Vietnam, a country nestled among China, Cambodia and Laos with the South China Sea along its eastern border, is a country begging to be explored as part of your south-east Asian tour. To travel the country at leisure one is recommended a month-long stay, but a rather more selective tour can be achieved in just over two weeks.
Vietnam has broken through from a troubled recent history to open itself up incredibly successfully to the world of travellers. It has not only beautiful cities and countryside to visit, but reliable and safe transport systems, excellent accommodation (fantastic hostels from $4 a night), delicious culinary delights and young, sharp minds fronting its tourism efforts.
My friends and I stayed for the month, beginning in the southern city of Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City and making our way slowly north to the capital, Hanoi.
Saigon – more commonly referred to as Ho Chi Minh City – is not a destination for the faint hearted. With over eight million inhabitants and essentially as many scooters, its roads are chaotic, confusing and dangerous. Looking past street level, the city is in my opinion a mix of east meets west: the French influence is rife in the tree-lined boulevards, the numerous patisseries selling rich coffee and even richer cakes, and the red bricked Notre Dame. Yes, you heard me correctly – Saigon has a replica of Notre Dame, on (wait for it) Paris Street.
As well as soaking up a little bit of Europe, you can just as easily experience Vietnam, in the local market streets (each street boasts stalls that sell a certain item e.g. the shoe street) and the fascinating war museum. Here, among endless relics and photographs depicting the war, you can view the original Pulitzer Prize-winning image taken by Nick Ut. For a rather unique perspective, hire a local “wheelbarrow taxi” to bike you around the city for the day.
For those on a tight time scale this city can readily be missed, although it rather nicely breaks up the otherwise long-haul travel up to Hoi An (side note: sleeper buses are a great option for backpackers travelling between cities. They’re cheap, safe and direct, and they get you to your next destination as you sit back and relax… But not to fear, as bargain flights can be scooped up through local airlines). Nha Trang is a beach resort, often cruelly referred to as the “Russian Mallorca”. It gives you what it says on the tin: a few days of sun, sea and sand.
Take the world’s longest free-standing cable car to a nearby island to spend a day releasing your inner child at Vinpearl water and theme park. It is admittedly not the cultural centre of Vietnam, but you can salvage yourself by partaking in an ‘Easyrider’ motorbike tour leaving from the city. An initiative operating throughout the entire country, many of its tours leave from Nha Trang. We chose a day trip, which took us deep into the “real Vietnam” as we were driven on the back of a bike through local villages, stopping along the way to try our hand at various traditional practices (rice cake making, weaving, etc), before driving through the clouds to a breathtaking waterfall where we ate a picnic lunch with our guides. All speaking conversational English, they took great pride in showing off their country, teaching us its history and joking around with our group. Feeling totally safe and utterly content at every moment, I would advise this organisation full heartedly. And for the petrolheads out there, you can have the option of driving your own bike or even hiring it for an extended period to make your own way through the sprawling country.
Hands down my favourite of all our stops, this small city was once an ancient port town. With narrow streets, washed with yellow, blue, pink and green stone walls, there is a real north-Asian feel to the town showcased in the Japanese wooden bridges, Chinese-style temples and beautifully intricate paper lanterns decorating the streets at every corner. In accordance with the lunar cycle the town hosts a lantern festival every month (which we were lucky enough to see), where you set upon the old town at night, purchase candle-lit lanterns and set them free on the river running through its centre. An epic spectacle, this festival leaves you feeling as though you are partaking in some grand-scale HSBC world banking advert. During the day you can meander at leaisure through the town, enjoying the temples, artsy shops (real craftsmanship on show!) and famous craft shops; Hoi An is renowned for its tailoring and leather shops, so treat yourself to a hand-made, fit-to-measure purchase!
The capital of Vietnam, this is the perfect city to end your tour of the country. From here there are several tours to take to explore the northern regions – we took several days and went on a backpackers’ boat cruise of the absolutely stunning Halong Bay. With around 2,000 islands, this natural wonder spreads over 150 square kilometres and is a UNESCO world heritage site. Other trips that can be arranged from the capital head to the iconic rice fields of Sapa, from where popular tours include hiking the fields and staying in local homestays.
Naturally there are endless hidden gems to be uncovered, and these are but a few suggestions of some of the country’s easily accessible highlights.
Caitlin is currently travelling around southeast Asia. All photos: Caitlin Hamilton.