Two young women riding bicycles in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Andy Le/Getty Images
Forty years after the end of the war, Vietnam has emerged as one of the top budget-travel destinations in Asia: safe, affordable, and packed with people who are as friendly as they are hardworking. Southern Vietnam is the more dynamic end of the long, narrow country. It’s anchored by Ho Chi Minh City (more commonly called Saigon), where glittering new skyscrapers rub shoulders with French colonial architecture and a young, entrepreneurial verve is palpable. Yet this is still a country shaped largely by conflict, as shown in the War Remnants Museum, a sobering collection of weapons, vehicles, photographs, and other memorabilia. Many of the unflinching displays have a decidedly anti-Western slant, but you can’t leave without a deeper understanding of the country and its people.
Vietnam’s astonishing geological diversity ranges from steamy river deltas to rugged highlands. Most visitors head straight for the labyrinth of limestone islets in Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, but you can also explore one of the world’s largest cave systems at Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, home to some 300 caverns. On the northern border with China, the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark encompasses almost 1,000 square kilometres of dramatic karst upcroppings, canyons, and “stone forests.” Climb to the French fortress of Pu Lo, built in 1890 and evacuated in 1945, and enjoy the scenery while it’s still pristine: Roads are being upgraded, and the first high-rise hotel is under construction.
How To Get There Ho Chi Minh is the busiest of Vietnam’s three main international airports, followed by Hanoi and Da Nang. Less expensive international flights are often routed through Hong Kong, Singapore, or Bangkok.
How To Get Around Private companies run moderately comfortable buses and minibuses along major highways. Trains and planes are also surprisingly inexpensive options, and the adventurous can rent motorbikes for a song. Within larger cities, options include car taxis, motorbike taxis (xe om), and bicycle rickshaws (xích lô).
Where To Stay In Ho Chi Minh City, Madam Cuc 127 is a sparkling-clean budget hotel with spacious rooms and attentive service. Room prices include a breakfast of baguettes, eggs, fruit, and Vietnamese coffee. A gated patio off a back alley in a busy residential area leads to the secluded Ma Maison, an elegantly decorated boutique hotel in a former villa filled with French furniture.
What To Eat Or Drink In a place as crowded as Ho Chi Minh City, every square foot of real estate is precious, up to and including rooftops. Many of these have been converted into open-air bars and eateries—ideal spots to escape the chaos below when the weather cooperates. A seemingly endless series of tiny staircases brings you to Quan Bui, a leafy refuge cooled by fans and lit by strings of lights. They serve excellent traditional Vietnamese dishes like lemongrass chicken and pumpkin flowers with slow-roasted garlic. Eon Heli Bar sits atop the Bitexco Financial Tower, the city’s tallest building. Try a basil gimlet as you enjoy the view from 52 floors up. For dessert, head to Fanny’s, an ice-cream parlour that combines French recipes with Vietnamese fruits. The 14-scoop platter can feed a whole family.
When To Go Spring and autumn are probably the best overall times to visit Vietnam, but the weather varies widely between different parts of the country. The southern part of the country around Saigon sees monsoon rains from May to October, but summer temperatures seldom climb as high as they do up north (i.e., over 100°F).
Helpful Links www.vietnamtourism.com
Currency Vietnamese dong
Language Vietnamese, English
Don’t Miss If you make it to Cambodia—and you should if at all possible—take a spin on the “bamboo train,” or nori, in Phnom Penh. Powered by small engines, the jerry-built vehicles run along old rail tracks. If two cars going in opposite directions meet, the one with fewer passengers is taken apart to let the other pass.
Fun Fact Son Doong in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is the largest single cave passage in the world. Discovered by a local farmer, it is roughly four kilometres long and contains stalagmites more than 230 feet high.
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