Last week was a brilliant start to 2018 with lots of interest in my piece on time management – I’m delighted readers found it helpful. My blog is usually about books and writing but every year I include a couple of travelogues and this one’s about my family’s recent trip to Vietnam. We have joined the ranks of travellers raving about this beautiful and fascinating country and just as a first time visitor can only scratch the surface, so it is with this account. I could write thousands of words on my impressions but in many ways the pictures do a better job. Grab a coffee (I’m still missing the way they do it) and off we go…
Vietnam is a long country with three distinct climate zones which means there’s no ideal time to visit several regions, as we did on a very typical itinerary for a two week first visit. We flew into Ho Chi Minh City (still known locally as Saigon) in the south, from there to the third largest city, Da Nang on the central coast for the must-sees of Hue and Hoi An, and finally on to the capital Hanoi. Domestic flights are a good option for getting around, either on regional low-cost airlines or with Vietnam Airlines as cheap add-ons to an international fare. Although you won’t find dream weather in December/January, it’s still peak season for western travellers who often find the really hot and humid conditions at other times of year hard going. It’s very unpredictable in any case: when we were there temperatures ranged between high and low 20s Celsius but it was cooler than expected in the south, warmer in the north and – most importantly – less wet in the middle. Skies were mostly grey but we were lucky to have only two days of constant downpours out of 15.
We have probably never been anywhere more fun, interesting and educational for all four of us, especially as our eldest son’s doing an International Relations degree and his brother history GCSE. It’s obvious that as a tourist in Vietnam you’ll hear a lot about the ‘American War’ and about French colonial Indochina (present day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). In fact, as long-haul travels go, it made a change not to be confronted with the dubious legacy of British imperialism. Vietnam’s ancient civilisations and traditions are very much in evidence both architecturally and culturally. But it also has a rapidly developing economy and there’s a tangible sense of optimism and entrepreneurial spirit, especially in Saigon, the largest city and a magnet for people from all over the country.
One of the things I enjoy most about discovering a new places is talking to locals about what it’s like to live there, and we struck gold at the very start of our trip getting AK as our guide through the brilliant Withlocals.com, where you can select who you want from video clips. AK belongs to the 60% of Vietnamese under the age of 35 and with his fluent English, openness and inexhaustible knowledge, he shared not only the tourist stuff but many revealing insights into the realities of Vietnamese life and society. He took us on a walking tour round Saigon, which included the vital skill of learning to cross roads teeming with thousands of mopeds. The survival strategy is: pick your moment, stay glued to your companions (‘sticky rice’) and keep going steadily once you step out – the bikes will miraculously flow around you. The only thing I disliked about Vietnam was the crazy traffic which I personally found terrifying, but there was always someone to cling to and it wasn’t a dealbreaker.
Having heard mixed reports about Saigon, we had a great time there. It’s a huge modern city but there are still beautiful examples of French-style buildings including the Opera House and the Post Office and City Hall designed by Gustave Eiffel (you know the one), plus private villas, some now operating as restaurants. The highlight of this tour was going inside the atmospheric Independence Palace and hearing all about the politics of that era. Half of the family not including me later went to the hard-hitting War Remnants Museum. AK also took us on a wonderful full-day trip to the Mekong Delta two hours away by road, where we switched to a sampan at Ben Tre and sailed down the river, where many people earn their living from fishing, farming and crafts that haven’t changed in centuries.
There’s nothing like travel to remind you how privileged you are, something I first realised at 22 in India on the tightest of budgets. Once you get to Vietnam, everything is incredibly cheap: not just lovely hotels and the incredible food which is a major draw for most people, but things you wouldn’t do at home. I had a couple of fabulous massages where the therapist gets up on the couch with you and really goes to town. And in a country where foreigners are banned from driving – for our own good, clearly – it’s really easy to get a car service even for journeys taking several hours, stopping to take in the sights. We did this in the centre to get from Da Nang to Hue and from there to Hoi An – about $65-70 each way for four people. Currency tip: take dollars or euros and change them (or not) into Vietnamese dong when you get there. A lot of people will happily take the foreign currency and although tipping isn’t expected in Vietnam, it makes a big difference as a few dollars go a long way here . Tourism is booming in Vietnam creating lots of jobs, particularly for those who speak English – the central coast is being developed into a kind of Dubai aimed at the Asian market – and customer service (apart from the taxi driver in Hanoi with the rigged meter who locked me in the car – nice) is outstanding – we met so many friendly, helpful people who showed such pride in their country and a genuine interest in their visitors.
It would take forever to get my head round Vietnam’s turbulent and complex history but Hue, the ancient capital, is a great place to get a flavour of its distant past by visiting the walled Imperial Citadel and some of the opulent royal tombs outside the city with a guide who brings the characters back to life, as ours did. Unfortunately it was lashing down on the day of our tour but the mist and drizzle added something to the views of the stunning natural settings.
Our next stop, the ancient trading port of Hoi An, was the most touristy place we stayed, in a tasteful way. It’s not hard to see why it’s so popular with overseas visitors, especially Australians, it seemed. Arriving on new year’s eve, the river was ablaze with junks lit by coloured lanterns, as were the pedestrianised streets. It was very romantic and undoubtedly the most relaxing place to walk around. It’s famous and very popular for its tailors and my elder son and I had a few items made to measure – again, not the kind of thing we would ever do at home – it was a fun experience and we’re pleased with the results although I’d have some advice for anyone thinking of doing this. I’m restraining myself on the topic of food because I could go on for ever, but Vietnamese cuisine is absolutely out of this world and doing a cookery class at restaurant Baby Mustard, attached to a market garden, was a big hit with all of us.
Not sure how I feel about the capital, Hanoi. We were only there for two and a half days and whilst we enjoyed our time, I didn’t fall under its spell. It’s definitely prettier than Saigon, with lots of lakes, and there is more to see – the Ho Chi Minh complex includes his mausoleum and the former Governor of Indochina’s opulent mansion, which he rejected in favour of a simple house on stilts. Hearing all about him (not just the official version!) and the way he is revered was both interesting and surprising. The Fine Arts and Ethnology museums were really worth a visit. We were staying in a very nice boutique hotel in the old town but it’s quite telling that my favourite spot was the rooftop bar (and not just for the passionfruit mojitos). Just when we’d mastered crossing the road, here there were so many scooters on the pavement you had to walk along the narrow streets in the traffic – it felt very stressful getting anywhere. But even so, if we go back to the north of Vietnam to see the mountains and the famous Ha Long Bay in better weather, Hanoi will get another chance because this is one country I’m not crossing off my bucket list.
Have you been to Vietnam or anywhere in SE Asia? If you’re interested in a European destination I fell for, here’s my piece on northern Spain (Cantabria/Asturias/Galicia) from last year.
On my travels I read two Pulitzer prize-winning titles with a Vietnamese theme and I’ll be reviewing them together shortly. But first, I’m giving the YA sensation 13 Reasons Why its own post next week, and I warn you: it’s not going to be pretty.