IT’S been 14 years since I have travelled the length of Vietnam, from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in the South to Hanoi in the North.
In that time there has been so much growth, a bigger middle class has emerged and at the top end the ‘haves’ have everything.
Many who fled the country towards the end of what is referred to by the locals as the American War, coming to countries like Australia to get away from communist rule, have since returned.
They have in many cases become the Captains of Industry amassing huge wealth, but providing much needed employment through their business activities.
The first thing that hits you on arrival in Saigon is the huge number of motorbikes and scooters, they are everywhere.
Here all ballpoint pens were once known as a Biro, in Vietnam the bikes are all known as a Honda, what will it be like in the next 14 years if they all turn into cars? One hesitates to think on it.
The motorbike has become the family transport with upto two adults and two children on the one bike, I saw a farmer transporting his pig lashed across the back of his bike.
But the most interesting sight was a building about the size of a garden shed being carried along with most of the bike and the rider inside the shed, and another with two large roller doors lashed to either side of the motorbike.
For the tourist, Saigon has lots to offer, it always was the city that didn’t sleep when the Americans took R&R there and today the bars and nightclubs still rock to a steady beat.
Must sees are the Notre Dame Cathedral, The Reunification Hall formerly the Presidential Palace still with a helicopter on the roof ready to make that final flight, and the War Remnants Museum showing the war from the communist perspective, but that’s all you see or hear about the war, after all it was 40 years ago.
The Vietnamese money is known as the Dong there are 21,000 to one A$, yes for $100 you get over 4 million Dong, instant millionaire, but you soon get used to it. The Australian Dollar offers real value, food is cheap, so are clothes and you can buy a 500ml beer for about 70 cents.
From Saigon we travelled up to the cooler climate of the Central Highlands, passing rubber plantations and a floating fishing village before arriving in Dalat.
Set among the hills, Dalat was originally established in 1897 as a get away from the heat of Saigon and the Delta. The French made it their holiday retreat, as you can tell from the French Architecture.
A must see is the Summer Palace of Vietnams last emperor, Bao Dai, or you can take a cable car ride to a beautiful Zen Monastery with gardens full of ancient Bonsai.
The next day we left for Nha Trang, a lovely coastal city. A great way to relax there, is to take a day boat out to the islands, you can snorkel and swim in crystal blue waters and enjoy a fresh seafood lunch onboard.
That afternoon we visited the Big Buddha and is he big! Sitting on top of a mountain you climb 300 steps from the monastery below and the view across the city below is spectacular.
The next day we flew to Danang, we stopped at the Marble Mountains (that’s what they are made of) and climbed to the top.
It’s a steep climb, I could feel my legs getting tired until I passed a 90-year-old lady coming the other way, if she could do it I certainly could and soon I was at the top.
There is a peaceful Buddhist Monastery where you can wander the gardens and climb in the dark, down inside the mountain. Deep inside the mountain there is a huge chamber housing Buddhist shrines, you can make them out by the filtered light shining through the top of the mountain above.
It appears the Viet Cong set up a base here during the war, the hole in the roof provided courtesy of American B52 bombers.
After leaving the mountain you drive by China Beach used by the Americans as an R&R get-away during the war.
Hoi An is a beautiful city located on the banks of the Thu Bon River, there is lots to see but it seemed everyone had one thought in mind to visit the tailor shops. Hoi An has gained a reputation of making clothes overnight, and judging by the huge number of tourists in the tailor shops they were doing a brisk business.
The next stop was Hue, home to the Nguyen Dynasty Emperors from 1802-1945, the Citadel is huge, much of it was destroyed during the Tet Offensive in 1968, but a rebuilding program has been very successful in showing you the might and glory of the Dynasty.
Reaching Hanoi, we were well and truly back in the hustle and bustle of Vietnamese big city life.
All those motorbikes were waiting for us to step out on the streets, you just cross the big wide roads and they make their way around you, it’s a bit unnerving at first but you get used to it.
Hanoi is a lovely city with a huge lake in the middle, it’s been called the Paris of the Orient.
You will find all the history of Ho Chi Minh, great museums and in the old quarter some very interesting restaurants.
When you are “Hanoid-out” then head for Halong Bay, take an overnight trip on a luxury Junk and visit some of the 3,000 islands, some have huge caves full of stalagmites and other formations.
If you want to get away from the heat take the overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa, it’s a real experience for some the ‘clickity-clack’ of the track actually rocks you to sleep.
Sapa is a massive rice growing area and the terraced hills in the valley are a spectacular sight.
You can go trekking through the hills and along the way you will be met by the different ethnic minorities that live and farm here.
It has become the custom for the local ladies to dress in their ethnic costumes and greet you along the way, walking along with you discussing daily life, and exchanging information on how many children you have etc. Of course you are expected to buy some of their craftwork when you reach the end of the trek, I bought from the first two ladies and then another joined me, the sun was out and seeing I had no hat she produced an umbrella and shaded me for the rest of the trek.
Up and down the hills we went, umbrella hovering above, I knew this was going to cost me big time when the trek was over, but it was well worth it as we explored one another’s lifestyles.
I would like to thank Travel Indochina and their wonderful guide Duc, for making this a really memorable experience, their small group tours are certainly the way to get to know another country.
Until Next Time,