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26 May 2024

Vietnam's voyage from the past


By James Schwier

Ask most people what first springs to mind when Vietnam is mentioned and they would probably say scenes from an Oliver Stone movie with Napalm streaming across the jungle and villagers fleeing for their lives. But while the war has undoubtedly scarred the country, Vietnam is now thriving, with its major cities bustling hives of activity.

Situated in the north of the country, there is only one word to describe the capital, Hanoi – manic. As soon as you step out of your hotel you are confronted by motorbikes, tearing about the streets. In the narrow lanes of the Old Quarter there are thousands of them, battling each other, and pedestrians, for control of the roads.

There are people everywhere, with impromptu food and market stalls dotted about the streets, and crowds gathering around Hoan Kiem Lake from dawn to dusk. An early morning trip to the lake is a must, if just to see the co-ordinated aerobics; one of the only times you'll get to see a group of 70-year-old grandmas performing what appears to be tai-chi while handling two-foot long swords.

The Old Quarter boasts a street for every conceivable item, from bags to watches to giant pots and pans, and hours can be spent wandering around, watching the locals go about their business.

The Vietnam War and preceding French occupation have had a significant impact on Hanoi and a large number of the city's attractions reflect this. The War Museum documents everything from the start of the French occupation to the end of the conflict with the Americans, featuring, among other things, tanks, helicopters and wreckage from planes. There is also the 'Hanoi Hilton', the name given to Hoa Lo Prison by US POWs, which is now a museum. Looking in you can only imagine how horrifying it must have been to be jailed in the cramped, dank cells.

The food on offer across the city is superb, with Pho, a broth with beef and noodles, and spring rolls some of the most popular specialities. Gecko Cafe in the Old Quarter sells amazing food at budget prices, but the best is Bar 69. Set in a restored 19th century Vietnamese house, it offers a variety of tasty local dishes and its spring rolls are out of this world.

An overnight train ride north into the mountains takes you to Sapa, a place where you are transported back 200 years. While the central part of this market town has been modernised to accommodate tourists, the surrounding hill tribe villages remain remarkably untouched and offer a glimpse of what life must be like for the inhabiting tribes.

The refrain of "You buy from me" will soon become familiar as tribeswomen dressed in bright headgear and clothing, made from dyed hemp, crowd around you trying to sell bags, scarves and bracelets. About 20 minutes out of town you are among the green fields and terraced rice paddies populated by water buffalo.

One thing you have to be prepared for in Sapa is a couple of days' hard walking, but it is worth it. The surrounding countryside is stunning and as you venture through the villages, a local guide is a handy accessory.

What type of trek you do really depends on the weather and it is good to have someone to offer advice when you get there. Pete Wilkes at Sapa Boutique Hotel and Rooms is a mine of information, who happily explains the different tours on offer. Wilkes' hotel itself is a beautiful place that, while not five-star, has an eclectic charm with a restaurant that serves an unexpected mixture of modern Australian and Vietnamese food.

Despite being a small place, Sapa has a number of excellent restaurants, although after all the walking you'll be too tired to over indulge yourself anyway.

In the south is the largest city in Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Home to more than seven million people, it might seem like chaos, but it works. It is Vietnam's answer to Bangkok, with huge neon signs advertising global brands sitting alongside designer stores that line the streets of the exclusive areas.

As in Hanoi, the Vietnam War has obviously had a huge effect upon the city, and the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace bear testimony to this, as do the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are just 45 minutes outside the city. Used by Viet Cong guerrillas to hide from the Americans, the complex underground structures are about 75 kilometres in length and are now a popular tourist attraction. A visit to the tunnels offers a rare glimpse of how the fighters lived underground and how they outwitted the US soldiers. Visitors are even given the opportunity to crawl through one of the tunnels. However, if you suffer from claustrophobia or are over six feet tall this is probably best avoided.

Back in the city, Ben Tanh market is the place to go for bargains, with stalls selling everything imaginable. There is barely room to move, but that is half the fun. It is a bit of a tourist trap, so be prepared to haggle – whatever price is initially quoted to you, cut it in half and start from there.

There is a huge variety of food on offer everywhere, although it is a bit more expensive than in the rest of the country. The Refinery is built in a converted opium den in a quaint courtyard in the centre of the city and offers a mixture of dishes. There is also Qing on Dong Du, which has a delicious menu.

Vietnam is a country of contrasts where you can enjoy yourself as much or as little as you like. From the hill tribes near Sapa to the buzzing metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, this South East Asian country is striding confidently into the future while making sure it never loses sight of its past.

Getting around

Thai Airways flies daily from Dubai to Hanoi via Bangkok (www.thaiair.com).

Once you arrive in Vietnam there are several ways to get around, which are standard in every city, with the exception of Sapa. Taxis are plentiful, but for a more authentic trip around town you can take a cyclo, where you can sit back, relax and soak in the views as you are peddled about.

There is also the option of hiring a bicycle of moped, although this is only really an option in the more sedate surroundings of Hoi An – once you see the driving and traffic in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi the last thing you will want to do is drive yourself.

The cheapest way to travel between some of the main tourist towns is the Open Tour bus, an air-conditioned coach service with prices starting at $6 (www.sinhcafe.com). If you're short on time Vietnam Airways also covers many domestic routes.

Weekend trip


Listed as a World Natural Heritage Site by Unesco, and just over an hour away from Hanoi, Halong Bay is a stunning collection of 2,000 limestone islands best enjoyed on a luxury cruise. Optional activities include kayaking and swimming, allowing you to investigate the deep blue waters. Some of the islands have beautiful beaches and caves for you to explore and there are monkeys clambering around the coastlines, peering out as you paddle past.

- Indochina Sails (indochinasails.com) offers a variety of two and three-day packages.

Shop until you drop

If shopping is your thing then the place for you is definitely Hoi An – a shopaholics' dream just an hour-and-a half's flight south of Hanoi. The charming Old Town's streets are lined with tailors and shoemakers who can make pretty much anything you want within 24 hours.

There are hundreds of shops to choose from and the choice can be a bit daunting, but whichever you choose make sure you barter – the first price is never the best one.

Just make sure you are not coerced into every place you pass, some of the owners can be a bit pushy (I saw one woman being pulled into a shop by her finger after she pointed at a dress).

After night falls, the warm glow of the restaurants fill the narrow lanes and the beautiful mixture of Chinese, Japanese and European influenced architecture really comes into its own.

And if you need a rest after all the shopping, the white sandy beach of Cua Dai, part of the famous China Beach, is only fives minutes out of town.