Once on every backpacker's wishlist for its lure as a part of the 'exotic orient', Vietnam is no longer unexplored territory. It continues to draw crowds, but the off-beat has become more and more elusive with a well-oiled tourist trail that runs all the way down the slender country. However, there is a charm to Vietnam that is hard to resist. Right from graceful old Hanoi in the north with its charming narrow streets and plentiful culture; to evocative Hue, with an ancient story tucked into every sway of its hip; to magical Hoi An, creating idyllic pictures at every glance; to humbling Saigon, a living reminder of a country coming to grips with a gruesome past, a dynamic present and an uncertain future -- Vietnam has a move for every kind of person. A versatile seductress in every sense of the term.
To say that ten days did it no justice is a grave understatement. But to even scratch the surface of so fascinating a landscape, culture and people is a whetting of the appetite in so dangerous a proportion, I am afraid nothing short of a few months on my next trip will suffice. Thấy bạn sớm, Vietnam!
All photo credits: Shashwat Sridhar
PS: I realise that my descriptions aren't the most useful to someone who might be looking to plan their trip through this itinerary. You can blame the country for inducing poetic musings, but please feel free to click on the 'trip enquiry' button and write in to me with absolutely any queries you might have.
We approached Hanoi with a pretty typical what-is-there-to-see attitude, and found ourselves a little underwhelmed on the first day. It took a badly planned second day (a Monday, when everything in Hanoi is closed) to force us to just walk around the city and take it in, without much of a destination in mind. It was at the end of a few hours of weaving through parks, lakes and grand old sweeping trees that we finally discovered the charm of Hanoi. There is a grace to the city, some lingering age-old wisdom that it seems to impart upon the visitor that simultaneously calms and delights. Set against its infamous two-wheeler infested streets and chaotic traffic, Hanoi feels like a grandparent with the heart of a child. Its hard to walk away without a smile.
Spend your time walking though the close-knit streets of the old quarter, and buy yourself a little something from the incredible variety of arts and handicrafts tucked away in unassuming little shops along the way. Visit the serene Temple of Literature, and go pay your respects to Ho Chi Minh at his mausoleum. End your day at the Haon Kiem lake gracefully perched at the north-eastern end of the Old Quarter and take in the sun dissolving behind the lush trees. Later, go attend a water puppet show, laugh along with the crude humour, enjoy live folksy music, and marvel at the colourful puppets appearing out the the body of water (look out for the drangons - always the most fun!). Do all of it at a leisurely pace, preferably with a Bahn Mi (a Vietnamese sub) in your hand to munch on. You'll wonder why you didn't budget that extra day for this charming capital.
With basic rooms and a central location in the Old Quarter, Hotel Bodega is a solid choice. The staff is unerringly pleasant and went out of their way to help us with everything we could have needed. They also book tours from their desk, but if you step out on your own and scout around a little, you are more likely to get a sightly better deal. Overall, if you are looking for a little quiet at hostel prices, this is definitely the place for you.
With its name literally translating to 'the dragon descending into the sea', Halong Bay is an incredible explosion of limestone karsts over nearly 1500 sq kms. It is the crown jewel of Vietnam tourism, and you are constantly reminded of it both in the number of people that you will find there and the manner in which it has been preserved and presented. The Hung Sung Sot cave is particularly awe-inspiring, and a sunset peek at the karsts from atop Ti Top hill is lovely. But our favourite memory is a jostle between kayaking at sunrise and karaoking into the night
Plenty of cruise companies run junks that will take you through these karsts for one, two or three days. I recommend nothing lesser than two, because a night on the junk is a worthy expenditure of time and money. And if you -- like us -- end up with just the right company on board, each one of the many excursions and 'activities' that the crew will have lined up for you will come to life in just the right way.
If Hanoi's charm is a little slow on the uptake, Hue's hits you right in the face. It is everything you would imagine an historic town to be: regal, sweeping, otherworldly. The Citadel, that houses a well-preserved complex of temples, pavilions, moats, walls, gates, shops, museums and galleries, is large enough to drown even the constant flood of tourists, offering rare moments of peace and solitude. My favourite was when I found myself on a particularly graceful stone bridge perched over a small creek lined with melancholy weeping willows -- my inner-most oriental princess dreams all came to life in that moment.
The Perfume river, on the banks of which the city lies, is a massive body of water, and adds to the general evocative nature of the landscape, that always seems to be accentuated by clouds looming on the horizon nearly throughout the year.
Hands down our best meal in Vietnam. Given the culture of vegetarianism that seems to pervade through the city of Hue, finding a vegetarian meal would not have been tough in any case, but we hit a jackpot with Lien Hoa. The setting itself is quite lovely, with a tiny bonsai garden that greets you at the entrance. Our lovely waiter (who spoke precisely three words of English) smilingly suggested we try the fried spring rolls, a veg steam pot, and some veggies in tomato sauce, and we willingly obliged. Absolutely delicious. Can't recommend highly enough.
The road from Hue to Hoi An is a delight, kissing the coastline for a large part of the journey, winding through the Hai Van Pass that separates North from South Vietnam. We happened to go on a particularly foggy day, but our skepticism regarding the view was soon laid to rest as we looked back at the road that brought us up to the Pass, snaking out of the dense fog, breathtaking in its drama. Along the way, you can also stop at the Lang Co beach, which -- on a non-rainy day -- can be quite picturesque.
The train that rides between Hue and Hoi An also skirts the coastline tantalizingly, but doesn't go all the way up to the Hai Van Pass. A taxi, particularly on a clear day, might be a better investment for the views from the top.
If I ever want to describe the word 'charming' to someone, I'll do it with a picture of Hoi An in my head. A UNESCO World Heritage Site that has preserved much of its quaintness since the 15th to 19th century when it served as a port town that absorbed every cultural influence that came its way, the Hoi An Ancient Town is a surreal little world of pale distressed yellow walls tucked around the muddy Thu Bon river.
You can spend several days just soaking in the atmosphere on a bicycle, spending evenings walking by the river and nights marvelling at the fairytale beauty of the riverfront that is lit up with a million lanterns every night. And if you find the time, head out to the surrounding countryside, where the backwaters crisscross with paddy fields and tiny huts. Nothing in Hoi An is less than a picture postcard.
One of the most rewarding day-trips you can make from Hoi An is a 30-minute motoscooter (or bus) ride to ruins of the Champa kingdom at My Son. Remnants from the kingdom that ruled between the 1st and 17th century lay sprawled out, having battled war and nature, barely standing to tell the tale.
Located just five minutes away from the Ancient Town but offering backpacker rates, Hoa Binh was one of our best decisions in all of Vietnam. The rooms are clean, the showers are lovely and the breakfast is to die for. If I were to nit-pick, I'd say the staff could be friendlier. In any case, you'll be better off booking tours with agents outside -- prices drop by at least a couple of dollars the moment you step out of the hotel.
At the foot of a whirlwind itinerary through the rest of the country lies a sobering history lesson in Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly (quite cheekily) called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the renamed War Remnants Museum is a moving, even if slightly biased, account of a country that has seen more violence than you would wish upon an enemy. Especially if this happens to be the first war museum you walk through, be prepared for the kind of uncensored photographs and quotes that would drown most Western museums in lawsuits over inappropriate content for children. Brave the tears, the goosepimples, the violent need to the person next to you, and you'll come out wanting some silence to take it all in. Allow yourself that solitude as you walk around the city, winding through the intoxicating coming together of the past and present.
You'll need your hankies for this one.