When thinking of a travel destination, the dilemma is often whether a particular destination is more ‘touristy’ or meant for the seasoned traveler. Vietnam is among the places which cater to both these categories, with a unique mix of geographical features and landmarks. For instance, both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi offer an interesting glimpse into the urban Orient. Hanoi, which is Vietnam’s capital, claims a long history as a hub of politics in Vietnam, dating back a thousand years. The city thus bears impressions of the various empires that cast their shadow on it, in the Old Quarter and elsewhere.
While Ho Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon, also claims a richness of heritage, its prominence reached a peak during the American occupation. However, it still retains much of its French colonial flavor with much of the architecture of that era awaiting the curious traveler. Also of historical interest are the tunnels in the Cu Chi District, adjacent to Ho Chi Minh City, which was the site of guerrilla warfare first against the French and later against the Americans. Today a war memorial, the Cu Chi tunnels introduce the visitor to the extreme conditions in which the families of fighting Vietnamese lived for many years.
A traveler to southern Vietnam would do well to visit the Mekong Delta, which is the site of plantations where local farmers grow fruits and rice. The Vinh Trang Pagoda in My Tho, the houses on stilts, and a cruise aboard a hand-rowed sampan are but some of the delights in this region. The intrepid voyageur can also undertake a bicycle ride along the plantations and thus observe the life of this idyllic rural area. This offers an interesting contrast to the rural-pastoral life in northern Vietnam, where the mountainside villages are populated by Vietnam’s minorities who also practice cultivation.
These villages, located in the Sa Pa region, are connected by dirt trails running over the mountains. Indeed the mountainous geography is in itself a contrast to the general image that Vietnam conjures up in the mind of the traveller. This zone is home to Fansipan, the highest mountain in the country, and to various species of flora and fauna, many of which are found only here. The Hoang Lien National Park, also located here, will surely be a treat for any nature lover, as will be the Silver Waterfall, which is a vantage point from where to feast your eyes on the verdant vista all around.
Given that Vietnam is situated on the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin, it is understandable that there are also cruises along its waterways and bays. But perhaps none of these rivals a cruise in Ha Long Bay, which is truly a natural spectacle. Ha Long, which means dragon’s teeth, refers to the many “karst”, or islets which tend to look like teeth sprouting. This ancient landscape has been continually altered by seawater, as attested by the various grottoes covered by stalactites and stalagmites. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Ha Long Bay is also home to fishing communities which live in so-called floating villages.
No matter what your specific taste in adventure may be, Vietnam is sure to tempt you. It is a veritable platter of destination choices and perhaps even the wary traveller will want to simply throw the guidebook away and dip in to this most unique Southeast Asian experience!