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Insider Guide: Best of Vietnam

Nha Trang -- where doing nothing comes easy.

CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.

(CNN)Whatever the movies have taught you about Vietnam, forget it.

The country is shedding its old look, disrobing itself of the heavy cloak of history to become a pulsating, spirited destination able not just to compete, but to surpass its peers in the region.
You want to spend?
    Try a shopping trip to Ho Chi Minh City's sparkling high-rise malls.
    You want to lounge?
    Head for any of the beaches and luxury resorts that dot the coast.
    You want to party till dawn, breakfast on a boat and explore caves and diving spots in the afternoon?
    Vietnam not only has you covered, it'll have first-timers wondering why they never made the trip out before and old hands already planning what to do in Vietnam next year.

    Hanoi

    The best place to begin in Hanoi is with the city's top tourist draw -- the Old Quarter.
    Here centuries of commerce can be charted amid labyrinthine streets and tiny alleyways.
    Hanoi, however, isn't all about classic images of old Asia.
    You'll find classy lounges that wouldn't be out of place in any world metropolis and bohemian hangouts where locals, foreign residents and visitors gather to soak in the atmosphere.
    If you're wondering what to do in Vietnam, and where to start, Hanoi is a good welcomer.

    Hotels

    Luxury
    Hanoi Sofitel Plaza
    Previously looked upon as the poor relation of Hanoi's two Sofitel-owned properties (hardly surprising when the other is the revered Metropole Hotel), the Sofitel Plaza was re-launched in April this year following a major refurbishment.
    The new look is an appealing blend of Oriental charm and contemporary elegance.
    Major attractions include the setting near West Lake and lofty Summit Lounge bar on the hotel's 20th floor.
    Mid-range
    InterContinental West Lake
    You'll get a modicum of peace away from the city's insane traffic on the shores of bucolic Tay Ho (West Lake) at InterContinental's impressive Hanoi property.
    Rooms in the main building are everything you'd expect from a major international chain, but for something a little more secluded book a room in one of the pavilions that jut out onto the surface of the water.
    Budget
    Golden Silk Hotel
    Smart, well-appointed, good value.
    One of several smart, intimate boutique hotels that have muscled in on Hanoi's hospitality scene, Golden Silk doesn't try too hard to be trendy.
    That's a good thing.
    It has smart, trim, comfortable and tasteful rooms and friendly service -- a good value in the heart of the Old Quarter.
    Extra touches include a mini-bar and a steam room and Jacuzzi.

    Dining

    Quan An Ngon
    Rarely has a name been so apt. The English translation of this flawless venue is "delicious restaurant."
    The concept is simple yet ingenious.
    Much of the best food in Vietnam can be found on the streets -- the owners here have decided to serve local street staples in more upmarket surroundings.
    Gentrification hasn't come at the cost of authenticity. If you're fortunate enough to be eating with a local you'll navigate the menu easily.
    If you're clueless just take a stab in the dark -- it's all good.
    The salads are exemplary, especially the goi ngo sen (lotus stem salad with shrimp and pork).
    Pots 'n Pans
    Founded by graduates from KOTO -- a Hanoi restaurant that works to train homeless and disadvantaged children in hospitality skills -- Pots and Pans is one of the city's best dining venues.
    The food blends fresh Vietnamese produce with international cooking techniques and presentation.
    Dishes such as pork hock croquettes and Australian beef rolled in betel leaf prove that "fusion" is still a culinary style with lots of territory to explore.
    El Gaucho Argentinean Steakhouse
    Argentineans are generally as adept at handling premium slices of beef as they are at kicking a football around -- this new outlet hits the mark as unerringly as a Lionel Messi free kick.
    The smart interior, which includes relaxed downstairs seating at the bar and a more formal dining area upstairs, is dotted with arty images of Latin America.
    The menu is meat-dominated.
    A full range of grilled items is available, but the star attractions are the steaks, which include flawless Wagyu tenderloin and prime USDA Angus rib eye.
    Halia Hanoi
    Halia Hanoi is one of the city's few fine-dining places worthy of the term, having won a string of accolades and a loyal audience since opening two years back.
    Fusion is the ethos here, with fresh Asian ingredients and marinating techniques that wouldn't be out of place in Paris.
    Standout dishes such as slow-cooked duck breast with chestnut stuffing and a tender poached cod with mushrooms and Chinese spices nail the brief with nonchalant flair.

    Nightlife

    Tadioto
    Another venue that marks Hanoi out as artier than anywhere else in Vietnam, Tadioto is the brainchild of poet, scriptwriter, journalist and all round Renaissance man Nguyen Qui Duc.
    The venue serves as a gathering point for the city's creative and intellectual set.
    While most easily described as a bar, it's also a forum for the arts with literary readings, installations, live music and exhibitions.
    Hanoi Rock City
    Hanoi Rock City is proof that despite a midnight curfew, Hanoi has nonetheless developed a hip nightlife scene.
    Outdoors, a massive English-style beer garden -- complete with giant screen for big sporting events -- packs in revelers most nights.
    The upstairs space is dedicated to all things musical, with live bands and DJs playing everything from straight ahead indie and rock to dubstep, heavy bass and reggae.
    CAMA ATK Bar
    The CAMA guys have been providing righteous light in the general murk that is Vietnam's left field music scene for more than five years.
    The independent promoters put on an annual music festival that's the closest thing Vietnam has to Glastonbury, bringing more than 50 international acts to the country since starting out.
    This, their latest venue, draws the city's music lovers with its eclectic program of live acts and DJs.
    With a range of potent cocktails and local and imported beers, the bar is a convivial place even if there's nothing on.

    Shopping/Attractions

    Old Quarter
    The Southeast Asia postcard.
    In many ways the Old Quarter is the Asia of popular imagination: vibrant and often stomach-turning market scenes, vendors in conical hats and hidden pagodas patrolled by impassive cats and shaven-headed monks.
    Shopping opportunities abound at markets such as Dong Xuan and streets such as Hang Gai (silk) and Hang Da (leather).
    Meanwhile, the area's famous Communal Houses -- mini-temples that are mostly protected from the street by well-disguised entrances -- provide respite from the bustle.
    True Colors Street Food Tour
    Dining possibilities may be endless in Hanoi, but most visitors don't even manage to get beyond the basics.
    That's why Daniel Hoyer is a godsend.
    A well regarded chef in Hanoi, he knows the capital's mind-boggling street food culture as intimately as anyone.
    His full- and half-day tours introduce participants to an array of local (and always excellent) fare they wouldn't have a hope of finding on their own.
    True Colors Street Food Tour, 18 Hang Be; +84 9 1223 3966
    Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
    Intelligent insight into Vietnam's tribes.
    Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum draws more tourists, but when it comes to investigating Vietnam's rich tapestry of cultures this excellent museum is the best place to start.
    Vietnam has around 54 ethnic minority groups -- mostly in the mountainous regions.
    In contrast to other museums in Vietnam, most of which are either politically skewed or offer little or no meaningful insight, this one details its subject matter intelligently through a range of media, including video and photography as well as costumes, tools, implements and arts and crafts.

    Ho Chi Minh City

    Also known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is changing at a pace that would shame the most reckless of motorcycle taxi drivers.
    Business towers, office blocks, glitzy shopping malls, high-end real estate developments, urban regeneration projects, visually stunning new bridges -- you name it, this city has got it and is about to get much more of it.
    While all the progress is sometimes mourned by old timers, life is never dull when you're in the thick of it.
    In fact, it's the city's limitless vitality that furnishes much of its allure.

    Hotels

    Luxury
    Park Hyatt Saigon
    Probably the most prestigious address in Saigon, the city's Hyatt is a five-star hotel among the cluster of properties flanking the Opera House and Lam Son Square, ideal for business travelers and tourists who like to vacation in splendor.
    Rooms run from functional luxury to unforgettable opulence.
    There's a giant pool to lounge by and a high quality spa for pampering.
    The hotel's 2 Lam Son Bar could well be one of the most stylish lobby bars in the world, while its restaurants are among the best high-end options in the city.
    An Lam Saigon River Private Residence
    A 15-minute speedboat ride from downtown Saigon, this boutique resort couldn't feel further from the vehicular insanity and thick smog that characterizes Vietnam's largest city.
    With 14 rooms -- a mixture of opulent riverfront villas with private pools and smaller but still special accommodations -- the property is intimate and peaceful.
    The main pool is shaded by tropical foliage while the restaurant and deck bar are ideal for riverside down time.
    Mid-range
    Hotel Nikko Saigon
    This recent addition to the business hotel scene offers spanking new rooms with a contemporary trim and an average room size of 40 square meters.
    They're among the most spacious in their class in the city.
    The hotel is located near the Saigon River and close to all the action downtown.
    Restaurant options include Ming Court (Chinese) and Fuji (Japanese).

    Dining

    Cuc Gach Quan
    Despite serving some of the best Vietnamese food in the city in a serene converted house, Cuc Gach Quan's location on the outer limits of District 1 is often a deterrent to short-term visitors.
    It shouldn't be.
    As it is at many Vietnamese restaurants, the menu is tome-like.
    Homemade tofu is creamy and pliant and sure to convince the doubters.
    Other highlights include soft shell crab and beautifully textured red rice.
    An extensive wine list and reasonable prices make it even more imperative to steer a course here.
    Monsoon
    With its airy setting and immaculate interior design, Monsoon feels like a top-end venue, but stays true to the Asian street dining idea of great food at low prices.
    With Cambodian, Vietnamese, Burmese, Thai and Laotian offerings, it's the only place in town where diners can mix and match a banquet from across mainland Southeast Asia.
    Top picks include a sweet pork curry from Myanmar and a flawless take on Khmer fish Amok.
    Banh Xeo 46A
    It's not hard to see why the banh xeo ("sizzling pancake") has become such a hit with foreigners.
    Unlike some Vietnamese creations, there are no challenges or nasty surprises.
    Rice flour, water, turmeric powder (the source of the pancakes' vibrant yellow coloring) and coconut milk are combined to make the batter, which is stuffed with fatty pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, then pan-fried.
    The crisp result is served alongside a veritable hedgerow of aromatic herbs and dipped in nuoc cham (fish sauce thinned with water and lemon).
    The result is one of the most addictive treats in the Vietnamese culinary armory -- this is one of the best venues at which to get hooked.

    Nightlife

    Chill Skybar
    The place to be seen, and to see.
    This is Saigon's most opulent sky bar.
    Since opening in October 2011 it has earned a lofty reputation with great cocktails and good food.
    The A-list Vietnamese celebs and models who have made this their watering hole of choice may beg to differ, but the real star of the show is the stunning view over Saigon.
    Yoko
    Saigon may be a party city, but cerebral types can have a tough task tracking down bohemia.
    Hipster hangout Yoko, however, offers respite from all the dumb fun.
    While some of the cover bands are merely so-so, this is the place where Saigon musicians convene for some decent sets and jam sessions.
    Throw reasonably priced drinks and comfortable sofas into the mix and you've got a recipe for a cool, unpretentious, bar -- a simple, but rare concept in HCMC.
    Lush
    Every upwardly mobile metropolis needs a place for its beautiful people to preen and this is Saigon's.
    Most nights of the week the city's stylish set check each other out over expensive cocktails on the crowded terrace, one of the classiest pick-up spots in town.
    Top international DJs don't tend to make the detour from Bangkok, KL and Singapore, but when they do they usually end up here, meaning there's a better than average hits-to-misses ratio with the music.
    Tuesday's Ladies Night is a particularly popular weekly event.

    Shopping/Attractions

    Ben Thanh Market
    The daddy of Saigon's many markets, Ben Thanh is by far the most popular tourist shopping spot in the city.
    From buckets of jumping frogs in the wet market to clothes, fabrics and souvenirs in the teeming narrow alleys, this place puts the "Ay!" into buying.
    Prices are somewhat higher than at markets elsewhere and only the hardest of bargainers are rewarded with anything approaching a good deal.
    Nevertheless, it's a lively experience and several great food stalls at the back of the market make it a fine place to take a crash course in Vietnamese street cuisine.
    Sophie's Art Tour
    Devised by English émigré Sophie Hughes, Sophie's Art Tour looks at Vietnam's tumultuous history through the eyes of its artists.
    The timeline of colonialism, war, communism and breakneck free-market development is familiar to most visitors, but the art these phases inspired is generally not.
    Hughes spent nearly a year researching the tour, interviewing experts, artists and collectors, and the result is a fascinating introduction to Vietnamese art and a compelling history lesson.
    Reunification Palace
    The striking modern building was built on the site of the palace of the French governor-general of Cochin China in the early 1960s and its design (by Paris-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu) remains one of the finest examples of modern architecture in the city.
    When a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the wrought iron gates on April 30, 1975, it sounded the death knell for the South Vietnamese government.
    A replica of the tank still sits on the lawn while attractions inside include the grand Presidential Receiving Room and an eerie basement with telecommunications center, war room and network of tunnels.

    Beaches

    Although it lacks the reputation for beautiful beaches accorded to Thailand or the Philippines, beach lovers won't feel shortchanged by the beaches found along Vietnam's snaking coastline.
    Most tourists head for the resort hot spots of Danang, Hoi An, Nha Trang and Mui Ne, but there's a plethora of unsung havens where pulling up a sun lounger and slapping on the SPF 30 will be the limit to your exertions.

    Danang

    Luxury and charm at the Danang Sun Peninsula Resort.
    Previously used by tourists as a hopping-off point for the nearby heritage town of Hoi An, Danang is staking a claim as Vietnam's top beach destination.
    Several big name hotel brands have set up by the shores of the South China Sea and a spanking new airport terminal is another clue to the city's ambitions.
    It's got a lot going for it. Danang's portion of China Beach is clean and broad while the views of the mountainous Son Tra Peninsula are great.
    Throw in the easy access to prime sights and attractions such as Hoi An, the Cham ruins at My Son and some great golf courses and you can see why Danang is gaining in popularity.
    Stay
    Eat

    Nha Trang

    It has its critics -- National Geographic has been especially disparaging -- but Nha Trang remains one of Vietnam's most popular beach towns.
    While the main beach can get overcrowded on weekends and in late afternoon, the beach is pleasant and the town has plenty of decent options for drinking, dining and accommodation.
    For something a bit more relaxed, the idyllic beaches of Doc Let and Jungle Beach are found north of the city.
    Spotless white sands can be found south toward Cam Ranh Airport.
    Stay
    Eat

    Phu Quoc

    Vietnam's southernmost beach destination is a favorite for those who seek minimal distraction.
    You can visit a pearl farm or a fish sauce factory (Phu Quoc is famed for the stinky condiment).
    Most, however, prefer to kick back with a book, eat fresh seafood and float aimlessly in the bathtub-calm waters of the Gulf of Thailand.
    Stay

    Halong Bay

    Caving and kayaking also available.
    The jewel in Vietnam's crown, Halong Bay retains its luster despite grumbles of eco-vandalism and overcrowding.
    The sight of the scattered jungle-covered outcrops of karst rising up from the emerald water is unforgettable.
    While it's true that the Bay has become something of a victim of its own popularity -- many tours are predictable and yours will be one of hundreds of cameras trying to capture the majesty of the scenery at sunset -- it remains an essential stop on any Vietnam itinerary.
    Stay

    Sapa

    The towering mountains in the far north of Vietnam on the border with China offer some of the country's most compelling visual and cultural stimuli.
    The hills around Sapa are home to a range of minorities, including Hmong, Dao, Giay, Pho, Lu and Tay, and the town serves as an ideal base for trekking among the tribes.
    The scenery is awe-inspiring, with Vietnam's highest mountain, Fansipan (3,142 meters), dominating the view.
    Sapa itself has a thriving tourism industry, meaning that it's easy enough to hunker down at a bar or in a café on one of the frequent foggy days.
    Eat

    Hoi An

    The UNESCO-protected ancient town is by far Vietnam's most tourist-friendly destination.
    Even those who don't particularly like the rest of the country usually come away with a good impression.
    The narrow streets near the Thu Bon River are lined with beautifully preserved merchant houses, while narrow alleys lead to hidden temples and garden restaurants.
    Motor vehicles are banned from the old quarter, making this one place in Vietnam you can take a leisurely stroll without fear of being hit or honked at by an impatient motorist.
    It's Vietnam lite, but the great dining scene, easy access to nearby China Beach and sheer prettiness of it all defies cynicism.
    Stay
    Eat

    Further afield

    Con Dao Islands
    Lucky ones will spot turtles.
    One of Vietnam's last frontiers, this former penal colony offers wild, untamed scenery, spotless beaches and one of the region's most important nesting grounds for sea turtles.
    Con Dao was once a name that struck fear into French colonists and later Americans and their client regime in Saigon as the country turned into a fearsome cage for political opponents.
    The area's persona is significantly gentler these days, but it still remains a far cry from the more sanitized destinations on the mainland coast.
    The disused prison is a vivid reminder of darker times, but the archipelago's main draw is its natural attributes.
    Stay
    Ho Chi Minh Highway
    The route between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi has become a rite-of-passage motorbike adventure for many and taking the Ho Chi Minh Highway is the best way of doing it.
    Extending 1,235 kilometers from Kon Tum Province in the Central Highlands to Hoa Lac in Hanoi, the road passes through some of Vietnam's most spectacular scenery.
    It's peaceful compared with the truck-clogged nightmare of Highway 1A, the country's main north/south highway.
    The route passes battlefields like Khe Sanh and the Ia Drang Valley, skirts tribal villages and offers easy access to some of the country's top attractions.
    Vietnam Motorbike Tour has day trips and tours.
    Mekong Delta
    Most visitors to Vietnam experience the Mekong Delta, but the country's verdant rice bowl deserves more than just a one-day tour from Saigon.
    A lush landscape of emerald green fields, shady woods and sleepy villages crisscrossed by canals and rivulets fed by the mighty river, the Delta is Vietnam's land of plenty.
    Formed by sediment deposited by the Mekong, the area is one of the most fertile and productive in the world.
    One of the best ways to see it is by bicycle, from which the languid pace of daily life can be observed at leisure.