vietnamese woman in a rice crop field

Vietnam - an emerging Southeast Asia wonder

February 26, 2015

Vietnam is a nation that is slowly becoming one of the hottest tourist destinations in Asia. As Thailand grows ever more commercial and 'been there, done that' for many travellers to the Southeast Asia region, Vietnam is now snatching their attention. What attracts visitors to Vietnam? An infamous history, culture that has eastern and western influences, beautiful landscapes, and the growing interest in Vietnamese cuisine.

Vietnam borders China to the north, Laos to the west, and Cambodia to the south. This has led to a Vietnam being populated by several ethnic races and tribes such as the Hmong up north, Khmer in the south, and Kinh - the largest ethnic group - among many others. The east of Vietnam is all sea. This means Vietnam has one of the longest coastlines in Asia. So what specifically does this former French colony have to offer with its tourism? A lot, really. To describe Vietnam in an easy to understand manner, we have to divide the tourist trail into North Vietnam, Central Vietnam and South Vietnam.

South Vietnam

Vietcong second war tunnels
Cu Chi tunnel gives visitors an insight into how Viet Cong soldiers used the large network of narrow tunnels.

We are beginning with the south because this where most foreign tourists start their Vietnam journey. Although the present capital of Vietnam is Hanoi, the nation's largest city and economic center is Ho Chi Minh City, and Tan Son Nhat International Airport is where most international flights land. Formerly Saigon, the city is named after modern-day Vietnam's founding leader, Ho Chi Minh. Many quarters of Ho Chi Minh City still retain remnants of the French colonial influence. Wide boulevards and historical buildings like the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City Hall and Hotel Majestic are popular attractions aside from the Independence Palace (also called Reunification Palace) and War Remnants Museum, which showcase Vietnam's tumultuous history.

On the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City are the Cu Chi tunnels, a 'must experience' attraction that gives visitors an insight into how Viet Cong soldiers used the large network of narrow tunnels as hiding spots when fighting the invading American forces.

The sampan boat rides in Mekong Delta
The sampan boat rides in Mekong Delta can take you through the lush farmlands of Vietnam.

The south of Vietnam is famous for its Mekong Delta where the sampan boat rides can take you through the lush farmlands of Vietnam. Popular province for such rural tourism is Ben Tre - the picturesque region offers glimpses into the laid back way of life for the villagers in the delta. There's a sense of adventure one gets when cruising along the coffee-coloured canals with tall plantations on either side. Some traditional items to try when in the Mekong Delta are Keo dua (a glutenous coconut candy), the rice wine produced here, and the shrimp soup (Shrimp cultivation is a major industry in here). The bustling floating markets of Cai Be and Can Tho are a must visit places of the delta.

Traditional bamboo basket, Phan Thiet
Traditional bamboo basket round boats at a fishing villages near Phan Thiet.

For something more modern, the resort town of Phan Thiet should satisfy your beach cravings. Offering sandy shores that stretch for miles, Phan Thiet is well-developed to cater to tourists seeking sunshine, great seafood and water sports.

For something you may not have expected to find in Southeast Asia, head to Mui Ne. What for you ask? Just a few kilometres from Phan Thiet are the Mui Ne Sand Dunes. These sand dunes will make you feel like you are in the middle of the desert - but without the throat parching heat. It's one of the strangest things you will experience in Vietnam, but one of the most fun activities when you slide down the white and red sand dunes.

Central Vietnam

Doc Let Beach, Nha Tang, Vietnam
The seaside town of Nha Tang is famous for its beautiful beaches.

As you make your way up the country from the southern provinces, Nha Tang is going to be one place you most likely will want to stop at. The seaside town of Nha Tang is famous for its beaches and particularly popular for scuba diving activities. A 'must do' is riding the Vinpearl Cable Car that connects Nha Trang to Hon Tre island, a resort island which has an amusement park. At night, the Vinpearl Cable Car's cabins and the nine towers are lit up to resemble the Eiffel Tower. It is quite a photo capture!

A 3-hour drive inland from Nha Trang is the hill station city of Da Lat which is famous for its pine trees and its attempts to imitate Paris city (visit the market square). Popular attractions include the Hang Nga Guesthouse, Lak Lake, Golden Valley and the pine forests. Three hours north of Da Lat is Buon Ma Thuot, the 'coffee capital' of Vietnam. Needless to say, one must try the fresh brews from this region at the many coffee shops in town and at the coffee gardens themselves.

Da Nang, Vietnam
Da Nang is a port city with lovely beaches of its own - all of which are a short drive from the city center.

The commercial center of Central Vietnam, Da Nang is a port city with some lovely beaches of its own, like Non Nuac beach, Nam O beach and My Khe beach (also known as China Beach), all of which are a short drive from the city center. The biggest attraction (quite literally) are the Marble Mountains, a cluster of five marble and limestone rocks, each named after the five elements. The Marble Mountains are home to several ancient Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, and one of the mountains (Thuy Son) has a stairway of 156 steps leading up to a summit offering panoramic views of Da Nang.

The tallest statue in Da Nang is the Lady Buddha, a 72 meter high white marble statue on Monkey Mountain. Entry to the pagoda at the foot of the statue is free and offers another good viewpoint.

For a bit of serene nature - and if you aren't afraid of heights - ride the cable car up to the Ba Na Hill Station which holds the Guinness World Record for the longest non-stop cable car. Once you get to the summit, all around are the lush greenery (and chill) of Truong Son Mountains with an impressive resort and theme park.

My Son Ruins, Vietnam
The My Son temple complex was one of the largest clusters of Hindu temples in Asia.

A few kilometres outside of Da Nang gets you such UNESCO heritage sites as the My Son ruins, the old town of Hoi An and the Imperial City of Hue. The My Son temple complex was one of the largest clusters of Hindu temples in Asia but much of it was damaged after Americans bombed the region. The Hindu temples are another reminder of the many diverse foreign influences that once found its place in Vietnam centuries ago.

The ancient town, Hoi An is a beautifully well-preserved World Heritage Site and was the largest harbour in Southeast Asia. Remnants of its trading partners, like the Japanese merchant homes, can still be found scattered across the old market. Nowadays a booming tourism economy has revived the commercial activity in Hoi An, especially towards art and handcrafts.

The Imperial City of Hue, Vietnam
The Imperial City of Hue is a walled palace fortress that was the former capital of Vietnam in the 1800s.

The Imperial City of Hue is a walled palace fortress that was the former capital of Vietnam in the 1800s. Much like My Son, Hue also has extensive damages caused during the Vietnam war. Fortunately, many buildings have been restored and the work continues under the World Heritage Site program to restore the glory the Imperial City of Hue once had.

North Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi, Vietnam
One of the main attractions at Hanoi is Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum - the memorial honour of the 'father of the nation', Ho Chi Minh.

With China right across the border, Vietnam's second largest city, Hanoi has for centuries, seen a large presence and influence from its northern neighbour. One of the main attractions at Hanoi is the large memorial in honour of the 'father of the nation' - the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where visitors will find the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh protected by a military honour guard (strict dress code is required). There are several Chinese pagodas across Hanoi, with the most notable ones being One Pillar Pagoda, and the Tran Quoc Pagoda - the oldest pagoda of the city situated on an island by the West Lake, a large freshwater lake in the center of Hanoi city. Other architectural attractions include the Phat Diem Church, whose design is a mix between Vietnamese and European styles, and the French-inspired Hanoi Opera House built in 1911. Hanoi is home to several museums such as the National Museum of Vietnamese History, the Hoa Lo Prison (dubbed 'Hanoi Hilton' by the Americans) and Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts among others. A short drive from Hanoi city is the famous Thay Pagoda and the handicrafts villages surrounding it.

A 'must see' when in Hanoi is a puppetry show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. The ancient art of water puppetry emerged centuries ago when Vietnamese farmers, after their paddy fields were flooded, would perform puppet shows while being submerged in the waters hidden behind screens. It's truly a fascinating cultural show to witness and one that is unique to Vietnam.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Halong Bay consists of over a thousand limestone karst formations standing tall above the water.

But tourists arrive at Hanoi for attractions outside of Hanoi's city limits too. The most popular of which is Ha Long Bay, another of Vietnam's UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Situated just off the east coast in the Gulf of Tonkin (3 hours from Hanoi), the stunning Halong Bay consists of over a thousand limestone karst formations standing tall above the water. In between are several uninhabited island and islets. Most tours to Ha Long Bay are by junk boats, many of which are overnight tours with stops at a few beaches and floating fishing villages. Ha Long Bay makes for an attractive venue to watch the sunrise/sunset or even catch the starry night on a clear sky. Although there are shorter day tours to Ha Long Bay, we recommend spending at least two days here. This will give you enough time to rent a kayak, explore the caves and spend time on islands such as Cat Ba, home to the extremely rare, golden-headed Cat Ba langur.

Terraced Rice Field, Lao Cai Province, Vietnam
Northern Vietnam is famous for its astonishing rice terraces and ethnic tribes.

Back on land, four hours to the north-west of Hanoi is Sa Pa Valley. Famous for its astonishing rice terraces, Sa Pa is nestled amidst the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, which includes Fan Si Pan - the highest mountain in Vietnam. North of Sa Pa is the border city of Lao Cai, neighbouring Yunnan province of China. Lao Cai is the starting point for the Red River in Vietnam. The Chinese descendents of this region extend to the village of Sin Chai, a popular destination for trekking while exploring the rice terraces. A 4-hour drive from Sa Pa to Bac Kan district is where Ba Be Lake is located - the largest natural lake in Vietnam surrounded by limestone cliffs and is part of the larger Ba Be National Park.

Rice terrace farming can also be found near the border of Laos in the provinces of Son La, Mai Chau, and Mu Cang Chai. The ethnic groups that populate these parts of Vietnam vary from the Muong to the Hmong, but discovering their respective culture and tribal traditions are one of the reasons why a visit to these provinces are justified.

Rice field, Ninh Binh, Vietnam
A scenic boat ride in Ninh Binh is one of the must do activities in Vietnam.

A drive further south is the Ninh Binh province in the Red River Delta. A visit to Ninh Binh is sure to awe you with the iconic vistas of Tam Coc, a scenic landscape that is best enjoyed on a calming boat ride down the canal. Other attractions in Ninh Binh include the Phat Diem Cathedral, Trang An, Hoa Lu and the Bai Dinh Temple.

South of Hanoi is the pilgrimage site of Huong Pagoda, nestled amidst the Huong Tich mountains. This vast complex comprises of Buddhist temples and sculptures, including the popular Perfume Pagoda built into the limestone Huong Tich Cave. It can get crowded here, so choose your dates wisely to avoid the pilgrimage rush.

Vietnam has a lot to offer

This was just an introduction. Vietnam has a surprising amount of destinations, attractions and activities to offer. In fact, each region can be elaborated on in a much more detailed manner. Some tourists like to explore Vietnam by motorbikes, by train and by cruise boats. There are several cruises on offer - be it along the Red River Delta, the Mekong Delta, or Ha Long Bay and the Gulf of Tonkin. We haven't even talked about Phe Quoc, the largest island off the south coast of Vietnam. Then there's the food - the world-famous Pho and Goi cuon are as revered as the croissants and baguettes the French left behind. Vietnam's Chinese and French influences left behind Chinese pagodas and colonial churches.

But what remains authentic and true to Vietnam is its culture and tradition. From the iconic cone-shaped Non hats to the pretty Ao dai dresses Vietnamese women wear, the nation of Vietnam has much beauty to offer the discerning tourist. War may have introduced Vietnam into the world's conscious, but the country's future is bright and tourism is helping change Vietnam's image for the better. And you, the tourist, can be a part of that change.

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