Vietnam in a nutshell: A guide for tourists

Freelance writer and teacher Lana O’Sullivan, winner of the ‘Vietnam-Timeless Charm’ award in the Writing & Video Contest as part of the Vietnam Tourism award 2018, introduces Vietnam’s special beauty and suggests some top destinations for the first-time visitor.

 vietnam in a nutshell: a guide for tourists hinh 0

Welcome to Vietnam

A land of staggering beauty, complexity and intrigue - Vietnam is home to sleepy rural hill tribes and bustling cities, perched between some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world.

You only have to scratch the surface of this deeply fascinating country to see vestiges of its complicated history. Ancient temples display distinctly Chinese influences in the north and Hindu origins in the south. Meanwhile, the broad, tree-lined boulevards and grand state buildings that pepper Hanoi date from the French colonial period.

Despite evoking an image of war and deep suffering for those who grew up in the shadow of the devastating Vietnam War, Vietnam is an infectiously happy place. Colour, vibrancy and lust for life are to be found in every corner.

Destination highlights Hanoi

A mess of motorbikes and merchants, serene lakes and temples, peek underneath the surface and layers of history will reveal remnants of periods of French and Chinese occupation-offering a glimpse into the resilience of ambitious, proud Hanoians.

The ancient art form of water puppetry has a long association with Hanoi. Wooden puppets dance over the liquid stage, telling various traditional folk stories, including the creation of Hoan Kiem lake and its magical resident turtle. We recommend Thang Long Puppet Theatre, the original and in our opinion, the best.

Perhaps not the first thing you’d think of doing whilst on holiday is visiting a corpse. However, President Ho Chi Minh’s indelible impression on the people and history of Vietnam, Hanoi particularly, is a fascinating and enriching thing to observe. To understand President Ho Chi Minh’s story is to understand the context of modern Vietnam. His legacy is still very much a part of living history in Hanoi, and his sombre mausoleum a testament to the country’s Soviet influences.

Hoi An

Historic Hoi An is easily Vietnam’s most atmospheric town. Once a major port, it boasts grand architecture and a beguiling riverside setting almost entirely absent of the traffic and pollution that blights the rest of Vietnam’s towns.

Hoi An’s diverse history has resulted in a stunning mix of architecture styles, and the Ancient Town is a perfect monument to this. Ornate Chinese temples neighbour French-colonial mansions, opposite Japanese-built bridges and old Vietnamese canals. Entrance costs VND120,000 for a ten-day pass for foreigners, which includes six points of interest, and street entertainment such as folk dancing, singing, and traditional games.

Cam An beach sits just north of the more popular Cua Dai beach and is a pleasantly unkempt alternative to its touristy neighbour. Local expats and Vietnamese mingle in the rickety bars dotted around the beach.

Hue

Pronounced ‘hway’, the deeply evocative capital of the Nguyen empire sits around three hours’ drive from its coastal neighbour, Hoi An. Through many of its finest buildings were destroyed during the American War, the city boasts some of the most fascinating historical relics in Vietnam such as the old Imperial Citadel and the tombs of many lavish emperors.

As one of the defining moments of living history, the Vietnam War still looms large on the psyche of Vietnam. No surprise, then, that the country’s demilitarised zone has become somewhat of an attraction for those who make it to Hue. Trips include a guided tour in English, take a full day and cost around US$9.

Mekong Delta

The ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam is carpeted in a dizzying variety of lush greens. Boats, houses and markets float upon the complex maze of waterways that criss-cross the landscape. Tour the orchards, paddy fields and swamplands to get a real feel of what it must be like to tumble into a geography textbook.

Cai Rang is the biggest floating market in the Mekong Delta. Head here early, at around six or seven AM to see the market in full swing without bus (or boat) loads of tourist vying for the perfect picture. This is a wholesale market, and generally whatever’s hanging from the end of the long pole above the boat indicates what the trader is selling that day.

Just off the southern tip of Phu Quoc, An Thoi is comprised of 15 tiny islands that are just about as close to paradise as you could imagine. Powdered sugar sands are lapped by calm turquoise surf, and are only accessible by chartered boat. The main island, Pineapple Island, is a perfect stop-off point for sightseeing, fishing, swimming and snorkelling.

Ho Chi Minh City

Saigon is Vietnam’s largest and most dynamic city. Wander through throngs of markets and street vendors, or gaze up at the cities ever increasing population of skyscrapers-a testament to the high-octane commerce that continues to propel modern Vietnam.

The War Remnants Museum is a sobering and excellently curated museum which stands as a testament to the bravery of the Vietnamese during the 20th century. Immaculately preserved tanks, planes and other war vehicles are presented in the outside grounds, whilst exhibits documenting the human horrors of the American War are inside.

The Reunification Palace has essentially been frozen in time from the moment that the north Vietnamese claimed victory in the Vietnam War against American army, in 1975. Opulent reception halls, secret rooms and command bunkers, all with distinctively 70’s design, make for a great afternoon activity for history buffs and retro-loving photo-opportunists alike.

Food

Unlike its gastronomic cousin, Thailand, Vietnamese food is only just starting to garner the international recognition it deserves. Whilst the cuisine of Vietnam is as varied as it is complex, each mouthful of its myriad delicious dishes balance hot, sour, salty and sweet flavours in a way that is distinctively Vietnamese. Pho and Banh mi restaurants are starting to enter fashionable districts of the West where burrito or sushi stalls once flourished, and there is one good reason why-Vietnamese food rocks.

But whilst folk in the West are still grappling with how to pronounce Pho Bo, Vietnamese cuisine has been developing for centuries. Both the geography and the political history of Vietnam has shaped what you’ll find today, as well as the enviable availability of some of the freshest and most delicious herbs and fruit on the planet. Savoury soups such as Bun thang or Bun rieu from the north reflect its proximity to China, whilst the use of spices and heat further down the country are distinctively southern in flavour.

Must try dishes include the infamous Pho-it’s almost impossible to walk down a street in a Vietnamese town without bumping into a crow of hungry patrons slurping the noodles at any given time. This simple staple consists of a salty broth with fresh rice noodles, chicken, beef or fish, and of course a liberal sprinkling of herbs and green veggies. You may be familiar with pho, but, as always, there’s no substitute for the real thing, tiny plastic stool and all.

Wrestling for second place in the contest of Vietnam’s most coveted food, Banh xeo is a crispy, fried pancake bulging with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. Either chomp it down as it comes or wrap it into a sheet of rice paper with some fresh herbs and dunk it into a peanut and fish sauce dipping sauce.

Nightlife

As for nightlife, Vietnam is certain to sate even the most voracious party appetite. In recent times, even smaller towns and cities such as Halong Bay and Mui Ne are home to lively pubs and bars, which generally cater to a foreigner crowd. In the larger cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, it is possible to stay partying into the not-so-small hours. Across the country you’ll find stalls emblazoned with Bia hoi signage where you’ll be able to get a cold glass of fresh local beer for around VND5,000 (US$0.20). Many also serve excellent, cheap Vietnamese food and snacks and are a great place to soak up Vietnamese street culture.
Time Out