There’s no point dipping your foot in the water; you have to dive right in on a trip to Vietnam.
Vietnam boasts an abundance of beautiful sights to behold and delicious food to taste. But if time is not your friend, here are five must-visit destinations that will guarantee you a trip to remember.
Taking a train to Sapa
Sapa is a small town in the northern province of Lao Cai. Dubbed the “the Tonkinese Alps”, the region is home to hill tribe minority groups who farm on terraced rice fields. Mount Fansipan, the roof of Indochina, stands tall at 3,143 meters right in the center of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range not far from Sapa.
The town, 376km north of Hanoi, is easily accessible by an overnight train from the capital. One can take a bus too, but such a long journey is usually reserved for those with a thirst for adventure. The train, on the other hand, is safe, cheap and convenient while still affording you a breathtaking view out of the window from a cabin that still breathes the air from the French colonial period.
If you opt for the train, tickets should be booked at least a few days or even months in advance, especially if you plan to travel during public holidays such as Labor Day on May 1 or National Day on September 2.
Drinking ‘bia hoi’ with locals
‘Bia hoi’, roughly translated as fresh beer, is a locally-brewed, preservative-free beer served at small bars and at street corners. A visit to Hanoi is incomplete without a stop at the ‘bia hoi’ corner at the crossroads of Luong Ngoc Quyen, Ta Hien and Dinh Liet streets for a glass of 20 cent beer.
Most ‘bia hoi’ joints also serve inexpensive street food that goes well with the beer. There are prawns barbecued with chili and salt, clams steamed with lemongrass, green mango with a prawn-chili-salt dip or coconut snails sautéed with butter and fish sauce. Instead of a “proper” table, you’ll find yourself seated on tiny plastic stools, most likely blue, which also serve as mini tables. As the alcohol kicks in, you’ll soon forget the discomfort in your legs to cheer the night away.
Overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay, the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not to be missed in the northern province of Quang Ninh. Spanning an area of 1,553 km2, the bay features thousands of limestone karsts formed over 500 million years and 2,000 islets that come in all shapes and sizes. You can venture out onto the waters in a kayak, descend into mysterious caves or discover your own secret hideout among the thousands of islets.
Travelers can book an overnight cruise that comes with a double room, breakfast, lunch and dinner. As the sun comes up, you will be treated to piercing limestone karsts rising majestically out of the bay. By evening, a candlelight dinner awaits you onboard under the stars and the moon, lighting the way for small fishing boats heading out for the night.
Hoi An food heaven
Inside the ancient town of Hoi An lies a whole new world for you to discover. And it’s not just 16th century houses for which this former port city has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage.
On its small sidewalks and inside unassuming houses there are 1,001 street food specialties awaiting you. Here are just a few to add to your bucket list, because you won’t find a cheaper or tastier equivalent anywhere else:
– ‘Mi Quang’, or Quang noodles, the central sister of pho, just bigger and with a pulpy rather than silky texture
– ‘Hen xuc banh trang’: Vietnamese burritos – sautéed clams eaten with crispy rice paper
– ‘Cao lau’: Brown noodles with pork and greens, only in Hoi An
Floating market in Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta down south is criss-crossed with thousands of canals interlocking through fields and mangrove forests that have created a world of their own: life on water. Put your bike aside and jump in a boat to discover tropical fruits on offer at floating markets. The most famous ones include Cai Rang (Can Tho Province), Cai Be (Tien Giang Province), Phung Hiep (also called Nga Bay in Hau Giang Province), Long Xuyen (An Giang Province) and Tra On (Vinh Long Province).
In the midst of hundreds of boats anchored next to each other, you’ll find huge crowds of buyers and seller bargaining over fruit, fish, poultry, fabric, home appliances and farming tools. The goods are hung on long bamboo polls for customers to choose from. For the more adventurous, you can go snake and snake wine shopping in Phung Hiep Market.