From wild jungle and five-star luxury to a stirring imperial heritage, Ben Lerwill picks five reasons to visit Vietnam
The mighty Mekong River flows from its source in central China down through Southeast Asia, passing through five countries before reaching Vietnam. By the time this 2,700 mile-long river arrives in Vietnam, the Mekong is broad enough to form a huge delta region — known in the local language as the Nine Dragon River Delta. Itineraries tend to depart from Ho Chi Minh City, and as the Mekong is very much a working river, a cruise offers the chance to see floating markets, small boats crisscrossing the water laden with goods, and riverside villages thrumming with life. Many of today’s cruise ships offer exceptionally high levels of comfort, and while two- and three-day itineraries are on offer, the colossal scale of the Mekong means it’s possible to take lengthy 15-day voyages. Try Les Rives Authentic River Experience
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh sit at opposite ends of the country, and while both cities offer a similar heady mix of street food, buzzing motorbikes and round-the-clock energy, they have distinctly different characters. Hanoi, in the north, is still heavily influenced by the days of French colonialism, with a deeply atmospheric Old Quarter and the large Hoan Kiem Lake — which draws tai chi practitioners every dawn — as a centrepiece. Ho Chi Minh City, in the south, still has its fair share of old-time pagodas and traditional markets but has a more dynamic, on-the-move feel. But the pair are far from being the only notable cities in the country, and several of the other major settlements — most notably picturesque Hoi An and the former imperial capital of Hue — have much of their own to enjoy.
Food & drink
Relying on fresh, quality ingredients and big flavours, Vietnam’s lip-tingling food is one of Asia’s most celebrated cuisines, and pretty healthy too. The best-known national dish is pho, a delicious noodle broth sold from virtually every market and street corner in the land, usually served with either beef or chicken alongside a variety of herbs. Fragrant rice is near ubiquitous, while ingredients such as shrimp paste, chilli, fish sauce and lemongrass help create some unique dishes. Meat and fish are almost ever-present on menus, although the prevalence of colourful and lively salads means vegetarians can certainly eat well too. It’s also a destination where the street food deserves a thorough exploration — quality dishes can be bought direct from the pavement at little expense. And wash it all down with Vietnam’s celebrated iced coffee.
The archetypal image of Vietnam is of dense jungle, but the country’s long coastline has played a significant part in attracting large numbers of tourists — the likes of Phu Quoc Island and Hoi An’s An Bang Beach are quintessential Asian coastal paradises. The country’s most exclusive resorts have become magnets for discerning sun-seekers. There’s a Six Senses Spa on the secluded Con Dao islands (and another on the mainland coast at Ninh Van Bay), while other top-end highlights include the Mia Resort in Nha Trang, a villa-only property with a private beach, and the newly unveiled Angsana Lang Co, featuring a Nick Faldo-designed championship golf course. Studded with thousands of karst islands, the beautiful, UNESCO-listed Ha Long Bay is easily reachable from Hanoi and is an almost obligatory inclusion on any Vietnam itinerary.
For many travellers, Vietnam evokes images of conical hats, green rice paddies and slow-moving water buffalo – and it’s a way of life still recognisable in rural regions such as the Central Highlands, with its forests, mountains and waterfalls. The colourful hill station of Dalat, established by the French during the colonial era as a cool retreat from the heat of the lowlands, is the obvious Central Highlands base for visitors. The French built other hill stations around the country, with Sapa, in the very north, being another gem. Set in stunning, mist-shrouded valleys and providing a focal point for local hill tribes, the town is ringed by the Hoang Lien Mountains. It’s worth every second of the winding journey to reach it.