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South-East Asia: Vietnam

Vietnam: On the March

by Matt Thomas

Having survived my Malaysia Airlines flight to Ho Chi Minh City via Kuala Lumpur, in spite of the english girl somewhat inappropriately (or perhaps very wisely) asking if her life jacket was under her seat, I arrived in the most vibrant and economically powerful city in South-East Asia. My first impressions were certainly positive, the city is absolutely buzzing. Everyone, from waiters to street market vendors are doing something, tidying, clearing away, organsing. It all goes to the tenacity of the Vietnamese to improve thier lot, and they are prepared to work for it, and hard at that.

Ho Chi Minh was full of confidence, stability and had a swagger about it. Tourism is booming and the people are friendly and helpful. That is not to say that is not without its downsides. A few streets back from the main backpacker strip there is more than a smattering of “girl” bars, and the occasional view of older western men with much younger girls cannot be escaped, which suggests that poverty remains an issue.

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Jade Emperor Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh City

Of the main sights, take your pick from multiple stunning Pagodas, the Independance Palace and the War Remnants Museum, amongst others.

The Cu Chi tunnels are an essential half day trip. These are the tunnels that formed part of the Ho Chi Minh trail during the War and the tour provides a fascinating insight into some of the little tricks that the Vietnamese used to defeat the Americans and also gives a harrowing view of tunnel based warfare.

Nha Trang, Vietnam’s premier beach resort has great beaches, pounding nightlife and is full of Russians. So moving on..

My next stop via the excellent and pleasantly scenic rail system was Hoi An. Hoi An seems to divide opinion, namely everyone else I have met thought it was great, I thought it was rubbish. My reasons being that it was full of tourists (I’m a traveller) and people going there to have cheap suits and dresses fitted. This is not my idea of travelling. That said, the main strip by the river is beautifully lit at night with lanterns, and the restaurants are top class (but one could say that for most places in Vietnam). It wasn’t for me.

Halong Bay via Hanoi is simply stunning and lives up to the hype. It is all it’s cracked up to be. The threat of rain did not materialise and the clouds parted to glorious sunshine shortly after we set off. My only gripe would be that due to new regulations following an accident, all boats have to take pretty much the same route, so it may well be worth taking the extra day or two and going from Cat Ba Island. This is not the place to budget, about $90 should get you a more than decent tour. I would stress however either not to get too drunk, or check your bill at the end of the night before they try and tack on a beer and shot on here and there, and you get a nasty surprise when settling up in the morning. Also when kayaking, try not to end up sharing with a pregnant Australian woman who spots some fake money and in trying to reach it, capsizes your boat, and if you do, make sure your camera is secured appropriately.

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Halong Bay

Hanoi is an old school alternative to Ho Chi Minh, and quite a contrast. The area around the lake is tourist central, and very nice for an evening stroll and dinner overlooking the bright lights and flow of people. The highlights are Ho Chi Min’s mausoleum and the Prison Museum, although I would take the part about American soldiers being allowed a christmas tree and playing basketball with a pinch of salt.

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

Sapa is the best place I went in Vietnam, despite being subjected to an Australian’s snoring for most of the train journey. It is a mountain town and the trekking and scenery is world class. It ranges from rice fields to authentic villages, hostile mountains and beautiful valleys. It is also home to the delightful, if hard bargaining Humong Women traders who specialise in gorgeous handicrafts. Bear in mind that this is their only form of income, and walk every day for up to four hours from their homes in the mountains and valleys to sell their goods, made with only locally sourced materials.

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I loved edgy Vietnam, particularly the resilience and determination of the people to push themselves forward and advance as an economic power. That said, it retains its’ eastern charm with stunning pagodas and temples. Similarly the natural scenery is hugely varied and beautiful. I would say however to be on your guard, especially in the North when it comes to prices. I would add that the food and street food is outstanding. Overall an easy country to get around and highly traveller friendly.