Vietnam, to foreign eyes, is a sensory overload.
From its northern tip where quaint mountainside villages teeter on the Vietnamese-Chinese border to its tropical south where the vibrant Ho Chi Minh City plays host to almost 9 million people, Vietnam maintains a welcoming charm that reels in travellers all year round.
To most, Vietnam is the symbolic, historic heart of South East Asia that thrives despite a tainted, traumatic past. However, upon visiting this energetic country, I realised that Vietnam’s diverse culture far exceeds its fascinating history.
Vietnam is a must-see country – particularly for Australians who have the advantage of being just eight hours away. For first-time or inexperienced travellers, it is the perfect place to get familiar with the trials and tribulations of travel. The country’s exchange rate means buying a beer costs no more than $1.50 AUD and ten-hour bus trips start at just $12 AUD, while cheap flight deals to either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City from all major Australian cities are constantly available on Australian travel sites.
Although we highly recommend Vietnam to anybody who has the faintest interest in travelling, we’ve compiled a few of Vietnam’s beautiful towns, cities and attractions just to tempt you a little more.
HO CHI MINH CITY
Vietnam’s southern hub is a thriving, confusing and often overwhelming city that instigates a sensory overload for those not so familiar with south-east Asian countries. Renamed in 1975, Ho Chi Minh City was formerly known as Saigon – a name supplied by the French during their century-long occupation of the area. Despite the name’s controversial history, tourists and locals alike still affectionately use this name.
The urban hub of the south operates with an organised chaos that allows its burgeoning population to work and travel with little disruption: Vietnam’s most notorious aspect is its road rules (or lack thereof), however, once observing the roads’ chaos, it soon becomes obvious that the lack of regulation miraculously works. After overcoming initial fears of Vietnam’s roads, most Australians from major cities would soon envy the country’s minimal traffic – the motorbike and moped-ruled roads are an unavoidable spectacle that makes Ho Chi Minh City and the wider country truly unique.
Once you’ve mastered the art of crossing roads despite an onslaught of buzzing traffic, Ho Chi Minh City becomes an easily accessible city with all main attractions within a short walk of each other. The monumental Grand Saigon Post Office, which houses a colossal portrait of Ho Chi Minh himself, is a historical landmark where travellers can send postcards back home and marvel at the building’s nineteenth-century architecture. The War Remnants Museum is not for the faint-hearted, displaying the American-Vietnamese-French conflicts and the atrocious effects of the war on innocent Vietnamese people and foreign soldiers alike. The famous Ben Thanh Market is the city’s quintessential shopping hub, where everything from cheap souvenirs to fashion and fresh fruit, vegetables and street food can be purchased at negotiable prices – just make sure you’re in the mood for haggling.
Ho Chi Minh City is the ultimate spot to kick start your tour of Vietnam – the city throws you into the deep end of their fast-paced culture, testing your vigilance, road-savviness and negotiation skills while welcoming you with open arms with spirit and energy.
Just a seven-hour bus trip from Ho Chi Minh, Da Lat is a mountainous, tropical wonder of the Vietnamese highlands. Packed with Swedish and French architecture, Da Lat’s township is an eccentric albeit stunning sight which compliments the outskirt’s beautiful natural wonders. Da Lat’s world famous “Crazy House”, Flower Park, European cathedrals and monumental waterfalls make this often overlooked town a gem amongst Vietnam’s sprawling rural areas.
For adventure-seekers, Da Lat’s huge array of canyoning tours are crucial. Da Lat’s canyoning experience will leave you breathless, with 11-metre cliff jumps, opportunities to abseil down 25-metre waterfalls, water sliding and challenging treks jam-packed into a single day. If you still have energy left over, head to the Maze Bar for another challenge – to escape the indoor maze of this legendary nightlife venue.
Fast-forwarding to Vietnam’s north, we hit the charming, European-influenced city of Hanoi. Four hours inland, Hanoi is a gateway to Vietnam’s northern delights, including the World Heritage listed Halong Bay and mountaintop villages smattering the Vietnamese border. Although I spent little time exploring this eclectic city, it held stark differences to the country’s capital: the tight streets are home to teetering boutique stores, quaint lakes and historic East-meets-West architecture including towering Gothic cathedrals.
Although largely unscathed by the Vietnam-American War, Hanoi holds valuable relics of the chaotic period including the Vietnam Military Museum, the B52 Victory Museum and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in which the Viet Cong’s nationally-revered leader today rests. To make the most of Hanoi, stick to the Old Quarter where Vietnam’s ancient imperial influences have withstood centuries and continue to attract tourists with its traditional water puppet theatre shows, Confucian temples and pagodas.
HALONG BAY AND LAN HA BAY
No trip to Vietnam is complete without visiting Halong Bay. Despite its year-round abundance of tourists, the sprawling area surrounding Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay means peace and quiet can be found amongst the ancient, monolithic limestone rocks and mountains that are dotted across Vietnam’s north coast. The natural wonder of Halong Bay means tours are always available with any participating agency in Hanoi or Cat Ba Island. Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay can be seen overnight with plenty of ferries circulating the islands daily with drop-offs to surrounding island resorts, or overnight stays on junks can provide a truly remarkable experience with this globally-recognised mountainous maze.
To conclude the south-to-north tour of Vietnam, one must not forget to visit the secluded, nestled township of Sapa – an absolute personal favourite. Just beside the Red River and only kilometres from the Chinese border, Sapa is perhaps the most untouched, traditional part of the country. Sapa attracts curious tourists hopeful for a glimpse of untouched nature at 2000 metres. Local women will happily guide you up muddy tracks to reach peaks where clouds form right beside you. For a truly traditional experience, a homestay in the Cat Cat Village amongst picturesque rice fields is a must-do.
Although Vietnam is an undeniably overwhelming experience, these five diverse locations across the country only scratch the surface of the vibrancy and excitement Vietnam has to offer. My tip to keep those overwhelming feelings at bay? Just take everything as it comes. Despite the country’s relentless urban heartbeat, there is an underlying order and method of organisation and if you’re there for long enough, you will undeniably fall into the rhythm.
(Featured Image: Lonely Planet)