Can Dao Islands: Con Dao encompass a group of 16 islands. The largest is Con Son, which served as a political prison during the French colonial era, and again when Saigon imprisoned opponents of the regime in the infamous cells known as the “tiger cages.” The old prison buildings are still standing and are open to the public as is a small museum tracing the island’s history. Con Dao has immense natural beauty with forested hills, deserted sandy beaches and extensive coral reefs making for excellent diving. The Con Dao Islands separated from the mainland about 15,000 years ago, which resulted in the development of dozens of endemic species of wildlife and flora. Beautiful beaches and hidden lagoons are also to be found here. With very few tourists, Con Dao is a paradise off the beaten track.
Central Highlands & Dalat: At an elevation of just under 1,500 m/4,929 ft., Dalat is Vietnam’s premier hill station with winding streets, scenic churches, vegetable gardens and waterfalls. In the southern Central Highlands, this was originally the playground of the French who built mountain villas to escape the heat of the coast. Dalat has some of the best mountain biking, hiking and canyoning opportunities in Vietnam as well as coffee and tea plantations. The native inhabitants of the Central Highlands are the Degar (Montagnard) peoples. The area includes impressive waterfalls and misty mountains, with fertile soil that produces coffee, tea, rubber, silk and hardwood. Bordered to the west by Cambodia, it spreads across the Truong Son Mountains. Pockets of primeval forest still thrive, where wildlife including elephants, bears and gibbons can be found. The highlands are frequently overlooked by tourists, so those who travel there can expect authentic interactions with some of the ethnic minorities. Their houses are of particular interest, from longhouses to bamboo huts, stilt houses to large communal houses. Every ethnic group has its own distinct style. Everyday life is based on simple agricultural routine.
Halong Bay: Halong Bay is famed for its quiet beauty. Thousands of islands and islets inhabit the bay, adjacent to the Gulf of Tonkin. Monolithic limestone islands jut skyward topped with dense jungle, looking like skullcaps. Many islands have cave systems such as Hang Dau Go, with its huge, three-chambered cave reached via 90 steps. The cave was used in the 13th century to store bamboo stakes used against Mongol invading armies. An overnight journey aboard a Chinese-style junk offers the perfect way to experience this exquisite setting.
Hanoi: Hanoi has served as a capital city for more than a thousand years, through wars, invasions and name changes, yet it still has the feel of youth with all the energy of a teenager. Perhaps part of that impression comes from the hoards motor scooters that jam the streets every day: young women in heels on their way to work, parents with children piled on, and young men balancing impossibly cumbersome loads on their scooters. The Old Quarter’s chaotic hodgepodge of skinny lanes contrasts with the French Quarter’s wide, tree-lined boulevards. Founded in 1070, the Temple of Literature became Hanoi’s first university. A visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is an intriguing cultural experience. Beginning early in the morning, a few Westerners intermingle with the hundreds of Vietnamese – uniformed school girls, old men in caps and young soldiers form in lines that snake down the street. Quietly, they file past the glass-encased body of their former leader. Nearby are two houses he lived in until his death in 1969.
Ho Chi Minh City & Cu Chi Tunnels: Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is Vietnam’s largest city. More than 300 years of history and tradition thrive in pockets amid the markets, sleek bars, sidewalk cafes and office buildings. Cholon, “Big Market,” was a separate China Town in the 18th century. Today, it is a jumble of shops, offices and houses packed into one neighborhood. Notre Dame Cathedral, built between 1877 and 1883, sits in the heart of the government quarter. The French-style Central Post, 1886, is the country’s largest. The Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum stand witness to troubled times. Jade Emperor Pagoda was a meeting place for Chinese secret societies. Ben Thanh is the city’s central market. Giac Lam Pagoda is city’s oldest. Some 40 km/25 mi. from the city, Cu Chi Tunnels, is a complex of underground tunnels dug during the French occupation in the 1940s, and further expanded in the 1960s during the war with the U.S.
Hoi An & Hue: Hoi An is a delight for shoppers. Rows of shops sell souvenirs, trinkets, silk pashminas, colorful silk prints of street scenes and more. It is famous for its tailors, who produce fine made-to-measure clothes virtually overnight, and for a fraction of the cost of upscale ready-made western clothing. Internet cafes, bars and restaurants have opened along the riverfront. Hoi An ancient town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the 15th to the 19th centuries, with both indigenous and foreign influences that combine to produce this unique site. Hue was the seat of Nguyen Dynasty emperors from 1802 to 1945, and capital of the protectorate of Annam. The city’s major draw is its vast, 19th-century citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls. Inside is the Old Imperial City, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its palaces and shrines. The Forbidden Purple City was built early in the 1800s, modeled after the much larger original in Beijing. The central passageway, with its yellow doors, and the bridge across the lotus pond were for the exclusive use of the emperor. Thai Hoa Palace, built in 1803, has a spacious hall with an ornate roof of huge timbers supported by 80 carved, lacquered columns. Along the Perfume River from Hue other monuments include several emperors’ tombs, including Minh Mạng, Khai Dịnh, and Tu Duc. Also notable is the Thien Mụ Pagoda, the largest pagoda in Hue.
Mekong Delta & Can Tho: There is a timelessness about life in the delta. It is characterized by a labyrinth of waterways and channels. The Vietnamese cultivate the fertile agricultural lands of the Mekong River Delta and produce about half of Vietnam’s total agricultural output. Here, life and culture revolve around the delta. The inhabitants are largely ethnic Viet, with Khmer minorities and a large group of Hoa, ethnic Chinese. Some of the delta islands are home to villagers who create traditional handcrafts, harvest honey on bee farms and produce sweet coconut candy. Markets, stores, ship yards, and repair shops also thrive along river banks and in the delta. Can Tho is the delta’s biggest city and is noted for its floating market. The region has recently been dubbed a ‘biological treasure trove’ for the more than 1,000 new species of plants that have been found in newly explored areas.
Minority Hill Tribe Region: Mai Chau is the closest authentic Montagnard village to Hanoi where most of the people are ethnic White Tai, distantly related to tribes in Thailand, Laos and China. White Thai are also found in Po, Coong, Lac Village and Van Mai. The Hmong live in the villages of Xa Linh and Pa Co. Ba Vi National Park is on Mount Ba Vi, an isolated mountain west of Hanoi. The forest encompasses lowland evergreen forest, mixed coniferous and broadleaf forest. In the Sapa region, Hmong, Dao, Tay and other ethnic minorities inhabit this region known for spectacular scenery – steeply terraced rice fields, verdant ridgelines, mud-thatched villages, raging rivers and astounding waterfalls. The French built a hill station here high in the Tonkinese Alps near the Chinese border. The lifestyles of these traditional communities are rapidly evolving to meet the demands of the outside world.
Nha Trang: Nha Trang is a favorite vacation spot for well-heeled Vietnamese. A wide palm-lined boulevard separates elegant Mediterranean-style villas and modern hotels from one of Vietnam’s loveliest beaches. The Oceanographic Institute was founded in 1923 and features an aquarium that includes seahorses. A seawater aquarium on Mieu Island is an important fish-breeding farm raising more than 40 species. Lang Son Pagoda was founded in the late 19th century. A huge white Buddha on a lotus blossom sits on the hill behind the pagoda. At Po Nagar Cham Towers, Hindus have worshipped since the second century.
Pu Luong Nature Reserve: As the only remaining primary rainforest in Vietnam, Pu Luong Nature Reserve is a haven for outdoor activities as well as wildlife spotting. Stretching from Mai Chau to Cuc Phuong National Park, the reserve boasts outstanding beauty and biodiversity. Pu Luong is one of the largest nature reserves in Vietnam’s northern region, it presents diverse types of forests, interlaced spring and river systems, and assorted fauna and flora. While nature has endowed this land with rich forest and limestone panoramas, it is the locals whose work over thousands of years that has turned the mountain slopes to terrace rice fields. This little-visited land is home to traditional Thai and Muong communities.
Best Time to Go
The best time to go is mid-October to April. There are three seasons: hot, rainy and cold. Vietnam can be a year-round destination depending on itinerary. The country is long and crosses various weather regions. The Mekong Delta in the south is hot, humid and tropical all year, but rains the most between May and November. The north is pleasant during March and April and October into December but can be really cold in summer.
Day 1: Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi is an intriguing blend of East and West, and Chinese influence mixes with its French colonial past.
Day 2: Hanoi
The Old Quarter’s chaotic hodgepodge of skinny lanes contrasts with the French Quarter’s wide, tree-lined boulevards.
Day 3: Hanoi / Halong Bay – Bai Tu Long Bay
Halong Bay embodies the concept of serenity: startling limestone outcroppings, tranquil bays and ancient caves.
Day 4: Halong Bay / Hanoi / Hue
Hue, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an imperial city in the Citadel modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Day 5: Hue
Thien Mụ Pagoda is the largest pagoda in Hue. Other monuments include several emperors’ tombs, including Minh Mạng, Khai Dịnh, and Tu Duc.
Day 6: Hue / Hoi An
Hoi An is a remarkably well-preserved city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site for it historic and atmospheric Old Town.
Day 7: Hoi An
The city is interwoven with backstreets, hidden alleys and local markets – a shopper’s delight with rows of shops carrying everything from trinkets to silk pashminas. It’s famous for its tailors, who produce fine made-to-measure clothes virtually overnight.
Day 8: Hoi An / Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City combines bustling shops, cafes and sleek bars with reminders of its past such as the Jade Emperor Pagoda, once a meeting place for Chinese secret societies, and the city’s oldest pagoda, Giac Lam Pagoda.
Day 9: Ho Chi Minh City
French-style is seen in several classical Western-style buildings such as the Central Post from 1886. Reminders of darker times include the Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum.
Day 10: Ho Chi Minh City / Depart
Can Dao Islands (4 days)
This isolated archipelago presents unspoiled islands with hidden lagoons and great beaches… a paradise off the beaten track.
Central Highlands (3 days)
This high-altitude plateau has mountains that encompass ethnic communities still living by traditions and customs from generations past.
Mekong Delta (3 days)
Experience rural life in today’s Vietnam: timeless scenes of farmers planting and harvesting rice, the bustling Can Tho floating market, a rice-paper-making village and picturesque but busy rural canals.
Minority Hill Tribe Region (3-5 days)
Mai Chau includes authentic Montagnard villages of ethnic White Tai, distantly related to tribes in Thailand, Laos and China. In the Sapa region, Hmong, Dao, Tay and other ethnic minorities inhabit this scenic region of Vietnam.
Nha Trang (3 days)
Here are some of Vietnam's loveliest beaches and stylish resorts with activities ranging from water sports to cultural explorations.
Ninh Binh (2 days)
Described as 'the inland Ha Long Bay', Ninh Binh's scenery offers an unforgettable backdrop for spending time exploring the caves, rivers, karst mountains and nature reserves.
Pu Luong Nature Reserve (3 days)
As the only remaining primary rainforest in Vietnam, Pu Luong is a haven for outdoor activities with diverse types of forests, interlaced spring and river systems.
$500-$700 per person per day. Land only, double occupancy.