With its misty mountain tops, tropical forests, gushing rivers, and increasingly cosmopolitan cities, Vietnam today is a playground for a range of activities. The country’s relatively undeveloped coastline stretches for hundreds of miles, and is a water lover’s dream, with secluded beaches, pristine bays, and untrammeled surf. Trekkers and nature enthusiasts are drawn to the impressive network of national parks, mountain trails, and nature walks, while cyclists embrace the opportunity to explore the terrain or ride on uncrowded roads all the way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Catering to the needs of millions of international visitors, luxury golf clubs have cropped up in all the major cities and resort towns. Food lovers can exercise their palates on one of the many culinary holidays, savoring the imperial cuisine of Hue and the exotic fruit of Mekong Delta as they go along. With so many activities to choose from, Vietnam is a multifaceted country with something that fits the interests and budget of most visitors traveling here.
Diving, Snorkeling, and Swimming
The best developed location for diving in Vietnam is the resort town of Nha Trang, which is home to several competent specialists offering equipment, boats, and instructors for crash courses. Rainbow Divers is the oldest and most trusted operation for aquatic activities here, and has a number of branches in diving locales throughout the country. Nha Trang has many other reliable outfits in operation, including Sailing Club Divers. About 37 miles (60 km) north of town, Whale Island Resort is an increasingly popular location for both diving and snorkeling. Located farther south, Phu Quoc Island and Con Dao Islands are blessed with shallow coral reefs, and are primed to become serious competitors to Nha Trang. At the moment, Phu Quoc and Con Dao are relatively unspoiled, though developing fast. Rainbow Divers is the sole operat or in these places. Hoi An , with its string of fishermen’s islands about an hour’s boat ride from shore, provides excellent diving opportunities in Central Vietnam. One-, two-, and three-day trips to these islands can be organized by Cham Island Diving Center.
Most beaches along the coast from Danang to Nha Trang offer stretches of water ideal for swimming. Among the safest is Mui Ne Beach, where the under- currents are weakest. Swimming facilities are also available in cities, as most hotels allow the use of their pools for a small sum. In Ho Chi Minh City, Grand Hotel offers one of the cheapest rates for a day at its pool, while the International Club has a pool, sauna, steam room, and gym avail able for less than US$10 per day. In Hanoi, the swimming pools in Army Hotel and Thang Loi Hotel are affordable to use. Water parks such as Dam Sen in Ho Chi Minh City, Ho Tay Water Park in Hanoi, as well as the Phu Dong Water Park in Nha Trang are all good for a nice dip.
Surfing, Kitesurfing, and Windsurfing
Although few Vietnamese surf, many foreign visitors take advantage of the superb, if not terribly huge waves at China Beach. Surfing boards can be rented locally. Kitesurfing has caught on in a big way at Mui Ne, which is now the site of an annual international competition in the sport. The calm sea and strong winds provide perfect conditions. Jibe’s Beach Club offers kitesurfing package holidays. The popularity of windsurfing is also escalating. Two operations for both kite- surfing and windsurfing are Sailing Club Kite School and C2Sky Kitecenter.
Kayaks, still something of a novelty in Vietnam, were first introduced at Halong Bay, and soon proved to be ideal for exploring the islands, coves, and caves of the area. While visitors are free to wander the waters on their own, it is wise to contract with a specialist tour agency. Reliable outfits include old favorites the Sinh Tourist and Buffalo Tours, both of which arrange kayak ing holi days. Also recommended is Handspan Adventure Travel, known for keeping to small groups and using its own vehi cles and guides. Green Trail Tours orga- nizes kayak ing tours in Halong Bay as well as at Ba Be Lake and the Mekong Delta.
Once regarded by Communist Party stalwarts as a decadent and bourgeois pastime, golf is becoming popular in Vietnam. Once the domain of the expat- riate community, golf clubs are now frequented by a growing number of local Vietnamese enthusiasts. While club mem- berships are quite expensive, guest fees are not so steep. Courses are clustered around Ho Chi Minh City, Mui Ne, Danang, Dalat, and Hanoi. Rach Chiec Driving Range is about a 10minute drive north of the city center, and is more economical than most venues. Vietnam Golf Country Club is a topclass facility, with two floodlit 18hole courses that enable guests to play at night. In Hanoi, you can practice your swing at Lang Ha Driving Range, while an hour west of the city is the exclusive BRG King’s Island Golf Resort. The most popular courses, though, are in and around Dalat. Two extremely stylish golf clubs are Dalat Palace, established during the French- Colonial era, and Phan Thiet’s Ocean Dunes, designed by Nick Faldo. Sea Links in Mui Ne is one of the country’s most luxurious courses.
The sheer topographic variety found in Vietnam makes it an ideal terrain for trekkers. You can choose bet ween nature walks on national park trails or go on a hike on moun tain slopes, adventur ous romps through densely foliaged for ests, and long strolls along the beaches. The northern mountainous area around Sapa is one of the most popular trekking areas with visitors and locals alike, served by many tour agen cies such as Topas Adventure, Exotissimo, and Footprints. Both take pride in their handson style, and pro- vide local guides, who make useful ambassadors when approaching ethnic vil lages. National parks are also ideal for trekking expeditions, with tended trails and some basic infrastructure. Cat Ba National Park has one of the most challenging hiking trails in the park sys tem. It winds its way through 29 miles (47 km) of jungle, right up to the summit of one of the park’s highest hills. Sturdy shoes, a plastic raincoat, and plenty of water are essential. It is advisable to hire a guide. Any nearby hotel can make the necessary arrangements. Not all trails in Cuc Phuong National Park are marked, so it is best to take a guide. The longest walk here is a fivehour trek to the village of Kanh, where one can stay the night and go rafting on Buoi River. A 5mile (8km) trek takes hikers deep into the for est to a huge tree said to be 1,000 years old. Shorter hikes include a nice walk through the botanical gar- den and to the Primate Rescue Center, while another leads to a cave where prehistoric artifacts were discovered. Some of the most impressive trails are in Bach Ma National Park. Summit Trail leads to the top of Bach Ma Mountain or White Horse Mountain, so named for the streaks of white cloud often seen at its summit. The stun ning views are well worth the steep climb. The Five Lakes Cascade Trail takes hikers by a series of enchant ing water falls through the park, and is filled with rare flora and fauna. Alternatively, the Rhododen dron Trail lives up to its name during spring when it is cloaked in flowers.
The best way to get a feel of the real Vietnam is on a bicycle. The route between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City has become the Holy Grail for many cyclists. Highway 1 has become congested and is also susceptible to flood ing, so the preferred route these days is H ighway 14. While it lacks the ocean breeze of the coastal route, it is still very picturesque. The Mekong Delta region offers easy riding on flat roads. Views here are beautiful, espe- cially at rice harvest time. In the Central Highlands, moun tain cycling is taking off, though there are no dedicated trails at present. The condition of the roads along the southern route can vary; however, the many rivers and bridges on the way provide scenic stopovers. Veloasia organizes customized cycling tours to remote parts of the country, as does the excellent Bangkok-based SpiceRoads. However, try to avoid long- distance tours in the northern mountains in winter as the roads can be slippery and quite dangerous. For cycling in Dalat and the South Central Highlands, try Phat Tire Ventures. Cyclists planning to travel independently should bring their own gear – rented bikes can be unre liable. If the bike breaks down, there are several bicycle repair shops along the way. You will also have to be vigilant of your posses sions.
Martial arts are an important part of the cultural, athletic, and social mix in Vietnam. Many forms are practised here, including the indigenous vo dao, the origins of which go back around 2,000 years. Like judo, it turns the opponent’s strength against him or her, and like kung fu, includes a wide vocabulary of blows. Weapons such as cudgels, swords, and axes can also be incorporated into the practitioner’s repertoire. You can take a course at Nam Huynh Dao School in Ho Chi Minh City. Another martial art that is indigenous to Vietnam is sa long cuong. It stresses the principles of mind over matter, and flexibility over rigidity. Lessons are given at the Youth Culture House of HCMC in Ho Chi Minh City. Various other combative arts such as judo, aikido, and kung fu can be prac tised at Saigon Sports Club in Ho Chi Minh City for a fee. Those who are only interest ed in watching the art can do so for free as well. In some of the city’s parks, particu larly in the Cholon district, it is common to see martial arts instructors practising in full-swing. In Hanoi, taekwondo – a style of unarmed combat for self-defense from Korea – is the most popular martial art, and the English-speaking Bay Taekwondo is one of the best places to practice.
With over 800 species recorded in the country, Vietnam is a prime destination for bird- watching enthusiasts. The country is also an impor tant breeding ground for many migratory birds, and the more common birds can be spotted everywhere. Tour agencies are beginning to include specialized tours in their itineraries, and informa tion is easy to come by in tourist offices. In the last decade, Vietnam has been subject to outbreaks of bird flu, but currently, the situation is under control.
Vietnam is home to one of the most interest ing cui sines in the world. While culi nary tours can be expensive, most epi cures swear by them. New York- based Absolute Travel offers a luxury tour that starts in Ho Chi Minh City, moves on to Hoi An and Hue and wraps up in Hanoi. In little more than a week, it gives you the chance to sample the basic styles of Vietnamese cooking. Cookery classes can be another option. Many hotels offer courses, one of the best being Madame Thi Kim Hai’s at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in Hanoi. This half-day course takes you on a trip to the market and then back to the kitchen to prepare the ingredients in northern style. Another interesting course is at Vy’s Market Restaurant & Cooking School in Hoi An.
Some of Vietnam’s best spas are part of luxurious hotel complexes, like the Six Senses Hideaway Ninh Van Bay in Ninh Hoa. However, other, smaller spas are also making a mark, such as the Thap Ba Hot Springs in Nha Trang, and Botanica Spa and Forester Beach Spa in Mui Ne.