Vietnam is often associated with the war that blighted the country and dominated international news headlines for over a decade. However, if you just scratch the surface, you’ll discover a country blessed with beautiful scenery, a fabulous cuisine and friendly people. No wonder Vietnam is now a destination for the intrepid traveller looking to get out of their comfort zone and immerse themselves into a fascinating culture.
The country is a land of contrasts; this was very noticeable on my first stop in the capital city, Hanoi. Here you’ll see a unique mix of ancient culture, colonial charm and modern sleekness all thrown together in the maze of streets that make up this buzzing city. For me, unmissable moments included a visit to the Lake of the Restored Sword and the Tortoise Tower; here local legend has it King Le Loi was given a magical sword by the gods, which he used to drive out the invading Chinese. Later, while boating on the lake, he came across a giant turtle, who returned the sword to the gods. This story is beautifully told in a traditional water puppet theatre just across the road from the lake. Aside from contemplating myths, it’s also a great spot to watch locals perform Tai Chi, and to eat delicious street food.
Grabbing a bite to eat in the local eateries is a great way not only to experience Hanoi but enjoy a taste of the whole country. I quickly came to realise that I had never experienced a cuisine like this. I ate the freshest seafood I’ve ever had, barbequed right in front of me and served with a freshly brewed glass of Bia Hoi, Vietnam’s answer to beer. You also see echoes from the French colonial past not only in the architecture, but also in the food. Filled French baguettes known locally as Banh Mi are popular across the whole country. I found they were usually stuffed with grilled meats, fish or tofu and then topped with a generous helping of carrot, cucumber, coriander and daikon pickle. Delicious.
The UNESCO-protected Halong Bay was my next stop. The word Halong is a literal translation of ‘where the dragon descends into the sea.’ It is not difficult to see where this name has come from; the towering limestone pillars and thousands of tiny islands rise from the turquoise waters as if they were parts of a dragon’s tail. The only way to explore this landscape is on a traditional junk boat, which glides peacefully through the limestone karsts. Halong Bay is not just a natural place for tourists to visit. In contrast it is also home to many fishing communities who have been there for hundreds of years. They live on their own floating villages and regularly battle mother-nature to catch the most delicious seafood in the country. A truly inspiring feat of human ingenuity.
After witnessing the floating islands in Halong Bay, I made my way to the country’s heart, the cities of Hue and Hoi An. In Hue, a visit to the Imperial Citadel and the Tombs of the Emperors dotted along the Perfume River is a must. It was so relaxing to get out of the heat of the city and enjoy the tranquillity of sailing on the Perfume River towards the next relic of the past.
Hoi An, a small city jam packed with sights is the perfect place to stroll around and experience Vietnamese life at a slower place. The place is well renowned for its tailors, possessing the ability to make you a made-to-measure suit in around 24 hours. Instead of measuring up, I decided to rent a bicycle; the old city is vehicle-free, making it a pleasure to cycle around. I cycled through the Japanese Covered Bridge, past historical merchants’ workshops and all the way to the beach, where US soldiers once went for R&R, decades before.
My last destination was Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is popularly known. Here I visited the War Remnants Museum to learn about the horrors of the Vietnam War; few museums manage convey the brutality of war and this is must visit stop on any tour of Vietnam. Another sight to learn more about the war is the Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of tunnels stretching over 250km. These were used by the Viet Cong to hide from the attacking American troops. Here I saw an underground city with housing, weapons factories, hospitals and command centres. The tunnels housed thousands of Viet Cong and their families who lived almost entirely underground for years. It was a great way to end my tour of Vietnam and come to terms with just how resilient this nation is…
Experience everything Vietnam has to offer for yourself on a Vietnam holiday…