THERE are several ‘must-see before I die’ places in the world. Vietnam is one of them. It is a one-stop-travel destination. Whether you’re a history buff, food fundi, culture connoisseur or nature enthusiast – Vietnam has it all!
Where is it?
Vietnam is an inverted S-shaped south-east Asian country in the northern hemisphere. It shares borders with Cambodia and Laos in the west, China to the north and the South China Sea to the east. It is a narrow land, stretched from north to south, as if in sympathy with the way in which this hardy nation has throughout its history had to struggle for survival against much larger foes.
How to get there?
The major ingress routes to Vietnam are via the international airports in Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) and the nation’s capital Hanoi. Most large airlines, and a number of budget ones, fly into these two destinations. Local airlines provide for cheap internal flights. HCMC is in the south of Vietnam while Hanoi is in the north, which makes independent itinerary planning a breeze. The only decision to make is, do I fly into Saigon and travel north, or do I land in Hanoi and travel south?
How do I get around?
The tourist trail in Vietnam is extremely well developed and many tour agencies provide a plethora of services to ferry clients from one destination to another. Unfortunately, Vietnam does suffer an above average road death toll, which prompted me to cover longer distances by air or train, and used tour agencies to arrange a bus or chauffeured vehicle for shorter trips.
Where to go?
It doesn’t really matter whether you travel from south to north, or north to south. I started off in the south and made my way to Central and then Northern Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City
Saigon is the old capital of South Vietnam. It is a vibrant and lively city, with colonial French architecture, peaceful temples and colourful markets to charm any visitor. It is also the ideal launching pad for a one- or two-night Mekong Delta cruise! Another interesting day-trip is a visit to the enigmatic Cao Dai Temple near the border with Cambodia and a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels on the way back. More adventurous travellers even have the opportunity to go down into the tunnels, which is quite an experience!
While some Vietnamese locals shake their heads at Hoi An as a destination choice, international tourists absolutely love this small Unesco heritage-listed town. The Old Town has some stunningly preserved Old Houses, complete with flood markings on the walls. However, what draws most visitors is the exceptional service provided by scores of tailors that ply their trade in this dream location. Guided only by a fashion photograph out of Vogue, your hand-picked tailor will do all the measurements, select the material and fashion a designer garment at a ridiculously low price – all overnight! I even had shoes fashioned, based on the newest fashion, and it was ready for collection the following day.
Danang, in Central Vietnam, is only about an hour’s drive from Hoi An and one of the country’s major ports. While most visitors skip Danang, this city has tremendous development potential. It has superb beaches, such as the famous China Beach and even more beautiful Lang Co Beach, but those interested in history and culture will find the Cham Museum extremely interesting – particularly after a half-day visit to the My Son Cham ruins near Hoi An. Another must-see in Danang is a trip up Marble Mountain, which offers superb views over the coastline.
Another hour north of Danang is the former Imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue. Central Vietnam holds particular significance for visitors from the United States, who visit the former demilitarised zone, however, I found the Forbidden Purple City and Royal Tombs in Hue a fascinating glimpse into Vietnam’s past. Hue also boasts the scenic Pearl River and a night-time cruise, serenaded by traditional musicians while watching floating candles light up the inky black water, will melt the sternest of hearts.
Most travellers are diametrically opposed to whether they prefer Saigon or Hanoi. Those who love Saigon often hate Hanoi; those who favour Hanoi often dislike Saigon. However, there is no doubting the many attractions bustling Hanoi has to offer. The Old Quarter in particular is a hive of activity and if Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum doesn’t interest you, the famous and beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake or a water puppet performance are bound to do the trick! Hanoi is also a good springboard for visits to the eerie karsts-worlds of Tam Coc and Halong Bay.
An unmissable part of Vietnam! An overnight train journey from Hanoi, Sapa is a wonderfully picturesque village in the mountains and valleys of northern Vietnam, very near the Chinese border. This is where the minority tribes, such as the Black Hmong, Rainbow Hmong, Red Dzao and others lead a frugal but colourful life. Doing a trek from Sapa to one or more of the many small hill tribe villages and staying overnight with a local family is a lifetime experience! Western folk think they can make hot chips? I had the best garlic coated hot potato chips in the world made by a Black Hmong girl sitting on her haunches over a small home kitchen fire… Stupendous!
Without a doubt, along with Sapa, the highlight of any visit to Vietnam! Cruising slowly on a junk, sails snapping in the breeze, karsts jutting in strange configurations from the becalmed ocean – it is simply another world… Many traditional junks ply their trade along this famous stretch of water, ranging from budget options to luxury two-night cruises. If there is one time in your life that you want to spoil yourself, this is it! No matter how small your budget, skimp and save and book the best you can find; you will not be disappointed. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience – enjoy it to its fullest!
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