Vietnam - A Surprise Package
Published: 15 March 2018
Author: Mansukh Ganatra
My wife Shila and I are always keen on long-haul touring around Late January/early February, with Christmas out of the way, freezing temperatures at home and Spring still a little distance away. Going over our ‘places to visit’ list, Vietnam beckoned. So we booked, both of us being apprehensive of visiting one of only five true communist countries still alive and kicking.
Sipping a gin and tonic in the bar in Emirate’s Pub-in-the-sky A380 made us wonder if we were not about to descend into a third-world country, rife with poverty and pestilence. After all, what is Vietnam known for? Its brutal war with the US? The long-forgotten boat people? The sharp, Fu Manchu -bearded Ho Chi Minh? The French colonial relics?
Swiftly whisked from the airport by our polite guide and driver in an orderly, if busy city-centre of Ho Chi Minh City (still referred to as Saigon – both by airlines as well as the City’s people), was the first surprise. Saigon is a modern city with amenities to match. Our hotel offered lovely views of the cosmopolitan metropolis and the lake nearby. Ambling through Saigon’s streets was a real treat, with pavement cafes and the hustle and bustle of tourists (mainly locals, South Koreans and Aussies) giving it a vibrant throb.
After a pleasant drive through the countryside the following morning, we arrived at Cu Chi Tunnels. Stretching over 200km these underground passages, dug out of hard laterite by hand to connect command posts, hospitals, shelter and weapons, were never discovered by the American Marines. Some of the TV images and US films of the 70s flashed past as a surreal experience. A mid-afternoon trip took us back to Saigon to visit the Reunification Palace, the seat of the South Vietnamese Government until the war ended with a unified Vietnam in 1975. Notre Dame Cathedral and the Old Post Office built by the French in the late 19th century are impressive landmarks of the city centre. Our visit ended with a stop at the colourful and busy Ben Thanh Market. We then walked to Ho Chi Minh Square for the Vietnamese New Year celebrations, with its vibrant decorations of colourful bunting, lanterns and amazing lighting and what seemed like a million people thronging the city to herald the arrival of the Year of the Dog, finishing with fireworks that felt never ending.
The following morning we took a relaxing boat-ride at Cai Be in the Mekong Delta, visiting craft shops on the way and buying fresh fruit for lunch from the floating markets that ply their wares in a colourful display, taking in a short but exhilarating sampan ride threading trough tiny waterways of the island. A lovely authentic meal in the city centre brought a blissful day to an end.
Our next stop was Hue, a short flight from Saigon. A happy cruise on the Perfume River, visits to a pagoda and various tombs, together with a walk through the Citadel and the Forbidden Purple City was a real treat. Our knowledgeable guide relived the Battle of Hue – more out of passion than rubbing communist propaganda, as his family lived within the confines of the Citadel.
We travelled through stunning scenery via the Hai Van pass to the seaside town of Da Nang, stopping to visit Cham Museum and the impressive Marble Mountain. Close by is Hoi An’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its exceptionally well-preserved trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century, its buildings and street plan reflecting a unique blend of indigenous and foreign influences. Both Da Nang and Hoi An have seen the building of luxury resorts over the last five years. We spent two days relaxing by the pool of our hotel, and visited Hoi An Old Town with its busy nightlife, where we grabbed premium spots at pavement cafes to enjoy a few relaxing drinks while watching the thousands of tourists and locals pass by within an easy distance to its famous focal point, the Japanese Bridge.
A short flight then took us North to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, often referred to as the ‘Paris of the Orient’ and the seat of Ho Chi Minh who masterminded the unification of the nation. Hanoi, in contrast to Saigon at the southern end of the country, offers a different climate, dialect and culture, equally enjoyable, if a bit cooler. The City bustles a lot more and a one-hour tour of the central areas by Cyclo (a bicycle rickshaw) is real fun. A visit to the famous Water Puppet theatre, the Central Lake and some historic and religious sites was most pleasurable. Other enthralling visits included the Stilt House, the Presidential Palace, One Pillar Pagoda and the Temple of Literature.
No trip to Hanoi is complete without a cruise along Halong Bay, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World inclusive of an overnight stay, with its fascinating views of various rock formations jutting out of the South China Sea, plus visits to the famous Tien Ong, Kuon and Trong caves and an Oyster farm.
As all good things have to end we bade goodbye to Vietnam for our flight home the following day, with happy memories of a country at peace, engraved in our minds.