A long, narrow slither of land, stretching along the Eastern edge of the Indochinese Peninsula, Vietnam had been top of my ‘must-visit’ list for years after watching the Top Gear special in the country years ago. Before watching the show, Vietnam wasn’t somewhere I’d really thought of visiting, but I was mesmerised by the stunning scenery, friendly people and rich culture. I often see places on TV or read about them in magazines or blogs, and think to myself, ‘that looks like a nice place to visit’, but rarely am I so bowled over by somewhere that I spend the next few years chomping at the bit to visit. Vietnam was the exception.
I spent two weeks travelling the length of the country, which is home to some 92 million people. Starting in the north, in the capital Hanoi, I travelled south stopping off at some of the country’s most famous sites before ending my trip in Ho Chi Minh City, the financial capital, in the south. Along the way I stayed in the old imperial city of Hue, the pretty port of Hoi An and the laid-back Mekong Delta, with visits to the ancient city of My Son (Vietnam’s Angkor Wat, above), picturesque Halong Bay and the infamous Cu Chi network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
The country was incredible and the scenery, especially in Halong Bay, more than lived up to my expectations. The Vietnamese people were friendly and helpful, and the food flavoursome. As a former French colony, the influence of the French is inescapable, whether it’s in the food, the city planning or the architecture – the Gustave Eiffel-designed General Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City is sublime. Yet traditional Vietnamese culture abounds, too.
In Hanoi, the old town is a warren of streets and alleys, and the traditional shopping district is home to all kinds of shops (from blacksmiths and silk specialists, to sellotape stores and Christmas shops). All the shops selling similar goods tend to be clustered together in the same little street so all the food shops are next to each other, the hardware stores are side-by-side and so on.
One of the things that struck me most during my trip was the contrast between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City – both are bustling to say the least, but whereas Hanoi feels like the traditional heart of the country, Ho Chi Minh City feels like an up-and-coming global metropolis. After spending a couple of days in the busy cities, it was nice to escape to the relaxing surroundings of Halong Bay and the Mekong Delta, where, when I wasn’t taking in the beautiful scenery or examining the wildlife, I could be found reading on the deck of a boat or lounging in a hammock.
Traces of the Vietnam War are never far away – from the Hoa Lò Prison in Hanoi, which housed US prisoners of war, to the Cu Chi tunnels and the harrowing photographs on display in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. All were, unsurprisingly, told from the perspective of the Vietnamese and in the military museum in Hue (above), in particular, the language used in the displays was combative. Having seen lots of US-made films about the war over the years, it was really interesting to finally read about the war from a Vietnamese point of view.
Before my trip, I’d been warned about the crazy traffic in the cities by some friends who’d visited the year before, yet I was still taken aback by the essential free-for-all in the city centres. A never-ending stream of cars, scooters, bicycles, tuk tuks and other vehicles would come from different directions, effortlessly weaving in and around each other and any pedestrians attempting to cross the roads. Vietnam is a safe country and once I’d mastered the art of crossing the roads, I felt very comfortable walking around by myself.
Vietnam is very much a rising tourist hot spot and I’m glad I had the chance to explore it before it becomes another major stop on the global tourist trail. Ho Chi Minh City is already showing signs of becoming a generic metropolis in the centre with high-rise skyscrapers, shopping centres filled with the usual big name high street brands and coffee shops on every street corner. But the country has a wonderful charm and strong cultural identity, and I hope whatever the future brings, it holds on to them as it’s a truly magical country.