- Halong Bay,
- Ho Chi Minh City,
- Hoi An,
- Mekong Delta,
Come to discover the highlights of Vietnam on this 15-day program. From the twisting narrow streets of Hanoiís Old Quarter and emerald green waters of Ha Long Bay, travel through the heart of Vietnamís vibrant past to majestic Hue and quaint Hoi An. Feast on seafood in Nha Trang and relax in the cool French mountain resort of Dalat before arriving in bustling Saigon. End your journey in the fertile Mekong Delta, where the traditional lifestyle of Vietnamese farmers lives on into the 21st century. For further information, please visit our website: www.discovermekong.com or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org DISCOVER MEKONG Address: 99 Ba Trieu str., Hai Ba Trung dist., Hanoi, Vietnam Tel: +84-4 3943 9211 Fax: +84-4 3943 9209 Email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org Website: http://www.discovermekong.com Discover Mekong is managed by HG TRAVEL
See + Do
Temple of Literature, Vietnam
Tel: 84 4 845 2917
Many travelers to Asia come down with a case of pagoda overload during their visit. So be sure to make time early on for Hanoi's most beautiful and historic monument. Founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, this campus of tile-roofed sanctuaries and walled courtyards located one mile west of Hoan Kiem Lake held Vietnam's first national university. Promising Confucian scholars and court mandarins selected from across the country took three years of rigorous study in literature, poetry, and penmanship. The names of hundreds of graduates are inscribed on 82 stone stelae that rest on the backs of stone tortoises, a symbol of wisdom. The heads of some of these rock reptiles were worn smooth by students who rubbed them for good luck before exams. Outside the south wall, another monolith commands visitors to first dismount from their horses. These scooter-mad days, it's not a problem. While the Thai Hoc Courtyard is rimmed with tacky souvenir stalls, free enterprise is redeemed by the temple's enormous shade trees and placid, lotus-filled ponds.
Open daily 8 am to 5 pm.
See + Do
The Old Quarter, Vietnam
Hanoi is the only city in Vietnam to retain its ancient merchants' quarter, and its narrow streets, packed with fruit and vegetable markets, have housed the city's artisans and tradesmen for five centuries. Each street was named after the craft guild that it formerly housedHang Be was the place for rafts, Hang Hong for incense, Losu for coffinsand even today these lanes and alleys tend to specialize in one item, such as silver, silk, or, in the case of Pho Hang Ma ("Counterfeit Street"), the votive papers incinerated by devout Buddhists to bring good luck and prosperity. The heart of the area is Lo Ren and Thuoc Bac streets, where blacksmiths and tinsmiths thrash, knock, cut, and weld metal into everything from mirror frames to cooking pots. Take a few minutes to pop into 87 Ma May Street, a 19th-century "tube house" (so-called for its long, narrow design, which features a pair of atria for ventilation) that was once a private home and has been restored as a small museum.
See + Do
Hoan Kiem Lake, Vietnam
A good way to get your bearings in Hanoi is to take a quick stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake, a pleasant 30-minute circuit. The lake is fringed with willows, myrtles, flame trees, and tamarinds. Legend has it that the 15th-century emperor Le Loi received a magic sword from the lake, which he used to expel Chinese occupiers. After his victory, he returned the weapon to a golden tortoise, which vanished with it into the lake's depths (Hoan Kiem means "restored sword"). An islet on the northern end of the lake contains the Chinese-style Ngoc Son Temple and the remains of an enormous seven-foot, 500-pound tortoise found (sword-free) in the murky lake in 1968. Admission to the isle, which is accessible by the fire-engine-red Huc footbridge, one of Hanoi's most photographed landmarks, is 2,000 Vietnamese dong (about 12 cents). It's also well worth rising at dawn to see the lake at its busiest, surrounded by locals practicing tai chi.
See + Do
The limestone pillars of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay may have gotten the screen time in The Man With the Golden Gun, but for sheer spectacle, nothing compares to the sublime pinnacles of Halong Bay, 100 miles east of Hanoi. Many of the bay's 1,600 limestone islands and isletsthe world's most extensive karst seascapeare part of a protected 580-square-mile UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cruises are the best way to appreciate the bay and the fantastically shaped formations that erupt from the South China Sea. Dozens of companies offer daylong tours from Halong City; splurge for a longer trip and spend two or three days exploring. There are numerous sea caves and grottoes as well as the primeval Cat Ba Island, where a national park protects habitat for one of the world's rarest primates, the golden-headed langur. The most comfortable way to cruise the seas is on the 38-cabin floating palace operated by Emeraude Classic Cruises (59A Ly Thai To St., Hanoi; 84-4-934-0888; www.emeraude-cruises.com). Although the design replicates that of a French paddle steamer that sailed these very waters a century earlier, you'll get the full round of modern conveniences, from sunrise tai chi classes to sea kayaks to evening movie screenings on the open-air "star deck.'' With working sails to augment its engines, the junk-style Halong Ginger offers more rustic luxury (84-4-984-2807; www.cruisehalong.com).
Cool, misty weather swathes Halong from February to April; depending on your taste, this can make the bay a bust, or even more magical. Check your boat company's cancellation policy; in the summer and fall, storms and typhoons can prompt authorities to temporarily close the bay.
Melia Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel: 84 4 934 3343
The likes of Princess Anne of the United Kingdom and members of the Brunei royal family have rested their crowned heads in this slick, 22-story hotel. There's a heliport on its roof, so guests can arrive in style, and the hotel has the largest ballroom in Vietnam (with a capacity of 1,200). The Art Deco rooms are large and pleasant, with luxurious bathrooms, minibars, and satellite TV. The high-rise hotel may be something of an eyesore on the Hanoi skyline, but its height guarantees guests a glorious view. There are two restaurants: El Patio, serving international cuisine, and Lotus, offering Thai and Chinese food. Melia is centrally located in the heart of Hanoi's business district, within walking distance of Hoan Kiem.
Hotel Saigon Morin, Vietnam
Tel: 84 54 823 526
The landmark Hotel Saigon Morin has stood since 1901 on the banks of the Perfume River through war, flood, and typhoon. Remodeled a decade ago and expanded last year, the practical-minded 184-room hotel offers easy access to the Citadel from Truong Tien Bridge, which is just across Le Loi Street. Supersized second-floor rooms in the original wing have 13-foot ceilings and Continental-style furnishings such as cabriole chairs, beds with padded headboards, and thick drapes (though they unfortunately don't quite muffle the traffic noise outside). The quietest quarters, rooms 140168, are in the rear of the hotel. A peaceful inner courtyard holds a kidney-shaped swimming pool and a tree-shaded café with Parisian-style wrought iron furniture. Hotel service is attentive, from the rose-petal-strewing housekeepers to maintenance workers who arrive moments after a glitch is reported. The four-star amenities also include a tour service, currency exchange, beauty salon, and free lobby Wi-Fi. And breakfast might be the longest buffet in Vietnam: Platters of mango and pomelo, croissants and cheese, and banh khoai (steamed rice paper pancakes) stretch at least 30 yards.
See + Do
How exceptional is Hoi An? So special that by tacit agreement among all combatants, it wasn't attacked during the Vietnam War. That neutrality left the town, a trading port dating from the 15th century, in a state of preservation worthy enough to gain it UNESCO World Heritage status. The gracious buildings and streets show a variety of architectural influences, especially from China and Japan; the town prospered in the 17th and 18th centuries, when merchants from as far afield as India and Holland set up emporiums. But business literally dried up in the 19th century, when silting clogged the Thu Bon River. The port shifted to Da Nang, 20 miles up the coast, and Hoi An became a near-forgotten backwater. With a medieval cityscape untouched by Vietnam's go-go economy, it easily doubled for 1950s Cholon, Saigon's Chinese quarter, in the film adaptation of Graham Greene's classic novel, The Quiet American.
Also famed for its custom tailors, the tourist-oriented old quarter is laid-back and pedestrian-friendly, with a ban on cars, touts, and street peddlers. For many of the sites you'll need to buy a 70,000 Vietnamese dong entrance ticket (about $4.50), which entitles visitors to a selection of museums, historic houses like the Tran Family Chapel (built in 1802 and still privately owned), and pagodalike community halls erected by ancient expats from Fujian, Canton, and other Chinese provinces. Take time also to just wander the streets and admire the rows of "yin and yang" (concave and convex) roof tiles, fishermen along the colorful waterfront, and quirky local enterprises like the Hoi An Department of Managing and Gathering Swallow's Nests (53 Nguyen Thai Hoc St.), which heads to the Cham Islands twice a year to gather the main ingredient for bird's nest soup.
See + Do
Still off the standard itinerary for many foreign visitors, Hue served as the capital of unified Vietnam from 1802 until 1945. In addition to being the seat of the Nguyen dynasty throne, the imperial city held sway over the nation's cultural and religious life, making it a natural for UNESCO World Heritage status. Even today, this medium-size town straddling the Perfume River remains a center of education.
Surrounded by a thick, six-mile-long wall, the massive Citadel on the north bank dominates the cityscape. Inside is the fortified and moated Imperial City, a city-within-a-city containing the ornate wooden Thai Hoa Palace, Halls of the Mandarins, a tranquil pond, and the "pleasure pavilion" of Dien Tho, the Queen Mother's residence. Everything in the innermost Forbidden Purple City, aside from the Emperor's Reading Room, was obliterated during the nightmarish urban combat of the 1968 Tet Offensive. The streets inside the fortress are laid out in a grid pattern and are perfect for exploring on a bicycle, which can be rented from Mandarin Café for $1 a day. It's impossible to get lost; just use the 120-foot-tall Flag Tower on the southern rampart as a beacon.
The wooded hills south of town are dotted with the mausoleums of the Nguyen kings, including the frangipani-scented Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, who reigned 184383. Café on Thu Wheels offers a rollicking half-day tour by motorcycle of the tombs and countryside. The route also stops at riverside Thien Mu Pagoda, whose seven-story octagonal tower is a national icon. A more unusual talisman is the classic British-built Austin sedan housed beyond the main sanctuary. In 1963 a Buddhist monk from the temple, Thich Quang Duc, drove the car to Saigon, where he doused himself with gasoline and burned to death to protest religious discrimination by the Catholic-dominated South Vietnamese regime. The photograph of Thich's self-immolation, with the Austin in the background, is one of the Vietnam War's most enduring images.
See + Do
War Remnants Museum, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tel: 84 8 930 6325
Formerly the "Museum of American War Crimes," the place is now euphemistically titled the "War Remnants Museum." Though the name change was intended to avoid giving offense to Western visitors, the displays are unabashedly anti-American, giving you a chance to see the Vietnam War through the eyes of the Vietnamese. The deliberately disturbing exhibits include machinery, weapons, and gory photographs related to the French and American wars (with emphasis on the latter). You can also see a chilling deformed fetus in a bottle, supposedly damaged by Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide used during the Vietnam War to destroy jungle terrain.
See + Do
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Two hours' drive south of Saigon, Vietnam melts into a waterland of rivers, rice paddies, and canals. The fertile Delta region, formed by the silt-rich Mekong River, is the nation's breadbasket. Outside Vinh Long, a maze of river islands supports countless fruit orchards. Farther south, the alluvial plains have been cut into a patchwork of rice fields and shrimp farms, while scattered sanctuaries attract numerous bird species, including the rare redheaded saurus crane. The main city, Can Tho, on the south bank of the Bassac River, hums with waterborne trade. Four miles to the east is Cai Rang floating market, the Delta's largest, where scores of sampans and barges display their wares atop boat masts. Cruise along one of the waterways and you'll see locals trading from boat to boat, tending vegetable gardens, or working their abundant paddies. Delta denizens often live on houseboats or in huts on stilts that double as fish farms: Inhabitants feed the fish beneath the floors of their homes then haul them out when it's time to eat or sell them. The best way to see the Delta is to use a tour agent. Ho Chi Minh Citybased upmarket operator Trails of Indochina will organize boat or cycling trips to untouristed villages; clients even have the option of donating a sampan to a needy local family (10/8 Phan Dinh Giot St.; 84-8-844-1005; www.trailsofindochina.com).
See + Do
Ben Thanh Market, Vietnam
At the intersection of Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao, and Le Lai streets
Frenetic, eclectic Ben Thanh is the polar opposite of a sterile American supermarket. This market has been around since the French occupation, albeit in different locations: It has occupied its present spot since 1899. Crab, scorpion wine, Calvin Klein knockoffs, pickled vegetables, ducks, silk, watches, frogs, flip-flops, curry powder, and rice are only a fraction of what's on offer. And prices are far less than at the more touristy shops on Dong Khoi Street. Don't be afraid to haggleit's expectedand keep an eye out for pickpockets.
Sheraton Saigon Hotel and Towers, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tel: 84 8 827 2828
The service and attention to detail at this hotel are outstanding, with aromatherapy scents wafting from the air-conditioning on the landings. The 374 spacious rooms and suites have contemporary decor, marble bathrooms, and mod cons like Internet access (for a fee) and satellite TV. Ask for a city-facing room, and you should get a small balcony and a great view of the city (on the other side of the hotel you'll be looking right into the adjacent Towers rooms). Dining options include Li Bai, a superb Chinese restaurant, and the rooftop Level 23 Signature Restaurant. Patrons can boogie the night away at the hip wine bar/club attached. The hotel is in walking distance of tourist sites such as the Opera House.
Rex Hotel, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tel: 84 8 829 2185
The best of Saigontourist's holdings, this business traveler's favorite offers solid, albeit small, rooms with less kitsch than the Majestic and, in the rattan furniture, more style than the Continental. In addition, the Rex can claim a colorful history: The nation's reunification was announced in the hotel's conference room, which was also the site of the U.S. military's media briefings, known to many a jaded journalist as "The Five O'Clock Follies." The 217-room hotel is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar expansion. A new casino, the Bingo Club, operates on the first floor, while the 180-seat Royal Court restaurant features live traditional music and the spicy food of central Vietnam. The location, just south of the Hotel de Ville, is ideal for shopping. And the fifth-floor outdoor bar and restaurant has topiary animals, live music, and bird's-eye views of downtown.