Some destinations evoke mental images the moment their names are mentioned, and Vietnam is one of them. A frenetic and fascinating country, it calls to mind conical-hatted street vendors, water buffalo plodding across rice fields, mopeds buzzing through cities and floating markets on the Mekong River.
The days when Vietnam was best known for its conflict with America are long gone. From the temples of Hanoi and the islands of Halong Bay to the beaches of Nha Trang and the palaces of Hue, it is a country now firmly etched in the travel psyche.
At times, Vietnam is an assault on the senses. Life in its feverish cities is conducted largely on the streets, among chattering bia hois (pavement pubs) and steaming pho (noodle soup) stands. The country’s two main cities – Hanoi in the north, Ho Chi Minh in the south – are different in many ways, but they share an intoxicating energy. Ancient pagodas and colonial houses jostle for space with new-build skyscrapers, while labyrinthine back-alleys hum with life. These narrow streets are atmospheric places to spend time, day or night.
The country’s long, thin shape, sometimes compared to two rice baskets at either end of a pole, means these two cities form natural start and end points to an itinerary. The highlights along the way, meanwhile, are as well packed as the spring rolls which adorn market stalls: nature-lovers, history buffs, beach bums and foodies are all catered for in singularly Vietnamese style.
Those heading into the countryside can expect not only glorious scenery, but a rich cultural web of different ethnic groups. The US wartime legacy can still be readily explored – perhaps most notably at the Cu Chi Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh – but this is a country to enjoy for what it is today, whether you’re here for a few days or a month.