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Cu Chi
The tunnels of Cu Chi are a haunting memory of past conflicts. Used by the Viet Cong, the extensive underground system housed tactical quarters, storage rooms, kitchens and even an underground surgical center. Most entrances were so well disguised that only a small portion of the system was ever discovered during the war, despite the fact that some 125 mi/200 km ran under U.S. military bases. There are actually two sets of tunnels open to visitors - the Ben Dinh tunnels were actually used during the war, though they have been slightly widened and cleaned up since; the Ben Duoc tunnels are "reconstructions" built for tourism. Some people find the tunnels overwhelmingly sad, but we were fascinated by the experience. (Even better tunnels are found at Vinh Moc, northwest of Hue near the former Demilitarized Zone.) If you have any claustrophobic tendencies, you probably don't want to visit Cu Chi. 20 mi/30 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City.
Dalat
Located in the central highlands at an elevation of 4,840 ft/1,475 m, Dalat was founded as a French hill resort. Nowadays, its cool climate, lakes, waterfalls and forests make it a popular destination. First stroll around the picturesque lake in the center of town and then visit the nearby flower gardens (home to more than 10,000 types of orchids). Take a break and relax in a cafe or stop by the lively Central Market, overflowing with colorful fruits, vegetables and cut flowers. Visit the Cam Ly Falls, which are 50 ft/15 m high, and the summer palace of Bao Dai, Vietnam's last emperor. The town also has a number of beautiful pagodas. 150 mi/240 km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City.
Danang
The coastal city of Danang is the major port in the central part of the country. It's noted for art and architecture from the Cham dynasty, and the only real site worth seeing in town is the Cham Museum. It houses a fine collection of Cham civilization sculpture and artifacts dating from the 4th to the 14th centuries.
The Marble Mountains, located just south of Danang, are the highlight of the area. These five peaks were tiny islands until silt filled in the surrounding area. Each mountain is named after one of the five elements of the universe. On Thuy Son (Water Mountain), you'll find caves that have been turned into natural pagodas as altars and statues of Buddha and bodhisattvas have been added. A trail of steep steps (about 900 of them) leads up the mountain.
On the coast near the mountains is the famous China Beach. Along with its crystal water and white sand, it now boasts a luxury resort. Other good beaches in the area include My Khe Beach (one of the area's best) and Nam O Beach (a great place to see fishing boats). 380 mi/610 km southeast of Hanoi.
Dien Bien Phu
Situated in a valley surrounded by mountains, this town has historical significance: It's where the French fought the last, losing battle that marked the end of colonialism in Vietnam. At the battlefield, you can visit a small museum, a monument to Viet Minh casualties and a memorial to the French troops buried there. But unless you're particularly interested in the history of the place, it's not worth the time or effort to get there. 260 mi/420 km northwest of Hanoi by road.
Haiphong
A bustling port city on the Gulf of Tonkin, Haiphong is Vietnam's third-largest city. Despite its heavy industrial economy, the city does have several points of interest, including temples and pagodas (the Du Hang pagoda is especially nice), the Hang Kenh Communal House (intricate wood sculptures and stone carvings) and a colorful flower market. A side trip can be made to Bao Ha, a village famous for its wood carvers: High-quality carvings are sold at very reasonable prices there. 60 mi/95 km southeast of Hanoi.
Halong Bay
This slice of the South China Sea is speckled with thousands of beautiful limestone peaks rising out of the water. A group of 1,900 of these islets has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tours include a boat trip through the craggy islands (bring your swimsuit - some boat operators will drop anchor so you can jump into the calm waters). Try to get a cruise that lets you sleep overnight on the boat. Accommodations are simple but adequate (private cabin, shared toilet), and the views at sunset and sunrise are unforgettable. At adjacent Cat Ba National Park, you can see monkeys, explore caves and swim over coral reefs. Nearby Yen Tu Mountain hides a Buddhist temple in a lovely setting. 75 mi/120 km southeast of Hanoi.
Hanoi
Vietnam's capital city has a complex personality and, depending on where you are in town, you'll get different impressions of it. Like other large Asian cities, busy commercial streets are filled with cars and bicycles and are edged by shops, restaurants, bars and stalls. But you'll also find wide boulevards lined with towering mahogany trees and winding lanes with French, Russian and Chinese architecture in varying states of disrepair. The overall effect is unexpected and charming.
The heart of the city is the Hoan Kiem district. Start your exploration at Hoan Kiem Lake and walk north toward the city's Old Quarter, a fascinating blend of historic merchant houses and streets dedicated to specific trades (anything from tombstone makers to tinsmiths). Northwest of the lake - you'll need to take a cyclo or a taxi - is Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. Within easy walking distance of it are two pagodas worth checking out: the One Pillar Pagoda and the Dien Huu Pagoda. Another attraction well worth seeing is the massive complex of the Temple of Literature. Hanoi has museums to appeal to all tastes, including the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, which is all that remains of the "Hanoi Hilton," where U.S. prisoners of war were held.
While in Hanoi, be sure to catch one of the nightly performances at the Water Puppet Theater. We were charmed by the antics of the sea monsters, oarsmen, phoenixes and dancing fairies - and amazed by the skills of the puppeteers. Day trips can be made to nearby craft villages, where you can purchase silk fabrics, pottery, basketry, embroidery and other handicrafts. 700 mi/1,120 km north of Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnamese seem to use the names Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City or simply HCMC interchangeably. But by any name, it's the economic center of the country. Although booming with new hotels, chic bars and trendy clubs, HCMC is definitely not as picturesque or charming as Hanoi. That said, the old landmarks - the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Rex Hotel, the Hotel de Ville - are still there, and the blocks of colonial houses haven't changed.
There are a number of interesting temples and pagodas worth visiting. In the reception hall of the Giac Lam Pagoda, for instance, you can see the portraits of monks who passed away years ago (below the portraits, note the monks' funeral tablets inscribed in ancient nom, the original Vietnamese script). The Emperor of Jade Pagoda is filled with gilded figures and papier-mache statues of Buddhist and Taoist divinities. History buffs should stop by the Reunification Palace, where the South Vietnamese government officially turned over power to the North in 1975. It's a trip back in time, particularly the "strategy rooms" in the basement and the upper-floors filled with 1960s furnishings.
The most interesting markets are Cho Binh and Cho Ben Thanh, but we also recommend Cholon's Ben Tay market (take a boat down the Ben Nghe Channel). For the city's highest-quality wares (antiques and other souvenirs), visit Dong Khoi Street or Saigon crocodile village's craftsmen.
On HCMC's doorstep is the Mekong Delta, with its burgeoning markets, luminous green rice fields, Khmer pagodas, and fruit and flower orchards. The best way to view this tropical wonderland is by boat - you can rent a tour boat in the delta towns of Ben Tre, Vinh Long and Cantho. Ho Chi Minh City is 700 mi/1,120 km south of Hanoi.
Hoi An
The colorful market town of Hoi An is worth a two-day visit. It was a major port in centuries past, with ships arriving from all over the world to obtain silk and other fabrics, sugar, tea and ceramics. Some visitors find Hoi An to be a bit touristy, but we found it charming. Its traditional Vietnamese architecture has been preserved, and there are many historic temples and pagodas in the area.
Our favorite sights include the Tan Ky House, an ornate house built in traditional Japanese-Vietnamese style; the Phuoc Kien (or Fujian) Assembly Hall, lavishly decorated with murals and a replica of a Chinese ship; the Chaozhou Assembly Hall, noted for fine wood carvings; and the Japanese-style covered bridge, the town's most famous landmark. For evening entertainment, we recommend seeing one of the nightly shows at the Hoi An Traditional Performance House.
Hoi An is also known for its silk lanterns. (The flexible bamboo frames are designed to collapse, so they're easily transported home as a souvenir.) If you're in town after dusk, you'll see the streets beautifully lit with these lanterns. If you time your visit right, the lantern festival held in November on the eve of the full moon is quite a spectacle.
At My Son, just southwest of Hoi An, are Vietnam's finest Cham ruins. About 70 temples, houses and other structures make up the complex, and touring the site is well worth the trip. Be aware that countless land mines were placed throughout the area during the war, so be sure to stay on the marked paths during your visit. Hoi An is 400 mi/640 km southeast of Hanoi.
Hue
The capital of Vietnam during the decadent 19th-century Nguyen dynasty, Hue is still an important literary and cultural center. The city was dramatically affected during the war: Most of the structures in the centuries-old Citadel were severely damaged. Some of those royal buildings have been repaired and rebuilt, including the Forbidden Purple City, the emperor's private residence. The Imperial Museum within the complex is excellent.
The city is bisected by the Perfume River, and along its banks south of Hue lie the many tombs of the Nguyen emperors. You can visit them by bicycle or boat. We recommend having your hotel arrange a longboat for you. The driver will take you to the riverbank nearest a tomb or interesting pagoda, will either show you around or wait while you explore, and then will take you to the next one. Often the driver's family comes along to serve you lunch. Be sure to arrange stops at Tu Duc (an extensive site with lots of character), Minh Mang (a large and very well-preserved site), Khai Dinh (modest in scale but quite ostentatious) and the Thien Mu Pagoda (a lovely seven-tiered structure surrounded by gardens).
Hue makes a good base for exploring the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. It's best to see the area's historical sites (including the U.S. base at Khe Sanh, the Vinh Moc tunnels and the Truong Son National Cemetery) with a guide. Various travel agencies in Hue will set you up with one. Hue is 340 mi/545 km southeast of Hanoi.
Nha Trang
Set on a mountainous coast, Nha Trang is best known for its beaches and for its proximity to some paradise-like islands. In town, visit the market, the pagoda overlooking the city and the Cham Towers of Po Nagar (an ancient temple site). Nha Trang also has an excellent small museum devoted to the life and work of Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943), a pioneering French medical researcher who established a laboratory in the town.
For the best view of the area's mountainous coastline, take a trip to Hon Chong, a granite promontory that extends into the sea. You can also climb higher to a bluff overlooking the promontory. From Hon Chong, travel north to Hon Chong Beach (actually a series of beaches) or south to the larger Nha Trang Beach.
To visit the islands (Mieu is the most frequently visited), you can join a group tour for a day trip of snorkeling and a seafood dinner. (These trips can be arranged through hotels or travel agencies in town.) Scuba diving is also popular. The coral is in surprisingly good condition, but fish are scarce. The waters get murky beginning in October, so you may want to check with the dive shops ahead of time to avoid disappointment. 200 mi/320 km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City.
Sapa
This former French resort town is tucked into the mountains near the Chinese and Laotian borders. It's a good place to encounter some of the many ethnic groups (known as hill tribes) that inhabit the country. The tribes go into Sapa for the weekend market - the textiles, embroidery and other needlecrafts are superb. Or you can use the town as a base for visiting their nearby villages. (Be aware that members of some tribes, including the H'mong, won't tolerate having their pictures taken.)

The beautiful hills around Sapa are a prime trekking destination. You'll see waterfalls, caves and lots of birds along the trails. Though paths are generally quite clear, we recommend hiring a local guide who can interpret for you - and fight off the aggressive local dogs. Some of the best treks can be arranged through travel agencies in Hanoi. 210 mi/330 km northwest of Hanoi.
Tay Ninh
There is only one reason tourists visit this town northwest of Ho Chi Minh City: to see the Cao Dai Temple. Caodaism is a homegrown Vietnamese religion that mixes many traditional Eastern religions with Christianity, animism and the teachings of Victor Hugo and Joan of Arc, among others. The Great Temple is fascinating - it's garish and surreal, with an altar dominated by an enormous, suspended globe decorated with glitter and a large, painted eye. The building is a whirl of details, painted in pinks, greens and yellows. Try to get there at least 30 minutes before the daily noon service, which is attended by hundreds of worshippers in brightly colored robes. We highly recommend this excursion - see it on the same day you go to the Cu Chi Tunnels. If you get an early start and don't mind a long day, push on 10 mi/15 km to the northeast to Nui Ba Den, a sacred mountain in an otherwise flat area. There are temples, pagodas and panoramic views to enjoy on the path up. 60 mi/100 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City.
 
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