Vietnam


Vietnam destinations

about A land of staggering natural beauty and cultural complexities, of dynamic megacities and hill-tribe villages, Vietnam is both exotic and compelling.

Sensory Overload

Unforgettable experiences are everywhere in Vietnam. There’s the sublime: gazing over a surreal seascape of limestone islands from the deck of a traditional junk in Halong Bay. The ridiculous: taking 10 minutes just to cross the street through a tsunami of motorbikes in Hanoi. The inspirational: exploring the world’s most spectacular cave systems in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The comical: watching a moped loaded with honking pigs weave a wobbly route along a country lane. And the contemplative: witnessing a solitary grave in a cemetery of thousands of war victims.

History & Culture

Vietnamese culture is complex, diverse and represents something of a history lesson. The nation's labyrinthine, teeming trading quarters are rich in indigenous crafts and reflect centuries-old mercantile influences. Ancient temples display distinctly Chinese influences in the north and Hindu origins in the south. Meanwhile the broad, tree-lined boulevards and grand state buildings that grace the capital date from the French colonial period. And it's impossible to forget Vietnam's pivotal position close to the epicentre of East Asian power and prosperity, for its cities' skylines are defined by clusters of glass-and-steel corporate HQs and sleek luxury hotels.

A Culinary Superpower

Thailand may contest the top spot, but in Southeast Asia nothing really comes close: Vietnamese food is that good. Incredibly subtle in its flavours and outstanding in its diversity, Vietnamese cooking is a fascinating draw for travellers – myriad street-food tours and cooking schools are testament to this. Geography plays a crucial role, with Chinese flavours influencing the soups of the north, spices sparking up southern cuisine, and herbs and complex techniques typifying the central coastline, rightly renowned as Vietnam’s epicurean hot spot. And up and down the country you can mingle with villagers, sample local dishes and sip rice wine in Vietnam's many regional markets.

Thrills & Chills

If you have the bills, Vietnam has the thrills and chills. Some require a little physical effort, such as motorbiking switchback after switchback up the jaw-dropping Hai Van Pass in central Vietnam. Others require even more sweat: kitesurfing the tropical oceanic waters off Mui Ne or hiking the evergreen hills around Bac Ha or Sapa. And when you’re done with all that adrenaline stuff, there’s plenty of horizontal ‘me’ time to relish. Vietnam has outstanding spas – from marble temples of treatments to simple family-run massage salons with backpacker-friendly rates.

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Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is Vietnam at its most dizzying: a high-octane city of commerce and culture that has driven the country forward with its pulsating energy. A chaotic whirl, the city breathes life and vitality into all who settle here, and visitors cannot help but be hauled along for the ride. From the finest of hotels to the cheapest of guesthouses, the classiest of restaurants to the tastiest of street stalls, the choicest of boutiques to the scrum of the markets, HCMC is a city of energy and discovery.

Wander through timeless alleys to incense-infused temples before negotiating chic designer malls beneath sleek 21st-century skyscrapers. The ghosts of the past live on in buildings that one generation ago witnessed a city in turmoil, but now the real beauty of the former Saigon’s urban collage is the seamless blending of these two worlds into one exciting mass.

Sights

Dong Khoi Area

This well-heeled area, immediately west of the Saigon River, packages the heart of old Saigon into a swish enclave of designer shops and skyscrapers. Slicing from the river to august Notre Dame Cathedral via the Opera House (Municipal Theatre), ritzy Ð Dong Khoi is the main shopping strip and lends its name to the encircling civic centre and central business district. Yet it’s the wide, tree-lined boulevards of ÐL Le Loi and ÐL Nguyen Hue, perpetually swarming with motorbikes, that leave more of an impression – not least if you’ve survived crossing them on foot. It’s in these grand thoroughfares that French-colonial elegance and urban modernity fashion an alluring concoction.

Da Kao & Around

This old District 1 ward, directly north of the city centre, is home to most of the consulates and some beautiful buildings dating from the French-colonial period. Hidden within its historic streets (and those bordering it in the eastern corner of District 3) are good new restaurants and bars, along with some of the city’s best traditional eateries.

Reunification Palace & Around

Straddling District 1 and District 3, this grid of busy streets encloses the inviting spaces of Tao Dan Park and the pristine grounds of the Reunification Palace. It’s here that you’ll find some of Ho Chi Minh City’s most popular sights and good restaurants.

Nguyen Thai Binh & Around This District 1 ward is a busy workaday neighbourhood nestled between the central city, Ben Thanh Market, the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker strip and Ben Nghe Channel. At the time of writing, Pham Ngu Lao's Bui Vien was a pedestrians-only walking street from 7pm to 2am on Saturday and Sunday nights. The combination of after dark entertainment and a ban on motorised vehicles could be expanded across the entire week.

Cholon

Rummage through Cholon (District 5) and lift the lid on a treasure trove of historic temples and Chinese flavours. Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown is less Chinese than it once was, largely due to the 1978–79 anticapitalist and anti-Chinese campaign, when many ethnic Chinese fled the country, taking with them their money and entrepreneurial skills. A lot of those refugees have since returned (with foreign passports) to explore investment possibilities. Full-form written Chinese characters (as opposed to the simplified system used in mainland China) decorate shopfronts and temples in abundance, adding to the sensation that you have strayed into a forgotten corner of China. Finding a Mandarin-speaker isn't hard, although most Hoa-Kieu (Vietnamese-Chinese) residents chat in southern Chinese dialects.

Cholon means ‘big market’ and during the American War it was home to a thriving black market. Like much of HCMC, Cholon’s historic shopfronts are swiftly disappearing under advertising hoardings or succumbing to developers’ bulldozers, but some traditional architecture survives and an atmospheric strip of traditional herb shops thrives between Ð Luong Nhu Hoc and Ð Trieu Quang Phuc, providing both a visual and an olfactory reminder of the old Chinese city. A taxi from Pham Ngu Lao to Cholon costs around 100,000d or hop on bus 1 from Ben Thanh Market. Saigon- and Cholon-heritage buff Tim Doling features excellent essays on the area's changing face on his website, http://historicvietnam.com.

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Sleeping

District 1 is the obvious lodging choice given its proximity to the airport and almost everything of interest. Within District 1, head east towards Ð Dong Khoi to be close to the best restaurants and bars, west towards Pham Ngu Lao for budget accommodation, or for somewhere midrange, try around Ben Thanh Market. There are several interesting riverside properties in District 2, around 20 minutes from central HCMC by taxi.

Eating

Hanoi may consider itself more cultured, but Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam's culinary capital. Delicious regional fare is complemented by a well-developed choice of international restaurants, with Indian, Japanese, Thai, Italian and East–West fusions well represented. Unsurprisingly, given its heritage, HCMC has a fine selection of French restaurants, from the casual bistro to haute cuisine.

Drinking & Nightlife

Happening HCMC is concentrated around the Dong Khoi area, with everything from dives to designer bars open to 1am. Pham Ngu Lao stays open later, and PNL's Bui Vien is a pedestrians-only street from 7pm to 2am on Saturday and Sunday nights. Dance clubs usually kick off after 10pm; ask around at popular bars about the latest greatest places.

Entertainment

Pick up The Word HCMC, Asialife HCMC or The Guide to find out what’s on during your stay in Ho Chi Minh City, or log on to www.anyarena.com or www.wordhcmc.com. Monthly listings include club nights, live music, art shows and theatre performances.

Shopping

Junk is energetically peddled to tourists on the city’s teeming streets, but plenty of great finds can be uncovered in bustling markets, antique stores, silk boutiques and speciality shops selling ceramics, ethnic fabrics, lacquered bamboo and custom-made clothing.

Activities

River Cruises

There’s occasionally someone hanging around the vicinity of Bach Dang jetty looking to charter a boat to tour the Saigon River, but this option is definitely becoming less commonplace as the waterfront is slowly gentrified with the ongoing construction of new apartments. Prices should be around US$20 per hour for a small boat or US$25 to US$30 for a larger, faster craft. It's best to set an itinerary and a time limit at the start and ask them to bring the boat to you, rather than going to the boat yourself.

Swimming Pools

Several inner-city hotels, including the Lotte Legend Hotel Saigon, Park Hyatt Saigon, Majestic Hotel and May Hotel, offer nonguests access to their pools for a fee. Another option is the Saturday afternoon and evening Saigon Soul Pool Party held from late November to early June at the New World Saigon Hotel. In Pham Ngu Lao, Oasis Saigon offers a compact pool and a full food and drinks menu.

Massage & Spa

Ho Chi Minh City offers some truly fantastic hideaways for pampering – the perfect antidote to a frenetic day spent dodging motorbikes. Check out www.spasvietnam.com for extensive reviews and online bookings.

Travel with Children

At first glance, Ho Chi Minh City's hectic streets might not look that kiddie-friendly, but there's the Saigon Skydeck at Bitexco Financial Tower, water parks, swimming pools, water puppet shows, plenty of leafy parks, family-friendly cafes and ice-cream shops. World Games on the basement 2 level (unit B2-18) of the Vincom Center Tower B is a fun, centrally located amusement arcade, and tiNiworld of the 4th floor of the new Saigon Centre is also worth considering to keep the kids entertained. Beyond the city is Dai Nam Theme Park, the closest thing to Disneyland in Vietnam. Online, check out Kidz Saigon (www.kidzsaigon.com) for lots of ideas and places to keep children active and entertained in the big city.

LGBT Travellers

Vietnam is a relatively hassle-free place for gay, lesbian and transgender travellers. There are no official laws prohibiting same-sex relationships, or same-sex sexual acts in Vietnam. There's very little in the way of harassment. VietPride (www.facebook.com/vietpride.vn) marches have been held in Hanoi and HCMC since 2012. The Hanoi event now takes place over several days in September and includes film screenings, talks, parties and a bike rally.

Vietnam has more progressive governmental policies than many of its Asian neighbours. In January 2015, a Law on Marriage and Family was passed that officially removes a ban on same-sex marriages (though these partnerships have not yet been legally recognised). Transgender people were granted the right in November 2015 to legally undergo sex reassignment surgery and have their gender recognised.

Hanoi and especially HCMC both have gay scenes. That said, gay venues still keep a low profile and most gay Vietnamese choose to hide their sexuality from their families.

Gay travellers shouldn’t expect any problems in Vietnam. Checking into hotels as a same-sex couple is perfectly acceptable, though be aware that Vietnamese people don't react well to passionate public displays of affection, by heterosexual or nonheterosexual couples.

Interestingly, the former US Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, is openly gay and he often attended official government events with his husband and their children.

Utopia (www.utopia-asia.com) has useful gay travel information and contacts in Vietnam. The gay dating app Grindr is popular in Vietnam.

What to do in Ho Chi Minh City

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Vietnam's capital races to make up for time lost to the ravages of war and a government that as recently as the 1990s kept the outside world at bay. Its streets surge with scooters vying for right of way amid the din of constantly blaring horns, and all around layers of history reveal periods of French and Chinese occupation – offering a glimpse into the resilience of ambitious, proud Hanoians.

Negotiate a passage past the ubiquitous knock-off merchants and you’ll find the original streets of the Old Quarter. Defiant real-deal farmers hawk their wares, while city folk breakfast on noodles, practise t’ai chi at dawn or play chess with goateed grandfathers.

Dine on the wild and wonderful at every corner, sample market wares, uncover an evolving arts scene, then sleep soundly in luxury for very little cost. Meet the people, delve into the past and witness the awakening of a Hanoi on the move.

Sights

Old Quarter

Hanoi's historic heart, the 'Old Quarter', is home to over 1000 years of trade, commerce and activity, with no signs of slowing down. Although its name tends to evoke images of ancient lamp-lit streets lined with the wooden storefronts of traditional artisans, merchants and craftspeople, you'll find the reality of the Old Quarter more gritty than romantic. In spite of this, the Old Quarter is what Hanoi is all about and adjusting your expectations will help you make the most of your time here.

Initially, you're likely to find negotiating the narrow streets of the Old Quarter an intimidating experience. Waves of motorbikes compete with cars and pedestrians pushing their way through the maze of countless copy-cat cheap hotels, shopfronts of knock-off wares and hawkers with their sizzling baskets, beneath an ever-present honking of horns and the heady aromas of exhaust fumes, street food and sweat. Watch where you tread on the sticky pavements, employ a strategy and determination when crossing the street, and remember to look up when you can: glimpses of the old and the very old indeed peek out occasionally from behind garish modern facades. You'll gain your confidence soon enough, and when you do, there's no better way to spend time here than to wander, soaking up the sights, sounds and smells, and immersing yourself in the unique flavours of Hanoi's streetside kitchens. Carry your hotel's calling card, and if you get lost, it'll be a cheap cab or xe om (motorbike taxi) ride back.

The Old Quarter evolved between the Song Hong and the smaller To Lich River, which once flowed through the city centre in an intricate network of canals and waterways. Waters could rise as high as 8m during the monsoon. Dykes, which can still be seen along Tran Quang Khai, were constructed to protect the city. In the 13th century, Hanoi’s 36 guilds established themselves here, each taking a different street – hence the Vietnamese '36 Pho Phuong' (36 Guild Sts). There are more than double that many streets in the area today, typically named Pho Hang (Merchandise St) followed by the word for the product traditionally sold there. Some of the specialised streets include P Hang Quat, with its red candlesticks, funeral boxes, flags and temple items; and the more glamorous P Hang Gai, with its silk, embroidery, lacquerware, paintings and water puppets. Street names today do not always reflect the type of businesses in operation.

Exploring the maze of backstreets is fascinating: some open up while others narrow into a warren of alleys. The area is known for its tunnel (or tube) houses, so called because of their narrow frontages and long rooms, developed to avoid taxes based on the width of their street frontage. By feudal law, houses were also limited to two storeys and, out of respect for the king, could not be taller than the royal palace. Today, as Old Quarter real estate prices are at a premium, most of the streets are lined with narrow, hastily constructed, six- to 10-storey buildings.

A stroll through the historic Old Quarter can last from an hour to a day, depending on your pace and demeanor, during which opportunities to dispense with your fistfuls of Vietnamese dong are endless.

French Quarter

Despite its evocative moniker, today's French Quarter lacks the style and elegance of days past. Its once-glamorous villas, annexed by the Communist Party for government offices and repatriation housing, stand in disrepute, desperate for restoration. Many, occupying some of Hanoi's prime development sites, have already been demolished in favour of taller, shinier things. Those that have been best maintained serve as the offices for Hanoi's foreign embassies and diplomatic outposts. In a way, there's some sense of a cycle completing itself here: in creating a Parisian-style city befitting their new area of governance, the French colonialists appropriated and razed whatever traditional Vietnamese dwellings and monuments stood in their way.

Occupying an area just south of Hoan Kiem Lake, west of the Song Hong as far as Hanoi train station (depending on whom you talk to), south until Thong Nhat Park (Reunification Park), and east to Hanoi Opera House, this quieter part of town is well worth a visit and is blessed with wide traffic-free pavements. Stroll among the embassies and crumbling villas, contemplating what once was and what once could have been.

Art in Hanoi

Modern Vietnamese artists are highly technically trained – many could copy a photographic portrait by hand with remarkable detail and accuracy, in a short space of time. Prior to the Communist Party takeover, Vietnam had over 900 years of artistic heritage, which to this day provides many young Vietnamese with an exceptional creative skill set. That said, the Communist Party still curbs freedom of expression, forcing some artists and artisans to work underground. However, with an influx of tourism and interest from the West in recent years, Hanoi's art scene in particular is gaining attention from the outside world. Ever so slowly, talented Vietnamese artists are getting the chance to expand their horizons and broaden their skills.

For visitors interested in art, this means a burgeoning art scene begging for appreciation. Keen shoppers can pick up an original work on canvas by a local artist from as little as US$40 in any one of the Old Quarter's many private galleries – Mai Gallery is a good start. Kick back and check out the vibe at Tadioto, Manzi Art Space, Bar Betta, or all three: you'll lock in with like-minded arty folk in no time at all. For the lowdown on the scene, visit the informative local art blog www.andofotherthings.com. Better still, take one of Sophie's Art Tours, which began operations in Hanoi in 2015, after enjoying great success in Ho Chi Minh City.

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Sleeping

An extra US$10 to $20 makes a big difference in Hanoi accommodation: splurge if you can. Expect to pay US$20 to $30 for a compact budget room. For around US$30 to $50 you'll get more space, a smart TV and minibar. For US$75 to $100 you should get a 'junior suite' in a contemporary boutique hotel with stylish appointments, bathtub and balcony. Over US$100 buys international four- to five-star standards.

Eating

Hanoi is an international city, and whatever your budget or tastes, it’s available here. If you’ve just flown in, dig into the fragrantly spiced local cuisine – the city's street food is an essential experience.

If you’ve been up in the hills of northern Vietnam subsisting on noodles and rice, the capital’s cosmopolitan dining will be a welcome change.

Drinking & Nightlife

Hanoi's eclectic drinking scene features grungy dive bars, Western-style pubs, one gay bar, sleek lounge bars, cafes and hundreds of bia hoi joints.

The best places for a bar crawl include traveller-friendly P Ta Hien in the Old Quarter, and Ngo Bao Khanh near the northwest edge of Hoan Kiem Lake. An alternative scene, popular with expats, is on P Xuan Dieu in the West Lake area.

Entertainment

There is plenty of Vietnamese folk and traditional theatre aimed at visitors. If water puppets and showy costumes are not your thing, seek out small cafes that double as performance spaces where jazz and other vocalists perform almost within touching distance.

Shopping

For Vietnamese handicrafts, including textiles and lacquerware, head to the stores along P Hang Gai, P To Tich, P Hang Khai and P Cau Go. P Hang Gai and its continuation, P Hang Bong, are good places to look for embroidered tablecloths, T-shirts and wall hangings. P Hang Gai is also a fine place to buy silk and have clothes custom-made.

Travel with Children

Hanoi is a fun and eye-opening city for most kids, but language barriers, the organised chaos of the Old Quarter and the raw, earthy nature of Hanoi's street food can pose some challenges. The friendliness of the Vietnamese people, however, generally helps to diffuse any stresses you might encounter. There are no shortage of things to keep youngsters engaged as you wander around the Old Quarter, with plenty of ice-cream vendors and fruit markets for treats along the way. Most kids love the chance to get hands-on at the special Kids' Club sessions at the Hanoi Cooking Centre, and a tour with the gang at Hanoi Kids is a great cross-cultural opportunity.

Boating is a fun family activity; you have the choice of bigger boats on West Lake or pedal-powered boats in Thong Nhat Park. Ho Tay Water Park, open April to November, and Royal City, open year-round, have plenty of fun activities for the youngsters, and a trip to the Lotte Tower Observation Deck should also be on the menu. Come evening, it's essential to catch a water-puppet show at the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre – a Punch and Judy pantomime on water.

If you're in town for a few days and travelling as a family, you can't beat the Somerset Grand Hanoi apartments for price, location and value.

LGBT Travellers

Vietnam is a relatively hassle-free place for gay, lesbian and transgender travellers. There are no official laws prohibiting same-sex relationships, or same-sex sexual acts in Vietnam. There's very little in the way of harassment. VietPride (www.facebook.com/vietpride.vn) marches have been held in Hanoi and HCMC since 2012. The Hanoi event now takes place over several days in September and includes film screenings, talks, parties and a bike rally.

Vietnam has more progressive governmental policies than many of its Asian neighbours. In January 2015, a Law on Marriage and Family was passed that officially removes a ban on same-sex marriages (though these partnerships have not yet been legally recognised). Transgender people were granted the right in November 2015 to legally undergo sex reassignment surgery and have their gender recognised.

Hanoi and especially HCMC both have gay scenes. That said, gay venues still keep a low profile and most gay Vietnamese choose to hide their sexuality from their families.

Gay travellers shouldn’t expect any problems in Vietnam. Checking into hotels as a same-sex couple is perfectly acceptable, though be aware that Vietnamese people don't react well to passionate public displays of affection, by heterosexual or nonheterosexual couples.

Interestingly, the former US Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, is openly gay and he often attended official government events with his husband and their children.

Utopia (www.utopia-asia.com) has useful gay travel information and contacts in Vietnam. The gay dating app Grindr is popular in Vietnam.

What to do in Hanoi

Best attractions, Tours & Excursions for you, check it out!

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Graceful, historic Hoi An is Vietnam’s most atmospheric and delightful town. Once a major port, it boasts the grand architecture and beguiling riverside setting that befits its heritage, and the 21st-century curses of traffic and pollution are almost entirely absent.

The face of the Old Town has preserved its incredible legacy of tottering Japanese merchant houses, Chinese temples and ancient tea warehouses – though, of course, residents and rice fields have been gradually replaced by tourist businesses. Lounge bars, boutique hotels, travel agents and a glut of tailor shops are very much part of the scene here. And yet, down by the market and over on Cam Nam Island, you’ll find life has changed little. Travel a few kilometres further – you’ll find some superb bicycle, motorbike and boat trips – and some of central Vietnam’s most enticingly laid-back scenery and beaches are within easy reach.

Sights

The historic buildings of Hoi An not only survived the 20th century’s wars, they also retained features of traditional architecture rarely seen today. As they have been for centuries, some shopfronts are shuttered at night with horizontal planks inserted into grooves that cut into the columns that support the roof.

Some roofs are made up of thousands of brick-coloured am and duong (yin and yang) roof tiles – so called because of the way the alternating rows of concave and convex tiles fit snugly together. During the rainy season the lichens and moss that live on the tiles spring to life, turning entire rooftops bright green.

A number of Hoi An’s houses have round pieces of wood with an am-duong symbol in the middle surrounded by a spiral design over the doorway. These mat cua (door eyes) are supposed to protect the residents from harm.

Hoi An’s historic structures are gradually being sensitively restored. Strict rules govern the colour that houses can be painted and the signs that can be used.

It’s not just individual buildings that have survived – it’s whole streetscapes. This is particularly true around Ð Tran Phu and waterside promenade Ð Bach Dang. In the former French quarter to the east of Cam Nam Bridge, there’s a whole block of colonnaded houses, painted in the mustard yellow typical of French colonial buildings.

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Sleeping

Hoi An has good-value accommodation in all price categories. There are only a couple of hotels in the Old Town, but nightlife finishes early here so there is little need to be right in the middle of things when there are plenty of good sleeping options close by. The best places book up fast, so plan as far ahead as you can.

Eating

The beauty of Hoi An is that you can snag a spectacular cheap meal at the central market and in casual eateries – or you can splash out on a fine-dining experience. Hoi An is also blessed with many international dining choices.

Drinking & Nightlife

Hoi An is not a huge party town as the local authorities keep a fairly strict lid on late-night revelry; backstreets can be very dark after 10pm. The Old Town is a great place to treat yourself to a cocktail or glass of wine.

An Hoi

An Hoi, across the river from the Old Town, offers more raucous action. Happy hours keep costs down considerably, and most places close around 1am. The most popular spots in An Hoi change on a regular basis. Turn right after crossing the bridge from Hoi An, and you'll soon see (and hear) where the backpacker action is currently happening along Ð Nguyen Phuc Chu.

Activities

Diving & Snorkelling

A trip to the Cham Islands is a superb excursion, and Hoi An's two dive schools offer packages including overnight camping and diving trips. The diving is not world class, but can be intriguing.

A PADI Discover Scuba dive costs US$55 and two fun dives are US$80, while Open Water courses start at around US$375. Snorkelling costs around US$40, including gear, with an overnight beach camping option adding another US$40.

It’s usually only possible to dive or snorkel between February and September; the best conditions and visibility are from June to August.

Massage & Spa

There are many massage and treatment centres in Hoi An. Most are average, run by locals with minimal experience or training. A basic massage costs around US$12 an hour – there’s a strip along Ð Ba Trieu. At the other end of the scale are indulgent places that offer a wonderful spa experience (with prices to match); these are mostly based in the luxury hotels.

Travel with Children

Children will have a good time in Vietnam, mainly because of the overwhelming amount of attention they attract and the fact that almost everybody wants to play with them.

- Big cities usually have plenty to keep kids interested, though traffic safety is a serious concern.
- Watch out for rip tides along the main coastline. Some popular beaches have warning flags and lifeguards.
- Local cuisine is rarely too spicy for kids and the range of fruit is staggering. International food (pizzas, pasta, burgers and ice cream) is available, too.
- Breastfeeding in public is perfectly acceptable in Vietnam.

LGBT Travellers

Vietnam is a relatively hassle-free place for gay, lesbian and transgender travellers. There are no official laws prohibiting same-sex relationships, or same-sex sexual acts in Vietnam. There's very little in the way of harassment. VietPride (www.facebook.com/vietpride.vn) marches have been held in Hanoi and HCMC since 2012. The Hanoi event now takes place over several days in September and includes film screenings, talks, parties and a bike rally.

Vietnam has more progressive governmental policies than many of its Asian neighbours. In January 2015, a Law on Marriage and Family was passed that officially removes a ban on same-sex marriages (though these partnerships have not yet been legally recognised). Transgender people were granted the right in November 2015 to legally undergo sex reassignment surgery and have their gender recognised.

Hanoi and especially HCMC both have gay scenes. That said, gay venues still keep a low profile and most gay Vietnamese choose to hide their sexuality from their families.

Gay travellers shouldn’t expect any problems in Vietnam. Checking into hotels as a same-sex couple is perfectly acceptable, though be aware that Vietnamese people don't react well to passionate public displays of affection, by heterosexual or nonheterosexual couples.

Interestingly, the former US Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, is openly gay and he often attended official government events with his husband and their children.

Utopia (www.utopia-asia.com) has useful gay travel information and contacts in Vietnam. The gay dating app Grindr is popular in Vietnam.

What to do in Hoi An

Best attractions, Tours & Excursions for you, check it out!

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The high-rise, high-energy beach resort of Nha Trang enjoys a stunning setting: it's ringed by a necklace of hills, with a turquoise bay dotted with tropical islands.

A sweeping crescent beach of white sand defines the shoreline, backed by an impressive promenade dotted with parks and sculpture gardens. Inland there's a cosmopolitan array of boutiques and dining options.

As restaurants wind down, nightlife cranks up – central Nha Trang is a party town at heart. Until relatively recently a lot of the bar action was geared at the backpacker market, but today it's mainly aimed at the burgeoning numbers of Russian and Asian tourists.

There are more sedate activities on offer, too. Try an old-school spa treatment with a visit to a mud bath, book a river cruise or explore the ancient Cham towers north of the centre.

Sights

Worth a Trip: Bai Dai Beach

South of Nha Trang, a spectacular coastal road leads to Cam Ranh Bay, a gorgeous natural harbour, and the airport. Virtually the entire shoreline south of Mia Resort forms Bai Dai (Long Beach), a breathtaking sandy coast.

Until very recently, the Vietnamese military controlled the entire area, restricting access to all but the odd fishing boat. However, times have changed and now the entire strip has been earmarked for development. Several giant resort hotels have already opened and many others are under construction.

You may not find virgin sands any longer, but some of the best surf breaks in Vietnam are still found on Bai Dai.

At the northern tip of the coastline, Shack Vietnam (www.shackvietnam.com) offers one-hour board hire and surf instruction in English for 600,000d (board hire only is 200,000d per hour). It also offers kayak hire, beers and grub. The Shack sits in the middle of a strip of 20 or so seafood restaurants, all with near-identical menus.

A one-way journey in a taxi to the north end of Bai Dai costs around 275,000d, or you can catch an airport-bound bus (50,000d, every 30 minutes) and jump off anywhere along the coast.

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Sleeping

Nha Trang has a very wide selection of hotel rooms, from dorms to luxury suites. Most are within a block or two of the beach. During high season (July and August) prices increase and it can be tough to find a place to stay. Book ahead.

Luxury Hotels

Luxury hotels line Ð Tran Phu, the waterfront boulevard. The area's most exclusive resort hotels are out of town, in Ninh Van Bay to the north. There are also a number of new four- and five-star places being constructed on Bai Dai beach, along the airport road.

Budget Hotels

There's a cluster of cheapies on an alleyway at 64 Ð Tran Phu, very close to the beach; all offer similar air-conditioned rooms for US$12 to $15. Hostel-style places tend to be located inland from the beach.

Eating

There's an array of cosmopolitan flavours, from Japanese to Greek, in the central tourist zone around Ð Tran Quang Khai and Ð Biet Thu.

For more authentic Vietnamese cuisine, head away from the beach to where the locals live; the north of the city is a good hunting ground.

Feature: Nha Trang Street Food

Rents and real-estate prices are high in central Nha Trang, which is not a great place for cheap local grub. All these street-food experiences are north of the centre.

Banh Xeo stand Over the road from the Cham towers, this food stand is worked by a feisty old lady who cooks up great banh xeo (savoury rice-flour pancakes with shrimp and bean sprouts) on a smoking griddle.

Seafood Street Thap Ba is famous for its evening-only seafood places, which produce fine steamed or barbecued clams, crab and prawns.

79 Dung Lin Simple local joint that's famous for its wonderfully flavoursome barbecued duck (half a duck with salad, dips and rice 100,000d).

15 Le Loi Head to this inexpensive local place that serves up the best nem nuong (grilled minced pork marinated with shallots and spices) in the city. It's served with dipping sauce, herbs and salad.

Drinking & Nightlife

Nha Trang was famous for decades for its hedonistic backpacker party scene, but these days there are far fewer travellers in town and it's the Asian market that's the most lively. Sleek skybars, smart lounges and boistrous beach parties draw huge crowds of young Chinese, Korean and local tourists. The party entertainment tends to be orchestrated with DJs and MCs ordering the crowd to 'put your hands in the air'.

Activities

The Nha Trang area is a prime diving, surfing, wakeboarding, parasailing, white-water rafting and mountain-biking centre. Boat trips around the bay and up the Cai River are also a great day out.

Islands

Island tours can be great fun, but choose your trip carefully.

Diving

Scuba-diving is popular although conditions are not that rewarding for experienced divers. Visibility averages 15m but can be as much as 30m, depending on the season. February to September is considered the best time to dive, while October to December is the worst time of year.

There are around 25 dive sites in the area. There are no wrecks to visit, but some sites have good drop-offs and there are a few small underwater caves to explore. Frankly, it's not world-class diving, but the waters support a variety of soft and hard corals, and a reasonable number of small reef fish. You can expect to see clownfish, pufferfish and trumpetfish, as well as cuttlefish and octopus.

A full-day outing including boat transport, two dives and lunch typically costs between US$60 and US$85 with a professional dive school. Snorkellers can usually tag along for around US$20.

Most dive operators also offer a range of dive courses, including a ‘discover diving’ program for uncertified first-time divers to experience the underwater world with the supervision of a qualified dive master. PADI Open Water courses cost roughly US$330 to US$400, SSI courses a little less.

There are a dozen or so dive operators in Nha Trang, including the odd dodgy set-up not following responsible diving practises (and even using fake PADI/SSI accreditation). These tend to charge ridiculously cheap prices. Don't compromise on safety, and stick to reputable operators.

Adventure Sports

Nha Trang offers everything from mountain biking to white-water rafting.

River Trips

An impressive broad estuary, the Cai River just north of central Nha Trang is best explored as a day trip by boat.

Spas & Thermal Baths

Locals swear that the only way to get really clean is to get deep down and dirty in a natural mud bath, and there are now several places around Nha Trang where you can get stuck in (the mud). Try to avoid weekends, when Vietnamese families descend en masse.

If you'd prefer a more conventional spa, there are plenty that fit the bill nicely.

Yoga

There are always several freelance yoga instructors based in Nha Trang; check noticeboards in popular cafes for class details.

Shopping

Fashion boutiques selling everything from sarongs to sunglasses are concentrated along Ð Nguyen Thi Minh Khai.

Travel with Children

Children will have a good time in Vietnam, mainly because of the overwhelming amount of attention they attract and the fact that almost everybody wants to play with them.

LGBT Travellers

Vietnam is a relatively hassle-free place for gay, lesbian and transgender travellers. There are no official laws prohibiting same-sex relationships, or same-sex sexual acts in Vietnam. There's very little in the way of harassment. VietPride (www.facebook.com/vietpride.vn) marches have been held in Hanoi and HCMC since 2012. The Hanoi event now takes place over several days in September and includes film screenings, talks, parties and a bike rally.

Vietnam has more progressive governmental policies than many of its Asian neighbours. In January 2015, a Law on Marriage and Family was passed that officially removes a ban on same-sex marriages (though these partnerships have not yet been legally recognised). Transgender people were granted the right in November 2015 to legally undergo sex reassignment surgery and have their gender recognised.

Hanoi and especially HCMC both have gay scenes. That said, gay venues still keep a low profile and most gay Vietnamese choose to hide their sexuality from their families.

Gay travellers shouldn’t expect any problems in Vietnam. Checking into hotels as a same-sex couple is perfectly acceptable, though be aware that Vietnamese people don't react well to passionate public displays of affection, by heterosexual or nonheterosexual couples.

Interestingly, the former US Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, is openly gay and he often attended official government events with his husband and their children.

Utopia (www.utopia-asia.com) has useful gay travel information and contacts in Vietnam. The gay dating app Grindr is popular in Vietnam.

What to do in Nha Trang

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