Located on the most easterly part of Southeast Asia, and snaking it’s way down peninsular Indochina, Vietnam has much to be experienced to tantalize all five senses from the buzzing, motorcycle crammed city of Ho Chi Minh in the south to the solitude of the rolling mountains of Sapa in the north. There is a noticeable difference between the north and south part of the country, so the best way to experience it is to start in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and weave your way along the length of country.
Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam, but it doesn’t scream ‘big city’ like some of its international counterparts. Walking the streets of Hanoi offers the chance to witness first hand what daily life is like in the Vietnamese capital. Citizens can be seen playing Chinese chess, showcasing products for sale, cleaning or fixing motorbikes, or enjoying some of the street-side local cuisine. The tourist hub is located in the old-quarter where tree-lined sidewalks are bordered by tight, frenetic roads. Low-rise buildings are characterized with a Parisian air, a reminder of the French presence between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of the notable sites to take in include the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the former Vietminh leader of the same name rests, the Museum of Fine Art, the area around Hoan Kiem Lake, a water puppet show, the President’s Palace, and the Hoa Lao Prison Museum, a former prison that was used by French colonialists to incarcerate Vietnamese political prisoners and later dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” during the American War in Vietnam.
From Hanoi, there are two side trips you can experience for differing interests. To the northwest, tucked within the mountains, is Sapa. Here you can partake in mountain treks and visit some of Vietnam’s hill tribes made up of the ethnic minority groups, who cultivate and call this area home. East of Hanoi, you can hop on a traditional junk boat and cruise through Halong Bay, a popular destination for most tourists.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is littered with thousands of limestone karst islands that look like they dropped right out of the sky. Companies typically offer caving and kayaking excursions where you can paddle your way around the floating fishing villages and get an up-close view of the towering limestone islands.
As you make your way down the length of the country, there are a number of cities along the way worth a visit. To learn more about Vietnam’s history, take a day or two to visit Hue, the former capital of the Nguyen Dynasty who ruled most of Southern Vietnam between the 17th and 19th centuries. The Citadel and Imperial Palace have been beautifully restored and maintained and can be easily explored on your own or with a local tour guide.
Further south is Hoi An, a charming small town with French colonial architecture, small, narrow streets, and some of the best Vietnamese cuisine. It’s hard not to fall in love with its laid back simplicity the moment you arrive.
Hoi An is a great place to learn how to cook Vietnamese cuisine with the Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking school being a popular choice among travellers. But the biggest draw to Hoi An is getting clothes tailor made. In fact it’s the economical driving force of the city with many travellers coming specifically to have suits custom made. Give yourself at least 3-4 days to find a shop, pick out a style and fabric, and have a couple of fittings before moving on. You can read more tips about this on my blog.
If a little beachside lounging is what you’re looking for, then you’ll want to make a stop into Nha Trang. This coastal city is popular among tourists and Vietnamese travellers alike and offers kilometers of beautiful white sand beaches. Scuba diving and kite surfing are popular activities to enjoy as well. Just off the coast is Hon Tre Island (or Bamboo Island) accessible by a cable car that stretches out over the water and links the mainland to the island’s 5-star resort and theme park.
For the adventurous travellers out there, Da Lat in a must if you want to get your adrenaline fix. Situated within the South Central Highlands, the mountainous landscape provides a cool reprieve from the hot and humid temperatures of the coastal cities. Da Lat is a great place for the outdoorsy-sporty type with rock climbing, mountain biking, and trekking all on the menu. But arguably the most extreme activity you can experience is canyoning. This day-long excursion will have you repelling beside, within, and between waterfalls, floating down rivers, and jumping off cliffs. If you’re looking to add some excitement or conquer some fears, this is the activity for you!
As you enter Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll immediately notice the stark contrast from Hanoi. Gone are the tight, cobblestone roads and small city charm. Instead you’re met with wider roads crammed with motorcycles as far as the eye can see. In fact, over 4 million motorbikes jostle for a spot on the city’s roadways everyday flowing in such a way that can only be described as organized chaos. Being a pedestrian here can prove to be an adventurous activity in itself as crosswalks are few and far between. The only thing to do is to bravely step out into the traffic and watch as the onslaught of motorbikes expertly drive around you.
Two must-see sites in the city are the Reunification Palace (or Independence Palace) and the War Remnants Museum. Both offer excellent insights into the conflicts Vietnam experienced from outside and internal forces. The War Remnants Museum, in particular, is a very moving presentation focusing primarily on the American phase of the Vietnam War. While some have criticized it for being ‘Anti-American’ the atrocities presented are hard to ignore.
There are two exciting day trips from Ho Chi Minh City that you can experience. The first one is a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Temple. The Cu Chi Tunnels served as the base operations for the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive in 1968. Visitors can crawl through a portion of the tunnel networks and witness the lengths that soldiers went to to hide and camouflage themselves within the jungle. The Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh allows visitors the chance to witness the rituals and prayers Caodaiists partake in on a daily basis within their colourful and intricately adorned temple.
Another day trip from Ho Chi Minh City is a tour of the Mekong Delta and the Floating Markets. Here you can observe locals buy, sell and trade their goods (you can even get in on the action too!) within the bustling sea of boats. You’ll later cruise along the Mekong Delta, the final stop of the Mekong River, that originates up in the Tibetan Plateau, where it splits into a spider web of tributaries before spilling out into the South China Sea.
For the foodie travelers out there, take note; some of the best food can be found right on the streets throughout the country. One of the best and cheapest (and most recognizable) dishes you can get is pho. At about $1.50 a bowl, this street-food staple is a noodle soup made with either chicken or beef. Perfect for breakfast or packed for along long bus ride, banh mi is a sandwich made with meat and vegetables, stuffed in a large baguette, and sold from little sandwich carts set up on most corners. For those looking for a caffeine fix, you’ll definitely want to try Vietnamese iced coffee. Made with crushed ice, dark roasted coffee, and a fair amount of sweetened condensed milk, this drink will have you coming back for seconds, for under $1.
Want to experience the senses of Vietnam for yourself? Contact a Flight Centre Travel Consultant online or by calling 1-877-967-5302 for information on flights, tours, accommodations and more.