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A Vietnamese odyssey: how to plan the ultimate trip

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Vietnam is a wonderfully diverse country, where ancient traditions blend with the modern world to captivate and mesmerise visitors. It’s a land of spectacular mountains, bustling cities, natural and cultural wonders, and stunning white-sand beaches. Then there’s the mouthwatering cuisine that will grab any foodie’s attention, the French colonial architecture, and the friendly people.

We can’t possibly cover everything, and our local experts will be on hand to help you craft the perfect trip down to the very last detail – but to get you started, read on to discover some of Vietnam’s highlights and how to make the most of your time in this fascinating country.

Where to start?

Vietnam is a slim S-shaped country that spans over 1,600 km from north to south, which means that you could focus your entire trip on the northern or southern half of the country. Both have more than enough for a packed and memorable vacation, without the fear that you’ll be missing out on big experiences.

But for those who love to see a bit of everything, the good news is that travelling around Vietnam is both viable and rewarding. Choose between an internal flight or, for an immersive experience, take one of Vietnam’s sleeper trains – go to bed in Ho Chi Minh City and wake up in Hanoi!

Vietnam’s north-south geography also means that its weather varies widely, with the tropical south contracting with the more temperate north. Check the seasonal norms and plan your trip around your preferred itinerary.

Mu Cang Chai, Yen Bai, Vietnam

A tale of two cities

Hanoi is one of the oldest capital cities in the world and a vibrant, colourful, chaotic and fascinating melting pot of old and new, ancestral traditions and colonial heritage. Ancient temples sit alongside French Gothic cathedrals, while over 250 art galleries and a burgeoning street art scene attest to Hanoi being very much a cosmopolitan city.

Wander through the Old Quarter, avoiding the ubiquitous mopeds – or if you can’t beat them, join them to see some lesser-known spots on a Vespa tour. Discover Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) and watch locals practice tai chi on its shores. Grab an egg coffee, a local delicacy made of egg yolk, condensed milk and strong coffee, in the café where it was invented. Visit the 1,000-year-old Temple of Literature and take in a traditional water puppet show.

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and once known as the Pearl of the Orient, is now a vast energetic metropolis and home to over eight million people, so expect a total assault on the senses. Glossy hotels, fine dining and chic boutiques share space with the exquisite Jade Emperor Pagoda and the teeming 100-year-old Ben Thanh Market. Buy a conical hat and other souvenirs, and rub shoulders with the locals at the street food stalls.

The city bears witness to the scars of the Vietnam War, which divided the country and the world from 1955 – 1975. For valuable insight and context about this period of Vietnam’s history, visit the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi tunnel complex, an extensive underground network used by Viet Cong soldiers during the conflict. Or, for something altogether more Zen, visit the Giac Lam Pagoda and end the day sipping a cocktail with a view at one of the city’s rooftop bars.

Tran Quoc Pagoda, Hanoi

Natural wonders

After time spent in the city, Vietnam’s northern highlands deliver more than space and tranquillity. This special region, home to mountains, rice paddies and hill-tribe villages will be a highlight of any trip. You can choose to take a half-day walk or spend several days trekking and sleeping in homestays sourced by our local experts.

This area is renowned for its colourful hill towns and villages, including Sa Pa, with its lively markets where the hill tribe people come to trade and socialise. Here you can see the highest mountain in Vietnam from a cable car, or visit Cat Cat, a traditional Hmong village, and learn about the culture and traditions of its people.

Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Vietnam’s top tourist destinations for a reason. A maze of limestone karsts tower above a network of caves, grottoes and arches, reachable only by sea. A day cruise or overnight stay on a traditional junk boat is an unmissable experience and many trips offer stops at hidden beaches, swimming spots and remote coves nestled among the dramatic limestone islands.

The magical Mekong Delta is a vast maze of rivers, swamps and islands, home to floating markets, Khmer pagodas and villages surrounded by rice paddies. Cruise the waterways on a traditional sampan and watch life go by as it has done for hundreds of years. Spend the night and enjoy breakfast onboard.

Sunny day in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Charm offensive

Travel back in time in Hoi An, where virtually traffic-free streets and more than 800 well-preserved historic buildings make the Old Town feel like a living museum. Soak up the atmosphere as you wander by canals, past typical wooden-fronted shops with Chinese lanterns, traditional temples, French architecture and the ornate Japanese Covered Bridge with its pagoda straddling the river.

In a tradition dating back to the Silk Route, Hoi An is celebrated for its high-quality tailor shops producing clothes at a fraction of retail prices. Speedy turnaround times cater for tourists, so grab yourself a custom-made outfit and a great souvenir.

Hue is home to the Imperial Citadel, from where royal emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty once ruled Vietnam. This vast historic site consists of ancient temples, ornate gates and tombs, and some wonderful gardens. If your appetite for monuments isn’t sated, visit the Thien Mu Pagoda and admire its iconic stupa, or take a dragon boat cruise on the Perfume River.

Orange skies in Hoi An, Vietnam

A slower pace

One of the best ways to see Vietnam is by bike, where you can get off the beaten track and discover small villages and authentic culture. Meet locals as you tour backroads near the Mekong canals, greet the hill tribe people in the Mai Chau Valley, and stop to take photos of the spectacular scenery.

Slow right down and learn to fish with local fishermen on the Mekong River or while away an hour at a lantern-making class. If that’s not enough relaxation, head for one of Vietnam’s luxurious spas for a massage.

Landscape and farmer in rural Vietnam

Hit the beach

Vietnam’s coastline boasts some of the most stunning beaches in Southeast Asia, with white sand, clear water and picturesque settings.

Da Nang is one of the most beautiful coastal cities in Vietnam, and My Khe Beach might just be the prettiest as well as the closest. A few miles further down the coast is the family-friendly Non Nuoc and tranquil Tam Thanh, while from Hoi An you can reach the popular Cua Dai which has plenty of restaurants and bars and jaw-dropping sunsets.

South of Ho Chi Minh City, the small coastal villages of Phan Thiet and Mui Ne have charm and sand by the bucketload; Mui Ne is also known for its sand dunes and as the windsurfing capital of Southeast Asia.

For a luxury beach escape, it’s hard to beat the island of Phu Quoc, where mountains and tropical jungle surround its turquoise waters. With its coral reefs and diverse marine life, it’s a popular spot for scuba diving along with the Con Dao archipelago.

Fishing nets in Cua Dai, Vietnam

Vietnamese cuisine

The country’s culinary heritage is a compelling mix of traditional Vietnamese dishes that artfully balance sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami flavours central to Vietnamese cooking, with a hefty sprinkling of French influence. It’s epitomised in the street food staple, banh mi, a crisp baguette filled with ingredients such as grilled pork, pâté and pickled vegetables.

Communal dining is central to Vietnamese culture, so join a street food or market tour in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and eat like a local, or take a group cooking class in Hoi An or Ho Chi Minh City. Just don’t leave Vietnam without tasting pho, a delicious broth containing rice noodles and at least a dozen other ingredients.

Vietnamese street food

When to go

On the whole, the best time to visit Vietnam is between November and April, but take into account regional weather variations and your preferred activities. You’ll have perfect beach weather in March and April, while October and November are best for sightseeing and trekking.

In the north, May to October is hot and humid with high rainfall, while November to April is cooler and dry. In the far north, December and January can be especially chilly. Central Vietnam has warm, dry weather from January to August and temperatures can hit the mid-30s, while September to November can see high levels of rainfall.

There are two seasons in Southern Vietnam – dry and wet. November to April is generally dry and hot, and between May and October, it’s warm and wet, with the highest rainfall in June, July and August.

Light on misty hills in Vietnam

A sojourn through Southeast Asia

Vietnam’s shared land borders with Cambodia, Laos and China make it easy for a voyage of discovery through some of some of the world’s most fascinating cultures, landscapes and warm hospitality. Add on nearby Thailand, land of smiles – it may be the start of a love affair with Southeast Asia.

Make it happen

Ready to start planning your trip? Get in touch with our locally-based experts who will tailor a Vietnamese holiday to remember.

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