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Lonely Planet Vietnam

Lonely Planet Vietnam

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Lonely Planet Vietnam

ratings:
4/5 (3 ratings)
Length:
1,378 pages
12 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Aug 1, 2018
ISBN:
9781787019317
Format:
Book

Description

Lonely Planet: The world's leading travel guide publisher

Lonely Planet's Vietnam is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. Kayak around towering limestone peaks into grottoes and lagoons in Halong Bay; wander the warren-like lanes of Hoi An's Old Town; and sample the freshest, tastiest local specialities (and learn to cook them yourself). All with your trusted travel companion. Get to the heart of Vietnam and begin your journey now!

Inside Lonely Planet's Vietnam:

  • Colour maps and images throughout
  • Highlights and itineraries help you tailor your trip to your personal needs and interests
  • Insider tips to save time and money and get around like a local, avoiding crowds and trouble spots
  • Essential info at your fingertips - hours of operation, phone numbers, websites, transit tips, prices
  • Honest reviews for all budgets - eating, sleeping, sightseeing, going out, shopping, hidden gems that most guidebooks miss
  • Cultural insights provide a richer, more rewarding travel experience - covering history, people, music, landscapes, wildlife, cuisine, politics
  • Covers Hanoi, Northern Vietnam, Central Vietnam, Southeast Coast, Southwest Highlands, Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong Delta, Siem Reap & the Temples of Angkor

The Perfect Choice: Lonely Planet's Vietnam is our most comprehensive guide to Vietnam, and is designed to immerse you in the culture and help you discover the best sights and get off the beaten track.

Travelling farther afield? Check out Lonely Planet's Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos & Northern Thailand for a comprehensive look at all the region has to offer.

About Lonely Planet: Lonely Planet is a leading travel media company and the world's number one travel guidebook brand, providing both inspiring and trustworthy information for every kind of traveller since 1973. Over the past four decades, we've printed over 145 million guidebooks and grown a dedicated, passionate global community of travellers. You'll also find our content online, and in mobile apps, video, 14 languages, nine international magazines, armchair and lifestyle books, ebooks, and more.

'Lonely Planet guides are, quite simply, like no other.' - New York Times

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Important Notice: The digital edition of this book may not contain all of the images found in the physical edition.

Publisher:
Released:
Aug 1, 2018
ISBN:
9781787019317
Format:
Book

About the author

Lonely Planet has gone on to become the world’s most successful travel publisher, printing over 100 million books. The guides are printed in nine different languages; English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Chinese and Korean. Lonely Planet enables curious travellers to experience the world and get to the heart of a place via guidebooks and eBooks to almost every destination on the planet, an award-winning website and magazine, a range of mobile and digital travel products and a dedicated traveller community.

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Lonely Planet Vietnam - Lonely Planet

Vietnam

Contents

Plan Your Trip

Welcome to Vietnam

Vietnam’s Top 20

Need to Know

First Time Vietnam

What’s New

If You Like

Month by Month

Itineraries

Outdoor Activities

Eat & Drink Like a Local

Regions at a Glance

On The Road

HANOI

Sights

Activities

Courses

Tours

Walking Tour: Old Quarter

Festivals & Events

Sleeping

Eating

Drinking & Nightlife

Entertainment

Shopping

Information

Getting Theare & Away

Getting Around

Around Hanoi

Getting There & Away

Tam Dao Hill Station

Getting There & Away

NORTHERN VIETNAM

Northeast Vietnam

Ba Be National Park

Haiphong

Halong Bay

Bai Tu Long Bay

Mong Cai & the Chinese Border

Northwest Vietnam

Hoa Binh

Mai Chau

Son La

Dien Bien Phu

Sapa

Lao Cai

Bac Ha

Ha Giang Province

CENTRAL VIETNAM

North-Central Vietnam

Ninh Binh Province

Vinh

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Dong Hoi

South-Central Vietnam

Demilitarised Zone

Dong Ha

Hue

Bach Ma National Park

Lang Co Beach

Danang

Hoi An

My Son

SOUTHEAST COAST

Quang Ngai

Cha Ban Cham Area

Quy Nhon

Bai Xep

Tuy Hoa

Nha Trang

Phan Rang & Thap Cham

Ninh Chu Beach

Mui Ne

Phan Thiet & Around

Ho Tram Beach

Vung Tau

Con Dao Islands

SOUTHWEST HIGHLANDS

Cat Tien National Park

Dalat & Around

Lak Lake

Buon Ma Thuot

Yok Don National Park

Pleiku

Kon Tum

Historic Hanoi

Atmospheric Hoi An

Imposing Ho Chi Minh City

HO CHI MINH CITY

Sights

Activities

Courses

Tours

Festivals & Events

Sleeping

Eating

Drinking & Nightlife

Entertainment

Shopping

Information

Getting There & Away

Getting Around

Around Ho Chi Minh City

Cu Chi

Getting There & Around

Tay Ninh

Getting There & Away

Can Gio

Getting There & Around

MEKONG DELTA

My Tho

Ben Tre

Tra Vinh

Vinh Long

Can Tho & Around

Ca Mau

Rach Gia

Phu Quoc Island

Ha Tien

Chau Doc

Sam Mountain

Long Xuyen

Cao Lanh

Sa Dec

SIEM REAP & THE TEMPLES OF ANGKOR

Siem Reap

Temples of Angkor

Angkor Wat

Angkor Thom

Other Angkor Temples

Further Afield

Scenes of Vietnam

Islands & Beaches

Caves & Highlands

Understand

Understand Vietnam

Vietnam Today

History

People & Culture

Arts & Architecture

Environment

Survival Guide

Directory A–Z

Accommodation

Bargaining

Children

Climate

Electricity

Embassies & Consulates

Emergencies & Important Numbers

Etiquette

Food

Insurance

Internet Access

Legal Matters

LGBT Travellers

Money

Opening Hours

Photography

Postal Services

Public Holidays

Safe Travel

Shopping

Telephone

Time

Toilets

Tourist Information

Travellers with Disabilities

Visas

Volunteering

Women Travellers

Work

Transport

GETTING THERE & AWAY

Entering Vietnam

Air

Land

River

Sea

GETTING AROUND

Air

Bicycle

Boat

Bus

Car & Motorcycle

Local Transport

Train

Health

Language

Behind the Scenes

Our Writers

Welcome to Vietnam

A land of staggering natural beauty and cultural complexities, of dynamic megacities and hill-tribe villages, Vietnam is both exotic and compelling.

Sensory Overload

Unforgettable experiences are everywhere in Vietnam. There’s the sublime: gazing over a surreal seascape of limestone islands from the deck of a traditional junk in Halong Bay. The ridiculous: taking 10 minutes just to cross the street through a tsunami of motorbikes in Hanoi. The inspirational: exploring the world’s most spectacular cave systems in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The comical: watching a moped loaded with honking pigs weave a wobbly route along a country lane. And the contemplative: witnessing a solitary grave in a cemetery of thousands of war victims.

History & Culture

Vietnamese culture is complex, diverse and represents something of a history lesson. The nation’s labyrinthine, teeming trading quarters are rich in indigenous crafts and reflect centuries-old mercantile influences. Ancient temples display distinctly Chinese influences in the north and Hindu origins in the south. Meanwhile the broad, tree-lined boulevards and grand state buildings of the capital date from the French-colonial period. And city skylines, defined by glass-and-steel corporate HQs and sleek luxury hotels, are a reminder of modern Vietnam’s prosperity and proximity to the centre of East Asian power.

A Culinary Superpower

Thailand may contest the top spot, but in Southeast Asia nothing really comes close: Vietnamese food is that good. Incredibly subtle in its flavours and outstanding in its diversity, Vietnamese cooking is a fascinating draw for travellers – myriad street-food tours and cooking schools are testament to this. Chinese flavours influence the soups of the north, spices spark up southern cuisine, and herbs and complex techniques typify the central coastline, rightly renowned as Vietnam’s epicurean hot spot. And up and down the country you can mingle with villagers, sample local dishes and sip rice wine in Vietnam’s many regional markets.

Thrills & Chills

If you have the bills, Vietnam has the thrills and chills. Some require a little physical effort, such as motorbiking endless switchback aftup the jaw-dropping Hai Van Pass in central Vietnam. Others require more sweat: kitesurfing the tropical oceanic waters off Mui Ne or hiking the evergreen hills around Bac Ha or Sapa. And when you’re done with all that adrenaline stuff, there’s plenty of horizontal ‘me’ time to relish. Vietnam has outstanding spas – from marble temples of treatments to simple family-run massage salons with backpacker-friendly rates.

Terraced rice fields, Sapa | JAKKREE THAMPITAKKUL/500PX ©

By Iain Stewart, Writer

Very few places change as quickly as Vietnam, and it’s the raw buzz of excitement I find most intoxicating upon arrival in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. When I’ve sated my thirst for metropolitan Viet culture, it’s time to hit the coast to feast on the best seafood in the world, then set off on two wheels in search of a cove beach. Otherwise I hit the hills to ride an empty mountain road over a lonely highland pass before taking a moment to savour the sheer thrill of the nation – and plan my next trip.

For more about our writers

Vietnam’s Top 20

Food

The highlight of any trip, Vietnamese food balances sour and sweet flavours, crunchy and silky textures, fried and steamed dishes, soups and salads. Essentially it’s all about the freshness of the ingredients – chefs shop twice daily to collect just-picked herbs from the market. Wherever you are, you’ll find exquisite local specialities – the ‘white rose’ of Hoi An, banh xeo (savoury filled pancakes) of the south and centre, or the good ol’ pho of the north. Yes, eating out in Vietnam is a feast for the eyes and treat for palate.

Pho bo | JOSHUA RESNICK/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Top Experiences

Hoi An

Vietnam’s most cosmopolitan and civilised town, this beautiful ancient port is bursting with gourmet restaurants, hip bars and cafes, quirky boutiques and expert tailors. Immerse yourself in history in the warren-like lanes of the Old Town, and tour the temples and pagodas. Dine like an emperor on a peasant’s budget (and even learn how to cook like the locals). Then hit glorious An Bang Beach, wander along the riverside and bike the back roads. Hoi An has it all.

BANANA REPUBLIC IMAGES/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Top Experiences

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

With jagged hills shrouded in rainforest, and mountain rivers coursing through ravines, the Phong Nha-Ke Bang region is one of Vietnam’s most spectacular national parks. Underground there’s even more proof that it should be part of your itinerary. The fortunate can experience the cathedral-like chambers of Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest cave. More accessible are the ziplining and kayaking thrills of Hang Toi (Dark Cave), and the ethereal beauty of Paradise Cave.

Paradise Cave | DUDAREV MIKHAIL/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Top Experiences

Halong Bay

The stunning combination of karst limestone peaks and sheltered, shimmering seas in Halong Bay is one of Vietnam’s top tourist draws, but with more than 2000 different islands, there’s plenty of superb scenery to go around. Definitely book an overnight cruise and make time for your own special moments on this World Heritage wonder – rise early for an ethereal misty dawn, or pilot a kayak into grottoes and lagoons. If you’re hankering for more karst action, move on to the less touristy but equally spectacular Lan Ha Bay.

PERFECT LAZYBONES/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Top Experiences

Hue

The capital of the nation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Hue is perhaps the easiest Vietnamese city to love and spend time in. Its situation on the banks of the Perfume River is sublime, its complex cuisine justifiably famous, and its streets are relatively traffic free. And that’s without the majesty of the Hue Citadel, its royal residences and elegant temples, formidable walled defences and gateways to explore. On the city’s fringes are some of Vietnam’s most impressive pagodas and royal tombs, many in wonderful natural settings.

Gateway, Hue Citadel | MATT MUNRO/LONELY PLANET ©

Top Experiences

Ho Chi Minh City

Increasingly international but still unmistakably Vietnamese, former Saigon has visceral energy that will delight big-city devotees. HCMC doesn’t inspire neutrality: you’ll either be drawn into its thrilling vortex and hypnotised by the perpetual whir of its orbiting motorbikes, or you’ll find the whole experience overwhelming. Dive in and you’ll be rewarded with a wealth of history, delicious food and a vibrant nightlife that sets the standard for Vietnam. The heat is always on in Saigon; loosen your collar and enjoy.

XUANHUONGHO/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Top Experiences

Beer

Vietnam has a deep-rooted beer-drinking culture, and sampling a brew or two is one of the great pleasures of travelling in the country. The big brands (such as 333 and Hanoi) are widely available, but do seek out bia hoi – fresh draught beer – which is brewed daily, to be drunk within hours, incredibly cheap and consumed on street terraces. There’s also a dynamic craft beer scene in the big cities, with some eminently quaffable locally-made IPAs, pale ales, wheat beers and pilsners.

Bia hoi | MRSIXINTHEMIX/GETTY IMAGES©

Top Experiences

Extreme North

The far north of Vietnam is all about raw adventure travel. Ha Giang province is Vietnam’s spectacular emerging destination for the intrepid, with dizzying ascents up the Quan Ba Pass (Heaven’s Gate), towering karst peaks and granite outcrops, and jaw-dropping vistas on the epic trip between Dong Van and Meo Vac. And with improved roads, new trekking routes, minority markets and a wider choice of guesthouses, Vietnam’s final frontier – now a Unesco-listed geopark – is really opening up.

Mai Pi Leng Pass, Ha Giang Province | SUPERMOP/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Top Experiences

Cat Tien National Park

An accessible and impressive protected area, Cat Tien National Park lies conveniently midway between Ho Chi Minh City and Dalat. It is set on a bend in the Dong Nai River, and there is something vaguely Apocalypse Now about arriving here. Popular activities include trekking, cycling and wildlife spotting: the Wild Gibbon Trek is a must. The park is also home to a primate centre, where gibbons and langurs are coaxed back into their natural environment.

Tourist huts near Crocodile Lake, Cat Tien National Park | NELLA/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Top Experiences

Markets

From the floating markets of the Mekong Delta and the souvenir-rich streets of Hoi An to the urban affairs of Ho Chi Minh City and the tribal gatherings in the highlands, Vietnamese markets are a riot of colour and commerce. For photographers, markets are ideal for getting shots of Vietnamese villagers and their perfectly arranged pyramids of tropical fruit or glistening seafood displays. The region around the town of Bac Ha is particularly market-rich and should not be missed if you’re anywhere in the north.

ALEXANDER FRAIS/500PX ©

Top Experiences

Phu Quoc Island

Lapped by azure waters and edged with the kind of white-sand beaches that make sun seekers sink to their weak knees, Phu Quoc – way down in the south of Vietnam – is ideal for slipping into low gear, reaching for a seaside cocktail and toasting a blood-orange sun as it dips into the sea. And if you want to notch it up a tad, grab a bike and hit the red-dirt roads: the island is relatively compact, around the size of Singapore.

TRAN QUI THINH/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Top Experiences

Hanoi

Ancient but dynamic, the nation’s capital hurtles toward modernity, cautiously embracing visitors. Sample Hanoi’s heady mix of history and ambition by wandering the streets of the Old Quarter, sipping drip-coffee, slurping on a hearty bowl of bun rieu cua (a sour crab noodle soup) and scoring souvenirs for next to nothing. When you’re done, check out the crumbling decadence of the French Quarter then zip up to cosmopolitan Tay Ho for finer dining and the lowdown on Hanoi’s burgeoning art scene.

Old Quarter, Hanoi | MATT MUNRO/LONELY PLANET ©

Top Experiences

Con Dao Islands

Once hell on earth for a generation of political prisoners, Con Dao is now a heavenly destination of remote beaches, pristine dive sites, wildlife-rich rainforests and diverse nature. It’s a wonderful place to explore in search of that dream beach, while the main settlement of Con Son is one of Vietnam’s most charming towns. Costly flights from the mainland have long limited tourist numbers, but now there are affordable and speedy boat links – expect Con Dao’s popularity to soar.

HNH IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES ©

Top Experiences

Ba Be National Park

Detour off the regular tourist trail in Ba Be National Park, an essential destination for adventurous travellers, with towering limestone mountains, plunging valleys and evergreen forests. Waterfalls, caves and lakes combine in a landscape that sustains over 550 different plants and hundreds of different bird and animal species. Explore Ba Be’s natural spectacle by boat or on trekking and mountain-biking excursions, before relaxing and recharging in the rustic homestays and village guesthouses of the local Tay ethnic minority.

Boat trip, Ba Be Lakes | INGRAM PUBLISHING/GETTY IMAGES ©

Top Experiences

Coffee Time

Starbucks may now operate in Vietnam, but local coffee culture runs deep. Virtually every neighbourhood will have a little cafe where locals go to de-stress (most are located on quiet leafy side streets). Vietnamese coffee can be served hot or iced (a real treat in summer), either treacle-thick, or with milk (usually sweetened and condensed) for a double-whammy caffeine-sugar kick. For something completely different, order a Vietnamese coffee with coconut, yoghurt or even an egg.

Caphe trung da (egg coffee) | VINHDAV/GETTY IMAGES ©

Top Experiences

Sapa Trekking

Undulating rice terraces cascade down to valleys inhabited by Hmong, Red Dzao and Giay villages. Up above, the sinuous ridges of the Hoang Lien Mountains (dubbed the Tonkinese Alps by the French) touch the sky. Brushed with every shade of green in the palette, the countryside surrounding Sapa is a showcase of northern Vietnam’s most superb rural vistas and a fascinating glimpse into the country’s astounding cultural diversity. This is prime territory for digging out your walking boots and hitting the trails.

CHAIN45154/GETTY IMAGES ©

Top Experiences

Dalat

Dalat is as popular now with travellers as it was in the days when French colonial officials came to this laidback town in the southwest highlands to escape the lowland heat. These days, adventure sports are the draw with abseiling, canyoning, mountain biking, hiking, whitewater rafting and kayaking all possible in the temperate climate. But Dalat is also the honeymoon capital of Vietnam, a charming town dotted with grand colonial-era villas, set amidst pine groves and flower gardens, and centred on a pretty lake.

Abseiling down a waterfall | WITHGOD/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Top Experiences

Battle Sites

In the centre of Vietnam, the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) has the greatest concentration of battle sites from the American War (and some excellent tour operators to get you around them). Down south the Cu Chi Tunnels are a very popular day trip from Ho Chi Minh City, while there are numerous war sites around Vung Tau, which was a big ANZAC base. In the far north, Dien Bien Phu should not be missed: there’s a good modern museum here to explain the significance of the battle that precipitated the French expulsion from Indochina.

Cu Chi Tunnels | DAPHNUSIA/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Top Experiences

Angkor Wat

Over the border in Cambodia, the vast temples of Angkor form one of the world’s most magnificent sights. Choose from Angkor Wat itself, the world’s largest religious building; Bayon, with its immense stone faces; or Ta Prohm where nature runs amok. Siem Reap is the base for exploring Angkor and is a buzzing destination with a superb selection of restaurants and bars. Beyond the temples await exciting activities and cultural pursuits from quad biking and ziplining to cooking classes and birdwatching.

Ta Prohm | SIHASAKPRACHUM/GETTY IMAGES ©

Top Experiences

Mui Ne

Perhaps the adrenaline epicentre of Vietnam, the prosperous beach resort of Mui Ne is a kitesurfing capital with world-class wind and excellent schools for professional training. Sailing, golf and hot-air ballooning are also popular. The resort itself boasts more than 20km of palm-fringed beachfront that stretches invitingly along the shores of the South China Sea (East Sea). From guesthouses to boutique resorts, boho bars to good-value spas, Mui Ne has a broad appeal, and is readily accessible from Ho Chi Minh City.

Kitesurfing in Mui Ne | ANNA MOSKVINA/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Need to Know

For more information, see Survival Guide

Currency

Dong (d)

Language

Vietnamese

Visas

Some nationalities need a visa in advance for all visits, some don’t. The standard length of stay for tourist visas is 30 days; for visa-exempt nationalities it is 15 days.

Money

ATMs are found throughout the country, even in small towns. Cash is king but debit and credit cards can be used in many hotels.

Mobile Phones

A mobile phone with a local SIM card (and an internet-based calls and messaging app) will allow you to get online and make phone calls in Vietnam.

Time

Vietnam is seven hours ahead of GMT/UTC.

When to Go

High Season (Jul & Aug)

A Prices increase by up to 50% by the coast; book hotels well in advance.

A All Vietnam, except the far north, is hot and humid, with the summer monsoon bringing downpours.

Shoulder (Dec–Mar)

A During the Tet festival the whole country is on the move and prices rise.

A North of Nha Trang can get cool weather. Expect chilly conditions in the north.

A In the far south, clear skies and sunshine are the norm.

Low Season (Apr–Jun, Sep–Nov)

A Perhaps the best time to tour the whole nation.

A Typhoons can lash the central and northern coastline until November.

Useful Websites

The Word (www.wordhcmc.com) This superb magazine has comprehensive coverage and excellent features.

Vietnam Coracle (http://vietnamcoracle.com) Excellent independent travel advice, including lots of backroads content.

Vietnam Online (www.vietnamonline.com) Good all-rounder.

Coast Vietnam (www.coastvietnam.com) Classy website concentrating on Vietnam’s central coast.

Rusty Compass (www.rustycompass.com) Useful online travel guide with itineraries and videos.

Lonely Planet (lonelyplanet.com/vietnam) Destination information, hotel bookings, traveller forum and more.

Important Numbers

To call Vietnam from outside the country, drop the initial 0 from the area code.

Exchange Rates

For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.

Daily Costs

Budget: Less than US$40

A Glass of bia hoi (draught beer): from US$0.30

A One hour on a local bus: US$1–1.50

A Cheap hotel: US$9–16 a night, dorms less

A Simple noodle dish: US$1.50–2.50

Midrange: US$40–100

A Comfortable double room: US$25–50

A Meal in a restaurant: from US$8

A One-hour massage: US$7–20

A Ten-minute taxi ride: US$2.50–5

Top end: More than US$100

A Luxury hotel room: from US$80

A Gourmet dinner: from US$20

A Internal flight: US$30–100

Opening Hours

Hours vary little throughout the year.

Banks 8am–3pm weekdays, to 11.30am Saturday. Some take a lunch break.

Offices and museums 7am or 7.30am–5pm or 6pm; museums generally close on Monday. Most take a lunch break (roughly 11am–1.30pm).

Restaurants 11am–9pm

Shops 8am–6pm

Temples and pagodas 5am–9pm

Arriving in Vietnam

Tan Son Nhat International Airport (Ho Chi Minh City) Taxis to central districts (around 190,000d) take about 30 minutes. There are also very regular Route 152 (6000d), 109 (20,000d) and 49 buses (40,000d); all are air-conditioned.

Noi Bai Airport (Hanoi) Taxis to the centre cost 400,000d and take around 50 minutes. Jetstar shuttles (35,000d) and Vietnam Airlines minibuses (40,000d) run roughly hourly. The Route 17 public bus to Long Bien bus station is 9000d.

Getting Around

Buses are the main mode of transport for locals in Vietnam, but travellers tend to prefer planes, trains and automobiles.

Train Reasonably priced and comfortable enough in air-conditioned carriages (and sleepers). But note there are no real express trains.

Plane Cheap if you book ahead, and the network is pretty comprehensive. However, cancel-lations are not unknown.

Car Very useful for travelling at your own pace or for visiting regions with minimal public transport. Cars always come with a driver.

Taxi Relatively inexpensive and very convenient in towns and cities.

Bus On main highways services are very frequent, although it’s not a particularly relaxing way to travel. In the sticks things deteriorate rapidly. Open-tour buses are not pricey and worth considering.

For much more on getting around

First Time Vietnam

For more information, see Survival Guide

Checklist

A Check out the visa situation; you may need to apply in advance

A Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months past your arrival date

A Check your immunisation history

A Arrange appropriate travel insurance

A Pre-book internal flights and trains

A Inform your debit-/credit-card company

What to Pack

A Good footwear – Vietnam’s streets are bumpy and lumpy

A Photocopies of passport and visa details

A Good mosquito repellent with DEET

A Rain jacket

A Electrical adaptors

A Extra phone-charging cables

A Torch (flashlight)

A Flip-flops or sandals

A Binoculars

A Fleece or jumper if travelling to the north

Top Tips for Your Trip

A Expect crazy driving: traffic can come at you every which way, and in the cities swarms of motorbikes reach biblical proportions. When crossing busy urban roads maintain a slow, deliberate walking pace.

A Try not to lose your temper; shouting and aggression causes a loss of face for both parties.

A Vietnam has more than its fair share of scams; most concern overcharging. Though very rare, more serious dangers (such as unexploded ordnance) can be a real concern.

A In towns such as Hue and Sapa, and beaches popular with tourists, expect plenty of hustle from street vendors, cyclo (pedicab or bicycle rickshaw) drivers and the like. Off the beaten track there’s little hassle.

A Prepare your bargaining head before you arrive.

A Very few locals speak English away from tourist centres; try to learn a few words of Vietnamese.

What to Wear

There are no serious cultural concerns about wearing inappropriate clothing in Vietnam. In religious buildings and government offices (or if attending a formal dinner), legs should be covered and sleeveless tops avoided.

Yes, Vietnam is in the tropics, but visit anywhere north of Hoi An between November and March and it can be cool, so pack some layers (a fleece or two). The rest of the year, and in the south, flip-flops or sandals, a T-shirt and shorts are likely to be your daily uniform.

Etiquette

A Meals When dining with Vietnamese people, it’s customary for the most senior diner to pay for everyone. It is still polite to offer to pay at least once.

A Homes Remove your shoes when entering a private house.

A Heads Don’t pat or touch an adult (or child) on the head.

A Feet Avoid pointing your feet at people or sacred objects (eg Buddhas).

Bargaining

Bargaining is essential in Vietnam, but not for everything and it should be good-natured – don’t shout or get angry. Discounts of 60% or more may be possible; in other places it may only be 10% – or prices may be fixed. Haggle hard in marketplaces and most souvenir stores, and for cyclos and xe om (motorbike taxis). Many hotels offer a discount; restaurant prices are fixed.

Tipping

A Hotels Not expected. Leave a small gratuity for cleaning staff if you like.

A Restaurants Not expected; 5% to 10% in smart restaurants or if you’re very satisfied. Locals don’t tip.

A Guides A few dollars on day trips is sufficient, more for longer trips if the service is good.

A Taxis Not necessary, but a little extra is appreciated, especially at night.

A Bars Never expected.

Sleeping

Accommodation is superb value for money in Vietnam. As tourism is booming it’s usually best to book your accommodation a day or two in advance, or several weeks ahead in the high season (the Tet holiday in late January to mid-February, July to August, and around Christmas).

A Hotels Range from simple, functional minih-otels to uber-luxurious spa resorts.

A Hostels Popular in the main tourism centres, but rare elsewhere.

A Guesthouses Usually family run and less formal than hotels.

A Camping Options are extremely limited, but new facilities are opening in southern Vietnam.

Eating

It’s rarely necessary to reserve a table in advance in Vietnam. Exceptions include national park restaurants (where food has to be purchased ahead), and upmarket places in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

A Local restaurants Vietnamese restaurants tend to have functional decor and may look scruffy, but if they’re busy, the food will be fresh and delicious.

A International restaurants In tourist areas many restaurants serve up Western and Asian food. Often the local food is toned down and not that authentic.

A Street food Pavement kitchens offer cheap, often incredibly tasty, local grub.

A Cafes May have a snack or two available, but rarely meals.

Language

English is not widely spoken in Vietnam. In the tourist areas, most staff in hotels and restaurants will speak a little, but communication problems are very common. A few key phrases of Vietnamese go a long way.

What’s New

Hostel Explosion

Dozens of new hostels have revolutionised Vietnam’s backpacker accommodation, and even once-sleepy towns such as Quy Nhon now have a selection of good budget beds. Ninhvana is the ultimate example.

Hue After Dark

From mid-April to mid-September, it is now possible to visit Hue’s Imperial Enclosure at night. Spectacular lighting illuminates the heritage courtyards, and there’s a regular program of music and dance.

Craft Beer

Vietnam is now one of Asia’s most exciting craft beer destinations, with fine new brew-pubs such as HCMC’s Heart of Darkness and East West Brewing.

Dong Hoi

A roster of new restaurants and beachfront accommodation have boosted Dong Hoi’s appeal and cemented its position as a laid-back gateway to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

HCMC Street Food

As the city begins to regulate street eats more strictly, two new dedicated street-food hubs around Ben Thanh Market and Pham Ngu Lao are convenient one-stop destinations for travellers.

Boutique Con Dao

The terrific new Villa Maison Con Dao Boutique Hotel and its sister cocktail bar La Casa have really shaken up the scene in downtown Con Son.

Flying High

For an unforgettable sunrise over Mui Ne, book a flight with Vietnam’s hot-air ballooning pioneers.

Jeep Tours

Cruise the legendary Hai Van Pass between Hoi An and Hue on an open-top jeep tour.

A Midnight Tipple

Hanoi has relaxed its weekend curfew for bars and restaurants in the Hoan Kiem district, where closing time is now 2am. Between Friday and Sunday it’s quite a party. here

Munchies After Dark

Phu Quoc’s night market has moved and been reborn as...Phu Quoc Night Market. Its seafood restaurants now enjoy river views.

Adventure Sports in Mai Chau

With Asia Outdoors having opened a branch in Mai Chau, the area is now a destination for those interested in outdoor activities ranging from rock climbing to cycling.

Highland Hospitality

In Kon Tum, make sure to check out Hnam Chang Ngeh, a fantastic hotel and restaurant set up to train teenagers from local minorities to work in the hospitality industry.

For more recommendations and reviews, see lonelyplanet.com/Vietnam

If You Like...

War History

Son My Memorial Monument and museum dedicated to those lost at this epoch-changing massacre.

Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) Explore the Vinh Moc Tunnels and the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Dien Bien Phu A highland Waterloo for the French Indochine empire.

Ba Chuc Tomb Skulls and bones are the gruesome legacy of the Khmer Rouge.

Con Dao prisons Hosted a who’s-who of Vietnamese revolutionaries.

Impressive Architecture

Po Klong Garai Cham Towers These terrific Cham monuments are well a worth stop on Vietnam’s north–south trail.

Hoi An Old Town Explore Chinese assembly halls and the 16th-century Japanese Bridge.

Heritage House Time-travel inside a finely restored merchant’s house.

People’s Committee Building Timeless French colonial grandeur in the heart of HCMC.

Fine Dining

Hoi An Feast on unique regional specialities in historic premises.

Dong Phu Vietnamese classics in a sumptuous converted Hanoi house.

Ho Chi Minh City Gourmet restaurants, to-die-for Vietnamese eateries and international cuisine.

Hue Famous for its complex imperial cuisine tradition.

Saigonese Exquisite fusion dishes with an easygoing Phu Quoc ambience.

Ganh Hao Dine by the water’s edge at this outstanding Vung Tau seafood restaurant.

Markets

Bac Ha Head north to one of the most colourful markets in Southeast Asia.

Mekong Delta’s Floating Markets Catch the delta water-world’s river markets, selling everything from durian to dog meat.

Binh Tay Market Explore this market combining Vietnamese and Chinese influences in HCMC’s Cholon district.

Hoi An Old Town Bathe in the glow of silk lanterns for sale at the riverside night market.

Flower Hmong women, Bac Ha Market

Remote & Hidden

Ha Giang Crammed with jaw-dropping scenery, this rugged area abuts China.

Tam Hai Island Features a whale graveyard, Cham ruins and no crowds.

HCMC Tours Sample food from the backstreets and dig out the city’s hidden pockets.

Ho Quoc Pagoda Temple gate framed by sky and blue waters on Phu Quoc Island.

Temple at My Son

Tombs & Temples

Hue Vietnamese emperors constructed dazzling monuments around this city. Don’t miss Tu Duc and Minh Mang.

My Son The most impressive Cham site; the hilltop location is very special too.

Temple of Literature This Hanoi temple dates back almost 1000 years.

Cao Dai Great Temple A magnificent hybrid of Chinese temple, mosque and cathedral near HCMC.

Cholon Discover the Chinese heritage of HCMC amid gilded and incense-infused temples.

Hang Duong Cemetery Evocative Con Son resting place of national heroine, Vo Thi Sau.

Bich Dong Pagoda Also known as the Jade Temple, this spectacular cave is often shrouded in incense.

Beautiful Beaches

Phu Quoc Island Picture-perfect white crescents and sandy bays sheltered by rocky headlands.

Con Dao Islands We suggest a self-imposed exile of at least three nights.

Phu Thuan Beach Escape to this spectacular beach near Hue, either as a day trip or staying overnight.

Mui Ne Squeaky sands along the shore, towering sand dunes nearby and empty beaches up the coast.

An Bang Ride a bicycle from Hoi An to An Bang’s combo of sun, sand and seafood.

Hong Van Beach Fine white sand, turquoise waters and virtually no foreign visitors; this is an off-the-beaten-track stretch of paradise.

Month by Month

TOP EVENTS

Tet, January/February

Hue Festival, April (Biennial)

Wandering Souls Day, August

Danang International Fireworks Festival, April

Buddha’s Birth, Enlightenment and Death, May

January

Winter temperatures can be bitterly cold in the far north, with snow possible. The further south you go, the milder the weather. Tet celebrations occur at the end of the month (or in February).

z Dalat Flower Festival

Held early in the month, this is always a wonderful occasion, with huge elaborate displays. It’s become an international event, with music and fashion shows and a wine festival.

February

North of Danang, chilly ‘Chinese winds’ usually mean grey, overcast conditions. Conversely, sunny hot days are the norm in the southern provinces.

z Quang Trung

Wrestling competitions, lion dances and human chess take place in Hanoi on the fifth day of the first lunar month at Dong Da Mound, site of the uprising against the Chinese led by Emperor Quang Trung (Nguyen Hue) in 1788.

z Tet (Tet Nguyen Dan)

The Big One! Tet falls in late January or early February. Vietnamese Lunar New Year is like Christmas, New Year and birthdays all rolled into one. Travel is difficult at this time, as transport is booked up and many businesses close.

Dragon dance, Tet (Tet Nguyen Dan) | LE TU/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

March

Grey skies and cool temperatures can affect anywhere north of Hoi An, but towards the end of the month the thermometer starts to rise. Down south, the dry season is ending.

z Buon Ma Thuot Coffee Festival

Caffeine cravers should make for the highlands during March, as Buon Ma Thuot plays host to an annual coffee festival. Growers, grinders, blenders and addicts rub shoulders in the city’s main park, and local entertainment is provided.

2 Saigon Cyclo Challenge

On your marks…get pedalling. Ho Chi Minh City’s fastest rickshaw drivers battle it out in their three-wheeled chariots to raise funds for charity. The cyclo challenge takes place in mid-March most years.

April

Generally an excellent time to cover the nation, as the winter rainy season should have subsided and there are some excellent festivals. Flights are usually moderately priced (unless Easter falls in this month).

3 Danang International Fireworks Festival

Danang’s riverside explodes with sound, light and colour during this spectacular event, which features competing pyrotechnic teams from the USA, China, Europe and Vietnam. Held in the last week of the month.

Danang International Fireworks Festival | AOSHIVN/GETTY IMAGES©

z Holiday of the Dead (Thanh Minh)

It’s time to honour the ancestors with a visit to graves of deceased relatives to tidy up and sweep tombstones. Offerings of flowers, food and paper are presented. It’s held on the first three days of the third moon.

z Hue Festival (Biennial)

Vietnam’s biggest cultural event is held every two years, with events in 2020 and 2022. Most of the art, theatre, music, circus and dance performances are held inside Hue’s Citadel.

May

A fine time to tour the centre and north, with a good chance of clear skies and warm days. Sea temperatures are warming up nicely and it’s a pretty quiet month for tourism.

z Buddha’s Birth, Enlightenment and Death (Phong Sinh)

A celebration at Buddhist temples with street processions and lanterns used to decorate pagodas. Complexes including Chua Bai Dinh near Ninh Binh and HCMC’s Jade Emperor Pagoda host lavish celebrations. Fifteenth day of the fourth lunar month.

June

A great time to tour Vietnam as it’s just before the peak domestic season. Humidity can be punishing at this time of year, so plan to spend time by the coast.

z Nha Trang Sea Festival (Biennial)

This lively event, held every two years in early June, (the next in 2019 and 2021) includes a street festival, photography exhibitions, sports events, embroidery displays and kite-flying competitions.

z Summer Solstice Day (Tet Doan Ngo)

Keep epidemics at bay with offerings to the spirits, ghosts and the God of Death on the fifth day of the fifth moon. Sticky rice wine (ruou nep) is consumed in industrial quantities.

August

The peak month for tourism with domestic and international tourists. Book flights and accommodation well ahead. Prices rise and beaches are busy. Weather-wise it’s hot, hot, hot.

z Children’s (or Mid-Autumn) Festival, Hoi An

This is a big event in Hoi An and Hanoi, when citizens celebrate the full moon, eat moon cakes and beat drums. The lion, unicorn and dragon dance processions are enacted, and children are fully involved in the celebrations.

z Wandering Souls Day (Trung Nguyen)

Second in the pecking order to Tet is this ancient Vietnamese tradition. Huge spreads of food are left out for lost spirits who, it’s believed, wander the Earth on this day. Held on the 15th day of the seventh moon.

September

Excellent time to tour the whole nation. The coastal resorts are less crowded and there are fewer people on the move. Temperatures and humidity levels drop.

z Hanoi Pride

Held in late September with events including film screenings, exhibitions, discussions and workshops.

z Vietnam National Day (Sep 2)

Big parades and events are held across Vietnam on 2 September. Celebrated with a rally and fireworks at Ba Dinh Square, Hanoi (in front of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum), and there are also boat races on Hoan Kiem Lake.

October

A good time to visit the far north, with a strong chance of clear skies and mild temperatures. Winter winds and rain begin to affect the centre, but down south it’s often dry.

z Cham Kate Festival

This is celebrated at Po Klong Garai Cham Towers in Thap Cham on the seventh month of the Cham calendar. The festival commemorates ancestors, Cham national heroes and deities, such as the farmers’ goddess Po Ino Nagar.

2 Khmer Oc Bom Boc Festival

The Mekong Delta’s Khmer community celebrates on the 15th day of the 10th moon of the lunar calendar (late October or November) with colourful boat races at Ba Dong Beach in Tra Vinh province and on the Soc Trang River.

z Mid-Autumn Festival (Trung Thu)

A fine time for foodies, with moon cakes of sticky rice filled with lotus seeds, watermelon seeds, peanuts, the yolks of duck eggs, raisins and other treats. It’s celebrated across the nation on the 15th day of the eighth moon and can fall in September or October.

November

A fine time to visit HCMC, Mui Ne, the Mekong Delta and offshore islands such as Phu Quoc as sunny skies are the norm. However, in the centre and north it can be cool and rainy.

December

The month begins quietly, but from mid-December the popular tourist resorts get increasingly busy. Book well ahead to secure a room over the Christmas break. Steamy in the south, but can get chilly up north.

z Christmas Day (Giang Sinh)

Not a national holiday, but this is celebrated throughout Vietnam, particularly by the sizeable Catholic population. It’s a special time to be in places such as Phat Diem and HCMC, where thousands attend midnight Mass.

Itineraries

Deep South

This itinerary takes in a lovely offshore island blessed with wonderful sandy bays, the nation’s main watersport centre and some fascinating floating villages. If tropical sunsets and white-sand beaches are high on your agenda it’s probably best not to plan this trip during the southern rainy season (roughly May to October). There’s frequent public transport to virtually all the main places.

2 WEEKS

After a couple of days enjoying the urban delights and compelling energy of HCMC, head into the Mekong Delta, stopping at Ben Tre to explore canalside lanes by bike and islands by boat. Then hop on-board a cargo ship for a slow, scenic journey to Tra Vinh and take in the town’s colourful pagodas. Next it’s a short trip to Can Tho where it’s worth lingering a couple of days to visit the bustling floating markets, the city museum and a temple or two. Then head to Phu Quoc Island for three days of well-earned beach time on some of Vietnam’s best sandy shores and seafood feasts at night.

From Phu Quoc, fly (or bus it) back to HCMC, then head north into the south-central highlands via a night in Cat Tien National Park, home to gibbons, crocodiles and bountiful bird life. Next up it’s the romantic hill station of Dalat for a tour of its quirky sights, and the opportunity to get stuck into some adventure sports such as canyoning, mountain biking or kayaking.

The road trip from Dalat down to Mui Ne is one of the nation’s finest, negotiating highland ridges and plunging through valleys and pine forests; it’s ideally done on the back of a motorbike (consider hiring an Easy Rider). You can then rest up by the beach in Mui Ne for two or three days – a tropical idyll with towering sand dunes and a laid-back vibe – or for those with the stamina, get stuck into some crazy kitesurfing or a sailing course.

Round the trip off in style with a night in HCMC, perhaps with a meal in Quan Bui followed by drinks somewhere atmospheric such as Heritage Republic, which is open around the clock.

Cai Rang Floating Market, Can Tho | PHUONG D. NGUYEN/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Itineraries

From South to North

This route covers the nation’s essential cultural sights and is bookended by its two greatest cities. You’ll have an opportunity for some beach time, too. Definitely consider taking internal flights (or overnight trains) to save time.

2 WEEKS

The adventure begins in the cauldron of commerce that is Ho Chi Minh City. Spend two to three days hitting the markets, browsing museums and eating some of Asia’s best cuisine.

Then it’s a plane or train up to Danang to access the cultured charmer and culinary hot spot that is Hoi An. This town certainly warrants three or four days, such is its allure. Enjoy Hoi An’s unique ambience, touring its temples and Old Town, and visit the nearby beach of An Bang. Then it’s on to the old imperial capital of Hue for two to three nights to explore the citadel, pagodas and tombs (and nearby beaches, in season).

Next it’s a long journey by train (or a flight) to Hanoi to check out the capital’s evocative Old Quarter, munch some street food and view the city’s elegant architecture and cultural sights. From Hanoi book a tour to incomparable Halong Bay, which boasts more than 2000 limestone islands, before returning to Hanoi.

Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City | KUSHCH DMITRY/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Halong Bay | MARIAN GOCIEK/500PX ©

Itineraries

Northern Mountains

Northern Vietnam is a world unto itself: a land of brooding mountains, overwhelming beauty and a mosaic of ethnic minorities. It’s ideal terrain to cover on two wheels, with light traffic and breathtaking views, though, with a patient attitude, most of the region can be tackled by public transport.

3 WEEKS

Leaving Hanoi, head west to Mai Chau, home to the White Thai people, for your first two nights; it’s a perfect introduction to ethnic minority life. Northwest, where the road begins to climb into the Tonkinese Alps, a logical overnight stop is Son La, a sleepy town with a good spread of restaurants serving minority dishes.

Continue on for two nights at Dien Bien Phu, a name that resonates with history as it was here that the French colonial story ended in defeat. Tour the military sights and impressive new museum then continue north through stunning scenery up the Tram Ton Pass. If you’re looking to get off the beaten track, consider a one- or two-night detour to Muong Te, a predominately White Thai enclave in the country’s northwesternmost corner.

Sapa is the premier destination in the northwest, thanks to the infinite views (on a clear day!), and an amazing array of minority peoples. Explore the area on two feet or two wheels for around four days before heading to Bac Ha for three nights to experience the best of the region’s markets. Most colourful are the Flower Hmong people.

From Bac Ha, move east to Ha Giang province, taking it slowly through stunning scenery and towns including Yen Minh, Dong Van and Meo Vac. Explore remote destinations such as the Lung Cu flag tower and the Vuong Palace from Dong Van. Onwards towards the vertiginous Mai Pi Leng Pass and Meo Vac, there’s no public transport (so you’ll need to hire a xe om or car). The route then loops down to the riverside junction town of Bao Lac.

Local buses run from Bao Lac to Cao Bang and on to Ba Be National Park. Spend about three nights around Ba Be, staying at local Tay homestays, and exploring the park by trekking or kayaking. From Ba Be travel back to Cao Bang for the trip back south to Hanoi.

Lung Cu flag tower, Ha Giang Province | JIMMY TRAN/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Bunker on A1 Hill, Dien Bien Phu | AKARAT PHASURA/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

Plan Your Trip

Outdoor Activities

Vietnam has great outdoor appeal. Watersports include superb kayaking and kitesurfing and good diving and snorkelling, sailing and surfing. Inland there’s trekking, cycling and motorbiking, as well as canyoning and hot-air-ballooning. There are some outstanding adventure-sports operators spread throughout the country, most focusing on a particular region.

Best Outdoors

Best Diving & Snorkelling

Con Dao Islands Remote, but the best.

Phu Quoc Visibility can be a challenge, but some nice coral gardens.

Nha Trang Professional scuba schools and many dive sites.

Best Trekking

Bac Ha Spectacular highland hiking incorporating village homestays.

Sapa Superlative views but can be crowded.

Dong Van Trails through dramatic mountain scenery.

Mai Chau Sublime landscapes and tribal villages.

Best Cycling

Dalat Base camp for several mountain trails.

Hoi An Flat terrain to explore craft villages and cut across rice paddies.

Mekong Delta Backroads beside waterways under the shade of coconut palms.

Best Kayaking

Cat Ba Island Paddle through spectacular limestone outcrops.

Ba Be National Park Explore this superlative lake district.

Hoi An Offers some superb riverside scenery.

Kayaking in Halong Bay | MIHTIANDER/GETTY IMAGES ©

When to Go

Whether you’re a committed kitesurfer or a warm-water diver, some careful planning is essential – Vietnam’s climate is extremely variable and monsoon-dependent.

The action peaks for kitesurfers in winter (November to April). Surfing is also best at this time of year. Divers take note that water visibility is best in the calm months of June, July and August.

It would be foolish to attempt an ascent of Fansipan in the height of the rainy season, from May to September. Snorkelling and diving is not that rewarding between November and April when visibility drops.

Trekking

Vietnam offers excellent trekking and less strenuous walks. The scenery is often remarkable – think plunging highland valleys, tiers of rice paddies and soaring limestone mountains. Anything is possible, from half-day hikes to assaults on Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest mountain.

Generally northern Vietnam is your best bet: its dramatic mountain paths and fascinating minority culture are a huge draw. Elsewhere, national parks and nature reserves have established trails (and usually guides available to keep you on them).

Northern Vietnam

The region north of Hanoi is truly spectacular. Sapa is Vietnam’s trekking hub, full of hiking operators and hire stores (renting out sleeping bags, boots and waterproof gear). Maps detailing trails are available, as are guides. The scenery is wonderful, with majestic mountains, impossibly green rice paddies and some fascinating tribal villages. But prepare yourself – the main trails are incredibly popular and some villages see hiking groups on an hourly basis. To trek remote paths you’ll have to find an expert local guide.

At a lower elevation is Bac Ha, less rainy and the trails are not heavily trampled. It’s very picturesque, but it lacks Sapa’s jaw-dropping mountain scenery. However, you will find great hikes to Flower Hmong and Nung villages.

High-altitude Ha Giang province, in the extreme north of Vietnam, is the nation’s Tibet. Hikers can hook up with guides in Ha Giang city, or head out to Dong Van where there are exciting trekking opportunities. Self-guided day hikes are a snap in and around the towns of Dong Van and Meo Vac.

If you’re spooked by the prospect of climbing hills, Mai Chau offers great, fairly easy walking in an idyllic valley setting.

Elsewhere, Ba Be National Park has a network of trails through spectacular karst scenery to minority villages, and Cat Ba boasts a popular 18km hike (and shorter alternatives such as Butterfly Valley).

SAFETY FOR HIKERS

A Don’t stray from established paths – Vietnam is full of unexploded ordnance.

A Guides are usually worth hiring; they’re inexpensive, speak the language and understand indigenous culture.

A Boots with ankle support are a great investment.

A Notify your guesthouse or travelling companions of your hiking plans before setting off for the day.

A Carry a (fully charged) mobile phone.

Central Vietnam

Some outstanding treks and numerous new trails are being developed between the limestone hills of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park by outfits such as Jungle Boss Trekking, which offers hikes to the Abandoned Valley area and Ma Da. Many routes combine trekking with some caving or tubing. Vietnam’s most famous trek is to the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong, but numbers are strictly limited and it costs around US$4000.

You’ll find excellent trails inside Cuc Phuong National Park through superb forest and past ancient trees and caves to a minority village.

Close to Danang, Bach Ma National Park %0234-387 1330; www.bachmapark.com.vn; adult/child 40,000/20,000d) has some good hikes while the Ba Na Hill Station has short trails and awesome views. Adventure-tour operators in Hoi An also offer some intriguing treks in the tribal areas west of town.

Southern Vietnam

With a bit of luck you might glimpse one of the dozens of mammals present in Yok Don National Park near Buon Ma Thuot. You’ll need to hire a guide to make the most of Cat Tien National Park, where crocodiles can be seen and night hikes are possible; the Wild Gibbon Trek here is highly popular. Over in Dalat, adventure-tour operators including Phat Tire Ventures and Pine Track Adventures offer hikes: one rewarding area is the Bidoup Nui Ba National Park.

Further south there’s little for hikers to get excited about – the climate is perennially hot and humid and the landscape largely flat. Con Son is one curious exception, an island with cooling sea breezes and hikes through rainforest and mangroves.

Cycling

Bikes are a popular mode of transport in Vietnam, so cycling is an excellent way to experience the country. Basic bicycles can be rented for US$1 to US$3 per day, and good-quality mountain bikes for US$7 to US$18.

The flat lands of the Mekong Delta region are ideal for long-distance rides down back roads. Good routes include the country lanes around Chau Doc, and the quiet road that runs along the Cambodian border from Chau Doc to Ha Tien (with a possible detour to Ba Chuc). There’s also some nice cycling on the islands off Vinh Long.

Avoid Hwy 1 as insane traffic makes it tough going and dangerous. Consider the inland Ho Chi Minh Highway (Hwys 14, 15 and 8), which offers some stunning scenery and little traffic. Hoi An is an excellent base for exploring craft villages and rural lanes and there are several recommended tour operators running cycling tours. Hue is also a great place for cyclists, with temples, pagodas and the Perfume River.

In the southwest highlands, Dalat has lots of dirt trails and is the base camp for the dramatic two-day descent to Mui Ne.

Heading further north, the highly scenic region fringing Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is beginning to open for cycling: contact Phong Nha Adventure Cycling which organises rides here.

And in the far north the highland lanes around Ba Be National Park and Bac Ha offer fine cycling. The Sapa region is so mountainous that only Tour de France candidates are likely to find it fun.

Motorbiking

Motorbiking through Vietnam is an unforgettable way to experience the nation. It’s the mode of transport for most Vietnamese, and there are repair shops everywhere. Two wheels put you closer to the countryside – its smells, people and scenery – compared with getting around by car or bus. For those seeking true adventure, there is no better way to go.

If you’re not confident riding a motorbike, it’s comparatively cheap to hire someone to drive one for you. Easy Riders is one such scheme.

Unless you relish getting high on exhaust fumes and barged by trucks, avoid too much time on Hwy 1. The inland Ho Chi Minh Highway running the spine of the country from north to south is one alternative, though of course you miss out on the ocean. The stretch from Duc Tho to Phong Nha offers wonderful karst scenery, forests, little traffic and an excellent paved road.

Two of the most dramatic rides in the southern half of the country are the Hai Van Pass, featuring hairpin after hairpin and oceanic views, and the spectacular road between Nha Trang and Dalat which cuts through forests and takes in a 1700m pass.

There’s more fine riding around the dramatic limestone hills that characterise both the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and Ninh Binh region. Both areas have tour operators offering guided motorbiking excursions.

Further north, there’s glorious mountain scenery, river valleys and tribal villages around Sapa and Dien Bien Phu. The route through Ha Giang province through Ha Giang, Dong Van and Bao Lac is the ultimate, with superlative vistas and stupendous mountain roads.

Mountain road, Sapa | NO THONGTHIMAHAXAY/SHUTTERSTOCK ©

ALT HIGHWAY 1

Hwy 1’s heavy traffic and trucks don’t make for great motorbiking or bicycling. It’s possible, with some careful planning, to loop off Hwy 1 at regular intervals and use coastal back roads:

A east of Hue between Thuan An and Vin Hien

A between Chi Thanh and the Hon Gom peninsula

A south of Nha Trang to the Cam Ranh airport

A between Phan Thiet and Vung Tau

A linking Phan Thiet, Mui Ne and Tuy Phong

Surfing

There’s surf most times of the year in Vietnam, though it isn’t an acclaimed destination – the wave scene in Apocalypse Now was shot in the Philippines. Dedicated surf shops are rare; though the odd guesthouse and adventure-sport tour operator have boards for hire.

Surf’s up between November and April when the winter monsoon blows from the north. Several typhoons form in the South China Sea (East Sea) each year, and these produce the biggest wind swells.

The original GI Joe break, Danang Beach is a 30km stretch of sand, which can produce clean peaks greater than 2m, though watch out for pollution after heavy rains.

North of Quy Nhon, the stretch of coastline heading up towards Quang Ngai also has fine potential, though little or nothing in the way of facilities.

In high season, head to Bai Dai beach, 27km south of Nha Trang, where’s there’s a good left-hand break.

Beginners can head to Mui Ne, with multiple breaks around the bay, including short right- and left-handers. Further south, Vung Tau is inconsistent, but offers some of Vietnam’s best waves when conditions are right.

Anyone searching for fresh waves in remote locations should be extremely wary of unexploded ordnance. Garbage, stormwater run-off and industrial pollution are other hazards.

BEST BEACHES

Drawing up a list of Vietnam’s best beaches is a near-impossible task (there are a dozen idyllic coves in Phu Quoc alone) but here are our picks:

Northern & central coastlines Minh Chau Beach, An Bang Beach, Thuan An Beach

Southeast coastline Doc Let Beach, Bai Mon, Quy Nhon, Mui Ne, Bai Xep

Island beaches Sao Beach, Phu Quoc, Bai Dat Doc, Con Dao Islands

Kitesurfing, Windsurfing & Sailing

Windsurfing and kitesurfing are taking off. Mui Ne Beach is a windchasers’ hot spot in Asia with competitions and a real buzz about the place. Ninh Chu beach is an emerging kitesurfing destination and now has its own school. Nha Trang and Vung Tau are other possibilities.

Two-hour beginner lessons start at US$100; it’s hard to get your head around all the basics (and also tough on your body!).

The best conditions in Mui Ne are between November to April. Mornings are ideal for beginners, while in the afternoon wind speeds regularly reach 35 knots.

Also based in Mui Ne, Manta Sail Training Centre is a very professional sailing outfit run by an English woman, which offers training and boat rentals.

Windsurfing in Mui Ne | WALLENROCK/SHUTTERSTOCK © ©

Diving & Snorkelling

Vietnam is not a world-class dive destination but it does have some fascinating dive sites. If you’ve experienced reefs in Indonesia or Australia, prepare yourself for less sea life and reduced visibility. The most popular scuba-diving and snorkelling is around Nha Trang, where there are several reputable dive operators. Hoi An’s dive schools head to the Cham Islands, where macro life can be intriguing. Phu Quoc Island is another popular spot.

Two fun dives typically cost US$65 to US$80; expect to pay US$25 to US$40 for snorkelling day trips. PADI or SSI Open Water courses cost between US$300 and US$475.

The Con Dao Islands offer unquestionably

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  • (3/5)
    Reliable and extensive, but not quite as extensive as other Lonely Planets. Information on smaller towns is comparatively scarce, as is transport information. Still enough for a longer stay in Vietnam, but a second guidebook comes in handy at times.