All About Vietnam
What’s the first thought that comes into your head when you think ‘Vietnam’? War right? Yup, I thought so… But since the war ended in 1975 (yes it’s literally been just over 40 years!) the country has rebuilt its magnificent self without forgetting (or imposing upon the new) its war torn history. What you now find is a breathtaking, exotic and culturally rich country which has opened its arms to travellers from all over the globe… Yes, even the Americans! 😉
Not a lot of people would consider Vietnam as a ‘holiday destination’, I mean… for 1, it’s a minimum of a 12 or 13 hour direct flight from the UK (which already makes it too far for a two week vacation… maybe?!) 2, we don’t know much about its exotic coastline and beaches and 3, there isn’t a lot of ‘Visit Vietnam’ promotion on the telly. But for those that do decide that this is a country they want to explore, well these people are in for a treat.
What to do in Vietnam
First thing is first, what not to do… don’t stay in once place! Vietnam is a long country (literally long and… it’s pretty skinny, only 50km wide in some parts)… to stay put in one resort would be blasphemy! The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming wherever you go. The hospitality is charming as are all the cities from north to south. On that note you can do it north to south or south to north. I did the former.
Hanoi – the Capital City. Just as crazy by day as it was by night. Landing in Hanoi after a long flight from London I was picked up and dropped off at my beautiful boutique hotel The Essence O’rient Spa Hotel, in the middle of the old town. I’d picked this hotel due to its extremely central location, what I didn’t expect after squeezing through single car roads and nearly running over a bike, was the complete culture shock that overwhelmed me as I jumped out of the cab! If you’ve been to Delhi let me tell you, this place was x10 the crazy! Why? Because there are nearly 4 million motorbikes in Hanoi and every single one of them was in the old town exactly when I arrived! (Or so it seemed).
‘Motorbike City’ let’s call it that, a place where you could sit by the lake and be mesmerised by every single passing bike, so much so that you’d miss the French architecture, the huge parks, the gorgeous temples, the tales of the turtle and the uniquely French take on Vietnamese food.
I was lucky enough to have arrived at the latter end of Tet, the first lunar month of the calendar year where the Vietnamese people pay respect to their ancestors and welcome in the new year. There were lanterns and blessings at the pagoda, the streets were buzzing with celebrations and for one night only they closed all the streets to bikes, so crossing the road wasn’t as scary as a normal Hanoi day or night!
When you go to Hanoi, I literally beg you to take a street food tour, it might have been the best thing I did as an introduction to Vietnam. As the fresh flavours burst on your palette you’ll be so glad you took my advice! So, get lost, don’t get run over, eat Bhan Mi and drink iced coconut coffee but whatever you do, don’t miss the capital city… There’s nowhere else quite like it on earth (well there may be but I’ve not yet come across it).
Second stop on my tour, I stayed on a junk boat in… Halong Bay – (descending dragon bay). A UNESCO World Heritage Site that has over 1,960 islands and islets and was lucky to I visit 3 (but sail past hundreds!). Jump on an overnight stay on a junk boat, spend the day kayaking through blue lagoons and caves, then spend the night star gazing on the top deck. Whatever you do you have to visit the Halong Bay caves, to me it was like being inside ‘the cave of wonders’ (if you know you know). A huge collection of cavernous caves connected via small tunnels. So magnificent and beautiful that it’s been imprinted in my brain for life.
After Halong Bay head south to Hue (pronounced who-aye) and visit the Forbidden City where the last kings of Vietnam lived with numerous concubines. A huge city worth getting lost in… and if you can then jump on a motorbike tour through rice paddys and visit temples outside the city for a more rural view of the country.
My favourite city in Vietnam was Hoi An, or ‘Lantern City’ which is smack bang in the middle of this vast country. Entering this city during the day you really don’t get the impact of its beauty. Hoi An city is best explored in the evenings, past 6pm the old town is turned into a walking district only, which means you can actually walk looking upwards and see all the beautiful lanterns in all their glory. Apart from lanterns, Hoi An is known for its tailors. If you’ve seen Top Gear Vietnam you’ll know that Jeremy and boys had custom made suits tailored at Yaly Couture which is now one of the busiest tailors on the street. If you’ve got 3 days in Hoi An, I’d recommend heading there, you may have a number of fittings to attend but the quality is epic. My friend got his wedding suit made at Yaly, the best bit being they keep your measurements for 6 years so you can order online too!
Hoi An is also great for cycling around, the traffic isn’t as crazy as Hanoi which means is great to explore on wheels. I cycled through rice paddys, visited local fruit and veg growers, had the opportunity to ride a water buffalo… (Did I ride one? Hell no, have you seen the size of these beasts!) an also take a ride in a basket boat which I loved!
My final stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Min City formerly Saigon, the city was renamed after Ho Chi Min (the leader of the north and a revolutionist) in 1976 when the north claimed victory over the south. I’m going to use ‘Saigon’ however as this is still a commonly used name for the city.
Saigon is a cosmopolitan city… From tiny streets and flower markets to huge financial districts. The moment I arrived it seemed like a place I could imagine living in, it is like every other major city is this world…. busy, bustling, skyscrapers and roof top bars, it’s a city full of flavours and sounds. But what Saigon has that makes it different to others, is its dark history, and this is apparent by the huge war museum in the centre and the Cu Chi tunnels which are a 30 minute drive outside of the city.
Cu Chi Tunnels – in a word are immense; around 200km of interconnected tunnels with tiny entrances and hiding holes that the Viet Cong Soldiers used as hiding places, schooling, hospitals and living quarters during their resistance to the American forces. These tunnels, or a very small portion of the tunnels are open to the public to show what life was like for the Viet Cong people just over 40 years ago. Inside the tunnels I felt extremely claustrophobic, the air is thin and the tunnels, even though made bigger for westerners are tiny… I managed only 10 meters before I had to get out, others in my group were brave and did about 100m… they had to crawl through tunnels as they got smaller and were sweating due to the intense heat as they came out. An amazing experience was made even better as our tour guide was a war veteran and had spent time as a translator for the Americans… which also meant he had to use guns.
We asked him how he could be a tour guide and continue to return to the Cu Chi Tunnels and hear gun fire (they have a shooting range)… he said talking about it helps him work through the things he saw and his emotions and, he’s learnt to ignore the sound of guns shooting. He was an amazing man and we were lucky to have him as our guide.
Saigon you’ll notice by the architecture was colonised by the French, there’s even a Notre Dame in the centre.
It’s also a great location to get to the Mekong Delta, when you go make sure you do a canoe ride down the river through the mangroves and try to visit some of the islands and try the local fruit choices. It was in the Mekong that I was able to hold a snake (not for long), try local fruits (yummy) and spend time with a local family for lunch. 100% recommended.
So there you have it, Vietnam from north to south, personally I found this to be a great way to explore the country as full emmersion in Hanoi meant the rest of it was easy to acclimatise to. Also the weather got better the further south we went. (Take a light wind breaker or rain jacket… you’ll thank me!)
Would I go back to Vietnam? In a word, yes… because there is so much I haven’t seen, including Sapa in the north and Phu Quoc in the south. The country is so rich and diverse that I’ve barely uncovered the surface, next time I go I may even feel brave enough to hire a motorbike and discover the land at my leisure. So, if you have a few weeks to spare and want the exotic and culturally astounding, then head to Vietnam, I promise you won’t regret it!
Keep your wanderlust alive