Although Halong Bay is the big draw to Vietnam for most tourists, there are plenty of other parts of the country that have a lot to offer. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are loaded with history, delicious food, and even a little bit of charm.
Unfortunately, my time spent in Hanoi was accompanied by a typhoon, so I hid under my raincoat for a good portion of my visit. I stayed at the Essence Hotel, which I highly recommend to anyone visiting. This place has top notch service, a great location in the Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem Lake, a killer breakfast spread, and is a steal at a mere $60/night. For those looking for a one or two night stop over before heading to Halong Bay, this is a great pick.
After Halong Bay, I headed down to Ho Chi Minh City. I stayed at the Lotte Legend Saigon, which was very conveniently located, and I walked just about everywhere on my stay. After a good nights rest, my first stop was the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, which is one of the many architectural manifestations of the French influence in Vietnam.
After that, it was just a short walk to the Reunification Palace. I would definitely recommend taking one of the free tours that they offer at the main entrance. It lasts about an hour and the tour guide has a lot of interesting information, but may only be meaningful if you have a basic understanding of the history behind the war.
For a more thought provoking experience, I headed over the the War Remnants Museum. It is a bit emotional wandering through the halls looking at pictures of everything from the My Lai Massacre to the victims of Agent Orange. But, all in all, I think the experience helps put the culture and overall feeling of Vietnam in better perspective.
Almost everyday I was in Saigon I ate lunch at Quan An Ngon on Pasteur St. in District 1. The pho, vermicelli, and rice dumplings were some of my favorites, but everything was delicious and they have something on the menu for everyone. My dinner highlight would be my meal at Opera located in the Park Hyatt. While it's not traditional Vietnamese cuisine, it's still absolutely delicious and worth a visit.