Visiting Vietnam is an experience you don’t forget. Every country has more to offer than first meets the eye, but my trip to Vietnam in December of 2016 revealed a country that’s both bigger and more complex than I could have imagined.
I showed some of the country’s highlights, and discussed some of its history, in posts like this one. But I didn’t really describe the trip, or the country, in a way that did it justice, especially for those with any thoughts of visiting Vietnam. So I thought I’d give you a little travelogue of my two-week trip, which included most of the major stops from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north.
But first, some vital facts: Vietnam is a long, skinny country that curves up the east side of Southeast Asia. And for those visiting Vietnam for the first time, the big surprise is just how long it is. Even travelling by train, with no stopovers, it would take more than 30 hours to travel from Saigon to Hanoi. So forget about seeing more than one region if you only have a few days.
Second, because the country is so long, it has different climate zones. In the south, it’s hot and steamy; in the north, warm but more temperate. And while it may be dry season in the north and south — as it was during my trip — it’s rainy season in the middle. So bring some sunscreen, and an umbrella.
Here’s my capsule guide, which I call “visiting Vietnam in two weeks”. My trip started in Saigon and headed north to Hanoi. Some guidebooks recommend doing it in the opposite direction, but if you haven’t spent much time in Asia, Saigon may be a gentler introduction. Let’s go.
Renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Vietnam War, Saigon is a big, bustling, noisy place. But at least in the downtown core, it has the look of a modern, Westernized city, with fancy hotels and new buildings everywhere. The giant Bitexco Financial Tower and the glitzy Vincom Center shopping mall mix with French colonial buildings in the Dong Khoi district, and the broad plaza in front of the People’s Committee Building (above) is a lovely place to stroll at night.
I stayed in District 1, the centre of town, which was walking distance to attractions like the Mariamman Temple, the sprawling Ben Thanh Market, Notre Dame Cathedral and most of the major attractions. Restaurants of every description line the streets, and if you want a new suit whipped up in a day or two, this is the place. It’s worth three or four days to see the sights of Saigon, and it’s a great place to just wander – but watch out for the motor bikes.
There are some worthwhile attractions outside the city, as well. The Cu Chi Tunnels, used by the Vietnamese to hide from the Americans during the war, are a popular spot. And if you have extra time, a trip to the famous Mekong Delta, with its floating villages, is recommended. As well, Vietnam has many faiths, but tourists flock to the Cao Dai Holy See, the spectacular seat of a religion whose pantheon includes Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur and Charlie Chaplin.
There are beach resorts near Saigon, but I took an overnight bus to reach Vietnam’s major sun spot, 450 kilometres (280 miles) north. Nha Trang is an odd mixture of fishing port and beach resort. A long line of hotels faces the lovely, white sand beach, which is usually filled with European and Russian holidayers. There’s a neighbourhood filled with good, Western-style restaurants, and if you want something really exotic, some beach restaurants offer a barbecue buffet. The featured dish: crocodile.
If you do wander off the beach, Nha Trang has a busy downtown core with a large, steamy public market – good for sightseeing if you want to see the real Asia. And across the harbour, near the city centre, are the ruins of the Po Nagar Towers, an important archaeological site. The temple complex was built around 800 AD by the Cham dynasty, which ruled much of Vietnam for more than 1,0000 years.
A long train ride took me the Danang, a busy port on the Han River, halfway up the country. Danang, a major U.S. military centre during the war, is a pretty ordinary city. But it does have the excellent Museum of Cham Sculpture, filled with ancient, Indian-looking temple art. And at night, the light show on the river is almost worth the trip in itself – see what you think.
Danang’s main attraction is its proximity to places like China Beach and Hoi An, an ancient port city that’s been cunningly preserved and is now one of the country’s best tourist attractions. My Danang hotel offered a free shuttle to Hoi An, about 30 minutes away. I found the town teeming with tourists, but still a great sight. The old shop houses and temples have been wonderfully restored, many now filled with art and souvenir shops and restaurants.
The real magic of Hoi An comes out at night, however. As soon as the sun sets, a thousand paper lanterns begin to glow all over the old town, giving it a fairy tale look. Down at the river, children sell lanterns to set adrift on the water, where they mingle with the multicoloured reflections of the shop house lights across the river. Just this visit made visiting Vietnam worth the effort.
A two-hour shuttle bus ride north from Danang to the imperial city of Hué took me through the Hai Van Pass. This is one of Vietnam’s most scenic spots. Unfortunately, it was raining so hard when we arrived that all we could see was one huge cloud. And it rained most of the time I was in Hué: this was Central Vietnam.
Hué’s main attraction is the ancient citadel, seat of power for the rulers of the Nguyen dynasty. It’s a huge complex, reminiscent of the Forbidden City in Beijing: in fact, it has its own Forbidden Purple City, along with a royal theatre, royal library and many other buildings. The citadel was badly damaged in the Indochina War with the French – especially the Forbidden City. But much of it has been restored, and the existing buildings are amazing. Best of all, it’s right in town, on a prominent spot beside the Perfume River (which doesn’t smell like perfume).
The Nguyen emperors left other attractions, too. Outside the city lie their royal tombs, elaborate complexes built with just as much care as the citadel itself. On a guided tour, I viewed the grand complex of Emperor Tu Duc, with its chain of courtyards leading to the tomb itself, located on an island. But the real spectacle was the tomb of Khai Dinh, the second-last Nguyen emperor. He poured a fortune in gold, statuary and European ceramics into the small complex, creating a treasure house to spend eternity in. His statue sits in an inner chamber, like an Egyptian pharaoh, surrounded by opulence – a stark contrast to today’s Vietnam.
Pressed for time, I took an overnight train to the main city of north Vietnam, Hanoi – a 14-hour journey. I arrived in a city with many faces. There’s the elegant, modern side, with its chic hotels and French-built neighbourhoods; the 600-year-old Old Quarter, a dense warren of ancient shop houses; and the outer neighbourhoods, with their historic temples and the massive tomb of Ho Chi Minh.
I visited some of the main attractions, including the Dong Xuan Market, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the intriguing Temple of Literature. But Hanoi is best enjoyed as a place to relax and have a good time. Walking the paths around Hoan Kiem Lake after dark to see the light displays, having a coffee in a streetside café, shopping at a night market, or dining in one of its many restaurants. Oddly, Hanoi’s city centre sported the most prominent cluster of Western fast food outlets I saw in Vietnam. Confession: I ate at Pizza Hut.
The cover of my guidebook featured a photo of sampans floating in a mystical seascape of craggy islands — the iconic Halong Bay. If you’re visiting Vietnam, it’s something you should see. So I took a two-day, one-night tour to see it for myself. Halong Bay is about a three-hour drive from Hanoi, with a generous stop in the middle to visit a huge souvenir shop.
It’s worth the trip. The huge bay is dotted with karst limestone islands worn into strange and dramatic shapes by the elements. And the mists that surround them create dreamy vistas you see few other places. My tour included a visit to one of the large, beautiful caves that are carved into the islands, and some kayaking around one of the nearby islands. Then, lots of food and an evening of drinks ion the top deck, watching the lights of other boats in the distance. Longer tours will show you more islands, but for me, just being in that landscape was a great experience.
What I missed
Of course, there were things I missed. Two weeks, the period dictated by my bargain air fare, seemed like a good amount of time for visiting Vietnam. But even taking overnight trips to save time, it wasn’t enough. I missed some things I wanted to see, and there were others that never even came onto my radar — they just weren’t on.
The two greatest regrets are Sapa, a mountainous region of rice terraces and hill tribes north of Hanoi, and the Mekong Delta, with its houseboats and floating markets, south of Saigon. But there was also the archaeological site of My Son, the unique Vietnamese water puppet theatre, and the country’s national parks, to get a glimpse of its birds and animals.
Still, I spent a fascinating two weeks visiting Vietnam, a country somewhat like others I’ve seen – Cuba and China, for example – but with its own character, the product of a long and turbulent history. Like China, Vietnam has embraced capitalism but rejected democracy, so there’s no doubt you’re in a communist country. But it seems to make little difference: the police presence is minimal, at least as far as I could see. (Still, I avoided writing anything controversial while I was in the country – can’t be too careful.)
Some practicalities: Visiting Vietnam is cheap. I got lovely, modern hotel rooms with wi-fi and (mostly Vietnamese) cable TV for less than $50 everywhere. A good meal with drinks cost less than $10 Canadian, there are good buys at the tourist markets, and my flight back from Hanoi back to Saigon cost $69 Cdn.
And the hotel staff was amazing, friendly and eager to carry out my every wish. In fact, most Vietnamese I talked to were polite and happy to help a foreigner. Tour guides were generally knowledgeable and even funny, though their English could be hard to understand. The food was much like Thai food, only less spicy, and fairly tame — if you avoided the frog and crocodile.
On the bad side, the traffic in Saigon can be life-threatening, until you learn the trick of weaving through the relentless stream of motor bikes. The street noise can be incredible, making hotel rooms with a street view a dodgy proposition. And the taxi drivers can be larcenous: some cabs have meters that left out the last decimal point, making the fare seem 10 times as much.
After all is said and done, though, I found visiting Vietnam a great experience. Vietnam is a fascinating place, filled with wonderful sights and sounds, and constant surprises. I’d go back again, to enjoy the warm weather and see the parts I missed — if it weren’t for that 22-hour flight …
To give you a better idea of my route, here’s a map of Vietnam, thanks to the good folks at Postcard.travel.