A country of extraordinary diversity, Vietnam has more distinctive experiences to offer than any other country in South East Asia. From the westernized and progressive south, with its bustling and frenetic cities, to the palm fringed beaches of the country’s centre; from the cultural and refined north to the cooler climes of the mountainous highlands; each offers a unique experience to the international visitor. Rice paddies, shopping, hill tribes, high-rise, historical marvels, natural wonders, imperial dynasties… Vietnam has it all. From a tragic past, Vietnam has risen like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes and is today a country of astounding contrasts and diversity, embracing a newfound freedom and future.
With some very important milestones in its not too distant past, Vietnam has quickly realised its dream of shining on an international stage. Infrastructure developments in the past ten years have been phenomenal. International hotel properties, new aircraft fleets and improved roads. And despite the unstoppable progress Vietnam somehow retains its charm and traditions that enrich the visitor of today.
Hanoi in the north
At the other end of the country lies its capital – Hanoi. A city of lakes and parks, of tree-lined streets resplendent with French colonial villas and mansions, Hanoi is a European capital in the heart of Asia. The Old French Quarter is a maze of crammed narrow alleyways that are still named after the goods that were once traded there – Silk Street, Gold Street, even Fried Fish Street! With intonations of a bye-gone era, Hanoi is home to sidewalk cafes and pavement barbers. Wide bicycle-filled boulevards, faded but elegant architecture, the grandeur and solemnity of Ho Chi Minh’s monumental Mausoleum, the incongruous rustic simplicity of the house in which ‘Uncle Ho’ lived out his final years, the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ where so many prisoners of war were incarcerated, the religious pride that constructed so many serene temples and pagoda complexes – it’s all here in Hanoi, a microcosm of Vietnamese culture.
Mekong Delta, the far north and Halong Bay
Besides the central and coastal areas of Vietnam there are added attractions of theMekong Delta with its floating markets and mystical boat journeys and the rugged far north, with its former French hill stations and villages communities of ethnic groups, not to mention superb territory for trekking or mountain hiking.
And then there is Halong Bay, a massive area of limestone karsts and mountains in an emerald sea. Sail through this area in a reconverted junk boat or kayak to one of the many hidden lagoons.
In between these two marvelous cities lies a country with its agricultural society at its heart. Journeying throughout the country one will find endless emerald rice fields backed by rugged mountain ranges and a coastal landscape that takes a dramatic turn at every corner.
If Hoi An is not enough to hold one’s interest there is the nearby lure of My Son, the central site of the Cham civilization or Imperial Hue, a destination in its own right and home to the tombs of twelve Emperor’s and the World Heritage site, the Imperial Citadel. All along this coastal route are the sweeping sands of Danang and its nearby bays and lagoons with many world class beach resorts at your convenience.
Saigon in the south
Saigon, the largest and busiest of Vietnam’s cities is surely one of the most evocative place names in Asia. The most Western in atmosphere of Vietnam’s cities,Ho Chi Minh City (to use it’s official name – although to residents and visitors alike it is universally and affectionately known as Saigon) has a population of 6 million, and a booming free-market economy. It is a city of amazing contrasts: elegant new international hotels, exclusive restaurants and trendy bars side-by-side with roadside noodle stalls, street children and vociferous cyclo drivers. Golf courses, bowling alleys and shopping malls vie for space with markets, pagodas and karaoke rooms. Bustling, booming, crowded, noisy – all words that barely scratch the surface of the addictive and often mesmerising chaos that is Saigon. And yet there are the elegant colonial French boulevards and buildings, the Cathedral, the riverfront, the quiet moments at a sidewalk cafe watching the world literally go by you at breakneck speed.
Most visitors will find it hard to focus in on one part of the country for there is simply so much to offer. It is hard not to return time and time again to a destination that simply this much diversity and cultural history – a destination that continues to surprise at each corner.