There was a time when it was all too easy to go to Vietnam. If your birthdate came out in the National Service lottery, you were conscripted and on your way. After the war, Vietnam was closed to visitors for about 15 years, but in the 1990s it opened again and we discovered a spectacular nation inhabited by warmly welcoming people.
There are two distinct sides to Vietnam and the one you’ll experience depends on your age and whether this is your first visit to the country. If it’s the first time and you remember the Vietnam War you’ll recall names such as Hanoi, Hue and Da Nang and you’ll notice that while the museums are extensive and interesting, the commentary relentlessly toes the party line. Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City but may be referred to by either name.
However, after a few days in this very modern country any dimly recalled newsreel memories will soon fade and you’ll be in the moment with contemporary Vietnam, a vibrant country with a lot to offer the visitor.
There is a vibrant mix of old and new in Ho Chi Minh City
There’s too much to cover in a single trip but it’s possible to get an overview on your first visit and work out where to head next time. It’s worth coming back for the food alone – the French colonists gave Vietnamese cuisine a distinctive edge that is unique.
According to Wendy Wu Tours, the areas that most visitors wish to see this year include Halong Bay, Saigon, Hoi-An, Hanoi and Sapa. This list covers a fair range of destinations, from natural wonders to big cities, a historic coastal village and a scenic mountain one.
Halong Bay was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 for its dramatic landscape of some 1600 flooded karst islands and towers protruding in great confusion across the bay. It runs the risk of being loved to death so you need to go with an operator that you can trust to deliver the experience you expect and, ideally, take you away from the crowds visiting on day trips.
Take a cruise on Halong Bay and see the towering limestone islands
Ho Chi Minh City (aka HCMC or Saigon) has that frenetic nature of the busiest Asian cities. But much of the rush is past historic buildings – or colonial mansions surviving in the suburbs.
Within the chaos and the seething mass of motorcycles you can find everything from fine dining to street stall authenticity; cheap doss houses to five star hotels. Three of the most spectacular buildings are the 1897 Opera House, the Gustave Eiffel-designed Central Post Office and the 1873 Reunification Palace, where the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975.
Hoi-An was an important port for trading with Japan and China and the well-preserved old town was granted UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1999. The city has retained its old world charm and dignity and visitors see Vietnamese life at an altogether slower pace.
Hanoi, the national capital, has been an important city for more than 1000 years. There are cultural reminders throughout this city of lakes and the French influence is evident in the tree-lined boulevards and many buildings from the Opera House to colonial mansions. It’s a really picturesque city built around lakes that is growing rapidly.
The astonishing terraced rice fields at Sapa, Lao Cai
You may think you don’t know of Sapa but once you arrive you’re very likely to recognise it, or its surrounds, from photographs you’ve seen. This is a hill village in Vietnam’s north west and the terraced rice fields across the surrounding mountains are among the most spectacular in the world.
The town’s setting above a precipitous valley is picturesque and, to add to the photo opportunities, the hill tribe locals are very colourfully clad.
Eat like a local: Make sure to sample the delicious street food
Among Wendy Wu’s Vietnam tours there are quite a few that include Cambodia and/or Laos, too. Expanding a trip into a multi-country tour is a great way to make the most of your time in Asia. And there’s a choice between being part of an organised group or travelling by yourself, or as a couple or private group on a pre-arranged Short Stay tour that may be as short as three days but can be 10 days or longer.
Vietnam is an eminently affordable destination so longer trips offer excellent value for money, especially when taking advantage of the special offers available. You’ll also find enjoying the hospitality scene friendly on the wallet, with local beers (or Bia Hoi) costing 35 cents, Vientamese sandwiches (or Banh Mi) and coffee costing about $1 each and a good meal in a simple restaurant only setting you back around $2-3.
Vietnam is developing fast while retaining its own special style. The nation’s cities, history, people and special sights provide so many reasons to visit this long, thin country bordering the South China Sea.
What is your favourite Asian destination?