Vietnam's narrow borders bulge against the ceaseless bustle of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, two modern metropolises tempered by colonial architecture and tree-lined boulevards. Tranquility rests by the crumbling temples, wood-paneled pagodas and verdant valleys of rural Vietnam; divers at Nha Trang plunge the glistening green of the South China Sea to explore a rainbow of coral and neon-clad fish. And everywhere there's the food: whether slurping spicy noodles from Saigon street stalls or savoring French croissants in a Hue patisserie Vietnamese cuisine is full-flavored, fascinating and affordable.
A compelling clash of commercial clout and colonial grandeur, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) flanks soaring skyscrapers with tree-lined boulevards and a lingering aura of French finesse. Find refuge from the endless flow of mopeds that surge and splutter their way through capital Hanoi in the humble temples and quaint craft shops of its Old Quarter. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, ancient Hoi An's crumbing facades are illuminated by the soft glow of lantern light.
Soggy swathes of rice paddies dominate the verdant Mekong Delta, but the mighty Mekong River also ripples past blossoming fruit orchards and towering sugarcane fields before tumbling into the South China Sea. The arid plains of central Mui Ne reveal cascades of sand dunes that gleam white, pink and gold in the sun. In northern Vietnam, the mountainous region of Sapa is a dizzying weave of lush trails and remote villages occupied by traditional hill tribes.
The sweeping curl of Nha Trang's crescent-shaped beach overlooks a shimmering emerald stretch of the South China Sea. Divers and snorkelers drift over the soft coral that spreads from outlying islands, casually guarded by luminescent shoals of butterfly and angelfish. East of Hanoi, Halong Bay is an ethereal landscape of towering limestone karsts that rise forebodingly from its silvery waters.
Eating and Drinking
Hearty bowls of steaming pho -- a fragrant soup served with chicken or beef, a fistful of noodles and crunchy bean sprouts -- are served everywhere. Regional variations might add a kick of ginger, zest of lime or shaving of cinnamon. Colonial influence means crusty baguettes and sugar-scented pastries are an unexpected Ho Chi Minh City specialty. Perch on a plastic stool at one of Hanoi's roadside stalls and sip bia hoi, freshly brewed, frothy Vietnamese beer.