Vietnam’s elongated shape makes it a wonderfully easy place to travel, basically you only have two choices to make about your route – do I go north to south or south to north? It is surprisingly easy to explore as an independent traveler, but there are also many groups that you can choose to join as well. Here follows a list of must-see destinations on your itinerary.
Hanoi – My all time favourite city has to be the capital, Hanoi. On the list of more touristy things to do here are the water puppet show and also a war museum, which as a Westerner is most enlightening. It’s not often we get to see a war and all of its propaganda through a different lens. In the same vein, if not a little macabre, is a visit to see the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh. Away from the visitors attractions are some lovely streets to explore and some great eateries. True, Hanoi has its fair share of pizza and western joints, but there are restaurants with no other tourists in them and you don’t have to go too far off the beaten track to find them either.
HalongBay – Hanoi is also the obvious starting point for a trip to see Halong Bay with its very impressive limestone rock formations. Most people explore the area on a traditional Vietnamese junk. As well as cruising past some amazing scenery, you will also get the chance to explore some naturally formed limestone caves. The top end junks tend to be pretty luxurious, with top notch food and lovely cabins to boot.
Sapa – Another popular side trip from Hanoi is Sapa, in the north east corner of the country. Reached by an easy overnight train from Hanoi, this colourful hill station is home to local hill tribes who congregate at the thriving market to sell their wares. The peace of the valleys and the verdant green terraces are a welcome respite from the busy, polluted towns and many residents of Hanoi choose to escape here at the weekends to escape the heat of the city.
Hue – This town saw some of the most crucial battles in the Vietnam war, the Tet offensive, and is a must see destination on your trip. Not much of the ancient citadel, which was home to the forbidden city when the town was the capital, has survived, but you can still wander round the grounds and get a feel for the place and visit a cultural show. From Hue, you have the option of a boat trip on the Perfume River to visit Thien Mu Pagoda and the royal Nguyen tombs, these, whilst popular with many tourists, are not to be missed. From Hue you can also take a guided trip out to visit some of the tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war.
Hoi-An – This town is a very quaint and pretty place to visit. With arguably the best fusion of Vietnamese, Chinese and French influences, there are fabulous restaurants to eat in and some beautifully maintained Chinese style houses to visit. The town is also known for its shopping, with shoe makers and tailors a plenty to recreate any item of clothing that you desire.
Mui Ne – This quiet and sleepy beach resort welcomes travelers from all walks of life, from backpacker to the more upmarket, there is something for everyone here. Unlike the beach resort of Nha Trang, further up the coast, Mui Ne has a more relaxed and chilled out vibe. The sandy beaches are a perfect spot for sunbathing, whilst the breezes make this a popular destination for wind surfers. For those who just can’t sit still, you can take a ride into the nearby sand dunes and go sliding on plastic sledges.
Ho Chi Minh City – This city used to be called Saigon and is famous for its role in the Vietnam war. As you visit the city, you can’t help but remember the desperate scenes outside the American embassy back in the 1970’s. Now, however, the city has recovered into a busy and bustling hub. Lacking, admittedly, the charm of Hanoi, it is still worth a visit and will almost certainly feature on your itinerary. As well as the Reunification Palace and the Ho Chi Minh City museum, there is a busy Ben Thanh market to visit to sample some local food. Whilst you’re here, find the time to wander round the countless art shops full of students reproducing famous paintings. Never in your whole life will you see so many Mona Lisas staring at you!
Mekong Delta – A river trip exploring the vast Mekong Delta is a must do on your trip to Vietnam. You can either spend a day seeing the highlights, or get further off the beaten track staying in a traditional homestay on an overnight trip. You will get to see a different side of Vietnam, visiting local families who live off the river, either through fishing, incense making or tourism. For those with time on their hands, you can catch a boat to the Cambodian border and travel through to Pnomh Penh.