When to Go to Vietnam
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1 - Drink egg coffee in Hanoi
Hanoi is the capital of the North. The soundtrack of the city is dominated by scooters and fairly furious honking traffic set among a backdrop of amazing history and architecture where the past reigns of the Chinese and colonial eras are evident. The Old Quarter is fabulous. There is a fantastic cafe and foodie culture here. The alluring sights and smells of the street food are tantalising and probably best experienced like a local — i.e. with one, which your travel specialists can arrange for you. In between the hawkers and markets, you must indulge in Vietnam’s most extravagant cup of joe, ‘cà phê trứng’ which is “egg coffee”. Created in the 1940s in response to the pressures of a milk shortage, an egg was whisked into the super strong caffeine nectar. Its creator Nguyen Van Giang opened Café Giang as a result of its popularity, where his son still serves it. It’s a bit more than egg thrown in a coffee, by the way, the modern version is quite decadent and has been compared to a coffee Cadbury Creme Egg.
Hanoi is where the blend of old and new is still blurry. Full of spirit and intriguing fusions, you can skip from a stunning high-end restaurant to drinking local green beer sat on children sized furniture on a street corner. You can enjoy the serene Hoan Kiem Lake to take in tai chi in the morning or a performance from the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre, where highly skilled musicians and puppeteers sustain this 1,000-year-old Vietnamese art form. You can dodge the full size ‘street train’ that rushes through a narrow residential passage twice a day and then take in the optical illusion street art murals nearby, which embrace the realistic 3D Trompe-l’œil style which can make you feel, literally, part of the pictures.
2 - Go Pirate in Bai Tu Long Bay
When you are ready to break out of the city, Bai Tu Long Bay offers a peaceful excursion.
While the very well known (and close by) Halong Bay is at risk of being overrun with tourists, Bai Tu Long offers a wonderful, and actually more sustainable way, to take in this beautiful part of Vietnam, aboard a magnificent traditional junk boat. The Bay has a rich biodiversity with two ecosystems: one is tropical, evergreen rainforest, the other, marine and coastal. You may feel quite ‘pirate’ but with less “Aaaargh ha” and more “Aaaaaaah” as you drift among the sculptural limestone, glass-clear waters and sandy coves. Plenty of sensory treasures, but no need to dig for them. You really can’t afford to miss this.
3 - Linger over limestone in Ninh Binh
From Hanoi or Bai Tu Long, you can head south around 100 km and hang out in Ninh Binh. Often overlooked, this natural gem isn’t so much about the town itself but the surrounding countryside. With its hundreds of limestone cliffs emerging from the ground scattered across the rice fields, this region offers a wonderful glimpse into rural Vietnam and a more serene way of life, outside of the bigger cities. A fabulous way to experience this area is by boat. Meandering the lakes through the caves and nearby temples in a petite rowing boat is quite special and Trang An can offer an alternative to the busier Tam Coc. Close by, Thung Nham Bird Garden is also often missed but is absolutely magical with around 40,000 bird species.
The landscapes, views and sights in this region can be explored on foot, but bicycles also offer a good way to get around — independent or organised transport is essential here.
4 - Go tribal in Sapa
Another worthy option from Hanoi is Sapa, situated in the very north west of Vietnam near the Chinese border. Travelling the nearly 400 km from the capital is nearly always via overnight train. Many visitors arrive in Sapa via May Chau and don’t go on to discover the amazing Tonkinese Alps where hill tribes have lived for thousands of years. Of course, when you are time limited there is still much to be enthralled within and around Sapa, not least the indigenous tribes with their distinctive ‘uniform,’ the lively markets and stunning views. There are options to visit with the Giang Ta Chai and Red Dzao tribes as well as the Black H’mong people of Cat Cat village. Homestays are popular here and a wonderful way to experience Vietnamese hospitality.
While Sapa itself has embraced tourism, it is also the gateway to stunning Vietnamese countryside. You are surrounded by almost vertical rice terraces and stunning mountain peaks with regular mists hovering over them.
4 - Going Underground in Phong Nha Ke Bang
Heading south from Hanoi you can stop off, inland, at Dong Hoi which is the gateway to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home karst mountains that are approximately 400 million years old!
Its cave and underground river systems are literally, of another world. It’s here you can find Son Doong Cave, which is recognised as the largest known cave passage cross-section in the world. Not only that, if you are really lucky you may see tigers, black bears and elephants.
5 - Biking in Hue
Less than 4 hours down the coast you’ll land at Hue.
Hue is one of the main cultural, religious and educational centres of Vietnam, a fact recognised by its UNESCO status. Ruled by the Nguyen Dynasty as the country’s capital for over a century until 1945, it is still known as the Imperial City due to this family rule that preceded modern day communism. Being one of the only originally historical vestige city in the country, it still offers remnants of something that is disappearing. One of these central attractions remains the (sadly, crumbling) 19th-century citadel featuring a traditional and stone walls, palaces and shrines including the Forbidden Purple City, once the emperor’s home; and a replica of the Royal Theatre. More than a hundred architectural delights in total. It’s a brilliant city to see by bike.
The Perfume River meanders through the city and while not especially pretty with its wide brown waters, it takes it name from the fragrance it offers up in the autumn when the flowers in the orchards upriver lose their blossoms into the water. From sunset, the riverside comes to life with shops and food stalls and there are many options for boat trips and cruises, including a journey to Tien Mu Pagoda, a Buddhist Temple, situated on the river banks. In spite of its history of brutal battles, Hue is heavy on both Buddhism and vegetarianism.
6 - Lanterns, lapels & luscious food in Hoi An
Just a short hop three hours down the road from Hue is Hoi An.
Now here is a place that people rave about and you can totally see why. What this means is that it is popular and busy, but despite this, it retains a whimsical atmosphere that offers a glorious old town without cars and motorbikes where the push bike reigns. Explore the ancient streets and sun coloured buildings that line the Thu Bon River and canals by foot, bike or traditional tuk-tuk. Soak up the architecture that encompasses a glorious blend of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese influences. Drink coffee and people watch from one of the many cafes and breathe in the synthesis of old and new — such a prominent and alluring component across much of current day Vietnam.
Partly what makes Hoi An so special, is centuries of careful preservation and its commitment to tradition, festivals and beliefs. It takes you back in time and you can totally imagine a time when it was a globally recognised trading town and port. One such beautiful tradition is the monthly full moon lantern festival where paper lanterns are set into the river as an offering and to worship both ancestors and the God of the land. You can even take a workshop on how to make them while supporting vocational training for self-sufficient local enterprise.
Hoi An offers so many authentic experiences among its dreamy romantic backdrop and we’ve not even mentioned the beach yet! YES, not only can you eat like a king or queen in the amazing Central Market while looking your best in your new tailored clothes (oh you’ll be spoilt for choice), you can have time on sandy shores at An Bang or Hidden beach, bliss!
7 - Bliss on Vietnam's Beaches
Mui Ne is a beautiful beach with some high standard and eco-resorts. Four hours from HCMC, an easy and enjoyable train journey, it is renowned for kite and windsurfing and it’s magical sand dunes where the dunes either turn from white to gold or are red and become a playground for you to enjoy fun stuff like quad biking or dune sledging.
Then there’s the stunning Phu Quoc Island. Fairly new to tourists, it is situated in the aquamarine Gulf of Thailand. More than half of the island is National Park, which features mountains, dense virgin rainforests, hiking trails and wildlife. Duong Dong is the largest town, with markets selling crafts, produce and fish. If it’s your thing (and it’s definitely mine) get under the water and revel in the protected marine landscape. You can scuba dive and take a snorkelling tour of An Thoi islets.
8 - Heading around the Highlands
Before you dive into chaotic Ho Chi Minh, and for something completely different to the coast, it is worth delving inland to the Central Highlands around Dalat and Lak Lake. The lake is the largest in the area and you can cruise around it via long boat or even a kayak, enjoying the serene rise and fall of the sun against a striking backdrop of the countryside. Hike among waterfalls and enjoy a visit to the three M’nong villages scattered around the lake. They live a subsistence, agrarian life in which they are self-sufficient in food, growing mainly dry rice, corn, sweet potatoes, watermelon and cassava.
From the lake, you can zip off to Dalat (one of the best ways too see this area is by motorbike). At 1500 m above sea level, here on the Langbian Plateau, you are offered a cool and misty freshness that is quite different to the rest of tropical Vietnam. For those who choose a more adrenalin-fuelled way of expressing affection or emotions, Dalat is, in a curious opposite to the romance capital, also the adventure-sports capital of southern Vietnam, offering zip lines, canyoning, mountain biking, rafting and hiking. Nothing says romance like surfing white water rapids right?
9 - Messing About on the Mekong Delta
An equally rewarding side trip involves swapping the frenzy of the city for the slower pace of the Mekong Delta. The rice paddies and rivers of the delta is a populous place for a large percentage of Vietnamese farmers who utilise the wetlands to nurse multiple crops. To appreciate the complex waterways, you need to get on a boat.
As you navigate the magical canals you can experience traders selling their wares at floating markets, such as Cai Rang, that often begin before dawn. You can also catch and cook freshwater fish and step off the boat to nearby orchards to sample the delicious fruit that thrives in the tropical climate. Homestays here offer a fascinating glimpse into the real life of the delta and gain yourself some culinary skills by paying attention to how local dishes are prepared.
10 - Good Morning Vietnam! Historic Ho Chi Minh
Of course one of the jewels in the Vietnamese crown is the capital of the South, Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon). If you’re coming from Nha Trang you can take a train, probably an overnight sleeper again, or a flight is just 1 hour, if you book in advance they can be a quick and inexpensive.
Here, it’s no longer the human-powered cycle ‘cyclo’ that rules, but the motorbike (scooter). Not just the roads, but the pavements and pretty much anywhere else too! There are an estimated 7 million scooters here in the city, you’d need to be brave to rent one yourself, but you can do cool Vespa tours which allows you to see the city like a local (as a passenger) but without totally freaking out about focusing on where you are going and whether or not you’ll come out of it alive!
Binh Tay Market, in the Chinatown area is bit more relaxed and cheaper than Ben Thanh Market, if you’re in the mood to shop and looking for an alternative. If you’re up early you can also check out the ‘wet’ market here which is from 6-9am and full of fresh Vietnamese produce and lovely photo opportunities. It’s a good time to have the most famous of Vietnamese dishes, Pho (beef noodle soup) generally served with a mixture of raw beef and brisket, this is a noodle soup bursting with flavour and texture. It is served with a generous heap of raw or blanched vegetables, which add a lovely crunch. Fresh chilli, lime and fish sauce can be added for extra zing and saltiness.
Of course, there is so much to do in Vietnam, and our passionate specialists are on hand to help plan your dream Vietnam itinerary and can help guide you to the best spots depending on what you’re interested in.
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