Vietnam welcomes tourists with good infrastructure, good sophisticated food, hotels for every taste and expectation, quality shopping, knowledgeable, well certified guides, beautiful scenery and rich culture. They are experiencing a time of peace and prosperity which is enjoyable to share.
Hanoi is a bustling city of 7 million on the Red River. Recent investments from foreign countries has resulted in beautiful new bridges and good roads which makes it easy to explore the country Land is very precious which has led to the typical architecture of very thin, tall shop houses with ornate balconies overflowing with beautiful foliage and shrines over businesses stuffed with merchandise, open for the most part to the street.
The preferred method of transportation is motorbike and anything goes. Many barrel ahead, their beeping horn the only acknowledgement that other traffic exists. We often made headway by veering into a blank spot in the oncoming lane. The rule when crossing the street is ‘don’t stop’. Hanoi is a beautiful city with many lakes and parks. The architecture reflects the various foreign influences over their turbulent history. Sites to visit include a serene, stately school for aspiring Mandarin civil servants and Ngoc Son Temple which commemorates a defeat of the Chinese Ming Dynasty. A terrific experience is a whirlwind visit through the Old Quarter’s narrow, busy streets in rickshaws powered by bicycle rider, called Cyclos. You will flash by tiny hotels, chic dress shops, blocks of specialized vendors such as motorbike repair or medicinal herbs or spices, all to the constant music of the traffic roar and motor bike horns.
3 1/2 hours’ drive through the verdant countryside is Halong Bay. There are Chinese Junk-style passenger boats for every budget and excursion length which sail out into this famous bay dotted with unique islands rising dramatically out of the azure waters. The best ships have very comfortable and beautiful accommodations, delicious food, and awe inspiring jaunts in smaller craft rowed by skilled local fishermen. That area is being quickly developed with really beautiful hotels, shops and clubs to complement the luxury junks. There will shortly be an expansive marina there for all sorts of pleasure craft.
A shorter drive through dramatic mountains takes you to Haiphong, busy port and strategic center for commerce. The famous port is busy with ships and barges loading and unloading the riches of the country. This prosperous, yet smaller town is home to Confucian Temples where teachers and students of Tai Chi practice in the courtyards and serene Buddhist temples with gardens and ancient statues of deities. Dive into the flower and bird market, crowded with families shopping together for the brilliant, vivacious specialties of the market. Live fish are displayed in moveable aquariums on the backs of motorcycles!
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is called by the locals is a short flight from Haiphong. Slightly more populous than Hanoi, it has a much more modern feel. There are several large, raucous markets to explore as well as the narrow shop houses lining the streets as in other cities in Vietnam. It is worth noting that the Vietnamese people are extremely enterprising and hard working. The vast majority of residents make their living in small family run businesses or farms. Communism is a failed experiment in Vietnam which was unable to feed itself under that economic style and yet became a leading exporter of rice worldwide very quickly once private ownership of rice farms was restored.
Food is fresh and sophisticated in Vietnam. Historic buildings house trendy fusion restaurants with sophisticated service. The Dining Room is one that is very popular, the restaurant at the Park Hyatt, Square One is world class. sights in Saigon include the ‘Reunification Palace’ where the president of South Vietnam lived and conducted the war. Conference rooms where so many decisions were made and underground bunkers where the communications center for the war was housed are preserved in pristine condition. The main post office was designed by Gustave Eiffel. Also in Saigon are the massive markets. One in their China Town sells wholesale goods to vendors from the entire country. There is a lovely, green ex-pat district and an ancient temple to the Goddess who protects sailors where detailed bas relief sculptures which depict the daily life at sea are delightful in their detail. Highlight of Saigon is a performance in the Opera House like A O, an innovative dance group of young Vietnamese who have combined ballet with acrobatics to portray Vietnamese life.
The Mekong River is a powerful economic and cultural pathway. Huge barges carrying building materials and rice and all manner of supplies are traveling in both directions. There are also lovely house boats in 1900’s style which host tourists like the beautiful L’Amant, named for the famous book about Indochina written by a French resident, Marguerite Duras. They are very romantic and evocative of an era; elegant meals in the teak lined dining room, cocktails on the top deck, watching the river traffic and the verdant shores drift by. A stroll through a vibrant fresh produce market, visit to a coconut candy factory, horse-drawn cart through small farm villages showcase the wealth of the river region. Not to be missed is lunch (unparalleled vegetarian spread prepared by the monks and nuns) at the Phouc Long Pagoda, hidden away in plain sight in the city of My Tho. Upstairs is stored a trove of antiques that defy belief, entrusted to the Pagoda for safe keeping over the many years of strife and war and destruction endured by Vietnam.