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 Parisien 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.
Travel 275 miles northeast by bus, train, or air to the coastal 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 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 Viet Cong to harry the nearby American 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 and Cat Ba Island from one of Hanoi's many traveler cafés. 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.
Return to Hanoi and stroll the broad boulevards and wide-open city parks, a graceful capital city that's an atmospheric throwback to the city's place at the heart of France's Indochine empire. Sip your last French-press roast, snack on freshly baked baguette, and 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