Last Updated on May 12, 2016 by Editor G
Whether you are arriving from the bushy jungle of Laos, or gloriously sliding along the Mekong River from Cambodia, or coming by bus from the Chinese border, or just flying into the country from abroad, Vietnam will startle you. Embracing the coast of South China Sea in the east and the mountains of Laos and plains of Cambodia in the west, the country shows the whole diversity of Southeast Asian landscape: from the endless rice terraces to sandy coastlines and craggy mountain roads.
If you travel to the less-explored regions and spend some days in the traditional Vietnamese villages, be ready for surprises. First of all, you must leave your fears behind and embrace the one and only acceptable means of transportation in both rural and urban areas: the motorbike. Like tireless mechanical donkeys, motorbikes in Vietnam are able to carry entire families (up to three adults, up to five children, up to one refrigerator and up to one goat) and scale unimaginable heights, be it on paved roads or muddy mountain paths. Renting a motorbike in the countryside is the best way to move around without depending on unclear bus or boat schedules. City motorbiking is a dangerous game where foreigner always comes out a loser. Keeping that in mind, travelers should also keep their eyes open when walking around the city and crossing roads: it is much like playing Frogger, but painfully real.
It is hard to cover the entire country in a couple of weeks, since the transportation infrastructure is not too reliable, but provided that you have at least a month for Vietnam, the journey can be truly unforgettable.
The Northern part of the country, for instance, offers a great variety of minority cultures. Mai Chau Valley is not far from Hanoi and hosts a lot of foreign guests willing to experience the native culture of White Thai people. Son La attracts visitors with the old French prison building and fascinating Que Lam Ngu Che caves with a small shrine and ancient carvings. Sa Pa town, the center of northern regions, presents the most striking ethnic diversity: colorful tribal clothing and makeup can be observed at the weekend market and in the evening hours when people from different minority villages are drawn to the town centre from all across the province. Finally, Ba Be National Park and the largest eponymous lake in the country is well worth a prolonged stay: the stunning beauty of mountain skyline, the rumor of waterfalls and echo of mountain caves, the biodiversity of jungle life are all complemented by the friendliness of local Tay villagers who perform traditional songs and dances during national festivals.
If coastal pleasures and party life are more up your alley, a couple of weeks will be enough to follow the eastern rim of Vietnam all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and the spectacular Ha Long Bay that never sleeps and catches you in the crazy spin of diurnal and nocturnal activities: kayaking, diving, snorkeling, dancing or simply beach-bumming. Da Lat City might be a tad bit off the coastal track from Ho Chi Minh, but well worth a visit as the most well-preserved historical city in post-war Vietnam, with many old French colonial buildings and old churches standing alongside Vietnamese temples.
Finally, if you are ready to be the only foreign face in the neighborhood, Ca Mau peninsula and cape offer you a route along the Mekong delta and onwards to the coast of Cambodia. The monks and villagers here will wave at you excitedly and offer their help in exchange for English practice. Small fisherman boats are the main means of transportation in the area, and from the river you can quietly contemplate the undisturbed birdlife of Vietnam right here, at the borderlands of Southeast Asia.
If just a few decades ago Vietnam was the symbol of war and destruction, the newly rehabilitated country of today is a peaceful refuge of Buddhist monks, as well as a growing touristic and economic hub of Asia, especially the skyscrapers and malls of Ho Chi Minh City. Foreign ear is also used to associate Vietnam with exotic and odd cuisine, most notably dog meat and snake blood, but there is much more to the millenia-old Vietnamese cooking traditions that have undergone the influence of both Chinese and French gourmands throughout the centuries. You might get tired of the climate and shocked by cultural diversity, but a large bowl of noodle soup with spices is something you can always count on to brighten your day.
Best Places to Eat in Vietnam
The Refinery Bar and Restaurant, Ho Chi Minh City
The Refinery Bar and Restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City is one of the most popular eateries in this region of the country, and it offers some very unique and delicious cocktails as well as a bistro style menu with mostly French dishes. The menu for this restaurant offers a wide variety of selections, including pasta dishes, European salads, and steak fries. The two course set costs only $9 and includes a chocolate fondue fountain. This restaurant is in a secluded courtyard that offers the perfect dining out environment as well as some truly delectable dishes.
Quan An Ngon Restaurant, Ho Chi Minh
There are plenty of great places to eat in Saigon, but Quan An Ngon Restaurant is by far one of the better choices for tourists on a budget. This restaurant is one of the most popular in all of Ho Chi Minh, and it is located in a beautiful renovated Vietnamese mansion with a garden that provides a truly idyllic setting for eating a great meal. If you want to try some casual but delicious Vietnamese dishes, the black pepper crab, noodle soup, and spring rolls are highly recommended. This restaurant is definitely a great place to go for good food at extremely reasonable prices.
Sen 60 Ly Thai, Hanoi
If you are looking for a highly sophisticated restaurant with a buffet-style dinner setup that will be sure to impress even the most discerning foodies, Sen 60 Ly Thai in Hanoi is definitely one place you will have to try eating at. This restaurant has some delicious sashimi, escargot, spring rolls, oysters, and a variety of seafood to dishes to choose from. There are lots of different types of food that you can get at this restaurant, offering something for everyone. There are three different branches of this restaurant in Hanoi, but the one at 60 Ly Thai To Street is by far the best one.
KOTO, Dong Da District, Hanoi
The KOTO (Know One, Teach One) restaurant, which is located in the Dong Da district, is a great little café and all-day dining establishment that serves some great Vietnamese dishes as well as strong Vietnamese coffee for those who are looking for a caffeine kick start. This restaurant overlooks the Temple of Literature in the Ba Dinh area of Hanoi and it offers a very pleasant atmosphere. At this restaurant you can order everything from small snacks and dips to full Vietnamese entrees that will truly impress your taste buds.
Green Tangerine, Hanoi
The Green Tangerine restaurant in Hanoi has a reputation for its outstanding food and service, drawing in many visitors each year. This restaurant offers some of the best, most creative dishes in all of Hanoi. Try the king prawns cooked with mango and rum liquor, served with carrot cake. There is also the marinated pigeon with coffee and cocoa served with beetroot, strawberries, and mashed eggplant. If you are looking for a top quality authentic Vietnamese dining experience, Green Tangerine has all of your needs covered.
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Gareth Evans is a travel writer and entrepreneur living life as a digital nomad. Gareth has been based in Bangkok for the last 8 months.