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Vietnam’s past is a thousand-year tapestry of mixed influence, politics, and traditions. Centuries of Chinese occupation created strong ties between the two cultures. Then, in the last century, French Indochina encompassed part of the country. The colonial influence is palpable still today in the architecture, food, and language. The Vietnam War turned a nation against itself and ignited firefights that turned ancient treasures to rubble, but it also gave rise to a resilient and headstrong people and lifestyle that wholly enhances the Vietnamese charm.
One is limited only by their imagination when it comes to planning a Vietnam getaway! Diving, hiking, mountain climbing, and trekking invite the ultra-active to flex their muscles and dynamically uncover the best the country has to offer, while museums, historic homes, and marvelous, diverse architecture invite the dreamily-minded to drink deep of the land’s charm and inimitable essence.
Vietnam Top Attractions
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Vietnam’s largest city has been officially named for the revered Communist chairman since the 1970s, but most locals and visitors still call it Saigon. Visit the Reunification Palace, the 1960s decor of which reflects its exact state the day before Saigon fell. See that tank on the lawn? It’s a replica of the one that crashed through the gates of the palace (the President’s home at the time) and officially ended the Vietnam War. The Ho Chi Minh Museum is located in a pretty little French colonial building. It’s a highly patriotic monument to the life of Vietnam’s most esteemed political figurehead that’s well worth a visit. The A O Show, a more recent addition to the local arts scene, is a contemporary circus staged in the magnificent historic Opera House. The Dai Nam Tourist Park (a large entertainment complex featuring shopping, dining, cinemas, a zoo, and more) was a key component of Saigon’s push to welcome more visitors, and is always aswirl with energy! Food is amazing here: seek out some pho (of course!), fresh baguettes, and Vietnamese omelettes. Just outside the city, take a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, a massive and labyrinthine underground haven for thousands of refugees during the Vietnam War.
Many visitors’ initial impression of Hanoi is exactly the same: there’s a lot going on here! The sidewalk is jammed with the enticing fragrance of tiny food stalls and human traffic overflowing the streetside market; the streets buzz with zipping motorbikes piloted by singing drivers! Bargains are everywhere, and shopolaholics won’t know where to turn first. Hanoi is a thousand years old and deeply spiritual—there are hundreds of temples and pagodas here, the most of any Vietnamese city. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is where the beloved former Communist chairman lies in state, and is considered a main attraction. The thousand-year-old Temple of Literature was founded as Vietnam’s first public university, and the names of graduates are engraved on scrolls borne by stone tortoises in the courtyard. Those who love music will want to visit the Ca trù Hanoi Club, where traditional Vietnamese chamber music is performed in a scenic temple courtyard. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theater is another can’t-miss arts spectacle, one combining music, puppetry, special effects, and water.
The limestone inlets of the Halong Bay archipelago are commonly regarded among the natural wonders of the world. The karst landscape is extraordinary. Over the course of millennia, the encroachment of the sea has shaped the stone into caves, grottoes, and grass-capped peaks towering over the water like the jagged teeth of some great leviathan.The water is clear, turquoise blue, and teeming with a stunning diversity of life. Small marvel, then, that this area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pleasure boats crisscross the bay both day and night, many of them traditional Chinese junks outfitted with every comfort. No trip to Vietnam is complete without a Halong Bay cruise! From waking to the morning mist eddying over the water to enjoying the riotous colors of the floating markets and then exploring the nooks and crannies of islands great and tiny, your Halong adventure promises to be the journey of a lifetime!
Hoi An, once called Faifo, wears its heart on its sleeve. This city center was once the center of the Cham Indonesian spice trade, and foreign influences are strongly evident. The tailors of Hoi An are venerated as the best in Vietnam, a country known globally for its bespoke sewing skills. Have a dress, coat, or suit of the highest quality handmade to your specifications in less than a day, and for an unbelievable bargain. The Old Town of Hoi An is a designated World Heritage Site. It’s a pedestrian-only cobblestoned little slice of heaven, dotted with lantern-light and lined in adorable shops and cafes. The Quan Cong Temple and Japanese Covered Bridge (guarded by a sentry pig statue on one end and a dog statue on the other) are the prominent landmarks. Museums, old houses, great food, and swan boat rides down the river are all popular activities as well.
The ancestral home of the Nguyen dynasty, the last emperors of Vietnam, sits astride the beautiful Perfume River. The immense Hue citadel covers almost five square kilometers, dominating one bank of the river with the fortified walls of the old city. The other bank is a scenic promenade and sprawling park popular with visitors for its gorgeous views. The Tombs of the Emperors are here, with a river cruise being the best and most leisurely way to explore them. There are numerous hot springs and spas in Hue, as well as a strong tradition of fabulous massages. From Hue, one can take a day trip to visit the DMZ, the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. Tours bring visitors face-to-face with the emotional side of the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese actually call the American War) and offer great insight into the war’s causes and effects, both tangible and otherwise.
Mountain views, soft sandy beaches, gorgeous waters—it’s not hard to see what visitors love about Nha Trang, Vietnam’s most popular resort town. Swimming and tanning are logical pastimes, and you’ll find plenty of sun worshippers doing little more than basking beneath the radiant bayside sun. The best diving in Vietnam can be found here. If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find Nha Trang a gentle and unintimidating place to learn. Sailing trips of the islands are popular, as are visits to the fish farms and aquarium. Brave a trip up the mountains for a visit to Po Nagar, a temple dedicated to Vietnam’s patron goddess. Soak in the hot springs, plaster yourself in the ashy mud said to have healing properties, or stroll the quaint beachside market of seafood cafes and tiny shops. From Nha Trang, waterfalls of Yang Bay, Ba Ho, or Fairy Spring make for an easy and relaxing day trip.
|Primary Airports: Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN), Noi Bai International Airport (HAN), Da Nang International Airport (DAD)|
|Government: Socialist Presidential Republic|
|Currency: Dong (VDN)|
|Population: 88,780,000 (2012 est.)|
|Electricity: 220V/50Hz (American - north,European - south)|
|Time Zone: UTC +7|
Vietnam Travel Reviews
I had the privilege of traveling from South Vietnam to Hanoi in the north. I started in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, where I was able to enjoy much of the exciting nightlife and shopping one might expect in any major city. Shopping venues range from small boutiques to Vincom Mall, which features many major Asian and Western brand stores. Like most other cities in Vietnam, travelers can also enjoy spa services including manicures, pedicures, skin treatments, and massages at very low prices in mostly modern facilities.
From Saigon, I traveled to Nha Trang in the country's center. There I relaxed on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The beaches are largely uncrowded during the daytime hours; locals tend to visit the beach just before sunset. For the equivalent of $1 to $1.50, visitors may rent a lounge chair for the day. Vendors frequently pass by offering manicure, pedicure, and massage services as well as various foods and drinks. Workers from the nearby restaurants also often take delivery orders at the beach. Food and drink are also reasonably priced at less than $3 USD per item.
After a few days of relaxing in Nha Trang, I traveled to Hanoi, which harbors all the beauty and elegance of traditional Vietnam. Travelers to Hanoi may visit cultural and historical landmarks such as the old Catholic church and the French prison. Upscale travelers will enjoy amenities offered by the Metropole hotel and many fine eateries.
Stranger in a Strange Land
For anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh City, it is as different from the Saigon of old as its name implies. My memories of wartime locations, even street names, were almost totally obliterated by the new structures and ambience. The only faintly familiar aspects were the ubiquitous bicycle and the teeming crowds.
There is actually a sense of a boomtown, and you can see many buildings and hotels built in just the last decade. However, we were able to find the well-known Dong Khoi Street and its shops. Dinner at Café Brodard was still a very special experience – if I remember right this café has been in the same spot since the late 40s. I’m glad our tour service placed us at the Majestic Hotel. It has been significantly upgraded, but still has its sense of style and grace.
My side trip to the Central Highlands was particularly significant, and I highly recommend any veteran that can to make this trip.
For other veterans considering one of the increasingly popular tours, the Tour of Peace does an excellent job of providing a good way to handle the various emotions evoked by the city and countryside. Fortunately, more than 70 percent of current occupants have been born since the war. This creates an environment as new as the city itself, and allows visitors to experience the country as a new and rising jewel in the Asian crown. While I did not use them, I understand MilSpec Tours also provides great visits to the former Saigon and other key areas of the country.
A wonderful private tour in Vietnam and Laos
We loved it all but we especially enjoyed the overnight on the Mekong Delta, the cooking class in Houan, the fabulous food and hotels, Halong Bay, Hanoi, the night market in Luang Prabang, the incredible guides we had everywhere and of course the people we met. Tony of Ann Tours is a gem and will customize the tour to match our wishes
A Return to Vietnam
Between 1970 when I departed Vietnam and 1996 and 2006 when I returned on business, I witnessed remarkable changes. The people were cordial and open and the government and businesses had made strides to encourage tourism. The streets of Ho Chi Minh City(formerly Saigon) were still as crowded. The diesel-spewing military trucks had been replaced by late model automobiles. Those bicycle-riding girls in traditional conical hats and dresses (ao dai) are now riding motor bikes while wearing Yankee baseball hats and blue jeans. The city is dotted with name-brand shops, international restaurants and 5-star hotels. You must look closely for any remaining signs of American presence. Even the famous US Embassy building, where the last evacuation helicopters lifted off, was leveled in 1998 to make room for the new embassy.
Once in the countryside, the pace changes and the clock turns back as you watch a farmer plow his rice paddy with his trusty water buffalo.
At the north end of the country is Hanoi. The capital city is considerably quieter and rather serene compared to its big sister to the south. The tree-lined streets, lakes and parks are reminiscent of Paris. While some bomb scars on the bridges and the cratered terrain around the airport are visible, there are very few momentos of the American War, as the locals call it. The Hanoi Hilton prison camp was removed completely in the 1990’s to erase the stigma of the war and encourage Americans to come to visit. In the heart of the city, the Metropole Hanoi is a beautiful place to stay. The building is reminiscent of the French colonial era.
A must-see Hanoi attraction is Ho Chi Minh’s residence. Leader of the communist revolution, he died in 1969. The residence is a simple stilt building among a grove of trees in an idyllic setting.
Adoption Trip to Northern Vietnam
My husband and young son traveled to northern Vietnam during the summer months in order to adopt our daughter. During our trip, we had six weeks to soak in the sights, sounds and culture of Vietnam. We spent most of our six weeks in Hanoi, but also spent several days in Viet Tri, Phu Tho. Downtown Hanoi, which is a major metropolitan area, was a delightful mix of modern and traditional. We spent a lot of time walking around the city by foot, where we felt safer than we would have in many other major cities in the United States. We were able to enjoy steaming hot bowls of fragrant Pho from local street stalls for about one US dollar per person. We also ate at the upscale restaurant by TV personality, Bobby Chinn. While not traditional Vietnamese food, it was still amazingly good food, just as most of what we had in Vietnam was. In addition to partaking in Hanoi's many delicacies, we also saw many of Vietnam's treasured sights. The Old Quarter is not to be missed! This is where you go if you want to be fully immersed in Vietnamese culture, chatting with friendly locals or admiring century old architecture. Other wonderful attractions included the Museum of Ethnology, which highlights the history of the dozens of Vietnamese ethnic groups, Hoa Lo Prison, where John McCain was a prisoner, and the One Pillar Pagoda. No trip to Hanoi would be complete without morning Tai Chi on the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake, followed by an afternoon immersed in over 1000 years of history at the Temple of Literature, before ending the day at one of Hanoi’s famous Water Puppet Theaters.