Ask Lonely Planet: The many influences of Vietnam

Working women in the waterways of Vietnam. Photo / Thinkstock
Working women in the waterways of Vietnam. Photo / Thinkstock

I'm planning on going to Vietnam next year, but will have only 10 to 14 days' leave. What's the best itinerary to take in the best sights of Vietnam? We don't mind rough travel and are keen to see the tunnels. - Alison

Lonely Planet's Sarah Bennett and Lee Slater write:

Vietnam is a country of many influences. In the south, Indian and Hindu cultures leave a lasting impression with Cham temples and spicy regional cuisine. In the north, Chinese connections are more apparent. Sandwiched between these two cultures in the central provinces you'll find quintessential Vietnam - in the graceful, historic old port of Hoi An, and the royal tombs, pagodas and imperial cuisine of Hue.

The French colonial legacy is evident in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, most deliciously in the crispy baguettes and coffee culture. Add in more than 50 hill tribes, Vietnam War history, and the proud, ruling Communist Party ideology and you have a heady, intoxicating mix.

You'd be hard-pushed to visit all of the country's best sights in a fortnight, but this Great Ocean Road itinerary - from our Vietnam guide - will help you knock off a good selection without rushing around like a maniac.

Start by acclimatising in Hanoi, taking in a temple or two, wining and dining, and experiencing the city's street life in the Old Quarter.

From here, head east to Halong Bay, with 2000-plus limestone outcrops dotting the scenic World Heritage area. Stop for a couple of days on rugged Cat Ba Island, an important adventure sports centre, before setting off for nearby Ninh Binh, the gateway to Tam Coc and the primates and trails of Cuc Phuong National Park.

A long train or bus journey south will deposit you at Hue, the imperial capital of old, from where you can head over (or under) the mighty Hai Van Pass to charming Hoi An. The perfect place for some time out - sightseeing, shopping and sunning yourself on the sand - before venturing to Nha Trang, Vietnam's biggest and brashest beach resort. Or consider the more blissed-out Mui Ne Beach.

For your last couple of days, base yourself in Vietnam's cauldron of commerce, Ho Chi Minh City, where you can indulge in sophisticated shopping, delectable dining and the liveliest nightlife in the country.

From HCMC, take a day trip to the fascinating wartime Cu Chi Tunnels; at their peak they snaked underground for more than 250km from Ho Chi Minh City northwards to the Cambodian border.

I am planning a 20-day trip through Cambodia and up to Vietnam. What is the quickest and most cost-effective way of getting a visa? - Mia

Lonely Planet's Sarah Bennett and Lee Slater write:

Most nationalities have to endure the hassle of prearranging a visa in order to enter Vietnam. Entry and exit points include Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Danang airports, or any of the plentiful land borders shared with Cambodia, China and Laos.

If you're arriving by air at Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi or Danang, it's usually easiest and cheapest to get your visa approved in advance through a visa-service company or travel agent. However, this system does not operate at land border crossings.

To travel overland from Cambodia into Vietnam you have a choice of around half a dozen border crossings. Get your Vietnamese visa by arranging it in person while you're still in Cambodia. This can be done at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh or at authorised travel agents. It'll cost about US$45 ($54) and can be arranged the same day.

My sister and I will be spending 10 days island-hopping on the west coast of Thailand. We would like to see Krabi and Koh Phi-Phi, but wonder whether you have other recommendations. We would prefer to avoid highly touristy places. - Kylene Jones

Lonely Planet's Sarah Bennett and Lee Slater write:

The southern Andaman coast is an island-hopper's dream. While you can definitely party into the wee hours on some of its well-developed isles, such as Koh Phi-Phi and Koh Lanta, it's still much quieter than crowded Phuket to the north.

Lining the Andaman Sea south of Krabi is lightly developed Trang province, with its impressive limestone coast and sublime islands. Transport links are improving and, in the high season (October to March) it's possible to island-hop all the way to Malaysia.

Further south is Satun, a province mostly overlooked until recently. That's all changed thanks to the white sands of Koh Lipe island - once a backpacker secret. Beyond Koh Lipe it's worth seeing the beaches and sea caves of Koh Tarutao Marine National Park, one of the most exquisite and unspoiled regions in the whole country. Other highlights in the area include the rugged trails and ribbon waterfalls of Koh Adang and the rustic beauty of Koh Bulon Leh.

- NZ Herald

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