Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Ho Chi Minh City is the heart and soul of Vietnam. It's a bustling, dynamic and industrious centre, the largest city in the country, the economic capital and the cultural trendsetter. The streets, where much of the city's life takes place, is a myriad of street markets, shops, pavement cafes, stands-on-wheels and vendors selling wares spread out on sidewalks. The city churns, ferments, bubbles and fumes. Yet within the teeming metropolis are the timeless traditions and beauty of an ancient culture. Sights include the Giac Lam Pagoda, Reunification Palace, the neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral, the beautiful Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, Ben Thanh market and the harrowing War Remnants Museum.
Central Ho Chi Minh City is the place to be at night on weekends and holidays. The streets are jam-packed with young locals cruising the town on bicycles and motorbikes, out to see and be seen. The Municipal Theatre area is the hub for young hipsters. Entertainment ranges from disco, to bars such as No 5 Ly Tu Trong and the Hard Rock Cafe, where Western music is played, or experiencing traditional Vietnamese music at the Conservatory of Music.
Budget travellers tend to congregate around the Pham Ngu Lao area at the western end of District 1. Cholon has plenty of cheap rooms, but Western backpackers are rare here. Travellers with a little more cash prefer the more upmarket hotels concentrated around D Dong Khoi at the eastern side of District 1. Central Saigon is the best place to look for fine Vietnamese and Western food, while Cholon's speciality is Chinese food.
The city of Dalat is the jewel of the southern Central Highlands region. The cool climate and park-like environment (often with Vietnamese style kitsch), makes it one of the most delightful cities in Vietnam. Dalat is also a good base for trips into the surrounding highlands, which remain tranquil. In Dalat, make sure you visit the Hang Nga Guesthouse & Art Gallery, nicknamed the Crazy House by locals. It's a counter-cultural gem created by artist and architect Mrs Dang Viet Nga (known as Hang Nga).
Emperor Bao Dai's Summer Palace is stuffed with interesting art and artefacts, and is well worth a look. It's also interesting to stroll around the old French Quarter, which is little changed since the French departed. The Valley of Love, 5km (3mi) north of the city centre, is a bizarre place with a carnival-style atmosphere where you can hire a paddle boat on the lake, or a horse from one of the Dalat Cowboys (no relation to the Dallas Cowboys), who are, indeed, dressed as cowboys.
There are some pleasant walks or rides (on horseback or bicycle) in the countryside around the city, but be aware that areas signposted with a C-sign are off-limits to foreigners. Further out, you can visit the villages of some of the hill tribes, such as Lat Village and the Chicken Village (with a huge statue of a chicken).
Dalat is famous for its cafes and is a paradise for people who love fresh vegetables. It's extremely popular with domestic tourists and honeymooners, so there's a wide range of accommodation options. You can fly to Dalat from Ho Chi Minh City, but the airport is 30km (19mi) from town; express buses also link the two cities.
Although it has the potential to develop into a flashy resort such as Thailand's Pattaya Beach, Nha Trang is still a good place to go for sun and partying. But see it while it lasts. With very clear turquoise waters (except for the wet season), snorkelling, diving and fishing are prime activities, and just lazing on the town beach is an experience in itself. You'll be offered everything from lunch to a manicure.
When you tire of the beach, there are some interesting sites nearby, such as the Long Son Pagoda, and 2km (1.2mi) to the north of town are the Cham towers of Po Nagar, built between the 7th and 12th centuries on a site that had been used for Hindu worship as early as the 2nd century.
Nha Trang's dry season runs from June to September, different from Ho Chi Minh City's. To cater for the growing influx of visitors, many new hotels have been built in town. Nha Trang is a major fishing port, so excellent seafood is available. The exotic dragon fruit (thanh long) grows only in the Nha Trang area. It's about the size and shape of a small pineapple, but tastes something like a kiwifruit. The fruit is in season from May to September, when you can find it served as a drink.
Express and regular buses link Nha Trang with Ho Chi Minh City; express buses take about 12 hours. Express trains run to both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and there are daily flights to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
Traditionally, HuÃ© has been one of Vietnam's main cultural, religious and education centres. Its Thien Mu Pagoda is one of the most famous structures in Vietnam. The remains of the huge, moated Citadel (Kinh Thanh), constructed by the Emperor Gia Long from 1804, contain many interesting sights, such as the Ngo Mon Gate, Nine Holy Cannons, Thai Hoa (the Palace of Supreme Harmony), Nine Dynastic Urns and the Halls of the Mandarins. Sadly, the intriguing Forbidden Purple City was largely destroyed during the Vietnam War. About 15km (9mi) south of HuÃ© are the splendid Royal Tombs, of the Nguyen emperors. HuÃ© has many other places of religious and dynastic importance, and some good museums.
You can do sampan trips up the Perfume River, which include visits to some of HuÃ©'s main attractions. If you want to get out of the city for a swim, head 13km (8mi) northeast to Thuan An Beach, where there's a lagoon and a hotel. It can be reached by sampan or bus.
There's a range of accommodation in HuÃ© to suit most budgets, and the city is famed for its fine restaurants. HuÃ© has a long tradition of vegetarian food, which is prepared at pagodas for the monks. Stalls in the markets serve vegetarian food on the 1st and the 15th days of the lunar month, and there are also several restaurants serving it all the time.
HuÃ© is about 700km (430mi) from Hanoi and 1100km (680mi) from Ho Chi Minh City. The Reunification Express train running between those cities stops here, and there are frequent flights and buses to both cities.
Magnificent Halong Bay, with its 3000 islands rising from the clear, emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, is one of Vietnam's natural marvels. The tiny islands are dotted with innumerable beaches and grottoes created by the wind and waves. The most impressive of the grottoes is the Hang Dau Go, a huge cave of three chambers, while the Thien Cung Caves are also very impressive. The name Ha Long means 'where the dragon descended into the sea', and refers to a legend about a dragon who created the bay and islands with its flailing tail. There's even a modern legendary creature, the Tarasque, said to haunt the area.
Taking a tour of the bay is the main activity here; most book a tour at a cafe or hotel in Hanoi. If you want to arrange things independently, be ready for lots of hard sell from touts in Halong Bay City. To see a lot, choose a fast boat. If you want a romantic experience but with the risk of getting hardly anywhere, look for one of the old junks. You have to charter the whole boat, but there are usually enough travellers around to make up a party and keep costs down.
The main town in the region is Halong City, which is in two halves, bisected by a bay. Bai Chay (the western part) is the more scenic and has the most hotels, restaurants and persistent touts. Hon Gai (the eastern part) is connected to Haiphong by a ferry. Masochists might try seeing the bay on a day-trip from Hanoi. Another option is to travel to Cat Ba Island (see Off the Beaten Track), where you can arrange a tour of the bay with less hassles.
Hanoi, capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, has shaken off its unwelcoming attitude to travellers and has become one of the most beguiling cities in Asia. It is slow-paced and pleasant, while its lovely landscape of lakes, shaded boulevards and verdant public parks is home to beautiful and diverse architectural treasures, colonial French homes and astounding modern skyscrapers. Its bustling markets, thriving nightlife and excellent food are attracting visitors of every stripe to this ancient city.
Birthplace to so much of Vietnam's traditional culture, Hanoi, more than any other city in Vietnam, is a unique fusion of old and new. It personifies the spirit of historic Vietnam in the temples, monuments and pockets of ancient culture along the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, yet perfectly reflects the rapid changes sweeping the country as Hanoian yuppies sip cappucinos in roadside cafes and compare cell phones. The attractive centre of Hanoi is built around Hoan Kiem Lake. Sights to check out include One Pillar Pagoda and Van Mieu (Temple of Literature).
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