Top Places to Visit in Vietnam
Although Vietnam still evokes memories of war, anyone who comes and visits will find a country of beautiful and peaceful villages with its soaring mountains and hills inhabited by at least 42 tribes, rich deltas, rivers with limestone hills, and cities with so much history and culture.
For European countries, it is easy to write lists of must sees. Europe has a legacy of buildings, walls, cathedrals and monuments that have become part of world culture and, hence, part of every tourist portfolio. Imagine going to France and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. Imagine going to Italy and not visiting the Vatican.
Asia is different. Certainly there are left overs from history like Angkor Wat and the Great Wall but so many of the must sees are not structures.
They are a people living and thinking in different ways and showing in their daily existence a series of values and understandings and hopes that can't be ticked off in tourist boxes.
Vietnam is a wonderful example of this. In a small village near Hanoi, two families continue a thousand year tradition of painting and printing making. On a mountain in Sapa, local people produce fabrics in historic communities that have remained unchanged despite revolutions and wars.
In the south, fishing villages continue as they have for millennia. In Hoi An, in the middle of Vietnam, is a small bridge representing the memory of Japanese traders and the Cham people that created it.
The hustle and bustle of local markets are often one of the most interesting experiences foreigners have of the place. In Asia, often the markets are not just places to buy what you need for the day.
They are places for people to meet and talk about the family and other developments in their lives. I often find men and women meeting up with their friends or relatives and talk right there for some time.
Some find coffee shops to share. There are always plenty of stools in the streets which serve coffee or drinks or warm soups.
For 3 years I was lucky to have lived in Vietnam and discovered many of its attractions and cultural treasures. From my visits of the fascinating places in the country, here are some of the places I truly appreciate and hope that they will be yours, too.
With its Old Quarter still intact, it is a lovely city to visit. It has a calm center, Hoan Kiem Lake, where you can stroll in peace if you're not one to explore the busy shops of the Old Quarter.
You can sit in one of the plastic blue stools in the street and enjoy some street food. The hot steaming soup is a stomach warmer in the winter.
Don't forget the Temple of Literature, a thousand year respect for academic achievement and understand the meritocracy that contribute to the success of the Tang Dynasty in China as you look at the stones of scholarship.
Certainly, visit the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi for its living history of the French regime and the Hanoi Hilton for its distorted history of American prisoners of war.
Of course, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the One Pillar Pagoda must be visited. Explore the different streets in the Old Quarter.
2. Halong Bay
While in Hanoi, you must schedule a visit to Halong Bay and the incredible ocean landscape it proposes. Its limestone hills rising from the mist covered ocean dotting the bay is truly a unique experience. Cruising through this in the evening and early morning offers you a spectacle that you'll only see here so don't miss this one.
Just oven an hour drive from Hanoi, this place is full of interesting explorations. The best, of course, is the river boat trip with a gentleman or a lady seated on cushions foot paddling under the shade of an umbrella the boat that cruises through caves and interesting landscapes inhabited by wild goats which is the local specialty food. For more info on Ninh Bihn, click here.
Sapa is well worth the train trip or drive for its terraces and occasional snow. Meet Vietnam's ethnic minorities in the hills of Sapa.
You can spend days hiking the mountain trails here. Though at present, to reach the peak of the tallest mountain in Sapa and enjoy the amazing view it offers, there is a cable train that goes straight there. Hiking the trails though is a totally exhilarating experience.
This ancient capital with its imperial cuisine is worth a visit. The Citadel tells so much of Vietnam's history but most of the city has been destroyed in the famous TET offensive during the Vietnam war.
6. Hoi An
Two hours by taxi from Hue, how An must be in everyone's Vietnam's must visit list. Go there on a full moon and lighted lanterns will welcome and a gage you into the city's heritage. An old trading port, the city offers old houses of wealthy traders where food is often served by the family for those who are willing to part with wads of Dong and souvenirs items dot the various parts of the house atop well crafted wooden hard wood furniture.
There are also the clan houses of traders that tell of the interesting history of the place. Close to some of the beautiful beaches, you can spend time in the beach or take a resort right on the beach and just taxi to town. Or rent a bike or a moto and just explore the city and nearby villages.
This is just a short taxi ride from Hoi An. In fact, you can land here when going to Hoi An and there are more flights coming. According to my local friends in Hanoi, it has the best food in the country. You can also enjoy the beaches. It is a much more modern city.
8. My Son
Heritage that is not too familiar to many of us, that of the Champa civilization. The ruins of this great civilization still stand witness to its achievement.
9. Nha Trang
This is a fast growing expat destination in Vietnam with its beautiful beaches.
10. Mekong Delta
Be transported by women rowed boats into the heart of The Mekong Delta where one can visit villages and watch people doing crafts or sample some of the local tropical fruits some may be for you a first time experience.
11. Ho Chi Minh
Vietnam's center for business, this city is the most modern of the cities in Vietnam.
See the Caravelle Hotel and have a drink in the Terrace in memory of the Quiet American and the noisy revolutionaries.
12. Phu Quoc
With still less tourist infestation, this pristine island overlooking the coastline of Cambodia is a haven for those who want to have a restful vacation.
This place is the hill station close to Ho Chi Minh. Because of its cooler temperature, it is the summer destination not just of expats but of locals as well. Dalat's flower plantations and hills will certainly delight you.
Even if I am not a Buddhist a visit to the temple and there are lots of them is always calming and uplifting. It keeps me in touch with not just the things I see but those beyond. It makes me listen to something more that life offers.
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What would you recommend as the best place to visit in Vietnam?