A Beginner's Guide to Vietnam
Hearing the word “Vietnam” conjures up a wild combination of images and emotions. Steaming plates of delicious food, winding streets filled with both ancient and colonial history, bustling markets and stunning landscapes. Hypnotising and intriguing, Vietnam will stay with you long after you’ve left.
What To do
Both gut-wrenching and sombre, a trip to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is nonetheless an important part of getting to know this fascinating place. Documenting the events of the Vietnam War and its effect on the country, the museum features photography exhibitions, aircraft, tanks and documentaries and represents this tumultuous era in Vietnam’s history. Following on from that, a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, around forty minutes outside of the main city, is another thought-provoking glimpse into what life was like during the war. Visitors can crawl through the tiny tunnels that guerilla soldiers lived in and, for the more daring, practice their aim with a shotgun on the shooting range.
For a slightly more relaxing and picturesque experience, head out to the shimmering Halong Bay, a jewel in Vietnam’s landscaped crown. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is a network of teal blue lakes interspersed with jagged limestone islands. The only way to truly appreciate the bay’s beauty is by getting out on a boat cruise on the water, many of which will provide a meal and sometimes even a bed for the night. Swimming and kayaking in the serene water is also a must-do here.
Once back on dry land, head to the picture-postcard pretty town of Hoi An and pick yourself up a tailor made suit to take home as a souvenir. The streets of this quaint French-heritage town are lined with tailors willing to make you a custom-fit suit or dress for a fraction of the price of high street stores. Turnaround normally only takes a day or so and the end result will be worth the haggling you may have to do with the friendly shopkeepers.
Another must visit is Hue, and no stop in Hue would be complete without seeing the majesty of the Imperial Citadel, a walled fortress and palace surrounded by a moat filled with gulping koi carp. Standing since 1804, the citadel is a complex series of gates, courtyards and palace buildings, many of which carry battle wounds from an onslaught during the war. Out of the original 160 buildings that were constructed, only 10 remain, each of which is being lovingly restored to their former glory.
A good antidote to the “temple fever” you’ll inevitably be feeling after Hue is a leisurely stroll around Hanoi’s Old Quarter. This bustling collection of 36 historic streets is an assault on the senses and each street features its own speciality. While one street may seemingly sell only roasted fish, another may display an impressive collection of shoes and sandals, jewellery, jade, silks or mixed fruits. It’s difficult to leave this part of the city without a bargain or two, as well as a stomach full of street food goodies.
Vietnam beach holidays
A curving stretch of white sand on the southern coast of Vietnam, Nha Trang is one of the country’s most popular beach destinations. Ringed by a green necklace of palm trees and rolling hills, Nha Trang is popular with scuba divers and the sunbathing set and with the arrival of luxury hotels like the stylish Mia Resort, it’s easy to see why this area has grown in popularity over the last few years.
Offering a slightly different vibe from Nha Trang, the National Park of Cat Ba Island boasts some of the most picturesque beaches in the country, many of which are accessible only by boat. Due to the effort put into reaching them, the beaches here are much less crowded with tourists and feature a rugged beauty that can be lost in some of the bigger resorts.
Having successfully retained its original charm from the days of its first discovery, Mui Ne is another resort-lined beach destination which garners flocks of sunbathers and kitesurfers, with good reason. Interestingly, Mui Ne is also famous for its huge red-and-white-coloured sand dunes which can be explored by dune buggy, quad bike or sledge.
Extend your stay
If a week just doesn’t feel like long enough to experience this amazingly diverse country, there are several ways to extend and enhance your stay. A boat tour around the Mekong Delta offers a glimpse into a more rural and traditional way of life than is apparent in the larger towns and cities, while a cooling retreat into the mountains of Sapa will open your eyes to the fascinating minority communities who live and trade close to the Chinese border.
Article by Julia Evans.