Enter the Land of Opportunity
|Tour Historic Monuments in Hue, the Former Capital of Vietnam (PhotoDisc)|
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon, and still called that by some locals) are the two main gateways to the country, and merit at least a few days' exploration regardless of weather. Consider book-ending your stay with time in each city as part of a three- to four-week tour. If you have less than two weeks to spare, you should probably focus on either the north or south to avoid spending most of your time traveling between points.
"If I were visiting in September and only had two weeks, I would avoid the south and spend some time exploring Hanoi, the northern mountains, Ha Long Bay, Hué, and Hoi An," recommends Wendy Yanagihara, author of Lonely Planet's Vietnam guidebook.
Vietnam's cities ring with a vibrant energy that's part of what makes travel in Southeast Asia so fulfilling. And although Hanoi in the north is a more reserved, measured place compared to frenetic Ho Chi Minh, a sensory feast still awaits. Expect ancient temples, colorful markets, chill sidewalk cafés, and richly rewarding encounters with friendly locals in both places. Downpours in the rainy season are hardly a city showstopper, either, rarely lasting more than a hour and easily avoidable by ducking into a nearby museum, temple, or café.
Day trips out of Ho Chi Minh offer a fun way to experience the riverine and rural rhythms of the life-giving Mekong Delta, as well as learn about the country's traumatic 20th-century conflict with the United States. At the sobering Cu Chi Tunnels complex, scrape through the narrow tunnel system from which the Vietcong launched ambushes and offensives against U.S. forces, all washed down with a hearty share of government propaganda and Vietnam War trinkets (bullet casings, dog tags you get the picture).
Ho Chi Minh's central District 1 and Hanoi's Old Quarter bristle with operators competing for the tourist dollar for everything from city sightseeing to onward logistics for Laos, Cambodia, and beyond. Embrace the spirit of free enterprise and haggle to your heart's content; even listed prices, however, will assure you local expertise and a hookup to get you from the major cities to places in between. Of course, there are cowboy operations out there, so steer towards established operatorsknown as traveler caféslike the Sinh Café, Kim Café, and Darling Café.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication