Vietnam is one of our favorite destinations for 2016: with so much on offer from top to bottom, countryside to coast, inland to islands, we think you’ll see why. It wasn’t easy to narrow down, but we’ve managed to pick our top experiences that are an absolute must-do on any trip to Vietnam. Read on to discover more.
A JUNK BOAT CRUISE AROUND HA LONG BAY
The magnificent Ha Long Bay is an essential port of call on any Vietnamese itinerary; 1600 spectacular limestone pillars rise majestically from the emerald waters off the coast of northern Vietnam to provide a postcard-perfect panorama. Celebrated for its geological and biological importance as much as its dramatic scenery, Ha Long was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. And what better way to explore the bay than on board a junk boat?
Although the go-to option for most visitors to Vietnam’s most popular tourist attraction, savvier sailors are signing up to overnight trips, giving them time to venture further east towards the less-visited Bai Tu Long. Don’t let the name confuse you; these beautiful ‘junk’ boats are designed in the traditional style with luxurious modern amenities. Visit floating fishing villages, kayak between the karsts, or simply sit back on the sun deck and let the world cruise by.
WAR HISTORY IN HO CHI MINH CITY
In amongst the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh stands the War Remnants Museum. Distressing as some displays can be – the exhibits include the infamous ‘tiger cages’ used to house Viet Cong prisoners, and a shocking collection of photographs depicting the sheer brutality of the civilian casualties suffered during the Vietnam War – it is a must-visit for any history buff.
A gallery dedicated to the international opposition to the war provides an optimistic balance to the chilling collection. 70km to the north of the city lie the Cu Chi tunnels, an immense network of underground passageways used by the Viet Cong guerrilla resistance during the French invasion and Vietnam War. The safer parts of the system are now open to visitors, having been widened and reinforced with concrete; crawling into the dark labyrinth gives you a sense of the extremely difficult conditions faced by the VC, as immersive a history lesson as you will find anywhere.
COOKING CLASSES IN HOI AN
Vietnamese cuisine is one of our favourites, and there is no better place to learn how to cook traditional and delicious local fare than the culinary capital, Hoi An. We can arrange both full-day and half-day cooking classes in the Old Town, where you will typically visit the market with your guide in the morning to pick up your fresh ingredients before learning how to prepare several authentic dishes from scratch. Local specialities include prawn dumplings, cao lau (pork noodles) and our favourite, Pho.
Nestled in the north of the country, close to the Chinese border, the hill station of Sapa is ideal trekking territory. Found amongst the highest peaks in Vietnam, the breath-taking views from the misty mountains across the neat rice terraces, sculpted like gigantic steps into the hillside, are well worth the climb.
Originally a French colonial retreat in the early 20th century, Sapa functions as a base camp of sorts for hiking tours through the lush green fields and tiny hill-tribe villages. The region is an unmissable stop for the adventurers and nature-lovers; the country’s highest mountain, Fan Si Pan, is located within the Hoang Lien National Park, home to a diverse (and endangered) set of animals as well as the Ta Phin cave.
MEANDER DOWN THE MEKONG
Charmingly known as the “rice bowl”, the Mekong Delta is the agricultural heart of the country. Conical hats, wooden boats laden with fresh wares, children clinging to the backs of water buffalo: this is quintessential rural Vietnam. Stretching from Ho Chi Minh to the Gulf of Thailand where the Mekong meets the sea, the delta’s rich soil is fertile ground for coconut palms, sugar-cane groves, rice paddies and fruit orchards, and a vast array of wildlife.
A sprawling network of canals and waterways, life revolves around the river at a steady pace, a world away from the hectic Ho Chi Minh. In fact, many of the villages are only accessible by boat. The colourful Cai Rang is our pick of the floating markets, reached from the main hub of the Mekong, Can Tho. You won’t find many tourist trinkets or souvenirs here; this is the biggest floating market in the Delta and very much the real deal, primarily as a wholesaler for foodstuffs. Look out for samples tied to the tops of long poles – this is how the traders advertise their cargo.
PARADISE IN PHU QUOC
Vietnam’s beaches typically don’t receive as much press as their Thai, Filipino or even Cambodian counterparts; and, although we’re grateful that the majority of her white-sandy shores remain peaceful and pristine, we can’t quite understand why. Vietnam can boast of some of the most beautiful beaches in Asia; forget Phi Phi or Phuket, it’s all about Phu Quoc. Vietnam’s largest island sits in the Gulf of Thailand, just over an hour off the coast from Ha Tien on the Cambodian border.
Practically unknown just 15 years ago, Phu Quoc is a low-key, laid-back tropical island paradise. Although the now-famous Long Beach has become a popular destination for the mass market, much of the rest of the island remains unexplored and unspoilt. A National Park covers about 70% of the entire island, home to hundreds of animal and plant species – and eerie, beautiful bioluminescent plankton can be spotted in the shallows. Charter a boat to An Thoi, a small archipelago off the southern coast, to enjoy some of the best snorkelling and diving around – totally undisturbed.