Enter the Land of Opportunity
|Explore Vietnam from Dawn to Dusk (Corel)|
Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City and spend some time getting 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.
Travel northeast to Vietnam's South China Sea coastline and Mui Ne Beach, a windswept, sandy stretch of coastline perfect for windsurfing, kiteboarding, and sand sliding. Spend a few days perfecting your flips, jumps, somersaultsand emptying sand from your board shorts.
Skip the major resort town 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 express-yes, express; avoid slow, slow local services-train to Hanoi, where you'll briefly set base camp and get to know the city before departing for Ha Long Bay approximately 100 miles to the east.
Organize your multi-day tour to Ha Long Bay from one of Hanoi's many traveler cafés, or hook up your own private charter in gateway towns like Bai Chai, Hong Gai, or Campha. Ha Long Bay, inscribed as a World Heritage site in 1994, is a stunning collection of some 1,600 green-carpeted karst islands and islets. It's here that you'll snap your indelible shot of a full-sailed South China Sea junk silently gliding between a surreal seascape of limestone pillars. Allow yourself at least three days to absorb the stunning scenery, especially in a kayak.
Return to Hanoi for some city R&R and onward travel to Vietnam's mountainous north. Sip your French-press roast, snack on freshly baked baguette, and get things organized for some high-country trekking. Explore the city's atmospheric Old Quarter and stroll Hoan Kiem Lake, offering a tranquil respite from the relentless hawkers and motorbikes.
Depart for either Sapa or the Ba Be Lakes region to explore a landscape of contoured rice terraces, steep, forested hillsides, alpine lakes, indigenous hill-tribe cultures, and rare flora and fauna. Trekking guides services are available and recommended.
Return to Hanoi to complete your shopping and final postcards home. Either return home from Hanoi, fly back to Ho Chi Minh, continue northwards into China, or journey southwest to Vientiane and Laos.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication