Halong Bay is a cliché for tourists, but it’s also a must – as long as you plan carefully, you won’t be disappointed.Photo/Getty Images
Vietnam is open to international travelers without self-isolation. Nigel Richardson has 10 reasons why you should go.
1. Rich ethnic mix
With 54 ethnic groups, Vietnam is the most complex culture in Southeast Asia. Vietnamese are the largest, making up 86% of the population. The rest mostly lived on the fringes, living a simple country life, still characterized by a unique way of living and dressing. Ancestor and spiritual worship is common. Sabah in the northern hills is a popular base for tourists wishing to visit ethnic markets and villages as well as trekking in the mountains. Ha Giang Province, further northeast, is less developed and more abundant in ethnic minorities. Visit the excellent Vietnamese Ethnology Museum in Hanoi for a good base.
2. Paradise Island
Phu Quoc is a Vietnamese resort island near Cambodia that was largely undeveloped and unknown 20 years ago. Things are moving fast and it is now a mainstream destination with a good infrastructure of hotels, restaurants and activities (snorkeling, scuba diving, renting motorbikes to explore the interior of the forest and hills). But its basic charms remain intact: magnificent white sand beaches (especially on the west coast), warm oceans, spectacular sunsets and laid-back charm. At the southernmost point, take the 5-mile cable car to HonThom/Pineapple Island for stunning views of the archipelago, claimed to be the longest sea journey of its kind in the world.
3. Halong Bay
It’s a cliché, but it’s a must – as long as you plan carefully, you won’t be disappointed. If you can afford it, book a berth on a small luxury cruise ship and head east to Bai Tu Long Island to beat the day cruises. Explore the floating village of Cua Van, swim on uninhabited islands, and enjoy exceptional service and food on board.
Landmarks in Vietnam’s joyous and chaotic capital are the keys to understanding modern Vietnam. Your budget may not stretch to the elegant Sofitel Cosmopolitan, one of the world’s greatest colonial-era hotels, but be sure to come here for lunch or tea. This will take you to the heart of the French Quarter, with its neoclassical opera house, and within walking distance of the tranquil Hoan Kiem Lake and the bustling Old Town to the north. In the west, the Temple of Literature is another oasis, while the Botanical Gardens, Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (the country where his remains are located) and Uncle Ho’s actual residence reflect important Vietnamese history. Eat delicious street food while walking.
5. Hoi An
Like a miniature Venice, this former trading port on the Chouben River accomplishes an unlikely feat that is both a shameless tourist trap and a timeless romantic getaway. This camouflage is most successful at night, when paper lanterns line the streets and throngs of diners and drinkers fill the old wooden merchant houses. During the day, cycle to explore the nearby irrigated countryside, spend a lazy day at Cua Dai Beach, or visit the evocative My Son Ruins, the ruins of Hindu temples dating back to the 4th century Cham kingdom.
6. Cat Fields National Park
Tigers once roamed Vietnam’s lush rainforest, which is rich in fauna. Much of this habitat was destroyed during the war, and logging and growing cash crops continued the process. But Cat Tien, 80 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City, offers 275 square miles of rainforest and protects several persecuted mammal species, including elephants, civet cats and mouse deer. It also has 350 species of birds, making it one of the best bird watching locations in Southeast Asia. The antidote to the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City.
7. Ho Chi Minh City
Arrogant, fanatical, vertical – former Saigon may not be the country’s political capital, but its bustling streets and chaotic, uninterrupted traffic are where the pulse of modern Vietnam most insists beating. The War Remnants Museum is a monument to the horrors of war, a sobering reminder of how far Vietnam has come in the past half century. Otherwise, the best way to experience the city is to immerse yourself in those streets and alleys, either on foot (brave and daring at the intersection) or take a xe om (motorbike taxi). Highlights include Ben Thanh Market and the sprawling Chinatown Cho Lon.
8. War and Peace
On a day trip north of Ho Chi Minh City, most of the itinerary goes into the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong hid during the war. But it can be a frustrating conveyor belt experience. Even more instructive is a day trip from Hue to the besieged US base Khe Sanh in 1968, before heading to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the fishing community of Vinh Moc. During the war, the village dug itself into the ground to avoid bombing by the US military. Visitors can enter a tunnel of two thousand yards.
9. Mekong Delta
Happily, plans for a massive theme park called “Happyland” in the delta have been abandoned, and the allure of these levels remains the simple charm of river life, floating markets and fertile farmland. Ho Chi Minh City offers day trips that take you by boat on new highways and bridges, but it’s best to take a day or two to get into the rhythm – whether on a short cruise or with a homestay in the Vinh Long settlement.
10. Happy Retreat
The Con Dao archipelago consists of 16 small islands located on the south coast, most likely where Phu Quoc Island was 10 years ago. Only one island, Con Son, is inhabited. It used to be a penal colony, but today’s immigrants enjoy some great beaches, scuba diving, inland hiking and bird watching. This small island town with French colonial architecture is laid back and offers a growing number of accommodations, including the ultra-luxury Six Senses Resort and Spa.
New Zealand travellers must pass a negative Covid test to enter Vietnam and hold a valid tourist visa. You will also need to download the PC-Covid Vietnam app and show it to most businesses and institutions. For more information, see vietnam.travel