1. Hoi An
Vietnam’s most cosmopolitan and civi-lised town, this beautiful, ancient port (p195) is bursting with gourmet Vietnam-ese restaurants, hip bars and cafes, quirky boutiques and experts tailors. Immerse yourself in history in the warren-like lanes of the Old Town, shop till you drop, tour the temples and pagodas, and dine like an emperor on a peasant’s budget (and even learn how to cook like the locals). Then hit glorious An Bang Beach, wander along the riverside and bike the back roads. Yes, Hoi An has it all. Japanese Covered Bridge (p198)
Perhaps Asia’s greatest culinary secret, Vietnamese food is on the radar but hardly a global phenomenon. Essentially it’s all about the freshness of the ingredients – chefs shop twice daily to source just-picked herbs from the market. The result? Incomparable texture and flavour combinations. For the Vietnamese, a meal should balance sour and sweet, crunchu and silky, fried and steamed, soup and salad. Wherever you are, you’ll find ex-quisite local specialities – the ‘white rose’ of Hoi An, the canh chuaof the Mekong Delta or the good ol’ pho of the north. Cao lau (p206), Hoi An.
3. Mui Ne
Perhaps the adrenalin epicentre of Vietnam, the relaxed, prosperous beach resort of Mui Ne (p248) is a kite-surfing capital with world-class wind and conditions, and excellent schools for pro-fessional training. For thosewho prefer dry land, sandboarding and golf are popular alternatives. The resort itself has more than 20km of palm-fringed beachfront that stretches invitingly along the shores of the South China Sea. From guesthouses to boutique resorts, designer bars to fine-value spas, Mui Ne has a broad appeal.
4. Sapa & the Tonkinese Alps
Dubbed the Tonkinese Alps by the French, the spectacular Hoang Lien Mountains soar skywards along the rugged edges of northwest Vietnam towards the Chinese border. Shape-shifting banks of cloud and mist ebb and flow in the mountainous area around Sapa (p128), parting to reveal a glimpse of Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak. From the sinuous and spideryridges, rice terraces cascade down into river valleys, home for several centuries to ethnic minority villages of H’mong, Red Dao and Giay peoples. Rice fields, Sapa.
The nation’s capital for 150 years in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Hue (p167) is perhaps the easiest Vietnamese city of love. Its situation on the banks of the Perfume River is sublime, its complex cuisine is justifiably famous and its streets are relatively traffic free. And that’s without the majesty of the Hue Citadel, with its royal residences and elegant temples, formidable walled defences and gateways. On the city’s fringes are some of Vietnam’s most impressive pagodas and royal tombs, many in wonderful natural settings. Hue Citadel (p171)
6. Halong Bay
A stunning combinations of karst limestone peaks and sheltered, shimmering seas makes Halong Bay (p101) one of Vienam’s toptourist draws, but with more than 2000 different islands there’s plenty of superb scenery to go aroung. Denifitely book an overnight cruise and make time for your own special moments on this World Heritage wonder – rising early for an ethereal misty dawn, or piloting a kayak into grottoes and lagoons. If you’re hankering for more karst action, move on to the less touristy but equally spectacular Lan Ha Bay.
Increasingly international but still unmistakably Vietnamese, the former Saigon’s visceral energy will delight big-city devotees. HCMC (p294) doesn’t inspire neutrality: you’ll either be drawn into its thrilling vortex, hypnotised by the perpetual whir of it orbiting motorbikes, or you’ll find the whole experience overwhelming. Dive in and you’ll be rewarded with a wealth of history, delicious food and a vibrant nightlife that sets the standard for Vietnam. The heat is always in Saigon; loosen your collar and enjoy…
Picture jungle-crowned hills, rainforest, turquoise streams and traditional villages. Then throw in the globe’s most impressive cave systems – river-created Phong Nha Cave, the ethereal beauty of Paradise Cave and the cathedral-like chambers of Hans Son Doong, the world’s largest cave – and you can see why Phong Nha – Ke Bang (p156)nis Vietnam’s most rewarding national park to explore. It’s a great place to experience rural Vietnam at its most majestic. Hang Son Doong (p158)
9. Angkor Wat
One of the world’s most magnificent sights, the temples of Angkor (p408)lie just over the border in Cambodia. Choose from Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building; Bayon, the world’s weirdest; or Ta Prohm, where nature runs amok. Siem Reap is the base for exploring Angkor and it’s a buzzing destination with a superb selection of restaurants and bars. Beyond the temples lie floating villages on the Tonlé Sap Lake, adrenalinfilled activities such as quad biking, and cultured pursuits such as cooking classes and bird-watching.
10. Biking the North
Saddle up for the ride of a lifetime into the mountains of Vietnam’s deep north (p120). From Ha noi, journey through sleppy Mai Chau and the historic battlefields of Dien Bien Phu before crossing the 1900m Tram Ton Pass to the stunning scenery and cascading rice terraces around Sapa. Continue east to the mosaic of ethnic minorities around Bac Ha before pushing on to challenging Ha Giang province, Vietnam’s hugely spectacular destination for intrepid travellers. In all parts of the north, look forward to the road trip of your life. Ha Giang province (p140)
One of the most accessible and impressive protected areas in Vietnam, Cat Tien (p282) lies conveniently midway between Ho Chi Minh City and Dalat. Popular activities include trekking, cycling and wildlife-spotting. The park is home to the Dao Tien Endangered Primate Species Centre, where gibbons and langurs are coaxed back into their natural environment. The Wild Gibbon Trek is a must, one of the wildlife highlights of Vietnam. Dong Nai River, Cat Tien
12. Phu Quoc Island
Lapped by azure waters and edged with the kind of white-sand beaches that make sun seekers sink to their weak knees, Phu Quoc (p372) – way down in the south of Vietnam – is ideal for slipping into low gear, reaching for a seaside cocktail and toasting a blood-orangesun as it dips into the sea. And if you want to notch it up a gear, grab a motorbike and hit the red-dirt roads to your heart’s content: the island’s the size of Singapore. Sao Beach (p373)
13. Hanoi’s Old Quarter
Don’t worry, it happens to everyone when they first get to Hanoi. Get agreeably lost in the city’s centuries-old Old Quarter (p51), a frantic commercial labyrinth where echoes of the past are filtered and framed by a thoroughly 21st-century energy. Discover Vietnam’s culinary flavours and aromas at street level, perched on a tiny chair eating iconic Hanoi dishes like pho bo, bun cha and banh cuon. Later at night, join the socialising throngs enjoying refreshingly crisp bia hoi at makeshift street-corner bars.
14. Coffee Time
Starbucks may have opened its first branch here in 2013, but in Vietnam, cafes and coffee culture (p459) run deep. Virtually every neighbourhood in every town (and most villages) will have a little café where locals go to de-stress from the office, the family or simply the traffic (most are located on quiet side streets with copious greenery to promote relaxation). Vietnamese coffee can be served hot or iced (a real treat in summer), either treacle thick, or with milk (usually sweetened and condensed) for a double-whammy caffeine-sugar kick. Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk
15. Con Dao Islands
The furious energy that characterises Vietnamese cities can be intoxicating, but when you need an urban detox these idyllic tropical islands (p262) make the perfect escape. Once hell on earth for a generation of political prisoners, Con Dao is now a heavenly destination of remote beaches, pristine dive sites and diverse nature (including nesting sea turtles). It’s a wonderful place to explore by bike in search of that dream beach, and the main settlement of Con Son is one of Vietnam’s most charming towns.
Detour from the regular tourist trail to visit Ba Be National Park (p96), an essential destination for active and intrepid travellers, with towering limestone mountains, plunging valleys and evergreen forests. Waterfalls, caves and lakes combine in a landscape that sustains over 550 fifferent plants and hundreds of bird and animal species. Explore Ba Be’s natural spectacle by boat or on trekking and mountain-biking excursions, before relaxing and recharging in the villages and homestays of the local Tay ethnic minority. Ba Be Lake
17. Nha Trang
First things first: Nha Trang (p230) must boast one of the finest beaches in Asia, a breathtaking strip of fine, golden sand lapped by the balmy waters of the South China Sea. But there’s much more to the town than beach appeal, with river and island boat trips, ancient Cham towers to explore, natural mud-bath spas and a great dining scene. Nha Trang is also a party mecca for backpackers, for whom the bar and club scene is legendary. Nha Trang Beach
18. Bia Hoi
One of the great pleasures of travelling in Vietnam, bia hoi (fresh draught beer) is brewed daily, without additives or preservatives, to be drunk within hours. Incredibly cheap and widely available, bia hoi places offer a very local experience. Park (or attempt to park) your rear on one of the tiny plastic stools and get stuck in. Bites to eat are often sold too. Said to have been introduced to Hanoi by Czech brewers, every town now has a bia hoi place, often with a street terrace. Hanoi’s Old Quarter
19. Ethnic Minority Markets
Use the dusty town of Bac Ha (p137) as a convenient base to explore and discover a colourful variety of local ethnic minority markets. Dao, Flower H’mong, Tay and Nung people all visit Tuesday’s Coc Ly market, and on Saturday mornings the Can Cau market is the place to meet Blue H’mong people over a robust shot of ruou, local wine made from corn. Further afield, in remote Ha Giang province, Dong Van and Meo Vac both have vibrant Sunday markets (p142). Flower H’mong women, Bac Ha
Dalat (p272) is the queen of the southwest highlands and has been popular with international tourists since the days of the French colonialists. Grand Gallic villas are dotted amid pine groves and the whole town is centred on a pretty lake, with numerous nearby waterfalls adding to its natural appeal. Dalat is also fast becoming one of Vietnam’s key adventure-sport centres, with abseiling, canyoning, mountain biking, hiking and rafting all on offer. The benign climate here will be a relief if you’ve been suffering in HCMC. Highlands aroung Dalat