According to legend, the first Vietnamese people were descended from the dragon king Lac Long Quan and the angel Au Co. The dragon and the angel married and produced one hundred eggs, from which hatched Hung Vuong, the first Vietnamese king. This strange and magical story seems very far removed from parts of Vietnam, especially in the two main cities. And yet, folklore and superstition play a big part in Vietnamese culture even amongst the madcap pace of progress.
In contrast to its laid-back neighbours of Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam is a country on a mission. While deeply respectful and proud of its rich history this is a place abuzz with progress. From the besuited businessman in Ho Chi Minh City to the conical-hatted rural farmer, the Vietnamese have their eyes firmly focused on the future. Ambitious and hard-working they can also be extremely friendly and welcoming and you’ll be surprised how quickly a seemingly-hard face can melt into open smile.
To give you some bearings, Vietnam is shaped like a lazily drawn 'S'. Stretching from the capital, Hanoi, in the North, to Ho Chi Minh City, in the South. Bordering Cambodia and Laos to the West and China at the top, while the entire Eastern side of Vietnam is 3,444km of bays and beaches. Down the centre, and threading the country together, runs the 2,000km Reunification Express railway line.
   

People

There is much to admire about the Vietnamese. Colonialism and war have not dampened their spirits, perhaps because family and religion have always been at the heart of their being. The lunar new year celebrations of Tet, around the end of January every year, are the highlight of the Vietnamese calendar with families reuniting from across the country. Open houses and sumptuous spreads are enjoyed by all in their very finest clothes to welcome in, what is hoped to be, a very auspicious new year. The joy felt by all during these reunions is obvious, with children running eagerly collecting lucky money in red envelopes, “Li Xi”, from older family members, while the women keep a watchful eye and the men toast each other with shots of vodka, some infused with the blood from a freshly slaughtered pig or deer. Not for the faint-hearted but certainly a wake-up as these celebrations often start at 6am!
While strict protocols are observed even here, there is always a familiarity and warmth that permeates households and spreads across villages and towns to unite the country in uniquely Vietnamese traditions.
       

Places

With its non-stop work ethic, it's no surprise Vietnam is one of the world's fastest growing economies. Across the country this is apparent in the bustle of its people - a seemingly endless procession of motorbikes and bicycles, early morning markets, late night eateries and everything in between. Construction too, is a constant. Shiny new airports and shopping malls, business towers and roads are rising up at an incredible pace. But amongst all of this very new, respectfully preserved, is the very old.
Boasting 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Vietnam has some truly one-of-a-kind things to see and do. In fact, so rich is the country in diversity that there are off-the-beaten track options to the most touristy choices. Here is a selection of 4 best tourist and adventurist must-sees:

Halong Bay: tourist
Bai Tu Long: adventurist
Carved from colossal limestone plateaus, these bays are mesmerising and mystical. Soaring limestone karsts dwarf the luxury cruise boats that explore the waters below. Jungle-topped cliffs often shrouded in mist add a haunting serenity to the incredible silence which is only broken by squealing children jumping off the boats of a fishing community sheltering from monsoon winds. Swimming, kayaking, snorkelling, clambering through ancient caves, haggling over freshwater pearls or lazing on beaches are some of the activities you can do while exploring these breathtaking bays. Halong Bay has the UNESCO-accreditation and the tourists. Bai Tu Long has the peace and quiet. Take your pick.

Hoi An: tourist
Cham Island: Adventurist
Off the coast from the historic UNESCO-listed town of Hoi An lies a collection of eight individual islands in the warm waters of the South China Sea. Sail to the golden cove of Chong Beach, venture a night or two in a rustic homestay in the jungle, and dive or snorkel in the acclaimed the Cu Lao Cham Marine Park. Cham is sure to become one of the top places to visit in Vietnam, but it’s not quite on the map yet, so get there fast.
Hoi An too is well worth a wander. Located on the central Vietnamese coast, this is a charmingly-preserved trading port from the 15th to 19th centuries. Try to coincide with the 14th day of the month, when traditional coloured lanterns light the streets. The Japanese Covered Bridge, with its monkey and dog sculptures at either end, and the Quan Cong Temple are worth capturing in photos too.

Hanoi: tourist
Hanoi: adventurist
The capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, is incredibly well-preserved. Charming, leafy streets open to wide boulevards, dissected at all possible angles by small vehicles of all kinds. Tiny taxicabs, motorbikes, electric bikes, bicycles and trishaws all effortlessly weave in and out of each other like busy insects. From the quaint maze of the Old Quarter, to imposing monuments and majestic colonial buildings, you’ll also be delighted by the many lakes and parks that slow the city down. Dotted through it all are some 600 temples and pagodas. If patience is one of your virtues, be sure to queue up to see Ho Chi Minh lying in state in his marble mausoleum and the Hoa Lo Prison.
Like much of the North of the country, Hanoi is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of place. But amongst this tradition and antiquity there is a new, emerging hip. Pop-up cafés in the homes of artists, tucked-away spots, bars and music venues will enlighten you as to what’s got the artistic youth buzzing: art and expression, snacks and cocktails and beats sampled from scratchy vintage Vietnamese records are some of what's going on. A few of the best are: Tadioto Bar/Cafe, Cama ATK, Cinematheque, Manzi Art Space. Find them if you can!

Ho Chi Minh City: tourist
Ho Chi Minh City: adventurist
Still often referred to as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is the economic driving-force of the country. As such, and with feelings still lingering from the Vietnam War, known as the Reunification War locally, the Northerners don’t always like the Southerners. And vice-versa. This won’t affect your trip in any way, but as a foreigner a little sensitivity goes a long way. The tourist route will take you to the War Remnants Museum for a Vietnamese perspective of the Vietnam War. This is a very moving experience, do not be surprised to feel overwhelmed by it. Other sites to see include the impressive Jade Emperor Pagoda, Notre-Dame Cathedral, made of materials imported from France, and the 19th-century Central Post Office with its voluminous space and incredible ceiling. For a more spontaneous time, try the Bến Thành Market with its iconic clock tower for haggling over everything from flowers to frogs. The food stalls here are also excellent. The Cu Chi Tunnels, Cao Dai Temple, Mariamman Hindu Temple and the Reunification Palace are firm tourist favourites too.
Dig a little deeper and you can find a side of the city only the locals frequent. Head to Tao Dan Park between 7am and 9am and catch the city’s songbird enthusiasts parading their caged beauties for a morning symphony. There’s a small cafe that does a pretty mean coffee here too. The Saigon Opera House is a popular spot but as it’s not open for tours, few go inside. However, for around US$10 or so you can venture inside and watch a professional performance too - everything from classical to popular music from all countries can be enjoyed here. Many head to the Bitexco Tower, the city’s highest building for the incredible views. It’s well worth the ear-popping elevator ride but skip past the touristy Skydeck on the 49th floor and go instead to Strata on the 50th, where coffees are half the price. There are countless other finds for the adventurist - a great way to uncover them is through Ho Chi Minh Free Tours which has more than 15 volunteer guides, mainly university students looking to improve their English. Enjoy the hunt.        

Pleasures

While Vietnam abounds with things to tickle the senses, taking cues from the locals is a sure bet. Here are 4 simple but typically Vietnamese things to try:

Vietnamese coffee: drinking coffee, cà phê sữa, is without doubt Vietnam's national pastime. Locals will sit for hours chatting, doing business and dating over coffee. Dripped through a simple metal sieve with a lid, it’s hot and strong when served on its own. Typically it's drunk mixed with condensed milk and ice, cà phê sữa đá. Sweet and punchy, it's a great antidote to the hot, humid weather - even better with a chilled yoghurt. Try the civet cat version for a stronger brew and you'll soon see why Vietnam is the second-largest exporter of coffee in the world.

Banh Mi: strictly speaking this means bread in Vietnamese, but it's also the term for a delicious street sandwich. Made with a French baguette and an omelette, fillings can include steamed, pan-roasted or oven-roasted seasoned pork belly, Vietnamese sausage, grilled pork or pork liver pâté. Accompanying vegetables typically include cucumber slices, cilantro and shredded pickled carrots and white radishes. Usually served with a splash of spicy chili sauce, these are a must try for breakfast. If they're still selling after lunchtime, the locals are steering clear of them. You should too.

Pho: Pronounced ‘fur’ this Vietnamese noodle soup consists of either beef or chicken, broth, rice noodles and a few herbs. Pho is a popular street food and is eaten at any time of day. The Hanoi and Saigon styles of pho differ by noodle width, sweetness of broth and choice of herbs, but at their heart, they're the same. This super snack has the amazing ability to cool in the summer and warm in the winter; try it spicy or mild and find your favourite. Like Banh Mi, this another example of Vietnamese local food at its finest.

Bia Hoi: Meaning ‘fresh beer’, bia hoi is available throughout Vietnam. Brewed daily it is delivered every morning to the small streetside shops and bars that sell it. There are bigger bia hoi bars that are rowdy and fun, especially at lunchtime when food is also served, but try a smaller shop and perch yourself precariously on a tiny chair while a friendly host pours you a fresh one from a tiny keg. It’s a great way to watch the world go by. And at only a few US cents a glas,s you can splash out on some peanuts or spicy Vietnamese sausages too.
Your streetside adventures will be all the more pleasurable when you impress the locals with a little language. While Vietnamese is a tonal language that can be difficult for Westerners to master, some basic attempts will be greeted warmly by the locals. Here are some to try out:
Hello: Xin chào
Thank You: Cám ơn
Please: Làm ơn
Goodbye: Tạm biệt        

Do

Bring fruit, sweets, flowers, fruit, or incense as a gift if invited to a Vietnamese home.
Dress conservatively. Never bare legs or shoulders at Temples and Pagodas.
Avoid public displays of affection with a member of the opposite sex.
Use both hands to pass things.
Do learn to use chopsticks. Rest your chopsticks on top of your rice bowl when you are finished eating.
Hold the spoon in your left hand while eating soup.
Take your shoes off at the entrance if you’re invited to a Vietnamese home.
Keep your valuables such as cash, credit cards and airline tickets, etc, in a safe place.
Change money from a recognised moneychanger.
Get medical insurance before your travel.        

Don’t

Sit with the soles of your feet pointing towards the family altar.
Give handkerchiefs, anything black, yellow flowers or chrysanthemums as a gift.
Pass anything over someone’s head.
Sit until shown where to sit. The oldest person sits first.
Carry large amounts of money or wear a lot of jewellery.
Show off. Keep a low profile and a cool head. Losing your temper in Vietnam means a loss of face.
Cause a Vietnamese to “lose face”.
Avoid behaviour that causes embarrassment to another party.
Take video cameras into the ethnic minority villages.
Take a photo of somebody without asking for permission.
Take pictures of anything to do with the military, this is considered a breach of national security.        

Best time to go

As you'd expect from such a tall, skinny country, the weather varies from North to South and across the Central region. Overall, however, September to December and March to April are probably the most favourable seasons if you’re covering the whole country. In Hanoi, the cold sets in from December to February, while Ho Chi Minh heats up between March and May. The typhoons along the Central coast can be unpredictable but generally happen from August and November. There’s never a wrong time to visit Vietnam, just times that are more preferable than others, depending on what you’re seeking from your visit.        

Best way to go

With two main cities at the top and bottom of the country, connected by a single coastline, sailing is an excellent choice for getting here, there and everywhere. Start at either end of the country and take a luxury cruise to the other. Dock along the way to explore the many fascinating attractions and take roads inland by car or motorbike - these are easily hired, with or without driver. Notable stops not mentioned so far include, Cat Ba National Park, Hue, Danang, Nha Trang, Dalat and Phu Quoc Island.
If you're more strapped for time, domestic flights crisscross the land and make an ideal way to get to whichever destination you choose - your boat can pick you up anywhere along the coast and drop you off wherever you decide, all you need to do is pick your perfect itinerary.
You can also pick your perfect boat from a timeless wooden sailing yacht, an elegant catamaran, a magnificent schooner or any of the beautifully equipped vessels.    
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Vietnam
Snorkeling
Cruising