Vietnam is an incredible country, not only rich in cultural heritage, but also with fascinating architecture and endless natural beauty. Whether your interests are adventure travel, gastronomy, history or simply a relaxing beach break, Vietnam has something for everyone. There are several protected areas and UNESCO heritage sites to see around the country. Here we capture a few aspects of this special place.
An energetic city which is always on the move, Hanoi has a fascinating atmosphere where medieval and modern coexist. Ancient pagodas and sweeping boulevards are side by side, as old men in their conical hats still walk the streets next to kids cruising around on skateboards. The chaos on the streets adds to the thrilling experience of this crazy city, motorbikes and pedestrians somehow sharing the crowded spaces of the Old Quarter.
Top Sight: In the centre of Hanoi, like an oasis of peace, stands Ho Hoan Kiem Lake. Fringed with trees, this is a popular place with locals and tourists alike, the many benches and cafes around the lake always busy with couples cuddling and people walking their dogs. At dawn, residents practise traditional t’ai chi on its shores, and as the day wears on, goateed grandfathers play chess, seemingly without a care in the world. Legend claims that in the mid-15th century, Heaven sent the Emperor a magical sword with which he drove the Chinese away from his land. After the war, a giant golden turtle took the sword and disappeared into the depths of the waters to restore the sword to its divine owner. This is how the name Ho Hoan Kiem Lake came about, it means Lake of the Restored Sword. While you are there, pay the nominal fee to enter Ngoc Son Temple, which stands on an island in the lake. Cross the red bridge to see the Thao Rua – Turtle Tower.
Imagine 2000 islands rising from emerald green waters; this scene of breath-taking beauty is Halong Bay. Situated in the north-east of the country near the Chinese border, this is one of the world’s most stunning natural wonders. Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descended into the sea’. Legend has it that this geographic phenomenon is the result of a great dragon. The dragon’s tail gouged out valleys, then when the area was filled with water, only the pinnacles remained visible. Designated a World Heritage site in 1994, this mystical landscape of limestone islands attracts visitors year round. The tropical climate means that boat trips run all seasons, however storms are frequent from May to September. The cool, drizzly weather and fog can add an ethereal air to your sailing trip from January to March.
Expert Tip: To really appreciate all that Halong Bay has to offer, opt for a cruise on a traditional ‘junk’. A 1 night stay on the wooden sailboat will give you a good taster, but 2 nights is ideal. Going further out gives you more time to explore, and vastly reduces tourist numbers around you. You can expect to see plenty of wind and wave eroded grottos. Some islands have bare cliff faces, others are blessed with sandy coves or trees that ring with birdsong.
If you are looking for a family friendly destination, then Hoi An is it. Spectacular beaches, grand architecture and a bustling market area makes this a delightful town. The riverside setting is picturesque, and although it is one of Vietnam’s wealthiest towns, there is a distinct lack of traffic and pollution. The beautifully intricate little Japanese bridge has become emblematic of Hoi An. First constructed in the late 1500s, the understated Japanese design has barely changed over the centuries. The entrances to the bridge are guarded by a pair of monkeys on one side, and a pair of dogs on the other. Although the reason for this choice of animal is not known with any certainty, one theory is that many of Japan’s emperors were born during the years of the dog and monkey.
Best Buy: Hoi An has become famous for its expert tailors. Whether you are looking for a traditional dress, leather goods or other souvenirs, this market town can deliver. Also popular as a culinary mecca, cooking schools have become a favourite pastime of travellers. Classes varying in length from 2 hours to full day sessions are provided. By the end, you will be thrilled that you can now enjoy the delights of Vietnamese cooking at home. A traditional favourite is a noodle soup known as Pho.
The mighty waterways and carpets of greenery that form the Mekong Delta can only really be appreciated by boat. The serene beauty of this water world is spread out over a large area in the south of Vietnam. It’s so large in fact, it is quite possible to even lose sight of land at times. The boats, houses, restaurants and markets float along the canals and streams – arteries of the Mekong. Particularly famous are the floating markets of Cai Be and Cai Rang. This is the perfect place to buy fruits, vegetables, clothing, bags and souvenirs from the locals. The atmosphere is intoxicating. Immerse yourself in the local culture and the bustle of daily life in rural Vietnam.
Essential Experience: Explore the mangrove forests and visit the sacred pagodas. Keep your eyes peeled along the waterways; you can see small houses and its residents bathing in the river.
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