Its French colonial past, war history, rich hill-tribe culture, mouthwatering food, ancient towns and great beaches have long made Vietnam a popular choice for visitors to Southeast Asia.
And since 2018, it’s become even easier to visit after the government extended its visa-waiver scheme for a further three years. This means UK travellers can travel to Vietnam for up to 15 days without any extra documents and just an e-visa if staying up to 30 days.
Roughly split into North, Central and South, Vietnam’s geography, covering everything from caves and mountains to historic cities and coastal towns, makes any type of trip possible, from full-on adventure to culture-rich itineraries (with time for massages), plus numerous luxury hotels, spas and resorts.
And with delicious home-grown ingredients, Vietnamese food (and coffee) is another draw; full of flavour, colour and variety. Think bowls of pho (noodle soup), fusion French-Vietnamese bánh mì (baguettes filled with meat or veg), fresh spring rolls known as ‘summer rolls’, pork and prawn pancakes. Not forgetting tropical fruits such as mangosteen and jackfruit, plus an abundance of fresh fish and seafood. For the culinary inspired, book cookery classes and market visits.
While Ho Chi Minh City is the better-known of Vietnam’s metropolises, its capital is Hanoi in the north. With wide European-style avenues, fantastic bakeries and French colonial architecture, such as the opera house, the city has evolved into an elegant, if chaotic, town. Don’t miss morning tai chi at Hoan Kiem Lake, zipping around the city by scooter or tuk-tuk, and strolling past temples, pagodas and through the maze-like Old Quarter. Don’t miss Hanoi’s mausoleum if you want to see the embalmed body of Communist revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh himself.
Two of Vietnam’s most popular natural wonders are also in the north. Halong Bay, with its limestone karsts rising out of the water, is one of the country’s most famous sights and best visited on an overnight cruise, while for walkers, the rice paddies and mountains of the Sapa region are wonderful. Then there’s Ninh Binh, known as ‘Halong Bay on land’, and further south, the caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park including Hang Son Doong, so large it has its own weather system.
Domestic flights are cheap and private transfers common, but for an adventure, try the Reunification Express train that links Vietnam from north to south. In Central Vietnam is the ancient citadel of Hue, picturesquely located on the Perfume River, an evocative place with its colourful Thanh Toan Bridge, royal tombs and the Forbidden Purple City. Inland and two hours’ north is the former De-Militarised Zone (DMZ) and places such as the fishing village of Vinh Moc where residents dug underground tunnels to avoid US bombs.
Other highlights in central Vietnam include Danang, where there’s plenty of high-end accommodation and sugar-white beaches. And foodies, take note: the InterContinental’s restaurant La Maison 1888 was Vietnam’s first to gain a Michelin-starred chef when Michel Roux first came to Asia.
Once a relatively sleepy river town, Hoi An has transformed into a sizeable place, with visitors attracted to its ornate Chinese temples, lively riverside scene, and talented tailors. Bring clothes you’d love a replica of, or even pictures, and let the dressmakers do the rest.
South-central Vietnam has some of the country’s most popular beaches, great for watersports, families and nightlife. Once-quiet Nha Trang is now a busy beach town but for many, its facilities and beaches are ideal — you only have to head up the coast for quieter spots. Mui Ne offers a less hectic, low-rise alternative but is still well-developed.
Modern Vietnam is best epitomised by Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), once known as Saigon, a city of skyscrapers, malls, rooftop bars and sleek hotels, some home to war correspondents in the ‘60s; all alongside traditional markets, street-food stands and everyday life. The War Remnants Museum offers an insight into the tragic Vietnam/American War while out of town, the Cu Chi tunnels built by the Viet Cong further explain this history.
From HCMC, many choose to fly to Phu Quoc for beach time. Significantly developed over the last decade or so, it’s not the sleepy island of unspoilt beaches it once was, but there’s plenty to enjoy including all-inclusive resorts. For others, it’s about the Mekong Delta. Weaving its way south of HCMC, this river is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia and a fantastic way to see rural Vietnam with day trips, multi-day stops and luxury cruises all sailing past the floating villages and atmospheric markets.
Impossible to ‘do in one trip, Vietnam is a country that’ll have you back for more, be it spellbinding hikes, village life, beach massages — or just more spring rolls.
Why you should go to Vietnam