The Five ‘H’s to Hit on Holiday in Vietnam

Vietnam is one of the best countries in Asia to visit in a conventional holiday timeframe. Between trains, planes and efficient road and bus networks, this long, thin country is easy to get around. Thanks to cool – sometimes even cold! – highlands and tropical southern beaches and islands, there’s something for pretty much everything climate-wise, as well.

Islands and junks in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

This means you can end a holiday in Vietnam with a sense of completion you wouldn’t get from Thailand, Indonesia or the Philippines (where you might scratch the surface of an island or four), or Cambodia or Laos (where getting from A to B is rather more challenging than in Vietnam). Still, if you’re putting together a multi-centre trip to Vietnam, there are five ‘H’s you simply have to plan around – the good folks at have trips that include all these and more.

Towering karst landscapes in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Halong Bay – for Islands

A dazzlingly beautiful seascape of karst islands, complete with hidden bays and caves, this North Vietnam classic merits a night or even two on a junk cruise – most include kayaking, as well as cave exploring, as part of the price. The Vietnam War era hospital caves on Cat Ba island are well worth a look, while the island itself is perfect for leisurely scooter exploration (and a great place to get your moped training wheels). If you’re hiring your own junk – which I’d recommend for any group larger than one person – and you’re in high season, aim for the Bai Tu Long region.

Ancient architecture of Hanoi.

Hanoi – for Culture

Hanoi may only have been the capital of Vietnam since 1945, but the land has been occupied for over 3000 years, and the city celebrated its thousandth anniversary in 2010. Hanoi’s Old Quarter and Hoan Qiem Lake make for glorious wandering territory, while plenty of colonial buildings remain. The city’s temples, notably the ancient Temple of Literature, are lovely. If you can, try to arrive by the Reunification Express: it has a deliciously old school feel.

Lights sparkle in Hoi An old town at twilight.

Hoi An – for Beauty

Rather like Luang Prabang in Laos, Hoi An is a city that divides people. Its pastel architecture, lanterns, rice fields and UNESCO-listed Old Town, complete with bridges and Chinese temples, make this historic port city undoubtedly Vietnam’s prettiest, and it’s one where many foreigners choose to live. To others, Hoi An is an over-priced tourist trap, more Disney theme park than living, breathing town – whichever, it definitely merits a night or two. With kids, stay by the beach.

Modern architecture in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh City – for Energy

Big, brash and glitzy, a whirl of scooters, skyscrapers and pollution, Ho Chi Minh City has a dynamism that’s polarises people – modern-day Saigon is the closest you’ll get, in many ways, to the energy of colonial Singapore. The Cu Chi fighting tunnels, a network of often-tiny underground passageways outside the city where Vietnamese soldiers lived and fought and killed and died repay a visit, as does the War Remnants Museum; it’s also your jumpoff point for the Mekong Delta.

Lakeside pavilion, Forbidden Purple City, Hue, Vietnam

Hue – for Heritage

An Imperial Vietnamese capital – and home to one of Vietnam’s finest cuisines – this quiet, conservative city ambles, leisurely, along the Perfume River. The palace complex simply oozes history, even though much was destroyed in the war. A dragon boat trip down the river to admire the Imperial tombs might be hokey, but it’s still delightful, while the city hosts a biennial arts festival. Here’s what to eat when you’re there.

Image credits: Hoi An, Vietnam by Ronan Crowley, Halong Bay by Andrea Schaffer, Halong Bay by Lawrence Murray, Hanoi by Nam-Ho Park and
25191-HoChiMinhCity by xiquinhosilva – all on Flickr’s Creative Commons. The Imperial Palace image is mine – you can use it if you link to this page and the home page.