While Thailand may be the land that captures your imagination from the second you arrive, Vietnam grabs you a little bit slower than that – but once it does, you will be promising to return for more. The longer you spend, the more you’re rewarded with its brilliance; the tasty food, the wary yet friendly locals, the delicious coffee, the natural beauty, the country’s dark past. It is impossible to see in its entirety in eight days, but if that’s all the time you’ve got, then this is the itinerary for you.
Days one to three: Hoi An
Hoi An is pretty and atmospheric, almost dreamy. Think beautiful yellow houses adorned with lanterns, vivid pink bougainvillea crawling up shop fronts, graceful architecture and a small town vibe. Visiting Hoi An is a great way to get an introduction to Vietnamese culture away from the madness of the big cities. Spend three days here relaxing while getting familiar with the country’s cuisine and people.
The town is famous for dishes such as ‘banh bao banh vac’ (white rose dumplings) and noodle dish ‘cao lau’. Chomp on these whenever you get the opportunity, because they’re hard to find or just not the same in the rest of the country. Miss Ly’s Cafeteria (22 Nguyen Hue Street) comes highly recommended for both of these dishes. If hidden gems are your thing, then venture slightly out of town to Son (www.sonhoian.com) and try the highly memorable lotus root salad.
A cookery class is a great way to learn more about Vietnamese food. The Green Bamboo Cooking School (www.greenbamboo-hoian.com) is one of the best; after shopping for fresh produce in the market, you return to the school and take turns to cook before sampling the dishes.
Most of the town’s sightseeing opportunities lie in the Old Quarter, where you’ll find pagodas and temples within its labyrinth of streets. If you’re thinking about taking souvenirs home, get them in Hoi An. You’ll find everything from Buddha statues carved out of wood, to quirky takes on famous movie posters printed on rice paper. And if you think Satwa is the place to get suits and dresses made, then think again; almost every other shop in Hoi An is a tailor. You can get a custom-made suit within 24 hours for Dhs600 in some of the finest materials available. Ya Ly Couture (www.yalycouture.com) offers great service and a huge selection of fabrics.
Day four: Hanoi
Hanoi – hectic, tiring, crowded and overpopulated. It’s like most cities in that regard, but Vietnam’s capital’s charm lies in the fact that most local life takes place on its streets. You see women washing utensils on the pavements, men sleeping on their motorcycles in the most impossible and uncomfortable looking positions, and school children enjoying sweet treats from street vendors. Its frenetic pace is unrelenting. To cross the street, you must show no fear, and defiantly walk even when motorcycles are charging forth – thankfully, they always drive around you.
Sightseeing opportunities of note include the Temple of Literature, which features Vietnamese architecture and honours the country’s scholars.
Hoan Kiem Lake is also worth a visit. The lake is a popular meeting place in the city and offers a respite from the crazy traffic. Here you’ll find Hanoians exercising and meditating, and it’s a great place to sit back and watch local life in motion. Usually. The Old Quarter is the city’s heart and soul, though. Its narrow streets are packed with different vendors, and this is a great place to buy silk and artwork. Discovering its many quirky cafés, bars and eateries is an essential part of any visit. Green Tangerine (www.greentangerinehanoi.com), housed in a charming colonial home, serves up French food with a Vietnamese twist, while Café Nola is a well-hidden hangout spread across different floors with an almost eccentric vibe to it.
Days five to six: Ha Long Bay
No trip to Vietnam would be complete without a cruise in Ha Long Bay. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is ethereally beautiful; tranquil turquoise water is juxtaposed against thousands of limestone islands, which makes the bay a marvel to look at. The whole place has a mystical feel to it, thanks to the mist that lingers for much of the year. While you can opt to do a one-day cruise, it is highly recommended that you choose a two-day option, as it takes a perilous four-hour drive to get to from Hanoi. Luxury vessel Signature Cruise is a great option. The two-day itinerary includes a fascinating boat ride through Vung Vieng floating village as well as a visit to Sung Sot Surprise Cave.
Days seven to eight: Ho Chi Minh City
Buckle up and get ready for a ride, as Ho Chi Minh City is a fast-paced metropolis that will sweep you away if you’re not careful. But in the best possible sense; the country’s largest city and centre of commerce is giving Bangkok and Singapore a run for their money, with fine restaurants and flashy hotels popping up everywhere. But while all this is going on, the majority of the city retains its character and is bursting with interesting things to see and do.
The city offers many different museums, but if you only choose one, choose the War Remnants Museum. While many of its displays are extremely one-sided, the exhibitions here will leave you feeling deeply sad and a little bit more clued up on the country’s dark history. Those interested in art should head to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts, which offers a fantastic collection including many pieces inspired by war, again illustrating how much the Vietnamese have endured over the years.
Night markets are also a positive way of experiencing the former capital. While Ben Thanh Night Market may be the most touristy, it’s also the most centrally located one, and the atmosphere is unforgettable. Expect everything from tourist tat to delicious Vietnamese coffee – something which, if you’re a java aficionado, you simply must take home with you. And while we’re on the subject of coffee, try the famous ‘ca phe sua da’, aka iced coffee with condensed milk, at least once. Trust us, it’s the best thing you’ll taste all year.
When you only have two days to play with, you will have to make the choice between visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, where Vietnamese soldiers hid during the war and a trip down the Mekong Delta. While it’s a tough call, it purely depends on what you prefer: a little bit of a history lesson versus an insight into how Vietnamese farmers earn their keep. Both are highly memorable experiences, though, so the time-poor needn’t regret their decision.
Need to know
Emirates flies to Ho Chi Minh City from Dhs2,985 return.
Photography by: Ankit Rawat