The long thin country furthest east on the Indochina Peninsula is Vietnam. Over the course of its history it has undergone Chinese rule, a period of independence and then French colonisation in the 19th century. Many architectural styles and baking techniques encountered in Vietnam continue to exhibit the French panache, found in diluted form throughout the country and its dominant local culture.
Strong resistance resulted in the French leaving and Vietnam becoming independent again in 1945. But unfortunately the French withdrawal did not give way to a country united in its social and political ideals. There were stark divisions between the north and south, which are still evident in the social fabric of today, providing an eye-opening experience for any traveller. The north eventually gained victory over the south in 1975, which was the year of the reunification of Vietnam. That signified the end of the Vietnam War- where Communist Russia and China had been supporting the north, and the Americans the south. The twenty years preceding reunification are perhaps the most well-documented period of Vietnamese history.
Unfortunately, even with reunification, all the north-south fighting had created a distance between Vietnam and other countries. Internal resentment did not automatically disperse, and it wasn’t until ten years ago that Vietnam could say that it had established diplomatic ties with most other countries.
Now Vietnam prefers to focus on what it can preserve for itself and offer to the outside world. For example, it is internationally renowned for its animal wildlife. Elephants, tigers, monkeys, buffaloes, snakes, turtles and rhinoceroses can all be found in this country of incredibly rich biodiversity. There are six biosphere reserves, at Can Gio Mangrove Forest, Cat Ba Island, Cat Tien National Park, the coastline of Kien Giang, the Red River Delta, and Western Nghe An. As for the climate, it varies considerably due to differences in latitude and topography, with giant rocks, hills and mountain ranges jutting out in interesting and unpredictable formations.
The most celebrated tourist destination in Vietnam is Halong Bay. It is a dreamy seascape of almost 2,000 limestone cliffs and green peaks that mysteriously rise out from the water, creating a majestic atmosphere. The Bay can be savoured by taking an overnight boat trip and witnessing the sunset and sunrise from your floating cabin. Locals approach in small wooden boats, offering you seafood. And it’s not just any boat you’ll be cruising around in- it’s a traditional Chinese junk boat. Halong Bay is recognised and preserved as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, and there are plenty of tour operators willing to arrange your trip for you. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is Vietnam’s other World Natural Heritage Site.
There are also three World Cultural Heritage Sites in Vietnam. The first one to mention is the old city of Hue, which stands on the banks of the Perfume River. It is one of the ancient wonders of the world, and was Vietnam’s capital throughout the 19th century, and up until 1945. The palaces that can be found there are authentic examples of traditional Vietnamese architecture. And if this isn’t enough to keep you occupied, the two other World Cultural Heritage sites are within reachable distance. Hoi An is a sleepy, French-feeling riverside town perfect for cycling, and My Son is the ideal place for those interested in admiring Vietnam’s dazzling temples.
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, filled with temples, pagodas, monuments and lakes- including the famous Hoan Kiem Lake- is the most important cultural and economic centre of Vietnam. A hotchpotch of shops and cafes can be discovered amidst the narrow streets. The city boasts restaurants that afford views over the Red River at sunset, as the hazy red ball in the sky slowly sinks behind the lights and haze of this city that roars with motorbike engines. At times you’d be forgiven for believing that everyone in Vietnam rides a motorbike, but it is reckoned that there are over 20 million bicycle riders too!
Ho Chi Minh City, or ‘Saigon,’ Vietnam’s main southern city, is busier, more modern and more cosmopolitan than Hanoi. Motorbikes buzz around chaotically here as well, and you’ll no doubt see whole families with animals and boxes of produce somehow managing to look comfortable balancing on a single motorbike!
By way of contrast to the main cities, Sapa, in the northern mountains, is another commonly explored destination. Scenes of sweeping rice terraces carry the eye down to cycle-friendly river valleys and seemingly isolated hill tribes can be visited nearby. If you’d prefer something even more relaxed, Dalat might be the place for you- especially if you’re planning to get married. It is a prime honeymoon destination, and the perfect spot for a photo framed by lush green mountains, hills and lakes. If you’re exploring the area you may even be able to follow the sound of rushing water to discover a waterfall or two.
Then there is the shimmering Mekong Delta, which covers almost 40,000 square kilometres, with a sub-equatorial climate and tropical monsoons. Floating markets can be found amidst a network of waterways, leading to the South China Sea.
Rice paddy fields and farmers wearing the iconic pointy hats can be seen across the picturesque landscape- the subject of many a work of art. Agriculture is big business in Vietnam. It is the second biggest exporter of rice next to Thailand, and the largest producer of cashew nuts and black pepper, accounting for one-third of the world’s share of each of these commodities.
Let your senses dive into the striking smells and exotic food as you wander the markets, captivated by all the strange culinary delights on offer. Most dishes you will find use very little oil and contain lots of vegetables. Noodle soups and spring rolls are also popular. Lime, fish sauce and soy sauce are common flavourings that characterise Vietnam’s array of mouth-watering dishes, with world-famous Vietnamese recipes exported internationally.
When you’ve had your fill of food, it’s always a fascinating cultural experience to see what souvenirs are on offer in the colourful markets. You can browse the silk, cotton, t-shirts and bronze, jewellery and war memorabilia- but be careful of the live snakes! And also be prepared to haggle. You may also find a good place to get a tailor-made suit done on the cheap, but this is generally offered in shops, rather than from market stalls.
Most visitors find Vietnamese people friendly and welcoming, with smiley and excitable children interested to see new faces and have their picture taken. Maybe the good-character is something to do with Vietnam’s 85% Buddhist demographic- although this is difficult to reconcile with the past. While many Vietnamese people are not practicing Buddhists, Buddhism is the religion that most people seem to identify with from a cultural standpoint. As for the dominant culture of Vietnam, the Kinh people hold the political and economic reigns of the country. However, there are known to be over fifty minority ethnic groups throughout Vietnam, mostly in small and relatively undisturbed highland villages. Minorities known as the Hmong, Dao, Tay, Thai, and Nung are the most numerous, and the tribes you will most likely come across.
In terms of accommodation, for under US$5 you can find a dorm room or a dreary single room with a creaky old fan and smelly mattress. For a cleaner room with your own bathroom, expect to pay around US$10. If you want air-conditioning, TV and hot water, US$20 might be nearer the mark. A 3-star hotel with the possibility of a pool (in the bigger cities) is likely to cost up to US$50, and you might be lucky enough to get a top range hotel for around US$80! Whatever your budget, there is somewhere in Vietnam to cater to your needs. So get over there and start exploring!