I admit that I really didn’t know much about Vietnam. My knowledge of the country was limited to the Vietnam War and how they defeated the Americans. The Vietnamese are a stoic people and amazingly even when faced with the one of the most powerful armies in the world, they prevailed.
Vietnam was once a French colony, hence all the splendid French architecture which you will see in the cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. Officially called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, it is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula. The country was also once part of the Empire of China for over a millennium and it became independent on AD 938. It was colonized by the French in the mid-19th century and was occupied by Japan in the 1940s.
During the first Indochina War, the French was expelled and thereafter the country was divided into rival political states, the North and the South. With the intervention of the United States during what is now known as the Vietnam War, the north gained victory over the south. The country was unified under a Communist government and in 1986 socioeconomic reforms were initiated to integrate the country into the world economy.
Today, Vietnam is a country which has a charm all its own. With a great history, lively culture, amazing natural wonders and friendly people, it is one of the best places to take a vacation to in Southeast Asia.
Because of its length and huge regional diversity, deciding when to travel to the country can be a bit complicated. However, Vietnam is one of those truly year-round destinations.
Hanoi is a year-round destination. It is hot and humid in the summer and cool and dry during winter. If you want to travel to Halong Bay, go during spring or summer when the skies are clear and the days are warm.
Ho Chi Mihn or Saigon has balmy days all year and some afternoon downpours are to be expected during the months of May to November but this should not affect your travel plans that much.
The ancient city of Hoi An also experiences summer downpour but it remains largely dry and hot from February to July.
The currency in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong. Roughly the conversion rate is US $1 is to 21,225 Vietnamese Dong.
There is a variety of budget airlines with regular weekly flights to Hanoi or Ho Chi Mihn from Singapore and some of the most popular are Jetstar, Tiger Airways and Air Asia.
GETTING AROUND HANOI
If there is one thing in transportation, which Vietnam is known for, it is the motorbikes. You will see them everywhere on the road and you must be careful when crossing the streets if you do not want to end up a casualty of these ubiquitous ride in the country. Motorbikes do not stop and give way even if you are crossing on the pedestrian lane. The drivers simply don’t care.
Vietnam has busy and narrow roads, which are not built for overtaking. However, you will see that almost all vehicles on the road are fond of overtaking and accidents are quite common.
Motorbike. Motorbikes can be easily rented in towns and cities, which are frequented by tourists, and it is an enjoyable and time-effective method of getting around. However, be warned that long-distance biking can be dangerous.
Train. Very few travellers opt for the train in Vietnam, however traveling by train is well worth considering for a variety of reasons. When traveling by train, you will be involved in few collisions with dogs, motorbikes or worse, people. Roads also tend to be lined with various stands selling snacks or mobile phones. Lastly, traveling by train will give you the opportunity to talk to friendly locals. Make sure that your luggage is safely stowed and ensure your money bag or wallet is safely tucked when going to sleep.
Bus. Most travelers in Vietnam take the bus to get to their destinations. Most buses are privately operated and they are usually referred to as “open-tour” buses. Open-tour buses are generally comfortable and decent but one should not expect too much leg room in these buses.
Ferry and boat. A boat tour around Halong Bay is a must when in the country as it offers some of the most majestic sights. One of the Seven Wonders of the World, there are scheduled ferries which sail all year-round to the different islands of Halong Bay.
WHERE TO STAY
Being a haven for backpackers, Vietnam’s major cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Mihn have a lot of accommodations, from the very expensive to the more economical. The average hostel price in Vietnam is USD $15 to USD $20. The average price for more luxurious accommodations is USD $90.
During our trip to Hanoi, we stayed in Maison D’Orient, a lovely little 2-star boutique hotel tucked in a little corner in the Old French Quarter. The rate is USD $40 for a double room.
WHAT TO EAT
Vietnamese cuisine is considered one of the best in the world and luminaries such as Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmerman and others have lauded the country’s unique and delicious food culture. There are dishes which you must absolutely try when you are in the country.
- Pho Bo
If Vietnam has a national dish, it would be the Pho Bo. A popular streetfood in the country, it is the most delicious noodle dish I have ever tried so far and it will remain on my favorites list. It consists of broth, rice noodles, meat which is usually chicken or beef and a few herbs.
- Bahn Mi
Also one of the best streetfoods that I have ever tasted, the bread or baguette was introduced by the French during its colonization of the country. More airy than its Western counterpart with a thinner crust, the banh mi is also called the Vietnamese sandwich. The classic version of the banh mi is made with a variety of cold cuts, cheese, liver pâté and vegetables such as tomato and cucumber.
- Vietnamese spring rolls
I am quite sure that anyone who has heard of Vietnam has also heard of Vietnamese spring rolls. Vietnamese spring rolls usually have shrimps, pork, and a variety of vegetables, which are wrapped in rice paper.
WHAT TO SEE
- Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake means “Lake of the Returned Sword” or “Lake of the Restored Sword”. It can be found in the historical center of Hanoi and it is one of the most scenic spots in the city.
- Turtle Tower
Also called Tortoise Tower, the Turtle can be found in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake.
- Tran Quoc Pagoda
The Tran Quoc Pagoda is the oldest pagoda in Hanoi. It is supposed to be more than a thousand years old and was originally constructed during the reign of Emperor Ly Nam De.
- Old French Quarter
Hanoi’s French Quarter has wide open streets, as well as majestic buildings with lovely French architecture. During the French occupation in the 19th century, the French demolished old Vietnamese buildings and replaced them with French style-villas which still survive until today.
- Ho Chi Mihn Mausoleum
A large memorial in Hanoi dedicated to the country’s once chairman of the Communist Party from 1951 until 1969. Construction on the mausoleum began in 1973 and was finished in 1975.
TIP: The mausoleum only opens 8am to 11am on Tuesdays to Thursdays, as well as Saturdays and Sundays. Last entry is at 10.15am. People wearing shorts and tank tops are not allowed from entering and photography is strictly prohibited.
- Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is the country’s oldest university. It was built in 1070 and it is just one of the several temples in the country which is dedicated to Confucius.
7. Long Bien Bridge
Designed by no less than Gustav Eiffel, the same person responsible for arguably the most popular tower in the world, the Long Bien Bridge was built from 1899 to 1902 and finally opened in 1903.