Welcome to Vietnam

Insider Journeys takes you deeper into this amazing country

From mountainous tip to remote toe, a Insider Journeys tour will take you beyond the principal cities to mingle with the colourfully dressed hill tribes in the mountains of Sapa. You'll explore the former hill station of Dalat in the Central Highlands and step back in time inside the ancient coastal town of Hôi An. Further south, the remote Mekong Delta awaits. Our journey today starts in Hanoi, where you'll find old Asia bumping shoulders with a dynamic modern metropolis...

Sapa Ha Giang Laos Thailand Cambodia Vietnam
Miles Traveled
Map of Vietnam
Vietnam Map

Population 91 million

Of which 62 million are rural and 29 million are urban dwellers.

Capital city: Hanoi

Vietnam's 2nd largest city

30 national parks

The largest, Yok Don, is in Dak Lak province, Central Highlands. It has a larger geographical area (1200 sq.km) than any of Vietnam's three smallest provinces, all located in Red River Delta region.

6.8 million visitors

In 2012, Vietnam received nearly 7 million international arrivals, an increasing trend for over a decade.

Hanoi - City of the Soaring Dragon

Grand boulevards and ancient pagodas fill this 21st-century metropolis

Hanoi celebrated its 1000-year anniversary as Vietnam's capital in 2010, a millennia that has seen a mismatch of historic charm and modern chaos develop. It's had many names, but the one that's stuck is Thanh Long (City of the Soaring Dragon); which makes perfect sense when you feel the wisdom and strength of a resurgent city.

The first thing to let go of on arrival is fixed notions about traffic control. A bee-like swarm of scooters buzz through the streets, making it seem impossible to cross. But you'll be waiting a while. Observe how locals will happily walk out in front of traffic and walk coolly to the other side. Then, take a leap of faith and follow suit. As long as you move at a regular pace, the scooters will weave straight past.

Hanoi offers museums, music, water puppetry and dance, while on an early morning stroll you'll witness t'ai chi being performed in the city's parks. The labyrinthine Old Quarter sees street vendors in conical hats plying their fresh and steamy dishes, and you're never far away from a special Vietnamese coffee or cool local beer. Don't miss a visit to the great Hoan Kiem Lake, or a pit-stop for a crisp baguette and café au lait - a taste of Paris in modern Asia.

I arrived at 4am, eager to absorb Hanoi in its most pulsating state. I was greeted by mountains of fruit, containers of vegetables, and piles of herbs and spices. There was a continual flow of shouting, motorcycle zooming, honking, and always some sort of commotion within a few strides. migrationology.com
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Inspired by Lenin's Mausoleum in Moscow, the monument was built in 1975. The embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh can be found in central hall of the mausoleum.
Justin Weiler

37 Million Motorcycles

Around 70% of the population own motorbikes. Families of four and five will pile onto one moped as their main source of transportation.

12.9 Metric Tonnes of Coffee

In 2012 Vietnam was the 2nd largest producer of Coffee in the World. Only Brazil produced more green coffee.

43.7 Million Metric Tons of Rice

...were produced in 2012 by Vietnam. It was the second biggest exporter of rice behind India.

Over 2,000 Miles of Coast

But its finest beaches are almost all found in the 400 mile stretch from Hue to Nha Trang.

1600 Islands and Inlets

Form a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars at the UNESCO site of Halong Bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin. In 2012 the New Seven Wonders Foundation officially named Halong Bay as one of seven new natural wonders of the world.

Halong Bay - Enter The Dragon

A truly spectacular stopover

Legend has it that a great dragon once came down from the mountaintops and boisterously gouged out valleys and crevasses with its giant, flailing tail. It was a dragon sent by the gods to protect the country from invasion, but it was so charmed by Halong that it decided to stay. When it finally plunged into the sea, the bay filled with water and has remained this way for thousands of years.

A World Heritage Site since 1994 for its biology, geology and local culture, this fairytale landscape is genuinely breathtaking. The light of the sun and moon paint rich colours across the emerald green waters and over 3,000 limestone islands. Some are towering, some grotto-like, some forested and others stripped raw by the years and weather. It's the jewel of the Quang Ninh Province and Vietnam's picture-postcard destination.

The bay itself is about a 4-hour drive from Hanoi. We recommend sleeping overnight on a boat in the bay, to witness the way the light sinks into the sea and breaks again in the morning. There are plenty of options for exploring the surrounding caves, such as paddling a kayak. Make no mistake though, this is a captivating landscape. Sometimes, just admiring it is all there is to be done.

Lady of the Red Dao people, one of Vietnam's 45 recognised ethnic minority groups.
The Red Dao people originated in China, and migrated to Vietnam starting around the 12th or 13th century.
Justin Weiler

Mountainous North

Spectacular scenery from the roof of Vietnam

After some time in Hanoi, it's tempting to surge southwards in search of the sandy bays of the coastal road. But you'd be turning your back on some of the country's best-kept secrets. The Tonkinese Alps are home to diverse ethnic groups and the most spectacular scenery, with lush hillside rice fields and trekking trails rising from the Red River Valley.

The most charming outpost of the north is Sapa, originally established as a French hill station in the 1920s. You'll feel a familiarity here at the sight of trekkers clad in lightweight gear, but you'll also be captivated by the local tribespeople with their hand-stitched clothing and trinkets.

Ha Giang is the north's most remote and therefore least-visited place, mainly because its proximity to China requires a special travel permit. Nevertheless, it offers majestic rewards, framed by the breathtaking Mo Neo and Cam mountains and punctuated by the amber waters of the Lo River carving their way southward through the centre of town. A visit to the town's museum is a delight; wonder at the ancient bronze drums and axe-heads unearthed by archaeological digs in the region.

To find Vietnam's 'true north,' where scenery and customs have been preserved, set your compass and venture to the wilds of Ha Giang. Nestled against the Chinese border, the country's least-known mountainous region is dubbed as the 'the final frontier' for visitors, its lunar landscape is all the more atmospheric thanks to the lack of tourists. bordersofadventure.com
Hanoi to Lao Cai train It runs a day service and a night option with a sleeper carriages. The journey to the Sapa region takes 10 hours.
Hmong women in very elaborate, colorful clothes and head wraps filled the market lanes. Their vibrant fabrics, bags, clothes and handicrafts were displayed everywhere. Being a giant sucker for neon colours and exotic goods, I ended up on quite a shopping spree. Oops. But, hey, I'll probably only be there once and… Christmas was coming soon. Most of the day the train had rolled through lovely, endless flat rice fields in Vietnam's perpetual haze, while Vietnamese country life floated past. Farmers, wearing traditional conical hats, both men and women, were diligently watering fields, gathering big bundles of greens, hoeing soil by hand, and ploughing fields with water buffalo. Flocks of ducks paddled in waterways, people lazily pedaled bicycles, children romped about playing games. lashworldtour.com

The perfect Vietnamese drink

Ca phe sua da (a Vietnamese iced coffee to me and you) translates into nothing more than the three ingredients that go into this seriously addictive drink: "coffee, milk, ice".

You will need
  • Vietnamese coffee filter pot (or two shots of espresso with 50ml of water)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk
  • 15g medium-ground coffee, preferably dark roast or a dark roast mixed with chicory
  • 160ml boiling water
  • Ice

Thuy, our enigmatic host in Saigon, had just served me the most delicious morning coffee I'd ever tasted. "Thuy, you have to tell me how you make this. No, you need to show me exactly how to make this. And right now."

"No problem! Only take five minutes! Vietnamese coffee so simple!"

I scrambled for my pen and notebook and watched as Thuy re-enacted what is a morning ritual for her and millions of others in this early-rising country.

This is what Thuy did:

  • Pour a small amount of condensed milk into a glass.
  • Take the lid and the filter off the special coffee contraption (easily available online) and put it on top of the glass.
  • Spoon some ground coffee into the contraption and replace the filter.
  • Pour hot water into the contraption. She poured half in, then said it was important to wait 20 seconds, then poured the rest. Then she put the lid back on.
  • Wait 5 minutes, then pour into a separate glass with ice and serve with a straw.

Thuy was slightly exaggerating about it only taking five minutes, but it's an addictive, delicious start to your day in Vietnam.

Thanks to Paul French - pspfrench.com
Image credit: Justin Weiler

The Village People of Mai Chau

Serenity beckons in a home away from home

About 150km south-west from Hanoi is the serene Mai Chau region. Just a couple of hours on a bus makes it feel like a well-kept secret, with the limestone karsts and lush paddy fields a welcome respite from the concrete and noise you left behind.

The town of Mai Chau is itself a small and unspectacular place, although for some this is arguably an attraction, with minimal traffic and an unmistakably rural feel. The villages are mostly what's known as either White Thai or Black Thai, two tribes who settled in the same area and now make up the largest ethnic population of the region. You won't find as much traditional dress here as in Sapa, but the locals share the same skills for weaving and are more conservative with their sales pitch.

The main reason to visit Mai Chau is for the great opportunity for a traditional homestay. You can dine outside with your hosts and watch the village pack itself away for the day, then wake early and observe the whole place come live again. Trekking, cycling and a visit to the spectacular Mu Luong cave are all at your disposal, but it won't be long before you want to head on and sample the rest of Vietnam's depths.

Descending into Vietnam's Mai Chau Valley is a moment I shall remember for a very long time. The lush green rice terraces spread out deep in the valley below. On either side, farmers toiled on what appeared impossibly steep gradients, ploughing their small plots with the assistance of mules that looked resigned to another day's hard graft. The sun was finally shining and to me, the tourist in the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle, the day could not have smelled sweeter. lashworldtour.com
Twisted Shots / Shutterstock
We stayed with a couple in a traditional stilt house, and were flattered by their openness, despite the language barrier, and by the lady's (vegetarian, as requested by me) cooking. We spent a surreal morning biking on the slopes of the village, passing stilt houses and open rivers & streams, into the heart of the mountains which never for a second failed to enchant us. the-shooting-star.com

Vietnam & Religion

81 percent of Vietnamese inhabitants are not aligned to any religion. At present, there are 54 different ethnic groups inhabiting Vietnam, in which Kinh (Viet) people make up nearly 90% of the whole population.

Hoa Hao
Hoa Hao
Cao Dai
Cao Dai

Sources: Olympic Council of Asia / Vietnam Tourism

The Forbidden City of Hue

Palaces and pagodas on the Perfume River

The splendour of Vietnam's former royal capital - now a UNESCO World Heritage Site - remains undimmed, with tombs and temples galore. Nearby attractions include the Bach Ma National Park, Thuan An beach and the Ho Quyen tiger fighting arena, which, while thankfully long since defunct, still fascinates as a lesson in Vietnamese history.

The meandering Perfume River, with its colourful dragon boats, gets its name from the smell it makes in the autumn, when the blossoms drop and drift their way through to the South China sea. The spectre of the city's main citadel is both awesome and misleading; once within its walls it can be disappointing to find that some areas are sadly just rubble, but here your imagination (or the words of an attentive guide) can help fill in the historical blanks.

The town itself features low-slung, colonial-style facades with decorative strings of lights to entice inquisitive passers by. For a bit of glamour, visitors can book themselves in for an evening at a 'royal' banquet, with traditional music and dancing, and elaborate, intricately carved garnishes. The more independent explorer may prefer to go it solo at the spectacular central market, or the underground tunnels at Vinh Moc, where civilians ingeniously protected themselves from wartime bombings.

Justin Weiler
I love going to markets in Asia; the best way to describe it is 'beautifully chaotic', a word combination that you wouldn't think goes together, but somehow it works. The best place to get the true flavor of a city is to head to the local market. Walking the bustling streets and alleyways of the Hue Vietnam marketplace is an assault on all the senses. Aromas of frying fresh donuts and other treats fill your nose. The squawk of chickens, the throttle of motorbikes, and chatter between vendors fill your ears. Your eyes are saturated with nearly every color of the rainbow found in the fruits and vegetables of the Hue market. gettingstamped.com
Jimmy Tran / Shutterstock

Laid-Back Hôi An

Tailor-made glamour permeates this riverside town

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, gastronomic mecca and a former port, Hôi An is a charming, cosmopolitan and not-to-be missed stop on any tour of Vietnam. It's also the place where you can live out your tailoring needs and dreams, with boutique fabrics and bespoke fitting services available at a fraction of what you'd normally expect to pay.

Free from the traffic and pollution that can become suffocating on extended stays in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh city, Hôi An maintains most of its architectural heritage from the 19th and 20th centuries. The result is a laid-back and somewhat provincial demeanour, with Japanese merchant houses, Chinese temples and ancient tea warehouses sitting comfortably among louche drink bars, boutique hotels and the plentiful tailoring outlets.

Once a month, during the full moon, the local shop owners will turn off all the electricity and hang specially-made lanterns with the shops' names in their place. In the streets, a candlelight procession weaves its way through the Old Town and along to the riverfront. It's a spectacle that's worth timing a visit for, not least for the warmth and coming together of post-processional activities. When dining out, be sure to sample cao lau, a delicious noodle dish with pork, noodles and plenty of greens.

Justin Weiler
Justin Weiler

Boom and Bustle of Ho Chi Minh City

Hold on tight in this fast-moving metropolis

You're more likely to know Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon, a hangover from the French conquest in the 1860s. An experience of this metropolis - one of the the world's greats - will boggle the minds of even seasoned travellers. It is a hotbed of commerce and culture that's dragged Vietnam into the 21st century with its energy and atmosphere.

Saigon is a spectrum of everything any city has been, is now, and might become. The ramshackle alleys sell everything from silk to digital cameras, the War Remnants Museum and Emperor Jade Pagoda talk of a past both tragic and atmospheric, the skyscrapers welcome helicopters and foreign investment. All these things impress upon the visitor how quickly things change, yet how determinedly they stay the same.

From some of the finest hotels in the world to the slummiest guest houses, and from the charm of humble street food to the glamour of elite restaurants, your Saigon experience will conceal as much as it reveals. It's a fury of sights and sounds; but there's only so much you can expect to see. The rest, as they say, is up to you.

Justin Weiler
Viet Images / Shutterstock

Mekong Delta - an Agricultural Miracle

Marvel at the Nine Dragons of the Mekong

The mighty Mekong River is made up of mango groves, island orchards, floating markets, coconut plantations, shrimp farms and an almost inconceivable amount of rice. It's the final leg of our trip, and one that sees you meet and greet its friendly but hard-working population. There are over a dozen towns within the delta that have facilities for visitors. Ever inquisitive, you'll find its inhabitants' waves and smiles will last for long after your visit.

The source of the Mekong is the Lasagongma Spring from Mount Guozhongmucha on the Tibetan Plateau. Its mouth, of course, is the South China Sea. In between these two points flows a river so large that it has two daily tides. Essentially a rural environment, many visitors are surprised to learn (especially after visits to Hanoi and Saigon) that it's one of the most densely populated regions in the whole of Vietnam.

Expect everyday scenes to include children riding on the backs of water buffalo, market vendors cheerfully hawking entire boats full of fruit, flocks of storks and Khmer monks padding mindfully in the shadows of old pagodas. This a vast and wondrous addition to the trip, where quaint riverside towns, bird sanctuaries and forested islands with idyllic beaches will all vie for your attention.


of aquaculture production for Vietnam comes from the Mekong Delta PrimaryFacts.com

Around a two hour drive from the city you'll board a small boat and get a fascinating insight to life on the Delta with its beautifully verdant and meandering tributaries. See kids swimming from the banks, visit a small family coconut plant, see how traditional weavings are made and listlessly explore these intimate backwaters of the mighty Mekong. pommietravels.com
Kitsadakron Photography / Shutterstock

We hope you have enjoyed this journey through Vietnam and that you feel inspired by everything this wonderful country has to offer. If you would like to explore Burma (Myanmar) in a similar fashion, please keep scrolling.

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Welcome to Vietnam