With its poignant mixture of beauty and tragedy, few countries are as compelling as Vietnam. From the lush, steamy Mekong Delta in the south, to the ancient temples and hill tribes of the north, this is a country that stuns visitors with its variety and seduces them with its energy and charm.
So it’s great news that Vietnam Airlines are launching the first non-stop flights from the UK to Vietnam, starting 9 December 2011. Served by the latest B777s, the flights will run four times a week and depart from London Gatwick’s North Terminal, landing in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. With these two great cities now a direct flight away, travellers can start their journey from one end of the country and depart from the other, taking in historic towns, tropical beaches, sizzling food and dreamy landscapes en route.
Built on the banks of the Saigon River, the bustling city of Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon) is a great place to start (or finish) your adventure. Fly in to Tan Son Nhat international airport, and head south to the Mekong Delta where, despite its past upheavals, the locals maintain a rhythm of life that reflects the ebb and flow of the waters surrounding them. Why not take a boat tour and explore the floating markets of Can Tho and Chau Doc?
West of Ho Chi Minh are the white sand beaches of Phu Quoc island, while to the north are the forested peaks of the Central Highlands, where wildlife is once again burgeoning thanks to conservation efforts. On the central coast, you’ll also find two of Vietnam’s Unesco World Heritage cultural sites: the old Chinese merchant town of Hoi An, and the citadel of Hue, lording it over the Perfume River.
Arriving in the north, take in the popular Ha Long Bay area, with its fascinating karst islands that you might recognise from the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. But this isn’t the only blockbuster sight on offer: the stunning scenery to the east of the Red River Valley in the Ba Be National Park is a must-see. It’s also home to the largest lakes in Vietnam, with rare wildlife like the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey.
As for Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, these two cities at either end of the country are also cultural opposites. Commercial Ho Chi Minh is brash, Westernised and brimming with energy, its ancient pagodas rubbing up against modern high-rises. It’s also home to some of the finest restaurants in the world.
The nation’s capital in the north is more traditional. The Old Quarter is a tangle of vibrant streets with boutiques, cafés and market stalls maintaining its old world feel. It is here that you will depart (or arrive) from Hanoi’s international airport Noi Bai.
Whichever way you travel, one thing is certain: you’ll come away with memories to last a lifetime.
Return fares from London to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City start from £650 incl tax. Book online via www.vietnamairlines.com or call 020 3263 2062.