Spectacular Halong Bay is known as ‘The Bay of the Descending Dragon:’ said to have been formed by the flailing tail of the mythological beast, which gouged out the valleys and coves, before diving back into the South China Sea to form the 1,600 breathtaking islets. At this world-heritage site, the towering limestone pinnacles provide an amphitheatre for Vietnam’s bustling life at sea, and no holiday in Vietnam is complete without a trip here.
Having absorbed the sheer drama of the setting, visitors can board a traditional junk boat and mingle amongst the fishermen who sell and cook their catch from floating markets, live in brightly painted house-boats, and have children who learn to swim and row before they can walk. Another great way to explore is by kayaking into the small coves and low-hanging caves with their glittering stalactites.
Hai Phong is very much a working city, and because of its proximity to Halong Bay, most visitors will simply pass right through it en route to the UNESCO heritage site. Those who dwell a little longer in the city, and venture beyond the industrial working harbour, will discover Hai Phong’s laid-back and unassuming charm. Muddling along beside the Cua Cam River, it has a small colonial quarter with elegant yellow buildings, shady tree-lined boulevards, and sleepy café culture. The city is also known for the boat shaped communal house of Hang Kenh, and the annual Do Son buffalo fighting festival, which dates back from the 10th century.
Sometimes dubbed ‘Halong Bay on Land,’ Ninh Binh injects equally majestic scenery to a Vietnam holiday, but rather than the emerald sea surrounding its epic limestone stacks, the Hoan Long River passes through it like a silver ribbon en route to the Red River Delta. Ninh Binh also receives far fewer visitors due to a less advanced infrastructure for tourists, and therefore has an infinitely slower pace than Halong Bay.
To experience Ninh Binh in all its glory, most visitors join one of the sleepy flotillas of traditional row-boats, and take a hypnotic two hour loop past golden rice fields and the staggering Karst scenery: all the way to the Tam Toc Cave which tunnels through the mountains. Ninh Binh also has perfect flat terrain for cycling alongside the river, with the chance to stop off at the tomb of Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang, and enjoy superlative views over the Red River Delta.
Entering into the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a real privilege, as the park has only recently opened up to tourism. The few visitors to include the park in their Vietnam holiday are rewarded with a 104 km network of primordial karst cathedrals, mind-blowing caves, and underground rivers which are the oldest in Asia.
There is still so much of this subterranean world to be discovered, but the largest and most famous of the caves is the Phong Nha Cave which has 8 km of the Son River passing right the way through it. Troglodyte romantics and geologist enthusiasts alike can venture deep into the cave’s heart on an eerie guided boat-trip: stepping out into the echoing chambers to see the dripping ‘Hermit’s Hair’ stalactite wall, small glades lit by shafts of sunlight, and the fascinating but indecipherable hieroglyphs of Cham tribes.
The Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone is the strip of land which from 1954 to 1975 provided the border between Communist North and the US-backed South (as imposed at the Geneva Conference which followed the First Indochina War). Having endured some of the most intense fighting in the world, the DMZ forms a sobering but fascinating part of a Vietnam holiday, and whether the visitor is an avid military historian, or simply wants to experience the region on a visceral level, it’s a must for most travellers.
Extending 5 km both north and south of the Ben Hai River (the only natural divide between the two halves of Vietnam), and running 100 km from the South China Sea to the border with Laos, the DMZ can be explored on a day-trip from Hue, or – for those wanting a more in depth understanding – by spending a night in Dong Ha.
It is vital to have a good guide in the DMZ, preferably one who experienced the conflict first-hand, as he or she can provide a context to the largely fragmentary sites, and also steer you well away from the extremely rare but still evident ordnance remnants.
Key points of interest include:
The 2.8 km Vinh Moc tunnel network: built by villagers on the northern side to protect them from heaving US bombings, and housing up to 300 people at the time including 17 births. The famous ‘Rockpile’: a jungle-clad outcrop from which the US army observed the movements of the North Vietnamese Army along Route 9. Khe Sanh US combat base which fell under one of the heaviest attacks from the NVA in 1968, in what was in fact just a diversion for the notorious Tet Offensive. La Vang Cathedral which despite enduring some of the heaviest bombings in the war, and having only its bell tower remaining, continues to be one of the holiest sites for Vietnamese Catholics. Dakrong Bridge which acted as a critical access point along Route 9 for both sides.
Hue is perhaps the most evocative and poetic city to be visited on a Vietnam holiday: poised on the banks of the Perfume River, and home to the ‘Forbidden Purple City’ which between 1802 and 1946 was the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty. This regal lineage pervades today, not only in Hue’s dignified and somewhat aloof air, but in the traditions, unique cuisine – and even the mode of dress, with female intellectuals wearing the same ai dai violet gowns which were originally designed for the imperial court.
Staying in a stately colonial era property, a visit to Hue will revolve around the fascinating Imperial Walled City which you can cycle to and imbibe the eerie but elegant feel amongst the stone statues, softly trickling lotus ponds, and tombs of emperors including the most famous, Tu Doc. After this, a boat-trip down the Perfume River is highly recommended: drifting past the imposing royal mausoleums and seven storey Thien Mu pagoda, before indulging in the refined, often vegetarian, and spicy cuisine that’s unique to Hue.
Not far from Hoi An in central Vietnam, the beach city of Da Nang lies alongside the Han River and was one of the first major ports to be colonised by the French in the 19th century. With its picturesque white sand beaches, and sophisticated café culture, Da Nang offers the perfect breather whilst exploring the tourist trail on a Vietnam holiday.
As well as relaxing on Da Nang’s famous China Beach with the Marble Mountains in the background, visitors can stroll along the elegant tree-lined boulevards beside the Han riverfront; sit back with iced coffees, pastries, and gelato whilst watching life on the river, and then hit the hole-in-the-wall eateries for some specialities of the Quang Nam Province, like Mi Quang turmeric noodle broth, and Nam O raw fish salad.
The prettiest of all Vietnam’s towns, world heritage Hoi An was a major harbour for merchants in the 16th century, and now lolls sleepily beside the Thu Bon River with its Chinese-style wooden shop-houses, narrow streets lined with lanterns, and some of the most exciting cuisine to be sampled on a Vietnam holiday.
Wandering this chocolate box town is a dream for photographers, and the first stop for many will be the dragon adorned medieval bridge. Unimpeded by whizzing motorbikes (which aren’t allowed on the streets) visitors can then cycle along the waterfront and stop off for a Saigon beer at the laid-back cafes; pop into some of the world’s best tailors which will replicate favourite articles of clothing to perfection, or take a relaxed river cruise down the Thu Bon River. By night things are particularly peaceful, with the tantalising aroma of freshly made pancakes, bubbling pork broth, shrimp dumplings, and sumptuous pastries luring the visitor in at every turn.
Around an hour from Hoi An in central Vietnam, the UNESCO world heritage site of My Son is sometimes compared to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex. Whilst My Son certainly can’t compete with the scale of the Angkor Wat – nor the incredible state of preservation, given that it was heavily bombed by the US during the war – it’s worth including on a Vietnam holiday for anyone who is interested in the Cham civilisation.
Dating from between the 4th and 13th centuries, My Son was the capital of the Champa Kingdom, and its origins in Indian Hinduism are present in the remaining red sandstone temples which honour Krishna, Visnu, and Shiva. It’s also interesting to see the temples which were used as bases by the Viet Cong, and generally enjoy this peaceful setting beneath the Marble Mountains which is visited only by a select view.