From the undulating hills of Sapa in the north to the steaming dust of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in the South, Vietnam is a sensation to savor. Easily traveled, yet cunningly remote, Vietnam tests one’s patience and senses leaving the adventurous and determined well-rewarded for their time.
The entire eastern edge of Vietnam rolls into the South China Sea and the country has its white sand beaches and golden resorts scattered up and down this lengthy littoral. But a trip to Vietnam is not so much about a cruise through China Beach as it is about seeing Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An and Hue, and the towns and villages in between that preserve the history of the country in its many eras.
Hanoi is known for its French colonial charm, its temples and pagodas, its urban sophistication and its labyrinthine Old Quarters. Ho Chi Minh City is very much a modern urban sprawl, a business city with pockets of European charm along the muddy Mekong. Both cities have their “must” museums that shed valuable light on the region’s history and especially on the “American War” as it is called there. In between is the port city of Da Nang and then the nearby historical towns of Hue and Hoi An that served as the seat of the Mandarin culture that dominated Vietnam for much of the last millennium. Other notable spots include Sapa, where nearly three dozen hill tribes make their home, the beach resort hamlet of Nga Trang and the scenic highland hideaway of Dalat.
A visit to Vietnam could and should be at least two weeks to take advantage of the history, the beauty and the variety of adventures this destination has to offer.
Hanoi was bombed to bits during the “American War” but much of the colonial element was spared as were several historic temples and neighborhoods. Among these was the venerable Old Quarter—an area defined by narrow winding streets filled with museum-quality souvenirs, unusual clothing stores and silk shops, elixir vendors, chestnut and soup sellers, handmade puppet theaters and mid-19th century architecture. Travelers will enter via Hoan Kiem—the Lake of the Restored Sword and its legendary Chinese Bridge and island temple dedicated to the ancient and wise turtle that supposedly lives in the lake.
A 10-minute cab ride away finds Ba Dinh Square, also known as Ho Chi Minh Quarter. It’s an area of magnificent French-era pavilions and residences and also the resting place for Ho Chi Minh, who departed in 1969 but whose embalmed body never left the neighborhood. His mausoleum attracts the crowds, who must dress conservatively and may not carry anything inside. They are hurried past the glass sarcophagus by unsmiling guards given the task of tending to tarryers. Afterwards, the curious can wander the house where Ho lived, and see his favorite cars and typewriter, and the room where he slept.
It would be hard to visit Hanoi without a tour of the Hanoi Hilton—the famous prison where downed pilots were housed, including Sen. John McCain. An unassuming building not far from Hoan Kiem Lake, the 112-year-old prison was actually the work of the French and much of the exhibition space is dedicated to the shackles and guillotines used by the foreign rulers against subversives during the country’s war of independence from France. Other rooms are given to the capture of U.S. pilots with recreated cells and exhibits of captured articles right down to the Winston packs and Anacin bottles.
The beautifully preserved Hanoi Opera House near Hoan Kiem Lake hails from 1911 and still runs classical concerts and opera performances. Meanwhile, the Municipal Water Puppet Theater in the same area runs regular magical performances with elaborate water puppets—it’s an enthralling cultural experience for all age groups and one visitors should not miss.
A flight from Hanoi to Da Nang takes about an hour. The city seems as honky-tonk and cheesy as it was during the war, although fabulous beaches running north to Hue and then Hoi An are the scene of rabid international resort development projects in what may be on its way to becoming the next Phuket. The top attraction in Hue is the Royal Citadel on the banks of the Perfume River where the ruling Mandarin class out of China held court in the 19th century. It was also the scene of major fighting during the Tet Offensive and guides eagerly point out bullet holes in the stone walls.