From exploring the world's largest cave to sipping 'weasel coffee', Vietnam has a new adventure at every turn. These are our favourite things to do in Halong Bag, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City and beyond...
Every Tết (Vietnamese New Year), Hoi An is transformed into a kaleidoscope of colour and light for its Lantern Festival. The celebration lasts for seven days, with the road from Hoi An Bridge to the Hoai River Square adorned with thousands of colourful lanterns. Over 50 workshops take part in the event, each trying to create the prettiest lantern. The colours are bright and the designs are strictly traditional.
The heart of the festivities is in the old town, between the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Cau An Hoi Bridge. It’s crowded, chaotic and festive, with spontaneous singing and food stalls at every turn. It is as much a celebration for locals as it is for visitors.
The most breathtaking sight is thousands of lanterns floating on the river; hire a sampan boat to get a closer look. For a small sum, you can buy a lantern and set it afloat too.
Don’t worry if you can’t make it to Hoi An for New Year: smaller lantern festivals are held every full moon. In 2019, Vietnamese New Year falls on 5 February.
With 1,600 limestone towers rising from its turquoise waters, Halong Bay is rightly considered one of Vietnam’s most beautiful spots. As a result, it’s on every visitor's list – and hundreds of boats offer cruise trips every day. The bay is huge, but it can still feel crowded.
Bai Tu Long Bay, just a few miles away, offers the same jaw-dropping scenery but sees only a fraction of the visitors. Here you can explore uncrowded caves and tiny beaches, and feast on super-fresh succulent seafood.
Boat trips to Bai Tu Long Bay leave from the crowded dock at Halong City, just like the ones to Halong Bay. But you'll head off in the opposite direction, to where the islands are a little less taller and a little more spread out – but, according to locals, are just like what those in Halong Bay used to be like.
After travelling over 4,000 kilometres from the Tibetan Himalaya, the Mekong hits Vietnam and slows down to a more languid pace. With islands, rice paddies, stilted villages and a way of life that hasn’t changed for centuries, it’s as if the river wants to take it easy and soak up the view.
Hitch a ride with a cargo boat and you can do exactly that too. Simply find a shady spot to hitch your hammock and gaze at faraway riverbanks as your boat, weighed down with fruit and rice sacks, ploughs the treacly brown flow.
Or, take one of the many commercial cruises that ply parts of the river. The cruise from Cai Be to Can Tho is a great way to experience a night on the river. As you travel southwards along the Mang Thit River linking the Tien Giang and Bassac systems, the channel becomes so narrow that you can peer into the riverbank’s rickety stilted houses.
Quang Binh province is a wild region of barely penetrable jungle in Vietnam’s skinny middle, close to the border with Laos. The area is riddled with hundreds of deep caves, including one of the largest in the world – Hang Son Doong. It contains a cavern so tall that a skyscraper could fit inside it.
The small town of Phong Nha is the epicentre for the area’s caving adventures. Here you can hire both guides and the gear you’ll need to descend into the caves.
If going underground doesn’t appeal, the area is also famous for trekking. The surrounding jungle is peppered with stunning waterfalls and an active (and noisy) population of monkeys and flying foxes.
Buon Ma Thuot is the regional capital of the central highlands of Vietnam, a gorgeous area of thundering waterfalls and the traditional villages of the local Ede people. Look out for stilted structures reached by a ladder and marked by carved breasts. In this fiercely matriarchal area, they can only be used by the women of the house.
Buon Ma Thuot is also the heart of Vietnam’s thriving coffee industry. The Trung Nguyen coffee company is the big player here and there’s not a corner of paddy field or industrial zone in the area that doesn’t bear their logo. The upside is that the coffee here is excellent – especially the 'weasel' variety.
Weasel coffee is the Vietnamese variation of Indonesia’s Kopi Luwak, produced with the help of small weasel-like creatures called civets. The civet eats the coffee berries, passes them quickly, and imbues them with a uniquely bitter taste.
Aficionados claim it is the best coffee in the world and are willing to pay big prices for it. You can enjoy it at the source for a fraction of the cost.
Pho is a Vietnamese staple – a quick, tasty meal made from four simple ingredients: clear stock, boiled beef, rice noodles and herbs or green onions. In Vietnam, you’ll find it served on street corners and upscale restaurants and in every family home.
Hanoi has gained a reputation as the pho capital of Vietnam. Every restaurant here boasts a secret recipe – and you'll find one of the best at Pho Thin on Lo Duc in the historic French Quarter. This unassuming pho house, with wooden benches and laminated tables, does things a little differently – such as stir-frying the beef in garlic before adding it to the soup. Local foodies insist it gives the pho an unusual smokiness, not found in other restaurants. Pho Thin is always packed.
More than 60 per cent of Vietnam’s population was born after the end of the Vietnam War. But that doesn’t mean its war-torn history is ignored. As a nation, Vietnam has moved on, but the sacrifices made by both sides of the conflict are still remembered in Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum has many informative exhibitions, and explains the country's bloody past through photographs, artefacts and memorabilia. It's sensitively done, without glossing over the atrocities, and (rather ironically) is housed in the Gia Long Palace, where Ngo Dinh Diem spent his final hours in power before his assassination in 1963.
The War Remnants Museum is a more grisly – but equally essential – reminder of local atrocities. From eerie bomb remnants and first-person accounts by war veterans to a bloodied guillotine and photographs of horrific napalm burns, this is a chilling reminder of life not-too-long ago.
Tây Ninh, a busy town on the Mekong Delta, is perhaps the most unlikely holy city on the planet. Here, amongst the busy streets stalls and noisy traffic sits Cao Dai Temple, the Holy See of the Cao Dai religion.
Caodaism is a Vietnamese hybrid religion founded in the 1920s. It fuses Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, occult and Islam with the ultimate aim to break free of the cycle of life and death. The sect reveres, among others: Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and even French novelist Victor Hugo.
From a distance, the temple’s towers resemble a parochial church. But closer inspection reveals an eclectic facade with sword-brandishing gods, swastikas, a Communist red star and an Orwellian all-seeing eye.
Prayers are conducted four times a day, with the one at noon popular with day-trippers from Ho Chi Minh City.
Halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, Hue marked the divide between the north and the south during the Vietnam war. Set upon the pretty Perfume River, it has always played an important part in Vietnamese history and is dotted with important historical sites.
It is also a great place to cycle. Set off in the cool of the morning and head three kilometres out of town to the Tiger Fighting arena. It was Vietnam’s version of the Colosseum, a place where elephants and tigers would fight to honour the strength of the monarchy. Next, head to Tu Duc Tomb before reaching Vong Canh Hill – the best spot for panoramic views of the Perfume River.
From Vong Canh Hill it’s downhill to one of Hue's most atmospheric pagodas, Tu Hieu, which is located in a tranquil and picturesque pine forest. Swing by the tomb of Minh Mangl, the second emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, before heading back to town.
Upon reaching the walled fortress of the Imperial Citadel, you have two choices: take a leisurely cycle through the UNESCO World Heritage Site and Vietnam's version of the Forbidden City, or enjoy a relaxing drink next to the Perfume River.
Sound too much like hard work? You find any number of cyclo drivers nearby to do all the effort for you.
The market town of Sapa, in Vietnam’s mountainous north, first became popular as a French hill station in the 1930s. Set on a 1,650m-high mountain ridge, the town boasts fabulous views of the Hoang Lien Mountains and a colourful market attended by hill tribes from the surrounding countryside every Saturday.
The town has become increasingly popular with tourists, but there are still old traditions hidden in its secret corners. One of those is the Love Market, where Dao (and H’mong) men and women come from miles around to sing songs of love to each other. It was originally held at the end of trading at the Saturday markets, but over-zealous visitors taking intrusive photos has driven the tradition underground.
The Love Market still exists, but now it takes place in secret locations in the dead of night, well away from the gaze of visitors. But if your interest is genuine and you can find a local willing to trust you, the romance can still be found.
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