home to several hill tribes whose way of life has changed very little and who still wear colorful traditional costumes. A visit here lets you enjoy the beauty of a village built during the French colonial days. It is a land of complete peace and delight. The village can provide a fulfilling experience even with limited amenities. Sapa is one of those rare places in Vietnam which have the ability to provide a glimpse of the tribal life as it existed a couple of centuries ago.
Discover the architecture of Hué, the former capital of the emperors of Vietnam, and the remains of the Imperial Citadel (largely destroyed during the Tet offensive in 1968). Tour the nearby mausoleums of several of Vietnam’s emperors, including Khai Dinh tomb, Tu Duc tomb and Minh Mang tomb each unique in style.
To escape the heat of the plains, head for Dalat, a former colonial hill station, reminiscent of a French town, with faded, elegant villas evocative of another era. The romantic lakes and alpine scenery are magnets for Vietnamese honeymooners. The place is usually crowed during the peak travel season of Vietnamese people starting from May untill September.
Ho Chi Minh City
Savour the hustle and bustle of life on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, with tiny temples and faded French colonial buildings overshadowed by gleaming high rises. Visit the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum to learn about the realities of war.
Cao Dai Temple & Cu Chi Tunnels
Attend the midday service at the unique Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh. En route, scramble through the tunnels at Cu Chi, from where the Vietnamese Army successfully launched attacks against US forces.
The Mekong delta region encompasses a large portion of southeastern Vietnam of 39,000 square kilometres (15,000 sq mi). Watch the river markets on the Mekong Delta, where life is dominated by the mighty Mekong and much of Vietnam’s rice crop is grown will give you an unforgettable experience of the Vietnamese local life.