Vietnam, officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a long, thin country in Southeast Asia. Its neighbouring countries are China to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west.
Once a lesser-known destination, Vietnam has become widely popular in recent years. With Hanoi consistently ranked among the world’s top 10 destinations by TripAdvisor, one can now find European tourists as far as in Ha Giang, one of the most remote mountainous provinces.
1. Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay – famous for its unearthly scenery
Ha Long Bay (also “Halong Bay”) is in northern Vietnam, 170 km (105 mi) east of Hanoi. The bay is famous for its scenic ocean karst topography and is often included in lists of natural wonders of the world. Ha long Bay is a bay located in the area of the Gulf of Tangkia, north of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It has an area of 1,500 square kilometers and has a coastline about 120 kilometers away from Hanoi. The name was based on the pronunciation in the Vietnam language “Viet Nam Ha Long”.
The Ha Long Bay archipelago is made up of 1,969 islands, both settled and uninhabited. These can be accessed from various ports, though in the special case of Cat Ba you can also arrive either by car, motorbike or bus (via Haiphong) or combined bus/boat (from Hanoi via Halong City).
This unique UNESCO World Heritage Site is a popular place for tourists and it is good to know that large parts of Ha Long Bay are officially protected from development. The islands vary greatly in size and shape as well as structure. Visitors might want to allow a few days to explore this magical bay as its attractions are extremely numerous.
2. Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City – the largest city and the main economic centre of Vietnam, formerly Saigon
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, and also its second largest city, is a fascinating blend of East and West, combining traditional Sino-Vietnamese motifs with French flair. It is largely unscathed from the decades of war, and is now going through a building boom, making it a rapidly developing city in Southeast Asia.
As you walk along the street, you may find that people start talking to you. It is a cultural norm there to make conversation with strangers. They might ask you where you are from and other general questions. It takes a while to get used to that. However, there are times when you find this friendliness extremely helpful, such as when you are lost or need help.
The Tourist Information Centre, ☎ +84 4 926 3366, Dinh Tien Hoang, just north of Hoan Kiem Lake, can provide a fairly useful map although bewilderingly, the blow-up of the Old Quarter is missing, making it useless in that part of town. The Centre also offers free internet and English-language advice.
There are self-help interactive screen information booths around the Old Quarter but their purpose is to superficially conjure an image of coming-of-age “Vietnam has arrived” impression to the unsuspecting passer-by. An example was an inquiry typing out the American Embassy as prompted by an empty field, then it flashed on to the next interactive page asking for which district (one may not be aware that the US embassy has branches in every district) – smart and amazing!
4. Hoi An
Hoi An – delightfully well-preserved ancient port near the ruins of Mỹ Sơn. The Old Town of Hoi An is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The culture & heritage that UNESCO World Heritage Site status for Hoi An Ancient Town was trying to preserve has long since gone. Since 1999, when UNESCO WHS status was awarded, there has been a massive increase in tourism – with the result that most houses have been sold by the community to speculators and shop owners to be used for commercial purposes. The former community, and with it their culture and heritage, has gone and in their place are endless indistinguishable shops, restaurants, art galleries, etc. There are literally hundreds of tailor shops in Hoi An.
UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status also applies for Hoi An Ancient Town, but in reality this status, like many other UNESCO statuses, is not being cherished by site management. The main thoroughfare in the Old Town is Tran Phu. Just south of the Old Town, across the Thu Bon River, are the islands of An Hoi to the west, reachable via Hai Ba Trung, and Cam Nam to the east, reachable via Hoang Dieu.
Hoi An is known for clothing and shoes, with more than 600 shops catering to a very limited pool of tourists. Walk some of the streets outside the old town and you will see open-fronted workshops operating all hours where the clothes are made.
Hue is in the central region of Vietnam and is the former imperial capital.
Hue is easy to get a grip on. The main landmark is the Perfume River (Hương Giang), with the old city and the Citadel on the north side and the newer city, including most hotels and restaurants, on the south side. Much of the riverside has wisely been done up as a pleasant promenade and park dotted with bizarre sculptures. The tombs are located further south in the outskirts of Hue.
The former imperial seat of government and Hue’s prime attraction, this is a great sprawling complex of temples, pavilions, moats, walls, gates, shops, museums and galleries, featuring art and costumes from various periods of Vietnamese history. Thanks to its size, it is also delightfully peaceful – a rare commodity in Vietnam. It is pretty huge; plan to spend at least 3 hours there.
The other great attractions in Hue are the Tombs of the Emperors, which are located along the Perfume River south of the city. They are accessible by taxi or bike from the city, but the best way to see them is to hire a river boat and go for a cruise. Plan to make a full day of it, although if you rent a car, it will take only a few hours to see those worth seeing.
6. Da Nang
Da Nang is Vietnam’s third largest city, and is located on the Eastern Sea coast, midway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and the largest city of Central Vietnam.
The city itself has neither the atmosphere of Hanoi nor the hustle-bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, but has its share of sights and is close to the ancient cities of charming Hoi An and the imperial capital of Hue, making it a popular vacationing spot for those looking to explore the attractions of central Vietnam or soak up some rays while hanging out on the city’s beaches.
There are three main beaches in Danang. (A fourth one faces north into the bay and is not a place where expats usually go.) The beaches on the eastern side of the city are beautiful and developed for expat-friendly tourism. In the north is Pham Van Dong beach and Temple Resort. Temple Resort has a beautiful infinity pool under the palm trees with a view of the ocean and beach (90,000 VND). The My Kye Beach (China Beach) is at the eastern end of the Dragon Bridge road. And at Holiday Beach in the south is where you can walk into the cafe-rich An Thuong area and rent a surf board–Holiday Beach always has bigger waves than other parts of the beach.
Stop by and soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the unspoilt golden sandy beaches on the up and coming eastern part of Da Nang (Son Tra peninsula). Deck chairs and sun loungers can be rented on the beach for VND 20 – 30,000 per two hours. Do not forget to take your towel, etc. A handful of showers exists near where the deck chairs are.
7. Nha Trang
Nha Trang is Vietnam’s most famous seaside resort-town. It’s more lively and urban in character than other beach destinations like Mui Ne and Phu Quoc. It’s also the scuba diving center of Vietnam.
Traces of human settlement in Nha Trang date back to the Cham Empire, though in times of Vietnamese rule, there wasn’t much more than small fishing villages. The French recognized that this beautiful bay, with its islands and white sand beaches, made for a perfect bathing spot, and began the transformation into a resort town. American soldiers agreed, and Nha Trang became a favorite vacation stop during the war.
The monsoon season is from October to mid December. Sea winds can be heavy, and sometimes the weather can get pretty chilly. Summer, naturally, brings many vacation goers into town and hotel rooms get somewhat more difficult to find.
Today, most of the tourist infrastructure is in the southern part of town around Biet Thu, whereas most of the locals live around the Cho Dam in the northern quarters. Cho Dam Market is a popular destination for visitors as well, though. Tran Phu is the backbone of the city, accompanied by a pleasant waterfront promenade, palm trees and the nearly 6km of beach. Careful when you cross the road – one of the most dangerous in Vietnam. Some taxis are homicidal.
8. Dalat (Đà Lạt)
Dalat, also Da Lat (Đà Lạt), located in the South Central Highlands of Vietnam, was originally the playground of the French who built villas in the clear mountain air to escape the heat and humidity of the coast and of what was then called Saigon (now) officially known as Ho Chi Minh City.
Dalat is a mid-sized city that looks like a cross between Vietnam and the French Alps. Outside of the city centre, it is surrounded by a series of pine-covered hills, lakes, and higher peaks, making for some lovely scenery quite different from the rest of Vietnam.
Dalat is a very pleasant stop, on a north-south tour (or vice versa), or a pleasant outing from the heat of Saigon. For overseas visitors, it offers mostly a chance to cool down, observe some beautiful landscape and agriculture, view a bit of the French legacy, the Indochine legend and its momentous glories and the architecture untouched by the Vietnam conflict left behind,a unique place to enjoy the atmosphere of a unique country and its people.
Dalat is also surrounded by some of the best mountain biking, hiking and canyoning opportunities in Vietnam, with hills of coffee and tea plantations, which evoke images of the colonial hill stations of the north of India. Dalat’s high altitude (1500-2000m) and fertile landscape make it one of Vietnam’s premier agricultural areas, producing varieties of fruits, vegetables, tea, coffee beans, and flowers that do not grow in the lowlands. In markets as far north as Hanoi and Hai Phong, vegetable and flower vendors will tout their “made in Dalat” produce.
9. Phan Thiet with Mui Ne Beach
Phan Thiet – “the resort capital” with Mui Ne beach
Phan Thiet is is the capital of Bình Thuận province in the coast of Vietnam. It is a charming resort city, offering visitors a wide range of activities, both on land and on the water. The city encompasses a 57.4-kilometer-long coastline with many beaches, both large and small. Phan Thiet City boasts an abundance of international and Vietnamese restaurants, beautiful beach resorts, inexpensive hotels and guest houses, water sports activities and an active nightlife. The local cuisine is diverse and unique in many respects. Because of its proximity to Saigon, Phan Thiet is one of the best places to visit, both for Ho Chi Minh City residents and visitors.
The community of Phan Thiet, or ‘Hamu Lithit’ as it was called by the Cham people who lived in the area before it became part of Vietnam, has existed for hundreds of years. However, before the 1990s, Phan Thiet was just a medium-size backwater town that was known primarily for the manufacture of fish sauce and the cultivation of dragon fruit. The first resorts began to appear along beaches in the Phan Thiet area in the early 1990s.
10. Phu Quoc Island
Phu Quoc Island – Awesome beaches