Vietnam is an emerging, dynamic country of bustling cities, fascinating historical sites, rich cultural heritage, and delicious, world-renowned cuisine. Hit the streets like a local in the buzzing Hanoi, teeming with movement and energy. Cruise the emerald waters and limestone outcrops of Ha Long Bay. Explore the charming Hue by cyclo and discover where the royal family once resided. Further south, wander through the colorful, quaint UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hoi An. To help you plan your next trip to Vietnam, here are four perfect itineraries to get you started.
Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, is a dense metropolis of seven million and a sea of zooming motorbikes. Begin with a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake and a visit the meditative Temple of Literature. Later, head to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (no skirts, shorts, or photography) and tour the modest vestige, situated on manicured grounds of the Presidential Palace (1 Bach Thao). The somber Hoa Lo Prison (where John McCain spent time) is worth a visit for its wartime history. Continue around Hanoi's Old Quarter of soulful, colonial charms. Hungry? The Press Club has tasty pho soup and a leafy patio perfect for a refreshing pina colada. The small Café Mai (52 Nguyen Du) serves tasty café sua da (Vietnamese iced milk coffee). For dinner, nab an outdoor seat at Spices Garden with authentic Vietnamese cuisine (think bun thang soup and grilled duck with lemongrass). Elsewhere, Don's Bistro doles out contemporary Western cuisine. Finally, a nightcap at the chic, yellow-hued Bamboo Bar might inspire your next novella.
Where to Stay: The iconic, 365-room Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi is the city's French-colonial grand dame. The historic wing, over 100 years old, caters to an ex-pat crowd fond of high ceilings, teak shutters, and artistic ghosts, while the modern wing hosts more of the American business crowd. Don't miss the newly unearthed wartime bunker.
Ha Long Bay
The dazzling, mystical UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay, a three-and-a-half hour drive from Hanoi (there’s currently no airport), offers an unrivaled sightseeing experience. The spectacular landscape showcases clusters of limestone mountains that resemble sculptures. Legend says dragons descended to block Chinese invaders by spitting out pearls to create the iconic islands. If you don't mind crowds, an early trip to Surprise Cave, discovered in 1901, reveals various rock formations resembling animals. Outside the cave's parameters, sweeping bird's-eye views makes way for prime lookouts onto the picturesque bay.
Where to Stay: Book a one-night excursion on the classic French-owned paddle steamer ship Emeraude. The cozy 37 cabins are equipped with warm wood, brass lamps, and grasscloth walls. An evening screening of the film, Indochine, with a nightcap is the perfect way to retire.
Located on the banks of the Perfume River, the former Imperial capital city of Hue is a charming, slower-paced spot with magnificent tombs, grand pagodas, and palaces. Enjoy the reflective grounds of 19th century Tu Duc Tomb, royal grounds complete with a theatre, pine-tree forest, and pavilions. Lunch at Hanh (11 Pho Duc Chinh), which serves a sampling of quality Hue dishes paired with the local beer, Huda. Digest and hop a cyclo to the grand Citadel and the magical, walled fortress known as the old Imperial City. Cross Gustave Eiffel's Truong Tien Bridge, and for gifts, drop by Healing the Wounded Heart Shop with eco-friendly crafts and hand-woven items (profits help heart transplant children). Helmed by a Hue native, dinner at La Residence's Le Parfum is a culinary delight of seafood and meat pairings. The delicious Boi Tran Garden doubles as a gallery and restaurant for authentic Hue cuisine and fresh salads from an on-site garden.
Where to Stay: Along the banks of the Perfume River, the Art Deco La Residence Hotel and Spa once housed the French Government. The two wings, one historic, one modern, with 122 rooms are flawlessly interconnected. Think cinematic flare with long hallways, black-and-white photos, antique tiles, and ceiling fans.
The historic riverside town of Hoi An blends an enticing mix of Chinese, Japanese, and French architectural influences. Skip the guided tour and explore the streets dotted with a vibrant market, flower vendors, and bespoke tailor shops. Motor traffic is blissfully limited. Visit Streets Restaurant Cafe, which works with disadvantaged kids looking for careers in hospitality. Lunch at Miss Ly's Cafe (22 Nguyen Hue Street) promises fresh Vietnamese cuisine—try the taco-like fried wontons with sautéed shrimp. Arrange a stop at the Anthony Bourdian-endorsed Phuong Banh Mi (Phan Chau Trinh) for a fresh, flakey bahn mi. Don't miss the ancient Hindu ruins of My Son (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), flanked by Cat's Tooth Mountain. Later, check out the landmark Marble Mountain, which once housed U.S. Marines and a Vietcong hospital. Always arrive early to beat the crowds.
Where to Stay: Perhaps one of Vietnam's best hotels, the stylish Nam Hai is perched on seaside white sands. Infinity pools lap onto one another, stretching to the horizon. Indulge with a massage at the luxurious eight-pavilion Spa, and don't miss the newly renovated chic-mod Beach Restaurant, which skillfully pairs eastern and western cuisines.
How to Get There: Fly directly to Hong Kong from seven North American gateways on Cathay Pacific. Their sister airline Dragonair now flies daily from Hong Kong to Da Nang (a short 20-minute ride to Hoi An).