The cities and villages of Vietnam are a delectable mix of modern ethos and traditional practices, pleasantly surprising the visitor at every turn.
A farrago of images swims up when you think of Vietnam. Most of them closely resemble scenes from Rescue Dawn or the 1979 classic, Apocalypse Now. It is a tad difficult to imagine the country without bringing the Vietnam War to your recall, thanks to the associations constructed by the popular culture. However, the picture painted by pop-culture and our own interpretations of history disintegrate quickly in Saigon.
The iconic city located in southern Vietnam is a far cry from its war-torn depictions. The city also goes by its given name, Ho Chi-Minh but Saigon still remains popular among both the natives and the visitors. Tan Son Nhat International airport in Saigon is a modern structure of glass, steel and carefully landscaped green zones.
Beyond the airport, the preconceived notions about Vietnam go on transforming. A couple of hours into the city and the country starts to give the vibe of a multilayered cake thatoffull of surprises.
For anyone visiting from India, the sheer number of two-wheelers on the streets lifts the spirits. After all, Indian roads are full of them. Youngsters whizz past you on their colourful Yamahas, Piaggios and Hondas like crusaders determined to decimate ravages left by a tumultuous past.
The history of Saigon gives it a character which is most evident in the architecture of the city. Pre-colonial, colonial, and modern architecture create a layered experience.
The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, built in 1880 is a relic from the days when Vietnam was a French colony. Built entirely with material shipped from France, to this day, it remains an important landmark of the District 1 in Saigon.
Not far from the cathedral, stands another vestige from history, the Reunification Palace. Like every other piece of past in Vietnam, the palace also has a chequered past. If you have a few hours in the afternoon, take your time to go through it and you can almost taste the past as you pass through its many halls and corridors.
Both the cathedral and palace lie in close proximity to Saigon’s Central Post Office. It is another curious place to experience the nuances of Vietnam. What else can it be when designed by no other than Gustav Eiffel who also happens to be the designer of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
The Reunification Palace once housed the French Governor General before the country gained independence. Later, the President of South Vietnam became its patron. On the unification of South and North Vietnam, the building gained its current appellation.
In the Cu Chi district of the city, lies one of the most vivid memories of the war in the form of the Cu Chi tunnels. A network of these underground tunnels was used by the Viet Cong to function during the Vietnam War. Devoid of light and heat, these tunnels are a chilling throwback to the wars. Guided tours are available at this site and travellers are also allowed to explore a part of these tunnels under supervision.
The realities of wars that the Vietnamese have lived through are reinforced in the War Remnants Museum. Established in 1975, the name of the museum has changed off and on from its very first, Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes. In 1990 its name was changed to a slightly less offensive stance against the US, and it became Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression. The latest change was affected in 1995. Be prepared to come across propaganda material used during the Vietnam war, eye-witness accounts and material dedicated to the infamous Agent Orange or the Purple People Eater inside the museum.
Entering the museum and exiting it places you in a time machine of sorts. The remnants of a dark past inside and a burgeoning metropolis outside are a stark contrast.
At the heart of the city stands the Bitexco Tower and Sky Deck, proudly announcing sure-footed steps that Vietnam has taken into the modern world. Standing on the Sky Deck, you can gaze at the Saigon river and enjoy a spectacular view of the city. The Sky Deck has a fabulous sky bar with international cuisine.
To its credit, Saigon has kept one of its oldest markets alive. Right from Vietnamese cuisine to curios, the colourful Binh Tay Market in Saigon’s China Town in District 6 is a crowd-puller. The marketplace is teeming with unique architecture, intriguing eateries and shops selling odds and ends.
Starting a trip to Vietnam in Saigon has a lot of advantages. Amongst others, it offers a number of access points to the Mekong Delta served by the river of its namesake. Returning from Vietnam without exploring the riches of the Mekong river, an utterly sui-generis landmark of South East Asia, would be a shame.
Can Tho is one of the popular access points to the delta and it takes about four hours to reach by road from Saigon. The Mekong Delta is home to delicate ecosystems and cultures that have survived for ages. The river has floating markets with boats laden with fruits, flowers and rich produce from the Vietnamese soil. Especially, the floating markets of Cai Rang is an experience that one rarely forgets. Can Tho also offers comfortable places to stay and day trips to a number of agricultural hubs.
Among other things, the Mekong Delta is home to Can Gio Biosphere Reserve. With its wetland ecosystems and mangrove forests, it is a place to visit with sustainable tourism in mind. There are several other small cities in the delta which are worth exploring. It is all a matter of how much time one has for the trip.
The capital of present-day Vietnam is a bustling modern commercial centre with its past taking the shape of colonial architecture, museums and cultural centres. Hanoi is located on the banks of the Red River, with some really stunning tableaus. There are direct flights from Saigon to Hanoi. The city also boasts of Vietnam’s largest international airport.
Old Quarters is the place to set your sights on if you intend to experience a mish-mash of alleys, entertainment spots and shops that sell the strangest of things. These interconnected streets are homogenous in appearance. Created centuries ago, the area became famous because of its craftsmen. Each street used to have different guilds with workshops dedicated to a particular craft. The modern-day Old Quarters are of course different but no less intriguing.
A short walk from the Old Quarters takes you to the Hoan Kiem Lake or the Lake of the Returned Sword. A bridge on the lake leads to the Ngoc Son Temple built in honour of General Tran Hung Dao. Legend has it that the General had protected Vietnam from Mongolian invasion in the 13th century. The lake and its surrounding areas are certainly meant for those seeking some downtime. It has plenty of greenery, the equivalent of a murmuring brook and even an island located at its center with an old pagoda. A number of other pagodas and temples dot the capital of Vietnam and each one has a story to tell just like the Ngoc Son Temple.
Hanoi surely has plenty of history. If you want to enjoy a cultural spectacle dating back to around 11th century, drop in at the Thang Long Puppet Theater located near the Hoan Kiem Lake. The theatre hosts water puppet shows based on folklores accompanied by music. It is literally a puppet show on the water. Puppeteers hide behind screens and glide their puppets on shallow water bodies to narrate tales.
Another dose of history lies within the walls of the National Museum of Vietnamese History. Finished in 1932, it lies behind the Hanoi Opera House in the Hoan Kiem District. The museum is a great place to visit for both its Indo-Chinese architectural style and the artefacts inside.
Meshed with the cultural heritage of pagodas, temples, museums and relics from yesteryears, lies modern Hanoi, its many restaurants and vibrant nightlife. It seems as if two parallel universes have come to exist in the same place. Interestingly, the people of Hanoi have learnt to traverse the two worlds with surprising ease.
Ha Long Bay
Tucked away from the city life of Hanoi, Ha Long Bay is a place where nature has sung to life 3000 islands rising from the clear emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. It lies just 170 km away from Hanoi and can be accessed by road. A number of accommodations are available here. During the day, visitors can head out to explore the enigmatic Ha Long Bay using one of the several boat cruises that operate in this area. The Bay has several archipelagoes with grottos and quite a few hidden gems to discover. There are limestone outcrops to admire and, of course, entire floating villages to visit and shop at. Kayaking and scuba diving are two water sports that are best-suited to the waters of the Bay and attract a number of visitors.
Towards the end of a trip to Vietnam, it is normal to feel a bit mystified as one stumbles across its true identity. It is certainly nothing like the films we have all seen. Acceptance of past and present pervade the country. So, in case you are wondering how to start exploring a country which has witnessed so much turmoil and a war that spanned two decades, the answer is simple. Like any other, with an open mind and an open heart.