It’s hard to believe that this outstandingly beautiful archipelago was once an island prison. Today, it forms part of a national park, sheltering nesting sea turtles, primary rainforests, thriving reefs and endemic species. Con Dao is starting to receive attention from tourists and hotel chains – but thanks to its remoteness, development has been sluggish, and there’s still time to make the most of that.
Unusually, around 70 percent of Vietnam’s people still live in the countryside, and a homestay or hill tribe trek is a fascinating immersion into traditional Vietnamese life. Few tourists make the effort to head up into the hills, but the bumpy drive is worth it, as you can sleep in a stilt house, wake to the sound of the village, enjoy traditional music and dance and chat to the rice farmers.
Tales of scammers and cheaters abound, yet sadly the many stories of wonderful interactions and overly-helpful staff go unreported. Traditional communities are quietly welcoming and hospitable, while receptionists and hosts will often go out of their way to ensure you get safely to your destination and have a great eye for detail – without expecting a Dong in return.
Our Vietnam travel guide helps you escape the hustle of the tourist trail on your with trips to the less-visited national parks. Pu Luong has some fantastic hiking and the homestays with local families in stilt houses, while Cat Tien and Cuc Phuong offer the rare chance to discover Vietnam’s wildlife, with superb birding and elusive mammals including the clouded leopard, sun bear, civet and langur.
Cheap, fresh and abundant – Vietnamese cuisine is a taste sensation. Roll your own spring rolls, buy bargain pho on the street, or discover the satisfying French-Vietnamese combo of a banh mi baguette. Alternatively, take a guided shopping trip round a market to buy ingredients, then learn how to put them together in a class run by a local chef, so you can recreate your favourite dishes back home.
This dreamy seascape is one of Vietnam’s most distinctive scenes. A UNESCO Site, Halong is the world’s largest marine karst landscape, with over 2,000 giant limestone boulders emerging from the waters. Sail on a classic wooden junk, paddle into secluded caves and admire the sunset over the karsts from the deck of your boat. You can also visit the surrounding fishing villages, and a floating school.
A marvellous Asian microcosm of markets, temples and roaring motos, the city – formerly known as Saigon – is an instant immersion into urban Vietnamese life. You could easily spend several days losing yourself in the Ben Thanh Market, Chinatown, Taoist temples, lacquer workshops, Reunification Palace and the excellent, emotive War Remnants Museum.
Leap into the past on your Vietnam holiday. The lantern-lit streets of Hoi An’s old town are car-free, with evidence of Spanish and Portuguese settlers visible in the crumbling architecture. Tailors and artisans abound; this is the best place to buy a tailor-made suit or dress, as well as paintings and ceramics. Walk or cycle the narrow streets, browse the riverside fish market and visit a project for local children.
Vietnam’s answer to the Costa del Sol is not your postcard-perfect beach setting at all. The country’s fastest growing resort is jam-packed with tourists along with Chinese and Russian investors. If you do find yourself here on your Vietnam holiday, head out by boat to more remote coastal spots, sail to whale island or take a tour with local fishermen, who have fished in the same way for centuries.
With thousands of visitors each day, the tunnels are one of Vietnam’s most crowded attractions. The wartime ingenuity is evident, though the stories of what occurred here are brutal – and the information is entirely one-sided, which may grate with some. Crawling through the hot, narrow tunnels is an experience of the discomfort and fear of war, though the nearby firing range – complete with AK47s to shoot – is a rather tasteless addition.
Tales abound of cheating, hassling, and general unpleasantness, but there’s more to Vietnam than being ripped off, and many horror stories are overrated. Backpackers are likely to face the worst of it as they haggle to the last Dong, but you can avoid the main scams by booking taxis through your hotel, not always choosing for the cheapest option, hiring a guide and taking care of your belongings.
Half the thrill of Ho Chi Minh City is the adrenaline rush that comes each time you have to cross the road. Drivers are crazy, the motos don’t stop for anyone, and there are no pedestrian crossings – the only solution is to run. Terrifying at first, most visitors report that they actually begin to enjoy the adrenaline rush after a while – as they’ve conquered a truly Asian skill.