|Country Information & Lifestyle|
A Dragon Descending to the Sea
From Hanoi, the cultural hub in the north, to gleaming Saigon in the south, Vietnam is a slumbering country on the move. Bustling cities buzzing with motorbikes, packed with people, animals and whatever else fits on them, street hawkers and the air a melange of all kinds of different smells, breathtaking beauty, untouched nature, primeval forests, dusty roads and warm, friendly people, this is Vietnam.
Vietnam's culture combines tradition and innovation. As ancient as 4,000 years, Vietnamese culture has been subject to many changes. Due to its agitated past, it has become a blend of its indigenous cultures as well as Chinese, Polynesian and Western influences.
Vietnam's beaches are the country's secret treasures, hidden miles away from populated areas: Deep in the heart of the country, shores at inland lakes are covered with lotus blossoms full abloom. Deserted beaches like Bai Sao or Mui Ne with red or white sands appeal and invite you to go swimming and kayaking.
Vietnam occupies the eastern and southern part of the Indochinese peninsula in Southeast Asia, with the South China Sea along its entire coast. China is to the north and Laos and Cambodia are to the west. The Mekong River delta lies in the south.
With 3,000 km of coastline, Vietnam offers travellers a huge variety of fascinating sites, ethnic minorities, regional delicacies and renowned beauty. From the rice terraced hills of Sapa to the bustling Old Quarter and ambient French District of Hanoi, from historic Hue to charming Hoi An, from the azure beaches of Nha Trang to the rolling countryside of the Central Highlands, from the manic pace of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to the lazy rhythms of the Mekong River - Vietnam has a wealth of fabulous travel opportunities that will amaze and inspire any visitor again and again.
Vietnam is divided into a number of regions and due to the size of the country it is not possible to show you more than just a smattering of this amazing country.
Hanoi, in the north, is the former capital, and is one of the most beautiful of the colonial Indochinese cities. Oozing with charm, Hanoi is an amazing city to experience and still retains a vibrant atmosphere. From early hours to late at night the streets swarm with careening motorbikes, often with four, five or even six people aboard. Most people spend their time dodging traffic and elbowing their way through overcrowded footpaths.
The city is framed by grand French colonial buildings, evocative colourful Chinese temples and houses, lovely parks and museums, and in winter months you can find a cosy cafe or street side restaurant boiling up a pot of something warming and delicious.
Tree-lined boulevards slice through the up-market embassy district, while winding back-alleys, littered with steaming street-side pho stalls, are more the norm in the city's Old Quarter.
It's a bustling capital with some of the warmest and most approachable people in the country. Although English is not as common as in the south, many of the older generation have a working vocabulary of French.
UNESCO World Heritage-listed Ha Long Bay - or the Bay of the Descending Dragon - is both mystical and magnificent, an incredible feat of nature that almost never fails to impress. A huge bay dotted with nearly 2,000 mostly uninhabited limestone cliffs and breathtaking scenery. Fishermen live on floating fishing villages where houses are set atop barges year round.
Nestled on the periphery is Cat Ba Island which is a good launching point for kayaking trips to explore some of the nearby tunnel caves, and there's Hospital Cave on the main island which played its part in the war with America, and is worth a peak, especially for war buffs.
Closer to Hanoi, from the Perfume Pagoda to the Hill station at Tam Dao and the scenery of Hoa Binh there's enough to keep you busy for a week to ten days in this region of Vietnam, savouring the sights, food and experiences that make the northern capital such a comfortable contrast to bustling Saigon in the south.
The nearby imperial capital of Hue offers a glimpse into yesteryear, while incredibly popular Hoi An offers an opportunity to get an entire new wardrobe - shoes included -stitched up for a song, as well as some great cafes and cuisine to while away a few days enjoying.
Adventurous travellers will want to head inland to the Central Highlands Region, where ethnic minorities scratch out livings for themselves. Dalat has a mild temperature and an attractive landscape of colonial villas, gardens, lakes and rolling hills. The colourful market features locally-made specialities such as artichoke tea, candied fruits, coffee, vegetables and flowers in Vietnam.
The former summer residence of Vietnam's last emperor, Bao Dai can be visited, and the famous artist monk Vien Thuc, will proudly show you some of his quirky compositions in his studio. The brilliantly coloured silk weaving of the Kohor tribes people are a popular purchase, as are finely detailed silk embroideries.
The Mekong Delta forms both the far southern region of Vietnam and one of country's two main rice bowls. Dominated by the hectic Mekong River and its many tributaries, the surrounding lands are comprised of low lying rice paddies and the rivers are bordered by dense mangroves and palms.
The rivers and tributaries can be the best method to explore the Mekong Delta at a leisurely pace and offer the opportunity to experience the truly unique Mekong River lifestyle. There is a heavy Khmer influence from nearby Cambodia and the extensive coastline boasts some of the nicer beaches in Vietnam. Exploring the Delta is a truly memorable and uniquely Vietnamese experience.
Ben Tre province is made up of three main islands wedged between the Tien Giang River to the north and to Co Chien River to the south with the Ham Luong River running straight down the centre. Verdant and flat, the province is covered in coconut trees and famous for its coconut desserts.
Traditional Mekong life is the norm here and it's a very unadulterated scene - wandering the market, sipping the coffee, doing a boat trip and skipping through the local museum are the main pastimes.
Squeezed onto the Cambodian border in a distant corner of Vietnam, Ha Tien is decidedly remote. The approach to town certainly helps to amplify its exotic atmosphere -- the agricultural bustle of the Mekong Delta seems to melt away to a lush landscape of rice paddies and buffaloes wallowing, the flatness punctuated by sudden limestone karsts.
Phu Quoc Island is a rare find with isolated and deserted beaches with perfect white sand and sparkling cobalt waters and rugged jungle. Only a one hour flight from Saigon the island has something for everyone. Ringed by over a dozen bays and beaches, with an archipelago of islets off its south coast, a jungle-covered interior and a handful of fishing villages, there is enough to do for a longer stay than you may be planning.
Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam's largest and most exciting city. How things have changed from the sleepy days pre-16th century, when the Khmer fishing village of Prey Nokor was established on a vast swampland.
Saigon has some of the best cuisine in the country, a risque nightlife, and growing number of high-rise, but it remains a unique destination with a wealth of attractions from war-era museums and palaces to ancient smoky pagodas.
The rush hour in Ho Chi Minh City is a mind-boggling crush of scooters and motorcycles and is totally chaotic, people cling to whatever they are taking home, a water tank, a Pekingese and a cabbage, a giant aquarium, towering stacks of fresh eggs and even a toilet bowl and flat screen TV. Further a field, there's the Cao Dai temple and the tunnels of Cu Chi out to the west towards the Cambodian frontier
A couple hundred kilometres offshore sits the Con Dao Island Group - one of Vietnam's best kept secrets. An archipelago of 15 islands situated in the South China Sea a 45 minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City.
The island is famed for its grizzly past: due its remoteness, the French used the main island of Con Son (the largest island in the group) to keep anti-colonial protesters prisoner. The South Vietnamese continued the tradition, sending political dissenters and activists to the 11 prisons which were also used in the American War. One third of the current 6,000 population are Vietnamese soldiers based in barracks dotted around the island.
Con Son is largely mountainous and covered in forest, with ample opportunity for hiking through the jungle and looking for wildlife. The island is also home to a coastline of steep, rocky hills and long sweeping coves, boasting some excellent spots for swimming and snorkelling.
Beach side Vung Tau (which means Bay of Boats) sits on a peninsular approximately 120 km south of Ho Chi Minh City. This proximity to the noise and pollution of Saigon mean it's within easy reach for weekenders or even a day trip, yet few western tourists make it.
Near Ninh Binh take a trip into the Tam Coc cave and the massive Phong Nha caverns down at the southern end in Dong Hoi - absolutely amazing. Here you will find very hospitable people, curiously wondering what on earth you're doing in this remote, non-touristy area of Vietnam.
Sprawling Dong Hoi is a pretty little town and once had a citadel. All that remains now are a few picturesque moats and gates and some war remnants.
Sprawling Nghe An province juts westward into northeastern Laos and cups around the South China Sea to the east. Ho Chi Minh's birthplace is in the hamlet of Kim Lien some 15 km north of the capital, Vinh, and today it is a well-preserved pilgrimage spot for the party faithful, and a good stop for travellers interested in a through understanding of Vietnamese contemporary culture.
The Ben Hai River in Central Vietnam marks the 17th parallel, which once marked the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam. Though reunited over two decades ago, the north south division of Vietnam remains obvious. When the Ben Hai River is crossed from north to south, everything seems to improve, roads and food being the most obvious.
Central Vietnam is home to a wealth of attractions from the ancient imperial capital of Hue to the cosmopolitan shopping and the beach destinations of Hoi An and China Beach. Less glamorously, the region is home to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which was the scene of heavy fighting during the American war.
This part of the country is dotted with all manner of war-period attractions, including the remains of Khe Sanh and other US bases along the DMZ. The Vinh Moc tunnels - a breathtaking testament of the tenacity of the Vietnamese people and a far more worthwhile attraction than the far more touristy Cu Chi tunnels.
The name Da Nang will have a familiar ring to anyone acquainted with the Vietnamese War. Asleep for 15 years, the city's cyclos still move along the leafy avenues at a sleepwalker's pace, there is definitely some stirring going on with glossy new apartment complexes and shopping malls lining the riverfront.
The city also has a large Cao Dai temple and boasts the excellent Cham Museum. The immediate area includes attractions like Marble Mountain, Monkey Mountain and the Ba Na Hill Station.
The nearby China Beach first rose to fame when it was used as an R & R destination for American soldiers and subsequent TV show. It is now destined to become beach resort.
A Luoi is a small town, incredibly beautiful, on a plateau among the hills surrounded by ethnic minority and doesn't get a lot of western visitors, but you are guaranteed a lot of smiles and curiosity. A visit to an ethnic village is worth the time.
5 km outside the village are the villages of Pa Co and Bru. The Bru women are known for smoking pipes - in fact they never seem to stop even when they are up to their knees in mud collecting manioc!
Pale yellow houses draped in bougainvillea, shop fronts lit with the glow of silk lanterns, women in conical hats lifting baskets of slippery fish from their boats - life in old town Hoi An looks like a picture postcard of a Vietnamese country town.
In 1999, the riverside town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in an effort to preserve its core of historic architecture, a unique mix of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and European styles.
The tourist trade is now Hoi An's bread and butter, restaurants offer menus of local specialities and American breakfasts and tailors offer suits made in less than 24 hours. Most people who visit are charmed, and even cynics will likely seek an excuse to justify liking it.
The historic capital of Vietnam, Hue, sits astride a truly majestic and beautiful river, the Song Huong (Perfume River). The area is dominated by the old fortified city known as the Citadel spread across more than 5 sq km of ground.
Hue is the capital of Thua Thien Province, its location in central Vietnam, just south of the DMZ, made it a scene of heavy fighting during the American War. Hue's complex history has earned it a reputation as a political, cultural and religious centre, but nowadays, visitors to contemporary Hue will find a city that only dimly reflects on its past, and only does so as a begrudging nod to its western visitors.
Like Halong Bay to the north, the complex of tombs, pagodas and palaces throughout Hue and its surrounds has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Vietnam's Central Highlands region has slowly opened up to tourists over the past decade after years of government enforced travel restrictions and today foreigners can explore the main centres of this region with relative ease.
The Central Highlands boast beautiful natural features such as relatively untouched forests, waterfalls and spectacular scenery, which contrast with areas still bearing the savage scars of war. A large number of ethnic minority groups still live traditionally in the highlands, particularly around Kon Tum, Plei Ku, Buon Ma Thuot and Da Lat.
The highlands become a torrent of water in the monsoon season as they get the heaviest rain falls in all of Vietnam. During the summer season, Da Lat is the most popular province as its high altitude offers a slightly cooler temperature than the almost unbearable heat of the southern plains. Treks are possible into the Cat Tien National Park possible. Very few people visit Binh Phuoc and Dak Nong.
For those who enjoy getting off the common tourist trail, the highlands are a great destination. It's quite easy to include a detour to this historically significant region as a circuit from the coast, leaving and returning from either Qui Nhon or Nha Trang, with a separate excursion required to reach Da Lat from Phan Rang or Ho Chi Minh City.
Out of Pleiku you can visit Banhar and Jarai minority villages, including a day-long trek that takes you through four Banhar villages. About 700,000 Vietnamese, including Hoa, Khmer, M'nong, Nung, Tay and Xtieng ethnic tribes inhabit the area, but not a lot of foreigners find their way here. Part of the problem is the location. It isn't on the way to or from anywhere in particular, the northern portion is off limits or hard to visit without a permit.
Extremely little English is spoken here, without a good phrase or translator Binh Phuoc can be a tough place to navigate. Gia Nghia is worth spending a night or two, the sight of a foreigner is still very, very novel.
During the war with America, South Vietnamese troops stationed here called it the end of nowhere - no plumbing, no electricity, no phones, just cows and farmers. Now it's a bustling metropolis by comparison, but it still retains that disconnected feel.
Remote Kon Tum province is the northernmost region of Vietnam's Central Highlands. The region is quite mountainous and it attracts relatively few travellers. Kon Tum is a small town known for its montagnard villages some of them right on the edge of town. Here you will see villagers performing dance and music performances in traditional dress.
There are over five hundred mountain villages in the surrounding area representing eight different ethnic groups. Some require a two or three day trek to reach them. This remote, little-visited region can be a highlight of an excursion through Vietnam.
The remote northwest of Vietnam appeals to those wanting to get off the beaten track in one of Vietnam's most beautiful, unaffected and non- touristy areas. Prepare yourself for stunning scenery as you pass through spectacular ravines and over breathtaking passes.
Remote and mountainous Son La province stretches along Vietnam's south-western border with Laos and is characterised by a rugged, yet breathtaking, mountains landscape.
The steep slopes of Son Laos valleys are layered in hundreds of stepped rice terraces, while the lush bases are home to small and often very isolated farming villages. The sleepy provincial capital of Son La itself is set at the halfway point between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu.
Mountaintop Sapa began life as a hilltop retreat for French colonists desperate to escape the searing heat of the Vietnamese plains. They chose the lofty cool of Fansipan's surrounds, and it's easy to see why - the humidity of Hanoi peels away as you ascend the mountain peaks skirted with finely-sculptured, emerald-green rice terraces.
Here you can come into close contact with a multitude of ethnic minorities. Black Hmong, Red Hmong, the Dzao all with their distinctive headgear. Since the advent of tourism these tribes have reinvented themselves as hawkers of handmade trinkets and textile goods.
They are the genuine 'native' inhabitants of the area, and they clearly regard all of the political nonsense that has been going on for the past 1,000 years as background noise. People invading and leaving, governments coming and going.
Many tribes straddle the border with China, which they ignore, circulating freely on both sides. As far as they are concerned, the lowland ethnic Vietnamese who have shown up in recent years to make a buck are simply arrivistes.
Home stays in the stilt houses are very popular, although some villages are more 'authentic' than others. But if you venture to the more remote hamlets, they offer fascinating glimpses of lifestyles seemingly stolen from history.
Isolated Mai Chau is in an idyllic valley a 139 km trip from Hanoi. Nestled between two towering cliffs and surrounded by emerald green paddies, it is an enchanting sight as you wind down the cliff side. In spring Mai Chau is a bright, almost parrot-green and by autumn this green transforms into golden hues as the rice approaches harvest.
South Central Vietnam's beautiful beaches are the main draw card for most travellers and the area is well geared for foreigners. Ca Na near the twin towns of Phan Rang Thap Cham, the secluded Dai Lanh north of Nha Trang and the spectacular Cam Ran Bay to the south offer more beaches, while the coastal fishing town of Qui Nhon offers still more beaches.
Cam Ranh Bay is a magnificent, absolutely enormous bay, filled with turquoise waters and rimmed with green hills. Considered to be one the finest deep-water harbours in the world, there are quite a few beaches, mostly on a peninsula jutting into the bay, that are completely unspoiled and absolutely jaw-dropping gorgeous. The water is clear and clean, becoming a shimmering turquoise in the bright sun and the sand is fine and almost white.
What's more, except for the fisherman and the locals who make their way here for a dip in the late afternoon, no one uses the beach. But of course the drawback is that the beaches are 20 km away from any sort of accommodation or facilities no public transport or regular buses. So for absolute seclusion this is the place to come.
In Son My near Quang Ngai is an excellent museum which memorialises the slaughter of 504 unarmed villagers by American forces in 1968 known as the My Lai Massacre.
Running north from Nha Trang to the provincial border with Phu Yen are some of Vietnam's prettiest bays and beaches. Day trips go to Thi Island for swimming and rowing and then on to Monkey Island where you can ride an ostrich. Around 50 km further north is the isolated, idyllic, Eco-venue of Whale Island.
And now enter the world of Vietnam's culinary delights to know the true promise of exquisite food. The basics of the Vietnamese cuisine are rice, fish sauce, soy sauce and an abundance of herbs such as lemongrass, coriander and basil
As a coastal state, Vietnam offers a great variety of fresh seafood. Vietnamese cooking also contains chicken and beef. Taste the colourful, mouth-watering fruits, such as the pink Green Dragon or the red, hairy Rambutan!
The cuisine differs from region to region. In Northern Vietnam, colder climate limits the production and availability of spices resulting in less spicy food than other regions. Northern Vietnam produces many signature dishes such as bon rieu, phở, and bonh cuốn.
The abundance of spices produced by Central Vietnam's mountainous terrain makes this region's cuisine notable for its spicy food. Reflecting the influence of ancient Vietnamese royal cuisine dishes such as bon be Huế and bonh xao are well known.
The wide use of coconut milk is used in Southern Vietnamese cuisine and the region also has influences from Chinese, Indian, French, Thai etc.
By now surely you are captivated by the beauty of this emerging country and its warm friendly people. With a country as large as Vietnam this is just a tip of what is on offer in this amazing, gorgeous country.
The next step is to make a trip and experience the country, culture, cuisine and traditional life for yourself, you will not be disappointed.