On a map, Vietnam is long and curved and looks similar
to a cupped hand partially dipped into the briny South China Sea. Fingers and palm cradle Cambodia and Laos, while a thick ragged wrist blends into China.
It’s a sliver on any world map. But, once there, it becomes a giant, its cities filled with boisterous outdoor markets and sidewalk vendors. Congested streets are filled with motor scooters and throngs of people. Anise, cinnamon, ginger and other spices cling to humid Vietnamese air. Street cleaners sweep the sidewalks and roads with twig brooms, cobbled together with twine and bark.
Go farther and asphalt city streets become sparsely populated villages with dirt roads. These morph, once again, into smoothly paved roads nestled between mountains, hills and valleys, all planted with crowded tea and coffee crops that paint the landscape in glorious green hues.
Those same motor scooters that carried face-masked city riders transform in the farming lands. Lone riders navigate the streets with burlap-wrapped tea leaves, so high and wide they dwarf the driver.
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and has been since the 11th century. Most of its history is steeped there. Highlights of Hanoi include both the Old Quarter and French quarters; Hoan Kiem and West lakes; St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi Citadel; Ba Dinh Square; and so much more. Yes, there are still memories of the war. Hoa Lo Prison, known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton, is a gruesome reminder. While some may shun this, others may opt to visit and learn from the past.
Walking is the best way to see Vietnam, but you’ll need a few planes, trains and inexpensive three-wheeled man-powered cyclos too. There is one word of caution. Motor scooters don’t stop for anyone and will veer around you. It can be daunting. Look both ways, twice. Once you commit cross the street, fast. Yes, I know this from inexperience.
HA LONG TOWN & HA LONG BAY
Hanoi to Ha Long Town and the bay is about three hours by car or bus. Once there, a cruise is the best way to see Ha Long, which means, Bay of Descending Dragons. Guests may stay overnight or for a few days. The limestone mountainous outcroppings that spear through the bay and into the sky may be the world’s most spectacular sight. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site and these limestone mountains are millions of years old. Some visitors to Vietnam skip Ha Long, but that’s a mistake.
Hue was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty, and the palaces and pavilions of that time are still there. The deep red and gold accents of Mieu Temple are only a glimpse of the grandeur and history inside the Imperial City.
Stay along the Perfume River. Walk through the center and then stroll near the river. Watch as traditional wooden boats are paddled along the waterway. Rent one if there is time.
Board a train in Hue for a three-hour journey south to Da Nang. There you will see some of the most dramatic scenery in the country. A spur of the Annamite Cordillera mountain range goes down to the sea. The train ride offers spectacular views. Da Nang is the country’s fourth largest city. It sits along China Beach, now peaceful and serene, but once an American Marine outpost.
Hoi An is a perfectly preserved ancient town. At one time it served as the country’s trading port. You won’t be trading pelts for dinner, but you will find shopping and plenty of sightseeing. The merchants’ homes and preserved town make this another UNESCO World Heritage site. Here, tailors can create custom clothing in a day or two.
HO CHI MINH CITY
Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon, blends old with new and is a bit livelier than the rest of the country. Women in suits walk past those wearing traditional garb. Old and new live happily here. Street food is tempting and delicious and will taunt you with spicy aromas. Resist if you can, because it can be a bit risky for your digestion. Vietnam is known for the slender, well-hidden tunnels used during the war. The Cu Chi tunnels are located outside Ho Chi Minh City center and many people travel to Vietnam just to see them. Visit www.vietnam.travel