How times have changed. With new direct flights from the UK to Vietnam, more and more Middle-Eastern airlines opening new routes from Europe and rumours of a direct flight from the U.S, Vietnam is fast becoming a more convenient and popular holiday destination. From the UK alone 2011 saw around 80,000 travellers and holidaymakers make their way to Vietnam.
Vietnam is bursting at the seams with “off the beaten track” experiences and, combined with common sense, you can still see the sights whilst avoiding the crowds.
Here we’ve provided three of Vietnam’s most popular sights and how you can see them without the crowds and at their best.
Hoi An is an ancient port town which owes its UNESCO status to its distinct fusion of Vietnamese, French, Japanese and Chinese architecture as well as its picturesque setting right by Thu Bon river. The crumbling plaster of the Parisian looking buildings that line Tran Phu street (Hoi An’s main street) are a joy to behold and at night, as is the river, they’re illuminated with colourful lanterns. Its Japanese architecture is epitomised in the compact but beautifully preserved Japanese Bridge (circa 1592 AD) at the centre of town.
Beat the crowds and wake up early – we’re talking 6am, if not before – and make your way through the streets as the town just begins to awaken, photos take at this time of the day are truly magical. When things busy up, hop on your bike a cycle out to the golden and often deserted Cua Dai Beach (China Beach) which is just a few kilometres from central Hoi An. Good eating options in Hoi An are the Streets International Cafe (part of a fantastic NGO network) and Mango Mango a famous restaurant reviewed in the New York Times which offer delectable Vietnamese fusion food. It’s located just opposite the Japanese bridge in central Hoi An.
Halong Bay. Ok so avoiding the crowds on your holiday here is a little more difficult. For day trips a small armada of tourist ‘Junk’ boats head out from Halong City but they soon navigate their own quieter routes through the bay. A great way to guarantee solitude and see the beautiful limestone islands in changing light is to spend a night onboard a boat on the bay. These will cost upward of $150 per person but are worth the investment. As with all touring options be sure to book with an established holiday company or operator, ideally before you leave.
Hanoi’s old quarter. Around a three hour drive from Halong Bay (above) you’ll reach Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi. Wandering the old quarters 36 streets in the early hours you’ll see the local markets spring to life, see the aged street traders open up their shop-fronts and put out their wares. Hanoi’s old quarter is relatively pedestrian friendly so leave the guidebook at the hotel and wander the streets to escape the marauding hoards. Skipping ‘typical’ sights like the Water Puppets is also advisable, trust me, you’re not missing much here. Instead, as evening approaches, take a walk around Hanoi’s famous Hoan Kiem Lake. When other travellers are dining out or drinking you can watch the locals practise their traditional dances, couples court and old men challenge one another to a game of chess. In the evening visit a local Bia Hoi. Costing a around $0.30 a glass this “fresh beer” is a popular with locals and tourists alike. Sit back in your plastic ‘nano-chair’, watch the mopeds race by, chat with some locals and soak up Hanoi’s evening atmosphere. When in Hanoi don’t forget to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (yes they actually embalmed the guy).
If you’ve the time then visit Saigon then be sure to take a cruise on the Mekong Delta. Around a two hour drive out of the city this is a great day trip. Ideally use the port of Ben Tre, this is far less commercial than other ports and you’ll often be the only ones cruising the Delta. In the north of Vietnam take a look at Mai Chau. Hidden in Hoa Binh province this is a great place to experience a traditional home-stay. On your way from Hoi An to Saigon take a detour and explore the hill-town of Dalat. A favourite retreat amongst the French ruling elite during the colonial period Dalat is home to some lovely gardens, a lake – you could call it Vietnam’s Geneva – and some beautiful colonial buildings.
Author bio: Working within the travel industry Kian has been fortunate enough to have travelled extensively in Asia. His favourite destination remains Laos and next on the Asia travel list is India.