Where in the world can you find snake wine, war souvenirs, steaming bowls of pho and iced coffee right next to each other? You guessed it, Vietnam, Southeast Asia’s up and coming coastal beauty. Vietnam’s white sandy beaches are enough to rival those in Thailand and it is quickly becoming the next hot destination for backpackers and luxury travelers alike.
But Vietnam is so much more than its exquisite beaches, dense forests and meandering deltas. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are vibrant and thriving metropolises with millions of young people creating innovative cuisine and art alongside ancient marketplaces. The sights, smells and sounds will enthrall you and overwhelm you but they will also leave you wanting more. There are pagodas and a multitude of religious sites throughout the country representing many religions over the centuries. There is no way to summarize what Vietnam is so you will have to experience it to understand the changes that started decades ago and are still going today.
For many Americans and westerners the name Vietnam brings up memories of the Vietnam War, though younger generations will have heard of it only secondhand and in history classes. While there are some remnants of the conflict most of the country has rebuilt and continued to move forward so that it is hardy recognizable to what it used to be in 1975.
Today Vietnam has many attractions in the northern, central and southern regions. If you want to go shopping then check out Hoi An on the coast. For a wild nightlife then follow the backpackers to Nha Trang, or to Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. To see the surreal beauty of Ha Long Bay then hop on a boat and prepare to be amazed.
Geographically it is a long and thin country but it occupies almost the same area as Germany. The land is very hilly and full of forests. The north is made up of the highlands with the largest mountain standing at 10,312 feet high. Southern Vietnam has a share of mountains in the Annamite range but it is also home to the Mekong Delta, a flatland with rice paddies near every canal and waterway.
Most visitors arrive in either Hanoi in the north or fly into Ho Chi Minh City in the south. From there they make their way to the opposite city jumping on buses, trains and planes to get around. Upon landing in one of the cities you will immediately notice the traffic and driving customs are uniquely chaotic at best and can take some getting used to. But with a little practice you will be crossing the street like a local and you will be ready to hit the street food stands.
From Hanoi you can get a bus over to Ha Long Bay and spend a day, night or more on the water with local entertainment and new friends on your boat. There are also many villages in the mountains that are worth visiting if you have a few extra days or a week to explore the region thoroughly.
As you head down the coast you will encounter Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam which still has many palaces and temples to see from that time period. A little further down the coast you will cross into Hoi An, a modern and charming seaside city, with its winding alleyways that call out to those who dare to get lost.