Vietnam travel guide : Beyond Ha Long Bay and Hanoi

Arushi Sakhuja  
The Land of the Blue Dragons, a land of staggering natural beauty and cultural complexities, of dynamic megacities and hill-tribe villages, Vietnam is unforgettable. Vietnam is a country where motorbikes outnumber the people. For most travellers, this country is synonymous with three things: frenetic cities, incredible outdoor adventures, and some of the best food on earth. 
From the jagged peaks of Ha Giang to the backwaters of the Mekong Delta, the one thing Vietnam isn’t lacking is variety. Between the velvety rice terraces of Sapa and Mu Cang Chai and the prickly limestone karsts of Halong Bay and Ninh Binh, you’ll find sand dunes in Mui Ne, waterwheels in Pu Luong, tea fields in Thai Nguyen, and hundreds of sweet hamlets and fascinating small cities in between.  From the stunning views of Sam Mountain and Ha Long Bay to the man-made artistry of the sacred temples and pagodas to the rice terraces and beaches, Vietnam has a lot to offer travellers. 
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In the recent past, Vietnam has also seen a 25 per cent increase in international visitors according to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam. While most tourists are attracted to popular spots like Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi, the highlands, rivers, rice terraces and paddy fields allow you to truly experience the culturally-rich country. A visit to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003, will let you explore the remarkable and oldest karst mountains in Asia. 
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
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Best time to visit  
The best time to visit the city is between late February to April to ensure you skip the scorching heat. Rainfall is low, and the temperatures are milder, which is a welcoming climate for travellers from most countries.  
While there is lots to do and see in Vietnam, here are some places that we consider a must-visit.  
Vietnam’s capital dates to the 3rd century BCE and is also the country’s second-largest city. Known as the “City of Lakes”, Hanoi is home to over two dozen lakes and a climate that mimics the four seasons. Being a city with great historical significance, it’s no surprise that Hanoi offers ample architecture to explore in the narrow streets of the Old Quarter. Other highlights of the Old Quarter include St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Bach Ma Temple and Dong Xuan Market. 
Further, the city even offers countless temples and galleries, French colonial architecture, ancient Vietnamese landmarks, temples and other religious centres.  Don’t miss a walk along the train street, and blend in at Phung Hung Mural Street. Located on Phung Hung Street and parallel to Train Street is this wall with maybe 20+ murals depicting scenes from everyday Vietnamese life. And for all the foodies, if you really want to delve into the local cuisine, then there’s no better way to do that than by going on a food tour – and maybe even sneaking in a cooking class by the chef.
People of Vietname
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See the Iconic Long Bien Bridge and Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of Hanoi. But don’t miss the Vietnamese coffee culture!  Introduced by the French and fully embraced by the Vietnamese (so much so that the country is now the world’s second-largest exporter of coffee beans), ca phe is Hanoi’s beverage of choice. The signature local classic Vietnamese coffee is a potent drip brew diluted with condensed milk and ice. Hanoi’s signature ca phe trung (egg coffee) is another must-try. More of a dessert than a drink, it uses sugar and whipped egg yolks in the place of milk — a product of wartime resourcefulness.  
Vietnam bridge
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If you wish to splurge head to the up-market restaurants and chic cafés. Must-try Northern delicacies include bun cha (grilled pork and noodles), banh cuon (steamed rice-flour pancakes with ground pork and mushrooms) and pho cuon (beef and fresh herbs rolled in a rice noodle sheet). Come sundown, it’s all about the fresh beer. Bia Hoi Corner, at the junction of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets, is popular with tourists
Where to stay: Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, Capella Hanoi 
Ho Chi Minh City 
Hi Chi Minh
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Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam. The destination is among the most popular places to visit in the country given its French and Colonial era memorials and buildings. However, the city also reignites the history of the Vietnamese war can also be found here.  While firmly fixed on the future, Ho Chi Minh City is somewhat of a dichotomy — it is the booming economic center of Vietnam with glittering skyscrapers and an energetic vibe, but it also has a rich past represented by traditional Chinese pagodas and Art Deco cafes dotting the wide avenues of Old Saigon. Chi Minh is known for its food especially the city’s abundant street carts and gourmet restaurants. Bamboo Bar, Doozy, Kumquat Tree Speakeasy Bar, Cocktail Bar, The Haflington and Tung Dining have also made it to the World’s 50 Best for 2023. Upscale Dong Khoi Street is lined with a variety of boutiques and galleries, while the famous Ben Thanh Market offers Southeast Asian street-market shopping at its best. Another reason to visit Ho Chi Minh City is the Mekong Delta, hilly central highlands and stunning beaches of Vietnam’s southern coast  
Where to stay: Park Hyatt Saigon, Hotel Des Arts Saigon Mgallery Collection and La Vela Saigon Hotel 
Sao Beach  
For those who need some ‘Vitamin-Sea’ with a side of clear blue water, swaying palm trees, white and fine sand, and beautiful scenery, Sao Beach offers the perfect way to unwind. If you are looking for a perfect beach having palm trees swaying in the wind, a forest as a backdrop, and a few bars to enjoy a cocktail while watching the sea, Bai Sao is a great choice for you. 
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Sao Beach (Bai Sao) is about 28 km from Dong Duong town, considered the most famous beach in the Phu Quoc tourist area. The reason behind its name Sao Beach is because here in the past, every night when the sunset fell, there were thousands of starfish in the white sand. They moved on the shore as well as underwater. So, the people here took the name Sao Beach – Starfish Beach to name it as a special symbol of this island. Sao Beach has a gentle curve of the shoreline, surrounded by stone capes toward the sea. According to the local tour guide, the best time to travel is from June to October which is also the time Bai Sao has more starfish than in other months.
Where to stay: JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa, New World Phuc Quoc Resort  
Ha Long Bay  
Ha Long Bay (Hạ Long Bay) is Vietnam’s best-known and most-visited tourist attraction given its soaring beauty with 2,000-odd limestone islands and islets that emerge from the waters off the coast. These range from towering karsts with deep caves, to tiny formations ringed by white-sand beaches. The expansive white beaches are contrasted with blue water and lush greenery making this haven on earth.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site spans 370,000 acres and is a must-visit if you love azure waters. Ho Long Bay is characterised by its limestone formations and the clear water, making it a traveller’s tranquil delight. The islands are populated by rich jungles. Cat Ba Island is great for hiking and many tourists find themselves taking one of the cave tours. Be sure to have experiences such as boating here to be able to experience the best of the place.  
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Where to stay: Vinpearl Resort & Spa Ha Long and Wyndham Legend Halong 
Sapa stands at the head of a deep valley of magnificent rice terraces. The rice here is farmed the way it was for over several centuries, and the views are picturesque, to say the least. A combination of beauty and adventure, the lush greenery (and fresh air) will draw you in instantly. Away from the hustle-bustle of daily life, Sapa is a quaint hill town is located about 320 km northwest of Hanoi, Vietnam. It is home to diverse hill tribes, breathtaking landscapes, and green rice fields allowing one to dive deep into the culture.  White-water rivers rush among rice fields, and lush green mountains stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see. But the apple of the eye is the highest peak in the region, Mount Fansipan. A 6-kilometre and 15-minute cable car journey away, the views from Mount Fansipan also known as the ‘Roof of Indochina’ are unmatched.  You can even opt for a trek to the Love Waterfall which is another popular attraction in Sapa.
Dive a little deeper as you visit the Bac Ha market that takes place every Sunday. Here you can expect to see individuals from Dzao, Han, Xa Fang, Tay and Thai tribes dressed in traditional garb. For adventure-seeking individuals, we recommend an overnight trek to wander through rice terraces, bathe in waterfalls and experience the ethnic culture first-hand.  
Street food
Photo Courtesy: Pexels
Photo Courtesy: Pexels
A delicacy of the region is it’s a traditional H’mong hot pot dish made with different types of meat like beef, pork, buffalo, and goat. However, the main delicacy is horse meat. Simmered in a large pot or pan for hours with up to twelve different spices, they use every part of the horse like its liver, lungs, intestines, and kidneys so nothing goes to waste. If horse meat is a little extreme for you, then perhaps you’d like to try a salmon hot pot instead. Once you’ve stepped out into the lush fields, you’ll understand the Sapa area’s real charm. The best time to visit is September – October.
Where to stay: Hotel de la Coupole 
When it comes to travel, what makes it among the best places to visit in Vietnam is the fact that it has fertile riverbanks and forested hill views, providing you with the calm, natural oasis you need to unwind.  The city of Hue is all about imperial majesty, and if you have an interest in history and a passion for Vietnamese food, then you’re going to love Hue. The best time to visit is between February till April. Located about 130 km north of Hoi An, Hue is a former Vietnamese capital that served as the Nguyen  
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With an interesting mix of regional dishes like com hen, banh hue, banh khoai, nem lui, banh ep, and bunh bo hue, the city is a haven for food lovers. Thien Mu Pagoda’s most recognizable structure is Thap Phuoc Duyen – a seven-story 21-meter (69 ft) octagonal tower viewed as an unofficial symbol of Hue. Each of the tower’s seven stories is dedicated to a Buddha which manifested itself in human form. And if you wish to shop a little, Dong Ba market offers everything from daily household items to commodities, Hue exotic specialities, such as dried lotus, Phu Cam conical hats (Non La) and more
Where to stay: Melia Vinpearl Hue 
Da Nang 
A one-time French colonial port on the central coast, Vietnam’s third-largest city is also home to some of the country’s best beaches. And it’s got a little something for everyone. Fans of water sports can visit My Khe Beach, meanwhile, those who prefer some privacy can hop on a motorbike to the untouched Tien Sa Beach on the north side of the Son Tra Peninsula. Other nearby attractions include the stunning Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Caves, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to Son Doong, the world’s largest cave. The best time to visit Da Nang for tourists is from February through April.
Local market of Vietnam
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Make a trip to the Han Market and indulge in a lavish local breakfast. Some of the must-try include Mi Quang(Vietnamese turmeric noodles), pho (beef noodles soup), Banh Xeo (crispy pancake), Bun Thit Nuong (dry Bun with grilled pork ), Goi Cuon (Vietnamese spring rolls). One can also visit the Da Nang Cathedral which is one of the famous catholic churches in Vietnam given its unique design features or relax on the most popular beaches are My Khe Beach and Non-Nuoc Beach.
Where to stay: InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort 
Tourist attractions  
Notre Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City 
Built between 1877 and 1883, Notre Dame Cathedral enlivens the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s government quarter. A red-brick, neo-Romanesque church, it has twin bell towers that are both topped with spires and crosses that reach 60m. This Catholic cathedral, named after the Virgin Mary is gorgeous on the inside. Admire its stained-glass windows and interior walls inlaid with devotional tablets.  
Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park 
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, the remarkable Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park contains the oldest karst mountains in Asia, formed approximately 400 million years ago. Phong Nha is a speleologists’ heaven on earth and a real treat for anyone who appreciates the sight of nature at its most raw. The caves are the region’s absolute highlights, but the above-ground attractions of forest trekking, the area’s war history, and rural mountain biking mean the park has enough going on to warrant stays of up to three days.  
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Hang Son Doong (Mountain River Cave), located in the heart of Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, is known as the world’s largest cave and is one of the most spectacular sights in Southeast Asia. Another attraction here is the Paradise caves surrounded by forested karst peaks, this staggering cave system in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park extends for 31km.  The scale is breathtaking, as wooden staircases plunge into a cathedral-like space with vast alien-looking stalagmites and stalactites illuminated by large flood lights.  
Lan Ha Bay  
Lying to the south of Halong Bay off the northeastern coast of Vietnam, the islands and limestone outcrops of Lan Ha are just as beautiful as those of its superstar neighbour but feel more isolated and untouched. Lan Ha also has the additional attraction of numerous white-sand beaches, which aren’t found in Halong. 
Rice fields Vietnam
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Temple of Literature  
Set amidst landscaped grounds near the centre of Hanoi, the Temple of Literature honours Vietnam’s finest scholars and also offers visitors a chance to see a rare example of well-preserved traditional Vietnamese architecture. 
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Tour the Mekong Delta 
The delta, also known as the Nine Dragon River Delta, is a 60,000-kilometer-long web of interconnected waterways, which spans across Vietnam. Touring the Delta region is a great way to experience rural Vietnamese culture. The best way to explore the delta is by boat or on a bike tour, and you will pass by areas filled with small villages, pagodas, mangroves, and orchards. You can make a pit stop at the floating markets or sail and shop for fruits and fresh flowers along the way.   
Vietnamese Coffee
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No matter what city you choose the natural beauty of Vietnam will surely leave you in awe. And might we add, it’s a refreshing change from the typical fast-paced city life.
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