Vietnam: a Guide for First-Timers

7 March 2016

With more than four thousand years of history, echoes of other cultures from the Chinese to the French, and a young and vibrant population looking firmly ahead in a new century, Vietnam is a compelling destination. Here's where to go and what to do on your first trip to one of southeast Asia's most diverse countries.

The entrance to the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), Hanoi. Credit: iStock.com The entrance to the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), Hanoi. Credit: iStock.com

 

Hanoi

Buddhist temples, wide boulevards and colonial architecture all combine in Vietnam's historic and cultural northern capital, but it's now also developing as a modern and vibrant city. Get up at dawn to join the locals doing tai chi around Hoan Kiem Lake, tag along on a street food tour through the labyrinthine Old Quarter, and understand the Vietnamese perspective on 20th-century history at the Vietnam Military History Museum and the former Hoa La Prison.

Don't Miss: Drinking bia hoi (fresh beer) and eating nem Saigon (deep-fried spring rolls) at a makeshift sidewalk bar.

Hmong women in Sapa, northern Vietnam. Credit: iStock.com Hmong women in Sapa, northern Vietnam. Credit: iStock.com

 

Sapa

Perched high in the Hoang Lien mountains near the Chinese border, Sapa was originally built as a cool climate hill station retreat for the French colonial residents of Hanoi. Take an overnight train from the capital and enjoy a few days trekking around cascading rice terraces and through mountain valleys to the villages of northern Vietnam's ethnic minorities. The Hmong are known for their handicrafts, and an hour in a forest herb-laden Red Dzao steam bath is essential relaxation after a day's walking.

Don't Miss: Dining at the Hill Station Signature Restaurant which combines misty valley views with dishes inspired by the culinary traditions of the Hmong people. Menu highlights include ash-baked trout and smoked buffalo meat.

Halong Bay. Credit: Brett Atkinson Halong Bay. Credit: Brett Atkinson

 

Halong Bay

More than 2000 karst limestone islands rise amid sheltered waters in northern Vietnam's most popular destination. Day trips from Hanoi are offered, but they are extremely rushed, and at least an overnight trip to explore Halong Bay is highly recommended. Ideally, book for an even longer journey, and your trip on a comfortable converted junk will include areas of the bay that are less visited by the flotilla of tourist boats. Highlights of most Halong Bay trips include sea kayaking into grottoes and hidden lagoons, and climbing more than 400 steps for superb views from the summit of Titop Island.

Don't Miss: Waking early on a misty morning to share the first coffee of the day with your boat's crew.

Boats on the Thu Bon River, Hoi An. Credit: iStock.com Boats on the Thu Bon River, Hoi An. Credit: iStock.com

 

Hoi An

Hoi An's World Heritage-listed townscape blends diverse architectural styles – including Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese – reflecting when the riverine location was a major international trading port in past centuries. Now Hoi An's storied streets are all about tourism and commerce, and prime shopping opportunities include the town's renowned tailors. Handmade shoes and chic and stylish homewares are also good buys. Be sure to give the credit card a breather though, and join a tour by vintage Vespa, mountain bike or kayak to explore interesting villages and beaches in the local area.

Don't Miss: Taking a Vietnamese cookery class to learn how to make Hoi An specialties like banh vac ('White Rose' dumplings).

A vendor at a street market in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Credit: iStock.com A vendor at a street market in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Credit: iStock.com

 

Ho Chi Minh City

Sprawling, energetic, and often very different from more cultural Hanoi in the north, Vietnam's southern business capital is an enthralling mashup of crazy traffic, vibrant nightlife, and echoes of both French colonial times, and the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. Notre Dame Cathedral is an elegant colonial confection in red brick, while the poignant and extremely moving War Remnants Museum is essential to try and understand recent history. From Ho Chi Minh City, many travellers take day trips west to the Cu Chi Tunnels to further discover the tenacity and wartime spirit of the Vietnamese people.

Don't Miss: Watching the city becoming gradually immersed in neon while having sunset drinks in a top floor 'sky bar'. Options near the popular Ben Thanh market include Air 360, Chill and OMG.

Brett Atkinson

Brett Atkinson is a full-time travel and food writer who specialises in adventure travel, unusual destinations, and surprising angles on more well-known destinations. He's based in Auckland but frequently on the road for Lonely Planet and other publishers in New Zealand and abroad. @travelwriterNZ