Eastern mystery meets the echo of French colonialism in Hanoi, a buzzing hive of colourful markets laden with tropical fruit, steaming food stalls with tempting aromas, and conical hatted locals revving motorbikes. The backdrop is European-style lemon-hued architecture, the Old Quarter’s tree-lined streets and the sleepy Hoan Kiem Lake.
Slow the pace with some excellent local coffee and a Parisian pastry while watching the world speed by at one of the alfresco cafes; stop by old temples, pagodas and monuments scattered around the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum; catch a unique Water Puppetry show, an art which originated in the city over 1,000 years ago; and fill up on the street food that tempts at every turn, making Hanoi one of the best places to sample Vietnamese cuisine in the whole country.
Rising majestically from emerald green waters are the unmistakeable forested limestone peaks of Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and possibly Vietnam’s most breathtaking sight. Just a short hop from Hanoi, a cruise through these otherworldly waters brings you past hidden caves, fascinating floating fishing villages, and some of the almost 2000 karst islands, estimated to be over 500 million years in the making.
Vietnam’s Northern Highlands are a window to the country’s fascinating heritage and tribal people, where an ancient way of life is still in practice, the alpine air is clear and cool and life goes at a much slower pace. The hilly town of Sapa, cloaked in a shroud of mist, is enlivened by the colourful dress of the hill people and local markets, and surrounded by simply beautiful countryside: lush green mountains ridged with uniform rice terraces and winding paths passing small tribal homes and farmers walking up to market.
Slightly closer to Hanoi sits Mai Chau, in a similar setting of vibrantly verdant paddy fields laced with trickling streams. Its inhabitants are known for their masterful weaving techniques, making this a good place to pick up some traditional souvenirs, and the surrounding landscapes are ideal for hiking and biking.