Vietnam is an utter assault on the senses; at once dizzying, frenetic and fascinating. Conical-hatted street vendors sell their wares on the pavements outside gleaming high-rises and exquisite temples are surrounded by streets buzzing with thousands of motorbikes.
Wherever you travel you can't fail to be intrigued by this frenetic, fascinating country. The capital Hanoi is the focus for arts in Vietnam and has been since its foundation in the year 1010 while in Ho Chi Minh City business is king. Hue is steeped in imperial history, Hoi An the place to soak up the atmosphere and the largely undeveloped coastline is the place to kick back.
Life in urban Vietnam is conducted on the streets. In bia hois(pavement pubs) men sup ice-cold beer and odours from makeshift food stalls fill the nostrils: see steaming pho, a noodle soup with various unidentifiable chunks of meat, or grilled chicken feet. Along nearly all the moped-clogged streets produce is sold. Tubs wriggle with live sturgeon, crabs and frogs (still a delicacy from French colonial days), baskets are top heavy with colourful and bizarre fruit, and every possible piece of a pig is on sale.
Rural Vietnam is entirely different. Just a short distance from the cities, water buffalo wallow in green rice paddies and elegant women wearing traditional conical headwear cycle along dusty paths.
Things to see and do in Vietnam
The beaches of Vietnam are superb. Nha Trang is the perfect combination of a long sandy beach for relaxing days under the palm trees and a town with restaurants and bars to pass the balmy evenings. Boat trips take you out to nearby islands and divers can explore the nearby coral reefs. Alternatively, try Vung Tau, southeast of Ho Chi Minh City for some superb snorkelling around the many offshore islands or head east of Phan Thiet to the sand dunes of Mui Ne, which stretch for miles. Whatever your budget there'll be a resort to suit you. Relax on the white-sand beaches or have a go at many of the water sports on offer.
Learn the subtleties of Vietnamese cookery at a class in ancient Hoi An. Submerge into the hustle and bustle of the market to buy provisions before retreating to the calm of the kitchen. The best part of the day – you get to eat what you have helped prepare!
Sure it is touristy, and if you take a boat trip you'll be among a flotilla of dozens of old converted junks, but Halong Bay still remains one of the most impressive sights in the world. Take the opportunity to borrow a kayak (all boats should do this) and paddle through the limestone karsts dramatically rising up out of the sea. Or spend the night on one of those junks and explore the caves hidden deep in the islands, pass floating villages and at night enjoy a sundowner on the top deck and look out for shooting stars.
There are hundreds of long distance hiking trails around the country, and a significant infrastructure for visitors wanting guided hiking tours. Head south from Hanoi into Cuc Phuong National Park, a wilderness of forest-covered limestone mountains which rise up from the green rice paddies, home to many rare species and the primate rescue centre. Spend the night with a family from the Muong hill tribe in their traditional stilthouse.
Meander the narrow streets with their tiny shop houses, relax in a riverside bar and savour tasty local dishes. This is the place to buy souvenirs, silk items, T-shirts and ceramics. Whatever you do make sure you treat yourself by having clothes made at one of the many tailors.
Meet the locals
The best way to meet the locals is to pull up a low plastic chair in the pavement bar order some beer, order fresh peanuts and quails eggs and chat to the locals. Even with a language barrier, you'll be clinking glasses long into the night.
It is becoming increasingly popular to hire a motor bike - invariably a Russian made 125cc Minsk - and ride it from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Riddled with all sorts of dangers, not least the vast amount of bikes in the cities, it is nevertheless an exhilarating way to see the country.
Sapa hill tribes
Sapa's stunning alpine scenery is home to several hill tribe villages where life continues pretty much unchanged. Many can be reached by jeep but to get to the more remote villages be prepared to hike. The reward is an overnight in a stilthouse with a family resplendent in riotously colourful traditional costume.
Cao Dai Temple
Head out to Tay Ninh to view the colourful midday service of the intriguing Cao Dai sect held in a large temple almost Disney-esque in style. The followers wear red, blue and yellow robes and chant to the accompaniment of a traditional orchestra. En route, scramble through the tunnels at Cu Chi, from where the Viet Cong successfully launched attacks against US forces.
Dalat is as far as most people go into the Central Highlands but head further into the mountains for stunning views and waterfalls. You are assured of a warm welcome in Buon Ma Thuot, a coffee growing region and home to the Montagnards. The Ho Chi Minh trail is easily reached from Kontum.
To escape the heat of the plains, head for Dalat, a former colonial hill station, reminiscent of a French town, with faded, elegant villas evocative of another era. Colonists from Saigon headed to its cool climes as well as the emperor and his entourage. The romantic lakes and alpine scenery are magnets for Vietnamese honeymooners.
Hanoi is a city of contrasts with the wide, leafy boulevards lined by beautiful colonial buildings in the French quarter, the maze of narrow streets of the Old Quarter and the tranquil lakes. Wherever you are, the background noise is the buzzing of the motorbikes that crowd the streets of the capital.
Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by train
A trip on the Reunification Express is a must. However, the trains between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are certainly not express. It can take between 30 and 40 hours to travel between the two cities so best to do one section only. Popular is the 18-hour journey between Hanoi and Hue.
Ho Chi Minh City
Gleaming skyscrapers sit side by side with ramshackle buildings and crumbling colonial houses. Monks pass deluxe car showrooms collecting alms and walk along sun-baked streets crammed with honking motorbikes. The Saigon River is constantly crossed by small boats and ferries weaving through larger boats.
Ho Chi Minh Trail history tour
See some of the Vietnam War sights by walking part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, used as supply routes by the North Vietnamese during the war. You can't fail to be intrigued by the network of tunnels excavated by the Viet Cong from which they launched regular attacks on the US forces. For a taste of life underground scramble through one of the narrow tunnels, specially widened for Western visitors.
The former imperial city of Hue is crammed with wonderful sights. The Imperial Citadel, suffering from the ravages and war and the tropical weather, is slowly being painstakingly renovated; riverside is the Thien Mu pagoda where novice monks peek shyly at the visitors; and the mausoleums of the Emperors, each unique in style.
Explore the watery world of the Mekong Delta where channels of the might Mekong Delta crisscross the land and provide a fertile place to grow vast swathes of rice and fruit. Discover riverine towns, floating markets and small riverside industries and spend the night in a homestay with a farming family.
The river markets on the Mekong Delta are an unmissable sight. Life here is dominated by the mighty Mekong and much of Vietnam's rice crop is grow, and the floating markets are still an essential part of life in the south. Get up early to experience Can Tho floating market at its best. Dozens of wooden boats, many that have seen better days, carry the freshest fruit and vegetables. Smaller boats weave through them perusing the wares and the morning air is filled with the sound of good-natured haggling over price.