Travel Bustling with beauty
Vibrant street life and historic wonders can be found from the top to bottom of Vietnam, writes Angela Ranke
STREET vendors hawk their wares from bamboo baskets, bowls of steaming hot noodles are served to hungry customers on tiny plastic chairs as scooters whiz by on roads remarkably devoid of traffic lights or any road rules.
Welcome to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and the country’s second largest city. It is bustling, hectic and hot. But there is also peace and relaxation to be found in one of many massage parlours where you can get an hour-long hot stone massage for less than $15.
There is also beauty and tranquillity to be enjoyed in Halong Bay, which is about a fourhour drive from Hanoi.
Take one of the junk boats, preferably overnight, out to the bay where hundreds of karst limestone peaks rise from a shimmering sea in a mystical scene that will transport you to an otherworldly place.
If you’re feeling energetic, kayak around some of the majestic mini islands. On your journey you might come across some cheeky monkeys swinging from vines, putting on a show for the tourists.
An overnight train will take you to Hue, a tourist hotspot famous for its bars and restaurants.
But it is the country side around this city that is most worth visiting. We go on a motorbike tour with a local man whose scooter trips are so popular they book out days in advance.
Riding on the back of scooters driven by locals is a great way to see the country, from local villages to a Buddhist temple and even a crumbling colosseum used by the King and his posse to watch animal fights as entertainment. The claw marks of the captured tigers can still be seen on the stone walls as where they struggled to escape their final fight and ultimate doom with elephants.
Next stop is Hoi An, a must see for any visitor to Vietnam. Pretty Chinese lanterns hanging between beautiful old merchants’ houses painted a bright yellow make this city one of the most picturesque in the country. Many of these merchants houses have been converted into sophisticated restaurants, bars and tailor shops, where handmade clothes can be ordered, made and packed away within a couple of days.
To give yourself enough time to have clothes made yet also take in some of the many attractions in Old Town, it is best to stay at least three nights in Hoi An. Spend at least one of those nights walking along the river that meanders through the middle of the town.
Also worth checking out is Oodles of Noodles, a restaurant and charity that gives street kids culinary training and English classes so they can get jobs.
If you have time, set aside a half a day to go on a cycling tour of the countryside around Hoi An. Our tour took us past rice paddies tended by villagers and through tiny towns where we could see how people lived.
The trip finishes in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. Like all modern cities, it never seems to sleep. Explore its street life of markets, food and bars like a local – on a scooter.
Those interested in history should visit the War Remnants Museum, with its emphasis on the horrors of chemical warfare.
Deepen your understanding of the war by visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of underground, claustrophobia-inducing tunnels used by the Vietcong to fight a guerilla war against the South Vietnamese Army backed by America and their allies.
Our guided tour of the tunnels was led by a Vietnamese war veteran who worked as a translator, then joined the South Vietnamese Army. He gave a firsthand perspective of what it was like fighting in the jungle where he takes tour groups today.
An overnight stay in the famous Halong Bay is a must when visiting Vietnam.
Top to bottom: a bustling street in Hanoi; an elderly couple outside their Hoi Ann home; and a young boy monk prays at a temple in Hue. Pictures: Angela Ranke