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Vietnam: beach paradise and food heaven

If you love Thailand but want to try somewhere new, Vietnam is a great alternative, with its own cultural interest, fabulous beaches, great food and luxury hotels. Vietnam Airlines’ introduction of the Dreamliner on its direct flights to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on July 1 means you can now arrive in greater style, enjoying fully-flat beds in business class and inflight wifi. From the regions, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad also offer connections to Vietnam.


Here’s what the destination has to offer:


Culture


Vietnam is a favourite for touring, alone or in combination with neighbouring Laos and Cambodia. Most itineraries typically visit the cities of Hanoi in the North and/or Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon) in the South and UNESCO-listed Hoi An midway between the two.


Hanoi is attractively set around a central lake. A popular way to get your bearings is by cyclo, a kind of rickshaw with the passenger up front. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and former home are among popular attractions and there’s a museum covering the  Vietnam War, or as it is known locally, American War. High-rise Ho Chi Minh City still retains plenty of French colonial buildings and exploration of the Cu Chi Tunnels created by the Viet Cong is a popular excursion.


Hoi An is pocket-sized in comparison, an atmospheric riverside town strung with coloured lanterns. The key draw is its old town where traders sell fruit from baskets slung like scales across their shoulders. Must-sees include the 17th century covered bridge guarded by stone animals and Phuc Kien sea goddess temple. You can buy handicrafts like lacquerware and bamboo bowls in the market or arrange for one of the many tailors to make you a suit.


Longer itineraries include Vietnam’s old imperial capital Hue, set on the pretty Perfume River, with old mausoleums and pagodas and a 19th century arena where an emperor watched battles between elephants and tigers. The simpler lives of hill tribes are glimpsed by tours to the spectacular rice terraces of Sapa in the northern highlands.


Beaches


Of course, you could simply relax on one of Vietnam’s long white sand beaches.


Danang has recently evolved from airport city to a fully-fledged resort, spread along what Americans were sent for R&R during the Vietnam War dubbed China Beach. Raffles, Hyatt and Evason are among international brands. Other quality hotels include the prestigious Nam Hai where ‘retreats’ come furnished with lacquer and silk, and Fusion Maia, which has a novel all-inclusive spa concept. Danang is happily situated close to Hoi An, meaning easy excursions to the heritage sites.


Nha Trang, further south, is a good location for golfers and divers. There’s a Six Senses facing Nha Trang on Ninh Van Bay and another in the Con Dao islands off Vietnam’s southern tip. The islands once housed prisons and are now a national park and important turtle nesting site. Phu Quoc island near Cambodia’s southwestern border is another low-key proposition.


Cruising


It’s an easy side trip from Hanoi to spectacular Halong Bay. The UNESCO-listed natural wonder embraces hundreds of limestone karsts set in emerald water and is best experienced on an overnight cruise. You’ll typically spend the day visiting caves filled with stalagmites and a floating pearling village and can relax on your boat’s sundeck in between.


In Vietnam’s South, not far from Ho Chi Minh City, longer cruises embark from the Mekong Delta. From here, river voyages take you up into Cambodia, stopping at capital Phnom Penh and finishing with a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the jungle temples of Angkor Wat.