The thrill of the big city – and the sheer breakneck speed at which it operates – makes HCMC a popular choice. Although not the capital of Vietnam, the buzzing, cosmopolitan city of skyscrapers and French colonial architecture is sleek and sexy. The best way to soak up the melee of the traffic-choked boulevards is to sit back and sip a latte at a Parisian-style pavement café.
A vast sprawling delta through which the Mekong River makes its last push to meet the South China Sea, the landscape here is a lush maze of languid waterways and mangrove forests. This fertile region is Vietnam’s rice bowl and travellers flock to atmospheric floating markets to watch produce being hawked from colourful boats bathed in early morning light.
Long on every traveller’s bucket list, Ha Long Bay has been a World Heritage Site since 1994. When the sun rises over the still emerald waters and the bay’s scattered islands, islets and limestone pillars, the seascape is the most beautiful in the world – and even in the cooler off season the fog can add a touch of dreamy mysticism. An overnight cruise on a junk is an experience not to be missed.
It’s the dramatic site of the far north’s Sa Pa, rather than the bustling market town itself, that travellers rave about. If the mist hasn’t rolled in, viewpoints take in green terraces and looming conical mountains, including Mount Fan Si Pan, Vietnam’s tallest peak. Trekkers use Sa Pa as a base to visit nearby minority villages that still practice a traditional way of life.
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The central coast’s centuries-old ancient port has retained its charm despite the throngs of tourists drawn here by the heady mix of wooden-fronted merchant houses, graceful bridges and ornate temples. At night, colourful lanterns are hung from every shop front and light up the narrow streets of the atmospheric old town, casting a romantic shimmer over the Thu Bon River.