Vietnam Fishing boat in Halong bay
For many of us who remember the terrible period of the Vietnam War and the fact that it is a communist county, the idea of visiting Vietnam is a little frightening. Let me start by reassuring you. In a time when terrorism is such a serious threat, Vietnam must be one of the safest countries in the world to visit. Westerners are received with open arms and at no stage during my travels there did I feel uncomfortable in any way. It is a country of story book beauty, of the most colorful market I have ever visited, of beautiful restaurants with delicious food and a delightful people who have put the past behind them and are looking to the future. Ogle at the beautiful woman dressed in an "Ao dao", the national costume which seems to flatter every figure, as they speed around the busy streets on their motorcycles, wearing gloves that cover their arms entirely.
Vietnam life on Mekong delta -Vietnam hill tribe girl at Mong Hom market-Vietnam Kao dai priest.
Vietnam is really easy, as in each city there are tens of "travel agents", some government and some private, who will either arrange a private tour for you or put you together with another ten or so people for an organized tour. These groups are not the normal kind of organized tour and most of the young backpackers use them to see the country. They are simple and cheap and allow you to take one to four daily trips to different parts of the surrounding countryside. All of the tours we took were excellent, allowing us to meet a lot of interesting fellow travelers while seeing the wonders of Vietnam. However, they are not for those looking for western standard organized tours, although tours of this kind are available as well.
Hanoi is a city of over three million people but with a small town feel, allowing one to wander through its streets and alleys on foot, pedicab or on the back of a motorcycle, thereby getting a close up view of its vibrant street life. Crossing the main streets, however, requires great skill, as the roaring torrent of motorcycles seems impregnable and reaching the opposite pavement seems to be in the hands of the gods. For those of you who wake up early, don't turn over to get another 40 winks. Things get going really early here. Well before sunrise people are out in the streets exercising and playing games and women are sitting on the pavement, having carried their "restaurants" entire menu from home on the ends of a bamboo pole carried across their shoulders. They then dish up steaming bowls of soup for breakfast to passersby who sit on little stools on the pavement. In a couple of hours all of this will be gone and the next session of street life will take over. Shops selling tourist trinkets, or grave stones, markets with the latest fashion clothes and anything and everything that one can find in the sea and which can be eaten, all are on display for the discerning buyer.
The underwater puppet show is a must in the evening and a great meal in one of the many restaurants will guarantee a good night's sleep. One of the nicest restaurants we ate at in Hanoi was "Brothers", previously a Buddhist temple and now open for a buffet lunch or supper. A delicious variety of Vietnamese food, a setting that is perfect, impeccable service and all this for the cost of a salad at Aroma.
From Hanoi book a trip to Halong Bay and spend at least one night sleeping on a wooden boat where the crew will cook you up a feast. The stunning view of hundreds of green islands stretching skywards out of the blue sea, forms a wonderful backdrop for the fishermen in their small canoes. Swim in the warm sea, visit some of the islands and enjoy the company of your fellow travelers. Also from Hanoi we took the Friday night sleeper train to Sapa to see the mountain scenery and visit the hill tribe Saturday morning market. But the main reason for coming to Sapa is to take a jeep trip of the Sunday (booked through one of the numerous small travel agents in Sapa), to Mong Hom, three hours north, on the Chinese border, where the most remarkable morning market I have ever seen takes place. Hundreds of people from all of the surrounding hill tribe villages come to buy and sell at this once a week market. Each village has a different multicolored costume and some of the women have hairstyles from outer space. You will not meet other tourists in Mong Hom, so if you are looking for something special, this is It. Make sure you have enough film or free disc space in your camera. From Mong Hom we hiked with our guide to visit some of the hill villages. It was hard to believe that we were in the 21st century. A truly fascinating day.
From Hanoi, fly south to the center of the country to visit Hue and Hoi An, two places which we unfortunately did not see, but about which we heard so many good things.
We flew directly to Saigon from where we took a four day trip into the Mekong delta. It was fascinating to see how so many people lived on the water. Some lived and worked on houseboats, with their fish farm underneath the house in cages inside the water. Others lived in small villages where the streets are the river and the accepted mode of transport is a small canoe. The floating market here is nothing like the one you may have seen in Thailand, but interesting none the less.
For the more adventurous among us, it is possible to leave the delta, cross the border into Cambodia, make one's way to Phnom Penh and from there by boat to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. The rest of us will fly there from Saigon.
Take a day trip from Saigon to see the underground tunnels used by the Vietcong and to visit the Kao Dai temple. Kao Dai is a local modern religion whose temple and daily ceremony is another wonderful photo opportunity. It is, however, a long and bumpy ride meant for those of us with enough padding in the correct place. It was a day out of Graham Greene's "Quiet American", and allowed me to picture so many scenarios from the book.
Saigon itself is an exciting city. The Hoi An restaurant there is a most beautiful restaurant, serving wonderful Vietnamese food – a definitely not to be missed treat. Book ahead and get a table on the first floor for a romantic and delicious meal accompanied by live Vietnamese music. All your shopping for presents can be easily accomplished at the enormous central market or from one of the many street vendors selling anything from toys made of empty Coca Cola cans to illegally printed books. Chinatown is an interesting part of town that is certainly worth a visit. Finally, no visit to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to the museum dedicated to the war with America and France. Seeing how the people and countryside suffered and how the Vietnamese view those wars was an eye opener and cause for much thought.
If you have a few extra days, as I mentioned earlier, stop off in Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, a sight never to be forgotten. These are, in my opinion, the greatest complex of ruins in the world and a three day trip with a good guide will allow you to get a reasonable impression of what must have once existed here. A really great civilization. Unfortunately, the modern day surroundings are not as splendid and the poverty is extreme. Facilities for tourists are, however, very good.
Vietnam is still one of the less touristy areas and for this reason it is worth visiting soon. I am certain that it will be one the places you will wish to return to and with good reason.