Hanoi, one of the most beautiful of the colonial Indochinese cities, is often the start or end point of a trip to Vietnam, and what a great welcome or farewell it is. Oozing with charm, Hanoi has gone through wholesale changes since Vietnam swung open its doors to tourism, but it remains true to its essential personality and is an amazing city to experience.
Though considerably quieter than big sister Saigon, Hanoi still retains a vibrant atmosphere. From the early hours until late at night, the fig-tree shaded streets swarm with careening motorbikes, often with four, five or even six people aboard. A cyclo is available on most street corners, but unless you are making a particularly long trip, the best way to explore Hanoi is by foot.
Hanoi has a number of lovely parks and museums where you can while away the hours of a warm summer's afternoon - Lenin Park, south of Hoan Kiem district and just north of Bay Mau Lake are among the most popular, especially on holidays, when it's packed with picnickers.
A cruise on Ha Long Bay - or the Bay of the Descending Dragon - for many represents the pinnacle of their experience in Vietnam. Easily one of the most popular destinations in the country, UNESCO World Heritage-listed Ha Long Bay is both mystical and magnificent, an incredible feat of nature that almost never fails to impress.
Last time we counted, UNESCO had picked out 830 World Heritage sites around the world, chosen for their cultural and historical importance, and also for their geological uniqueness. Ha Long Bay offers a little of all three.
Over the ages, Vietnamese fishermen with too much time on their hands began to see shapes in the stone massifs atop many of the islands, and named the islands accordingly - Turtle Island, Human Head Island, Chicken Island and so on.
In what constitutes one of the most fascinating cultural features of the area, some of these fisherman still live on the bay today - on floating fishing villages, where houses are set atop barges year round, the inhabitants catching and cultivating fish throughout.
The historic capital of Vietnam, Hue, sits astride a truly majestic and beautiful river, the Song Huong (Perfume River). The north-bank is host to its share of hotels and restaurants, but the area is dominated by the old fortified city known as the Citadel, spread across more than 5 square kilometers of ground, crowding out development on that side of the river. As a result, guesthouses, hotels and restaurants have sprung up on the south bank, starting with the river road, Le Loi Street, and stretching further south. The south bank of the river has been developed as park cum promenade, with an eclectic variety of public sculptures on display.
Pale yellow houses draped in bougainvillea, shop fronts lit with the glow of silk lanterns, women in conical hats lifting baskets of slippery fish from their boats -- life in old town Hoi An looks like a picture postcard of a Vietnamese country town. Of course, that didn't happen by accident. In 1999, the riverside town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in an effort to preserve its core of historic architecture, a unique mix of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and European styles. The listing gave Hoi An resources and impetus to better protect and maintain its wonderful architecture, and to market itself as a tourist destination. It worked, and the town now attracts visitors by the droves.
The city is indisputably beautiful, bordered by mountains, with the beach tracing an impressive long swoop along a bay dotted with islands. Topiary and modern sculpture dot the immaculately manicured foreshore.
Nha Trang offers plenty to keep tourists occupied from island-hopping boat trips and scuba diving, to mudbaths and historic sites. But the main attraction for most visitors is lounging around on deckchairs at a beachfront bar and drinking cocktails in comfort.
Dalat is quite different from anywhere else you’ll visit in Vietnam. You would almost be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into the French Alps in springtime. This was certainly how the former colonists treated it – escaping to their chalets to enjoy the cooler climate.
The French feel is compounded by a radio mast shaped like the Eiffel Tower and the local bohemian artists’ predilection for swanning around in berets. Dalat is small enough to remain charming, and the surrounding countryside is blessed with lakes, waterfalls, evergreen forests and gardens.
As Ho Chi Minh City's cyclo drivers rest easy below vast neon billboards, the emerging Vietnamese middle class - mobile phones in hand - cruise past draped in haute couture on their imported motorcycles. Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City - Vietnam's largest and most exciting city.
Towering developments now pierce what was once a very low-key skyline. Five-star hotels and international shopping chains have replaced dowdy government guesthouses and empty shelves. Saigon has some of the best cuisine in the country, from cheap street eating to salubrious haute cuisine. A renewed interest in the arts has stimulated the art scene and many galleries and museums are slowly being spruced up. For a tourist there is a lot to do in Saigon.
And once you're done with the city, use it as a base to explore the surrounds - head out to the tunnels at Chu Chi, the Cao Dai temple at Tay Ninh or jet off to the sublime Con Dao. Then there's the entire Mekong Delta to explore. How much time have you got?