guide to travel in Vietnam from Saigon to Hoi An and Ha Long

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 "noodles fried with miscellaneous", and let myself loose in Vietnam's Saigon.

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Exploring Saigon to Hanoi

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. It's 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 they're 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, don't 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.

That's 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. It's 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 Vietnam's complex history is baffling, and unless you're a history buff there's 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 he'd 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.

Cu Chi Tunnels

The Vietnam government is out to make tourism a major industry, and it's 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.

War Remnants Museum

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 man's utter brutality to man.

I was frozen by sadness as I saw news reports filed by war correspondents and the horror captured by photojournalists. You gaze in sorrow, then read a footnote telling you this was his final photo, taken seconds before a bomb or a bullet took him down.

Other exhibits show the deformed victims of Agent Orange, a chemical used to strip the country of its foliage and deprive the Viets of food, with a deadly sideline in birth defects to follow.

After the war museum you need the hustle and bustle of a market to reaffirm that whatever happened in the past, life goes on. Though not for the livestock and poultry, as chickens, frogs, fish and eels have their last bids for freedom thwarted by the stall holders. I watched a fish leap out of a shallow bowl and flap its way down the pavement. In another market exotic heaps of dried fish and vegetables competed for trade against stalls almost touching the ceilings with knock-off baseball caps and running shoes.

Ha Long Bay

This popular destination is a complete contrast, boasting 3000 weird limestone islands jutting out of the South China Sea. This is the beautiful bay that's photographed in every brochure and guidebook. Its popularity hasn't ruined it yet, as the dozen tourist boats that set off every morning are soon absorbed by its vastness.

The faint mist over the bay never cleared as we chugged between the odd formations, giving the whole place an ethereal, magical atmosphere. We dived off the boat and swam in the warm water, then tucked into a seafood lunch.

Fish are scarce and the coral is sparse, yet the water was flecked with odd-coloured patches. That was explained when our crew snorkeled down to recover items of clothing and water drums that the sea had claimed the previous week. Bad weather and a heavily over-laden boat had pitched everyone overboard, although no one was hurt as the water is shallow and boats were around to haul in soggy survivors.

On another boat trip the lunch table doubled as a massage counter, with an on-board beautician offering massages, manicures and pedicures.

I thought those boats were small, until a trip to the Mekong Delta included a quick voyage in a coracle, woven out of palm leaves and waterproofed by the judicious application of pine resin and horse manure.

Da Lat

Deviating inland takes you to Da Lat, a mountain village where the cool air is a refreshing contrast in the sweltering summer. I was only there for a day, but fitted in a waterfall, a cable-car ride and a fascinating visit to an ethnic minority village.

I haggled half-heartedly for a handwoven shirt, knowing that even at the starting price it was cheap by western standards. Then our local guide led us into a darkened hut where the venerated old man of the village lives. It was only dark until he flicked the light switch, but that was where the modern amenities ended.

We conversed in a concoction of French and English supplemented by our guide's translation of the local dialect. Then it was time for his home-brewed rice wine. The long drinking straw to sup the evil brew was made of clear plastic -- so he can make sure the cowardly tourists are not just pretending to drink it, the old man smiled.

Hoi An

The town of Hoi An is another quaint destination, with its tiny town centre boasting just eight or nine tightly-packed main streets. There are delightful wooden buildings lining the river front, so we commandeered a boat, and clicked our cameras in delight as local fishermen cast their massive nets from a canoe in a dramatic overarm sweep. For a while we wondered why they kept casting when there was clearly nothing to catch, but our question was answered when we chugged alongside and our guide handed over a tip.

The locals must make more money netting tourists than they ever will from fish.

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. It's 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 it's worth booking a trip that includes an overnight stay. The equally important Viet Cong battlefields are close to Ho Chi Min City. Again it's best to arrange trips to both sites through a local tour operator as public transport is slow and erratic.

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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.

Updated: October 16, 2016

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