Years ago I sat down to dinner at a home in Vietnam. It was an enormous spread - there was phở, spring rolls, salads, meats and a lot of dishes I didn't know what they were. Our host, a Vietnamese man, wanted to really treat us and he lifted a large lobster off the plate next to me. I had seen it and thought it was a decorative piece. But when he lifted it and held it above a pot of boiling water, the animal kicked its legs and I could have sworn it screamed as it disappeared in the pot. It all went so quick I was unable to stop our host. It's one of those travel moments that stays with you forever.
A breathtakingly beautiful country, Vietnam is at once incredibly exotic and utterly compelling. Gaze over the surreal limestone islands of Halong Bay, walk or cycle through rice paddies, soak up the street scenes in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, get clothing tailored in Hoi An, dodge traffic in Saigon, enjoy delicious food, laze on long sandy beaches and mingle and laugh with the engaging locals. Vietnam is all that and more - here are all the highlights and must-have adventure travel experiences in Vietnam.
When to go
With such varied geography and the country spanning such a great distance, there is a wide variety of climatic zones in Vietnam. The south as far as Hue has a distinct dry season between December and April and a wet season from May to November when rain falls in quick heavy showers with bright sunshine in between. Hanoi is cool in fall and can get chilly in winter. Overall November to March are the best months to visit Vietnam.
Starting off in the north, Hanoi, while rapidly catching up to modern days, its Old Quarter still has a timeless, colonial quality to it. Shopkeepers and hawkers praise their wares, locals munch on noodles in restaurants, or do their morning exercise in the quiet parks around Hoan Kiem Lake. Further afield lie temples and monuments long forgotten by time but waiting to be discovered by you.
Splendid Halong Bay
You will likely travel through Hanoi several times on your trip. The city is used as the gateway to Halong Bay, where, like the scales on a dragon's back, a surreal jumble of limestone cliffs rises up from the ocean's surface high into the sky. Board a traditional junk and watch the scenery glide by. Paddle out on a kayak, discover a hidden cave, or simply relax and enjoy the sunset.
The opposite way from Halong Bay, going west towards Laos, you will reach Sapa. Sitting at the head of a deep valley, this old French hill station is the perfect place from which to explore traditional markets and hill tribe villages where many hill tribes still live their traditional way of life. Hike through a landscape stunning beyond belief, where rice paddies tumble down the mountain like so many cascading waterfalls. Then return to town to enjoy a good meal and the stupendous views.
Travelling south from Hanoi many adventurers will travel by train on the Reunification Express. First stop, after a night on the train, is Hue. Situated on the banks of the pretty Perfume River, the old imperial capital of Vietnam invites you to explore its palaces, temples and citadel. Take a boat trip up the river, or cycle its tranquil riverbanks.
Laid-back Hoi An
A short drive across a spectacular pass takes you to Hoi An. Historic and tranquil, the old town is the perfect place to spend a few days relaxing in street-side cafes, enjoying the culinary delights on offer or perhaps having some clothes tailored for you. Cycle outside of town and discover beaches and a way of life unchanged in centuries. Cycling is still the transportation of choice for many locals and you and them will delight in each other's company.
To the beach
Further south still, bustling Na Thrang may seem an unlikely beach destination at first, but hit the town's promenade and beautiful beaches, or take a boat trip out to the islands offshore, and you'll soon realize what all the talk is about. Although, with a coastline 2000 kms long, pure white-sand unspoiled beaches are never far away.
Providing an escape from the hot lowlands, Dalat was the holiday resort of choice for French colonialists. It still retains a French feel and is the honeymoon capital of the country. The surrounding countryside is sprinkled with forests, lakes and waterfalls.
Travelling south from Dalat you reach Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC or Saigon). A city racing ever forward in its pursuit of trade and commerce, Saigon is a mix of classy restaurants and swanky bars, street stalls and local markets, high-end boutiques, hotels and mansions. Dive into the chaos and discover a city unique in Asia if not the world. The traffic is mad, but cross the street you must. "When in Rome" should be your motto - just start crossing and traffic will miraculously flow around you.
Try the food!
Browsing around the many different markets in Saigon is an experience to be had. Vietnam is well known for its delicious food and nowhere will it be fresher than from a street-side stall. Try the ubiquitous phở noodle soups or some fragrant marinated pork. Better yet, accompany a Vietnamese chef to the market, shop for fresh ingredients and try your hand at some of the best recipes this country has to offer. Then, feast on your own creations!
Some gruesome history
Saigon is used as a base to visit the Cu Chi tunnels. This huge network of tunnels helped the Viet Cong take control of large swaths of the surrounding countryside. They are a monument to the tenacity of the Vietnamese people during the onslaught of the US military.
At home in the Mekong
Finally, south of Saigon lies the Mekong Delta, a myriad waterways making up the rice bowl of Vietnam. Take a trip out onto the lazy waters and visit floating markets where vendor's boats overflow with the freshest of produce. Cycle along narrow trails or stay at a village home. It is a great way to learn more about local life and enjoy some delicious food.