Travel writer Georgie Darling embarked on a journey through this South-East Asian country’s dazzling landscapes and turbulent history.
The ‘S’ shape of Vietnam – a result of its cultural and political history – lends itself to easy exploration. Start at the top and work your way down and you’ll be treated to a feast of rolling hills, ancient cities and contrasting flavours. Dealt a heavy hand of diversity, Vietnam is nonetheless a country punctuated not just by its colourful landscapes but also the vibrant dishes and joyful, encouraging stories than accompany them.
Capital city Hanoi, with a pulsating energy that flows through yellow-hued French colonial architecture and sweet, smoky side streets, demands a first stop and an empty stomach. This is a city that rarely pauses for breath, serving up colourful bowls of light, fragrant noodles while drawing you in with its more-is-more approach.
The best way to explore Hanoi’s Parisian-style buildings and magical Old Quarter is to simply get lost in them, taking the occasional pit stop to perch on tiny plastic stools eating jumbled bowls of crimson bún riêu noodle soup. When the weather cools after sunset, Cau Giay Park is the place to be, watching spontaneous dance parties while digging into crunchy, zingy, pillowy-soft bánh mì laden with pickled veg.
But it’s not all breakneck speed. There’s nowhere more serene than the Ngoc Son Temple, perched in the middle of an emerald-green lake and best accompanied by an iced lime tea.
You’ll spy similar hues in Halong Bay. It’s blue-green waters and jutting limestone peaks are a breath of fresh air where the best ways are spent gliding along smooth waters on a kayak. As a seafood lover, I dug into clam-like nghêu served with a rich, hearty soup and cha muc, a grilled squid dish made with a secret spice mix.
History on a plate
Venture a little further south where herbs and history walk hand in hand through Hué’s regal streets. The former imperial capital of Vietnam, Hué’s tombs, palaces, temples and pagodas make this city one of the best discoveries for any history buff.
I do as the locals do and start with a morning trip to Hen Dune island for com hen, salty, sweet, aromatic rice served with glossy baby clams, pork rinds and handfuls of coriander. The cooler climate in central Vietnam means herbs are plentiful and extra greenery is applied liberally.
Another top hit? Exploring the city with bánh bèo. I spooned up any number of these soft, sticky, tapioca bowls and their savoury toppings while watching the sunset from the royal lakes.
There’s no time more beautiful to arrive in the coastal city of Hoi An than golden hour, just before sunset, when thousands of colourful lanterns flicker against the Thu Bon River. This UNESCO World Heritage Site’s name translates to ‘peaceful meeting place’ and the pace of life is certainly more relaxed here.
Swap motorbikes for cycles against the water’s edge or wander through tiny side streets filled with secret garden-esque cafes and canary yellow buildings. My favourite activity in Hoi An was an unconventional mode of transport: a basket-boat adventure through the Bay Mau Coconut Forest deftly steered by a cackling guide. Followed by a rice-grinding, herb-chopping cooking class and finished with a homemade feast of crispy bánh xèo pancakes and glimmering pho (noodle soup).
Sugar and spice
Apparently you’re either Team Hanoi or Team Ho Chi Minh City but, personally, I love them both for different reasons. Locals in Ho Chi Minh City still refer to Vietnam’s southern hub by its former name, Saigon, and its food scene fuses together elements of its turbulent history.
Diversity reigns supreme here. An adventure for the tastebuds, its popular Vietnamese dishes come spiked with a little extra creativity. Think bánh mi with fish cakes, pho with rice paddy herbs and peppermint, or hu tieu, a pork and shrimp soup inspired by the city's Chinese and Cambodian links.
A morning should always start with a dark, rich Vietnamese coffee (Talk Barista Saigon was perhaps my most frequented stop), which sets you up beautifully for a day of futuristic towers and stylish rooftop bars or historical wanderings around the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica and the grand Central Post Office.
The best spot to sum up a Vietnamese adventure? The Mekong Delta, offering a welcome tonic to Saigon’s unrelenting energy. Around 15 million people call these wetlands home and it’s virtually impossible to pass by without buying something: small green packages of coconut candy, ornate bottles of rice wine or beautiful hand-woven rush mats. Or, in my case, one of each.
North Vietnam is famed for its light, fresh noodle broths and the south is all about sweet, spicy, eye-widening rice dishes. The Mekong Delta, known as the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam, brings together both with a characteristic flourish of savoury notes. A tranquil cruise along these waters, sampling all the unique highlights of its cuisine along the way, aptly draws a close to this diverse country’s endlessly colourful, creative appeal.