Nicola reports from Vietnam15.01.19 | Nicola
Vietnam has always captured my imagination for so many different reasons. From its ancient history through to the well known Vietnam war, something about it was more intriguing than any of its Asian neighbours.
When the opportunity arose for me to visit I jumped at the chance, thinking I knew enough of the country but not quite sure what to expect. My whistle-stop week was to begin with a night in Hanoi and this was certainly not going to disappoint. As soon as we pulled away from the safety of the airport the madness began and we weaved our way through the crazy Vietnamese traffic by millions of mopeds carrying everything from livestock to full families including tiny babies. This was to be a small taster of the crazy roads of Hanoi but one we soon became used to.
Our local guide Lee, aka Bruce Lee, took us on our food tour and guided us through the bustling streets and market places to try different types of local cuisine whilst explaining to us the very simple way of life through to local cooking traditions. This was a fantastic way of introducing us to the city and getting a real feel for the people and the culture as well as giving us lots of tips to help avoid the mopeds!
The next morning we were up bright and early ready for our drive to one of the new Natural Wonders of the World, Halong Bay. Having seen many pictures of the bay I was confident it was going to be a big highlight so it was with great excitement we headed out of the city and on to the much calmer roads. We passed through beautiful towns and countryside, watching locals farm the lands in their traditional manner, many still using bulls to plough their fields to grow rice.
After a short break en-route we arrived around midday and embarked on our junk boat that was to be home for the evening. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but was not disappointed. This beautiful boat in all its original glory was so cosy and with a big sundeck on top it had everything we could wish for. As we cruised along slowly taking in the breathtaking scenery from the sun deck it was so easy to understand why Halong Bay has such an amazing reputation, but no picture could ever do justice to how stunning it really is. Later that evening we were treated to some of the best Vietnamese food I have ever tasted, all made on board by the ship’s crew.
Halong Bay is known for its stunning sunrises and so it was with great excitement we all ventured up to the sundeck to watch the sun appear over this majestic place, and we were not to be disappointed one bit! I have had the privilege of witnessing some beautiful sunrises around the world but none of them came close to this as the sun rose over the many rock formations it truly felt like a humbling experience.
After breakfast we disembarked and headed back to Hanoi airport where we had a short flight to Danang and then a 45 minute drive to Hoi An. Having sold Hoi An for many years I thought I had a good idea of the area but what I was greeted with was one of the most charming towns I have ever encountered and I absolutely loved it. With its old traditional rooftop buildings bustling with local crafts this was a shoppers’ paradise and I was about to indulge. The friendly shopkeepers allowed us to browse without any pressure but still enjoying a little bartering as we purchased so many beautiful items. A number of the group even went and had custom-made suits created by the many tailors, the quality of which was outstanding. After a leisurely morning we headed off for a walking tour of this ancient city that has been influenced over the years by a myriad of traders from various cultures. Originally a busy Cham Port, the town also has Chinese influences scattered about, with pagodas and assembly halls found down the streets.
Our tour guide regaled us with stories of old as he pointed out the different buildings and the history behind each one, before delivering us to the stunning Japanese Covered Bridge (Cau Nhat Ban). So many different influences for such a small town, Hoi An really is a melting pot in such harmony. This evening we dined along the river before some more last-minute purchases and a cocktail or two in this beautiful town that had quite literally stolen my heart.
The next morning we flew to Ho Chi Min – or as the locals still prefer to call it, Saigon. My knowledge of Vietnam mainly stemmed from snippets of the war and one of the things I was most looking forward to was our trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels. We navigated our way through the city into what was once the jungle, if the vast size of this place was reminding me of my old history lessons the Cu Chi tunnels were about to bring them to life! This area is absolutely fascinating, on arrival we were met with a museum packed with old US weapons and what can only be described as ‘crude’ weapons made out of whatever was to hand that could cause maximum damage to the enemy. Our tour deep into the jungle was filled with mesmerising tales of how the Viet Cong would set blood-curdling traps whilst the ingenious tunnels they dug became more and more elaborate. We all came away far more knowledgeable on the Vietnam war and all in agreement this place is a ‘must do’ on anyone’s itinerary.
Our drive back to Saigon was followed by an early night as we prepared for our trip to the Mekong Delta. After leaving our coach we boarded a traditional wooden working boat and sailed along the river passing local fishermen. Following a stop at a coconut factory and sampling the local chocolates, we made our way up a quiet stretch of the waterway to the isolated area of Ben Tre province where we enjoyed a slightly faster but such an enjoyable ride on the back of a tuk tuk. After sampling more stunning local cuisine we were taken to our home for the evening. Now it’s at this point I have to confess, this was not something I was looking forward to. All that we had been advised was that we were to spend the evening in a local homestay and some not-so-nice visions filled my head – I was so wrong! Our home for the evening was stunning and unbelievably peaceful with the only sound coming from the humming birds in the trees. Set around a main building with rooms slightly open to the elements this was to be a more luxurious style of camping and with the owner showing us how to successfully climb in to a hammock (not something I’d attempted in the past), and presenting us once again with the most beautifully prepared food. It wasn’t long before we were all heading off to bed for an extremely restful sleep.
The next morning after breakfast we were informed we would be travelling back up the Mekong Delta on a rowing boat, not too much alarm just yet until I saw the little boats we had to climb in to! Our rowers stood laughing at the sheer panic of some of the group i.e. me, as we climbed aboard without trying to rock the boat – I somehow managed to survive!
Our arrival back to Saigon had us heading to the main thing I had been looking forward to all week, our visit to the war museum. Nothing quite prepares you for this and it is not something for the fainthearted but for those that can, it is an absolute must. From the moment you enter the grounds you are confronted with massive tanks, helicopters and jeeps. The main building is filled with pictures and accounts of the untold stories of the war. I’m not afraid to say I was moved to tears with some of the accounts but as graphic and – at times – upsetting as it was, it also gave us all a new-found knowledge of this war that none of us had previously known. After a quick visit to the palace and a photo opportunity at the famous gates that Vietnam soldiers cracked down in their tanks after Saigon was liberated, we headed back to the hotel before one final dash to the local markets for those last-minute souvenirs.
After a spectacular meal on our last evening in this amazing city, we headed to the iconic Rex Hotels rooftop bar to take in the dizzy city sights. Reflecting on the trip, it was the friendly and welcoming people who really made this adventure memorable. Vietnam is without doubt a destination that deserves to be on everyone’s bucket list, having been on mine for many years I’ll spend many more reliving the memories of this truly amazing destination.