1 Vietnam’s most cosmopolitan and civilised town, this beautiful, ancient port is bursting with gourment Vietnamese restaurants, hip bars and cafes, quirky boutiques and expert tailors. Immerse yourself in history in the warren-like lanes of the Old Town, shop till you drop, tour the temples and pagodas, and dine like an emperor on a peasan’s budget (and even learn how to cook like the locals). Then hit glorious An Bang Beach, wander along the riverside and bike the back roads. Yes, Hoi An has it all.
2 Perhaps Asia’s greatest culinary secret, Vietnamese food is on the radar but hardly a global phenomenon. Essentially it’s all about the freshness of the ingredients – chefs shop twice daily to source just-picked herbs from the market. The result? Incomparable texture and flavour combinations. For the Vietnamese, a meal should balance sour and sweet, crunchy and silky, fried and steamed, soup and salad. Wherever you are, you’ll find exquisite local specialities – the “white rose” of Hoi An, the canh chua of the Mekong Delta or the good ol’pho of the north.
3 Perhaps the adrenalin epicentre of Vietnam, the relaxed, prosperous beach resort of
Mui Ne is a kite-surfing capital with world-class wind and conditions, and excellent schools for professional traning. For those who prefer dry land, sandboarding and golf are popular alternatives. The resort itself has more than 20km of palm-fringed beachfront that stretches invitingly along the shores of South China Sea. From guesthouses to boutique resorts, designer bars to fine-value spas, Mui Ne has a broad appeal.
Sapa & the Tinkinese Apls
4 Dubbed the Tonkinese Apls by the French, the spectacular Hoang Lien Moutains soar skywards along the rugged edges of northwest Vietnam towards the Chinese border. Shape-shifting banks of cloud and mist ebb and flow in the moutainous area around Sapa, parting to reveal a glimpse of Fansipan, Vietnam’s higest peak. From the sinuos and spidery ridges, rice terraces cascade down into river valleys, home for several centuries to ethnic minority villages of H’mong, Red Dzao and Giay peoples.
5 The nation’s capital for 150 years in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Hue is perhaps the easiest Vietnamese city to love. Its situation on the banks of the Perfume River is sublime, its complex cuisine is justifiably famous and its streets are relatively traffic free. And that’s without the majesty of the Hue Ciatadel, with its royal residences and elegant temples, formidable walled defences and gateways. On the city’s fringes are some of Vietnam’s most impressive pagodas and royal tombs, many in wonderful natural setting.
6 A stunning combination of karst limestone peaks and sheltered, shimmering seas makes Halong Bay one of Vietnam’s top tourist draws, but with more than 2000 different islands there’s plenty of superb scenery to go around. Definitely book an overnight cruise and make time for your own special moments on this World Heritage wonder-rising eraly for an ethe-real misty dawn, or piloting a kayak into grottoes and lagoons. If you’re hankering for more karst action, move on to the less touristy but equally spectacular Lan Ha Bay.
Ho Chi Minh City
7 Increasingly international but still unmistakably Vietnamese, the former Saigon’s visceral energy will delight big-city devotees. HCMC doesn’t inspire neutrality: you’ll either be drawn into its thrilling vortex, hypnotised by the perpetual whir of its orbiting motorbikes, or you’ll find the whole experience overwhelming. Dive in and you’ll be rewarded with a wealth of history, delicious food and a vibrant nightlife that sets the standard for Vietnam. The heat is always on in Saigon; loosen your collar and enjoy.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
8 Picture jungle-crowned hills, rainforest, turquoise streams and traditional villages. Then throw in the globe’s most impressive cave systems-river-created Phong Nha Cave, the ethereal beauty of Paradise Cave and the cathedral-like chambers of Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest cave – and you can see why Phong Nha-Ke Bang is Vietnam’s most rewarding national park to explore. It’s a great place to experience rural Vietnam at its most majestic.
9 One of thw world’s most magnificent sights, the temples of Angkor lie just over the border in Cambodia. Choose from Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building; Bayon, the world’s weirdest; or Ta Prohm, where nature runs amok. Siem Reap is the base for exploring Angkor and it’s a buzzing destination with a superb selection of restaurants and bars. Beyond the temples lie floating villages on the Tonlé Sap Lake,adrenalin-filled activies such as quad biking, and cultured pursuits such as cooking classes and bird-watching.
Biking the North
10 Saddle up for the ride of a lifetime into the moutains of Vietnam’s deep north. From Hanoi, journey through sleepy Mai Chau and the historic battlefields of Dien Bien Phu before crossing the 1900m Tram Ton Pass to the stunning scenery and cascading rice terraces around Sapa. Continue east to the mosaic of ethnic minorities around Bac Ha before pushing on to challenging Ha Giang province, Vietnam’s hugely spectacular destination for intrepid travellers. In all parts of the north, look forward to the road trip pf your life.
Cat Tien Nation Park
11 One of the most accessible and impressive procted areas in Vietnam, Cat Tien lies conveniently midway between Ho Chi Minh Ciy and Dalat. Popular activities include trekking, cycling and wildlife-spotting. The park is home to the Dao Tien Endangered Primate Species Centre, where gibbons and langurs are coaxed back into their natural environment. The Wild Gibbon Trek is a must, one of the wildlife highlights of Vietnam.
Phu Quoc Island
12 Lapped by azure waters and edged with the kind of white-sand beaches that make sun seekers sink to their weak kness, Phu Quoc – way down in the down in the south of Vietnam – is ideal for slipping into low gear, reaching for a sea-side cocktail and toasting a blood-oranges sun as it dips into the sea. And if you want to notch it up a gear, grab a motorbike and hit the red-dirt roads to your heart’s content: the island’s the size of Singapore.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter
13 Don’t worry, it happens to everyone when they first get to Hanoi. Get agreeably lost in the city’s centuries-old Old Quarter, a frantic commercial labyrinth where echoes of the past are filtered and framed by a thoroughly 21st-century energy. Discover Vietnam’s culinary flavours and aromas at street level, perched on a tiny chair eating iconic Hanoi dishes like pho bo, bun cha and banh cuon. Later at night, join the socialising throngss enjoying refreshingly crisp bia hoi at makeshift street-corner bars.
14 Starbucks may have opened its first branch here in 2013, but in Vietnam, cafes and coffee culture run deep. Virtually every neighbourhood in every town (and most villages) will have a little café where locals go to de-stress from the office, the family or simply the traffic (most are located on quiet side streets with copious greenery to promote relaxation). Vietnamese coffee can be served hot and iced (a real treat in summer), either treacle thick, or with milk (usually sweetened and condensed) for a double-whammy caffeine-sugar kick.
Con Dao Islands
15 The furious energy that characterises Vietnamese cities can be intoxicating, but when you need an urban detox these idyllic tropical islands make the perfect escape. Once hell on earth for a generation of political prisoners, Con Dao is now a heavenly destination of remote beaches, prisitne dive sites and diverse nature (including nesting sea turtles). It’s a wonderful place to explore by bike in search of that dream beach, and the main settlement of Con Son is one of Vietnam’s most charming towns.
Ba Be Nation Park
16 Detour from the regular tourist trail to vist Ba Be National Park, an essential destination for active and intrepid travellers, with towering limestone moutains, pluging valleys and evergreen forests. Waterfalls, caves and lakes combine in a landscape that sustains over 550 different plants and hundreds of bird and animal species. Explore Ba Be’s natural spectacle by boat or on trekking and moutain-biking excursions, before relaxing and recharging in the villages and homestays of the local Tay ethnic minority.
17 First thing first: Nha Trang must boast one of the finest municipal beaches in Asia, a breathtaking strip of fine, golden sand lapped by the balmy waters of the South China Sea. But there’s much more to the town than beach appeal, with river and island boat trips, ancient Cham towers to explore, natural mud-bath spas and a great dining scene. Nha Trang is also a party mecca for backpackers, for whom the bar and club scene is legendary.
18 One of the great pleasures of travelling in Vietnam, bia hoi (fresh draught beer) is brewed daily, without additives or preservatives, to be drunk within hours. In credibly cheap and widely available, bia hoi places offer a very local experience. Park (or attempt to park) your rear on one of the tiny plastic stools and get stuck in. Bites to eat are often sold to. Said to have been introduced to Hanoi by Czech brewers, every town now has a bia hoi place, often with a street terrace.
Ethnic Minority Markets
19 Use the dusty town of Bac Ha as a convenient base to explore and discover a colourful variety of local ethnic minority markets. Dzao, Flower H’mong, Tay and Nung people all visit Tuesday’s Coc Ly Market, and on Saturday mornings the Can Cau market is the place to meet Blue H’mong people over a robust shot of ruou, local wine made from corn. Further afield, in remote Ha Giang province, Dong Van and Meo Vac both have vibrant Sunday markets.
20 Dalat is the queen of the southwest highlands and has been popular with international tourists since the days of the French colonialists. Grand Gallic villas are dotted amid pine groves and the whole town is centred on a pretty lake, with numerous nearby waterfalls adding to its natural appeal. Dalat is also fast becoming one of Vietnam’s key adventure-spot-centres, with abseiling, canoying, moutain biking, hiking and rafting all on offer. The benign climate here will be a relief if you’ve been suffering in HCMC.