From the misty mountains of Sapa in the north to the tentacles of the Mekong Delta in the south, Vietnam is home to some of South East Asia’s most arresting scenery. Its major cities are a riot of sound and colour, while its street food has rightly earned legendary status.
Taxis and cyclos serve the main cities and can be easily found in major tourist towns such as Hoi An. Domestic flights are increasingly popular, but the Reunification Express, which runs the entire length of the country from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, is an experience not to be missed.
Vietnam’s two major cities are both essential stop offs. The capital, Hanoi, retains an old world charm, despite developing at a rapid rate. The narrow streets of the Old Town are perfect for shopping and people-watching, while Hoan Kiem Lake in the city centre shimmers gorgeously at sunrise while city dwellers indulge in their daily exercise.
Ho Chi Minh is a more cosmopolitan city, but one that offers plenty of reminders of Vietnam’s troubled recent past. The excellent War Remnants Museum and the former Presidential Palace are not to be missed.
Away from the hubbub, Vietnam is blessed with some stunning countryside and world class beaches. The UNESCO protected town of Hoi An, with its tailors shops and riverside bars is the ideal place to take a step back and relax.
The northern mountains towards the Chinese border are home to tribal villages and excellent trekking routes. Any visit to this part of the country is not complete without a cruise through Ha Long Bay’s spectacular limestone islands. The Mekong Delta, easily reached from Ho Chi Minh, is the place for floating markets and the chance to stay with locals on their farms.
Get off the well-trodden trail running along Vietnam’s spine to find places pretty untouched by tourists. Hire a bike in Hoi An and you can be cycling through lush paddy fields within minutes.
Sapa remains the most popular hill tribe destination north of Hanoi, with the crowds to match. Instead, make for Mai Chau and head into the vertiginous hills to stay with locals and trek some of South East Asia’s finest walking routes. Take a tour of the Demilitarised Zone near Hue to get a try feel of how Vietnam’s war with the U.S. still looms large in the memory.
The reputation of Vietnamese food is lofty, and for good reason. Eating here is taken seriously, whether you’re settling down at a stall by Hoan Kiem Lake to eat steaming pho or trawling Hoi An’s incredible market for banh mi, a French baguette filled with cold cuts, chilli and pate.
Street food is a huge joy and it pays to be adventurous. For a few dollars you can eat freshly caught shrimp on the backstreets of Nha Trang or settle down to steaming rice bowls with the greenest veggies in Ho Chi Minh’s boisterous Ben Thanh market.