From the tiny town of Dong Van, perched among the mountains of the north, to the Ca Mau Cape at Vietnam’s southernmost point, this is a country that begs exploration. Indeed there is so much to discover that a single visit will not suffice to reveal all its wonders. It is therefore necessary for travellers to prioritise those areas of the country that most appeal in order to prepare an itinerary that is feasible in a few weeks.
Apart from the country’s countless sights, there are also plenty of activities on offer, such as kayaking, mountain biking and rock climbing, which might help you to decide which areas you’d prefer to visit. Following is a brief overview of the country’s main highlights to get you started discovering Vietnam.
Most visitors touch down in Saigon, now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon’s sights are a curious mix of ancient Chinese-style temples, lavish colonial architecture and museums detailing the tragedy of the country’s 20th-century conflicts. However, Saigon isn’t all about history lessons. Going on a shopping spree in Ben Thanh market, dining in one of the city’s sophisticated restaurants and enjoying a sundowner and the view from the top of one of the city’s skyscrapers are other memorable experiences.
To the south of Saigon, the Mekong Delta stretches out into the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand – a colourful region where land and water shift with the seasons, and markets are piled high with the region’s produce. Most visitors settle for a day trip to a floating market, but the best way to see the Delta is to travel slowly, taking in Khmer temples and bird sanctuaries and staying with local families in home-stays. An ideal way to round off a trip through the Delta is to head on to Phu Quoc Island and rest up on its welcoming beaches.
Moving north from Saigon, most visitors are drawn to the coastal resorts of Mui Ne or Nha Trang for some fun and sun. Nha Trang offers the best range of accommodation, restaurants and nightlife, while Mui Ne is popular for its wind-surfing and kite-surfing schools. If you really want to get away from it all, check out little-known beach resorts such as Ninh Chu near Phan Rang, or Doc Let to the north of Nha Trang.
Often overlooked by tourists, the Central Highlands also reward exploration. The ethnic minorities who live here do not dress as flamboyantly as their counterparts in the north, but the towering communal houses of the Bahnar, known as rong, are a sight to behold. Often called the gateway to the Central Highlands, Da Lat is a town like no other in Vietnam, appealing to Vietnamese for its kitsch attractions such as pony rides round the lake, and to Westerners for its adventure sports like rock climbing and mountain biking.
Further north, the historic towns of Hue and Hoi An, and to a lesser extent Da Nang, attract plenty of visitors keen to glimpse something of the country’s past. Hue, a former capital of the country, has possibly the country’s best-preserved monuments in the form of the Citadel and Imperial City. These give an idea of the regal splendour once enjoyed by Vietnam’s emperors, and a visit is not complete without a trip to the Royal Mausoleums and a meal of imperial cuisine consisting of several courses.
Hoi An, with its well-preserved narrow streets and merchants houses, is another popular place to get a taste of a bygone era. The town’s tailors are also renowned nationwide for their intricate work.
Hanoi, the country’s capital, retains much more of an oriental flavour than Saigon as it has been less subject to Westernising influences. Most visitors are captivated by scenes in the bustling Old Quarter, while the city’s lakes such as Hoan Kiem provide a relaxing place to rest or stroll.
In Ba Dinh Square, you can visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and sense the importance of the country’s national hero for its people. Grand colonial structures like the Opera House add to the city’s venerable nature.
Just 100kms east of Hanoi, the fabulous karst islands of Halong Bay constitute the country’s single most popular sight, and while many take it in on a rushed day’s trip from the city, the best way to appreciate nature’s changing moods here is to overnight on a boat and wake to a magical vision.
This still leaves a massive, mountainous tract of the country to the northwest, an area often referred to as the Tonkinese Alps, which are home to colourfully dressed ethnic minorities. The big day of the week for these people is market day, when they dress up in their best and go and trade pigs for new dresses or clumps of garlic for farming implements. The markets at Sa Pa, Bac Ha and Can Cau are some of the most popular among visitors, and the sweeping mountain views make this a good area for exploration by 4WD vehicles or motorbikes.