Vietnam - What to see on your first visit.
With new direct flights from the UK to Vietnam tours & holidays have never been easier or more accessible. Departing twice a week (Gatwick to Hanoi Tuesday and Friday and Gatwick to Saigon Wednesday and Saturday) these new flights make a beach stay or tour a realistic option over for a holiday of even 10 days in length. If flying from Europe then Paris and Frankfurt are also good hubs for direct flights.
Best time to go?
As with all destinations this is incredibly subjective and depends on your ability to manage heat or deal with crowds, especially during peak touring seasons. Traditionally the peak months to travel are all dates between October and March. During January and early February travel is likely to be all the more difficult due to the Vietnamese Tet festival (new lunar year falling on and around 23rd Jan in 2012), so do please do book early! Ostensibly speaking these months offer more comfortable conditions with the north of Vietnam (Hanoi) experiencing temperatures ranging from 10 to 20 degrees centigrade and the very south of Vietnam experiencing temperatures that rarely drop below 30 degrees centigrade. Out of these months rain is more frequent and the temperatures higher, especially in the north of Vietnam where temperatures will often exceed 30 degrees. Central Vietnam tends to experience the more stable temperatures out of all the regions and is thus a great way to take a short beach holiday when the north and south get too unbearable. Rainfall tends to be more frequent but it is, generally, limited to late afternoon downpours. An advantage of travelling off-peak is of course cheaper air fare and a chance to see Vietnam at its most verdant with far fewer tourists.
Where to go?
So, you’re short on time and not sure where on earth you should holiday in a country that is over 1,000 miles in length?! Well based on a 10 day stay the below would make a good itinerary:
1. Arrive Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city)
3. Mekong Delta & Cu Chi tunnels
4. Hoi An
5. Hoi An
8. Halong Bay
9. Halong Bay
10. Depart Hanoi
Mekong delta cruises are a great way to explore more remote regions of Vietnam and neighbouring Cambodia. There are two good option available. If you have a more limited budget then a day trip or short break to the Mekong Delta is a great way to see life on the Delta. A day trip will cost around for $100pp. We would advise booking these, and all cruises, before departure with an established operator. Leaving from Ben Tre (2 hours from Saigon) or the much busier Can Tho (1 hour from Saigon) these cruises offer a great insight to daily life on the Mekong that is home to a people that have inhabited the banks of the Mekong for centuries. You can explore the small coconut processing facilities, sample some traditional Mekong candy, visit the brick kilns that have been in operation for centuries or take a in a traditional meal of razor fish spring rolls. Often using 20 seated boats that are perhaps less intimate some operators will be able to book small cruising vessels that take in the true backwaters of the delta. These are hand-driven using traditional oars and will typically just hold two or three passengers. These offer a silent and more unique take on the Mekong and as you traverse the rivers thick silted water you’ll often see local kids swimming and people going about their daily duties.
Another alternative is the option to take a longer Mekong cruise on-board a more boutique vessel. Sailing from Saigon in Vietnam to Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor in Cambodia these longer cruises are limited to handful of vessels that are boutique in character (25 to 35 cabins) and are perfectly suited to the Mekong quiet demeanour and idyllic scenery. These cruises will normally take four to eight days and cost upwards of $2,000pp. As well as getting to see pre-Angkorian temples, traditional small-holdings and farms, floating markets you will also get to see the iconic temples of Angkor and be well positioned to explore the rest of Cambodia with ease! There are regular flights from Siem Reap airport in Cambodia and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) to other regional hubs. Land touring around your Mekong cruise can also include the below:
In Saigon you will experience bustling streets with skyscrapers, high-rises and more and more high street brand that sit alongside a more traditional way of life. Still very much a wild city Saigon retains mush of its charm. Its streets are permanently busy with mopeds, bicycles, traders and traditional cyclo’s. In Saigon you can experience the Reunification Palace that is as it was when abandoned by the U.S forces during the Vietnam/America war and the War Remnants museum which is filled with artefacts from the American/Vietnam war. If you are looking to shop then the Ben Thanh Market is a must for any visitor. Saigon is also a great place to explore by foot especially so due to its numerous parks, hidden markets and constantly changing streets.
If you’ve had your fill of busy streets then head off and explore Hoi An. A UNESCO World Heritage site this town can only be experienced in first person. As an ancient port town, Hoi An has soaked up French, Japanese, Dutch and Chinese influences that are all reflected in the towns people and architecture. Wandering the streets that are more often than not French-colonial in feel the town is a photographers dream. Early morning markets are filled with bartering locals and the evenings see the streets quieten down and the river flowing through the town center illuminated by floats that are beautifully illuminated. Wandering the streets you can choose to venture into the towns famous tailors that will create almost any bespoke garment for a fraction of the cost back home. Another lasting legacy of the French is the towns many eateries and cafe’s that are bursting with flavour and offer traditional Vietnamese coffee accompanied by cakes that could match almost any you can find on the streets of Paris.
Hanoi and Halong bay are a must for any Vietnam holiday itinerary. Only three hours apart the charming French-colonial streets of Hanoi and the iconic Halong Bay these tow are perfectly suited for any visitor that has a few days in Vietnam’s north. Hanoi is an ever expanding capital city but its old-quarter still retains huge charm and draw. Often referred to as the ‘city of lakes’ Hanoi’s old quarters most central location is the Hoan Kiem. Home to the ‘turtle pagoda’ that sits in the middle of the lake at the famous red bridge the lake is often the first thing travellers see and is a favourite congregation point for locals who’ll often court, paint, play board games and enjoy a quiet drink on its banks. In the evening the lake becomes even more lively.
In Hanoi you can find the Hanoi Hilton, a prison once used by the French and late the North Vietnamese who once held US Senator John Mc Cain during the American Vietnam war. Other sites include the temple of literature (also known as the Temple of Confucius and built around 1070 ) the temple is still a popular attraction amongst Hanoi’s school children and university students who flock to the temple to pray for good luck in their upcoming exams. Indeed the Vietnamese as a people place a huge emphasis on education. In Hanoi you may also want to visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum which is home to the nations revolutionary leader embalmed body and a small museum dedicated to his existence. In the evening the city is a great place to dine, restaurants such as the Seasons of Hanoi will serve an incredible four-course meal that will cost around $10 dollars other restaurants such as KOTO (situated right opposite the temple or literature) offer great cuisine combined with a strong responsible travel ethos.
Halong Bay is three to four hours from Hanoi by coach. As you approach the bay the first things to catch your eye will be the beautiful limestone islands that dot the bay and are often shrouded in a light mist and haze that clears as you approach Halong Town. Halong Town itself offers little or no attractions but the accommodation is good and it is one of the few places in Vietnam where eating in the hotel is preferable to eating in local restaurants (in this authors experience, anyway). Good hotels include the Halong Plaza and the Royal Lotus hotel. In Halong town the walks along the promenade offer great view of the bay, as do many of the hotels. However, to really experience the bay a cruise is the best choice. Be sure to book with an accredited operator, preferably before you leave your home country. A cruise on the bay often includes an option to stay overnight where you can watch the sun set over the limestone cliffs with a drink and often excellent seafood. A day cruise is also a worthwhile pursuits as the boats carve their own route through the limestone outcrops and you can view the deserted limestone islands dotted with vegetation up close! At the date of publishing swimming at the bay was strictly prohibited by the authorities due to safety concerns.
For mor information on holidays to Vietnam contact Travel Indochina