Vietnam is an utter assault on the senses; it is at once dizzying, frenetic and fascinating. Yet it is lovable. The Vietnamese are friendly and endlessly generous, and traveling the country is nothing but a delight. The cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are both chaotic and captivating: the capital Hanoi is the focus for arts in Vietnam and has been since its foundation in the year 1010, while Ho Chi Minh, still referred to as Saigon, is the business hub, but no less interesting. The imperial city of Hue offers a well-preserved insight in to Vietnam's proud past.
Bustling street life
Life in urban Vietnam is conducted on the streets. In bia hoi (pavement pubs) men sup ice-cold beer and nibble on boiled quails eggs. Odours from makeshift food stalls fill the nostrils: see steaming pho, a noodle soup with various unidentifiable chunks of meat, or grilled chicken feet. Along nearly all the moped-clogged streets produce is sold. Tubs wriggle with live sturgeon, crabs and frogs (still a delicacy from French colonial days), baskets are top heavy with colorful and bizarre fruit, and every possible piece of a pig is on sale.
Traditional country ways
Rural Vietnam is entirely different. Just a short distance from the cities, water buffalo wallow in green rice paddies and elegant women wearing traditional conical headwear cycle along dusty paths. Vietnam's remarkable geography, from the lush Mekong Delta in the south to the remote Sapa valleys in the north, demonstrates a traditional way of life.
Vietnam lies within the tropics and is principally agricultural with a central tropical rainforest. The ‘S'-shaped country shares borders to the north with the People's Republic of China and to the west with Laos and Cambodia. The eastern and southern shores are lapped by the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
Northern Vietnam is dominated by the Red River plains that bisect Hanoi, and the Lo and Chay rivers. To the north and west of Hanoi are green hilly areas; particularly well known is the Sapa Valley. East of Hanoi, Ha Long Bay features a stunning natural formation of more than 3,000 limestone islands jutting sharply out of the South China Sea.
To the south, it is the Mekong River and its fertile plain that governs the geography and consequently the rice industry. Among the plains, in the middle of the thin country and to the southwest are mountainous areas, known as the highlands, where farmers grow rubber, tea and coffee.
Hanoi & the North Hanoi
The capital, Hanoi, sprawls on the banks of the Red River. It is a beautiful city that retains an air of French colonial elegance with pretty yellow stucco buildings lining leafy streets. Hanoi is also a city of lakes, which adds to its air of sleepy grace. At present there are relatively few cars – many people travel by bicycle or moped. It is a city that appears lodged in a bygone age. In the middle of the city lies the peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) with the 18th-century Ngoc Son Temple (Jade Mountain Temple) sitting on an island in its center.
The temple can be reached by The Huc Bridge (Rising Sun Bridge). To the north of Hoan Kiem Lake is the Old Quarter, a fascinating maze of small antiquated streets lined with markets and pavement restaurants and cafes. West of the Old Quarter and south of the West Lake is the former Ville Française. This is the old French administrative center and is characterized by enormous colonial-era châteaux and wide spacious boulevards.
It also houses Hanoi’s most popular attraction, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. When visiting the Mausoleum, it is important to be respectful both in dress and attitude. Ho Chi Minh was the father of the modern state and is still held in reverential regard. His house, built in 1958, is also on public view. Other museums in Hanoi include the Bao Tang Lich Su (History Museum), the Bao Tang Quan Doi (Army Museum), Ho Chi Minh Museum, Bao Tang My Thuat (Fine Arts Museum), Bao Tang Cach Manh (Revolutionary Museum) and Independence Museum.
There are a number of interesting pagodas in Hanoi. The One Pillar Pagoda, first constructed in 1049 (subsequently destroyed by the French just before they were ejected from the city and then rebuilt by the new government), was built to resemble a lotus flower – the symbol of purity rising out of a sea of sorrow. The Temple of Literature built in 1076 was the first university in Vietnam.
It is a graceful complex of small intricate buildings and peaceful courtyards. To the northwest of the Citadel is the West Lake, which is about 13km (9 miles) in circumference. The shores of the lake are popular amongst the Hanoians for picnics and there are a number of cafes. The lake also contains the wreckage of a crashed American B52 bomber.
About 160km (100 miles) from Hanoi, near the port of Haiphong, is Ha Long Bay. This is an amazing complex of 3000 chalk islands rising out of the South China Sea. The area is strange, eerie and very beautiful. Many of the islands contain bizarre cave formations and grottoes. Near Ha Long Bay is Catba Island, a designated National Park and a rich repository of plants and wildlife.
About 250km (155 miles) north of Hanoi, high in the Hoang Lien Mountains, is the old hill station of Sapa. This area is inhabited by the Hmong and Zhao hill tribes. Every weekend there is a market when the local tribespeople come into town to trade. In the evening, they celebrate with huge amounts of potent rice alcohol. It is absolutely vital that when visiting this area tourists are sensitive to local culture and traditions. If one follows the road from Sapa 200km (125 miles) further into the mountains (this can only realistically be attempted by jeep), one reaches Dien Bien Phu, scene of the humiliating defeat of the French by the Viet Minh that finally put paid to French colonial occupation in Indochina. This is a wild, beautiful and remote region.
Midway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City lies the city of Hue. The former capital of the emperors of Vietnam, it is known for its beautiful imperial architecture, although a great deal of this was destroyed during the Tet offensive in 1968. The Perfume River forms the border between the city itself and the former ‘Forbidden Purple City’, the mighty Citadel. This ‘city within a city’ with its tombs, pagodas and lakes covered in lotus flowers was largely destroyed during the Vietnam War, but one can still see evidence of its former magnificence. Within easy reach of the city are the tombs of several of Vietnam’s emperors. Most interesting, perhaps, are the Tomb of Minh Mang and the Tomb of Tu Duc. The city also houses fine examples of Buddhist pagodas and other temples, such as the Thien Mu Pagoda.
Near Hue is Da Nang, city of China Beach, the Marble Mountains and the Cham Museum, which houses magnificent examples of the art of the Indianised Cham civilization. Approximately 20km (12 miles) from Da Nang is Hoi An. This is a delightful small riverine town replete with temple and pagodas.
A day’s drive from Hoi An, through some of Vietnam’s most breathtaking scenery, is Nha Trang. This is a pleasant resort with a good beach. From here it is easy to reach the town of Da Lat in the Central Highlands, evocative of a typical French town, which is popular among domestic tourists for its cool climate and alpine scenery.
Ho Chi Minh & the South
Ho Chi Minh City
Set back from the delta formed by the Mekong River, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the main commercial center of the southern part of Vietnam, receiving its name in honor of the leader who successfully led the nation against both France and the USA. Locals still like to refer to it as Saigon. More modern than other Vietnamese cities, Ho Chi Minh City has also retained its French colonial influences. Its vibrancy is maintained by the ever-entrepreneurial Saigonese who have taken the Government reforms to heart and re-embraced the capitalist ethic with unrestrained enthusiasm.
The streets are jam-packed with mopeds and scooters, often carrying whole families. The markets are chaotically busy. There is a lot to see in Ho Chi Minh City. The colorful Emperor of Jade Pagoda is an excellent example of a Chinese temple. Inside, there are elaborate woodcarvings decorated with gilded characters and sculptures depicting local deities. The hustle and bustle of trading is best observed in the markets of Cholon, the ancient Chinese Quarter.
The Hôtel de Ville is a wonderful example of French colonial architecture. The twin towers of Notre Dame Cathedral have been a familiar landmark in Ho Chi Minh City since the 1880s. The War Remnants Museum bears witness to the suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.
Other sites relevant to that era are Re-Unification Hall and the former US Embassy. An interesting excursion from Saigon is a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels in which the South Vietnamese Communists concealed themselves and from which they launched attacks on US soldiers.
Northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, Tay Ninh is an interesting destination as it is the home of the Caodai religion. This is a purely Vietnamese sect formed this century which takes teachings and precepts from most of the world’s major religions. Tay Ninh is the site of the largest Caodaist temple in Vietnam. This structure is colorful and unique.
South of Ho Chi Minh city are the flat, verdant planes of the Mekong Delta where much of Vietnam’s rice crop is grown. There are several towns in this region from which the visitor can take boat trips on the many tributaries of the Mekong.