Vietnam travel highlights
* The far north - from Ha Giang to Sapa to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam’s mountainous north is spectacularly beautiful, culturally rich and unique. Not to be missed.
* Hanoi - The clash between tradition and modernity plays out on Hanoi’s streets every day - and it isn’t always pretty. Stunning architecture, amazing streets for photography and food - and an atmosphere unlike any place on earth.
* Halong Bay may be a mass tourism cliche, but it’s earned its place. Do it.
* Phong Nha Caves are a relatively recent arrival on Vietnam travel itineraries - beautiful caves in spectacular limestone mountains along the old Ho Chi Minh Trail.
* The old capital of Hue is a personal favourite - but it takes some effort. Great for photographers.
* Hoi An and My Son - Hoi An’s old streets are loved by travellers.
* Saigon - Crazy, chaotic, hyperactive and intoxicating.
* The beaches - Phu Quoc is booming, Con Dao is trying. Nha Trang and Mui Ne are established. Some of the best patches of coast are between Nha Trang and Hoi An - if less developed destinations are your preference.
* Mekong Delta - rice paddies, fruit orchards and wooden boats in narrow, tree shrouded canals - life on the Mekong.
Check our menu for details on all these places.
Vietnam has enjoyed two decades near the top of global economic growth rankings. Tens of millions, of a population of 90 million, have been lifted out of poverty. Young Vietnamese now have access to a lifestyle unimaginable by their parents. And this extraordinary generational spectacle is on display in the major cities, Saigon and Hanoi.
But rapid development is posing new challenges. Pollution, soaring inequality and corruption, destruction of environment and heritage, and previously unheard of health challenges like obesity and diabetes, are now major concerns.
It’s hard to imagine how Vietnam’s two major cities, Hanoi and Saigon, could be more different. Hanoi retains its colonial grace and a certain aloofness while Saigon, always at full throttle, has managed to hold on to its friendly charm, while struggling to stay ahead of its own momentum.
Vietnam offers a welcome that is warm and convincing. Any postwar bitterness that exists is well hidden. The atmosphere, especially in the south, is exuberant.
The commerce may be too much at times, but the positive energy of the place will sweep you up.
And there’s plenty of diversity. The spectacular mountain country of the far north with its hilltribes and rice terraces seems galaxies away from the agricultural frenzy of the Mekong Delta. And in between, there’s the history of Hue and Hoi An and a coastline sporting stunning beaches and wonderful islands.
Vietnam’s exquisite cuisine and its shopping are also winning the hearts of travellers from around the world.
Vietnam offers a near perfect combination of cultural and historical depth and simple great experiences for the curious traveller. But it’s the atmosphere of a people on a mission that really makes Vietnam a great place to be.
Weather - the best time to travel to Vietnam
Vietnam’s long coastline means temperatures vary a lot. Hanoi and the north have three distinct seasons - it even gets quite cool in winter (December to February). The summer months are very hot and very humid. October’s my favourite month in Hanoi.
October may be bliss in Hanoi but it can be stormy and wild in central Vietnam - Hue, Danang and Hoi An. Flooding and typhoons are common. Central Vietnam experiences a brief winter and long months of heat - great for the beach.
Saigon and the south are always warm to hot. Avoid March, April and early May if you can. Dry season turns into a furnace. Everything feels dusty and in need of a good wash.
My personal preference is the period between July and October. It can be hot and wet, but I love the lush greens, the big storms and the deep blue skies. It’s definitely the best time to be in Vietnam if you want beautiful colours.