Hanoi, one of the most beautiful of the colonial Indochinese cities, is often the start or end point of a trip to Vietnam, and what a great welcome or farewell it is. Oozing with charm, Hanoi has gone through wholesale changes since Vietnam swung open its doors to tourism, but it remains true to its essential personality and is an amazing city to experience.
Though considerably quieter than big sister Saigon, Hanoi still retains a vibrant atmosphere. From the early hours until late at night, the fig-tree shaded streets swarm with careening motorbikes, often with four, five or even six people aboard. A cyclo is available on most street corners, but unless you are making a particularly long trip, the best way to explore Hanoi is by foot.
Hanoi has a number of lovely parks and museums where you can while away the hours of a warm summer's afternoon -- Lenin Park, south of Hoan Kiem district and just north of Bay Mau Lake are among the most popular, especially on holidays, when it's packed with picnickers.
In winter months, you can find yourself a cozy cafe to snuggle up in, or find a streetside restaurant boiling up a pot of something belly-warming and delicious. While Hanoians are certainly happy to be free of the French occupation, they continue to embrace French culinary culture.
Finally, the people of Hanoi are some of the warmest and most approachable in the country. Though English is not as commonly spoken as in the South, many of the older generation have a working vocabulary of French. Regardless of language, people will attempt to have a conversation with you irrespective of whether you can understand them. Many of the city's cyclo drivers speak some English and often have intriguing pasts that they are now willing to discuss with foreigners.
Ha Long Bay
A cruise on Ha Long Bay -- or the Bay of the Descending Dragon - for many represents the pinnacle of their experience in Vietnam. Easily one of the most popular destinations in the country, UNESCO World Heritage-listed Ha Long Bay is both mystical and magnificent, an incredible feat of nature that almost never fails to impress.
Last time we counted, UNESCO had picked out 830 World Heritage sites around the world, chosen for their cultural and historical importance, and also for their geological uniqueness. Ha Long Bay offers a little of all three.
It's not the cliffs themselves that make Ha Long Bay unique, but rather their sheer number. A huge bay, dotted with nearly 2,000 mostly uninhabited limestone cliffs, the breathtaking scenery is very similar to that of the Andaman coast of Thailand, Vang Vieng in Laos and Guilin in China.
Created over millions of years, tectonic forces slowly thrust the limestone above the water-line. During this process waves lapping against the stone carved out a number of vast, striking caverns, as well as other geologically interesting formations, such as tunnel caves and uniquely shaped massifs.
Over the ages, Vietnamese fishermen with too much time on their hands began to see shapes in the stone massifs atop many of the islands, and named the islands accordingly -- Turtle Island, Human Head Island, Chicken Island and so on.
In what constitutes one of the most fascinating cultural features of the area, some of these fisherman still live on the bay today - on floating fishing villages, where houses are set atop barges year round, the inhabitants catching and cultivating fish throughout.
The historic capital of Vietnam, Hue, sits astride a truly majestic and beautiful river, the Song Huong (Perfume River). The north-bank is host to its share of hotels and restaurants, but the area is dominated by the old fortified city known as the Citadel, spread across more than 5 square kilometers of ground, crowding out development on that side of the river. As a result, guesthouses, hotels and restaurants have sprung up on the south bank, starting with the river road, Le Loi Street, and stretching further south. The south bank of the river has been developed as park cum promenade, with an eclectic variety of public sculptures on display.
Hue's complex history has earned it a reputation as a political, cultural and religious center, but nowadays, visitors to contemporary Hue will find a city that only dimly reflects on its past, and only does so as a begrudging nod to its western visitors. Like Halong Bay to the north, the complex of tombs, pagodas and palaces throughout Hue and its surrounds has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. But to the Vietnamese psyche, shaped by centuries of war and struggle, tempered by nearly forty years of communist rule, this heritage is largely irrelevant and completely disconnected from the present. The overwhelming sense one gets from the city, on even the most casual visit, is of an unstoppable forward drive, and of a people constantly looking to the future.
Pale yellow houses draped in bougainvillea, shop fronts lit with the glow of silk lanterns, women in conical hats lifting baskets of slippery fish from their boats -- life in old town Hoi An looks like a picture postcard of a Vietnamese country town. Of course, that didn't happen by accident. In 1999, the riverside town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in an effort to preserve its core of historic architecture, a unique mix of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and European styles. The listing gave Hoi An resources and impetus to better protect and maintain its wonderful architecture, and to market itself as a tourist destination. It worked, and the town now attracts visitors by the droves.
Historians believe that Hoi An was founded more than 2,000 years ago as a primitive port for the Sa Huynh people, thanks to evidence from archaeological excavations which have also pointed towards early trade with the Han dynasty in China. Through to the 15th century, the port was absorbed into the Kingdom of Champa and was known first as Lam Ap and later as Faifo. During this period, it developed into a prosperous trading port visited by trading fleets from as far afield as the Arabian Peninsula. As a hub of regional trade, Hoi An brought considerable affluence to the Champa Kingdom, evidence of which can be seen at nearby My Son.
The number of traders visiting Hoi An escalated as the centuries marched on, with the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French all making an appearance, along with the ever-present Chinese, Japanese and Indians. The majority of Hoi An's most beautiful buildings were constructed from the 15th to 19th centuries.
The city is indisputably beautiful, bordered by mountains, with the beach tracing an impressive long swoop along a bay dotted with islands. Topiary and modern sculpture dot the immaculately manicured foreshore.
Nha Trang offers plenty to keep tourists occupied – from island-hopping boat trips and scuba diving, to mudbaths and historic sites. But the main attraction for most visitors is lounging around on deckchairs at a beachfront bar and drinking cocktails in comfort.
Ho Chi Minh City
As Ho Chi Minh City's cyclo drivers rest easy below vast neon billboards, the emerging Vietnamese middle class -- mobile phones in hand -- cruise past draped in haute couture on their imported motorcycles. Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City -- Vietnam's largest and most exciting city.
How things have changed from the sleepy days pre-16th century, when the Khmer fishing village of Prey Nokor was established on a vast swampland. Saigon's origins date back to the early 17th century when the area became home for refugees fleeing war in the north. Towards the end of the century, once the population was more Vietnamese and Cambodia weak enough, Vietnam annexed the territory. Over the following decades Prey Nokor developed into the Saigon the French found when they conquered the region in the mid 19th century.
When the South finally fell in 1975, what remained was a paltry shadow of its more grandiose days. Fittingly, the following year the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the late leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh.. Despite this, many still know the sprawling town as Saigon, and the name still refers to central District One.
The communist victory was followed by widespread repression and re-education. The economy buckled under a heavy hand from the north as entrepreneurial spirit was all but stamped out, and the Chinese trading class were particularly hard done by. Simultaneously, Saigon's elite and pretty much anyone else with the means did their best to get out of the country, and through the late 1970s and early 1980s, Vietnam's "boat people" were featured in media worldwide.
Through a policy of freeing up economic activity known as doi moi in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the economic leash was loosened and Saigon has never looked back. With a very young, increasingly well-educated population, the city has gone from strength to strength. Today, children of The Party slide through the heaving traffic in gleaming, chauffeur-driven Mercedes, and the general population looks more to neon shrines for direction than to Uncle Ho and the old guard.
Towering developments now pierce what was once a very low-key skyline. Five-star hotels and international shopping chains have replaced dowdy government guesthouses and empty shelves. Saigon has some of the best cuisine in the country, from cheap street eating to salubrious haute cuisine. A renewed interest in the arts has stimulated the art scene and many galleries and museums are slowly being spruced up. For a tourist there is a lot to do in Saigon.
And once you're done with the city, use it as a base to explore the surrounds -- head out to the tunnels at Chu Chi, the Cao Dai temple at Tay Ninh or jet off to the sublime Con Dao. Then there's the entire Mekong Delta to explore.
How much time have you got?!