This scintillating southeast Asian country is renowned for its many historic temples, colonial architecture, geological wonders, fine beaches, and mouthwatering cuisine, but Vietnam also offers plenty of cool experiences - some of which are unusual, and several of which you can´t even have elsewhere. Despite years of colonialism, then war, then modernisation, there remain parts of Vietnam which remains relatively authentic, where locals make great efforts to preserve many traditions and beliefs. Here are just ten of our favorites:
Sampling Snake Wine
Medicinal rurou thuoc ("snake wine," top) is a rice wine or distilled grain alcohol in which as the name implies a snake - preferably venemous - is soaked. The alcohol supposedly neitralizes the poison, and it´s said to be a most reinvigorating elixir. Other animals are used, too, such as geckos, scorpions, seahorses, and bear´s claws or testicles. Foreign visitors can often find it intimidating but the adventurous will have quite the tale to tell - and of course a cool accompanying selfie!:
Crawling through Secret Viet Cong Tunnels
Located in the countryside near Ho Chi Minh City (as Saigon was renamed after the war), the 75-mile network of tunnels of the Cu Chi district was started in the 1940s by Communist guerrillas fighting a war of inpendence again the French colonial administration. Then during the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War) in the 1960s, the tunnels were expanded by fighters of the Viet Cong, the Communist guerrilla group in then South Vietnam, and all attempts by U.S. forces to destroy them failed. You can book a day trip from HCM City to visit them - but be warned: they´re not for the claustrophobic!
Wading into 6 Lanes of Oncoming Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnamese say that here traffic rules are just recommendations. So if you first visit to this HCM City, it might feel like a free for all, with pedestrians and traffic - especially motorbikes coming from everywhere. But it´s really "organized chaos," and it all end up working quite well.
Sandboarding the Dunes of Mui Ne
Near the beach resort town of Mui Ne, a three-hour drive from HCM City, are the famous, towering White Dunes, which actually range in color from pure white to tawny gold (farther south is a smaller set of Red Dunes, of a rusty reddish-brown hue). A small stand of pine trees sit on the southern end of the dune lakes, offering a perfect spot for a picnic and afternoon nap.Besides sandboarding, you can also rent quads and dune buggies, and take a hot-air baloon ride.
Riding a Cyclo through Hoi An´s Ancient Town
Midway along Vietnam´s South China Sea coast, the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage medieval quarter of this city - closed to motorised traffic - is fantastic for strolling. But the pedal-powered rickshaws known as cyclos are allowed, and it´s a very cool experience to glide past the old town´s evocative architecture.
Haggling at Local Markets
In Vietnam, as in most countries of Southeast Asian, many sellers usually start at higher price - even if the price tag says it is fixed - with the expectation that buyers will bargain them down So don´t be afraid to haggle a little bit - it´s all part of the experience!
Quaffing 50-cent beers at Hanoi´s Bia Hoi Junction
Bia hoi (fresh beer) refers both to the refreshingly light, chilled, cheap, straw-coloured draught beer (a bit lower in alcohol content than beer elsewhere in the world) and the no-frills neighbourhood drinking spots where you’ll finding yourself throwing them back. For instance, your new friends might say to you “Let’s go for Bia Hoi!” or “Let’s head to the Bia Hoi!,” which is in the old quarter at the intersection of Ta Hien Street and Luong Ngoc Quyen Street. Rubbing shoulders with locals while downing a cold one is an integral part of participating in Vietnam´s lively drinking culture.
Bathing in Elephant Spring's Natural Pools
Named for the perceived resemblance of some of its rocks to pachyderms, this secluded oasis of shallow, stone-lined pools, small waterfalls, and bamboo huts is located about an hour south of the historic city of Hue on the north central coast. Popular with both locals and visitors, it´s a perfect spot for a relaxing and refreshing respite!
Exploring Paradise Cave at Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Set in a forested landscape of karst limestone peaks southwest of the village of Son Trach, this UNESCO World Heritage national park also located in the north central coast region is known for its network of some 300 caves and grottoes, extending around 44.5 kilometres (28 miles). Most visitors only get as far as the first kilometre and a half, but even this is spectacular and its scale breathtaking; wooden staircases descend into a cathedral-like space with colossal stalagmites and glimmering stalactites. Get here early to beat the crowds, as during peak times (early afternoon) tour groups arrive with guides using megaphones. The park is reachable by air/driving in just under four hours.
Located in Vietnam´s mountainous northwest, 3½ hours from Hanoi, the area surrounding this town of 61,000 is fantastic for hiking amid its mountains, jungles, streams, and rice terraces. Another highlight is an overnight stay at the home of one of the families from the local Blak H'mong, Red Zao or Day hill tribes, in which you can learn about their dialy life, customs, and traditions. You can either book a Sapa tour from Hanoi or arrive via rail or road, then book with a local homestay service.