Unforgettable experiences are everywhere in Vietnam. There’s sublime: gazing over a surreal seascape of limestone islands from the deck of a traditional junk in Halong Bay. The ridiculous: taking 10 minutes just to cross the street through a tsunami of motorbikes in Hanoi. The inspirational: exploring the world’s most spectacular cave systems in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The comical: watching a moped loaded with honking pigs weave a wobbly route along a country lane. And the contemplative: witnessing a solitary grave in a cemetery of thousands of war victims.
Thailand may contest the top spot, but in Southeast Asia, nothing really comes close: Vietnamese food is that good. Incredibly subtle in its flavours and outstanding in its diversity, Vietnamese cooking is a fascinating draw for travellers – myriad street-food tours and cooking schools are a testament to this. Geography plays a crucial role, with Chinese flavours influencing the soups of the north, spices sparking up southern cuisine, and herbs and complex techniques typifying the central coastline, rightly renowned as Vietnam’s epicurean hot spot. And up and down the country you can mingle with villagers, sample local dishes and sip rice wine in Vietnam’s many regional markets.
Many visitors find a vast number of places to visit that intrigue and excite them in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and the other major centres; but despite the cities’ allure, it’s the country’s striking landscape that most impresses. Vietnam occupies a narrow strip of land that hugs the eastern borders of Cambodia and Laos, hemmed in by rugged mountains to the west, and by the South China Sea – or the East Sea, as the Vietnamese call it. To the north and south of its narrow waist, it fantails out into the splendid deltas of the Red River and the Mekong, and it’s in these regions that you’ll encounter the paddy fields, dragonflies, buffaloes and conical-hatted farmers that constitute the classic image of Vietnam.