Several South East Asian nations tend to have in common a recent horribly turbulent history, Vietnam of course being one of those nations. But it seems, out of tragedy, and with strength, a people and culture can flourish. No where is this more evident than in modern day Vietnam.
Vietnam is today a must visit destination for anybody who loves to travel in this region, offering so much to the overseas visitor; a warm welcome from the locals, a cuisine that owes as much to the French baguette as it does to the rice noodle, luxurious beach resorts and holiday towns, a rich history and architecture not to mention creativity and designer talent that is literally bursting at the seams. It is not surprising that foreign tourists, who have been able to travel freely in Vietnam since 1997, numbered over 7 million in 2014.
If you are visiting Vietnam you will probably arrive at either Hanoi in the North or Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the South; both very different cities but both brimming with street food on every corner and seemingly millions of scooters all driving in the same direction at the same time - where are they all going?
Fashion Designers have popped up in these major cities and lacquerware for the home can be found at the major markets and boutiques. However it is the delightful town of Hoi An in the region of Central Vietnam that is a mecca for those who, like us, love to walk from shop to shop meeting local artisans who are hand crafting their unique creations.
At night Hoi An, recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site, lights up with colourful lanterns. It's simply a joy to wander through the laneways, closed to traffic, where only the bars and superb eateries will threaten to disrupt your shopping experience.
TOP 10 Not to be Missed Experiences in Vietnam
No apologies that food features heavily in this list. Vietnamese Cuisine is just so perfect; it's light and healthy yet utterly delicious and there are just so many unique dishes to discover from one end of the country to the other
Drinking a cocktail watching the sun go down on sublime Phu Quoc Island
Slurping a bowl of Pho (Beef Noodle Soup) in Hanoi, although you can enjoy this ubiquitous soup pretty much anywhere in Vietnam for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Every Vietnamese local will have their own favourite spot for Pho and probably argue over where is the best. Bottom line though - if you see a small hole in the wall full of locals and huge vats of simmering broth at the front of the eatery you know you're in for a treat. On our first visit to Hanoi we were lucky enough to be taken to our guide's favourite haunt in a laneway which I'll never be able to find again. However the memory of that soup has never left me and it would have cost the equivalent of $2 at the time.
Strolling through the magical lantern lit laneways of Hoi An at night is a lasting memory of Vietnam that sums up the beauty of this incredible varied country. There are superb restaurants and bars to try in this little tourist town and If you've ever dreamed of having a designer dress or a pair of shoes made exclusively for you then this is the place to fulfill that dream. Bring a photo or picture from a magazine and the talented shoemakers and dressmakers in abundance here will recreate the design especially for you within a couple of days. Hoi An has all the ingredients for the perfect holiday town - beach, history, architecture, colour, no traffic and of course exquisite food. The town even has its own dumpling - the White Rose Dumpling (Banh Bao Vac in Vietnamese) only found here. Most restaurants in Hoi An serve these but go to the source at the end of Hai Ba Trung Street where they have been made to a secret recipe for generations (sorry not many left in the photo below!!!). Just #loveHoiAn
Imagine a little street dedicated to one dish. Isn't this just the kind of thing that makes South East Asia so appealing? No trip to Ho Chi Minh City is complete without a trip to Banh Xeo Street (Pancake Street). Banh Xeo is that gorgeous crispy pancake most commonly stuffed with beansprouts, prawns and pork. To eat this the Vietnamese way it needs to be wrapped in lettuce with herbs and pickles and drizzled with Nuoc Cham Sauce. Just ask a taxi driver to take you to Pancake Street or Banh Xeo Street (in a little hidden laneway of course), located close to Ben Tanh Market.
Wrap & Roll is part of a smallish chain of restaurants including a branch in Singapore but 62 Hai Ba Trung in Ho Chi Minh City is where I have frequented. What a superb name - it literally sums up Vietnamese food. Unless it's soup most Vietnamese ingredients are wrapped up in lettuce or rice paper pancakes or both. Frankly I could eat at Wrap n Roll every day of my life - can't wait to return for more little crispy pancake appetisers and beef wrapped in betel leaves.
In what was the former capital of Vietnam, the Hue Royal Palace is a definite must see. You'll need to set aside at least a half a day to explore the vast site with its stunning architecture and fascinating history. Tip - don't go at the hottest time of year as we did if you can avoid it!
Can't really put together a "must do or see or eat" list for Vietnam without mentioning the Banh Mi or, as we call it outside of Vietnam, the Pork Roll. All over the country you'll find stalls on the street selling these baguettes of goodness filled with indecipherable meat, pickles, herbs and chilli sauce for about $1. Heaven in a roll.
Who would have thought there would be the opportunity to go Quad Biking down spectacular Sand Dunes in Vietnam? Mui Ne is in the South East of the country and a stay in this beach resort town isn't complete without an exhilarating ride down the red or white sand dunes. You can also be pushed down on a mat - lots of fun - but you'll leave feeling that the kids who surround your car touting for this business should be at school instead of pushing overweight Westerners down a sandy hill.
Cruising on a Junk Boat through the scenic wonder that is Halong Bay is probably how most people would envisage a trip to Vietnam. Indeed, this should be included on all itineraries to North Vietnam. Picture postcard perfect, Halong Bay has been a World Heritage Site since 1994. Cruise for a day or pack a bag and stay overnight on the water and you'll be overwhelmed by the sheer vastness and beauty that is the groups of limestone islets popping out of the water. Also you'll see the life of the floating villagers and marvel at the magnificent caves which will form part of your trip.
So back to food and the hill town of Dalat in the cool Central Highlands of Vietnam is home to a dish that will not be found anywhere else in the world (although if I'm wrong and it's been found elsewhere please let me know!). The dish is simply known as the Dalat Pancake and it is only sold by street vendors with tiny portable BBQ's in and around the night market of Dalat. Small fillings such as Shallots and Herbs are wrapped in Rice Paper and Egg, grilled for hardly any time at all and ready to eat all for approx 50cents. You'll need at least 3 a night to satisfy your hunger for this once in a lifetime dish. You'll need to save room though as the Dalat Night Market has plenty of other food on offer - recommend the spicier version of Pho which is Bun Bo (pronounced bo not bow) Hue.
A Bonus no 11 and I almost don't want to share this for fear it won't stay as amazing as it was. I'm referring to the Red Bridge Cooking School in Hoi An from where I experienced possibly one of the best, and certainly one of the most memorable days of my life. Big call I know but true. A full day deluxe tour includes a trip to the local organic village where you'll help the farmers pick their herbs as their families have done for centuries, then off to the market to buy more produce and back to the riverside location to cook some typical Vietnamese dishes. The food was perfect, the surroundings beyond belief (there's even a pool for cooling off) and the experience one I'll cherish for many years to come.