Encompassing fertile jungles, soaring mountain ranges and pristine tropical islands, Vietnam is blessed with incredible natural diversity. It also boasts a rich and fascinating history, a proud culinary tradition, and two opposing megacities that couldn’t be more different.
The narrow landmass of Vietnam curves gently around the sea like the bamboo poles rice farmers use to carry their pails of water. The pails themselves are Vietnam’s two great cities: Hanoi, the capital in the north, and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. The land between the water pails is colored by towering grey mountains, mighty brown rivers, and powder-white tropical beaches – but mostly it’s the iridescent greens of rice paddies as far as the eye can see.
Hanoi is everything you imagined ancient Asia to be. At its heart is the willow-fringedHoàn Kiếm Lake, the very place where more than a thousand years ago an enormous turtle swallowed Emperor Lê Lợi’s magic sword. Neither the turtle nor the sword has been seen since, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t look for it.
Hanoi radiates from Hoàn Kiếm Lake: the Old Quarter is chaotic, claustrophobic and colorful; the chic French Quarter is all about sedate Parisian boulevards, fancy hotels and international fashion brands; and the area around the city’s musty, gothic cathedral is a happy medium between these two extremes.
Further to the west, you’ll find the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where you can glimpse the great leader’s embalmed body (but don’t bother in October and November when it’s flown to Moscow for ‘maintenance’) and the 950-year-old Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university.
After you’ve checked out the temple, follow the scent of grilled pork to Bun Cha Van Mieu to slurp your way through the crunchy, spicy, fatty delight that is bun cha. Then, wash it all down with a cup of world-famous Vietnamese ca phe. Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee, and coffee is taken so seriously that most families roast their own beans nightly. Brewed in little aluminum drip filters which wobble above your cup, it can be ordered black or with condensed milk, and is available hot or iced. However you order it, it’s like jet fuel.
A few days in Hanoi will probably leave you needing some country air. So it’s a good thing the area surrounding the capital is extraordinarily scenic. Northern Vietnam sits atop a vast seam of limestone, a soft rock that dissolves easily in water. This results in spectacular “karst” landscapes, where steeple-like cliffs abut crystalline rivers, and vast caves lurk beneath photochromic rice paddies.
After passing through the duck (you’ve never seen so many cute little ducklings) and flower farms on the outskirts of the capital, the road climbs to the picture-perfect village of Mai Chau, where people from the White Thai minority have been farming in patchworked paddies for centuries. Hemmed in by verdant hills, this is a wonderful place for a hike or a bike ride.
If Mai Chau is idyllic, nearby Ninh Bình is utterly breathtaking. After a day exploring its videogame landscape of flooded rice paddies, meandering rivers and vertiginous limestone cliffs, you’ll understand why locals call it “Halong Bay on Land” (more about Halong Bay soon). For a truly unique experience, we’d recommend a rowboat ride through the majestic Van Long Nature Reserve. This pristine wetland ecosystem set amid magnificent limestone pinnacles is a haven for waterfowl, and it’s also one of the last wild refuges of the critically endangered Delacour’s langur, a black and white monkey species that is strangely averse to climbing.
If this still isn’t surreal enough for you, check out neighboring Nam Định province, where the otherworldly karst landscapes are rendered even weirder by the addition of eastern-inspired Catholic cathedrals and stately villas dating back to the French colonial era. We did warn you Vietnam was full of surprises…
You’ve probably heard of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay, where the incredible karst landscapes of northern Vietnam spill into the East Sea. Here islets, inlets and white sand beaches are scattered among azure waters with haphazard perfection – in fact, it’s almost too good to be true. A Halong sunset is one of the most incredible things you can ever witness on planet earth, but Halong proper can get rather crowded these days.
This is why we recommend taking a cruise in the smaller, but equally spectacular, Lan Ha Bay, a secluded corner of the wider Halong ecosystem. With more than 400 islets dotted across mirror-calm waters, Lan Ha Bay is every bit as impressive as Halong Bay –but it’s not nearly as crowded. You’ll sail on a smaller, more exclusive boat. You’ll have powder-white beaches to yourself. And the snorkeling opportunities will be better.
If Halong Bay has always been on your bucket list, choosing to take a cruise on Lan Ha Bay is the best way of ensuring that the experience lives up to your expectations.
In the 1700s, Hue rose to prominence as the capital of Đàng Trong. And in 1802 the Nguyễn dynasty, the last imperial Vietnamese dynasty, moved its capital from Hanoi to Hue. It goes without saying that Hue is a culture vulture’s delight.
Laid out along the banks of the meandering and evocatively named Perfume River, this eminently walkable city of half a million people still exudes a stately and sedate aura. The biggest attraction in town is the Imperial Citadel, a vast walled complex of temples, palaces, offices, gardens, and residences that are protected by a moat. Normally, a living museum of this caliber would be crammed with tourists, but the citadel’s immense size means you can uncover many of its most interesting secrets on your own.
One of the best things about Hue is the villages, pagodas, and mausoleums on its outskirts. Phuoc Tich Ancient Village is an absolute must: this 500-year-old village is rightly revered for its shrines, temples, old wooden houses, and ceramic art.
In total there are seven magnificent mausoleums dotted in and around Hue, each of them built by successive Nguyen kings to commemorate his life as ostentatiously as possible. We’d recommend visiting all seven as each mausoleum has its own unique style. But if time is short, you can’t go wrong with the Tu Duc mausoleum – built by a lover of poetry and art who wanted his tomb to be one with nature – and the Gia Long mausoleum, the oldest and most atmospheric of the seven.
When it comes to pagodas, the Tu Hieu pagoda, nestled in a dense pine forest and home to an active community of monks, is an island of serenity. We’d also highly recommend going to Thien Mu pagoda to see the car in which the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc drove to burn himself to death in Saigon on 11 June 1963, in protest at the South Vietnamese government’s treatment of Buddhists. It’s an eerie feeling getting so close to a vehicle that features in one of the most iconic photographs of all time.
The serpentine Hai Van Pass, which links Hue with the major city of Da Nang (home to a major US airbase during the war), is one of the most breathtaking roads on the planet. In a seemingly endless series of hairpin bends, the narrow strip of asphalt clings to the side of a mountain that towers above the shimmering waters of the East Sea. This is one of those case where the journey is the destination.
While Da Nang is a perfectly pleasant city in its own right, its biggest tourist drawcard is the coastal village of Hoi An 15 miles to the south. Founded by the Chinese in the 15th century, it was at one point the most important trading port in the whole of South-East Asia. These days, it has become a living, breathing museum on the banks of the languorous Thu Bon River.
The narrow, cobbled streets are closed to motorized traffic during the day, so it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like in its heyday. Traditional ‘tube houses’ dominate the scene, but every so often there is an ornately decorated temple or bridge. Old ladies in conical hats vend peeled pineapples from bamboo baskets, while goateed men sell dumplings from their bicycles.
Expert tip: Da Nang International Airport has daily direct flights to Siem Reap, Cambodia – the gateway to majestic Angkor Wat – and we strongly advise combining a few days in Cambodia with your Vietnam itinerary.
Drooping heavily at the southern end of the bamboo pole, the bright lights of Ho Chi Minh City cannot be ignored. Fast-paced, money-grabbing, and swarming with people. Saigon – as it was known back in the mid-20th century – was the risqué capital of South Vietnam during the war, and it’s never quite lost its seedy, urban edge.
Just crossing the street in this city is a challenge straight out of a video game, as motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, taxis and trucks hurtle towards you from all directions. Ho Chi Minh City isn’t as old or as mysterious as Hanoi, but it does have some numbing war museums with exhibits so abrasive you can almost feel the napalm on your skin, and the iconic Reunification Palace is one of the most splendid examples of sixties government architecture you’ll see anywhere in the world.
Have we convinced you yet? Check out our super-popular Vietnam to Cambodia highlights itinerary which takes in many of the greatest hits. Or speak to a Destination Expert about crafting the evocative Southeast Asia adventure of your dreams.