1. Visit a Remote Ethnic Market
Bac Ha Sunday Market and Sapa Tribes, Vietnam
In Vietnam’s northern highlands, ethnic tribes descend from the mountains every week, tramping for miles to sell a water buffalo, haggle over medicinal herbs or bargain for pineapples not much bigger than your fist. At Tuesday’s Coc Ly market, members of the Flower Hmong ethnic group turn out in all their finery with babies lolling on their backs in intricately embroidered slings. The bold colors of their traditional costumes glow even brighter once you’ve sampled a sip of fiery rice whiskey, sold from a gasoline can. Come away with an armful of tangerines, a traditional collar stitched from hundreds of tiny cloth strips or the memory of a shy child’s smile.
It’s best to go with a guide who can speak the local dialect, like one from Palmvietnamtravel.com, which offers custom private tours. The market takes place in the morning and lasts until about noon. Coc Ly is 62 miles from Sapa, a popular place to stay, and 37 miles from Lao Cai, which is the hub for overnight express trains from Hanoi. If you can afford it, book a private cabin on one of the more luxurious private rail cars, like those operated by Victoria Hotels.
2. Kayak Among Mist-Shrouded Islands
Cat Ba Island, Halong Bay, Vietnam
The limestone karst islands of Halong Bay are legendary. Unfortunately, so are the hordes of tour boats. Get away from the crowd and closer to the fantastical formations in a kayak. You’ll need to work with a tour company; the islands are just too far away to kayak directly from land.
Companies focused on kayaking trips will take you out in escort boats and set you up where the paddling’s perfect. Guides help you explore caves and rock gardens. Day trips are possible from some companies, but consider spending a night on the bay to get the full experience of light and mist around these magical islands. Escort boats have sleeping accommodations with varying levels of luxury, depending on your budget.
Asia Outdoors offers day trips from Cat Ba Island that visit the less crowded southern part of Halong Bay, known as Lan Ha Bay. These tours are a nice option if you’re spending a couple of days on laid-back Cat Ba.
3. Dine Like an Emperor on Imperial Cuisine
Hue royal cuisine, Vietnam
Talk about living large! According to tales from Vietnam’s imperial era, the 19th-century Nguyen kings never dined on the same meal twice in a single year. Ensconced in Hue’s Citadel, they had a bevy of chefs, each of whom specialized in just one dish. To keep the royal palate from getting bored, 50 exquisite little courses were served at dinner, but special banquets could include as many as 300 dishes. Fruits and vegetables were carved into fanciful animals, flowers and landscapes to decorate the plates.
Remnants of that imperial cuisine have crept into commoners’ food. You’ll find modest restaurants serving a raft of tiny steamed rice-flour dumplings with dried shrimp and pork, set in petite dishes (banh beo) or bundled in banana leaves (banh lam or banh nam). The crispy pancake, banh khoai, wrapped around pork, shrimp and bean sprouts is worth a try, as is the city’s renowned spicy noodle soup, bun bo. Fare at fancier restaurants is more elaborate, with table decor that might include a phoenix sculpted from a pineapple.
It’s rare to find Hue’s imperial cuisine outside this UNESCO World Heritage Site, so take advantage of it while you’re here. You’ll find dumplings in the stalls at Dong Ba Market (worth a visit to take in the bustling ambience, too), as well as bargain spot Lien Hoa (3 Le Quy Don) and other places around town. For more upscale dining, try Ancient Hue (AncientHue.com.vn), set in a series of old houses, or Tinh Gia Vien (Le Thanh Ton), where artistry tends to outshine the flavors.
4. Cycle the Mekong Delta
Mekong Delta Cycling Tour, Vietnam
The Mekong Delta is a paradise for cyclers: flat and scenic, with vistas of rice paddies, canals, fruit orchards and jungle. Specialist outfits like Cycling Vietnam (CyclingVietnam.net) offer trips of varying length, mixing biking with visits to traditional homes, floating markets and ethnic villages.
You’ll likely ride along the Mekong River for at least part of the trip, and most organizers also include a boat trip on the river. One of the nicest features is the opportunity to connect with locals, whom you’ll encounter riding bikes too. Tours usually include pick-up and return to Ho Chi Minh City, but if you’re heading on to Cambodia, you might want to arrange for your trip to end in Chau Doc, where you can take a fast boat upriver to Phnom Penh.
5. Stalk Rare Birds in Cat Tien National Park
Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam
The nearly 300 square miles of Cat Tien National Park are listed by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve Zone, and are the perfect place to explore if you’re a nature lover. The park, located about 90 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City, is a birder’s paradise, home to 348 species, including pitta, Siamese firebacks, red junglefowl and green peafowl. There are hundreds of different types of butterflies and 79 species of reptiles, including pythons and crocodiles. Leopards, tigers and Asiatic black bears are also reported to live here, but chances of spotting one are rare. You’ll have a better chance of sighting gibbons, macaques, civets and deer. Sadly, in 2011, the highly endangered Javanese rhinoceros was declared extinct in the park.
If traveling on your own, hire a guide at the park’s information counter (just be sure you can communicate) or join activities like a night safari or gibbon trek. You can hike to Crocodile Lake for a rustic overnight, or sleep with more luxury at the Forest Floor Lodge and other accommodations on the park’s perimeter.
The park allows a limited number of visitors per day, so if you’re traveling on your own, phone ahead for reservations.
6. See a Wet and Wild Water Puppet Show
Vietnam Water Puppets Show
Sure, it might sound like a kids’ activity, but don’t miss a show at Hanoi’s Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre. In a tradition that dates back 1,000 years, the “stage” is actually the surface of a tank filled with water. The unseen puppeteers operate their puppets from behind a curtain, standing waist-deep. The water hides the mechanisms of the hand-painted wooden puppets, creating a wonderful effect.
The troupe presents some traditional Vietnamese tales, operating the puppets with amazing subtlety and humor. At times, whole chorus lines of puppets may appear, and there are some surprises along the way. Live musicians add the soundtrack.
Thang Long offers seven shows daily, with an additional show on Sunday mornings. It’s best to pick up tickets at least a few hours in advance, since shows tend to sell out. If you’re captivated by the performance, you might consider buying a retired puppet, available in the theater lobby (to our mind, their battle scars make them much more interesting than the copies you’ll find for sale elsewhere).
7. Stay in a Twisted Fairy-Tale Hotel
Valley of Love (Vallée d’Amour) Park in Dalat – Vietnam
Located in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, Dalat is the perfect change of pace from the country’s typical steamy climate. And if you’re looking for a change of pace in lodging too, head straight for the Crazy House, a fantasy hotel that looks like architect Antoni Gaudi’s work as interpreted by elves.
Originally known as Hang Nga Villa, the Crazy House is the pet project of architect Dang Viet Nga (daughter to a past president of Vietnam), who seeks to bring guests closer to nature with her eccentric design. The exterior resembles the gnarled roots of a tree; inside you might find windows inspired by spider webs in rooms with nary a flat surface. Some have undulating ceilings that feel like a cave; others are watched over by a sculpted kangaroo or tiger with glowing eyes. Quirky stairways look like stalks of bamboo or cross-sections of tree trunks.
Is Crazy House too, well, crazy for you? Try Ana Mandara Villas Dalat, a lovingly restored French colonial villa. Dalat was a favorite escape for French administrators; it was once known as “Little Paris,” and comes complete with a radio tower masquerading as the Eiffel Tower. There are plenty of Art Deco colonial buildings too. Add in all the natural scenery, like hills and waterfalls, and you can see why Dalat is a favorite with Vietnamese honeymooners.
8. Go Night Fishing with a Squid Fleet
Night Fishing with a Squid Fleet in Phu Quoc, Vietnam
Phu Quoc Island, off Vietnam’s southern coast, is renowned for its beaches. But if you get tired of working on the perfect tan, consider making like a local and going squid fishing. You’ve probably seen the squid fleet – it’s those lights bobbing on the horizon at night. Fishermen attract squid with the lights and then hook them.
Most resorts offer a squid-fishing trip that includes boating out to enjoy the sunset and fishing as darkness sets in. You’ll get to sample what you catch, either grilled or in “squid porridge,” depending on the tour. Some providers to consider include Phu Quoc Island Explorer and Vietnam Tour Booking.
If you’re into all things fishy, consider visiting one of the 100 or so fish sauce makers on Phu Quoc, where the odiferous culinary essential is aged in special wooden vats made from local trees. The island is famous for its sauce.
9. Get an Outfit Tailor-Made
Tailors’ Market, Hoi An, Vietnam
Rumor has it that there are more tailors per capita in the historic town of Hoi An than anywhere else in the world. If you’ve got a few days, you can come away with a custom-made suit or a silk ao dai – the traditional women’s outfit of a high-necked tunic over flowing trousers – for a very reasonable price.
Plenty of shops will beckon you with window displays, but choose carefully, bargain hard and don’t put down any cash until the garment is delivered and you’re perfectly satisfied. You might pay a bit more at spots like YalyCouture.com, but attention to detail and a higher level of quality are worth it. While some fine European fabrics are available at the more upmarket tailors, you might want to consider bringing fabric from home if you’ve got a suit in mind. Vietnamese suiting fabrics can be cheap, but the quality is far lower than the pricy European imports. Silk is another story, and many choices are available.
Allow for at least three fittings to get a garment that fits you properly. In the meantime, wander Hoi An’s old shophouses, slurp some cao lau (the unique local noodles) and enjoy the colored lanterns that work their magic along the streets at night.
10. Make Peace with the War
Tours of Peace Vietnam
Tours of Peace Vietnam Veterans is a nonprofit organization that organizes small-group trips for veterans and their family members to help them “heal and recover from the trauma of the Vietnam War.” Participants are carefully selected after an application process, with a focus on needs, diversity and mutual support.
Trips are scheduled when appropriate candidates are assembled, and often coincide with significant holidays like Veterans Day and Memorial Day. Tours cover much of the lengthy geography of Vietnam, often in back-country environments, visiting areas of personal meaning to participants. Tours also include opportunities like sharing a meal with former Vietnamese soldiers and working on service projects. The organization stresses that there is a strong emotional component to the process.
TOP also offers advanced trips, with less military significance, designed for participants who have already been on one TOP trip. Previous participants often help mentor those on first-time trips. To apply, visit Palmvietnamtravel.com.
11. Take a Cooking Class
Vietnam Cooking Class
Chances are you’ll be craving Vietnamese food once you get home from your trip. The exotic flavors, fresh ingredients and soul-satisfying soups are addictive. Why not learn how to whip up a few dishes during your trip?
You’ll find cooking schools all over Vietnam, but some of the most established ones are in Ho Chi Minh City. The typical format is to visit a fresh market, examine the cornucopia of ingredients, and then head to the classroom for instruction, cooking and the best part: eating!
You’ll find a polished presentation at Mai Home: The Saigon Culinary Arts Centre, with assistants standing by to whisk away garbage or light a misbehaving stove burner. Cyclo Resto gets kudos for its personable chef and small class size. And Saigon Cooking Class garners praise for its hands-on teaching and unique location (in an old opium factory)./.