A whirlwind of colour, noise, scents and tastes, Vietnam is an onslaught on the senses. From vibrant urban centres to captivating natural beauty, Vietnam is a nation of glorious paradoxes. Its largest city Ho Chi Minh is a largely westernised and teeming metropolis of glittering skyscrapers and colonial architecture, peppered with cafés and restaurants serving up exquisite cuisine. But many come to Vietnam to see the spectacular Ha Long bay. A huge archipelago of 1,600 prehistoric limestone pillars and islets rising out of the emerald Gulf of Tonkin, the image of these tree-topped chips of rock is synonymous with Vietnam.
A paradise for both nature lovers and cityslickers, Vietnam is just as well known for its sandy, palm-flecked beaches, tiered rice paddies and elusive hill tribes as it is for for its bustling megacities and overwhelming traffic. Comprising nearly 100 million inhabitants, its urban centres are a frenetic rush of action and sounds, with seas of mopeds and bicycles dodging lorries, tourist buses and people as they weave their way through the frantic streets.
Vietnam is steeped in history, from ancient imperial dynasties whose legacies are enshrined in magnificent palace complexes to the bloody union of the north and south of the country. Its more recent turbulence through the 20th century makes it easy to only imagine the nation through the lens of war, however, 40 years on from conflict the wounds have remarkably healed, and Vietnam is a peaceful, safe and exciting destination to escape to.
There is so much on offer in beautiful Vietnam. The nation is a topographical jumble, with mountains, plains, waterfalls and lakes that are bursting with life. Its highland rainforests and lowland river deltas continue to provide newly discovered species of flora and fauna. In fact, 115 new species were discovered in Vietnam in 2016 alone.
When to go
With a subtropical climate, the height of summer can be uncomfortable. It is best to visit from March to June when the weather tends to be warm and dry, or September to November for lots of clear, sunny days. Winter in the northern mountains can be very cool and wet for a short part of the year. Storms and downpours can roll in from the ocean at quite a speed during the summer months, but don’t be put off – the monsoons can be rather theatrical!
What to do
Running 1650 km in a slender, dragon-like S shape, Vietnam is best explored by taking a trip from north to south or vice versa. The country has a single track railway linking the main cities in one chain that is inexpensive and easy to jump on and off in the towns and cities of your choosing. Winding through mountains, hillside farmland and against sea cliffs, the view from the window is consistantly spectacular, the length of the country.
Getting in touch with a local guide can really help make the experience authentic, and allow you to avoid issues with language barriers and cultural indiscretions as well as introducing you more intimately to the intricacies of a culture so far from home. Vietnam’s stimulating cities comprise a magnificent blend of ancient palaces and pagodas, mixed with colonial influences from its history of French rule. Vietnamese art is strongly inspired by various religions present in the regions, such as Chinese Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
The southern town of Can Tho sits in the marshlands of the Mekong Delta. The town is intersected with numerous tributaries that feed into the mighty Mekong where stilted homes and stores converge over the water, and these gentle waterways play host to one of the country’s most popular floating markets, Cai Rang. Opening by 5am everyday, the scene of hundreds of boats and canoes with their conical-hatted vendors aboard selling brightly coloured fruits and steaming coffee against the pinky hue of sunrise is a sight to behold. The Cai Rang floating market, where vendors juggle fruits from boat to boat and ladies swill huge pans of fragrant noodles, has remained relatively unchanged for centuries.
The historic city of Saigon – now formally known as Ho Chi Minh City – is the largest metropolis while not the capital. The country’s second city is surrounded by fertile lowland farms that supply the countless markets and street food vendors with the freshest fare. Make sure to stop by a friendly peddler for some hot and crispy fried spring rolls and to take a boat cruise on the Saigon river for a different perspective of the city. When in Ho Chi Minh it is imperative to take a trip out of the city to see the Cu Chi Tunnels. This vast network of tiny tunnels that honeycomb over a huge rural area was a key training ground and operative base during the conflict. Now a museum, visitors can enter the tunnels and see the gruesome traps that protected it from enemy infiltration.
Moving northwards, the town of Da Lat – ‘City of Eternal Spring’ – was used as a resort by French Colonialists because of its distinctly temperate climate, and many remnants of its colonial heritage remain in the city, earning it the moniker of ‘Le Petit Paris’. It sits 4,900 feet above sea level making it much cooler than lowland settlements, and many locals make the journey to higher altitudes during the blistering summer months. The scenery comprises evergreen forests, pretty lakes, tumbling waterfalls and traditional villages in its environs, making it ideal for hiking trips. The undulating scenery offers breathtakingly misty views.
The beachside city of Nha Trang is brilliant for a bit of coastal r&r, with a stretch of fine sandy beach dotted with trees and beach cafés. The water is cooler and wavier here on the eastern coast too and the city’s glimmering promenade with skyscrapers and palms has a distinct Miami feel about it. Why not take a trip on the Vinpearl Cable Car which travels over 3,300 metres across to Vinh Nguyen island. Suspended at 115 metres above the sea, its not for the faint-hearted.
Several unmissable towns lie in Vietnam’s central provinces. The historic town of Hoi An has been made into a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The former port is made up of a labyrinth of streets that play host to pretty buildings in a range of architectural influences, from indigenous Vietnamese, to Chinese and Japanese styles and later French colonial. Gaining importance in the silk trade from the 15th century, many of the original cloth-houses still exist and it is a popular spot for visitors to get some personally tailored traditional garments at very reasonable prices. The town’s decline from prominence in the 19th century means that its architecture has barely changed for centuries and retains a great deal of original features.
Hue is the country’s former imperial capital and is famous for its incredible palace complex which contains a citadel and the Purple Forbidden City within its walls. Much like Beijing’s Forbidden City, this area of the sprawling complex would originally have been reserved for only the highest in imperial society, however a lot of the palace grounds were destroyed by the Americans during the Vietnam war. Hue is also known for being the country’s gastronomic capital, and its thought that the country’s famous dish, pho, originated here.
In the far north of the country near to the border with China, the settlement of Sapa is known for terraced rice paddies and mountainous landscapes. The images of tiered farming is a strong part of Vietnam’s identity.
The country’s capital Hanoi is a melting pot of urban culture. Its narrow, moped-packed streets play host to countless delectable restaurants and cafés, museums and architecture. A visit to the Prison Museum is an important and thought-provoking activity. Ironically nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ this building housed prisoners of war from the conflict between 1955-75.
The city is dotted with park-edged lakes, none more famous than Hoan Kiem with its pagoda island and bright red Huc bridge. The legend of the giant turtles of the lake are well known, but they are largely thought to no longer exist here. The museum on the island showcases a real, preserved giant turtle that measures nearly 2 metres in length. When in Hanoi, a rite of passage is catching a water puppetry show at Thang Long theatre. Water puppetry originated in the rice paddies of the red river delta outside the city, and the shows remain popular among locals. Visitors get a pamphlet in English explaining the significance of the dances the puppeteers perform.
Perhaps Vietnam’s most famous attraction is the spectacular Ha Long Bay. Another Unesco World Heritage Site, this huge string of limestone pillars is unlike anywhere else on Earth. Thousands of junk boats and kayaks crisscross its gentle waters, carrying snap-happy tourists and locals alike. A great scuba diving spot, the emerald waters are home to vast swathes of sea life, and some of the larger islands have cave systems that you can visit. There are countless expeditions that head out each day from Ha Long town, plenty of which include a seafood lunch onboard. A day exploring Ha Long Bay is totally unmissable when venturing to Vietnam.
What to eat
Around the world, Vietnamese cuisine is celebrated and imitated. If you think you’ve tried the world’s best coffee elsewhere, you haven’t – in Vietnam, coffee is done differently. Traditionally strong and rich, its common to mix condensed milk into the hot coffee for a distinctly sweet kick, or alternatively blend with ice for a cooling sip of respite from the humidity. Equally, a balmy day might call for a dinky cup of hot and dense espresso with creamily soft, meringue-like egg white foam perched on top. Mix and enjoy! Egg coffee is typically served in a cup within a bowl of hot water to retain its heat as tradition dictates that you take your time and sip daintily…
Other must-tries include bun cha – pork with fragrant rice noodles and crunchy veggies; steamed local fish with spices and sticky rice and of course spring rolls – deep fried and crunchy or squidgy and fresh with transparent rice paper, king prawns and bunches of fragrant mint. Many restaurants serve up all the ingredients where you can practice the art of rolling up your own and dipping in a selection of heady sauces.
Those unafraid of the rustic charm of street food will delight at the prospect of doing like the locals do, hunkering down on tiny plastic stools on the kerbside with a bowl of something rich and steamy. For a taste of glamour though, hunt out Hanoi’s La Terrasse du Metropole Parisian-style sidewalk café where you can enjoy French influenced dishes with touches of Indochinese piquant. The bar of this splendid colonial-style building is where the egg coffee was invented in 1946.
Ho Chi Minh’s Hum Café Garden and Restaurant is exclusively vegetarian, offering an extensive menu of traditional dishes where the meat is swapped out for other nourishing ingredients. Hum Café has gained a great deal of popularity in national and international press for its artistic take on dishes, served in a beautiful, traditionally Vietnamese atmosphere. Now with 3 locations in the city, we recommend the garden restaurant for a fully sense-tingling experience enjoyed on the restaurant’s pretty terrace with ponds and pagodas. The city’s Cuc Gach Quan is well known for its fine dining and romantic atmosphere. The self-styled ‘countryside restaurant within a city’ focuses on healthy ingredients and is housed in a beautiful French colonial manor. Popularity surged after Brad and Angelina ate here in 2011.
Hoi An’s signature dish cao lau – slices of juicy pork with white rose and thick quang noodles – is a favourite with locals at the unashamedly simple Thanh Cao Lau. The ‘restaurant’ serves only cao lau and guests dine on the owner’s front patio, where she cooks it up beside you. Elegant and refined? No. But authentic and unforgettably delicious…? Absolutely.
Where to sleep
Anantara Hoi An Resort in Vietnam is a luxury hideaway on the banks of the Thu Bon River in the historic port town of Hoi An. With a beach just a short boat or cycle ride away and a UNESCO World Heritage Site on your doorstep this small luxury hotel is an idyllic spot for relaxation and luxury with some culture thrown in.
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Away from the bustling cities of Vietnam, Banyan Tree Lang Co on Vietnam’s gorgeous central coast gives you the chance to step back in time and enjoy regal pampering. Spread throughout lush, tropical gardens, the 60 spacious villas offer privacy, luxury and relaxation.
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A cluster of stilted villas and rustic bungalows set amongst 55 hectares of lush greenery on the banks of a glistening lagoon between Hue and Hoi An means you’re well-placed to explore both towns. Tranquility reigns here, with that mystic, calm expanse of water only a step away and a laid-back vibe throughout.
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Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are the principal international airports but other cities have regional airports. The main cities are connected by the nation’s principal North-South rail route, and there a numerous train services offering overnight accommodation on board in varying specifications.