Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam – A Mecca for foodies and a paradise for beach bums, Vietnam is also loaded with cultural interest.
The Hue Citadel and its royal buildings in Central Vietnam
Unforgettable experiences are everywhere in Vietnam.
There’s the sublime: gazing over a surreal seascape of limestone islands from the deck of a Chinese junk in Halong Bay.
The ridiculous: taking 10 minutes just to cross the street through a tsunami of motorbikes in Hanoi.
The inspirational: exploring the world’s most spectacular cave systems in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.
The comical: watching a moped loaded with oinking pigs weave a wobbly route along a country lane.
And the contemplative: witnessing a solitary grave in a cemetery of tens of thousands of war victims.
A Culinary Superpower
The Thais may grumble but in South-East Asia nothing really comes close: Vietnamese food is that good. Incredibly subtle in its flavours and outstanding in its diversity, Vietnamese cooking is a fascinating draw for travellers – the dozens of cooking schools in Hoi An are testament to this. Geography plays a crucial role, with Chinese flavours influencing the soups of northern Vietnam, spices sparking up southern cuisine and myriad herbs and complex techniques typifying the central region, rightly renowned as Vietnam’s epicurean epicentre.
Thrills & Chills
If you’ve got the bills, Vietnam’s got the thrills and chills. Some activities require physical effort, like motorbiking up the jaw-dropping Hai Van Pass in central Vietnam. Others require even more sweat: kitesurfing the tropical waters off Mui Ne or hiking the evergreen hills around Bac Ha or Sapa.
And after the adrenalin rush, relax and indulge in Vietnam’s outstanding spas – from marble temples of treatments, to simple family-run massage salons with backpacker-friendly rates.
Meet the Locals
The Vietnamese are energetic, direct, sharp in commerce and resilient by nature. The locals love a laugh and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to socialise with them and hear their tales.
Generally, the rule is the more uncomfortable the (always tiny) seats in the bar or cafe, the more fun you’ll have.
Poor in parts but never squalid, Vietnam is developing at an astonishing pace and inevitably there are some issues to consider (including a few minor scams).
However, on the whole this is an extremely safe (apart from the traffic!) and wonderfully rewarding country to explore.
Vietnam Top Five
1. Hoi An
Vietnam’s most cosmopolitan and civilised town, this beautiful, ancient port is bursting with gourmet Vietnamese restaurants, hip bars and cafes, quirky boutiques and expert tailors. Immerse yourself in history in the warren-like lanes of the Old Town, shop till you drop, tour the temples and pagodas, and dine like an emperor on a peasant’s budget (and even learn how to cook like the locals). Then hit glorious An Bang Beach, wander along the riverside and bike the back roads. Yes, Hoi An has it all.
Perhaps Asia’s greatest culinary secret, Vietnamese food is on the radar but hardly a global phenomenon. Essentially it’s all about the freshness of the ingredients – chefs shop twice daily to source just-picked herbs from the market. The result? Incomparable texture and flavour combinations. For the Vietnamese, a meal should balance sour and sweet, crunchy and silky, fried and steamed, soup and salad. Wherever you are, you’ll find exquisite local specialities – the “white rose” of Hoi An, the canh chua of the Mekong Delta or the good ol’ pho of the north.
3. Mui Ne
Perhaps the adrenalin epicentre of Vietnam, the relaxed, prosperous beach resort of Mui Ne is a kitesurfing capital with world-class wind and conditions, and excellent schools for professional training. For those who prefer dry land, sandboarding and golf are popular alternatives. The resort itself has more than 20km of palm-fringed beachfront that stretches invitingly along the shores of the South China Sea. From guesthouses to boutique resorts, designer bars to fine-value spas, Mui Ne has a broad appeal.
4. Sapa and the Tonkinese Alps
Dubbed the Tonkinese Alps by the French, the spectacular Hoang Lien Mountains soar skywards along the rugged edges of northwest Vietnam towards the Chinese border. Shape-shifting clouds and mist ebb and flow in the mountainous area around Sapa, parting to reveal a glimpse of Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak. From the sinuous and spidery ridges, rice terraces cascade down into river valleys, home for several centuries to ethnic minority villages of H’mong, Red Dzao and Giay peoples.
The nation’s capital for 150 years in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Hue is perhaps the easiest Vietnamese city to love. Its situation on the banks of the Perfume River is sublime, its complex cuisine is justifiably famous and its streets are relatively traffic free. And that’s without the majesty of the Hue Citadel, with its royal residences and elegant temples, formidable walled defences and gateways. On the city’s fringes are some of Vietnam’s most impressive pagodas and royal tombs, many in wonderful natural settings.
> Zone 9, Hanoi
Filling a former pharmaceutical factory with bars, galleries and art spaces, Hanoi’s Zone 9 precinct is the city’s hippest and most vibrant new destination.
> Hill Station Signature Restaurant
In chic surroundings in Sapa, learn how to cook H’mong cuisine at the Hill Station Signature Restaurant. Wash it all down with a tasting set of delicious ruou (traditional rice wine).
> Cat Ba Island Hotels
New hotels are opening up on private islands in the Cat Ba area, including Cat Ong Beach Cottages, which has its own private beach and bungalows.
Vietnam Airlines, the state-owned carrier, flies to 28 international destinations, including Australia.
Prepare yourself for the crazy driving: traffic can come at you every which way, and in the cities swarms of motorbikes reach biblical proportions.
Try to keep calm and consider arranging a massage after a long journey. Be aware that Vietnam has more than its fair share of scams; most concern overcharging.
Though very rare, there are some more serious dangers (like unexploded ordnance) to also be aware of. Relevant warnings are given in destinations throughout this guide.
In towns like Hue and Sapa, and beaches popular with tourists, expect plenty of hustle from street vendors, cyclo drivers and the like.
Off the beaten track there’s little or no hassle.
This is an edited extract from Lonely Planet Vietnam (12th Edition) by Iain Stewart and Hanuman’s own Nick Ray amongst others.. © Lonely Planet 2014. Published this month.