|The River Runs Through: Plying the lazy waters of the Thu Bon River in old Hoi An (Alistair Wearmouth)|
Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City and spend some time getting to grips with the chaos that is downtown. But, your first task: get out of the famously muddled Tan Son Nhat Airport, Vietnam's southerly international gateway. 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 and a combo full-day tour of Vietnam's weirdly cult-like Cao Dai temple and the humbling Cu Chi tunnels, used by the Viet Cong to strike at the Saigon suburbs and supply lines during the war.
Depart Ho Chi Minh by private minibus (book tickets from Kim Café or Sinh Café on Pham Ngu Lao Street) 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 Delta. Popular today amongst Vietnamese honeymooners, Dalat is a somewhat tawdry relic of the country's colonial past, though it's certainly worth a detour just for the highland scenery and a taste of Vietnamese café culture while sipping java by the lake.
Travel the relatively short 130 miles toward the coast and the resort town of Nha Trang. Spend one day lounging on the four-mile-long beach and exploring the Cham Ponagar Temple, an overgrown temple complex built between 7 and 12 A.D. that was once the epicenter of Vietnam's powerful Cham Kingdom. Escape several miles south to the quaint fishing hamlet of Cau Da, where you'll also find the villa of former Emperor Bao Dai—now a hotel popular with government apparatchiks. Spend one day cruising the islands and hidden coves of Nha Trang Bay in the uproarious company of Mama Hahn, if not for the liquid refreshment, then for the snorkeling and delectable seafood lunches.
Back on the road for a bumpy 12-hour minibus ride to Hoi An, an ancient trading port settled by 16th-century traders carrying silk, spices, and tea to and from China. 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 U.S. 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 Viet Cong to harry the nearby American airbase. Fly back to Ho Chi Minh for your return trip home, or a final chance to utilize your now-perfect haggling skills in the city's markets and bazaars.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication