VIETNAM passes the test of the three Cs: it’s cheap, cheerful and close and, in these difficult times, it is safe. Vietnam will become an increasingly important destination for international tourists and has the potential to become the most popular Asian destination. It not only offers superb beaches and bargain shopping, but the Vietnamese cuisine also is a delight and the chance of picking up food bugs is minimal.
Visitors either enter in the south at Ho Chi Minh City (it was Saigon) and slowly make their way north to the capital Hanoi or vice versa. They can use Ho Chi Minh City as a base to explore the Mekong Delta, which is the rice bowl of the country and worth an overnight trip. The meander north can include Nha Trang, a one-hour flight north from HCMC and a very relaxing beach stopover. It is similar to Bali, with hawkers on the beach to make life more bearable, selling fresh fruit, beer, T-shirts, postcards, jewelry… you name it and they sell it. Unlike Bali, however, the hawkers are usually happy to take “no” for an answer.
The next 60-minute flight took us from Nha Trang to the coastal town of Da Nang where China Beach became a famous R&R spot for troops during the Vietnam War. A 30-minute hair-raising drive from Da Nang was Hoi An, the town of tailors – almost 800 of them to be precise. They can knock up any sort of clothing in two days – suits, jackets, slacks, skirts, and shirts – and that includes at least one fitting. Prices range from about $10 for shirts up to $120 for suits and it is very competitive.
A complete wardrobe revamp could take a few days but the money saved could pay for the trip, so don’t miss Hoi An. For visitors more interested in the beach, a beautiful strip of white sand is just 5km from the town where there are several high-class resorts. A two-hour bus trip from Hoi An leads north to Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam. A must-see for visitors is the old city and citadel which is being rebuilt after extensive damage during the war.
Fighting around Hue was intense and the town was retaken by the Vietcong during the Tet Offensive – a nationwide uprising in 1968, which claimed 1000 American and 2000 South Vietnamese army deaths while the North Vietnamese lost 32,000 troops. It was the beginning of the end of the war but it was not until 1975 that the Americans pulled out. Another 90-minute flight took us from Hue to Hanoi and back to the big-city bustle where the motorcycle is king.
Hanoi has three million people and two million motorcycles and very little in the way of road rules. It is organized chaos, as horns constantly toot and bikes dive into holes in the traffic. Little wonder that about 30 people die every day on Vietnam roads. There’s no break in the traffic, so crossing the street is an art that has to be learned quickly. It’s a case of slowly moving across the street, no sudden movements while making eye contact with oncoming drivers. The traffic flows around pedestrians. The trick is to do this while praying and avoiding the almost overwhelming temptation to panic and run.
A welcome break from Hanoi was a trip to Halong Bay – three hours by bus but a world away cruising the bay that is littered with unusual limestone rock formations. Old junks have been rebuilt to cater for six couples in cabins with their own en suites. Very civilized, and all for around $50 a head for the two days with meals thrown in. Another Hanoi sanity stopover is Sapa, an overnight train trip away in the highlands near the Chinese border.
While Hanoi and, to a lesser extent Ho Chi Minh City, are interesting, they are also heavily polluted, so it is best to spend most of a Vietnam visit in the provinces. After hundreds of years of war with the Chinese, the French, and then the Americans, the good times have finally come to these resilient and resourceful people. Vietnam is no longer at war. It’s a country going places with plenty to offer.”
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