By Aaron Murray
When a trip to South-East Asia is planned it’s often Thailand which stands out – the legendary full –moon party, the sin city reputation of Bangkok and, of course, the lady boys your mother will undoubtedly warn you about. In the last few years, however, the stock of Vietnam has risen faster than any other country in the region and the country is now a must-see on the South-East Asian backpacking circuit. The diversity the country offers is unique; to experience all Vietnam has to offer often requires an amount of time few travelers have. For so many reasons, Vietnam is somewhere everyone plans to return to.
In the far north of the country lies Hanoi, the city famous for its traffic. While Rome and other cities are derided for air pollution, it is said by every visitor to Vietnam’s second city that the motorbike traffic is if not charming, then certainly compelling. 1 in 2 residents possess a bike, a figure which would surely be higher if not for the improbable number of family members loaded onto every vehicle – up to 5! The country once dominated by the French retains its colonial atmosphere and the quaint cafes provide an excellent viewing platform for the madness of the bikers who completely ignore all traffic light direction.Hanoi also offers visitors a chance to see much revered former President Ho Chi Minh embalmed in his own mausoleum. Uncle Ho, as he’s known to the Vietnamese, adorns every monetary note and his portrait takes pride of place in many homes. On reflection, this might all be a way of apologising to the ghost of Uncle as his dying wish was to be cremated.
A few hours away from Hanoi is stunning Halong Bay, an area often cited as one of the modern wonders of the world. Roughly 2000 limestone formations provide the backdrop for the daily cruise trips which depart from the mainline. Booking a 2 night cruise is vital in order to sample the kayaking, swimming and fishing on offer. One part of the bay not to be missed is the trip to one of the floating villages – an utterly surreal experience which will have you wondering where the pub is and if residents really ask their family members to “swim down the shop” when they’re in need of essentials?
Moving south, the natural beauty is replaced by the standard fare of South-East Asia: the beach. What makes Vietnamese beaches somewhat different is that the crowds in places like Nha Trang are a bit more subdued than those choosing the regular spots. This is no bad thing: some of Thailand’s most popular beaches are starting to resemble everything bad about Spanish resorts. In addition, in central Vietnam lies the border region at the heart of the conflict which raged throughout the 1970s; a visit to the towns of Hue and Hoi An is worthwhile. On a less savage note, Hoi An specialises in the sale of the cheapest quality suits in the world and if you’re sticking around for a few days you’ll be able to design your threads and strut on to your next location over-dressed and, probably, over-confident.
The capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it was formerly known, shocks many as the full cost of the war is made clear to anyone visiting. The War Remnants Museum is a chilling expose of the barbarity of the conflict in the country and the photos on show hold nothing back in displaying the effect on innocent civilians and combat troops alike.
The best of Ho Chi Minh City is to be found on the city perimeter with the Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels were vital in repelling the US Army through various forms of ground traps and tunnels running 75 miles long. Bizarrely, and perhaps inappropriately, visitors can shoot war-era guns at the shooting range at the end. Now there’s a strange itinerary: stories of jungle warfare, flesh eating rodents and torture followed by unloading a full submachine gun clip into a target in the distance.
The Mekong Delta is an altogether less violent trip and it’s the best place to sample genuine Vietnamese culture well away from the tourist hotspots. From floating markets, to coconut processing and traditional music, it is a welcome change from the hard graft of the Cu Chi trip.
It would be impossible to cover all the charms of Vietnam in one article and in that lies the glory of the country – even if you only have time to scratch the surface, you’ll still sample people as friendly as they come, spectacular scenery and a troubled history followed by a remarkable rise from the ashes. Vietnam is a hotspot in the making, get there before the crowds!