VIETNAM’s history is one of conflagration. A slender hook of a nation, precariously clinging to a sliver of land between the South China Sea in the east, Cambodia and Laos in the west and a brooding China in the north. However, it is their past determination to survive the cauldron of war, colonialism and ideological conflict that for so long marred South-East Asia that has extracted a hardy people eager to introduce their unique culture and majestic natural wonders to an unsuspecting world.
Contrary to popular belief, Vietnam is a breeze to visit. A very well developed tourist trail and budget-conscious infrastructure combine conveniently to whisk travelers from north to south or south to north through a landscape punctuated with delightful highlights. Most international visitors fly into either Hanoi in the north or Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in the south.
Starting from Saigon, a typical itinerary includes the following must-see locations…
Ho Chi Minh City
The scene of the eventual capitulation of South Vietnam to the communist-supported north, Saigon is a busy metropolis that offers outstanding cuisine, fascinating cultural insights, a pulsating night-life and many historical and religious gems. It is also the ideal base for exciting day or overnight trips to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, the Great Temple of Cao Dai and a not-to-be-missed cruise on the Mekong Delta.
The Mekong Delta
A day trip from HCMC to the Mekong Delta is possible, but an overnight stay is preferable. Eager tour agencies offer cruises combined with sought-after home stays or hotel accommodation, often in the Delta town of Can Tho . Most tours include an early-morning visit to a floating market and visit rice paper factories, colourful gardens or fresh produce stalls.
An absolute favourite among Western visitors, this small, heritage-listed central Vietnamese town charms guests with quaint and historic old houses, temples and assembly halls. Hoi An is also justifiably famous for its clothing industry. Boutique stores offer a personalized head-to-toe tailoring service and promise delivery within a day! Hoi An is also an ideal base for visits to the nearby Marble Mountain and historic Cham ruins at My Son.
Vietnam’s ancient capital, Hue, is a treasure trove of historical and religious architecture. From the Forbidden Purple City to the richly decorated Royal Tombs, Hue pulsates with the romance of a past age. However, modern visitors discover their own romance on the banks of the Pearl River as they contemplate a relaxing dinner cruise on one of the many dragon boats lining the shore.
From the old to the new… Befitting a national capital, Hanoi orchestrates the economic growth of Asia’s Little Dragon. This is also the location of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and the globally recognized crimson Huc Bridge straddling Hoan Kiem Lake. Hanoi boasts famous restaurants and offer day trips to the karst wonders of Tam Coc. Overnight trains leave Hanoi for wonderful Sapa while tour agencies offer tours or transport to Halong Bay.
Sapa is arguably the second most scenic destination in Vietnam. Nestled high in the rugged mountains on the border with China, Sapa peers out over a stunning valley and introduces guests to enigmatic hill tribes such as the Black Hmong, Red Dzao and Rainbow Hmong. These minorities eke out a living in the terraced rice fields that stun hikers with its verdant green beauty. Local hotels are very helpful in arranging for overnight treks lead by hill tribe guides to isolated villages that offer basic but once-in-a-lifetime home stays. It is an experience not to be missed!
For many, Halong Bay represents the pinnacle Vietnam experience. Junks – from budget to luxury craft – lazily meander past conical karsts jutting from the becalmed water of Halong Bay – enthralling awed passengers with an otherworldly beauty! While most tourists opt for an overnight cruise, two nights should be the absolute minimum to do this wonderland justice. Most cruises offer a sampling of cave and karst exploration and include a visit to a water village.
This is by no means an exhaustive itinerary. Many travellers opt for the romantic villas of Dalat or the golden beaches of NhaTrang on their way to central Vietnam. Many American visitors spend some time in touring the demilitarised zone, which formed the former border between north and south Vietnam, while increasingly, tourists stop off in Danang – an area of Vietnam that shows tremendous potential for development.