Vietnam is so hot right now.
Once it conjured up images of napalm showers, Agent Orange and Viet Cong-infested jungle, now Vietnam is surely one of the best travel destinations in Asia – a backpacker paradise to rival even the mighty Thailand.
And what’s not to love? Vietnam is cheap and cheerful, has beautiful beaches and food, fascinating culture and history, it’s relatively easy to get around and there’s heaps to see and do.
These are some of the best places to visit in Vietnam.
Don’t be put off by the perils of crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh City (a city that is still commonly known as Saigon); in fact, consider it an extreme sport. Anyone who gets hit by a scooter loses.
The former capital of South Vietnam is chaotic, smelly, crowded and noisy – but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Highlights include the ghostly Reunification Palace, the ghastly War Remnants Museum and the nearby Mekong Delta.
Something of a backpacker rite of passage, Ho Chi Minh also boasts an excellent night market, cheap beer and some amazing food (drop by Pho 2000 for a meal befitting a president).
Equally chaotic is Saigon’s opposite, Hanoi – the former capital of Northern Vietnam and current capital of reunified Vietnam.
You can’t help but compare the two largest Vietnamese cities (personally I like Saigon a little bit better). Highlights include the grisly mausoleum of former president Ho Chi Minh (above) and Hanoi’s infamous Bia Hoi corner, an intersection of cheap bars in the Old Quarter where travellers sit on plastic seats and drink cheap beer by the roadside.
Taxi drivers in Hanoi are a real pain in the ass, as they are in most places in Vietnam. Go only with taxis that have a meter – I recommend you flag down only Mai Linh taxis (the green cabs). More Vietnam travel tips.
Another former capital city, Hue in central Vietnam was home to the imperial Nguyen Dynasty, which ruled the country from 1802 to 1945. The city subsequently fell on tough times during and immediately after the Vietnam War.
You can visit the sprawling complex that housed the government, surrounded by walls and moats – as well as some of the tombs of former emperors. The Perfume River is the city’s major landmark but I think that’s a misnomer – the river doesn’t smell like perfume to me.
The weather here is notoriously terrible, which is reflected in the fact that I had a rather difficult time trying to find a photograph from my time there that wasn’t of me holding an umbrella, trying desperately to smile in spite of the rain.
Vietnam’s most popular seaside resort town is easily among the best places to visit in Vietnam – especially if you’re looking to unwind and party.
Think excellent backpacker-friendly bars with daily drink specials, budget restaurants and a white, sandy beach with pumping surf. Prepare to be hassled non-stop by locals selling you everything from hats and jewellery to cold drinks on the beach.
Large crowds of domestic and international tourists make this a happy hunting ground for thieves and pickpockets – so be careful! Meanwhile, you can’t leave town without going on one of the infamous Nha Trang boat tours.
Is Mui Ne the best beach in Vietnam? It very well could be.
More laid-back than Nha Trang, Mui Ne is a peaceful little beach-side town just a few hours from Ho Chi Minh City. It caters to all types of travellers to Vietnam, with flashy resorts and restaurants sitting next to much more budget-friendly establishments.
The water can get pretty busy, though, with seemingly hundreds of wind- and kite-surfers taking to the waves in Mui Ne. You’re going to want to watch your back as newbies often lose control of their boards on the way back in to shore.
My favourite place in Vietnam is a shopper’s paradise, with numerous stores selling bespoke suits and dresses, trinkets and local produce. But the main reason I love Hoi An is because it’s just so pretty.
I do not use that word lightly. Hoi An is a real charmer, with a river that’s lit up at night, a historic old town, a fascinating central marketplace and a great range of excellent restaurants and bars where you can get a beer for less than 30 cents American as well as some of the best food in Vietnam.
Two local specialties stand out, in my mind: wonton dumplings served up in soup or deep fried (above), and cao lầu – a dish of rice noodles topped with slices of roast pork and lashings of fresh herbs.
Dalat may not give a great first impression. Nevertheless, with some perseverance and a little insider knowledge you may be surprised how much the “Little Paris” of Asia has to offer.
Go on a day-trip in Dalat and you’ll see why this mountain town in Vietnam’s central highlands was popular with the colonial French, who built villas here. Unique for Vietnam, Dalat is relatively cool all year round, with pine tree forests, mountains and lakes.
It can be a terribly romantic place – but I would only recommend Dalat’s Valley of Love for a giggle. Of greater interest is the summer palace of the region’s former king, Boo Dai, and the Datanla waterfalls, where you ride a toboggan to the bottom.
Finally, no trip to Vietnam would be complete without visiting one of the most beautiful places on earth: Halong Bay.
You simply must go for a cruise through Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the natural wonders of the world. Neither words nor pictures can truly do justice to the bay’s majesty and breath-taking beauty.
If you’re on a budget, it’s worth wading through the mountains of different tour options, walking in and out of countless tourism operators in Hanoi to get a good deal. The prices can be drastically different with not much extra to show for it, besides perhaps slightly better food.
While I’ve got your attention, I suggest you check out Vietnam travel tips (learnt the hard way) and the ultimate travel showdown: Vietnam vs Laos vs Cambodia.