Vietnam means something different to everyone. It’s the thousand-year history and diverse culture – or perhaps the limestone mounts and rice terraces. Maybe it’s the crazy-cheap, mouth-watering food or the all-night parties in the glow of neon lights. If time is no obstacle, why not experience it all?
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Located in the middle of Hanoi is the Old Quarter, with a history that dates back 1,000 years, when King Ly Thai To had his palace built here. Craftsmen and artisans set up shop nearby and within a few hundred years, the romantic, narrow, winding streets grew from a marshy swampland. Each twisting lane is named for the different crafts sold or produced there. Today, the mix of ancient yellow buildings is the historical and cultural hub of the north, drawing flocks of travellers.
Drifting through any of the fantastic Mekong Delta floating markets is an experience. It’s a frenzy of activity, a shot of energy across muddied waters and a full spectrum of colours, sights, and sounds. More importantly and more personally, this is how life exists for much of the country. It’s an eye-opening adventure that everyone visiting Vietnam should do, including you.
Walking through Hoi An’s Old Town can feel somewhat like a movie — almost like walking back in time. The hanging lanterns and well-preserved streets are some of the most charming Vietnam has to offer. Originally a trading port dating back hundreds of years, today the town is renowned for its tailors. Having a suit, dress or jacket custom-made at can’t-beat prices is some of the best fun you can have in central Vietnam.
Just north of Danang, the Hai Van Pass is renowned as one of the most scenic stretches of coastal road in the world. All along the coast, hostels and bike shops advertise the route popularised by Top Gear years ago. For those visiting, renting or purchasing a motorbike and twisting along the hairpins that hang out over the placid East Sea has become a bucket list box that needs to be checked.
In central Vietnam – along the less explored border with Laos – lies Phong Nha Ke Bang. It’s Vietnam’s greatest national park and a Unesco World Heritage Site and for good reason. Hidden within the fields of limestone peaks lie some of the largest caves in the entire world. They open up into magnificent caverns that stretch for hundreds of miles throughout the region.
Ha Long Bay is by far Vietnam’s most famous tourist destination. However, the never-ending popularity of the region shouldn’t deter you from visiting. This massive gulf is home to thousands of jungled limestone peaks jutting up like daggers from the sea. It’s an enchanting experience, unlike anywhere else in the world.
Whether you decide to visit Sa Pa, Mu Cang Chai, or Ha Giang, the north of Vietnam is truly beautiful. September and October are peak harvest seasons with the towering rice terraces turning an incredible shade of yellow. Hiking throughout the region is an adventure not to be missed.
This one can be accomplished cheaply, easily and practically anywhere in Vietnam’s largest city. Find a spattering of plastic stools and tables, take a seat, order a Saigon Red and point at some food on the menu. Repeat those final two steps over and over and you’ll be a local in no time. The best of Ho Chi Minh is on the neighbourhood streets – take yourself out at least one night and eat and drink with the locals.
Hue is one of the rich gems of Vietnam – all around the city lie ancient pagodas, tombs, shrines and palaces. The city is home to some of the most well preserved historical sights in all of Vietnam and should certainly be a stopover on any visit.
Another easy one to check off that list: eat like a local. Try Pho, Bahn Mi, Bun Bo Hue, Mi Quang, Banh Xeo and anything else you can get your hands on. Eat on the streets and you’ll save money – and have far more fun than you would at any restaurant. The food in Vietnam is utterly delicious.
For many backpackers, riding from Hanoi to Saigon is the reason they’ve come to Vietnam. This should be one of the best trips of your life. To best see the country, mix between the coast and the less travelled Ho Chi Minh Highway along the Laos border. Thick jungles, limestone karts and an abundance of nature will have you smiling the whole way.
No one does coffee like Vietnam. Perhaps it’s the Robusta bean, maybe it’s the brewing process, or the condensed milk – the only definite is that it will change your understanding of coffee. Wherever you visit, start your day with a cà phê sữa đá and watch the motorbike madness go by.
As Ho Chi Minh has modernised, a whole spate of rooftop bars has popped up. Generally, these are quite a bit more expensive than the usual street beer. However, they’re a welcome reprieve from the non-stop action of the streets. Whether you’re looking for class and sophistication or a wild dance party, there’s a roof for you in Saigon.
Nestled way up in the northernmost stretch of Ha Giang – the northernmost region – a 12mi (20km) twist of road clutches some of Vietnam’s highest peaks. This is Ma Pi Leng, the most fabulous ride the country has to offer. Any traveller who makes their way to northern Vietnam would be sorry to miss riding along this jaw-dropping road.