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Article Words : Nick Ray | 13 October

Vietnam Travel Blueprint: 4 ways to soak up the sights

Nature has blessed Vietnam with soaring mountains, luscious rice fields and one cracker of a coastline

Vietnam is a crash course in contrasts. With one foot rooted in the past and the other striding firmly towards the future, the country is a must for all those with a passion for Asia.

The mountains of the north are a stunning string of peaks looming over a land thronging with hill tribes. Here, the costumes are for real, not just the day job, with Flower H’mong, Red Dzao and White Thai people living contentedly in the lush valleys.

In the far south, it couldn’t be more different. The pancake-flat Mekong Delta spills into the South China Sea and the landscape is a patchwork of dazzling green fields, so bright they make you squint.

Linking north and south is a stunning coastline boasting some of the finest beaches in Asia, although they barely register on the map compared to the hotspots in Thailand and Malaysia. Hanoi, the capital, is the perfect blend of pace and grace. Here, the French and Vietnamese laid out a network of leafy boulevards and grand edifices around a scattering of placid lakes.

With some of the region’s finest food, adventures aplenty in the north, culture in the centre and quality beaches down south, Vietnam has all the ingredients for the perfect Asia experience. Sophisticated yet traditional, rich in culture, lavish in nature, Vietnam is a secret no more. Book a ticket today before it turns into the new Thailand.

Read our four travel itineraries to discover more about this fascinating country

1.Cruising the coast

A dose of history & beaches
Start in Hanoi with a pilgrimage to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and a snoop through  the Old Quarter. Take a flight or night train south to the old imperial capital of Hué to pay respects to the emperors-past in their tombs. Head over the dizzying Hai Van pass to Danang and the sublime Museum of Cham Sculpture. Slow things down in Hoi An, admiring the architecture, shopping, wining and dining.

 

Step further back in time with a side trip to My Son, ancient capital of the kingdom of Champa. Continue south and pick a beach: try the party town of Nha Trang, famous for booze-cruise boat trips and all-night carousing, or the serene surroundings of Mui Ne, the longest stretch of sand and the highest dunes in the land. Finish in Saigon, the freewheeling city of the south. Visit the sobering War Remnants Museum, go underground at the claustrophobic Cu Chi Tunnels and check out the Cao Dai Temple at Tay Ninh.

2. Minorities of the mountains 

The ultimate road trip
Rent a jeep or motorbike to take on the rollercoaster roads that criss-cross the Hoang Lien Mountains (nicknamed the ‘Tonkinese Alps’ by the French). Travel west to the White Thai village of Mai Chau for a night of local hospitality in a stilt house. Head deeper into the mountains to remote Dien Bien Phu, site of a truly decisive battle that signalled the defeat of French power in Indochina.

 

Continue to the old French hill station of Sapa, an atmospheric base to come face to face with the region’s many minority peoples, notably the H’mong and Dzao. Hike, bike or simply soak up the stunning views – this is a place to be savoured. Continue to the vibrant and colourful markets of the Flower H’mong around Bac Ha – home to some very potent brews – before boarding a night train back to Hanoi.

3.Dallying in the delta

Life in the slow lane
Welcome to a world of water, the rice bowl of the country, cloaked in a blanket of vibrant greens. Leave the suburbs of Saigon and make for Can Tho, the commercial capital of the delta. It’s a cosmopolitan city, famous for its nearby floating markets. Continue west to check out Chau Doc, a bustling border town close to Cambodia. The floating communities here include Chinese, Khmers and Chams. For a preview of Cambodia, climb Sam Mountain, which overshadows the border. Swing south to Ha Tien, gateway to some of the quieter beaches in the south.

Just along the coast is Rach Gia, launching point for boats to the island of Phu Quoc, set to be Vietnam’s Ko Samui in years to come. Chill a while here and soak up some sun before flying back to the buzz of Saigon.

4.The works

See the lot
Start in Saigon and take a brief trip into the Mekong Delta to see the floating markets around Can Tho. Head north to the graceful, French-era hill station of Dalat, exploring its lakes and palaces. Hit the coast at the beach capital of Nha Trang, before continuing up through central Vietnam. Hoi An and Hué are essential, but also make time for a trip into the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone), which used to divide North and South Vietnam.

The incredible Vinh Moc Tunnels are a tribute to the ingenuity and determination of the Vietnamese. Take the land route north, stopping at Ninh Binh to explore the elaborate caves and the primate centre in Cuc Phuong National Park. Head up to Hanoi and, from there, see the best of the north – cruise on the emerald waters of Halong Bay and take a luxury train trip to meet the minorities of Sapa.