Most travelers to Vietnam are attracted by the country’s wonderful natural beauty: From the green rice fields in the north to the fascinating bustle of the Mekong Delta in the south. Vietnam however is also a country with a long history and ancient traditions. It has many historic attractions and old temples.
Just as Angkor is more than its wat, so too is Cambodia more than its temples. The chaotic yet charismatic capital of Phnom Penh is a hub of political intrigue, economic vitality and intellectual debate.
Places to visit
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay is situated in North Vietnam round a 120 kilometer long coast line and is literally translated as “Bay of Descending Dragons”. The top tourist attraction in Vietnam, Ha Long Bay features thousands of islands, each topped with thick jungle vegetation, forming a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars. Several of the islands are hollow, with enormous caves, others islands include lakes and some support floating villages of fishermen.
Thien Mu Pagoda (Hue)
With seven stories, the Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue is the tallest pagoda in Vietnam. The pagoda overlooks the Perfume River and is regarded as the unofficial symbol of the former imperial capital. The temple was built in 1601 during the rule of the Nguyễn Lords. The initial temple was very simply constructed, but over time it was redeveloped and expanded with more intricate features.
Hoan Kiem Lake (Hanoi)
Located in the historical center of Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake is one of the major scenic spots in the city and serves as the locals’ favorite leisure spot. Hoan Kiem means “returned sword”, and the name comes from a legend in which King Le Loi was given a magical sword by the gods, which he used to drive out the invading Chinese. Later he returned the sword to the Golden Turtle God in the lake.
This fishing-village-turned-tourist-attraction is situated on the coast of the South China Sea. Hoi An has been an international port from the 16th century although the serious shipping business has long since moved to the city of Da Nang. The heart of the city is still the Old Town, full of winding lanes and Chinese-styled shops. It is sometimes called the “Venice of Vietnam” because of the narrow canals that cut through part of the town.
Sa Pa Terraces
Sa Pa is a town in northwest Vietnam not far from the Chinese border. Rice terraces can be found in the Muong Hoa valley between Sa Pa town and the Fansipan Mountain, on a backdrop of thick bamboo woodlands. Local mountain people, the Hmong, Giay, Dao, Tay, and Giay, grow rice and corn on these paddy terraces, along with vegetables.
The formerly little-inhabited beach south of the fishing village of Mui Ne has seen some serious development in the last 15 years. Due to strong sea breezes it is a popular destination in Vietnam for kite- and windsurfing. No trip to Mui Ne is complete without a trip to the famous sand dunes located a short distance north of the town. The vast sandy expanse provide some great panoramic views especially during sunset.
Mekong River (Mekong Delta)
The Mekong Delta is the region in southern Vietnam where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the sea. It is a very rich and lush area, covered with rice fields, that produces about half of the total of Vietnam’s agricultural output. Subsequently, life in the Mekong Delta revolves much around the river, and all the villages are often accessible by river rather than by road.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located about 40 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during the Vietnam War, and were the base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The tunnels have become a popular tourist attraction, and visitors are invited to crawl around in the safer parts of the tunnel system.
Siem Reap (literally “Siam Defeated”) is undoubtedly Cambodia’s fastest growing city and serves as a small charming gateway town to the world famous destination of the Angkor temples. Thanks to those Cambodia attractions, Siem Reap has transformed itself into a major tourist hub. It is laid-back and a pleasant place to stay while touring the temples. Siem Reap offers a wide range of hotels, ranging from several 5-star hotels to hundreds of budget guesthouses while a large selection of restaurants offer many kinds of food.
Sihanoukville, also known as Kampong Som, is a port city and beach resort on the Gulf of Thailand. The big attraction here are the white-sand beaches and several undeveloped tropical islands. Sihanoukville is a good place to relax and unwind, though be prepared to battle the crows during the high season or a holiday weekend.
Located within the Royal Palace compound in Phnom Penh, the Silver Pagoda houses many national treasures such as gold and jeweled Buddha statues. Most notable is a small 17th century baccarat crystal Buddha (the Emerald Buddha of Cambodia) and a life-sized gold Maitreya Buddha decorated with 9584 diamonds. The internal wall of the Silver Pagoda courtyard is decorated with a richly colored and detailed mural of the Ramayana myth, painted in 1903–04 by 40 Khmer artists.
Bokor Hill Station
Bokor Hill Station near Kampot was built by the French in the 1920s to be used as a retreat from the heat of Phnom Penh. It has since been abandoned twice, first in the 1940s when the Japanese invaded Cambodia and again in the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge engulfed the country. Today, Bokor Hill Station and its abandoned buildings have an eerie, ghost-town feel. As of October 2008, the road to Bokor is officially closed due to ongoing reconstruction. Independent access seems to be impossible. though there are hiking tours arranged by local travel agents.
Koh Ker was the capital of the Khmer empire for a very brief period from the year 928 to 944 AD. In this short time some very spectacular buildings and immense sculptures were constructed. A giant Garuda (mythical half-man, half-bird creature), carved into the stone blocks, still guard the very top, although its partially covered now. Left to the jungle for nearly a millennium, Koh Ker was one of Cambodia’s most remote and inaccessible temple destinations. This has now changed thanks to recent de-mining and the opening of a new toll road.
Although officially part of the Angkor complex, Banteay Srei lies 25 km (15 miles) north-east of the main group of temples, enough to list it as a separate Cambodia attraction here. It is built largely of red sandstone, a medium that lends itself to the elaborate decorative wall carvings which are still clearly visible today. Banteay Srei is the only major temple at Angkor not built for a king, instead it was constructed by one of king Rajendravarman’s counselors, Yajnyavahara.
The greatest attraction in Cambodia and one of the most spectacular ancient sites on earth, Angkor is a vast temple complex featuring the remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century AD. These include the famous Angkor Wat temple, the world’s largest single religious monument, the Bayon temple (at Angkor Thom) with its multitude of massive stone faces and Ta Prohm, a Buddhist temple ruin entwined with towering trees.