No longer held down by its past (or its politics), the slender nation of Vietnam makes for easy itineraries, book-ended as it is with two very different cities: poetic, tight-lipped Hanoi and zestful, go-go-go Ho Chi Minh City.
You can fly into one and out from the other, seeing the dialect, temperament and diet change as you move from the south’s rice paddy fields to the centre’s white-sand beaches and the north’s hill-tribe villages and limestone cliffs. It’s still cheap, but has increasingly become a mini China, with a growing nose of business, yet push-cart vendors amid the sports cars.
Despite the surge in attention, there are undiscovered pockets everywhere; to find them, you usually just need to walk a couple of blocks from the main street.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
March and April, September to November
TOP THINGS TO SEE
• Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake, particularly when lined with morning exercisers at 5am
• Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in the capital, Hanoi
• Dragon-shaped mountains and blue-green water of Halong Bay
• The citadel and royal tombs along the Perfume River in Hué
• Terraced rice fields, mountains and traditional homes in Sapa
TOP THINGS TO DO
• Eat pho (noodle soup) from a tiny plastic stool at a sidewalk eatery
• Pick one of the many Hoi An tailors to make a shirt, suit or dress
• Boat through the Mekong Delta
• Escape tourist ghettos, where it’s easier to mix with friendly locals
GETTING UNDER THE SKIN
Read Dumb Luck by Vu Trong Phung, a fun 1936 tale of Red-Haired Xuan, a Charlie Chaplin–type character
Listen to the motorbike engines, beeps and street vendor calls from a street cafe in Ho Chi Minh City
Watch a film having little to do with war, Tran Anh Hung’s The Vertical Ray of the Sun, showing life in modern Hanoi
Eat as much local food as you can; the pho, banh cuon (steamed rice rolls with minced pork) and goi cuon (summer spring rolls) are fresher, better and cheaper than Vietnamese restaurants abroad
Drink bia hoi (draught beer), particularly at Hanoi’s infamous ‘bia hoi’ corner in the Old Quarter: a hundred stools, 101 drinkers and cheap beer
IN A WORD
Troi oi! (Oh my!)
Conical hats; cyclos; ao dai (traditional dresses); scooter gridlocks
Hanoi turned 1000 in 2010.