Vietnam See And Do
10 Tran Phu Street
Tel: 84 5 882 9540
There isn't a Frenchman more revered in Vietnam than Alexandre Yersin (18631943), the bacteriologist who discovered the cause of bubonic plague. Yersin founded the Pasteur Institute in Nha Trang, led scientific expeditions into the Central Highlands, and recommended the French establish the hill station of Dalat. The remarkable life of this Swiss-born polymath, including his lifesaving research, laboratory instruments, and scientific library, is on display at the Alexandre Yersin Museum, on the grounds of the seaside clinic.
Open Mondays through Fridays 7:30 to 11 am and 2 to 4:30 pm.
Vietnam's coastline exceeds 2,000 miles, but its finest beaches are almost all found in the 400-mile stretch from Hue to Nha Trang. Alongside a lagoon ten miles northeast of Hue, undeveloped Thuan An Beach attracts Vietnamese from May through August, when the water's generally calm enough for swimming. Forty miles south of Hue, white-sand Lang Co Beach unfolds for six miles between a lagoon and the South China Sea. Its undeniable beauty and stunning views of Bach Ma Mountain National Park have finally seduced developers: Banyan Tree has announced plans for a massive, $270 million luxury resort that will include four hotels, an 18-hole golf course, and residential villas. Da Nang's famed China Beach, once an R and R spot for American soldiers, now attracts a swelling civilian following. The busy northernmost section is characterized by gated developments. More welcoming is Non Nuoc, a section near the Marble Mountains six miles south of Da Nang, where the coastal dunes still hold stands of casuarina trees and family tombs. Fifty yards wide and gently graded, the quiet beach is excellent for swimming. Six miles farther south, fishermen launch circular thung chai, or "basket boats,'' from Cua Dai Beach with the Cham Islands as a beautiful backdrop. But deeper water and rip currents present problems for swimmers. Hoi Anbased Cham Island Diving makes half-day excursions to the archipelago's marine park from February through September, when seas are calm and water visibility approaches 100 feet. Long and tan My Khe Beach is a good place to reflect after a visit to My Lai, just one mile to the west. Beach-hoppers will have a field day farther south, especially at Dai Lanh and six-mile-long Doc Let, where white-sand dunes are tufted with pine trees. Three-mile-long Nha Trang Beach is Vietnam's best urban sandbox, with clean parks and promenades, waterfront bars, and boutique hotels. Water-sports outfitter Mana Mana Beach Club operates from La Louisiane Brewhouse and rents wake- and windsurfing boards, water skis, and sea kayaks. Vietnam's most experienced dive shop, Rainbow Divers, runs half-day trips to an offshore archipelago, where a marine park holds healthy corals and 350 species of fish.
Ho Chi Minh City
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.
Once an Asian version of Alcatraz, this infamous former French penal colony 150 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City is now considered the nation's most pristine island ecosystem. For more than a century, the remote, off-limits archipelago resisted development; today, 80 percent of its mountainous, 29-square-mile landmass is protected by the well-managed Con Dao National Park (84-6-483-0150; www.condaopark.com.vn). More than 1,000 plant species have been recorded on the chain's 16 islands, while the surrounding waters of the South China Sea hold the nation's richest sea life, including 270 different coral species, giant clams, green and hawksbill sea turtles, and even dugong, a endangered relative of the manatee. A single dive operator, PADI-certified Rainbow Divers, runs trips during the relatively short MarchSeptember dive season; two-tankers consider Con Dao's underwater experience the best in Vietnam (84-8-920-7753; www.divevietnam.com). Topside, the well-preserved colonial-era buildings of the old prison complex are now a historical monument; Communist leaders such as late prime minister Pham Van Dong did hard time here, while 20,000 other inmates died in this paradisiacal prison.
Vietnam Air Services Co. (VASCO), a subsidiary of Vietnam Airlines, makes the 45-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City six days a week. The best in-town accommodation is government-owned Saigon Con Dao Hotel which is adding an 85-room block and swimming pool to its current 33 rooms (84-6-483-0336; www.saigoncondao.com). Located a half-mile west of town center, Con Dao Resort commands a fine white-sand beach (84-6-483-0939; www.condaoresort.vn). In the spring of 2009, Six Senses will raise the bar on eco-lodging when it debuts an exclusive 51-villa Evason Hideaway property on half-mile-long Dat Doc Beach, the islands' best strand (www.sixsenses.com).
Resorts such as Hue's La Residence offer instruction in Vietnamese cooking, but the most hands-on fun may be Hoi An's Red Bridge Cooking School. Classes gather at Hai Scout Café. After a tour of the waterfront market complete with shopping tips (a fresh squid should have clear eyes and hard, white flesh), students board a wooden boat for a 20-minute trip down the Hoi An River to Red Bridge Cooking School. With the wit and timing of stand-up comedians, instructors initiate neophyte chefs into the mysteries of carving vegetables for decorations, steaming fresh rice paper rolls, and making a Hoi An specialty, banh xeo, a crispy "pancake" topped with shrimp, spring onions, sprouts, and herbs. Best of all, students get to consume their handiwork. Book several days in advance, as the 8 am and 1:30 pm tutorialsan absolute bargain at $15often fill up early.
It's difficult to regard the orderly rubber trees and rice paddies and realize this rural landscape 40 miles northwest of Saigon was the most heavily bombed, gassed, and defoliated target in the history of warfare. Through a labyrinth of underground passageways and rooms, Vietcong rebels were able to control this rural area, emerging from trapdoors at night to lay booby traps or ambush patrols, then retreat to well-equipped lairs 30 feet below the surface that could withstand B-52 air strikes. A section of the 150-mile tunnel network has been developed and, thankfully, enlarged (the original passages were barely 18 inches wide and 30 inches tall). Saigontourist, along with every private tour company in town, offers a half-day tunnel excursion, usually with hotel pickup and return (84-8-829-8914; www.etravelvietnam.com). You'll find displays of gruesome booby traps, a screening of a heavy-handed 1967 North Vietnamese propaganda film about a pretty Cu Chi peasant girl turned "American-killer hero," and several winding, lengthy tunnels to navigate (flashlights are provided). And for an extra $13, you can squeeze off a ten-round clipthe munitions menu includes a choice of M16 or AK-47 riflesat the on-site firing range. Go as early as possible to avoid Ho Chi Minh City rush hour traffic and tour-bus crowds.
Founded a century ago as a French hill station, this Central Highlands retreat remains, quite literally, a breath of fresh air for Vietnamese looking to beat the heat of steamy Ho Chi Minh City, some 200 miles to the southwest. Colonial vestiges are scattered across the town, including a neo-Gothic cathedral, a pink-sided Catholic convent, the 18-hole Dalat Palace Golf Club (considered the nation's best course), and the charming Cremaillere Railway Station, the terminus of a cog railroad that once connected the mile-high town with the lowlands. The greatest concentration of gracious prewar villas is to be found in the Bellevue Quarter, about one mile west of downtown. Fifteen of these historic buildings have been renovated by Six Senses as the Evason Ana Mandara Villas Dalat, the company's first nonbeach resort (Le Lai St.; 84-6-355-5888; www.sixsenses.com). Much of the original rustic constructionfloor tiles, fireplaces, wood trimhas been salvaged, while the grounds have been allowed to go slightly feral. The resort can organize city trips by vintage Citroën automobile, "coffee addict" tours of outlying plantations and local cafés, or, for the more active, mountain biking, canyoning, and hiking excursions. Then retreat to the in-house Six Senses spa for a body polish with homegrown roses and berries.
There's a kitschy vibe to the City of Eternal Spring, a wildly popular honeymoon destination. Wedding-dress and handembroidery shops dot the hilly streets, and no self-respecting Vietnamese vacationer would go to Dalat without visiting the Art Deco summer palace of Bao Dai to plop down at the last emperor's desk for a just-say-cheesy photo op. For more regal accommodation, check in to the 43-room Sofitel Dalat Palace, a lovingly restored Jazz Age relic (84-63-825-444; Vietnam Airlines flights from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat's airport, which is 15 miles south of town. Air-conditioned buses also make the run from HCMC (six to eight hours) and Nha Trang (three to four hours) through stretches of rugged mountain scenery. November through April holds the best weather, but even during the late-summer monsoon season most mornings are clear. Hotel reservations are essential on long weekends and public holidays, when thousands of Vietnamese head for these hills.
73 Mai Thi Luu Street
Ho Chi Minh City
The loveliest Chinese pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, the Jade Emperor Pagoda was built in 1909. It's decorated with a riot of carvings, depicting scenes from Taoist, Buddhist, and ethnic myths. In the dim interior, worshippers bow to Buddha statues with neon halos. Particularly impressive are the main altar and the side panel's depiction of hell. The path leading to the temple door is usually lined with hawkers selling food, incense, flowers, and even tortoises scrabbling in water-filled plastic bowls (the building is also known as the Tortoise Pagoda).
Lying to the south and east of Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi's French Quarter has grand boulevards and elegant French colonial buildings. These include the stately Opera House, based on the neo-Baroque Paris Opera, complete with gray slate tiles imported from France. One block east of the Opera House is Hanoi's Museum of History, an elaborate blend of Vietnamese palace and French villa, a style that came to be called Neo-Vietnamese. Trang Tien, the main artery of the French Quarter, is still a busy shopping street where you'll find bookshops and art galleries as well as cafés and hotels.
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.
1 Hoa Lo Street
Hoan Kiem District
Tel: 84 4 824 6358
About two thirds of the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" was demolished in the early 1990s for the construction of a high-rise apartment complex, but the penitentiary's remaining cells and dungeons were turned into a small, fascinating museum. The bulk of the exhibits (iron fetters, razor-sharp guillotine) recount the cruelty of French jailers during the colonial era, but a few rooms are devoted to the Vietnam War, when the jail held and tortured American prisoners of war. There are propaganda photographs of Hanoi residents "saving" an American pilot and of POWs preparing a Christmas dinner, as well as the flight suit and crash helmet of John McCain, who survived five long, brutal years after being shot down over Hanoi in 1967.
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 8 to 11:30 am and 1:30 to 4:30 pm.
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.
Ba Dinh Square
When he died in 1969, Ho Chi Minh was embalmed, in the tradition of great Communist leaders. His mausoleum was modeled after Lenin's in Moscow (and rumor has it that Ho is sent to Russian embalmers for annual touch-ups). He is now on display to the public, lying in a glass box in a simple khaki uniform, and looking a little yellow around the chops. Visitors are not allowed to carry anything while viewing the body. Arrive early to avoid the long lines as people deposit and retrieve their belongings. Tues.Thurs. 7:30.10:30 a.m., Sat. and Sun. 7:3011 a.m.
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.
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.
3 Le Truc Street
The lost splendor of the Nguyen dynasty, which ruled Vietnam from 1802 until 1945, is displayed at the Hue Museum of Royal Fine Arts. Housed inside an all-wood palace built in 1845, the museum is notable for its atmospheric setting and sumptuous royal artifacts, including furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, ceremonial weapons, and silk gowns.
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 7 am to 5:30 pm.
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).
This central region, known as I Corps during the Vietnam War, suffered much of the conflict's heaviest fighting. In Hue, bullet holes from the 1968 Tet Offensive still scar the Citadel's brick walls, especially around east-side Dong Ba Gate. The bitter door-to-door fight lasted three weeks and left a bigger hole at the heart of the fortress, where much of the Forbidden Purple City was destroyed. The sites between Hue and the Ben Hai River, a natural boundary separating North and South Vietnam once known as the Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ), are a bloody roll call: The Rockpile, Khe Sanh, Camp Carroll. Several companies in Hue, including Mandarin Café, offer all-day "DMZ tours" that include transport, an English-speaking guide, and entrance fees.
Even more sobering is Son My Site, better known to Americans as My Lai, where U.S. Army soldiers massacred 504 civilians on March 16, 1968. Six miles east of the provincial capital of Quang Ngai and 60 miles south of Hoi An, this hamlet has been preserved as a war memorial, with manicured grounds, restored bunkers, and plaques listing the victims, who were mostly women, children, and the elderly. An on-site museum displays such haunting artifacts as children's toys and slippers, as well as searing pictures taken by an official U.S. Army photographer as the atrocity unfolded. Far from being one-sided propaganda, the exhibit notes the actions of several American soldiers who risked their own lives to protect Vietnamese peasants.
Son My Site open daily 7 am to 5 pm.
28A Dien Bien Phu Street
Ba Dinh District
Tel: 84 4 823 4264
The Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War) may be the most famous but it's certainly not the latest conflict that this resilient nation has endured (that would be a 1979 border clash with China). Four millennia of martial history are recounted at the Military History Museum. Just look for the Russian-built MiG-21 fighter jet across the street from Lenin Park. The bulk of the large collection, which is housed in a series of two-story buildings, concerns the bloody postWorld War II struggles against the French, South Vietnamese, and Americans. Artifacts include a 105-millimeter cannon captured during the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, pack bicycles that carried 700 pounds of supplies at a time down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and talismanic tank T-54B No. 843, which crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace during the triumphant 1975 conquest of Saigon by North Vietnamese forces.
Open Tuesdays through Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays 8 to 11:30 am and 1 to 4:30 pm.
Corner of Bach Dang and Trung Nu Vuong Streets
The best reason to explore Da Nang is its Museum of Cham Sculpture, which is devoted to the Angkoresque sandstone carvings of the Cham, who dominated central Vietnam from the 4th to the 14th centuries. The delightful 1916 structure, which melds temple aesthetics with golden-age French colonial architecture, holds the world's preeminent collection of Cham art.
Open daily 7 am to 5 pm.
This UNESCO collection of ancient Cham tower-temples is a more mellow alternative to tourist favorites like Hue and Hoi An. Set in a valley a scenic 30-mile drive west of Hoi An, My Son was the hub of the Champa Kingdom for almost 1,000 yearsthe longest continuous occupation of any major monument in Southeast Asia. However, the Viet Cong hid out in the ruins during the Vietnam War, leading to American air strikes that badly damaged many of the brick and sandstone structures. Restoration is under way, albeit slowly, and it's a pleasant one-mile walk from the parking lot through second-growth forest to the crumbling temples beneath Hon Quap (Cat's Tooth Mountain). An excellent visitors center explains the history of the seafaring Cham people, whose culture was influenced by trade networks that extended as far as India and Java. While every hotel or travel agency in Hoi An offers a My Son coach tour, it's better to indulge in a private car and driver (about $20 to $25 from Hoi An) to beat the mobs. Go early, and you'll have the archeological park practically to yourself, just as sunrise burnishes the brickworks and the jungle comes alive with birdsong. Private English-speaking guides at the site can be hired for 70,000 Vietnamese dong (about $4.50).
Open daily 6:30 am to 5 pm.
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.
The Perfume Pagoda, said to be named after the spring blossoms that scent the air around it, is one of the most important Buddhist sites in Vietnam. Every spring after the Vietnamese New Year, thousands of pilgrims come here to pray for health and prosperity. Part of a complex of temples built on limestone cliffs, the Pagoda is a two-hour drive from Hanoi, followed by a one-and-a-half-hour boat ride and a one- to two-hour walk up the mountain. Various operators offer day tours, covering transportation and entry fees (ask at the tourist office or your hotel).
A growing number of travelers have found the golden-brown sands and laid-back vibe of this distant isle in the Gulf of Thailand the perfect coda to their Vietnamese holiday. Situated less than ten miles offshore from Cambodia, Phu Quoc is evolving from a sleepy outpost for U.S. Navy boats to what may soon be the next Phuket or Koh Samui. Phu Quoc's first true boutique property, the 43-room La Veranda Grand Mercure Resort & Spa, hit west-side Long Beach in late 2006 (Ward 1, Duong Dong Beach, Tran Hung Dao St.; 84-77-982-988; www.laverandaresort.com). There are big development plans for much of this thin, ten-mile-long strand, including a new international airport. For now, however, Phu Quoc remains a quiet place that attracts an eclectic mix of backpackers, midrange tourists, and HCMC-based expats. Vietnam Airlines operates daily turboprops from Ho Chi Minh City, an hour's flight away, while several express ferries make the two- to two-and-a-half-hour crossing from Rach Gia, a Mekong Delta port, for $8 to $11 round-trip. Duong Dong Express has the smoothest, most spacious ferries (84-77-879-765; www.duongdongexpress.com.vn).
The don't-miss activity is a boat trip to the An Thoi archipelago, a cluster of 15 deserted, palm-topped islets fringed by coral reefs lying just south of the main island. PADI-certified Rainbow Divers runs dive trips during the OctoberApril high season (84-194-400-964; www.divevietnam.com), while Michelle Thong's Indochina Adventure Travel mounts barbecue-equipped snorkeling excursions (84-77-994-227; www.indotrek.com). Thong can also organize mountain bike expeditions as well as picnics and wine tastings at remote waterfalls in the forested interior.
Decades of conflict disrupted this French-built rail line, but the 1,070-mile link from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City was finally restored after the Vietnam War concluded in 1975. While Vietnam Railways will never be confused with France's lightning-quick TGV service, or even Amtrak, what its coaches lack in speed and style is largely mitigated by unforgettable scenery and unbeatable value. The most spectacular stretch of the line runs 60 miles south from Hue to Da Nang, skirting lagoons and electric-green rice paddies, threading tunnels through the wild coastal mountains and then climbing along the sheer edge of a sea cliff and through Hai Van Pass to make a sweeping final descent. A train buff's fantasy, the two-hour journey costs just 40,000 Vietnamese dong ($2.50). The 325-mile, nine-hour stretch from Da Nang to Nha Trang also passes through a classic Vietnamese landscape of rice paddies and lush mountains. Shoot for SE-class trains, which are a mix of air-conditioned coaches and "soft" (four bunks to a room) and "hard" (six to a room) class sleepers. Drinks trolleys rattle down the aisles with cold beer and hot coffee, while a dining car turns out com ga kho (chicken and ginger) for less than $1 a plate. Prerecorded commentary in English explains some of the major attractions along the way. Do keep a pack of tissues handy, as the Western-style bathrooms often lack toilet paper. Hotels and tour companies can arrange train bookings; tickets can also be purchased from English-speaking railway staff at stations in major cities.
Quoc Tu Giam Street
Dong Da District
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.
57B Dinh Tien Hoang Street
Hoan Kiem District
Tel: 84 4 824 9494
It might seem a bit hokey in an Xbox age, but this 1,000-year-old art form still manages to enchant. The best place to catch a water-puppet performance is this purpose-built theater on the east side of Hoan Kiem Lake, home to a troupe that's toured Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Hidden behind a screen, a team of ten puppeteers use elaborate articulated marionettes carved from water-resistant fig wood to re-create Vietnamese legends and folktales. A nine-piece orchestra with flutes, percussion, and dan baua solemn one-string zitheraccompanies the performances. Even if you don't understand Vietnamese, there are enough sight gags and fire- and water-spewing dragon puppets to get the gist of brisk-moving vignettes like "Catching Frogs'' and "Boat Racing.''
There are six 45-minute performances every day, from 2:45 to 9:15 pm.
2 Nguyen Binh Khiem Street
Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: 84 8 829 0268
This museum reminds Western tourists that Vietnam is a country, not a war, with a history stretching back to prehistoric times. It covers the nation's past from its earliest inhabitants to the establishment of the Communist Party in 1930. The exhibits include ancient archaeological artifacts, fourteenth-century weaponry, Cham sculpture, and an extensive ceramics collection. The museum is housed in a pagoda-like neo-Vietnamese building, built by the French in 1929. It is one of the few museums in Vietnam with helpful English explanations.
28 Vo Van Tan Street
Ho Chi Minh City
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.