On any visit to Vietnam two stories unfold. One is the Vietnam you see before you – the chaos of cars and scooters racing by in a strange Darwinian order of bulk against speed. Sidewalk cafes and pho houses (inexpensive noodle soup spots) are left in the dust and din of buildings that have seen their centuries of Chinese conquerors, French order and civility, and local despots strung along by foreign demons and dollars.
Today those buildings house electronics stores, restaurants and silk shops. Everybody seems to have a job – even the scooter riders and pedicabs that follow pedestrians in hopes of a fare.
At the same time an American in Vietnam is constantly confronting a story of the past. Ghosts walk these streets. A continuous buzz of headlines and news bulletin memories tick off as names such as DaNang, Tet, Agent Orange and Ho Chi Minh Trail come to consciousness. One is never entirely free of these memories either inherited or experienced – until a young Vietnamese man or woman halts the flow of conversation to remind you once and for all, Vietnam is a county, not a war.
It has been more than three decades since the last US bomb scorched the earth and the Viet Cong tanks stormed the iron gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. And Vietnam has moved on, forgiving and forgetting along the way. Today’s Vietnam is a country of children (half the people in this country are below the age of 30) more concerned about text messages than politics. And from the undulating hills of Sapa in the north to the steaming dust of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in the South, Vietnam is once again a sensation to savor. Easily traveled, yet cunningly remote, Vietnam will test your patience and senses leaving the adventurous and determined well rewarded for their time.
The entire eastern edge of Vietnam rolls into the South China Sea and the country has its white sand beaches and golden resorts scattered up and down this lengthy littoral. But a trip to Vietnam is not so much about a cruise through China Beach as it is about seeing Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An and Hue, and the towns and villages in between that preserve the history of the country in its many eras.
Hanoi is known for its French colonial charm, its temples and pagodas, its urban sophistication and its labyrinthine Old Quarters. Ho Chi Minh City is very much a modern urban sprawl, a business city with pockets of European charm along the muddy Mekong. Both cities have their “must” museums that shed valuable light on the region’s history and especially on the “American” War as it is called there. In between is the port city of DaNang and then the near by historical towns of Hue and Hoi An that served as the seat of the Mandarin culture that dominated Vietnam for much of the last millennium. Other notable spots include Sapa, where nearly three dozen hill tribes make their home, the beach resort hamlet of Nga Trang and the scenic highland hideaway of Dalat.
A visit to Vietnam could and should be at least two weeks to take advantage of the history, the beauty and the variety of adventures this destination has to offer.
Hanoi was bombed to bits during the “American” war but much of the colonial element was spared as were several historic temples and neighborhoods. Among these was the venerable Old Quarter– an area defined by narrow winding streets filled with museum quality souvenirs, unusual clothing stores and silk shops, elixir vendors, chestnut and soup sellers, handmade puppet theaters and mid-19th century architecture. Enter via Hoan Kiem — the Lake of the Restored Sword and its legendary Chinese Bridge and island temple dedicated to the ancient and wise turtle that supposedly lives in the lake.
A 10-minute cab ride away finds Ba Dinh Square, also known as the Ho Chi Minh Quarter. It’s an area of magnificent French-era pavilions and residences and also the resting place for Ho Chi Minh, who departed in 1969 but whose embalmed body never left the neighborhood. His mausoleum attracts the crowds, who must dress conservatively and may not carry anything inside. They are hurried past the glass sarcophagus by unsmiling guards given the task of tending to tarryers. Afterwards, the curious can wander the house where Ho lived; see his favorite cars and typewriter, and the room where he slept.
It would be hard to visit Hanoi without a tour of the Hanoi Hilton – the famous prison where downed pilots were housed, including Sen. John McCain. An unassuming building not far from the Hoan Kiem Lake, the 112-year-old Hao Lo Prison was actually the work of the French and much of the exhibition space is dedicated to the shackles and guillotines used by the foreign rulers against subversives during the country’s war of independence from France. Other rooms are given to the capture of US pilots with recreated cells and exhibits of captured articles right down to the Winston packs and Anacin bottles.
Sailing into the Past
From Hanoi, an overnight cruise around Halong Bay off the Gulf of Tonkin, makes a relaxing if not eerily compelling segue that should be considered a “must.” The Bay is made up of more than 3,000 limestone islands jutting out of the water, a geologic forest of doom for vessels that do not know their way. But on the slow flow of a preciously refurbished turn-of-the-century French paddlewheeler, the Bay becomes a journey into the past as much as place. One can easily imagine being Graham Greene or Marguerite Duras while watching the horizon and filling out post cards from a rattan deck chair. Classic Cruises’ Emeraude is a period vessel that presents a complete experience of Halong Bay – from the three-hour Hanoi transfers by minivan to relaxing cruise, meals, stops for sightseeing and kayaking and even a cool night time viewing of the evocative film starring Catherine Deneuve, Indochine (much of which takes place in that very spot) aboard the top deck while the boat is moored in a quiet cove. Rates start at $339 for a single, $413 for a double. The ship has 14 superior cabins (all with private bathrooms), 22 deluxe quarters plus two suites. It also offers in-suite spa services for about a sixth of what such would cost on a commercial liner. (84-4-934-0888, emeraude-cruises.com).
Below the DMZ
A flight south from Hanoi to DaNang takes about an hour. The city seems as honky-tonk and cheesy as it was during the war, although fabulous beaches running north to Hue and then Hoi An are the scene of rabid international resort development projects in what may be on its way to becoming the next Phuket. The top attraction in Hue is the Royal Citadel on the banks of the Perfume River where the ruling Mandarin class out of China held court in the 19th century. It was also the scene of major fighting during the Tet Offensive and guides eagerly point out bullet holes in the stone walls.
The road from Hue, past China Beach and south to Hoi An is scenic – bicycle enthusiasts consider this one of the best rides in the world. In Hoi An find a preserved UNESCO World Heritage village of ancient Chinese dwellings and walkable streets lined with dozens of silk shops and sewing dens, custom shoe shops, lantern boutiques, handmade jewelry and craft shops, even a place called the Reaching Out shop with artistic crafts created by the town’s handicapped and disabled residents. Find shops selling silk paintings of painstaking needlepoint, taking the process from worm to wall. Other shops sell books or artifacts from the town’s lengthy history. But it is the clothing that catches most eyes. Anything can be created or copied by the town’s talented tailors. Allow at least 48 hours with time for repeated fittings. Do not hesitate to choose fabrics and designs carefully — and bargain hard.
To the south, an exploration of Ho Chi Minh City requires at least two days. The attractions here include Reunification Hall – the Presidential Palace that housed the last three doomed presidents of South Vietnam and was the scene of tanks crashing the gates on April 30, 1975. The 1960s vintage rooms, the hidden bunkers and the rolling film that ties it all together make this a worthy expense of time. The War Remnants Museum, too, is an emotional scene as visitors go through room after room of disturbing photography, haunting exhibits and dioramas, and films of maimed citizens still fighting the effects of Agent Orange.
A tour that puts much of the missing history of this war in place is a half-day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, about an hour outside the city. The tour provides a rare view of the world lived by the Viet Cong resistance fighters who fought, survived and staged the war from a hand-hewn web of tunnels fanning out for more than 100 miles.
Details for planning your trip
Vietnam Airlines does not service the US. Clients easily meet up with flights to Vietnam, however, through Taiwan, Korea and Japan. UAL does have routes to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City from the US West Coast.
Visas are necessary for US citizens and can be obtained through Vietnam offices in San Francisco and Washington DC.
The Exchange rate of 17.8 VN Dong to the US dollar makes any trip to Vietnam cost effective once you get there.
Visitors can stay in the cushy suburbs of West Lake at the Sofitel Plaza (84-4/3823-8888, sofitel.com), Intercontinental (84-4-6270-8888, ichotelsgroup.com) or Sheraton (84-4-3719-9000, starwoodhotels.com) and take a 15-minute cab ride into the center of town, or stay closer to the action at the legendary Sofitel Metropole (84-4-3826-6919, sofitel.com) or chic new Movenpick City Center (84-4-3822-2800, moevenpick-hotels.com). Rates run around $150 to $250 per night at these properties.
Hotels: Central Vietnam
La Residence, Hue offers a peaceful ode to colonial times in a historic expanse overlooking the Perfume River. (84-054-3837-475, la-residence-hue.com; Ave: $150 per night)
Life Heritage Resort, Hoi An: Modern and full-service facilities, luxurious rooms, steps away from charming Old Town. (84-510-3914-555, life-resorts.com; Rates run $120-$333).
Nam Hai, Hoi An: one of the top resorts in the country, if not Asia. Stunning beach location ten minutes from Hoi An. Exquisite Spa and dining. Rates start at $750 per night for a villa suite. (84-510-3940-000, ghmluxuryhotels.com/NamHai.htm).
Hotels: Ho Chi Minh City
Caravelle Hotel: Still the top hotel in the city, overlooking the Opera House and surrounded by luxury boutiques and cafes. Located in the former French colonial part of the city just a few blocks from the Mekong. Headquarters for many of the television press squads during the war. Rooms start at $235, single or $265 for two per night. (84-8-3823-4999, caravellehotel.com)
Movenpick Ho Chi Minh City: A fine business property with a convenient concierge floor and a flowing lobby for meeting, dining and cocktails, the location also gives the property the edge – 10 minutes from the international airport and 20 minutes from city center. Rates start at $125 per night. (84-8-3844-9222 moevenpick-hotels.com)
San Francisco-based Indochina Travel organizes custom travel experiences to Vietnam for individuals and groups –specializing for bicycle tours, culinary, art encounters, photography and festivals. A photography tour running Oct. 12-24 and led by known travel photographers, for example, spends two days in Hanoi, two days in Halong Bay, three days in Sapa and three days in the Mekong Delta for rates of $3,980 pp dbl, land only. (888-833-4533, indochinatravel.com)
Exotissimo, a well-known in-bound company based in Ho Chi Minh City can set up tours from day trips to Cu Chi to several weeks of exploration, depending on client interests and time. For instance a Saigon to Hanoi tour by train, bike and motor scooter runs ten days and nine nights for $1,190 per person before air arrangements. The company is a member of Virtuoso. (84-8-3825-1723, exotissimo.com).
Vietnam National Administration of Tourism
Embassy of Vietnam
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