W aves of motorbikes flowed through the narrow streets, opening on to huge roundabouts and built-up districts, food markets and the street hawkers of Ho Chi Minh City, the former capital of South Vietnam (or Saigon as most locals still refer to it). Loud, crass and a mix of thrusting modernity and ancient structures, it’s a total assault on the senses.
It’s not unusual here to see a modern apartment block next to an ancient temple for Confucius, the Chinese civil servant who founded Confucianism, a way of ordered life still revered in Vietnam. Confucius promoted civic order, respect of one’s elders and a life dedicated to learning and public service. But this city was far from calm, serene and wellordered. The heat, smog and noise all hit me at once as I wandered around the neon-lit, cramped District 1, an area popular with backpackers.
Having quit my job in Dubai back in March, I’d been plagued by itchy feet, and so decided to spend a month on my own exploring Vietnam.
No other country conjures up as much mystery for me as this South East Asian haven, with its rich history, enduring Communist rule, world-famous bowls of comforting pho and iconic rice paddy fields.
I’d travelled through Vietnam’s neighbouring countries over the years. Now I wanted to focus on this narrow stretch of land that hugs the South China Sea coast like a backwards J; slowly travelling from Ho Chi Minh in the south up to the humid capital of Hanoi in the north.
My senses awakened, it struck me that there is no escaping the recent history of Ho Chi Minh City. The Vietnam War (or rather American War as locals call it) from1954-75 still casts a long shadow over the present. Nearly all city tours include the War Remnants Museum, but I opted for a visit to the Post Office, a stunning colonial building designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame).
As the sun set over Ho Chi Minh City, I headed to one of the most famous hotels in Vietnam, the Caravelle. Foreign journalists would report on the war from the safety of its rooftop bar. It offered them, and me, a stunning outpost to watch the sun set.
For a real sense of modern Ho Chi Minh, I decided to take an evening
street food tour ($72 or about Dh264, www.xotours.vn). I climbed on the back of my guide’s motorbike and off we went, another bike in the throng of two-wheeled traffic. It was a fantastic, if slightly hair-raising way to see the bustling metropolis.
O ne of Vietnam’s biggest attractions is the street food. All life is conducted on streets here, and most meals are eaten on tiny red plastic chairs among the bustle of traffic. At each street-side restaurant my guide described the dishes and where we were, which was well off the tourist track. While it was perfectly safe, the restaurants could never be found by an eager tourist alone.
In one night I discovered the best banh mi (a delicious Vietnamese baguette) in town, the banh xeo (a delicious fried rice pancake with bean sprouts and meat), devoured fresh crab, nibbled on delicate quail wings and rounded things off with a huge platter heaped with exotic fruit. A perfect introduction to city life.
Before leaving Ho Chi Minh, I took a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels ($10 from any local tour operator), located around two hours from the city. Cu Chi was a Vietcong stronghold, with a huge network of tunnels that allowed fighters to live underground and practise guerilla warfare. A couple of tunnels, less than a metre high, are open to tourists and are a poignant reminder of the war.
Eight hours by train from Ho Chi Minh City is Nha Trang, a beachside resort that’s as popular with the Vietnamese as it is now with Russian guests. The town itself is busy, fun and has a renowned nightlife, but I decided to explore the areas around Nha Trang, having passed some of the most beautiful scenery as the train snaked its way north.
The town is backed by a small temple-studded mountain range and plenty of paddy fields. In less than 10 minutes from the town centre I was out in lush green rice fields and surrounded by white butterflies, the odd stork and grey water buffalo lounging in the rivers. This was the Vietnam I’d come looking for, I thought as I drove through the countryside where rice was being dried on every available bit of dry land, from people’s driveways to communal areas in villages, and even on the road.
In a couple of fairly remote villages I met a family who made the rice into noodles at the factory in their home, full of boiling vats and churning machines, and another family who
turned the crop into crispy rice paper, a popular snack all over the country. These industrious home businesses exist everywhere in Vietnam, with rice an essential export for the country.
N ext I headed to Six Senses Ninh Van Bay (a series of islands 20 minutes by speedboat from Nha Trang) for a peaceful retreat, with a white sandy bay, crystal clear waters and spectacular snorkelling around the resort’s house reef.
Nha Trang bay is also home to a series of islands and the area is popular for diving and snorkelling. The local reefs are home to 350 types of coral and there’s warm weather all year round, which means it’s always holiday season here.
Six Senses also has an onsite herb and scent garden and fruit orchard. Marine biologists are regularly brought in to guide the in-house staff on caring for the reef and encouraging coral growth. Even on a short snorkel tour I saw plenty of fish and stunning coral beneath the azure sea.
Just as I thought my trip couldn’t get any better it was time to move on to Hoi An – the place I’d dreamt about the most when researching my trip. I took the train from Nha Trang (around eight hours) through more quintessential Vietnamese countryside. The train traced its way up the coast, meandering past paddy fields and wooded mountains. There are so many shades of green in Vietnam it seems impossible to take them all in. There’s no train station at Hoi An, so I disembarked at nearby Danang station and took a half-hour taxi ride to the town. While scooters are the way to travel without luggage, taxi cabs aren’t expensive (and handy when it rains).
Hoi An is all about the Old Quarter, a Unesco-protected two-storey town, whose 18th century French faded glamour is part of the charm. Ochre yellow buildings, which were once part of the most important trading towns in South East Asia, now hide tailors’ shops and tiny eateries, while lantern-lit bridges attract people over the small slow river. It’s magical.
Today, Hoi An is known locally and internationally as the place to get clothes made. I took items I wanted to have copied – there is no end to the tailors who can make a suit from scratch in less than 24 hours.
The best way to choose a shop is to wander the streets and get a sense of who is the busiest and what fabric they stock. Haggling is essential and the more you commission the cheaper it gets. The streets were bustling with tourists picking up their new wears or getting measured up.
O n my way back from the tailor I joined a small cooking class. Most restaurants in Hoi An offer a lesson with a local chef for about just $5, and classes are advertised on boards outside. They are a fantastic way to experience Vietnamese cuisine and meet other travellers.
I learnt how to make summer spring rolls (with soft rice paper and
vegetables) and other local dishes such as banh xeo (fried rice pancakes), and met new buddies to travel to the sea with the next day.
It’s easy to forget that tiny Hoi An is on the coast. We hired a bicycle ($1 a day) and set off along the flat roads for the few kilometres to the sea. Bicycles are integral to how the Vietnamese get around, and it’s a wonderful experience to be out on the more serene roads among the paddy fields. The coast offers refreshing gusts of wind and after a week of lazing around listening to the rough surf pound the sand, enjoying Hoi An’s tiny streets and eating far too many spring rolls, I flew up to Hanoi.
I t’s about an hour-long flight from Danang airport (there’s no airport in Hoi An) and costs around the same as a 15-hour train journey (approx $75). Hanoi has the same chaotic flow of motorbikes as Ho Chi Minh City, although helmets seem to be optional here. It has been the capital of North Vietnam since 1954, and the unified country since 1976; however, it has been the intellectual and political centre for around 1,000 years. And no place demonstrates this history better than the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university.
Beautiful wooden buildings form courtyards housing ancient stone tablets on the backs of stone turtles. These hold the first names of the graduates of the university from the 1400s. Turtles are one of four special creatures in Vietnamese lore – the other three are the dragon, phoenix and unicorn – and they are thought to represent the universe.
Turtles are also central to the myth of Hanoi’s lake, Ho Hoam Kiem, around which locals spend evenings walking and jogging. It’s thought that Emperor Ly Thai To defeated the Chinese army in the 1600s with a magical sword, but the day after his victory, while boating on the lake, it was snatched out of his hand by a golden turtle, who restored it to its rightful owners. There are still thought to be turtles in the lake today and any sightings cause great local excitement. However, even turtles aren’t safe from the prodigious appetite of the Vietnamese and some do wind up on dinner plates. Snakes are also considered a delicacy although, I admit, I shied away from tasting either.
What I did discover was more amazing street food. Ma Mai Street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi is home to no-nonsense restaurants serving stunningly tasty dishes such as duck curries in cute claypots and the local version of the ubiquitous spring roll (the Hanoi style is a dozen bite-sized rolls, rather than one or two large ones) for just a few dollars.
It’s the perfect meal to start an evening exploring the narrow streets of Dong Xuan, a huge market that comes to life after dark. Each street specialises in different items, from party decorations to frying pans, while stalls run down the middle of busy roads, offering pineapples, local sweets and barbecued meat.
N o trip to Vietnam is complete without a visit to Halong Bay. Four hours’ drive east from Hanoi, the bay is made up of 1,000 limestone islands. I booked a two-night excursion on a small junk boat. On arriving it seemed as if rocks had been scattered on the sea, like breadcrumbs on a tablecloth.
Halong means ‘descending dragon bay’, as in Vietnamese folklore dragons were employed to protect the country from invaders and spat out precious stones that turned into the rocks in the sea.
Nowadays the rocks are Vietnam’s busiest tourist attraction. I joined the throng on a misty afternoon, eager to see what all the fuss was about. Even in the mist (and later the rain), the craggy, sharp islands rose out of the fog like magical teeth. The water surrounding them was as flat as a pancake, with boats gliding between these ancient monuments. It was hard not to be impressed.
The bay is also home to an enormous cave called Sung Sot, which means ‘amazing’, and was found only 100 years ago. I followed the trail of steps through several chambers, where stalagmites and stalactites have formed over thousands of years.
A small community of Vietnamese spend their entire lives in floating houses farming fish and pearls, and now they have become a tourist attraction in their own right. The Real Kangaroo Café offers a two-day Halong Bay excursion for $159 per person, with boats that sleep up to 14 (www.kangaroocafe.com), which I opted for. I was rowed round on a small coracle, past this floating village and even a floating school.
If you have the time, spend a night at the nearby National Park on Cat Ba, the largest of the Halong Bay islands. Home to the endangered Cat Ba langur monkey, the island covers every type of landscape, from forests and dramatic mountains to mangroves and lagoons, which you can explore by motorbike or foot.
I returned to Hanoi to fly home having fallen for Vietnam. It’s a bewitching country at ease with itself, where ancient customs sit beside 21st century technology, sprawling cities swarm with scooters and rice fields reflect a way of life unchanged for centuries. But if you ask me, the street food is reason enough to return time and again.
Soak up the lush greenery of the rice paddy fields
This famous hotel in Vietnam offers a stunning sunset view
Street food tours are a great way to learn about local life
I tried to master local cuisine with a cooking lesson in Hoi An
TheWar Remnants Museum attracts a lot of tourists
Hoi An is the place to go for tailor-made suits and garments
TRAVEL No trip to Vietnam is complete without a visit to Halong Bay