According to local legend, the Vietnamese Gods sent out a family of dragons to protect their people from Chinese invaders. These dragons spit out jewels and jade into the sea, which formed the dizzying, dazzling defense of Halong Bay. A junk boat trip into this odd realm is a journey to another world. Floating fishing villages wobble atop emerald green water, while sharp limestone peaks shoot skyward. The views are surreal, the caves are spooky, the monkeys are mischievous, and the adventure is unforgettable.
Sapa is a frontier town along the Chinese border that is famous for its wildly eclectic ethnic minorities. High in the hills and under the shadow of Vietnam’s highest peak, Fansipan (3,143 meters), Sapa is a world away from Hanoi. Tourists flock here on overnight trips from the capital to trek through latticed rice fields, mingle with local tribes, and purchase handmade souvenirs at the renowned markets. Be warned, if you travel here in the winter it is surprisingly frigid.
While all of the Western tourists flock to Sapa, the Vietnamese go to Mai Chau. Just four hours from Hanoi, this foggy valley of rice paddies is the closest place from the city to find ethnic tribes. Don’t expect elaborate costumes – most are wearing tracksuits these days. However, several nights a week, members of the White Thai tribe perform elaborate cultural dances that end in communal drinking and a hopscotch-like game. Go to Mai Chau to act like a Vietnamese tourist in Vietnam.
Can Tho (Mekong Delta)
The Mekong Delta is a beguiling mix of wilderness and extreme habitation. It’s a landscape that morphs from watery jungle to dusty urban sprawl with remarkable ease. While several tours leave from Ho Chi Minh City, the Delta is best discovered on your own steam. In the heart of the Delta, Can Tho makes the perfect base for exploration, be it by boat tours to floating markets or bike rides to small farming villages.
Hoi An is a town of makers: dressmakers, shoemakers, lanternmakers… Come with an idea and it will be made to order like a Subway sandwich in twenty-four hours. Girls the world over flock here to create special dresses while guys fawn over the endless possibilities for hand-designed sneakers or three-piece suits. A famous trading port for over twenty centuries, Hoi An is the perfect place to practice your bargaining. If you’re not shopping or exploring the historic sites, Hoi An’s unique cuisine is undoubtedly the tastiest in Vietnam.
Phu Quo Island
Phu Quoc might not be the secret it used to be, but there is still enough deserted white sand to spare on Vietnam’s largest island. The exterior is awash with untouched reefs, while the interior boasts protected forests and dirt roads that beg to be explored on motorbike. Phu Quoc is one of the pricer places in Vietnam, but affordable beachfront accommodation can be found. Get there soon because Phu Quoc is gearing up to become Vietnam’s next big tourist destination.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Explore the colonial city of the past (Saigon) or get lost in the neon lights of the city of the future (Ho Chi Minh). Either way, this city has something for everyone. Ho Chi Minh (as it is now known) is the friendly little sister of Hanoi and the commercial capital of Vietnam. With a lively bar scene, international cuisine, and high-rise hotels, this is the place to stock up on your worldly comforts before you head back out into the far-flung countryside.
The only thing worse than a long bus ride is a sketchy border town. In comes Chau Doc to save the day. This romantic, exotic, riverside village on the border with Cambodia recently opened a riverboat service across country lines. To make the crossing from Vietnam to Phnom Penh as painlessly scenic as possible, Chau Doc’s riverboat cruises straight up the Mekong in a matter of a few short hours. Quick Tip: Spend at least one day in Chau Doc to unwind before you float into the chaos of Phnom Penh!
The “city of eternal spring,” Dalat is a much needed escape from the muggy south. Located 1,500 meters up in the Central Highlands, Dalat was a former playground of the French, who built lavish villas here to escape from the heat of Saigon. This little Paris high in the hills is the backdrop for many Vietnamese weddings. It’s also where many Western tourists commence an Easy Rider tour of central Vietnam.
Hue makes a great midpoint on the North to South route through Vietnam. The city was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty in the 17th century and the capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. While the old citadel’s historical buildings suffered considerable damage in the American War, UNESCO protection led to a rapid restoration. On the edge of town, spend time exploring the grand tombs of Vietnam’s famous emperors.
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