Vietnam: Main Sights
Welcome to another world...
Choosing things to do in Vietnam is almost as time-consuming as navigating the attractions themselves. Vietnamese attractions in the south take visitors along twisty Mekong river delta cruises and through a maze of underground military tunnels. A web of narrow streets in Ho Chi Minh lead to the War Remnants Museum, and the jumping backpacker district Pham Ngu Lau. Farther north, boat cruises wind through hundreds of majestic islands in Halong Bay and through narrow streams below impressive cliffs in Ninh Binh. Hanoi's elaborate road system is most fun to explore in the Old Quarter and to follow to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. A winding train ride up the mountains in Sapa lets visitors overlook it all. All of this spills out to the relaxing beaches of Mui Ne or Cat Ba Island or to the historic and unchanging calm of Hoi An. Vietnam's monsoon season is heavy with rain and humidity May through August and northern Vietnam cools down in January.
Ben Thanh Market
Today the market caters to the tourist dollars and is packed tight with stalls selling clothing, pottery, souvenirs, jewels and food. It is rumoured that depending on bargaining ability buyers will be given their purchase in various coloured bags as a sign to other vendors. The market was moved to its current building in 1912 but has existed in the area for hundreds of years. The permanent stalls are passed down in family for generations. Some of Vietnam's specialties can be bought cheaply here such as cobra and scorpion whiskey and silks. The market is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. but an outdoor night market and food stalls surround the area until much later. A true sight of Vietnam’s vibrant culture.
Cat Ba Island
For most, a trip in Halong Bay means at least a night on Cat Ba Island. Many enlist for a package tour of one night on the island and one on a boat, but Cat Ba is worth extra time to discover. This 140 sq km island houses equally impressive beach relaxation and hardcore outdoor activities including kayaking, trekking, and world class rock climbing. For those wishing to relax, three beaches, within walking distance of town, are spacious and each are protected inlets with views of Halong islands. Beaches one and three are the most secluded and their short walk along cliff lines provide beautiful views. For those looking for something more rugged, the many limestone cliffs dotting the island make dream rock climbing. Hotels located on the town's main strip offer guides and gear. Various treks range in length but most are fairly steep and a give bird's-eye-view of the island's national park which is also home to the rare Cat Ba Langur. All hotels can arrange excellent boat tours of the surrounding islands which include visits to deep caves with stalagmites and stalactites, secluded swimming holes, floating fish farms and kayaking. The tour is the same no-matter whom it's booked through so the cheaper the better. For holidaymakers looking to relax or adventurers alike the day must end at the bay's floating restaurant for the best seafood in Vietnam.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels system is an underground network of tunnels dug in the 1940s by the Vietnamese as a place to hide during the fight against the French. The network was later expanded and used in the American War. The system consists of more than 250km of tunnels and unlit offshoots, secret trap doors connecting narrow routes to hidden shelters, local rivers and tunnels to the Cambodian border. It was a sprawling city of improvised hospitals, living quarters, kitchens and fresh water wells, with some tunnels barely large enough to wriggle through. The plan was to launch surprise assaults on the enemy, and then disappear; so successful a hiding place were the tunnels that first the French and then the Americans struggled against these sudden attacks in which the assailants seemed to vanish into fresh air. Today many of the tunnels have been enlarged to allow visitors the dirty and claustrophobic experience of crawling through a portion of the underground network, past secret trapdoors and booby traps laid against invasion. Unfortunately their popularity with visitors has turned the area into a vicious tourist trap, with hard-sell vendors a constant hassle among the touring throngs.
The natural wonder of Halong Bay, renowned for its spectacular scenery and limestone grottos and caves, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The bay is peppered with over 3,000 tiny islands emerging almost mystically out of the pea green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, scoured by wind and wave erosion to form dramatic rock shapes, many of which contain caves filled with stalagmites and stalactites. Many of the islands have been named for their astonishing resemblance to their namesakes, such as Dragon, Incense Burner, Pair of Roosters and Man's Head Islands. The weird protuberances have been at the source of several local legends, particularly about the dragon whose thrashing tail created the bay and its islands. The name Ha Long means 'where the dragon descended into the sea'. The most impressive cave is the Hang Dau Go (Grotto of the Wooden Stakes), an extensive grotto with rock formations presenting various eerie images in the mysterious light. It was named from the Battle of 1288 when General Tran Hung Dao prepared hundreds of stakes to be planted in the riverbed of the largest chamber to counter a boat attack. Nearby the beautiful Hang Thien Cung cave is famous for its sparkling stalagmites and stalactites.
Vietnam's small and pleasant capital lies at the heart of the northern Red River Delta, and is a city of lakes, leafy boulevards and open parks with a French colonial feel.
Hanoi was founded in 1010, and became the centre of government for the Indochina Union under French rule in 1888. In 1954 it became the official capital of independent Vietnam. Today ancient crumbling buildings dating from the 11th century lie scattered among grand French colonial residences, while shrines and monuments to Vietnam's first president, Ho Chi Minh, sit in the shadow of modern high-rise buildings. The streets of the Old Quarter preserve age-old customs, where trade takes one back half a century, and temples, pagodas and monuments reflect the historic character of Vietnam. Although a city of historical importance, and the social and cultural centre of Vietnam, it is a surprisingly modest and charming place, far slower and less developed than Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Hanoi has retained its appealing sense of the old world, despite the onset of a brisk tourism trade in 1993, absorbing the boom of hotels, travellers' hangouts and Internet cafes, and the gradual infiltration of western-style food and fashions into the once inaccessible city. As the early morning mist rises from the serene Hoan Kiem Lake, tracksuit-clad elders perform the slow movements of tai chi, like park statues coming to life. Streets become filled with activity, mopeds and bicycles weave among pedestrians, while cyclo drivers (three-wheeled bicycle taxis) clamour for attention, and postcard vendors cluster around tourists like bees sensing an open honey pot. Hanoi is fast becoming one of the most enticing and interesting cities in Asia. As a cultural centre there are traditional water puppet shows, and music and dance performances. It is also a good base for excursions to the beautiful Halong Bay, or into the Hoang Lien Mountains inhabited by several hill tribes.
The quaint riverside town of Hoi An was an important port town and one of the major trading centres in South East Asia during the 16th and 17th centuries. The cultural influences of the Japanese and Chinese merchants are still evident today in the town's architecture, with the famous Japanese Covered Bridge and the distinctly Chinese atmosphere of the Old Quarter part of its unique character. Lining the narrow streets are two-storey Chinese shops with charming wooden facades and tiled roofs, merchants' homes, Assembly Halls and temples that preserve its ancient character. On the 15th day of every lunar month the ancient character of this sleepy town takes on fairytale proportions as porches, streets and windows are lit by the glow of coloured lanterns, a practice reminiscent of the old days and aimed at retaining the ancient spirit of the past. Hoi An is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination, not only for its attractive old-world atmosphere and genuine friendliness, but also for its quaint restaurants serving delicious Hoi An specialities, and tailor-made clothes. Rows of little tailor shops with rolls of fine silk offer the chance to have beautiful garments made up within hours, but the insistence of the tailors can be annoying. Two miles (4km) to the east of Hoi An is the beach of Cua Dai, considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Central Vietnam with its long white sandy stretch. From Hoi An visitors can make trips to the large marble rock formations "The Marble Mountains" which are closer to Da Nang or take a quick river cruise although the scenery is mediocre. Travellers going north or south can make this a great stop to step back in Vietnamese history.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, better known by its former name of Saigon, is a brazen, industrious and dense metropolis, the largest city in Vietnam and the business capital of the country. With a population of five million, it is crowded, noisy and dirty, yet it is also exciting and historic, the essence of the nation. Located on the Saigon River on the edge of the Mekong Delta, Saigon became the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam and was the American headquarters during the Vietnam War. Two years later the Communist north took control of the country, the city's name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City, and recession and poverty ensued. Today Ho Chi Minh City has a cosmopolitan and energetic atmosphere, and having actively welcomed the new capitalist principle, the business-minded spirit of the people is much in evidence. Although relatively modern, it has still managed to hold onto its Asian character, and fine restaurants, smart hotels and chic bars line the sidewalks crammed with noodle stands, markets and shoeshine boys. The buzzing of motorbikes and scooters merges with the cries of street vendors and the urgent business of stall owners, selling barbecued dog, writhing snakes and tropical fruits. The sight of a family of four balanced precariously on a scooter, a squealing pig strapped onto the back of a bicycle, bowed heads topped by pointed lampshade-style hats and orange-clothed monks are just some of the vibrant images the city has to offer. Although overshadowed by modern and Asiatic influences, a little of Ho Chi Minh City's French colonial charm still remains, evident in the graceful architecture, wide boulevards, and a sidewalk cafe society. It is not for the attractions that one visits Ho Chi Minh City however, but for the vibrancy of its street life, and its proximity to the Mekong Delta.
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
Ba Dinh Square was where, in 1945, Ho Chi Minh read out the Declaration of Independence and where independence is celebrated each year. Dominating the west side is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where the embalmed body of the 'father of the modern state', 'liberator of the Vietnamese people' and beloved public figure is displayed. The body of Ho Chi Min is enclosed in a glass case, the traditional way to honour famous communist leaders. Security is tight, there is a strict dress code and it is imperative to maintain a respectful demeanour while inside. Nearby is the Ho Chi Minh Museum that commemorates his life, housing a collection of military orders, correspondence, manifestos and photographs that illustrates the crucial role he had in the country's history.
The delta is a vast network of waterways formed by the Mekong River, and the surrounding fertile patchwork of endless green rice paddies, orchards and swamplands is where most of the country’s rice is grown. Not only does the Mekong River irrigate what is known as ‘the rice bowl of Vietnam’, but it also serves as a vital form of transport. A unique way of life has evolved among the villagers that have lived on or beside the river for centuries. The best way to experience the delta is by boat, joining the rowing boats and fishermen, rickety houseboats, ferries and traditional sampans on the brown water. On the banks are small villages, vegetable gardens, fish farms and stilted houses. Trading is carried out between boats at floating markets, where whole sections of the river are covered by bobbing merchants who publicize their wares hung from the top of a long bamboo pole. There are several towns in the region from where visitors can arrange boat trips if not already on an organised tour. Try to avoid the rainy season as the tides may be too high for canal travel. Local food dishes are a speciality and besides seafood there are opportunities for the adventurous to sample such delights as snake, eels and bats.
Mui Ne is Vietnam's most western style resort beach. The city itself is typical Vietnamese fishing community sporting a fleet of beautiful fishing boats but little to see or do in town. The beach beside it, however, spreads in glitzy contrast. Expensive western resorts and hotels line the beachside while cheaper guesthouses can be found across the road or closer to town. A variety of water activities are available including surfing, kite surfing, jet-skis, and sailing. Beach and roadside bars hop with cheap drinks and electro music late into the night. Jibe's is a popular hangout among the young and tireless. Close to town are red coloured sand dunes but the farther away and much larger white sand dunes are worth the extra half-hour trip. For a small tip children will rent tourists sand sleds and demonstrate how to surf the dunes. One of Vietnam's top golf courses also is just outside the city. Mui Ne is a scenic 5 hour motorbike trip from Vung Tau or five hour highway bus ride from Saigon.
The Perfume River
A boat trip on the Perfume River is one of the highlights of a visit to Hué and includes stops to visit some of the city's main attractions. Passing other sampans (traditional rowing boats) on their way to market, houseboats and dragon boats, a typical trip will take visitors to the Thien Mu Pagoda, Hon Chen Temple and the Royal Tombs. The Thien Mu Pagoda is one of the oldest and most attractive religious structures in Vietnam, dating back to 1601. Its most striking feature is the seven-tiered tower, representing the seven steps to enlightenment. Another way to experience the Perfume River is on an evening boat trip hosting a traditional folksong performance, a tradition that goes back to the rule of the emperors when artists would play music and recite poetry from a rowing boat on the river.