From the vertiginous rice valleys of Sapa in Vietnam’s north stretching to the fascinating bustle of the Mekong Delta in the south, Vietnam is home to a wealth of attractions that will seduce both budget and top-range travellers.
Vietnam’s war-torn history — both the French and Americans have left their own unique and not often positive stamps on the nation — as well as its stunning and varied geography, delicious cuisine, hedonistic beaches and amazing shopping are all reasons to travel to the fast-paced Communist nation.
Welcoming foreign tourists and their dollars for well over a decade, enterprising Vietnam has rapidly developed a well-trodden trail of tourist attractions. Many travellers kick off their vacation in the former capital of Hanoi in the north, where smokey French-style cafes rub shoulders with traditional stores hawking most anything and internet cafes frequented by well-groomed teenagers who otherwise hang out on the streets on their sharply polished motorbikes.
From here, popular side trips for travellers include Ha Long Bay, where soaring limestone karsts boggle the mind, and the former French hill station of Sapa, where hilltribes in colourful dress who work the terraced rice paddies — and now the masses of tourists — combine with cool weather to make a must-see destination.
Travel by train, or bus, to take in the remainder of Vietnam. Remnants of the American War in Vietnam provide sobering viewing around the central region’s demilitarised zone (DMZ), an essential stop for the many war veterans returning to this now-vibrant nation.
The nearby imperial capital of Hueoffers a glimpse into yesteryear, while incredibly popular Hoi An offers an opportunity to get an entire new wardrobe — shoes included — stitched up for a song, as well as some great cafes and cuisine to while away a few days enjoying.
Adventurous travellers will want to head further south again and inland to the little-touristed Central Highlands region, where ethnic minorities scratch out livings for themselves — not always in harmony with the central government.
A trip to Vietnam would not be complete without a stop at one of the beach strips for some surf, sun and sand, and perhaps a sipped cocktail or two. Nha Trang andMui Ne are popular vacation spots, offering backpacker accommodation as well as some remarkable luxury resorts these days.
The country’s southern capital of Ho Chi Minh city, or Saigon, is a throbbing metropolis where some might be as enthralled with the mesmerising traffic as they are with the sights.
Below Saigon the Mekong Deltaoffers particular delights to the independent and intrepid traveller — think freshly caught crispy fish, eaten while sitting on a barge cruising the waterways. Be sure to palm off the organised tours and do this part of the country on your own.
Sublime Phu Quoc Island is another excellent retreat, lapped by turquoise waters and a wealth of sea life.
Backpackers could easily spend a few months taking in Vietnam at a leisurely pace, though Vietnam Airlines and burgeoning regional budget airlines with their cheap flights now make spending say a long weekend in Hanoi or a quick break in Nha Trang a viable prospect for short-term, luxury tourists — or those who just want a taste of a fast-developing country that was off limits for so long.