Exploring Vietnam from Saigon to Hoi An
It must have been on the 10th day that I developed a craving for chips and cheesecake. Noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner had been a novelty until then, but my jaws were craving something to actually chew on. So I excused myself from a restaurant where the menu entices with noodles and frog, and ďnoodles fried with miscellaneousĒ, and let myself loose in Vietnamís Saigon.
The city has borne the dour name of Ho Chi Minh City since 1975, yet even some of the locals still call it by the more romantic name Saigon. Itís a captivating place of glorious old colonial buildings, gaudy temples competing with flashy neon street signs, delicate Asian ladies riding elegantly on their bikes, and the pretty Mekong Delta within day-tripping distance. Thankfully it also serves up delicious chips and cheesecake, because, as a new travelling companion said: There are only so many noodles you can take. Hanoi, at the other end of the long skinny country that is Vietnam, is a far bolder, brasher place. There you can barely cross the road because the population of 4-million own 2-million motorbikes between them, and theyíre all heading your way as you teeter on the curb. Crossing the road is an art, our guide explained. Wait for a small gap and set off. Don't slow down, donít step back, and just keep going. Bikes, cars, buses and cyclos will gauge your pace and steer round you, and if you hesitate you just confuse them. Thatís sound advice, until the wall of traffic confuses itself as mopeds and bikes head in the wrong direction and everything comes to a solid but short-lived standstill. Between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City stretches about 1,800km of a country that at one point slims down to just 50km wide. Itís been a bloody landscape, repeatedly pillaged and occupied by all its neighbours, split and unified ad infinitum, colonised by the French, and thoroughly pounded by the Americans. Trying to get to grips with Vietnamís complex history is baffling, and unless youíre a history buff thereís really little point. Just enjoy the resulting blend of architectures, food and culture, and let the soothing acres of rice paddies, oxen and triangular-hatted workers charm you. The one part of history that is obligatory to experience is the Vietnam War, and my tour group included an Australian army veteran who had come to see what had become of the land heíd risked his life in. He came away happy, seeing his patch of battleground turned into a pleasing resort where he had his hair trimmed, his ears cleaned, and sank some beers with the cyclo driver who peddled him around the sites. The Vietnam government is out to make tourism a major industry, and itís using the war to do so. The once-secret Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong to hide themselves and their weapons from the carpet bombing enemy have become a major tourist attraction. Yet westerners with their larger girths are still excluded from some of the narrow entry points to the warrens covering 250km. Wriggling through the tunnels is almost fun, but a display of ingenious man-traps devised to wound pursuing Americans soon wipes the smile off your face. Yet that is nothing compared to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which displays manís utter brutality to man.
If You Go: Vietnam is a long, slim country with cities and towns worth visiting throughout its length. By far the easiest option is to join one of the numerous tour groups that travel between Ho Chi Min in the south to Hanoi in the north, with all accommodation, transport and local tour guides already organised. Pick a tour that includes plenty of free time to wander off alone. Itís possible to join an inclusive tour once you arrive in either city. If you want to travel alone, buy an international airticket that lets you land at one city and depart from the other. Internal flights are the best way to cover some of the long distances, since public transport is scarce, unreliable and crowded. Vietnam Airlines has booking offices in every town with an airport. Alternatives are a train from north to south, which can easily take 30 or 40 hours, while the public bus services is best avoided. Unmissable Ha Long Bay can be reached as a day trip from Hanoi, although itís worth booking a trip that includes an overnight stay. The equally important Viet Cong battlefields are close to Ho Chi Min City. Again itís best to arrange trips to both sites through a local tour operator as public transport is slow and erratic.
Lesley Stones is a former Brit who is now proudly South African. She started her career by reviewing rock bands for a national UK music paper, then worked for various newspapers before spending four fun-filled years in Cairo, where she ended up editing a technology magazine. Lesley was the Information Technology Editor for a daily business newspaper for 12 years before quitting to go freelance, specialising in travel & leisure writing and being opinionated about life in general. Her absolute passions are travel, theatre, the cinema, wining and dining.
Photos courtesy of Lesley Stones.