The “Hanoi or bust” attitude, prompting new arrivals to doggedly labour between the country’s two major cities, no matter how limited their time, blights many a trip to Vietnam. If you want to travel the length of the country at some leisure, see something of the highlands and the deltas and allow for a few rest days, you’ll really need a month. With only two weeks at your disposal, the choice is either to hopscotch up the coast calling at only the most mainstream destinations or, perhaps better, to concentrate on one region and enjoy it at your own pace. However, if you do want to see both north and south in a fortnight, internal flights can speed up an itinerary substantially, and aren’t too expensive.
For the majority of visitors, Ho Chi Minh City provides a head-spinning introduction to Vietnam. Set beside the broad swell of the Saigon River, the southern capital is rapidly being transformed into a Southeast Asian mover and shaker to compete with the best of them. The city’s breakneck pace of life translates into a stew of bizarre characters and unlikely sights and sounds, and ensures that almost all who come here quickly fall for its singular charm. Furious commerce carries on cheek-by-jowl with age-old traditions; grandly indulgent colonial edifices peek out from under the shadows of looming office blocks and hotels; and cyclo drivers battle it out with late-model Japanese taxis in the chaotic boulevards.
Few tourists pass up the opportunity to take a day-trip out of the city to Tay Ninh, the nerve centre of the indigenous Cao Dai religion. The jury is still out on whether the ostentatious Cao Dai Holy See constitutes high ,irt or dog’s dinner, but either way it’s one of Vietnam’s most arresting sights, and is normally twinned with a stop-off at the Cu Chi Tunnels, where Vietnamese villagers dug themselves a warren stretching over two hundred kilometres, out of reach of US bombing.
Most tourists next venture southwest to explore the Mekong Delta, where one of the world’s truly mighty rivers finally offloads into the South China Sea; its skein of brim-full tributaries and waterways has endowed the delta with a lush quilt of rice-rich flats and abundant orchards. You won’t want to depart the delta without spending a day or more messing about on the water and visiting a floating market, which is easily arranged at Cai Be and Can Tho.
Da Lat, the “capital” of the central highlands, is chalk to Ho Chi Minh City’s cheese. Life passes by at a rather more dignified pace at this altitude, and the raw breezes that fan this oddly quaint hillside settlement provide the best air-conditioning in Vietnam. Minority peoples inhabit the countryside around Da Lat, but to visit some really full-on montagnard villages you’ll need to push north to the modest towns of Buon Ma Thuot, Plei Ku and K.on Turn, which are surrounded by E De, Jarai and Bahnar communities. Opt for Kon Turn, and you’ll be able to visit minority villages independently or join treks that include river-rafting.
Northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, Highway I. the country’s jugular, girds its loins toi the arduous journey up to Hanoi and the north. For many people, first stop is at the delightful beach and sand dunes ot Mui Ne, last becoming one ot the country’s top coastal resorts. Another popular spot is Phan Rang, which is blessed with some of die most splendid examples of the Cham towers that punctuate Vietnam’s south-central coast. Nha Trang has grown into a crucial stepping stone on the Ho Chi Minh City -Hanoi run, and the tirelessly routed boat trips around the city’s outlying islands are a must. North ot Nha Trans, Son My village attained global notoriety when a company of American soldiers massacred some five hundred Vietnamese, including many women and children; unspeakable horrors continue to haunt the village’s unncrvingry idyllic rural setting.
Once a bustling seaport, the diminutive town of Hoi An perches beside an indolent backwater, its narrow streets ot wooden-tronted shophouses and weathered roofs making it an enticing destination. Inland, the war-battered ruins ot My Son, the greatest of the Cham temple sites, lie mouldering in a steamy, forest-filled valley. Da Nang, just up the coast, lacks Hoi An’s charm, but good transport links make it a convenient base for the area. From Da Nang a corkscrew ride over clifftop Hai Van Pass, or a straight run through the new 6kni-long tunnel, brings you to the aristo-cratic city ot Hue, where the Nguyen emperors established their capital in the nineteenth century on the banks of the languid Perfume River.The temples and palaces of this highly cultured city still testify to past splendours, while its Imperial mausoleums are master-pieces of architectural refinement, slumbering among pine-shrouded hills. Only a hundred kilometres north of Hue. the tone changes as war-sites Utter the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). which cleaved the country in two from I 954 to 1075. More than three decades of peace have done much to the scars, but the monuments that pepper these windswept hills bear eloquent witness to a generation that lost their lives in the tragic struggle. The DMZ is most easily tackled as a day-trip from Hue, after which most people hop straight up to Hanoi. And there’s little to detain you on the northward trek, save the glittering limestone caverns of Phong Nha, the entrance to a massive underground river system tunnelling under the Truong Son Mountains. Then, on the very fringes of the northern Red River Delta, lie the ancient incense-steeped temples of Hoa Lu and, nearby, the mystical landscapes of Tam Coc and Van Long, where paddy fields lap at the feet of limestone hummocks.
Anchored firmly in the Red River Delta, Hanoi has served as Vietnam’s capital for close on a thousand years. It’s a relatively small, decidedly proud city, a place of pagodas and dynastic temples, tamarisk-edged lakes and elegant boulevards of French-era villas, of national monuments and stately government edifices. But Hanoi is also being swept along on a tide of change as Vietnam forges its own shiny, high-rise capital. Though life proceeds at a slightly gentler pace than in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is also throwing up new office blocks, hotels and restaurants.
From Hanoi most visitors strike out east to where northern Vietnam’s premier natural attraction, Ha Long Bay, provides the perfect antidote to such urban exuberance, rewarding the traveller with a leisurely day or two drifting among the thousands of whimsically sculpted islands anchored in its aquamarine waters. Ha Long City, on the northern coast, is the usual embarkation point for Ha Long Bay, but a more appealing gateway is mountainous Cat Ba Island, which defines the bay’s southwestern limits. The route to Cat Ba passes via the north’s major port city, Haiphong, an unspectacular but genial place with an attractive core of faded colonial facades.
Temperatures reach their maximum (often in the upper 30s) trom June to August, when it’s pleasant to escape into the hills. The northern stretches of this coastal region experience a more extreme climate, with a shorter rainy season (peaking in Sept and Oct) and a hot dry summer. The coast ot central Vietnam is the zone most likely to be hit by typhoons, bringing torrential rain and hurricane-force winds.Though notoriously difficult to predict, in general the typhoon season lasts from August to November.
Northern Vietnam is generally warm and sunny from October to December, after which cold winter weather sets in, accompanied by tine persistent mists which can last for several days. Temperatures begin to rise again in March, building to summer maximums that occasionally reach 40°C between May and August, though average temperatures in Hanoi hover around a more reasonable 30°C. However, summer is also the rainy season, when heavy downpours render the low-lying delta area almost unbearably hot and sticky, and flooding is a regular hazard. The northern mountains share the same basic regime, though temperatures are consider-ably cooler and higher regions see ground trosts, or even a rare snowfall, during the winter (Dec—Feb).
With such a complicated weather picture, there’s no one particular season to recommend as the best time for visiting Vietnam. Overall, autumn (Sept-Dec) and spring (March and April) are probably the most favourable seasons if you’re covering the whole country.