From Ha Long Bay to Ho Chi Minh City
From the vertiginous rice valleys of Sapa in Vietnam's north stretching to the fascinating bustle of the Mekong Delta in the south, Vietnam is home to a wealth of attractions that will seduce both budget and top-range travellers.
Vietnam's war-torn history -- both the French and Americans have left their own unique and not-often positive stamps on the nation -- as well as its stunning and varied geography, delicious cuisine, endless beaches and amazing shopping are all reasons to travel to the fast-paced Communist nation.
Welcoming foreign tourists and their dollars since the late 1980s, enterprising Vietnam has rapidly developed a well-trodden trail of attractions. Many travellers kick off their trip in the capital of Hanoi in the north, where smokey French-style cafes rub shoulders with traditional medicine shops and internet cafes frequented by well-groomed teens and twenty-somethings, their sharply polished motorbikes lined up out front.
From here, popular side trips for travellers include Ha Long Bay, where soaring limestone karsts boggle the mind, and the former French hill station of Sapa, where ethnic minority groups in colourful dress work the terraced rice paddies, or lead tourists through the jaw-dropping mountain scenery.
Travel by train, bus or motorcycle to take in the remainder of Vietnam. Remnants of the American War provide sobering viewing around the central region's demilitarised zone (DMZ), an essential stop for the many war veterans returning to this now-vibrant nation with a military and business sector that now often works in cooperation with the Western democracies.
The one-time imperial capital of Hue offers a worthwhile glimpse into Vietnam's pre-colonial days. Nearby Hoi An remains a charming town, despite its massive popularity among tourists, where the tailors will sew you up a new suit or gown -- plus the shoes -- from inside one of the photogenic old Chinese-style shophouses.
Adventurous travellers will want to head further south again and inland to the little-touristed Central Highlands region, where ethnic minorities scratch out livings for themselves -- not always in harmony with the central government.
A trip to Vietnam would not be complete without a stop at one of the beach strips for some surf, sun and sand, and perhaps a cocktail or two. Nha Trang and Mui Ne are popular vacation spots, offering backpacker accommodation as well as some remarkable luxury resorts these days.
The country's southern capital of Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, is a throbbing metropolis where some might be as enthralled with the mesmerising traffic as they are with the sights.
South of Saigon, the Mekong Delta beckons you to a colourful world of brightly painted boats, fresh-picked fruits and abundant seafood that can be enjoyed while sitting on a barge cruising the waterways. If yo have the time, be sure to palm off the organised package tours and do this part of the country on your own.
Those looking to kick back on an island also have a fine option in far southern Vietnam: sublime Phu Quoc Island boasts powdery beaches kissed by cerulean-blue water that reveals a wealth of tropical sea life.
Backpackers could easily spend a few months taking in Vietnam at a leisurely pace, though Vietnam Airlines and burgeoning regional budget airlines with their cheap flights now make spending, say, a long weekend in Hanoi or a quick break in Nha Trang a viable prospect for flashpackers -- or those who just want a taste of a fast-developing country that was off limits for so long.
Sunset floating through Ha Long Bay. Getting measured up for a suit in charming Hoi An. Belting through Saigon by cyclo. Trekking in the northern hills of Sapa. Take a motorbike adventure through the Central Highlands. Hang out in Hanoi for as long as you can manage.
There's no "best" time to visit Vietnam as different parts of the country see very different weather patterns. September through to the end of the year and March and April are the best overall times to visit weather wise, but if you're hitting just one part of the country, check our weather section for more localised advice.