Hanoi and around
By turns exotic, squalid, gauche and hip, the high-octane Vietnamese capital of Hanoi provides a full-scale assault on the senses. Its crumbly, lemon-hued colonial architecture is a feast for the eyes: swarms of buzzing motorbikes invade the ear, while the delicate scents and tastes of delicious street food can be found all across a city that - unlike so many of its regional contemporaries - is managing to modernize with a degree of grace. Despite its political and historical importance, as well as the incessant noise drummed up by a population of over six million, Hanoi exudes a more intimate, urbane appeal than Ho Chi Minh City.
At its centre lies a tree-fringed lake and shaded avenues of classy French villas dressed up in jaded stucco, but the rest of Hanoi is bursting at the seams and nowhere is this more evident than in the teeming traffic and the vibrant, intoxicating tangle of streets known as the Old Quarter, the city’s commercial heart since the fifteenth century. Delving back even further, a handful of Hanoi’s more than six hundred temples and pagodas hail from the original, eleventh-century city, most notably the Temple ofLiterature, which encompasses both Vietnam’s foremost Confucian sanctuary and its first university. Many visitors, however, are drawn to Hanoi by more recent events, seeking explanations among the exhibits of the Military History Museum and in Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum for the extraordinary Vietnamese tenacity displayed during the wars of the twentieth century.
Modern Hanoi has an increasingly confident, “can do” air about it and a buzz that is even beginning to rival Ho Chi Minh City. There’s more money about nowadays and the wealthier Hanoians are prepared to flaunt it in the ever-more sophisticated restaurants, cafes and designer boutiques that have exploded all over the city. Hanoi now boasts glitzy, multistorey shopping malls and wine warehouses; beauty parlours are the latest fad and some seriously expensive cars cruise the streets. Almost everyone else zips around on motorbikes rather than the deeply untrendy bicycle. The authorities are trying — with mixed success — to temper the anarchy with laws to curb traffic and regulate unsympathetic building projects in the Old Quarter, coupled with an ambitious twenty-year development plan that aims to ease congestion by creating satellite towns. Nevertheless, the city centre has not completely lost its old-world charm nor its distinctive character.
Hanoi, somewhat unjustly, remains less popular than Ho Chi Minh City as a Jumpmg-ofF point for touring Vietnam, with many making the journey from south to north. Nevertheless, it provides a convenient base for excursions to Ha Long Bay, and to Sa Pa and the northern mountains, where you’ll be able to get away from the tourist hordes and sample life in rural Vietnam Chapters Seven and Eight respectively). There are also a few attractions much closer at hand, predominandy religious foundations such as the Perfume Pagoda, with its spectacular setting among limestone hills, and the spiralshaped citadel of Co Loa, just north of today’s capital. The Red River Delta’s fertile alluvial soil supports one of the highest rural population densities in Southeast Asia, living in bamboo-screened villages dotted among the paddy fields. Some of these communities have been plying the same trade for generations, such as ceramics, carpentry or snake-breeding. While the more successful craft villages are becoming commercialized, it’s possible, with a bit of effort, to get well off the beaten track to where Confucianism still holds sway.
The best time to visit Hanoi is during the three months from October to December, when you’ll find warm, sunny days and levels of humidity below the norm of eighty percent, though it can be chilly at night. From January to March, cold winds from China combine with high humidity to give a fine mist which often hangs in the air for days. March and April usually bring better weather, before the extreme summer heat arrives in late April, accompanied by monsoon storms which peak in August and can last until early October, causing serious flooding throughout the delta.
HO CHI MINH CITY AND AROUND
Chi Minh City (HCMC for short), still known as Saigon to its seven million or so inhabitants, is Vietnam's centre of commerce and the country's biggest city by far, though not its administrative capital an honour that rests with Hanoi. As a result of the sweeping economic changes wrought by doi moi in 1986, this effervescent city, perched on the west bank of the Saigon River, has changed its image from that of a war-torn city to one of a thriving metropolis, challenging Singapore, Bangkok and the other traditional Southeast Asian powerhouses.
All the accoutrements of economic success fine restaurants, flash hotels, glitzy bars and clubs, and shops selling imported luxury goods — are here, adding a glossy veneer to the city's hotch-potch landscape of French stones of empire, venerable pagodas and austere, Soviet-style housing blocks. Sadly, however, Ho Chi Minh City is still full of people for whom economic progress has not yet translated into food, housing and jobs. Street children range through tourist enclaves hawking books, postcards, lottery tickets and cigarette lighters; limbless mendicants haul themselves about on crude trolleys; and watchful pickpockets prowl crowded streets on the lookout for unguarded wallets. Though the number of beggars is gradually declining, tourists must quickly come to accept them as a hassle that goes with the territory. In addition, the arrival, en masse, of wealthy Westerners has lured many women into prostitution, for which the go-go bars of Dong Khoi became famous during the American War.
If Hanoi is a city of romance and meEow charms, then Ho Chi Minh City is its antithesis, a fury of sights and sounds, and the crucible in which Vietnam's rallying fortunes are boiling. Few corners of the city afford respite from the cacophony of construction work casting up new office blocks and hotels with logic-defying speed. An increasing number of cars and minibuses jostle with an organic mass of state-of-the-art SUVs, Hondas and cyclo, choking the tree-lined streets and boulevards. Amid this melee, the local people go about their daily life: smartly-dressed schoolkids wander past streetside baguette-sellers; women shoppers ride Hondas clad in gangster-style bandanas and shoulder-length gloves to protect their skin from the sun and dust; while teenagers in designer jeans chirrup into mobile phones. Much of the fun of being in Ho Chi Minh City derives from the simple pleasure of absorbing its flurry of activity - something best done from the seat of a cyclo or a roadside cafe. To blink is to miss some new and singular sight, be it a motorbike stacked high with piglets bound for the market, or a boy on a bicycle rapping out a staccato tattoo on pieces of bamboo to advertise noodles for sale.
It's one of Ho Chi Minh City's many charms that once you've exhausted, or been exhausted by, all it has to offer, paddy fields, beaches and wide-open countryside are not far away. The most popular trip out of the city is to the Cu Chi tunnels, where villagers dug themselves out of the range of American shelling. The tunnels are often twinned with a tour around the fanciful Great Temple of the indigenous Cao Dai religion at Tay Ninh. A brief taster of the Mekong Delta at My Tho or a dip in the South China Sea at Ho Coc are also eminently possible in a long day's excursion (see p. 134 & p.229 respectively).
The best time to visit tropical Ho Chi Minh City is in the dry season, which runs from December through to April. During the wet season, May to November, there are frequent tropical storms, though these •won't disrupt your travels too much. Average temperatures, year-round, hover between 26 and 29°C; March, April and May are the hottest months.
Ha Long Bay and the northern seaboard
The mystical scenery of Ha Long Bay is what draws people to the northeast coast of Vietnam. Thousands of bizarrely-shaped limestone islands jut out of the emerald sea; navigating the silent, secretive channels, past bobbing clusters of fishing boats, and stopping to scramble through caves or swim beneath overhanging cliffs are some of the highlights of a trip to Vietnam. Tourism now rivals fishing as the prime activity, but the bustling harbour retains a certain
authenticity and the tourist hordes are easily swallowed up in the bay’s generous proportions, with many overnighting aboard a traditional wooden junk; their tea-coloured sails are just for show since almost all vessels are motor-driven, but there’s a timeless, romantic air to floating amongst pristine moonlit peaks. By far the largest island in the bay, the wonderful Cat Ba makes an appealing base for exploring the area with some fine scenery as well as being home to Cat Ba National Park, a forest and maritime reserve requiring the usual mix of luck and dedication to see anything larger than a mosquito.
The two main jumping-off points for the bay and its islands are Haiphong and Ha Long City: though most travellers pass straight through, both are well set up for tourism. Haiphong is the more appealing, despite being north Vietnam’s second-largest city and a major port: broach the industrial outskirts and you’ll find a surprisingly agreeable centre with some nineteenth-century architecture. Further up the coast, Ha Long City is split by a strait into two mismatched halves - the largely unappealing sprawl of high-end hotels and seaside kitsch known as Bai Chay, and the neighbouring Hong Gai, an earthy, industrious town largely dedicated to fishing.
Its a further 150km up the coast to the Chinese border with the booming Markets of Mong Cai and the long, sweeping beach at Tra Co: hydrofoil services ^ong the coast make travel up to Mong Cai uncharacteristically smooth.
Unlike Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and most other Vietnamese cities, HUE somehow seems to have stood aside from the current economic frenzy and, despite its calamitous history, has retained a unique cultural identity. It’s a small, peaceful city, full of lakes, canals and lush vegetation, all celebrated in countless romantic outpourings by its much esteemed poetic fraternity. Since the early nineteenth century, when Hue became the capital ofVietnam, it has also been a city of scholars; there’s a discernible atmosphere of refinement and easy-going tolerance in the city, though it’s considered highbrow by the rest of the country,.
Hue repays exploration at a leisurely pace, and contains enough in the way of historical interest to swallow up a few days with no trouble at all. The city divides into three clearly defined urban areas, each with its own distinct character. The nineteenth-century walled citadel, on the north bank of the Perfume River, contains the once magnificent Imperial City as well as an extensive grid of attractive residential streets and prolific gardens. Across Dong Ba Canal to the east lies Phu Cat, the original merchants’ quarter of Hue where ships once pulled in, now a crowded district of shophouses, Chinese Assembly Halls and pagodas. What used to be called the European city, a triangle of land caught between the Perfume River’s south bank and the Phu Cam Canal, is now Hue’s modern administrative centre, where you’ll also find most hotels and tourist services.
Pine-covered hills, scattered with tombs and secluded pagodas, form the city’s southern bounds, where the Nguyen emperors built their palatial Royal Mausoleums And through it all meanders the Perfume River, named somewhat fancifully from the tree resin and blossoms it carries, passing on its Way the celebrated, seven-storey tower ofThien Mu Pagoda). If you can afford the time, cycling out toThuan An Beach makes an enjoyable excursion. Hué is also the main jumping-off point for day-tours of the DMZ ).
With all this to offer, Hué is inevitably one ofVietnam’s pre-eminent tourist destinations. The choice and standard of accommodation are generally above average, as are its restaurants serving the city’s justly famous speciality foods. Nevertheless, the majority of people pass through Hué fairly quickly, partly because high entrance fees make visiting more than a couple of the major sights beyond many budgets, and partly because of its troublesome weather. Hué suffers from the highest rainfall in the country, mostly falling over just three months from October to December when the city regularly floods for a few days, causing damage to the historic architecture, though heavy downpours are possible at any time of year.
Hoi An and around
The ancient core of HOI AN is a rich architectural fusion of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and European influences dating back to the sixteenth century. In its heyday the now drowsy channel of the Thu Bon River was a jostling crowd of merchant vessels representing the world’s great trading nations, and there’s still a compelling sense of history in the mellow streets of this small, amiable town. Hoi An’s most noteworthy monuments are the 200-year-old homes of prosperous Chinese merchants whose descendants, surrounded by astonishing collections of antiques and family memorabilia, continue to inhabit the cool, dark houses. Between their sober wooden facades, riotous confections of glazed roof tiles and writhing dragons mark the entrances to Chinese Assembly Halls, which form the focal point of civic and spiritual life for an ethnic Chinese community that constitutes one quarter of the population.
Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999, Hoi An is now firmly on most visitors’ agendas. For some it’s already too much of a tourist trap with its profusion of tailors’ shops and art galleries and its rapidly proliferating hotels, and the majority of visitors pause only briefly, but it takes time to tune in to the town’s subtle charms. At least a day is needed to cover the central sights and sample some of Hoi An’s mouthwatering speciality dishes, and by then most people are hooked. It’s easy to spend longer, taking day-trips to the atmospheric Cham ruins of My Son or some of the other sights closer to town (see p.280), biking out into the surrounding country or opting for a leisurely sampan ride on the Thu Bon River. If possible, try to time your visit to coincide with the Full-Moon Festival, on the fourteenth day of the lunar calendar every month, when the town centre is closed to traffic and traditional arts performances take place in the lantern-lit streets.
Nha Trang and around
From Phan Rang, Highway 1 pushes on against a backdrop of first sugar-cane plantations, then toothpaste-white salt flats and shrimp farms around Cam Ranh Bay on its way to the city of NHA TRANG. Nestled below the bottom lip of the Cai River, some 260km north of Phan Thiet, Nha Trang has earned its place as Vietnam’s top beach destination, despite stiff competition from places like Phu Quoc and Mui Ne.
Much has changed here since the days when the Cham people knew the area as Eatrang, the “river of reeds”, and the city now supports a population of over 300,000. By the time the Nguyen lords wrested this patch of the country from Champa in the mid-seventeenth century, the intriguing Po Nagar Cham towers had already stood, stacked impressively on a hillside above the Cai, for over 700 years. They remain Nha Trang’s most famous image, yet it’s the coastline that brings tourists flocking: boasting the finest municipal beach in Vietnam, Nha Trang offers splendid scope for mellowing out on the sand, with hawkers on hand to supply paperbacks, fresh pineapple and massages. Scuba-diving classes and all kinds of water sports, such as windsurfing, kayaking and parasailing, are available here, and local companies offer popular day-trips to Nha Trang’s oudying islands that combine island visits and snorkelling with an onboard feast of seafood. Bear in mind that there is a rainy season in 240 Nha Trang, around November and December, when the sea gets choppy and
NhaTrang is much more than a pretty strip of sand, however. The southern streets around Biet Thu are packed with great-value budget hotels and restaurants, plus some stylish boutiques and bars that are actually worth hanging out in. The downtown atga, which swirls aound Cho Dam (“central market”), its colourful epicentre, heaves with life; while the route up to the Po Nagar towers escorts you past the city’s huge and photogenic fishing fleet.
<p align="center"><strong><img src="/images/Vietnam/Da-Lat/2-royale.jpg" alt="Da Lat City" width="268" height="180" align="left" />Dalat and Around</strong></p>
<p>Hinged by the Cam Ly River, and nestled at an elevation of just under 1500m among the pitching hills of the Lang Bian Plateau, the city of DA LAT is Vietnam's premier hill station, a beguiling amalgam of squiggly streets, pictur-esque churches, bounteous vegetable gardens and crashing waterfalls, all suffused with the intoxicating scents of pine trees and wood-smoke.<br />
It was Dr Alexander Yersin who first divined the therapeutic properties of Da Lat's temperate climate on an exploratory mission into Vietnam's southern highlands, in 1893. His subsequent report on the area must have struck a chord: four years later Governor-General Paul Doumer of Indochina ordered the founding of a convalescent hill station, where Saigon's hot-under-the-collar colons could recharge their batteries, and perhaps even take part in a day's game-hunting. The city's Gallic contingent had to pack up their winter coats after 1954's Treaty of Geneva, but by then the cathedral, train station, villas and hotels had been erected, and the French connection well and truly forged. By tacit agreement during the American War, both Hanoi and Saigon refrained from bombing the city and it remains much as it was half a century ago.<br />
It's important to come to Da Lat with no illusions, though. With a population of around 200,000, the city is anything but an idyllic backwater: sighting its forlorn architecture for the first time in the 1950s, Norman Lewis found the place "a drab little resort", and today its colonial relics and pagodas stand cheek by jowl with some of the dingiest examples of East European construction anywhere in Vietnam. Moreover, attractions here pander to the domestic tourist's predilection for swan-shaped pedal-boats and pony-trek guides in full cowboy gear, while at night the city can be as bleak as an off-season ski resort.<br />
Despite all this, Da Lat remains a quaint colonial curio, and a welcome tonic to heat-worn tourists — all in all, a great place to chill out, literally and metaphorically. If the cool air gets you in the mood for action, you could try trekking to minority villages, mountain-biking or rock-climbing, but you'll need a permit and a guide.. Horticultural enthusiasts might like to time their visit to coincide with the annual Flower Festival, which takes place each December </p>
The Mekong Delta
Touring the orchards, paddy fields and swamplands of the Mekong Delta, you could be forgiven for thinking you've stepped into the pages of a geography textbook. A comma-shaped flatland stretching from Ho Chi Minh's city limits southwest to the Gulf of Thailand, the delta is Vietnam's rice bowl, an agricultural miracle that pumps out more than a third of the country's annual food crop from just ten percent of its total land mass. Rice may be the delta's staple crop, but coconut palms, fruit orchards and sugar-cane groves also thrive in its nutrient-rich soil, and the sight of conical-hatted farmers tending their land is one ofVietnam's most enduring images.
To the Vietnamese, the region is known as Cun Long, "Nine Dragons", a reference to the nine tributaries of the Mekong River which dovetail across plains fashioned by millennia of flood-borne alluvial sediment. By the time it reaches Vietnam, the Mekong has already covered more than four thousand kilometres from its source high on the Tibetan Plateau; en route it traverses southern China, skirts Burma (Myanmar), then hugs the Laos—Thailand border before cutting down through Cambodia and into Vietnam - a journey that ranks it as Asia's third-longest river, after theYangtse andYellow rivers. Flooding has always blighted the delta; ever since Indian traders imported their advanced methods of irrigation more than eighteen centuries ago, networks of canals have been used to channel the excess water, but the rainy season still claims lives from time to time.
Surprisingly, agriculture gripped the delta only relatively recently. Under Cambodian sway until the close of the seventeenth century, the region was sparsely inhabited by the Khmer krom, or "downstream Khmers", whose settle-ments were framed by swathes of marshland. The eighteenth century saw the Viet Nguyen lords steadily broaden their sphere of influence to encompass the delta, though by the 1860s France had taken over the reins of government. Sensing the huge profits to be gleaned from such fertile land, French colons spurred Vietnamese peasants to tame and till tracts of the boggy delta; the peasants, realizing their colonial governors would pay well for rice harvests, were quick to comply. Ironically, the same landscape that had served the French so well also provided valuable cover for the Viet Minh resistance fighters who sought to overthrow them; later it did the same for the Viet Cong, who had well-hidden cells here - inciting the Americans to strafe the area with bombs and defoliants.
A visit to the Mekong Delta is so memorable because of the region's diversity. Everyday scenes include schoolgirls clad in "white ao dai cycling along country lanes; children riding on the backs of water buffalo; rice workers stooping in a sea of emerald; market vendors grinning behind stacks of fruit; bright yellow incense sticks drying at the roadside; flocks of storks circling over a sanctuary at dusk; Khmer monks walking mindfully in the shadow of pastel pagodas; locals scampering over monkey bridges or rowing boats on the Delta's maze of channels.
It's difficult to overstate the influence of the river: the lifeblood of the rice and fruit crops grown here, it also teems with craft that range in size from delicate rowing boats to hulking sampans, and it forms a backdrop to everyday activities some of the region's biggest markets are waterborne. Inevitably the best way to experience riverine life is on a boat trip. Day trips can be organized in Ho Chi Minh City, My Tho, Vinh Long, Can Tho or Chau Doc, while some tour operators offer 2—3 day live-aboard trips (see box below). Since most day tours follow a similar itinerary (a visit to a floating market and stops at cottage indus-tries on the shore), you'll probably want to choose just one. Though Can Tho is most popular for its good range of hotels and restaurants, you're likely to see more tourists than locals in the nearby floating markets. A good alternative is Vinh Long, from where boats head out in many different directions through the canals of An Binh Island to the floating market at Cai Be.
There are over a dozen towns in the delta with facilities for tourists, though some are rarely visited as they are not on the way to anywhere. My Tho is well geared up for boat trips, and near enough to Ho Chi Minh City to be seen on a day-trip: it affords an appetizing glimpse of the delta's northernmost tributary, the Tien Giang. From My Tho, laidback Ben Tre and the bounteous fruit orchards besieging it are only a hop and a skip away. Cao Lanh is strictly for bird enthusiasts, but Sa Dec, with its timeless river scenes and riotously colourful flower nurseries, has a more universal appeal, while just down the road, Vinh Long is another jumping-oft" point for boat trips.
Many visitors spend a day or two in Can Tho, the Delta's biggest settlement. to take advantage of its decent hotels and restaurants and to recharge batteries before venturing out to the floating markets nearby. From Can Tho, there's something to be said for dropping down to the foot of the delta, where the swampland that surrounds Ca Mau can be explored by boat. Pulling up, en route, at the Khmer stronghold of Soc Trang is especially rewarding if your trip coincides with the colourful Oc Om Bok festival, during which the local Khmer community takes to the river to stage spectacular longboat races. Northwest of Can Tho meanwhile, and a stone's throw from the Cambodian border, is the ebullient town of Chau Doc, south of which Sam Mountain prpvides a welcome undulation in the surrounding plains. The opening of the border here has brought a steady stream of travellers going on to Phnom Penh by boat, and several of them rest up a few days here before leaving the country.
A bustling fishing port due south of Chau Doc on the Gulf of Thailand, Rach Gla is a convenient place to catch a boat or short flight to Phu Quoc Island, whose splendid beaches are a big draw for tourists. Northwest of Rach Gia, Ha Tien, a remote border town surrounded by Khmer villages, now also has daily boats'to Phu Quoc.The town has recently become popular for its international border crossing, which allows beach bums to slide along the coast from Phu Quoc Island to Sihanoukville in Cambodia or vice versa.
Given its seasonal flooding, the best time to visit the delta is, predictably enough, in the dry season, which runs from December to May.
Phu Quoc Island
Located just 15km off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand, PHU QUOC ISLAND rises from its slender southern tip like a genie released from a bottle. Virtually unknown by outsiders a decade ago, it has now cast a spell on enough visitors, with its soft-sand beaches, swaying palms and limpid waters, to challenge Nha Trang as Vietnam's top beach destination. Spanning 46km from north to south, it's Vietnam's largest offshore island (593 square kilometres), though Cambodia also claims Phu Quoc, calling it Ko Tral. Phu Quoc is just 45km from Ha Tien, and a little under 120km from Rach Gia.
The topography and vegetation are quite unlike the rest of the delta, and give the place a totally different feel. Phu Quoc's isolation made it an attractive hiding place for two of the more famous figures from Vietnam's past. Nguyen Anh holed up here while on the run from the Tay Son brothers in the late eighteenth century, and so too, in the 1860s, did Nguyen Trung True Today, over 80,000 people - and a sizeable population of indig-enous dogs (recognizable by a line of hair running up the spine instead of down) - dwell on the island, famous throughout Vietnam for its black pepper and its fish sauce (mwc mam), which is graded like olive oil.
Until the turn of the century, Phu Quoc had almost no facilities for tourists, but now development is in full swing and visitors are spoiled for choice of accommodation, restaurants and activities, such as snorkelling and diving. There are a few corals just off Ong Lang Beach, but the best locations are around the An Thoi Islands to the south or Turtle Island off the northwest coast, both of which can be visited by boat trip from Phu Quoc. At these reefs — the former of which is rated by some as the best dive site in Vietnam —yovi can float above brain and fan corals, watching parrot fish, scorpion fish, butterfly fish, huge sea urchins and a host of other marine life.
Like Mui Ne, Phu Quoc is a favourite bolt-hole for expats living in Ho Chi Minh City and, with work already begun on an international airport in the centre of the island, its future looks rosy. Yet while resorts and bars are springing up fast, for the moment Phu Quoc retains a pioneer outpost feel. Many places can only be reached via dirt tracks and the beaches are largely free of vendors. In the rainy season (May—Oct) Phu Quoc is relatively quiet, and room rates become more easily negotiable, though in peak season (Dec—Jan), accommoda¬tion prices can increase sharply and advance booking is necessary.