Vietnam at a Glance:
Humidity, an agricultural society, a third world economy, humidity, millions of motorbikes, communism with capitalistic tendencies, humidity, a friendly population, beautiful scenery. Did I mention the humidity?
What’s your impression of Vietnam? Do you dream of exploring the Southeast Asian country on an off-the-beaten-path journey? To truly understand the complex country, first you need to visit iconic Vietnam.
My introduction came via several daylong excursions from a cruise ship that sailed the Vietnamese coast. A cruise ship? Yes, that’s right. A cruise visit to Vietnam can provide the basis for discovery that will lead to more in-depth future visits. Let’s travel more to Vietnam…
Hanoi, for the history
This city clothed in French colonial architecture, reveres its communist roots. At Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, stoic soldiers guard the imposing building (closed to visitors in October and November). Just down the road is the former home of the French Governor-General, a yellow palatial building surrounded by park-like grounds, now the Presidential Palace. Ho Chi Minh refused to live here, opting for a simple house on stilts on the banks of a nearby lake.
At the Temple of Learning, once you escape the ever-present, persistent vendors, the hustle and bustle of Hanoi disappears. A peaceful walk leads through a series of courtyards framed by manicured lawns. Along each side, the names of 11th century graduates are engraved on eighty-two stone tortoise pedestals—the equivalent of stone diplomas. The site, which became the first Vietnamese University in 1076, contains a temple honoring Confucius. Now Vietnamese parents visit to pray to Confucius so that their children will excel in examinations.
The hustle-bustle returns when you enter the Old Quarter’s market, each street focusing on a particular commodity. One road is filled with stalls of shoes and clothes while the next narrow lane might reveal food provisions. The maze of streets features stores, stalls, vendors and plenty of people watching. You’ll see locals squatting on their haunches along the sidewalk, smoking cigarettes or sharing a snack with friends.
Halong Bay, for the scenery
From Hanoi, a 3-hour ride through the countryside leads to Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As your vehicle maneuvers the pot-holed roads, farmers stoop
to tend rice fields. At night they return to homes where a television’s blue-white glow is the only light to be seen.
To appreciate Halong Bay, book a tour on one of the junks, better yet, book a night or two on one of the hotel junks that spend the evening on the water. Once your boat sails across Descending Dragon Bay (another name for the beautiful location), floating fishing villages set amidst hundreds of limestone karsts and islands provide a surreal scene. Of course you will be enjoying that view with numerous junk boats, as this is a prime tourist destination.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), for people watching
Ho Chi Minh City has a small cultural museum complete with water puppet show, as well as a military museum at the Reunification Palace. But this city, renamed after the revered communist hero, is all about commerce. Locals buzz around on motorbikes, four million motorbikes to be exact, carrying all sorts of merchandise. Have you ever seen a man riding a motorbike carrying a refrigerator on his back?
Tourists shop for items such as silk apparel or lacquer ware. But Cho Lon Market is worth a visit simply to observe the merchandise. Who buys all of this stuff? That was my question after walking through the stifling building that houses the Chinese market. Row after row of stalls are crammed from ceiling to floor with merchandise. One shopkeeper displays fireworks while another arranges sacks of spices. Cartons of eggs sit on the floor in the sweltering heat and humidity across from stands draped with gold jewelry.
While in Saigon, a visit to the Mekong Delta includes more people watching. As your vehicle travels from Saigon, motorbikes crowd a road that is almost continuously lined with shops and vending carts. Why are hammocks hanging from the trees of the outdoor cafés? So that motorbike drivers can stop to rest.
At My Tho, board a sampan for a cruise on the Mekong River. The touristy experience will most likely include a visit to Unicorn Island where you’ll discover coconut candy, snake wine and pythons. Afterwards, your sampan will motor to another area on the river for a ride through the narrow canals on longboats as mangrove trees filter out the sun and rain. Then it’s a walk through the jungle to a local resort restaurant to sample elephant fish and other Vietnamese delicacies.
Did I mention the humidity?
After experiencing Vietnam at a glance, you’re travel appetite will be whetted to travel more (even if you didn’t like the elephant fish). Why not return for a trekking trip to meet the northern hill tribes, despite the humidity?
Donna L. Hull writes about active travel for baby boomers, at My Itchy Travel Feet. To read her tweets about travel and baby boomers, follow her on twitter.