Fuelled by increasingly simple access & a strong, determined culture that seems to thrive on hospitable optimism, holidays in Vietnam are currently gracing the top of many a modern traveller’s wish-list. Once a backpacker staple, this beautiful, intriguing stretch of South East Asia has blossomed into a versatile & accommodating destination.
You can stay anywhere from magnificent Colonial-era hotels in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), to cabins on board the traditional wooden junks that drift across Halong Bay. You may be drawn to explore the mighty Mekong River by boat, or perhaps trek to visit traditional hill-tribes in the misty, paddy-terraced northern mountains. If you’re seeking long deserted stretches of exotic sandy beach, Vietnam miraculously still has plenty, & splendid cultural heritage sites festoon the entire country.
It’s nice to turn up in Vietnam & appreciate its many surprises, but there are several places that deserve your special attention:
Early birds catch the best of Hanoi
If you habitually stumble into the hotel breakfast room just as the plates are being cleared away, this might require some effort. But many Hanoi folk habitually rise before dawn every day, to practise tai-chi round lovely Hoan Kiem Lake as the sun slips up from the horizon. The lake is home to critically endangered turtles, & a picturesque, centuries-old building called Turtle Tower sits on a tiny island in its centre.
Once you’ve absorbed the dawn tranquility, head to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, in Ba Dinh Square. Be prepared; here you’ll find the embalmed body of “Uncle” Ho Chi Minh, who orchestrated Vietnam’s liberty in the 1970s, on display for all the world to pay their respects. It opens at 9am but the queues get long, so it’s good to get up early! Afterwards, try exploring on foot (easily done in Hanoi) & find some delicious street food for lunch. It’s safe as a restaurant; just choose something that’s prepared while you watch.
Trek with traditional hill tribes in Sapa
North-west of Hanoi, 10 hours by train, Sapa is a remarkable mountain region occupied by several ancient tribes, not to mention diverse wildlife. Some tribespeople may surprise you by speaking reasonable English, but they do frequently deal with tourists, & their traditional lifestyles are otherwise astonishingly unchanged by modern life. Sapa offers particularly great opportunities for trekking, hiking or photography. The markets are social & political gatherings as well as a chance to trade – you’ll see tribespeople chatting over chickens, bartering, brokering & putting the world straight.
The Mekong Delta’s mad floating markets
Another iconic Vietnam tradition, the floating markets that burst into life each Mekong Delta morning are truly something else. Motorised sampans (long open boats with pointed prows & sterns) jostle together, piled with perilous stacks of fish, vegetables & fruit, all caught or farmed in the Delta’s fertile landscape. Most buyers come from restaurants & markets in nearby cities. It can be bewildering & you might wonder how they don’t all end up tipping into the river. But, if you get the chance, buy a nice steamed bun for breakfast, sit back, & soak up the productive mayhem; you’ll really start to get a feel for what drives the Delta.