Ancient Hanoi preserves the best parts of French and Chinese culture and architecture, and weaves it all into the modern world with youthful Vietnamese verve. If that gets too boisterous, two nearby national parks offer clean mountain air, rare plant life and animal-spotting opportunities.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is Vietnam at its most dizzying: a high-octane city of commerce and culture that has driven the country forward with its pulsating energy. A chaotic whirl, the city breathes life and vitality into all who settle here, and visitors cannot help but be hauled along for the ride.
The geographic heart of the nation, central Vietnam is packed with historic sights and cultural interest, and blessed with ravishing beaches and outstanding national parks. Marvel at Hue and its Imperial Citadel, royal tombs and excellent street food. Savour the unique heritage grace of riverside jewel Hoi An, and tour the military sites of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).
This stupendous coastline of ravishing white sands and azure bays is Vietnam's premier destination for beach holidays. If your idea of paradise is reclining in front of turquoise waters, weighing up the merits of a massage or a mojito, then you have come to the right place.
Highlights of this area include the vibrant city of Danang, the former imperial capital of Hue, and the very popular but undeniably stunning historic port town of Hoi An. The best beach scenes are at An Bang near Hoi An and Lang Co near Danang, and for nature fans there is good hiking and birdwatching in Bach Ma National Park.
The ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam, the delta is carpeted in a dizzying variety of greens. It's a water world that moves to the rhythms of the mighty Mekong, where boats, houses and markets float upon the innumerable rivers, canals and streams that criss-cross the landscape like arteries.
The high-rise, high-energy beach resort of Nha Trang enjoys a stunning setting: it's ringed by a necklace of hills, with a turquoise bay dotted with tropical islands. A sweeping crescent beach of white sand defines the shoreline, backed by an impressive promenade dotted with parks and sculpture gardens. Inland there's a cosmopolitan array of boutiques and dining options.
Few parts of Vietnam stir the imagination with the lure of adventure quite like the highlands. The ribbon that is the Ho Chi Minh Hwy winds its scenic way past coffee plantations, pine-studded mountains, rice paddies with their wallowing buffalo, enormous reed-covered lakes and peaceful ethnic minority villages, laying down the challenge of a two-wheeled journey.
Northeast Vietnam includes Halong Bay, one of the region's biggest draws. Reasons to linger after your boat trip include the lesser-known but stunning Bai Tu Long Bay, the intersection of nature and culture that is Ba Be National Park, the otherworldly karst landscapes outside of Cao Bang and the urban options in Haiphong.
Northwest Vietnam, with its rocky, cone-like mountains, high vistas and deep valleys, encompasses some of the most extreme geography in the country – if not all of Southeast Asia. Travelling to the more remote parts of the region takes time and effort, but those short on either can stick around Sapa, the surrounding hills of which are a microcosm of the region as a whole.
Pronounced ‘hway’, this deeply evocative capital of the Nguyen emperors still resonates with the glories of imperial Vietnam, even though many of its finest buildings were destroyed during the American War. Hue owes its charm partly to its location on the Perfume River – picturesque on a clear day, atmospheric even in less flattering weather.
The spectacular karst limestone landscapes around Ninh Binh and Tam Coc are ideal for exploring by boat or bicycle, and there are stellar opportunities for caving and trekking amid the fast-developing travellers' scene of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Dong Hoi, the coastal gateway to Phong Nha, also has an enjoyable low-key beach scene and good restaurants.