Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing countries. Its vibrant cities are booming, UNESCO World Heritage Site Halong Bay is expanding its tourism infrastructure, and top hotels (like Aman’oi in Vinh Hy Bay and Intercontinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort) have recently debuted. Visitors will find the locals friendly and resilient, the countryside and beaches utterly tranquil, and the street-food culture a palate-pleasing experience.
Typically, visitors start in Hanoi and make their way south through the country. Vietnam’s capital city is crowded and bustling with a fast-paced energy, mostly felt with the lively streets and never-ending wave of scooters (locals say that more than half of the 6.5 million population owns a motorbike). Half a dozen new hotels have opened within the past year, including Hotel De L’Opera, a 107-room boutique taken over and spruced up by the Accor Brand. A new bridge to the airport and new international airport terminal are slated to open in 2014/2015. Take a walk along famous Hoan Kiem Lake, visit the nearby night markets, and explore the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the leader’s final resting place.
Where to Stay: Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi. The historic, 365-room hotel (open since 1901) has a strong post-colonial feel and sees the likes of politicians and celebrities (like Brangelina). The hotel opened a new modern wing in 1996, but we recommend the original Metropole (historical) wing.
Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the country’s most famous natural attraction, is a 3 ½ hour drive from Hanoi (there are no airports). It’s iconic for its massive limestone rock outcrops and serene atmosphere, although it’s losing allure due to the hundreds of daily travelers that visit (obviously with good reason). Get there early to (somewhat) beat the crowds. Check out Surprise Cave, founded in 1901, featuring three limestone chambers. Depending on what boat you join (from a junket to a five-star cruiser), excursions can include kayaking, visiting a pearl farm, and scoping out the floating markets.
Where to Stay: Book on Paradise Cruises‘ new Paradise Peak, an 8-suite ship that’s easily one of its most luxurious. Suites start at a whopping 1,150-square feet and include balconies, a dining nook, comfortable bed, and bathroom with rain shower and separate jacuzzi tub. The ship is equipped with expansive sun deck, dining room (ala cart menu, no buffet), outdoor bar, spa, and even a fitness center.
Vietnam has a coastline of stunning white-sand beaches, and locals will be quick to tell you that the best ones are in Danang. Head to My Khe Beach (formerly known as China Beach, which American soldiers frequented during the war). It sprawls for miles, lined with seaside watering holes for locals and tourists alike. Two major golf courses (including the Greg Norman-designed Danang Golf Club) and new luxury resorts (like the Hyatt Regency Danang Resort) have recently opened to cater to the 5 million (and growing!) annual visitors. But don’t be fooled by the area’s growing tourism, Danang’s authenticity is alive and well—some of the best pho we found in Vietnam recently came from a street side café that had no sign and not a single English-speaking employee.
Where to Stay: Intercontinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort. Designed by visionary Bill Bensley, the post-colonial-inspired resort built into the hillside is true eye candy. The entrance is an opulent three-tiered structure, while access to the adult infinity pool is down a winding spiral staircase. The al fresco bar has machine-operated ceiling fans on a pulley system, and the spa’s odd-shaped pavilions are whimsical meets industrial. Rooms have large bathrooms with unforgettable sea views.
One of Vietnam’s best-known tourist stops is the peaceful Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a self-contained village, famous for its history and Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Colonial influence. Here, motorbikes are restricted to just a handful of hours a day, so it’s peaceful and pleasant. You’ll be hard pressed to find a bad restaurant, thanks to the popular market where local vendors sell fresh fish, fruit, veggies, and meat. Join a cooking class at Morning Glory Cooking School, run by the nationally famous Ms. Vy. After a market visit, guests prepare popular dishes like cabbage soup, crispy pancakes, and chicken with mango salad.
Where to Stay: The new Anantara Hoi An right on the river. The 94-room property is charming and quaint with a convenient location. Guests take advantage of the complimentary bikes to stroll through town, and a highlight is the vintage photos in the Colonial Bar.
Nha Trang is a backpacker’s paradise. There are cheap restaurants, bars, dive shops, and budget hotels where rooms can run as little as $15. It’s utterly relaxing, thanks to the incredibly sublime beaches. For cocktails, the hip Sailing Club right on the beach should be your first stop.
Where to Stay: The new Aman’oi. While it’s about two-hours drive away from the beaches (and the backpacker vibes), day trips and transportation can easily be arranged. Here, the luxury boutique resort sprawls 100 acres within a national park and, in addition to 36 pavilions and villas all with terrific views, there’s a Beach Club with a very secluded, private beach.
Ho Chi Minh City
Locals and visitors alike call Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) the "land of opportunity." The city is bustling with 8 million people and was, interestingly, only founded in 1698 (which means it’s younger than America). The French colonized the city in the mid 1800s. Their ruling here left the city feeling very European with post-colonial architecture, tree-lined streets, and ubiquitous parks (it is a lot "greener" than you would suspect). Trendy outdoor cafes, boutique shops, and modern bars mixed with traditional street vendors and night markets give the city a strong balance of old and new.
To get your bearings, book a Vespa nightlife or street food adventure tour with Vietnam Vespa Adventures. It’s entertaining, convenient, and totally safe. The tour stops at off-the-beaten-path, popular local haunts, from traditional restaurants to bars, where you’ll be hard pressed to find another foreigner. The most visited attraction is the Reunification Palace, housed in an 1873 building that the French government built for their base.
Where to Stay: Park Hyatt Saigon. The most luxurious hotel in the city and, locals will agree, the one that helped facilitate the "cosmopolitan" movement in the city. There are 244 spacious rooms with four-post beds and local artwork. The hotel features a great outdoor pool deck, spa, and signature Square One restaurant serving both Western and Vietnamese fare.
One area that managed to avoid the war is the Mekong Delta. It’s a serene, quiet, and sun-shiny excursion from Ho Chi Minh City (two-hour drive), where visitors immerse themselves in farm, fishing, and village life. A typical visit starts with a cruise along the banks where fishermen work and children splash about. Hop on a bicycle and explore the streets of Cai Lay village, stopping at various homes and thatch-roof "factories" to watch women make rice paper for spring rolls. Visitors will pass traditional monkey bridges (long, tethered branches that act as a bridge over the river), swaying palms, and coconut trees. This kind of excursion is a great way to experience the Mekong Delta, but must be booked with a tour operator.
Where to Stay: Depending on which tour operator you work with, you might stay overnight in a local villager’s home, which truly enhances the Mekong Delta experience. Guests have the opportunity to fish, dine, and even cook with their host family (there’s no better way to learn how to make a spring roll).
Insider Tip: The most convenient and practical way to travel through Vietnam is with a tour operator. Pique Travel is a top, US-based tour operator that has professional ground crew to make airport transfers, entrance fees, translation with locals, and more a lot easier when traveling. They also arrange unique, curated experiences that other operators don’t have access to (like the overnight stay in a local’s home in the Mekong Delta).
Jimmy Im is a freelance travel writer based in LA. He’s hosted programs on the Travel Channel and LOGO, and makes regular appearances on morning news shows as a "travel expert." Follow him on Twitter: @dieselmad.
Photo credits: Amanoi Vietnam courtesy of Aman Resorts; all other photos via Dreamstime.com