Wearing traditional conical hats and colourful clothing, the rice pickers laugh and chat cheerfully amongst themselves as they go about their work, pausing every so often to answer their mobile phones. The scene perfectly epitomizes Vietnam’s extremes of old and new. From the colourful tribespeople in the northern mountains to the tech savvy teenagers on motorbikes, jostling for position in six indistinguishable lanes of traffic in Ho Chi Minh City. There are soaring karst cliffs, ancient cities, towering hotel blocks and rugged coastline. But there’s one thing that unites this long, narrow country of contrasts – the warmth of the local people for whom family and food are most important. That and the incessant honking of motorbike horns!
With so much on offer it can be difficult to decide where to go in fascinating Vietnam, so we’ve compiled our highlights to get you started.
The Hoi An Lantern Festival
Every month on the full moon historic Hoi An is plunged into darkness and lit by the light of thousands of colourful glowing lanterns. This former port town exudes an easy charm with its towering Japanese merchant houses, temples and riverside location, and the flickering lanterns will transport you back to a time before the modern day trappings of traffic and technology. We hired a boat to take us out on the river to release our own lanterns. As they sail away on the current, bobbing and twinkling among dozens of others, don’t forget to make a wish!
Kayak dramatic Halong Bay
UNESCO World Heritage site Halong Bay needs no introduction and is right up there amongst the best things to see and do in Vietnam. With more than 3000 rugged limestone cliffs rising majestically from turquoise waters it’s on most travellers’ hit lists. We went to Halong Bay with lowered expectations having heard about it becoming over-crowded and blighted by litter. But I’m pleased to say we were pleasantly surprised! We booked a day tour from Hanoi through Hanoi City Hostel for £28 each. There were just 16 of us on a huge 2 storey boat so plenty of room to move around on deck. For lunch we were served a delicious buffet of fresh seafood, spring rolls, vegetables and rice. Afterwards we had time to kayak independently, exploring little lagoons hidden among the rock formations. Before sailing back we visited ‘Heaven Palace’, one of the largest and most spectacular caves in Halong Bay and the setting for the latest King Kong movie!
Eat a Banh Mi
Now I’m not usually a sandwich person, but Vietnam is home to the most delicious, mouthwatering sandwich I’ve ever tasted! The Banh Mi can be found at street food vendors all over the country but Madame Khanh, in Hoi An – also known as the Banh Mi Queen – is the undisputed champion of this local dish. You know it’s going to be good by the size of the queue outside her simple glass fronted stall. The sandwich filling consists of pork char siu, sausage, fried egg, homemade pickles, papaya, carrots, parsley, chili sauce, soy sauce and her own secret sauce. We were devouring two a day at one point and at just 60p a pop they’re a cheap feast so great if you’re travelling on a budget.
Ride a motorbike in the Sapa mountains
For a change of pace and drop in temperature head to the dramatic rice terraces in Vietnam’s mountainous north. Sapa itself is somewhat devoid of charm but the surrounding scenery is breathtaking. Shimmering rice terraces are flanked by soaring mountains shrouded in curling mist. You’ll feel like you’re on a movie set as you sail through picturesque villages on your motorbike, passing local hill tribespeople in their colourful traditional dress.
Celebrate Tet in Ho Chi Minh City
The Vietnamese don’t do new year by halves! In Ho Chi Minh City every street corner was adorned with lanterns, flowers and new year ribbons, the pavements sparkling with foil confetti. The festivities centre around Nguyen Hue which was covered in fresh flowers and, this year, giant chicken sculptures to mark the year of the rooster. Local families in their best dress strike an impressive variety of poses to capture their ‘lucky’ new year photo as is tradition. At midnight the city hall is alight with projections of spring flowers unfurling to classical music, symbolising the start of the new year. Just be warned, if you visit over new year some of the tourist sites will be closed.
Rent a bicycle
It simply wouldn’t be right to visit Vietnam and not rent a bicycle at least once! The key is to pick your location carefully due to the aforementioned traffic chaos. We rented our bikes in Hoi An where there are more bicycles than cars and large areas are pedestrianised. It’s also possible to reach the nearby beaches of An Bang and Cua Dai by bike from Hoi An so you’ll be breathing fewer exhaust fumes and more sea air. Renting a bike in Hoi An cost us £1 each for the day.
General tips for travelling in Vietnam
- Cross the road like a pro: There’s something empowering about crossing the road confidently in a Vietnamese city. Once you get past the feeling of pure terror as 40 motorbikes race towards you (despite the flashing green man) and realise that as long as you keep moving they will part and ride around you, it’s quite a buzz!
- Eat and travel like a local: It’s cheap in Vietnam, but only if you do as the locals do. In other words, eat at street food stalls rather than restaurants and travel by tuk tuk or on the local buses rather than taxis.
- Be prepared for variable weather: Vietnam has a complicated weather pattern and a wide variety of climates at any one time. We visited in late Jan/early Feb as were advised this was the best time to go if you’re covering the whole country to avoid the monsoons. We went from 30 degree heat in Ho Chi Minh City to just 5 degrees in Sapa. We had rain in Hoi An and bright blue skies in Halong Bay. All this means a lengthy packing list unless you split the country over multiple visits.
- Haggle: Never accept the first price for a tuk tuk, room or sightseeing tour.
- Don’t follow your nose: Vietnam cities are a complicated warren of streets that are charming, but practically impossible to navigate without a map. I’m all for getting a little bit lost exploring the meandering alleyways, but circling the same block for 2 hours trying to find your hostel in the dark while steadily getting hungrier and grouchier is not fun, trust me! To avoid strangling your travel companions in frustration, ask your hostel for a map (most have them behind the counter) or even better download the maps.me app which can be used offline.