Enter the Land of Opportunity
|Vietnamese Floating Market (Michael Freeman/Weststock)|
Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City and spend some time coming to grips with the chaos that is downtown. Central Ho Chi Minh is broken up into easily navigable districts, much like the Parisian arrondissements; District 1 and nearby Pham Ngu Lao offer the best selection of hotels and hostels. Spend the next several days exploring neighborhoods like Cholon and the Colonial Quarter while absorbing the old (pagodas, temples) and new (War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace) of this fascinating city.
Join one of the many day trips out of the city, including a full-day outing to the Mekong Delta or a combo full-day tour of Vietnam's weirdly cult-like Cao Dai temple and the humbling Cu Chi tunnels, used by the Vietcong to strike at the Saigon suburbs and supply lines during the war.
Leave Ho Chi Minh for Phan Tiet and Phu Quoc Island in the Gulf of Thailand. Spend several days getting your PADI sport-diver certification and enjoying the chill beach vibe, representing a slice of "unseen" Vietnam.
Return to the mainland and travel to the hill station of Dalat, 185 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh. Centered around Xuan Huong Lake and sitting at an elevation of about 5,000 feet, Dalat was developed by Vietnam's former French colonial masters as a hill resort for escaping the oppressive heat in the low-lying delta. Day and overnight trips into the surrounding hill country will provide a welcome and tranquil respite from blistering heat and ever-present crowds.
Skip the major coastal resort of Nha Trang for culturally fascinating Hoi An, an ancient trading port settled by 16th-century traders carrying silk, spices, and tea to and from China to the north. A laid-back, unpretentious town, spend your time getting fitted for a cheap tailor-made suit and sniffing out the best seafood restaurants. Rent a motorbike for a day and brave the area's roads to visit peaceful Cua Dai Beach or the ruins of My Son temple, set amidst beautifully lush countryside about two hours southwest from Hoi An. While the ride along heavily potholed roads is itself an adventure, the temple ruins, crumbling and grazed by wandering cattle, evoke an ancient past as well as memories of the Vietnam War (bullet holes are still visible from an attack by helicopter gunships).
Catch a taxi to nearby Danang (20 miles), the staging post for the U.S. war effort and bridgehead to the northerly DMZ, scene of the fiercest fighting in the Vietnam War. If time permits, swing by China Beach (of G.I. R&R fame) and Marble Mountain, a strategic outcrop used by the Vietcong to harry the nearby U.S. airbase. Travel north to Hué by train, arguably one of the world's classic rail journeys. "Of all the places the railway had taken me since London," recounts Paul Theroux in his book The Great Railway Bazaar, "this was the loveliest." The four-hour ride traverses the Truong Son Mountains, the geographical barrier that literally splits north and south. The ancient city of Hué was the former capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, and is centered around the spectacular Imperial City, modeled along the same lines as Beijing's Forbidden Palace.
Hop the 16-hour expressyes, express; avoid slow, slow local servicestrain to Hanoi.
Savor Hanoi's markets, temples, and wide, French-influenced boulevards and parks. Explore the atmospheric Old Quarter and stroll Hoan Kiem Lake, offering a tranquil respite from the relentless hawkers and motorbikes. Be sure to organize at least a day trip to "unmissible" World Heritage-listed Ha Long Bay.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication