Morning market in Can Tho. All photos by Christian Berg
The earlier you can wake up for this the better. Don’t think too much, just start pedalling. Soon enough you’ll find yourself in a sea of waving green (or yellow, depending on the time of year.) In the early hours you’ll pass flocks of ducks, ponds heavy with lotus pads, and families of ponderous water buffalo along the way.
You haven’t really seen Vietnam until you’ve sipped a coffee on the sidewalk. It doesn’t matter if you pick a random alley or a stool in sight of a cathedral: when you’re on the sidewalk, you’re part of the community. Order cà phê đá, a chocolate-y Vietnamese robusta over ice, then stir, sip, and see what happens.
TIP: For a deeper look into Vietnamese coffee culture, book a half-day visit to the K’ho Coffee Farm in Da Lat where you can enjoy the entire process and taste the country’s best arabica.
The Cai Rang floating market is a riot of vivid colours, with boats of all sizes weighed down with Mekong Delta fruits, and enticing wafts of steam rising from the noodle sellers’ sampans. For something special, visit the smaller floating market that gathers for just an hour around sunrise, trading baby bananas, juicy mangoes, spiky pineapples, and tempting piles of produce.
Pretty Mai Chau, only three hours from Hanoi, is an idyllic spot at any time of year, but during the harvest season you’ll get to watch the fields transform, as they do only once or twice a year. The farmers work tirelessly in the sun to bring in the harvest. Plots that took months to plant and cultivate will be cut and cleared in just a few hours, making way for a new cycle to begin.
Save your appetite. Vietnam’s home cooks will blow you away with massive spreads of enticing food, plucked, picked and prepped the same day. Roll soft noodles and feathery herbs in rice paper, pick away at fried fish, and help yourself to bowl after bowl of rice and vegetables. Finish off with a fruit platter (and maybe a nap in the hammock.)
TIP: We recommend the homestays in the Mekong Delta for a true taste of Vietnamese hospitality, as well as the best fruit in the country.
Beep beep. Did you just miss a bus? An old lady with a cart? Flower vendor on a bike? Close encounters are part of the fun on cyclo rides. Sit back and take in the sights of the atmospheric Old Quarter: long-time friends meeting for coffee, ancient streets named for traditional trades, ornate pagodas, spice houses, and goldsmiths. It’s a Hanoi moment you’ll always treasure.
TIP: Aside from the Old Quarter, the former capital of Hue, with its bridges and waterfront roads, is another place where cyclos are the perfect way to go.
You’ve seen the pictures, you’ve heard the stories. But paddling out on your own in this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a memory you’ll want to make yourself. Shielded by thousands of prehistoric limestone karsts, Halong’s emerald waters are a calm, inviting green, punctuated by forested islets and floating villages. Glide into this extraordinary seascape your own pace.
TIP: Beyond Halong Bay, the areas around Cat Ba Island with thrill you with secret lagoons, dripping grottoes and empty beaches.
This may be the start of a passionate affair. Or just another breakfast. Either way, you must try eating the first meal of the day the way we Vietnamese do. Just pull up a stool at a busy stall serving phở gà, hủ tiếu or bún cá. When the bowl arrives, customise it with slices of chili, sprays of herbs, and a squeeze of lime. Mix everything together, and savour that first bite.
Some 27 kilometres from the airport in Da Nang, Hai Van Pass is one of Vietnam’s most scenic coastal roads. The pass hugs the jungle-clad mountains separating Hue and Da Nang, twisting around rocky boulders to climb high above the sparkling East Sea. It’s a breezy, breathtaking ride, especially by motorbike, when you can feel each sea breeze and heart-pounding drop.
All around the country, we Vietnamese have a favourite way to cool down when the weather heats up: chè. This versatile combination of tropical goodies, shaved ice, coconut cream and fresh fruit will lift your spirits in seconds. Give it a good stir with a spoon, or taste each ingredient on its own. The best thing about chè is there are so many varieties to try!
Vietnam’s enigmatic culture can be hard to ‘crack’, especially on your first visit. A well-timed museum stop will give you a base of information to appreciate your travels even more. Some of Vietnam’s best museums are the Fine Arts Museum, Ethnology Museum and Women’s Museum in Hanoi, War Remnants in Ho Chi Minh City, and Cham Museum of Sculpture in Da Nang.
TIP: Apart from museums, culture seekers can gain more insight on Vietnam’s excellent tours, covering everything from culinary traditions to contemporary art.
Beat the crowds and the heat by visiting Marble Mountain around seven in the morning. You’ll be glad you did. Apart from a few early-rising monks, you’ll have this marvelous attraction all to yourself. Take in the lovely stone pathways and stairs, the carved gateways and spacious caverns, and the elaborate pagodas throughout the site in total tranquility.
Hair back? Sleeves back? Dig in. Vietnam’s long coastline means a seaside meal of tamarind prawns, steamed clams with lemongrass, and whole grilled fish is never far away. Be sure to save an evening on your trip to indulge in Vietnam’s fresh seafood. The seafood restaurants in Phu Quoc, Hoi An, Nha Trang and Mui Ne are reliable places to start.
The tombs of the Nguyen kings are easily some of the most compelling historical attractions in Vietnam. Vietnam’s last dynasty ruled from the central city of Hue between 1802 and 1945. The Nguyen kings inspired fame by designing their own tombs in lavish style. You’ll find these incredible, complex tombs tucked in the Hue countryside, each more intriguing than the last.
TIP: The farthest of the tombs is that of Emperor Gia Long, the first Nguyen ruler who united the country and established Hue as its capital. The hour-long ride to his tomb is well worth it.
This one’s a bit of a secret, but we’re willing to share it with you. When in Phu Quoc, take a car to Nam Nghi Resort for a two-minute boat ride to Rock Island. The island faces the sunset, with an outrageously photogenic bar, private beach for swimming, and romantic seating out on the rocks. If you can’t leave land, catch the day’s last rays at a bar on Ông Lang Beach.
Beautiful waterfalls, rich wildlife, and near-empty trails are a few of the promises Vietnam’s national parks make to travellers. Depending on how you like to go, you may opt to camp in the park, do a multi-day cave expedition, or book a homestay with an ethnic minority. Short on time? Try a single-day hike to reach panoramic peaks and bubbling rock pools.
Vietnamese street food is some of the best in the world, and an integral part of the pleasure of travelling Vietnam. We recommend signing up for a back-of-the-bike street food tour soon after you arrive, to see what the fuss is all about. Let yourself be whisked by a local foodie to secret stalls, special eateries and sidewalk joints, for a delicious introduction to Vietnam.
Ninh Binh is quietly making a name for itself as a surreal destination, with a treasure trove of natural and historical attractions. Among them, you’ll find the Trang An and Tam Coc waterways, a riverine system that threads between enormous rock karsts, to create an otherworldly place that feels trapped in time. Get up close with this unreal setting on a two-hour paddleboat ride.
Da Nang, Vietnam’s modern coastal hub, seems to have a thing for bridges. The canary-yellow Dragon Bridge can’t help but stand out as a symbol of Vietnamese ambition and progress. Up in the hills, the Golden Hands Bridge emerges straight out of an Instagrammer’s dream. There’s no easier way to say ‘I’m in Vietnam now’ than with a selfie at these singular landmarks.
Lune Production’s striking, contemporary shows centre around Vietnamese culture, old and new. Live traditional music enhances the world-class lighting, costumes, acrobatics and dances on stage, to create a riveting spectacle. You’ll be on the edge of your seat throughout these hour-long shows. A O Show and The Mist are two of the best in the Lune repertoire.