For those whose impressions of Vietnam were formed in the wartime 1960's, a visit to this beautiful Southeast Asian country may yield some real surprises. With the vast majority of Vietnamese born after the war, it's largely ancient history here, and visitors (certainly including Americans) are warmly welcomed. There's much to explore, too, from stately Hanoi to bustling Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), gorgeous Halong Bay, the Mekong River (best seen by river boat), deep green rice paddies, golden sandy beaches, and some of Asia's best cuisine. Once you come to Vietnam, your impressions of it will never be the same.
From South to North (or opposite)
Perhaps the best way to tour Vietnam is to start at either the southern hub of Ho Chi Minh, aka Saigon, or the northern capital city of Hanoi. If starting in HCMC, the first thing you might notice is the buzz of motorbikes all around you. To cross the street, just be brave and go against everything you were ever taught - slowly but purposefully, walk out into the street and maintain a steady pace. Amazingly, the motor bikes will swerve around you until you find yourself, harried but unscathed, on the other side of the street. Once you’ve mastered that, be sure to check out Ben Thanh market. At first, what looks like a glorified flea market opens up to reveal all sorts of Vietnamese culinary stalwarts like Pho. Go in the morning to escape the crowds (and the heat!).
Other highlights in HCMC include the War Remnants Museum, the exhibits of which might be offputting to many American travelers, Cu Chi tunnel system, and the various historic hotels in the city center.
Heading north, visit Nha Trang, which is a typical beach destination for tourists and locals alike. Enjoy a day-cruise where snorkeling and scuba diving are among the options for activities. Fresh seafood is the specialty in this city by the sea.
Next stop, Hoi An, and its labyrinth of ancient buildings and pathways. Historically rich, the city was influenced by the French, Japanese, and Chinese, which is apparent in the architecture and cuisine. Go in search of the famous Hoi An noodles, Cao Lau, which can only be authentically enjoyed in this town. Many different galleries and craft shops offer everything from custom-made shoes to vibrant oil paintings.
A short drive brings you to Hue, or the ‘imperial city’ as it was here that the Nguyen dynasty ruled from before ceding power to the French in 1945. Explore the old, walled citadel and also book a tour to visit the demilitarized zone (DMZ) for a bit of war history.
Last stop is the capital of Hanoi. With its beautiful urban lakes and government seat, Hanoi is calmer relative to HCMC, but still quite the urban center in its own right. For history buffs, a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a must, where one can see the body of the former Vietnamese ruler lying in state. Also of interest is the Temple of Literature and One Pillar Pagoda.
If culinary travel is your thing, then Vietnam should be high on your list! From pho, to Cao Lau, to french baguettes that rival Parisian boulangeries, Vietnam has a plethora of spicy samples to tempt the foodie traveler. Street food is quite good and cheap, and can be found in night markets throughout the country. Or, just pull up a (short) stool at almost any roadside restaurant for an authentic taste of Vietnam. Specialities include Banh xeo, a crunchy shell containing bean sprouts, soy bean, prawns and pork, Banh bo - sweet rice cakes usually found in white, red and green, and of course, pho. For the more daring, sit down at a corner ‘bar’ to sample bia hoi, the local brew of choice. This unpasteurized but fresh beer is served on the street for basically a few cents per glass. You’ve been warned!
Trips Farther Afield
Other guided tour options in Vietnam include Phu Quoc island, an idyllic spit of land off the coast of southern Vietnam. Also consider the mountainous Sapa region in the northeast or a River boat cruise along the Mekong River.