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The view of Vietnam from 10,000 metres high is a tropical patchwork of rice paddies, deep emerald green jungles, dramatic coastlines and glittering rivers meandering through densely forested mountains. The best of Vietnam, though, is to be discovered on the ground in the liveliness of its 87 million people, the flavours of its delectable cuisine, and even in the frenetic swarms of horn-tooting motorcyclists.

Vietnam's cities are manic, with Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) being especially intense. Motorbikes, cyclists, horse-drawn wagons and pedestrians disregard traffic lights, road signs and division lines, but do so with a courtesy and a speed that seems to avoid collision. Western visitors stand frozen in amazement (and perhaps a little fear!) at crossings, wondering how on earth they'll make it to the other side in one piece. The locals' advice: when you decide to cross, keep going at the same pace everyone will steer around you!

Ho Chi Minh City, whilst known for its poignant past, is the face of 'new' Vietnam. Modern life meets centuries-old traditions here: shopping malls and coffee shops share space with incense-filled pagodas and roadside street vendors selling bowls of steaming noodle soup. A great way to explore this riverside city is to join a cyclo tour, or hire you own bike. Discover the pagodas of colourful Cholon; the striking Giac Vien Pagoda; the Reunification Palace (where the last days of the Vietnam War were played out) the War Remnants Museum and the History Museum. Stop along the way to sip a deliciously sweet Vietnamese coffee before diving head first into the lively Binh Tay Market. Day tours from Ho Chi Minh include lessons in Vietnam's military past at the Cu Chi tunnels, and a chance to experience rural life among the rivers, canals and orchards of the Mekong Delta.

East of Ho Chi Minh City is the Con Doa Archipelago, with fourteen islands of primeval forest, pristine beaches, coconut groves, coral reefs, and crystal clear waters. Further north is Nha Trang, the country's premier beach resort. While offering visitors the chance to lounge on deckchairs at a beachfront bar and sip cocktails, it also boasts plenty of activities to keep them occupied: island-hopping boat trips, scuba diving, mud-baths, historic sites, some of the best hotels in Vietnam, and 250 days of sunshine each year.

The imperial city of Hue, and the World Heritage listed town of Hoi An are the gems of Central Vietnam's coastal provinces. Straddling the Perfume River, Hue is dominated by majestic temples, impressive pagodas, ancient tombs and the ruins of a once-powerful moated citadel. It is a peaceful enclave of Vietnam's traditions and a place in which time seems to have stopped. Hoi An's distinctive architecture, galleries and tailor shops are drawcards for visitors, as are its French-style cafes and seafood restaurants. It is the place to celebrate the Long Chu Festival each July, which sees local priests and shamans banish evil spirits into the river and its locals celebrate with a procession of lanterns and decorations.

Northern Vietnam's small, elegant capital Hanoi is often called 'the Paris of the Orient'. Dating back to 1010, it is a city with a wealth of historical and spiritual sights to explore including the wide boulevards and large colonial buildings reflecting Hanoi's period as a French Protectorate, beautiful temples, lakes and verdant parklands. With so much to see and do, visitors are best to focus their attention on one of the city's five areas the French Quarter, the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake, the City Centre, and around Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum before taking on another. Each offers a differing view of the city, its heritage and its people, so it would be a shame to rush the experience. Not far from the city is North Vietnam's most famous pilgrimage site, the beautiful Perfume Pagoda. It is said to be named after the spring blossoms that scent the air, and occupies a spectacular grotto that is the final destination of a walk up a 50-metre mountain (a journey that includes a tranquil sampan ride, a 17th-century temple, and frangipani-shaded path leading to the magnificent 17th-century Chua Thien Chu pavilion).

Also in the north are the beautiful regions of Halong Bay, and Sa Pa. Halong is a tranquil, magical bay dotted with more than a thousand limestone islands that rise from the water in dramatic rock formations; concealing extensive grottos and caves that are best explored by kayak. Sapa, located in the Tonkinese mountains, offers visitors an opportunity to sample life in rural Vietnam. Spectacular scenery includes cascading rice terraces that spill down mountains often shrouded in mist. Its valleys and villages are home to a great diversity of ethnic minority and hill-tribe people who trek into town to trade in the daily market. Their distinctive attire and brightly coloured textiles are captivating and provide excellent subject matter for photographers.

The climate in Vietnam varies greatly from north to south with three distinct climatic zones. Tropical monsoons occur from October to April in the centre and from May to September in the north and south. As a general rule, Vietnam's best months are April and May, and October. Southern Vietnam is best visited from November to February when slightly cooler temperatures and fairly dry weather is common. The central coast beaches offer great weather between May and August. Autumn in Halong Bay provides the best likelihood of clear skies.

Click here for our suggestions on events and places to go at various times of year