I’ve had the good fortune to experience Vietnam on two different occasions, and each of these was an extended tour, allowing me to explore the country and soak up the culture at my own pace.
Most travelers, however, don’t have the luxury of spreading out their discovery of a new destination over the course of several months. Travel opportunities for most people materialize in short windows, and between the hustle-bustle of airfare and finding the right accommodations, it’s a challenge to squeeze as much fun and excitement as possible into a brief trip.
With that in mind, here’s my thoughts for those looking to experience Vietnam travel, but are operating with time constraints in mind.
If you have never been to Vietnam before and you only have time to see the choice attractions, you are going to either visit Hanoi or Saigon. While each has their merits, I suggest Hanoi. Here’s why:
Vietnam’s capital second largest city is home to over 2.5 million residents, yet in many ways retains a vibe of a smaller, more clos-knit community. The best place to feel this communal kinship is in the city’s old quarter, which retains the original layout and structures of old Hanoi, when it had only a few dozen streets, with each street having its own unique name based on the trades that were primarily plied there. The names remain, though the individual streets are far more diverse in their specialties than they were 100 years ago.
Old Town Hanoi is renowned worldwide for its many fine silk shops, along with other artisans peddling their handcrafted wares. Old Town Hanoi also possesses a vibrant, but distinctly traditional, nightlife scene, as well as a lively night market and an abundance of small restaurants specializing in local cuisine.
Aside from Old Town, Hanoi offers several other tourist hotspots:
The Temple of Literature
Built in 1070 AD, this temple dedicated to Confucius and his followers, and serves as a celebration of Vietnam’s storied ties to Confucianism, which has for centuries been integral to the national identity of the Vietnamese people. Visitors will be wowed by the temple’s 1000 year old architecture along with the giant turtles carved out of stone that grace the perimeter of the temple.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
A relic of the Cold War and Vietnam’s soiree with Communism, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum holds the embalmed body of the late Vietnamese leader and was the location of the signing of the country’s Declaration of Independence in 1945. The Mausoleum is a veritable Mecca for the Vietnamese, a once-in-a-lifetime destination for countrymen and women to pay their respects to the father of modern Vietnam.
The Hanoi War Museum
Not for the faint of heart, the Hanoi War Museum is a grisly collection of photographs and relics that document the atrocity of wars in general and the Vietnam War (or the American War, as locals call it) in particular. There are some destinations that you want to go to, and others that you feel obligated to visit, and this is firmly in the latter camp. You might not like what you see, but it’s important that you see it nonetheless.
Located dead-center in the middle of Hanoi, West Lake is a freshwater lake that has become a popular recreational area and has increasingly become a haven for new hotels, resorts and smaller villas catering to travelers. Aside from the tourist amenities, the West Lake district is also significant for its destinations of historical interest, such as the Quan Thanh Temple (one of the Four Sacred Temples of ancient Hanoi) and the Chu Van An School, the oldest secondary school in the country.