A deep cultural trace runs through the soul of Vietnam, a history-steeped land epitomised by its bicycle-packed streets, faded colonial grandeur and World heritage coastal gems. Vietnam is a country that has absorbed and united many of the influences of its past and present; Confucian morals, colonial French-inspired architecture, Far Eastern temples, hill tribes in traditional dress and city dwellers in jeans.
For many visitors it is the Vietnamese themselves, as rich and diverse as the land they live in, who transform the travel experience; charming, quietly resolute and amazingly open.
Vietnam is a young country (more than half the population is under 30) with a long history. The diversity of the landscape is guaranteed to satisfy, no matter what you are looking for on your trip. Blessed with a ravishing coastline, emerald-green mountains, breath-taking national parks, dynamic cities, outstanding cultural interest and one of the world’s best cuisines, Vietnam has it all.
Saigon and the South
Life in Saigon is wonderfully disordered. Known by the Vietnamese as Ho Chi Minh City, this astonishing city, full of vitality, was the original “Pearl of the Orient”. Scooter mad locals bundle as much as possible atop their two wheels, the streets swarming with life as people buy, sell and barter.
This city is undergoing rapid change with growing numbers of gleaming skyscrapers, lively bars and a booming economy all under the watchful gaze of “Uncle Ho”, whose statue stands proud outside the old Hotel De Ville. There is still plenty of local charm here – soup sellers ring their chimes to signify a freshly made lunch, fortune-tellers read palms and the temples fill with.
Nearby are the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of over 250 kilometres of secret underground passages used by the Viet Cong during the conflict with America in the 1960s.
Ho Chi Minh City is home to some of Vietnam’s best eateries, be they curb-side at Ben Thanh Market, or one of many fine dining establishments, or something comfortably in between. This city has an energy you won’t find anywhere else in Vietnam, and in our opinion it’s an essential stop on any tour of the country.
Not far from Ho Chi Minh City lies the stunning Con Dao Archipelago of islands. The largest and most beautiful, Con Dao Island itself, hosts a 1 kilometre white sand beach surrounded by dramatic mountain landscapes, an untouched and breathtakingly beautiful area, protected for decades as a national and marine park.
Hanoi and the North
Hanoi is bigger, cooler and greener than Saigon. Vietnam’s alluring capital, with its wide boulevards and ancient temples, rests on the banks of the Red River and retains the charm of a provincial city. Brave a cyclo ride through Hanoi’s Old Quarter’s bustling market streets, the relaxed cafes around Hoan Kiem Lake and the tree-lined boulevards of the colonial French Quarter.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum being a top-of-the-list attraction, whose stilt house and museum are held in special reverence by the Vietnamese. The Museum of Ethnology vividly illustrating the country’s many minority tribes and the wonderful ninth-century sculptures at the Fine Art Museum. However, many of Hanoi’s greatest sights are smaller: temples and pagodas clustered round the 36 narrow streets of the Old Quarter, wedding photographers working in the city parks, and busy market scenes.
Hanoi also makes an excellent base from which to explore Halong Bay, one of the world’s ‘natural wonders’, and an absolute must-see for any visitor to the north of Vietnam. The Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where sailing trips aboard traditional junks are popular, is defined by more than 1,000 awe-inspiring limestone karsts and islands of various sizes.
Sapa, nicknamed the ‘Tonkinese Alps’ by the French, is a wonderful destination if you want to experience any combination of trekking (or light walking), photography, minority village markets, and generally explore a region that’s stayed relatively untouched by modern life.
This is where those misty, pastoral images of traditional Vietnam are still a reality. Traditional dress is still worn here, with colourful outfits identifying each different hill tribe. Buffalo are farmed in the valleys, while the mountainsides are terraced for miles with lush green rice paddies.
Nha Trang is surrounded by clear turquoise waters and a huge number of offshore islands. A boat trip around these islands is reason enough to holiday here. With amazing seafood, excellent snorkelling and diving, Nha Trang is a wonderful place to relax and enjoy a luxury experience. Nha Trang is best known for its palm-lined golden sand beach, which stretches for seven km, and its climate – the town enjoys an average of 250 days of sunshine a year and an average temperature of 26 degrees Celsius.
The most enchanting place along the coast is the old port of Hoi An, a World Heritage Site. Hoi An Ancient Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South East Asia trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site. This old merchant town, with its inspired blend of architecture, is a shopper’s paradise. An added feature is the tailors. Minutes away on the calm waters of the South China Sea are some of the best white sand beaches in Vietnam, which stretch as far as the eye can see.
Prior to the arrival of the French, Hoi An was Vietnam’s ‘window on the world’. For many visitors it is the ‘Jewel of Vietnam’. Hoi An’s town centre is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protecting its unique Chinese, Japanese and European influenced architecture for future generations. As darkness falls, all electricity is switched off. The town begins to glow, illuminated by hundreds of beautiful traditional silk lanterns.
Hoi An is an ideal spot to stop for a few days, strolling along the wharf, shopping in the market or sampling some of Vietnam’s finest food and is best explored on foot and at your leisure. There are many restaurants, old houses, craft shops and art galleries, where local artists exhibit their works. You might like to visit the famous (and unbelievably cheap!) tailors who can whip up a new outfit for in a few hours.
Many of the most atmospheric restaurants line Hoi An’s harbour front, where you can admire the traditional fishing boats over a plate of delicious fresh dumplings. There are several ‘must eat’ local dishes, such as Cau Lau, a noodle soup that can only be made with water drawn from the local well.
Vietnam’s amalgamation of outstanding natural beauty delicious cuisine, captivating cultural titbits and delectable diversity has us singing Vietnam’s praises time and time again.