3 min

Vietnam from top to bottom

Friendly people, beautiful beaches, pulsing cities

Hanoi is a popular city stop for travellers on any budget. Credit: Christian Baines

It isn’t about big name attractions, but Vietnam has quietly claimed its rightful place as one of Asia’s most satisfying destinations. Offering affordability, friendly people, beautiful beaches, pulsing cities and endless diversity, this unique country has something to offer any style of traveller. Its compact size also means it can be comfortably traversed in a couple of weeks, or lazily stretched over a month or more.

Hanoi always feels busy, but it’s never oppressive or overwhelming. Its Old Quarter offers affordable, good quality hotels, a small gay nightlife and endless opportunities for eating and shopping. It also puts you within comfortable walking distance of the main attractions, though for a real Hanoi experience, be sure to try a moto ride through the streets. Don’t fret if you don’t get around the main tourist spots; atmosphere is Hanoi’s main allure. After dark, nab a beer at Bar GC, then perhaps head to Jojo’s, a straight-run but gay-dominated cocktail lounge with sexy, friendly francophone staff and a distinct Hollywood charm. Don’t be caught unawares by Hanoi’s apparent midnight shutdown. The party still goes on to all hours, and if you return to find your hotel shutters down, simply knock.

DO: Hoan Kiem Lake, Temple of Literature, Chua Tran Quoc Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, Women’s Museum, Thang Long Water Puppets.

SKIP: Flashy eateries. Hanoi is all about delicious cheap eats, coffee and beer.

Sapa and Halong Bay
Hanoi’s signature multi-day trips take you to Sapa, a unique ethnic region in the country’s north, and Halong Bay, famous for its limestone islands. Countless agents around Hanoi offer tours, so be cautious and shop around. Rates are usually negotiable, but beware of suspiciously cheap trips. Ensure your Sapa excursion departs by train. This part of the country is far too beautiful to try and enjoy from a cramped bus. In addition, don’t even consider a one-day trip to Halong Bay. Vietnam’s greatest natural drawcard is too large, too beautiful and too far from Hanoi to see properly in one day. Around US$55–60 should get you a comfortable three-star, overnight cruise with excellent meals and a few activities, including a cave tour.

To be honest, the old capital can seem like a letdown after Hanoi — the Imperial Citadel is still mostly a ruin under restoration. Thien Mu temple is more interesting, however, while the imperial tombs round out the city’s traditional sights. Despite the attractions not being quite as enthralling as history would suggest, Hue itself boasts a surprisingly lively nightlife, thanks in no small part to its wealthy student population. There are no specific gay venues, but visitors of all stripes will feel welcome just about anywhere.

Hoi An
A few days in Hoi An lets you explore Vietnam’s charms on a smaller, less motorized scale. In fact, the UNESCO-listed ancient town is closed to motor traffic for several hours a day. At first glance, tailor shops seem to make up about 40 percent of Hoi An, and tailors here will go above and beyond to help you design and craft any items your wardrobe might be missing, including shoes. Otherwise, hire a bike or motorcycle to explore the countryside, or take a dawn trip to the My Son temples. War damage has sadly ensured you’ll see nothing here on the scale of Cambodia or Thailand, but the unique valley floor location, and the lack of crowds on a dawn trip make the journey worthwhile.

DO: Buy affordable custom clothing, My Son ruins, relax and people-watch.

SKIP: The underwhelming ticketed ancient town sights — though you may be cornered into buying tickets for these upon entering this part of the city. The exact rules are unclear even to locals.

Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon
Those ready for their dose of Vietnam urban crazy should get ready for Ho Chi Minh City, the largest, most hedonistic and hottest spot in the country. How you feel about Saigon may depend on how you feel about heat. But while it may not have Hanoi’s easy-walking charm, Saigon is the kind of city that never shuts down. Specifically gay nightlife is hard to find, since the local youth accept LGBT folk pretty much everywhere, and it’s not without its seedy side, but a couple of nights exploring here is an essential part of enjoying today’s Vietnam. Saigon’s also not short on glimpses into the past, particularly at the moving War Remnants Museum. Bargain up a storm at Ben Thanh Market, then pop outside for top-notch street food, perhaps unwinding with a massage at Nadam Spa before hitting the town after dark.

DO: The War Remnants Museum, Ben Thanh Market, Bui Vien nightlife, a Mekong Delta day trip.

SKIP: Notre Dame Cathedral and the old post office; unremarkable, and decidedly un-Vietnamese.