Immersion in sprawling, vibrant cities is a major highlight for many travellers to Asia, and Vietnam boasts two big-hitters: the characterful, northern capital of Hanoi, and the southern powerhouse that is Ho Chi Minh City. Whilst these cities both offer the lure of bright lights, they can also feel a little overwhelming. Thankfully, you don’t have to travel far to be amongst rolling hills, verdant rice paddies, sleepy villages, slow flowing rivers and palm-shaded canals.
A comfortable, 4-hour drive from Hanoi, tucked between two cliffs, sits the beautiful Mai Chau valley: an extremely picturesque corner of rural Vietnam that’s still largely untroubled by mass tourism. A similar distance from Ho Chi Minh City (although a world away in many other respects) is the vast tapestry of rivers, swamps and islands that makes up the Mekong Delta. In these rural surroundings, life quietly continues more-or-less unchanged - give or take the occasional smartphone!
Tucked away in the Mai Chau valley you’ll find comfortable eco-lodges to hunker down in each evening, whilst during the day you can revel in the opportunity to be out hiking or cycling in the fresh air. Hundreds of miles south, in the Mekong Delta, much of life takes place beside and on the water, lending itself perfectly to leisurely exploration on foot, by bike and aboard the traditional sampan boats used to traverse these waterways for centuries.
Chat with our destination specialists about how best to fit these rural regions into your tailor-made itinerary, and in the meantime here are some ideas to get you thinking about the shape of your trip…
Arriving in the Mai Chau valley’s rural idyll feels like stepping into another world. Admire the engineering of the rice terraces that cling to the hillsides, turning from vivid green to soft gold and brown depending on the season, and marvel at the traditional stilt houses suspended over the landscape. The nearby Pu Luong Nature Reserve is a relatively undiscovered gem, with forests, rice paddies, Thai and Muong villages, and bucolic streams dotted with wooden water wheels.
The Mekong Delta is just as stunning in a contrasting way. Navigate wide rivers, winding channels and picturesque narrow canals by boat, passing under wooden ‘monkey bridges’ and past farms producing fruit, flowers and rice, before cruising to a floating market. Disembark to learn about the Delta’s flourishing cottage industries and to visit traditional settlements, old French-Colonial houses, and Chinese temples. Resist the temptation to tick off the Mekong Delta as a day trip, and instead stay a night or two at a riverside hotel, in a rural lodge, or onboard a boat. If you’re keen to spend more time on the water, continue on towards the nearby border with Cambodia.
Many visitors’ first taste of urban Vietnam is the characterful and vibrant capital city of Hanoi: the perfect place to top or tail an adventure into the rural north. This energetic city can feel like it’s constantly on the move (not least because of the infamous motorbike traffic!) and it’s a great place to delve deeper into the country’s rich history. Visit the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, where you can learn more about the minority ethnic communities who live in Mai Chau, and explore the atmospheric Old Quarter, the stately French Quarter, the Temple of Literature, and the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh.
Those looking for inner-city tranquility can rise early to witness the Vietnamese Flag Raising Ceremony at Ba Dinh Square, before taking a morning stroll past locals gathering to practice thai chi or badminton. Cycle through the affluent neighbourhood around Hanoi’s West Lake, pausing in the shade of Tran Quoc Pagoda’s elegant tower. Frequent refreshment is always in order, so fill up on pho noodle soup, pho cuon rolls, cha ca fish and banh mi baguettes, and make pit-stops for Vietnamese coffee and French-inspired pastries.
Tiny, sleepy Ky Son Village, 70Km west of Hanoi, is an excellent place for those short on time to get a taste of rural Vietnam. It’s also perfect for taking a brief pause before continuing on to the spectacular scenery of Mai Chau or Ninh Binh. A stay in the village (parts of which are over 200 years old) with its traditionally-carved wooden houses dotted along dusty roads, ponds full of lotus blossom and peaceful rice fields is akin to stepping back in time. It’s a rare opportunity to stay in a traditional northern Vietnamese village learning more about the country’s diverse culture.
After waking up with a few traditional Yi Jin Jing exercises, explore the village markets, temple and bee house on foot or by bike. Depending on the season, you can assist with a spot of ploughing, marking the rice beds, or even harvesting, giving you a glimpse of the rhythms of local life. Your home away from home will be the inimitable Moon Garden. Part homestay, part extremely comfortable guesthouse, this gorgeous property is a collection of beautifully decorated, traditional-style houses set within the grounds of a family home.
Ho Chi Minh City (previously known as Saigon) is an ideal jumping off point for the Mekong Delta. High-rise offices tower over wide, elegant boulevards and neoclassical French architecture, clearly marking the city's status as Vietnam’s modern economic hub. If you pause to look closer, you’ll see the everyday details of day-to-day city life as you mingle with locals in District 1’s narrow alleyways, or in the bustling commercial Cho Lon. There’s history aplenty in the stately architecture, presidential palaces and secret resistance storerooms, all seemingly frozen at separate moments in the past, while just outside the city are the ingenious underground Cu Chi Tunnels constructed by Vietnamese resistance fighters.
As an antidote to the rural peace and serenity of the rest of your trip, Ho Chi Minh City’s nightlife is perfect. Enjoy an evening drink at a rooftop bar before working your way through the thriving restaurant scene that offers everything from European fine dining to Pan-Asian fusion and home-cooked Vietnamese cuisine. Book a table at one of our favourites, enjoy a home cooked dinner with a local resident, or travel between a variety of diverse eateries on the back of a Vespa.
The guide price of £2,390US$2,790 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying 2 nights in Hanoi, 2 nights at Ky Son, 2 nights in Mai Chau, 2 nights in Ho Chi Minh City - all in our favourite mid-range hotels - and 2 nights in the Mekong Delta on your private sampan.
How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey.
Enjoy a slower journey through Vietnam by taking your time to really get under the skin of this fascinating country. From bright city lights to relaxing lake shores and tropical beaches, a trip that has it all - without the need to rush.