Vietnam: From North to South

Hanoi street life.
Hanoi street life.

Vietnam ranks high on the travelers’ destination list. Millions of backpackers explore this long stretch of country and all its diversity each year on their trip through South-East Asia. And in Vietnam there is much to be explored. The blend of delicious food and cheap beer, with displays of nature in its most wonderful forms, and the truly exciting history of Vietnam across the ages, particularly in times of war, makes for an adventurous holiday. We’ve put together an overview of traveling Vietnam from north to south, and how to fit in all its best bits on your way.

Hanoi.

To begin your journey, fly into Hanoi, Vietnam’s chaotic capital. This intense urban landscape is densely populated and offers a riot on the senses. Expect blaring horns, air filled with plumes of scooter pollution, knock-off goods, unique architecture and fresh and delicious street food on every corner. Hanoi is rapidly advancing and the harmony of old and new is fascinating. Glitzy fashion malls and high-end restaurants are constantly cropping up around the city but the intense historical and political past is still richly infused everywhere.

To engage with the history of a city with such a tumultuous past then explore the Vietnam Military History Museum. Outside it hosts a vast collection of weaponry and vehicles from the front line and also captured from enemy forces. Inside the war is traced through exhibitions of artefacts, films, art, propaganda posters and technology. The North-South divide is documented interestingly throughout to present a view from the perspective of the northern Vietnamese on their life during war. The Hoa Lo Prison museum offers another look into the war that took over the city. Ironically nickname the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, this prison was used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Exhibits are rather chilling, including shackles, whips and other instruments of torture as well as tiny confinement cells.

Another museum worth visiting is the Vietnamese Woman’s Museum. A colourful tribute to the woman of Vietnam across the ages, documenting work, family life, clothing, marriage and fashion. Video tributes explore the heroic mothers during war time and their impact on society. A reminder that behind the male-orientated war, were essential women standing strong. Offering a peaceful green space nestled into the heart of the city is the Temple of Literature. Dedicated to Confucious (Khong Tu), the beautiful complex honours the finest scholars and men of literary accomplishment. If you’re lucky then current student graduations can be seen here as the students pose for pictures in front of the pagoda in their vibrant dress.

The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is another important point of call. The collection relates to Vietnam’s ethnic minorities and displays tradition village houses, art, artefacts and other interesting cultural things to see. Said to the oldest temple in Hanoi, the Bach Ma Temple is situated in the Old Quarter and is a beautiful building worth seeing.

Tranquility surprisingly can be reached in Hanoi. At the Hoan Kiem Lake the madness of the roads and intense bustle of the streets seem far away. The lake surround the Ngoc Son Temple which sits magnificently on a small island in the centre. Grab a book and a picnic and relax in the peaceful scenery. For more scenes of grandeur, rise to the Lotto Tower observation deck and soak up the best views of the city. This vantage point offers scenes of the old quarter and dazzling lights of the city alive at night.

Always remember: some of Hanoi’s best bits are their eateries. Following the delicious scents of the city and graze your way round its history and museums stopping at street stalls and markets throughout the day.

 

Around Hanoi.

First, the notorious Halong Bay. It sits at the top every visitor to Vietnam’s travel list. A World Heritage Site since 1994, the scattered islands of Halong Bay and its  striking limestone pillars have been a focus of photographers and featured in films often. Excursions from Hanoi are easy to organise and  different options are available from the luxury calming cruise, to the wild party boats. Tours offer canoeing through the bright waters and exploring the islands, such as Cat Ba, and their monuments.

Further north from Hanoi, and requiring an overnight bus is Sapa in all its natural splendour. A tourist hub, but with less of the development felt from vising Halong Bay, Sapa offers dramatic scenery and trekking through the valleys with the local hill-tribe people. Cascading rice terraces appear never-ending, and the lush green valleys are split by small but crashing waterfalls. Sign up for a tour with the locals and they’ll take you into the mountains, exploring their history on the way and housing you with their family. The food is fresh and scrumptious and you’ll feeling simultaneously relaxed and refreshed and completely worn out.

 

Ba Be National Park offers more swooping scenery. The limestone mountains and plunging valleys are lush and green. The area is made up of three linked lakes, inhabited by over one hundred species of freshwater fish. Other wildlife lives here including the Vietnamese salamander which is higly endangered. The bird life, butterflies and mammals are also stunning and create an area of biological richness and excitement for visitors.

Central Region.

Travelling south of Hanoi you will reach Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. A cavers paradise. This area is made up of hundreds of cave systems of different sizes and shapes. The area is dreamy for trekking through the forest and rural mountains because the views are stunning. But of course, prioritize the caves. Paradise Cave is first on the list. This cave stretches for 31km and is glistening and has a lofty grandeur about it. Following the silent splendour of Paradise Cave, Hang Toi should be on your tour. This more action-based cave has a zip line, swim and oozing sticky mud. Visitors are welcome to kayak through the water and explore the cave. But prepare to be caked in mud.

The next stop moving south should be Hue. A city rich with history of Nguyen Emperors. The perfume river of Hue is completely charming and atmospheric running through the city. Be certain to see the Imperial Enclosure, a citadel housing the emperor’s residence, temples and palaces and buildings of state. During the French and American Wars, much of the citadel was blown to ruins but the site is still fascinating to wander. Other sites include the Thien Mu Pagoda, seated on a hill overlooking the Perfume river, as well as the To Mieu Temple Complex, many tombs,  the Royal Theatre, a selection of fine museums and gardens. The city is alive with its past and makes for great culture fix. Hue also offers stunning beaches so make sure to stop for some relaxation.

Hoi An is often a favourite of visitors who come to Vietnam. It has a unique and enchanting atmosphere created by its historic old town architecture, its tranquil river and the grand display for lanterns that light up the town. Shops are especially good here, tailors specialise in creating any piece you desire from sandals to dresses to 3 piece suits. Give yourself time, because the items are handmade so must be ordered often a day in advance. Check out any of the temples or museums for some more history of Vietnam. But, most importantly wander and soak up the gorgeous atmosphere because Hoi An is like no place else. As well as the good shops it has fantastic restaurants and street food on offer, plus some really stunning beaches nearby. Catch a boat to the islands nearby and relax in paradise or even take a scuba course.

Moving south you will reach Nha Trang. Whilst not offering the stunning atmosphere of the other towns in Vietnam, Nha Trang does serve well as a jumping off point to other islands. Nha Trang itself is nothing special, it offers some good restaurants and a long beach but no charm. The islands around such as Hon Mieu and Hon Tre are enjoyable but avoid getting ripped off by tours on offer.

Ho Chi Minh.

Arguably more stylish and beautiful than Hanoi, but still equally as chaotic, Ho Chi Minh is unmissable. Its contrast to Hanoi rounds off the trip from north to south in a fascinating way and the north-south divide is still interlaced subtly into the culture of the city. First and foremost, the museums offer a slightly different spin on their tumultuous past and being able to compare the differences in representation of war from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh is an unforgettable learning experience.

The War Remnants Museum is a good place to start diving into the city’s history. It documents the atrocities of war and the effects that shattered many civilian victims. First hand accounts, artefacts, armoured vehicles, bombs, videos and photographs are all on display documenting the military action of the US and its effect on the people of Vietnam. Other interesting museums include, the HCMC Museum, the History Museum, and the Fine Arts Museum. If you’re interested in the Vietnam War in particular, then its definitely worth taking a day tour to Cu Chi. The Cu Chi tunnels are a museum displaying the guerrilla fighters tunnels  as well as the guerrilla weapons used against the US soldiers in combat.

Next to see is the Notre Dame Cathedral, a wonderful piece of architecture that adds to the charm of the city. Built between 1877 and 1883, the catholic cathedral is a neo-Romanesque church with 40m high square towers tipped with iron spires. Take a tour inside or a grab some street food and sit on the grass gazing up at its splendour. Another striking feature of Ho Chi Minh is the Jade Emperor Pagoda, honouring the supreme Taoist god (the Jade Emperor or King of Heaven). The temple is truly atmospheric, with incense burning and the tile work covering the the building and illustrating faces of the past. Taoist figures sit proudly in the main building and other gods fill the other buildings waiting to be worshiped. Phuoc An Hoi is also beautifully ornate and worth visiting to experience the wonderful atmosphere of worship.

Take in the smells and tastes of the city at Binh Tay market. It has a central courtyard with gardens and is wonderful to sample some of the city’s best food from the street vendors. For more greenery wander the Botanical Gardens. After establishing Cochinchina as a colony the French founded these lush gardens and they remain today to relax in and escape the city madness. The Reunification Palace offers some striking architecture. When the French left in 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem constructed the Independence palace but it was soon pulled down after an attempt to assassinate him. After the fall of Saigon in the 1970’s a replacement was built and renamed the Reunification Palace and its really glorious with lush green gardens filled with fountains in front of it.

One of the best things to do in Ho Chi Min, as well as exploring the obvious sights, is sampling the French bakeries and the Vietnamese coffee. Coffee shops are a huge part of the city culture. Black coffee with ice (ca phe da) is strong, sweet and rich and lovely way to cool down as you watch the scooters whiz past the cafe window. At night, hop on one of those scooters yourself on a Vespa tour. Whilst some are pretty expensive it’s worth it! An unforgettable night of bar hopping through the bright lights of the city on a beautiful Vespa. The nightlife in Ho Chi Minh is always buzzing so follow the crowds and see where they take you.

Food.

It’s impossible to write a feature on Vietnam and miss out the food. Its fresh, zingy and bursting with spice. The street food culture is fantastic for both price and taste. Don’t be afraid to try something new, even if you have no idea what you’re being served (often there aren’t any English menus). The Vietnamese style of dining is sharing ‘family style.’ Order a variety of dishes and dig in to each one. At first the funny little stools that barely lift you off the ground seem a bizarre way to dine, but relax, because the food you devour on these stools in the street will be unforgettable. What’s more, beer all over Vietnam is ridiculously cheap and on a night time these stools and tables fill up ready for a party in some areas.

 

First on the list- Banh Mi Thit. A baguette deliciously stuffed with a variety of fillings which can be bought from street vendors or in an cafe. Goi Cuon is another delicious snack. Spring rolls of shrimp or pork and herbs rolled up in rice paper and served with peanut dipping sauce. They always taste so fresh and delicious. Pho is the obvious one but still not to be missed. A huge noodle soup with beef or chicken that you can get many places at home but with never the same zing as the real thing in Vietnam. Finally, Nem Nuong Xa can be bought from almost any street vendor and is grilled succulent meat served on lemongrass skewers.

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