Vietnam: For Adventure & Luxury, an Insider's Guide
With an "open-jaw" ticket flying into Ho Chi Minh City and leaving from Hanoi, it's possible to hit Vietnam's main attractions in a couple weeks.
Insider's Guide to Vietnam - A Two Week Itinerary
Start with a couple of nights in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), enough time to shop on Dong Khoi Street and see some war sights (Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum and a half-day trip to Cu Chi Tunnels).
Most visitors see the Mekong Delta on organised, three-day tours, but if you're feeling a bit more adventurous and you have time to go on your own just take a bus to Vinh Long (about three hours).
Mekong Travel can arrange a homestay on An Binh Island. The next day rent a bike to go around the island or take a motorcycle taxi or car to the flower market at Sa Dec (an hour west), where Marguerite Duras based her novel The Lover.
Bus back to Ho Chi Minh City, fly to Danang in central Vietnam and take a taxi to nearby Hoi An for three nights. A former Chinese trading town, and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the centre is packed with handicrafts stores and tailors who can create suits and dresses in 24 hours. The next day take a dawn trip to beat the crowds at the Cham ruins of My Son (Vietnam's best ancient site, though no Angkor Wat). After breakfast, ride 3km to the Cua Dai Beach. The last day, either take a full-day snorkel tour to Cham Island; a cooking class at Red Bridge (phone +84 510 3933 222), reached by a boat ride from the centre; then pick up your new Hoi An tailor-made outfit.
The five- or six-hour ride north to Hue is best enjoyed if you take it in one full day by private taxi. You can stop off at Marble Mountain south of Danang, and visit cave pagodas and see views of China Beach below. Then drop by Bach Ma Mountain, a national park with a couple of thrilling jungle hikes, before finishing up in the former capital Hue for a couple of nights.
A day is enough time to see the Citadel in town (bombed during the Tet Offensive in 1968, now largely renovated), ride to a couple of royal tombs (Tu Duc's and Khai Dinh's are the best), and sample Hue's unique contribution to Vietnamese cuisine: bite-sized glutinous rice, tapas-style snacks, usually served with shrimp and topped with dried pork, and dipped into fish sauce.
Either go by overnight train or fly to Hanoi, for two nights. Walk around the historic neighbourhoods and Hoan Kiem Lake; shop in the cathedral district just west; and spend another day visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Van Mieu (the Temple of Literature) and the superb Ethnography Museum, a taxi ride east of the centre.
Finish the trip with a two-day cruise past limestone caves and swimming spots at Halong Bay, named for its "descending dragon" shape. Budget trips sometimes mean dodgy boat conditions; a reliable mid-range option is Kangaroo Cafe tours. Return to Hanoi and fly home.
Vietnam: For the Adventurous
Crossing a Ho Chi Minh City street by foot and weaving between an endless parade of honking motorbikes is all the adventure some visitors ever want from Vietnam. For others, there are more traditional ways to test your limits.
Vietnam's trekking centre is Sapa in the far north, where you can arrange overnight stays in Giay, Dao and Tai villages in the Muong Hoa Valley, or hire a guide to go up South-East Asia's tallest peak, the 3143m Fansipan.
Rock-climbing at Halong Bay
Rock-climbing in Vietnam is still in its baby steps, but already 100 climbs around Halong Bay can get you far from the usual water-worn path of the hordes of junk-boat tours. From the bay's largest island, Cat Ba, you can arrange climbing trips (including some free-falls into the Gulf of Tonkin).
Dalat to Nha Trang. The bus ride between the cool hill town of Dalat and the beach resort Nha Trang takes five hours. So does the bike ride. Phat Tire Ventures in Dalat will forward your luggage and get you on a sturdy bike to glide downhill on mountain paths all the way to the beach by pedal power.
Diving and snorkelling
Nha Trang's snorkelling trips tend to be more about booze than coral-spotting, but Phu Quoc Island off the southern coast has good dives during the dry season (October through March). Some local divers swear that Con Dao Island a pretty former prison island east of Ho Chi Minh City will become Vietnam's dive centre in the next few years. But if all you're looking for is a little splash and a bit of a snorkel, Cham Island, off Hoi An, has a lovely camping beach and some coral spots.
Dirt bike tours of the north
If you don't mind getting your boots dirty, several Hanoi agencies lead Minsk motorbike tours on rarely-seen roads of the mountainous north staying in hill-tribe villages, and winding up roads to Cao Bang near the China border. Try Voyage Vietnam. Trips cost US$80 to US$100 per night including bike, petrol, food, accommodation and guide.
A relative newcomer beach getaway north of Ho Chi Minh City, Mui Ne has a nice arc of gold sand but a lot of wind. Cleverly, locals turned it to their advantage, kick-starting Mui Ne as a windsurfing destination. Mid-range resorts here which offer some of the country's best value rooms in the US$30 to US$50 range rent boards and give lessons. If you can't stay upright, you can always slide down nearby sand dunes on flattened boxes kids rent out.
Vietnam: For the Luxurious
Away from all the street traffic and market hassle, Vietnam has a few places to ease into a quieter, more refined, pampered and timeless, atmosphere.
French colonial hotels
Until someone converts those gorgeous French mansions into B&B-style; boutique hotels, there are a few French colonial hotels to check into for a little retro vibe. Of the best is Hue's La Residence, a three-wing riverside hotel expanded from the 1920s home of the French governor. Ho Chi Minh City has a few options, but all pale in comparison to Hanoi's Sofitel Metropole, a sleekly rejuvenated 1901 classic, with wood floors, historic prints and shuttered windows atop a buzzing lobby that looks like it came from a Graham Greene novel. For a more sedate, French country flair, Dalat's Evason Mandara Villas Dalat is a relaxed 57-acre resort of stand-alone '20s-era villas with mountain views.
Remove yourself from the Halong Bay circuit aboard one of the luxury cruise ships that take to the green waters peppered with limestone towers. The best is the re-built 1910 paddle steamer Emeraude, with wicker lounge chairs on the planked decks and a live jazz band in the classy wood-floor cafe. In the south, pick your own itineraries through the waterways of the Mekong Delta aboard the more intimate 12-berth Bassac. Check www.exotissimo.com.
Vietnam's best is Ho Chi Minh City's Le Maison de L'Apothiquaire, built from a '50s art-deco villa and designed like a 17th-century chemist's shop. For spa retreats away from everyone, Quy Nhon's beachside Life Wellness Resort is backed by green mountains and the lone player in an off-the-beaten-track strip of beach between Nha Trang and Mui Ne. A bit more accessible is its sister spa in Hoi An, on the edge of the historic centre, with massages and body treatments in an open-area alongside the river.
Luxury beach hotels
When money isn't the issue, the mile-long private beach of Nam Hai between Hoi An and Danang, in Dien Duong village features 100 private villas and a "floating spa" that easily make up Vietnam's nicest hotel. It's nice enough for Mick Jagger anyway, who apparently bought one of the pool villas in 2007.
Shopping in Hanoi
Vietnam's shopping scene has long outgrown the Tin Tin in Vietnam T-shirts. For the most options accessible by foot, nothing beats Hanoi. Local designers, particularly around its cathedral district, keep an eye on changing, modern tastes. Mosaique (phone +84 4 3210 5387, 6 Ly Quoc Su Street) is a two-floor showroom of sleek home decor, such as beaded lamps and tableware. Across from St Joseph's Cathedral, Song (phone +84 4 3928 8733, 27 Nha Tho Street) features the Western-style (and sized) clothing from a Hanoi-based French designer. Hanoi's gallery scene is just north, along Hang Gai and Hang Bong streets. The classiest is Apricot Gallery (phone +84 4 3828 8965, 40B Hang Bong Street), with Vietnamese scenes done in oils.