Vietnam is a vibrant country and is best explored taking in a few cities at a time. From the capital Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang, each destination had beautiful hotels, unique attractions and experiences to enjoy. For foodies, there is also plenty of fantastic, fresh produce to feast on.
Hanoi’s top attractions and foodie hot spots
Located in the north on the western bank of the Red River, Hanoi is roughly 85 miles inland from the South China Sea. My first impression of Vietnam was here, in Hanoi, looking out of the taxi window at the clusters of motorbikes transporting people around the capital.
Walking around Hanoi you pass the plentiful street-food sellers, with the smell of meat and noodle dishes “pho” and “bun cha” in the air. As a coffee aficionado I sipped the local specialty – creamy, whipped-up “egg coffee” – as I dipped in and out of art galleries.
One place that’s worth a visit is the Temple of Literature, which pays homage to Confucianism. People started studying there in 1076 and it is the biggest temple in Vietnam. To this day people come to the temple and pray for success in their studies.
Head to the historic Ba Dinh Square where former president Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France in 1945 and where he is buried today – you’ll see soldiers guarding his grave. The square is also the site of the Presidential Palace, the One Pillar Pagoda, and Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House.
A visit to Hanoi isn’t complete without a walk by Kiem lake, which lights up at night. Afterwards, head into the city centre for some people watching and street food, perhaps crispy spring rolls with a refreshing Hanoi beer while sitting on a tiny plastic stool.
Where to stay: Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi
I stayed in Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, which originally opened in 1901 and was the first luxury hotel in Hanoi. One of the hotel’s most famous guests was Charlie Chaplin, and the bar has a cocktail named after him. Served with a scoop of lemon sorbet to drop in, it was created in honour of Chaplin when he stayed for his honeymoon with his third wife in 1936. It can be enjoyed in the sun-kissed Bamboo Bar.
If you’re keen on wine, the hotel has one of oldest cellars in Hanoi. Legend has it that the Vietnamese egg coffee was created at the Metropole; milk and sugar was expensive and hard to come by during the war so the bartender wanted to create an alternative and used whisked egg instead. You can order yours in the restaurant and café.
As France occupied Vietnam from 1858 to 1883 it is no surprise that there is a French influence in the cuisine – the coffee and cheese for a start. Le Beaulieu, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, is very good and even has a vegan tasting menu should you wish. It certainly felt Parisian with the décor and soft background French music and I especially enjoyed the lobster bisque which was made in front of me for extra finesse. See sofitel-legend-metropole-hanoi.com
Ho Chi Minh City’s top attractions and foodie hot spots
Formerly known as Saigon until 1976, Ho Chi Minh City is the largest in Vietnam by population. It lies along the Saigon River (Song Sai Gon) to the north of the Mekong River delta, about 50 miles from the South China Sea.
One of the best ways to get around the city is by tuk tuk. Passing attractive buildings such as the opera house and post office, you’ll see the hustle and bustle of local life up close, though you may want to stop for a scoop of gelato at one of the many ice cream shops.
In terms of culinary culture, Hanoi has its traditional egg coffee and Ho Chi Minh City has its coconut variety – and Cong coffee serves a great version. To tick off the “oldest coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City” list item, I headed to Cheo Leo Cafe. However, all coffeed out from a fabulous fizzy black coffee I had at the cool Workshop Coffee café, I went for a refreshing salty lime drink instead. Cheo Leo Cafe is located on a lovely street where you can see locals doing their food shopping at market stalls.
For decent street food go to district 4 and try local dishes such as baguette with fillings – ban mi, hot pot – and the delicious noodle dish, hu tieu. The nightlife in Ho Chi Minh City is pretty decent, too. Layla stood out – it’s one of the first bars to open that embraced mixology. I loved the frangipani tree growing in the centre of the room and the pop music beats.
District 2 is also worth a visit, albeit very westernised. It’s less cluttered than other parts with less motorbikes and people. Mad Wine Bar and 86 Proof Whiskey Bar have extensive drinks menus, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
Where to stay: The Reverie Saigon
Some people may say The Reverie Saigon is an extravagantly designed hotel, though for me it was rather a celebration of art-led décor. The outside pool is a dream, laying on your back listening to music while gazing up to the sparking lights of the buildings, was a highlight.
Lunch at The Royal Pavilion was quite possibly the best Chinese dim sum in Saigon and beyond, the chef hailing from a two Michelin star restaurant in Hong Kong. The [email protected] Square has the longest bar in the city, a jungle ambience, with statement plants boasting large tropical green leaves throughout. The artisan pizza topped with local seafood followed by a scoop of real Italian gelato with the unusual flavours of Vietnamese coffee and a scoop of the purple potato flavour, made a memorable lunch.
If you’ve had your fill of Vietnamese cuisine, then its Italian restaurant Da Vittorio Saigon is a treat. The restaurant is led by chef Matteo Fontana and overseen by Chicco and Bobo Cerea from the three Michelin starred Da Vittorio Relais & Chateaux restaurant in Brusaporto, Italy. My favourite dish was the tuna “spaghetti” with pistachio sauce. It was a blend of northern and southern Italy – tuna from the north and pistachio from the south. It was exquisite. See thereveriesaigon.com
Nha Trang’s top attractions and foodie hot spots
A coastal resort city located in southern Vietnam, Nha Trang is lauded for its beaches, great diving spots as well as offshore islands. This is a relatively young city and originally a fishing hub, with little islands and sea views that are captivating. When it rains the jellyfish come to the shore, making it no surprise that jellyfish soup is a local dish. The seafood here is also excellent.
The Hon Chong rock is a top photo opportunity and gets a lot of attention due to it looking like a giant hand. The temples are also popular to visit.
If you want to buy locally-grown coffee beans to take home, Trung Nguyên Legend Café is the place. For sea views and authentic Indian food, head to the Sailing Club which was founded by an Australian tourist who started selling beer on the beach, then opened a bar, which turned into the Sailing Club in 1984.
For mementos like handmade bags and snacks to take home such as dried local mango, visit the night market. Finish the evening with a drink at the Sheraton’s Altitude Rooftop Bar for fantastic bird’s eye views of the city.
Where to stay: Alma Resort Cam Ranh
Staying at Alma Resort Cam Ranh, the food offering here certainly showcases local produce, with most of it grown on site. There’s six street food-like stalls including New York-style chicken and burgers, a French bakery with great coffee, Japanese sushi, and my favourite, Vietnamese classics. The bo luc lac (stir fried beef in a sweet and sour sauce) was immense.
The plethora of swimming pools is a highlight, with eight to choose from, plus I had a private pool in my seafront villa. The beachfront restaurant Atlantis has live seafood tanks showcasing the rich array of local favourites, for instance the Long Beach sea crab, flower crab, Cam Ranh white pomfret, Nha Trang Grouper, Thuy Trieu sea clam and Cam Hai sweet snails.
I really enjoyed making my own Vietnamese rolls, stuffing them with fresh herbs and grilled fish, only to dip in the delightfully salty fish sauce. One of my favourite nights in Vietnam was drinks in The American Bar followed by the ever-popular Vietnamese past-time: karaoke – a private room to boot, so our singing didn’t disturb others. To accompany our singing, we enjoyed sliced guava, watermelon and mango with the option of Vietnamese chilli salt to dip it in. See alma-resort.com
How to get to Vietnam
Vietnamese airline Bamboo Airways flies directly from London Heathrow and London Gatwick to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. I flew business class and the seats were spacious, the staff incredibly helpful and courteous, and the food really, quite delicious, especially if you choose the Asian options. The business lounges serve a great selection of fresh Asian food, too. I particularly enjoyed the seasonal fruit platters and couldn’t get enough of the dragon fruit and renowned local mango. See bambooairways.com