Why visit Vietnam ?
The country is relatively safe. The people are warm and welcoming. The nature and wildlife are wonderful. The food is fabulous, and prices are phenomenally low. The opportunities to explore and experience unique cultures in Southeast Asia are almost limitless; and the variety of action-packed and light adventure opportunities is boundless.
Vietnam is increasingly gearing up for tourism, and its infrastructure is expanding, although not fast enough to meet the demands of the increasing numbers of international visitors. Still, travel standards are higher here than in the rest of the region.
The experience will last a lifetime. Once you’ve been, the region will call you back again and again.
Vietnam is extremely rugged across most of its land area, except right along the coast, and even that area is far from flat. The exception is the Mekong Delta, which is flat, almost boggy in places, and hot.
The coast of Vietnam is ideal for exploring in a sea kayak, darting in and out of hidden coves and bays.
The relatively untraveled roads lend themselves to long or short bicycle trips or bus excursions. There are even off-road/rough road tours for motorcycle enthusiasts.
Going from north to south (a journey of over 1,600 km or 1,000 miles), Vietnam is a feast for the senses, if a bit overwhelming in its sheer length and diversity. You should absolutely spend time in Sapa (Sa Pa) and vicinity, hiking, trekking, visiting hill tribes (the Montagnards) and get up to the Chinese border to watch the trading hubbub.
Hanoi is filled with delightful remnants of the French Colonial past – mansions, museums, the Opera, and more – as well as one of the oldest universities in the world. Hoan (Ho An) Lake is a magical playground for tourists and locals alike, once you get past the “postcard and travel book” touts. Rent a bicycle if you dare and really explore the Old City and French Quarter.
Heading east to the coast, you don’t want to miss the old quarter in Haiphong (Hai Phong), once the most heavily-mined harbor in the world, or the opportunity to explore Halong (Ha Long) Bay and its many islands, limestone outcroppings, and caves. You can get as remote as you want, even leaving electricity behind on a few islands. For swimming, sea kayaking, snorkeling, or just hanging out on a boat or island – Halong Bay is the place in the North. Skipping down the coast you pass through the former DMZ (demilitarized zone) and come to the Marble Mountains and one of several tunnel complexes used in the War.
From here it’s on to Da Nang (Danang), Hoi An, and Hué. Hoi An sits on a river estuary, and has been an important trading post with China and other neighbors for centuries. There is a large ethnic Chinese population and many people still live and work in the quaint, painted shophouses built by their ancestors. There are numerous craft villages nearby –great for exploring on foot or by bicycle. You might even rent a boat and motor or paddle up the river. It’s only about 40 km/24 miles to some impressive Cham ruins.
Hué is the old imperial capital, and has been largely reconstructed. The citadel (the old Forbidden City) is beautiful at sunrise or sunset. The imperial temples south of the city along the Perfume River are worth a visit, and a bicycle is the way to do it.
Farther down the coast is the beach resort (and wartime rest and recreation) resort of Nha Trang. Known to travelers from all over the world for its laid-back beach lifestyle, Nha Trang is also a great place to charter a boat or take a tour to some of the nearby islands, go snorkeling or scuba diving, or even fishing. The surrounding villages are easily explored on a bicycle.
Heading inland there’s Dalat (Da Lat). Set in mountains at about 1,500 meters/5,000 feet of elevation, Da Lat is a pleasant retreat from the beaches and flat coastal areas. There are monasteries nearby, and hill tribes to trek to. The city is dominated by a large lake where you can rent paddleboats and canoes. It’s also a university town, so students will want to practice their English with you. Buy them a coffee and prepare for a great learning experience.
Then it’s off to Ho Chi Minh City, called HCMC by most people, and remembered as Saigon by many. The city is a bit more compact and less frenetic than Hanoi (although more populous), and there are many remnants of the long French presence. As with the rest of the country, the baguettes, coffee, and pastries are not to be missed. The Opera and old Post Office are worth a look, too.
Finally, don’t miss the Mekong River Delta. After meandering its way from China, through the Golden Triangle (Laos, Burma, Thailand), spending a long time flowing most of the length of Laos, and going through a bit of Cambodia, the Mekong finishes with a flourish by creating a huge, fertile delta in the far south of Vietnam. Life is slower-paced, the land is incredibly green, and it’s only four hours by hydrofoil or bus from HCMC.