By Susan Farewell
This is how most mornings start in Vietnam…with a hot bowl of Pho, a soup with rice noodles, chicken or beef and fresh herbs spiced up with an array of fish and chili sauces, lime juice and other potent ingredients. For visitors, it’s a great way to launch the day which will inevitably be filled with equally stimulating experiences, whether in the French Quarter of Hanoi, the rice paddies of Sa Pa, or the waterways of the Mekong Delta. Vietnam provides the kind of travel experience we’re all seeking—with windows into lives so very different from our own. But you can’t help but feel part of the scene, whether it’s zooming around on the back of a Vespa in Ho Chi Minh City or meeting a fisherman who has made his home on a boat in Ha Long Bay.
Here are our Select Tips for getting the most out of your trip to Vietnam.
Float around a Natural Wonder of the World.
Google “Top Attractions” of Vietnam, and you’ll quickly find Ha Long Bay, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With more than 1,600 small islands and islets, Ha Long Bay is a standard stop on every Vietnam visitor’s itinerary. You can go on one of the many small cruises that slowly meander around the bay’s impressive limestone pillars. Best to spend two nights on the boat. That way, you not only get to see more, but can get in some swimming, kayaking and explore some of the caves and arches.
Do a foodie tour of Ho Chi Minh City on the back of a Vespa.
A Vespa food tour in Ho Chi Minh City gives new meaning to the idea of “progressive dinner.” You zoom around stopping to sample dishes at restaurants and visit a few night spots to hear music. Best of all, you get to be part of the motorbike culture of the city, fitting right in.
Go trekking in the mountains of Sa Pa.
All too often, travelers opt not to visit Sa Pa, because it’s a little out of the way in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of northwest Vietnam. But actually, one of the great things about Sa Pa is getting there by overnight train from Hanoi. Very best way to experience it is on foot, trekking through the green valleys and mountainsides, which are home to the Hmong, Red Dzao and other ethnic communities of Vietnam.
Get to know the locals.
What sticks in the mind after a trip to Vietnam are the many faces of the people you met there. The mature little girl sitting on the front steps of her home in Sa Pa. The exuberant woman who did your laundry in Hoi An. Your guide in Hanoi who introduced you to his father in the market.
Get your clothes made to order.
Hong Kong has long been the place to go to have clothes made to order. That title has now been taken over by Hoi An, which is a trading port on Vietnam’s central coast that dates back to the 15th century. Take a look at some of the designs and fabrics, have them get your measurements and…within a couple of hours, you’ll be back for a first and then a final fitting. Only have 24 hours in Hoi An? No problem. They’ll get it done.
Relive the Vietnam War.
You can’t mention this country without the Vietnam War coming to mind. You’ll find many reminders of it while there including the tunnels of Củ Chi, an elaborate network of connecting underground tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Throughout the war, many Vietnamese civilians and soldiers lived in hiding here. You can climb down into the tunnels and have a look around (as pictured here).
Explore the Mekong Delta by boat.
Less than three hours from fast-paced and progressive Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll find a world that’s centuries apart. Board a motorized sampan for a glimpse of life on the river, be it the floating markets, the homes on stilts, and the many wooden boats plying the waterways.
Learn how to cook Vietnamese style.
One thing you will quickly learn in Hoi An is that you cannot have a bad meal here. And you can learn how to cook some of the great dishes you’ll be eating. Cooking classes here start with a tour of the market where you learn just what all those unrecognized fruits and vegetables you’ve been eating are. You then try your own hand at making local specialties including pho and banh xeo.
Visit an herb farm.
Whether a Vietnamese pancake or a spring roll, the distinguishing characteristic of this country’s dishes is an abundance of fresh herbs which are used in everything. Mint, cilantro, basil… Once back home, you’ll find yourselves wanting to buy them in bulk.
The key to the most worthwhile visit to Vietnam is having a carefully crafted itinerary that maximizes your time there. Contact Farewell Travels for complete guidance on visiting the country. Vietnam can also be easily combined with Cambodia and Laos.
Susan Farewell is our travel editor as well as the owner of Farewell Travels LLC
Contact her at email@example.com or phone (203-222-7238).