Tailor made holidays to Vietnam
Vietnam’s founding myth tells of a sea dragon, Lac Long Quan, who fell in love with the mountain fairy Au Co. Together the pair had one hundred sons, half of whom followed their father to the coast and half of whom joined their mother in the highlands. These magical children are held as the forefathers of the Vietnamese people. This myth holds a clue to Vietnam’s landscape and cultural identity. A long, skinny country curled around the South China Sea, Vietnam has 3,450km of coastline and a central spine of mountains, including the highest peak in mainland Southeast Asia, Mount Fansipan. Vietnam’s shape is often compared to two rice baskets on a shoulder pole. The narrow band of lowland deserts and steep mountains in the centre give way to broad expanses of river deltas in the north and south. Having begun its journey in Tibet, the Mekong River divides into nine tributaries in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, giving this fertile region its Vietnamese name of Cuu Long, or ‘Nine Dragons’. The northern Red River Delta, meanwhile, is the cradle of Vietnamese culture, and villages in this area retain their traditional architecture and traditions. Visitors are astonished by the Vietnam’s geographic diversity. You’ll find remote mountain markets frequented by ethnic minority peoples, vibrant cafés and art galleries in the cities, serene views of emerald paddy fields in the lowlands, and endless stretches of unspoilt beaches.
Set high in Vietnam’s northeast mountains, the hamlet of Sapa offers spectacular views of jagged mountain ridges, terraced rice paddies and green valleys inhabited by people of various minority groups, all of whom congregate in Sapa’s colourful market. Each group has its own distinctive style of dress. From early childhood girls learn to grow and weave hemp, to dye cloth with indigo, to sew the family’s clothes, and to decorate items with traditional embroidery motifs.
While imperial rule ended almost six decades ago, the central city of Hue still bears the marks of its royal past. From 1802 to 1945 Hue was home to 13 Nguyen emperors, whose palaces and tombs provide fascinating glimpses into the luxurious and secretive world of the court. Visitors may explore the red-lacquered pavilions of the Citadel, take an evening boat cruise on the Perfume River accompanied by a troupe of musicians performing courtly love songs, or feast on delicacies once served in the royal palaces.
Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as the locals still call it, is a bustling city located in the south of Vietnam. The city’s neoclassical and international style buildings, and pavement kiosks selling French rolls give certain areas of the city an attractive, vaguely French feel. From the contemporary art galleries to the buzz of the markets, Ho Chi Minh caters for all tastes. There is no doubting the vibrancy and energy the city exudes day and night, making it a city that is desperately hard to leave.
In 1010 Emperor Ly Thai To founded his capital, which he christened ‘Rising Dragon’, on the banks of the Red River. Almost a millennium later, Hanoi remains Vietnam’s political centre, its crowded streets lined with reminders of its long and tumultuous history. You’ll find the Temple of Literature, a bastion of Confucian scholarship founded in 1015; an Old Quarter of winding alleys, crowded markets and traditional shop-houses; tree-lined avenues flanked by imposing French colonial villas; and the Soviet-style mausoleum built in honour of the man who led the country to independence, Ho Chi Minh.
More than 3,000 limestone islands rise from the turquoise waters of Ha Long Bay, an archipelago that lies 160km from Hanoi. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994, Ha Long Bay is a naturalist’s dream. Sculpted into strange shapes by the wind and weather, the islands hide deserted beaches, many magnificent caves, and hidden lagoons that may only be reached by chinks in the cliffs that are revealed at low tide.
Located in central Vietnam, the sun-washed town of Nha Trang hugs a seven-km-long stretch of golden sand, making this the perfect place to get a dose of sun, surf and fresh seafood. Clear blue seas dotted with offshore islands offer excellent opportunities for diving, fishing and snorkelling, while the town itself is home to some interesting sites, including a massive white Buddha statue and a cluster of Cham towers built between the 7th and 12th centuries. For a truly dirty pleasure try the mineral mud baths warmed by natural hot springs.
Set near the coast in central Vietnam, from the 16th to 19th centuries the riverside town of Hoi An once drew merchants from as far afield as Japan, India, Indonesia and Europe who bought the area’s silk, spices and porcelain. A Japanese district and a Chinese quarter were built, to be later joined by a French district. What makes Hoi An remarkable today is that its town centre has been beautifully preserved, the streets still lined with old tile-roofed shop-houses, shady pagodas and colourful communal halls. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this little town is like a living museum.
The French colonial legacy is still very much evident, not just in the charming architecture of buildings such as the Opera House and the Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi but also in the vibrant café culture of the cities and the widespread popularity of the baguette.
Whether luxuriating on an island honeymoon, trekking with hill tribes, diving on coral reefs or sampling Saigon’s buzzing nightlife, Vietnam cannot fail to captivate and beguile.
When to Travel to Vietnam:
October to March is when the temperature is most pleasant. However, Indochina is a year-round destination although conditions may vary. During May and June it can get particularly hot and July to September is the season of the south-western monsoon, when wet conditions bring welcome respite. Whilst many people avoid the “off season”, there are plenty of good reasons to travel during this time, when hotel rates are reduced and the attractions are delightfully free of crowds.
This is a nice video produced by Vietnam Airlines that showcases some of the main attractions of Vietnam.