Vietnam is a rich, woven tapestry made up from the many cultures and civilisations which have lived, invaded or ruled here. You can still see old men in berets in Dalat – thanks to the French influence; Chinese temples and pagodas are everywhere while in the north various ethnic hill tribe folk live and dress in much the way they have done for centuries past. This is a diverse land and there is plenty to keep the visitor occupied whether you prefer well-trodden routes or something a little more out of the way. Here is selection of 10 of the best.
A place like no other in Vietnam, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Old Town of Hoi-An is a feast for the eyes with its picturesque waterfront, Chinese-style houses and colourful, flower draped, buildings.
An unhurried meander around once the sun goes to bed is a major destination highlight as swaying lanterns and coloured lights create a dreamy atmosphere. With a small dose of imagination you can imagine yourself back in the times when Hoi-An was a principal port for the Indonesian spice trade.
The lovely Cua Dai beach is just a quick bike ride away and bike hire is everywhere and cheap. If made-to-measure clothing happens to be on your wish-list you’ve come to the right place. Hoi-An is simply bursting at the seams with tailor shops who can whip up anything from a pair of shorts to a bespoke suit, in some cases overnight.
2) Stroll the Alleys of Saigon
Despite its change of name to Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon is still the name you will hear uttered by many of its people and what people they are! The city is congested, noisy and just a little crazy as many major cities are. However, unlike other metropolises, Saigon seems to exude a warmth and human element which is so often lacking elsewhere – smiles are handed out freely here.
For a true glimpse into the Vietnamese urban way of life go for a wander through the alleyways. Narrow enough to be able to touch the walls either side as you stroll, you will still see motorbikes weaving round the children as they play. City folk live and work here; you will see disembodied feet poking into the alley from rooms just big enough to hold a mattress and outside may be a Hobbit-sized table and chair where food is served.
Labyrinthine and tiny, these corridors heave with activity and character and are just as jam-packed with grins and waves as everywhere else in this special city.
3) Ha Long Bay – Northern Vietnam
Blatantly touristy it may be and there is no doubt you will be rubbing shoulders with multitudes of gap-year travellers but there is no denying the breath-taking and mystical beauty of World Heritage listed Ha Long Bay. Rising dramatically from emerald waters are almost 2000 limestone islands sculpted into strange shapes and each wearing a hat of lush jungle greenery.
Day cruises are possible but they don’t get you to the more spectacular corners of the bay – for this you will need an overnight cruise. Up for exploration are wave-sculpted grottoes and caves, beautiful beaches and hidden lakes.
4) Cu-Chi Tunnels – 40km north-west of Ho Chi Minh City
The Cu Chi tunnels – part of the vast network used by the Viet Cong – are a must-see site for anyone interested in the war between Vietnam and the U.S. The underground labyrinth – of which Cu Chi is a part – is where the Viet Cong worked, hid, stored supplies, arranged military operations and in some cases lived for years.
A visit to the Cu Chi tunnels will show you examples of how people lived in this underground world as well as giving you the chance to fit yourself into one of the hide-out holes. There is even a section of tunnel which visitors can crawl through (with escape routes every few metres for anyone who finds the claustrophobic confines too much). Also on display are booby traps, a bombed out tank, weapons and bomb crater remains.
For all those action-man wannabes out there, there is a shooting range with the opportunity of firing an AK47 (among other weapons) to your heart’s content. Beware though – you pay per bullet and it could get costly if you get carried away in the moment.
5) My Son – Duy Phú
Although a substantial amount of the Hindu temples at My Son were destroyed by bombing during the Vietnam War it is still worth a visit. The spread-out site contains clustered buildings and evocatively ruined temples dating from the 4th century AD – built during the Cham Empire period. To fully understand what you are seeing it is best to take a guided tour as none of the ruins have any interpretation panels. The site is also best viewed early in the morning or later in the day to avoid the main bulk of the tourists.
6) Mekong Delta
A visit to the Mekong Delta area in Southern Vietnam gives the visitor a window onto a rich and colourful region peppered with local villages and traditional lifestyles. No trip to Vietnam is complete without at least one river journey on the mighty Mekong and here is where it finally reaches the end of its journey and joins the sea.
Among the many experiences and sights on offer you can cruise among the colourful craft of the floating markets, get up close to the floating fishing villages, visit a honey farm, row along in a traditional sampan, visit tiny villages and sample the sounds and smells of sprawling port markets.
Each of the Mekong Delta delights can be visited independently but it is often cheaper and far easier to book onto one of the many tours available. These range from single day trips to several days with authentic home-stays with a Vietnamese family as part of the deal.
7) War Remnants Museum – Ho Chi Minh City
As many trips to Vietnam begin in this city, the War Remnants Museum is a good way to gain an early insight into this country’s tragic history, primarily with reference to what we Westerners call ‘the Vietnam War’.
The Museum is ostensibly a collection of photographs exhibited over several floors with themed rooms such as ‘Agent Orange’ (the highly toxic defoliant used by the U.S. Military), the use of napalm and the My Lai massacre. Exhibits are in places graphic and not for the squeamish.
Among the outside exhibits are a ‘Huey’ (UH-1) helicopter, diffused bombs and ordnance as well as various other pieces of military equipment.
Critics complain the museum is too one-sided which, being situated in Vietnam, may be both true and understandable. However, it does help the Western visitor look at both sides of the coin having previously perhaps only been exposed to the U.S. perspective with films such as ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’.
8) Hang Nga Crazy House – Dalat
If the words weird, wonderful and outlandish float your boat the Crazy House is a definite must-do. Designed by PhD qualified architect Mrs Dang Viet Nga, the aptly named Crazy House is a surreal riot of intertwining branches, narrow criss-crossing walkways, tiny tunnels, odd-shaped steps leading this way and that, little rooms and hidey holes, houses on stilts, towers and platforms, all set with angles slightly off and with weird perspectives.
Wander where you will – which will almost certainly involve getting lost at least once – and marvel at the mind which envisaged and made real this wonderful place.
If a visit isn’t enough then it is possible to stay here in one of the Lord of the Rings-esque rooms – all totally unique and themed.
9) Sapa – North Vietnam
The rugged scenery of this beautiful mountain town surrounded by rice terraces and rich tropical vegetation is worth the journey here in itself. However, the main reason for visits here is to afford travellers a glimpse into a way of life little changed in centuries – that of the hill tribe people. Glimpsing colourful and unusual traditional dress while learning and witnessing age-old customs and culture are all part of the draw. There are many ethnic minority hill tribes who live around this area and there are plenty of tours and companies ready and willing to introduce you.
If acquiring a souvenir or two is your aim the people of these ethnic tribes create a diverse and beautiful range of hand-made goods for both the Vietnamese and the tourist market which include tribal clothing, blankets and jewellery.
Trekking is also a big thing here and with good reason – the scenery is stunning and there are plenty of rewards for your time and effort.
10) Marble Mountain – Near Da Nang
The majestic and magical Marble Mountain, which is inexplicably absent from must-see lists and almost all tourist literature, is at base level a Buddhist pilgrimage site, Spread over five hills and dotted with caves, tunnels and temples, this super-special place oozes serenity and has the smell of incense ever-present.
Each of the caves is connected by way of pathways and carved marble steps which meander between bushes full of bloom. As you walk along with the scent of incense wafting in the air, butterflies flutter past and lizards skit among the trees. Along the way you will find dragon statues, pagodas, gateways and archways.
The caves themselves vary from pocket sized grottoes with just enough room for a candle ornamented altar while the biggest are cathedral-like and stunning with whole temples inside. Shafts of sunlight blaze down from small holes way, way above while further exploration of passage ways may suddenly unveil Buddha statues carved directly from the stone itself – some small, some enormous.
This is a truly magical place – the air and beauty of which can only be fully appreciated by visiting.