Vietnam is a country on the easternmost end of the Indochina Peninsula. Despite stiff competition from its arguably better known Southeast Asian peers like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, Vietnam has begun to emerge as a tourist magnet in its own right, and with good reason. The country is a fascinating melange of rich culture, great natural beauty, intriguing history, and bustling modernity.
Vietnam’s relative obscurity on the tourism front can be considered a boon by travellers seeking peace and tranquillity. Its serene beaches, verdant paddy fields, and ruggedly beautiful mountain peaks are a feast for the senses and a balm for the soul. Its natural parks are a hotbed of wildlife where tourists can indulge their taste for adventure while also exploring the countryside up close and personal. Vietnam’s cities are buzzing hives of modernity, functionality, and cosmopolitanism.
Vietnam has a rich history that dates back millenia, ensuring that the country has a lot to offer to connoisseurs of culture. It is a country that beautifully combines the ancient with the modern, and offers opportunities galore for experiencing a totally unforgettable trip.
Although Vietnam is a country with absolutely no dearth of natural beauty across its length and breadth, a few places stand out in particular. The Ha Long Bay is one such place due to its spectacular sea vistas. A UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Gulf of Tonkin, this bay has thousands of imposing limestone islands which have been chiselled into jagged shapes by wind and water over aeons. One can best experience the stunning beauty of this bay by a boat tour, preferably an overnight one, in order to witness the many jaw-droppingly gorgeous facets of the place.
The bay also has numerous caves that tourists can enter, including the famous Hang Sung Sot and thr Hang Dao Ga. The former has three enormous caverns, while the latter houses spectacular stalactites and stalagmites.
For those who enjoy a touch of sun and sand, the Nha Trang beach is a must-visit. The beach spans a length of 6 km, is clean and well-maintained, and has designated spots for swimming and sunbathing. One can also drop in at the Po Nagar Cham Towers which are just north of the beach by crossing the Xom Bong Bridge, which has been used as a place of worship for over 14 centuries.
The Mekong Delta is yet another major attraction for tourists who love anything to do with water. In the far south of the country, the Mekong River cascades into the sea in a labyrinth of tributaries big and small across the plains. The river flows through brilliant green paddy fields and mangroves, and also snakes through several towns. It is here that tourists can shop for local produce and souvenirs to their heart’s content in the several floating markets this river facilitates. The Phong Dien and Cai Rang markets are particularly famous. Tourists can take boating trips from Cau Mau Nature Reserve to explore the U Minh Mangrove Forest.
A nature lover’s visit to Vietnam is incomplete without touring its pristine countryside. The paddy fields surrounding Sapa, hemmed in by the towering peaks of the Hoang Lien Mountains—also known as the Tonkinese Alps—are a treat for the eyes. The fields take on various hues of green, right from a light parrot to shimmering emerald, and are spread across immaculately terraced slopes. The Fansipan Mountain, which is the nation’s tallest peak at 3,134 meters, overlooks the stunning vista.
For the Culture Vultures
The Hue City should be at the top of the list for those interested in knowing the culture and history of Vietnam, and wishing to immerse themselves into its mystifying spell. The city abounds with relics and artefacts from the 19th century Nguyen empire. Located on the banks of the beguiling Perfume River, Hue’s Imperial Enclosure is a massive complex bordered by walls running 2.5 km.
The Ngo Mon Gate, also known as the Meridian Gate, is the south entrance of the monument and is a hauntingly beautiful structure despite its slightly decrepit state. Visit the Thai Hoa Palace with gorgeous lacquered interiors, the Dien Tho Residence which used to be home to queen mothers, as well as the Halls of Mandarins with its enchanting ceiling murals.
Here too, tourists can take a boat tour on the Perfume River and visit an array of pagodas and royal mausoleums. A highlight among these is the Tomb of Tu Doc and the Thein Mu Pagoda, which has a tower that soars almost 69 feet high.
Another hotspot for lovers of all things culture-related is the My Son temple city which dates back to the Cham Era of the 4th century. This city was Hindu religious centre and flourished through the 7th and 10th centuries before being abandoned in the 13th century after which it slipped into steady decline. It houses around 20 temple structures which have withstood the test of time.
Built using bricks or blocks of sandstone, the structures show an astonishing influence of myriad Asian empires, including Indian and Malay. Temples in the Group B are the oldest, while those in Group A had the most important monuments but were destroyed in the US’s carpet bombing during the Vietnam War.
The bustling Ho Chi Minh city, known as the country’s commercial nerve centre, is also packed with interesting cultural facets. The central Dong Khoi district is the hub of tourist attractions. The HCMC Museum here has an amazing collection of artefacts and the Grand Notre Dame Cathedral.
The Da Khao district nearby is a must-visit to witness the remnants of city’s French architecture and also the spectacular Jade Emperor Pagoda, which has a veritable spread of iconography and artefacts belonging to the Buddhist and Taoist cultures.
Revisiting the Vietnam War
Two big-ticket attractions one must definitely not miss are the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum, both along the Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street in Ho Chi Minh city.
The Reunification Palace was where North Vietnam’s tanks stopped on Apr 30, 1975, officially marking the end of the war. The palace is replete with furnishings from the 1960s and is absolutely fascinating to visit.
Another major attraction for those intrigued by wartime Vietnam are the extensive Cu Chi Tunnels. A massive network of tunnels in the Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh city, the labyrinths are said to span 250 kms. The tunnels served as hideouts, supply routes, and residential quarters for Vietcong soldiers during the war. Tourists have to pass through several of these tunnels, at times crawling on their hands and feet, to experience soldiers’ lives in the unlit confines. The tunnels can be accessed at either Ben Dinh village or the Ben Duoc village.
The Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a World Heritage site. A spectacular karst mountain formation here is made up of a honeycomb of massive caverns with stalactite and stalagmite formations to make you gape in awe. The Paradise Cave is the most popular among visitors and extends an astonishing 31 kms into the earth. The Tu Lan cave is also very popular as visitors can swim here in an intricate system of rivers and waterfalls. The Phong Nha Caves, accessible by boat, are also a choice destination.
The serenely beautiful Ba Be National Park in the Bac Kan province of northeast Vietnam was originally set up to protect the freshwater Ba Be lake and the evergreen forests surrounding it, nestled within limestone peaks. Visitors can take boat or kayak tours to leisurely explore the beautifully interlinked Ba Be Lakes and get a glimpse of the several caves with stalactite and stalagmite formations. For those inclined towards more active pursuits, there are many facilities to trek and hike the hills near the lake. Tourists can spend the night here in traditional homestay options in stilted lakeside houses.