Colourful river markets, breathtaking scenery, fascinating cities, ancient history and fabulous food – all good reasons to escape the British weather. Kitty Corrigan takes you on a trip around Vietnam...
Imagine whizzing round your local farmers’ market to do the weekly shop – by rowing boat. This is life in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, known as the rice bowl of Asia because of its vast agricultural land. Arriving before dawn, you’ll see dozens of wooden sampans, with produce dangling from long bamboo poles, preparing for the mêlée to follow – several hours of good-natured bartering and bargaining. While boats converge and separate like dodgems, the system of organised chaos seems to work, and customers and merchants go home laden with goods and dong – the national currency. The hawkers are almost always women, plying their trade while their menfolk sit in cafés playing dominoes. ’Twas ever thus…
Hanoi and Uncle Ho
There are at least five must-sees in Vietnam, and they all begin with H: Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi, the capital, is where most visits start, and on the itinerary is the mausoleum of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), affectionately known as Uncle Ho. Despite his wishes to be cremated, the State decreed he should be embalmed and displayed in a massive granite structure in the city centre. Modelled on Lenin’s tomb in Moscow’s Red Square, the forbidding building and the glass case containing the corpse are a stark reminder that you are in a communist country, as you are obliged to file past in an atmosphere of silent solemnity. Among Uncle Ho’s many achievements, the former president gave his name to Ho Chi Minh rubber sandals, which were worn back to front in the Vietnam War (known here as the American War) to deceive enemy troops that they were going in the opposite direction.
If you’re taking a taxi to stay at the Hanoi Hilton, make sure you don’t end up at the wrong one, for this is the nickname given to the notorious jail, Hoa Lo, where prisoners of war were held in squalid conditions. Part of the building is now preserved as a memorial to the horrors of that conflict. It is nearly 45 years since the war ended, and a testimony to the resilience of the population that the country has been steadily rebuilt, and welcomes all nationalities.
The people are invariably kind and generous, often inviting you into their homes to share a meal, and this is an option on many tourist trips. Prepare yourself for seven courses of fresh, herby and not overly spicy dishes – spring rolls, rice pancakes, pho (pronounced ‘fuh’ – rice noodles with meat or tofu), and many varieties of fish from the country’s long coastline. All served with dips of ginger and garlic, coriander and chilli, peanut or soy, and washed down with excellent locally produced beer or rice wine.
To sample the country’s best after-dinner drink, weasel coffee, you’ll need to repair to an upmarket restaurant. This is coffee produced by first feeding the raw beans to a civet cat, which then regurgitates or excretes them. Altered by the mammal’s gastric juices, the result makes a smoother, stronger brew for around £30 a cup. Stephen Fry famously gave weasel coffee to Prince Charles as a present, so if it’s good enough for HRH...
How long to Halong?
After the fast pace of the capital, slow down at Halong Bay, about a four-hour drive away. Famed for its islands of limestone peaks, secluded beaches and caves with gigantic stalactites and stalagmites, this is best enjoyed on an overnight cruise on a fully catered luxury junk. My large, wood-panelled cabin had a modern en suite with a rainforest shower and a self-closing WC.
A train journey in Asia is always memorable, and the 13-hour night ride from Hanoi to Hue is no exception. Booking a first class ‘soft sleeper’ is recommended, as is buying your dinner beforehand to eat on board. The compartments have air con, the bunks are comfortable and the bedding crisply laundered.
On arrival in the morning, head to the Hue Citadel, a complex of palaces, gardens and courtyards dating to 1804, when the final royal dynasty ruled (until 1945). Hue was not only the capital then but also the cultural and religious centre of Vietnam. Inside the Forbidden City, the emperor or ‘Son of Heaven’ lived with his wives and concubines; the only other men allowed in were eunuchs whose job was to choose which woman would spend the night in the royal chamber.
Vietnam: a destination for intrepid travellers
Tailors, temples and turnips
Hoi An, a three-hour drive south of Hue, is worth a two-night stay at least; if only to allow enough time to be fitted for the clothes and accessories you will inevitably buy from one of the many tailors there.
A well-preserved trading port, Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with historic merchants’ houses, Chinese temples and an intricately decorated wooden Japanese bridge. The main walkways are festooned with coloured, hanging lanterns and if you are there at the full moon, you can watch the night-time ceremony of floating candles on the water, performed as a mark of respect to the river and the ancestors.
For a taste of rural living, hire a bicycle and ride to the village of Tra Que. This is a giant market garden with perfectly straight rows of seedlings being tended by conical-hatted men and women, raking and watering produce that will feed the urban population. It’s hard, manual labour, this form of farming, and it hasn’t changed in three centuries. More than 40 types of vegetables are grown here, fertilised by seaweed gathered nearby. Fishing boats have eyes painted on the front to frighten away any bad spirits, while water buffalo chew the cud on lush grassland by the lakes.
Don't miss Saigon
Vietnam’s youngest city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, but most people still call it Saigon. Buildings to visit are Notre Dame Cathedral, built by the French – despite being a communist country, Catholicism is strong, second only to Buddhism – and the Post Office where, as well as buying collectable stamps, you can do some last-minute shopping at the souvenir stalls lining the walls.
Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American in the city in 1955, about early US involvement in Vietnam. You can follow this theme at the Cu Chi tunnels, dug out by the Viet Cong to evade and attack American troops. At one time, 300,000 Vietnamese were living underground on survival rations. You can crawl through a section of the network – which has been widened to accommodate the wider girth of foreign tourists.
Not ready to go home? It’s common to book an extension from Saigon to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, only one hour away by plane, to see the ancient temples at Angkor Wat – but that fascinating country is another equally intoxicating story.
95.5 million, plus some 14 million tourists a year.
British citizens, visa-free for visits of up to 15 days; e-visa required for visits up to 30 days (evisa.xuatnhapcanh.gov.vn). Overstaying a visa permit is a serious offence.
11hr 20mins (direct) London-Hanoi. Stopovers at Singapore or Doha add 3-4 hours.
In addition to inoculations for tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis A, you are advised to protect against mosquito-borne malaria, Zika virus and Dengue fever (travelhealthpro.org.uk). Hospitals away from major cities can be basic. Ensure that you have enough funds to cover medical payment in advance.
The Vietnamese dong (VND), current rate 29, 355 dong = £1*
Glass of local beer 58p
Bottle of Coke (0.33 litre) 41p
Three-course meal for two, mid-range restaurant £15.33
Bus/tram ticket (local) 24p
Petrol (1 litre) 68p
The north and south are a meteorological divide, the former prone to rainy and cold winters, while April-Oct is hot with heavy rain. Expect high humidity in the south, with sultry conditions even during the Jan-Mar dry period.
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