By Katy Holliday, Lifestyle & Travel Writer
A feast for the senses, Vietnam casts a magic spell over your soul. The rich tapestry of history, landscape, culture and community certainly leaves you wanting more. We’ve uncovered some of the best experiences you can have in two of the most popular and exciting Vietnamese cities — Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh.
Discovering the best of both worlds in Hoi An
The UNESCO world heritage ancient town of Hoi An is a good place to start your trip to Vietnam. The picture-perfect streets are lined with traditional yellow-hued buildings, while pops of purple bougainvillea and strings of lanterns sway gently in the balmy breeze. It’s little wonder the heart of the old town is bustling with tourists from sun up to sun down.
We spent three nights at the Ocean Breeze Villa, an unassuming oasis situated on the beautiful coastal strip of An Bang, perfect for a poolside siesta to idle away the hottest hours of the day. From here, you can really experience the best of both worlds, from beach relaxation and bicycle rides in the mornings to exploring the thriving market places of Hoi An on foot in the afternoon.
Relatively unspoiled by development, An Bang offers a small collection of lively beach bars and relaxing beachfront resorts and villas. You’ll have no problem finding a free sun bed at Tan Thanh Garden, or any of the other beachfront restaurants where you can enjoy cocktail service on the beach.
Popular activities in An Bang include swimming, stand up paddle boarding and surfing, which you can do from September to March when the otherwise calm blue waters in the bay turn into idyllic waves. If you wish to partake in parasailing, as we did, make sure you find a licensed operator. The expansive birds-eye-view across Hoi An is a treat and after a plunge into the ocean we enjoyed a brief jet ski ride back to shore (and safety).
Getting into the centre of Hoi An is a breeze. With a distinct lack of hills, it’s an easy bike ride. Due to the heat we opted to go by Grab — Asia’s answer to Uber. We found the app to be very useful throughout Vietnam as the fee (which is very cheap) is set in advance and safely deducted from your credit card to avoid being ripped off or having any awkward confusion over money at the end of the trip.
A perfect example of a well-preserved 15th to 19th century South-East Asian trading port, Hoi An — also known as the yellow city of Vietnam — retains its old world charm and its original town plan. It’s much safer to explore on foot than Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh with many streets closed to vehicles for large portions of the day.
Shopping is a highlight in Hoi An. You’ll find everything from handmade leather handbags and shoes to a perfectly tailored new wardrobe. Filled with an assortment of sprawling open markets, there are great opportunities for souvenirs at each turn.
The late Anthony Bourdain’s favourite Banh Mi stall Banh Mi Phuong —which he declared to be a “symphony in a sandwich” — is tucked away to one side of the local Hoi An market and is not to be missed! We enjoyed the crispy, light bread rolls stuffed with fragrant Vietnamese herbs and salad and a choice of fillings, such as tofu, egg or sausage.
While visiting the “lantern town” be sure to check out the museum and the iconic Japanese wooden bridge or take a tour of a traditional family home for a true insight into the lives and history of the locals. You can sign up for cooking classes or simply unwind and find a great riverside restaurant to dine at and admire the view.
Lantern-lined boats bob along the river, coming alive in the evening — particularly during the Lantern Festival which takes place on the 14th day of each lunar month — when hundreds of colourful lanterns are lit and float gently on the water’s surface. With Hoi An aglow, it’s the perfect time for a boat ride.
Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta
Tropical Ho Chi Minh is a fascinating city. It’s overwhelming and chaotic, yet there is much to discover and do from elegant dining experiences on the Saigon River to field trips to famous monuments and museums.
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to take in the ancient culture of Vietnam with a visit to the Golden Dragon Water Puppetry Theatre. Book your tickets well in advance through a reputable tour operator. We didn’t, but fortunately managed to secure the last tickets for the 6:30pm show, in the very back row. Surprisingly, we still had an excellent vantage point of the theatre.
The stage is essentially a small, murky swimming pool. Just under an hour long, the performance, accompanied by live traditional music, depicts the traditions and folklore of Vietnamese life on the soggy rice paddies through the expression of large water puppets — fisherman, fire-breathing dragons, fish and tiger cubs to name a few. It wasn’t until the end, we realised the puppeteers were also submerged in water behind the bamboo screens.
If you haven’t got a lot of time but really want a taste of the Mekong Delta, there are numerous day trips to choose from offering various itineraries and activities. We travelled with Ginkgo Voyage Private Day Tours and highly recommend their service.
A two-hour drive into Ben Tre passed by quickly with our informative guide Jun giving us a fascinating run-down on the history of the country — the wars, politics and the migration of the people along with the evolution of the Mekong Delta.
On the tour, you’ll visit traditional villages and sample delicious coconut candies, sip on snake wine or coconut wine, take a tour inside a brick kiln factory and cruise on the muddy canals by boat.
In one village, we observed traditional sleep mat weaving where the ladies worked quickly using dried reeds to produce the fine mats. From there, a four kilometre bicycle ride through the quaint villages takes you into the jungle for a sumptuous Vietnamese feast. There’s the choice of a rickshaw ride if it’s more your speed.
Next, with full bellies, you’re hand-rowed in a sampan (small wooden boat) along the palm-fringed canals back to the main boat. Heading back to Ben Tre, there’s a stop at the large local market before returning to Ho Chi Minh for the evening.
In the sprawling city of Saigon, a meal at Den Long Restaurant is worth the wait for a table. The service, food and drinks are impeccable, and we enjoyed mouthwatering marinated tofu, spring rolls, wild greens, rice and more, before heading off into the hectic nightlife downtown in District 1.