It is a frantic travel from South to North Vietnam. 30-days is just enough time to scratch the surface of this diverse country. But you can travel Vietnam in this amount of time.
We drove non stop from the border of Cambodia to downtown Saigon. A city etched in my brain from all of the war films that I watched as a kid. Women whiz by on their mopeds, dressed in white from head to toe. White gloves, white hat, flowing white silk suits and a white mask to block out exhaust pollution. Motorbikes span the streets in thick packs making crossing feel like a game of Frogger. The city is a bustle with markets, food stalls, and nightclubs. Where shopping is the main priority and dodging touts is a full time job. Trishaw drivers won’t take no for an answer as they follow you down the street looking to make their fare and precocious children sell photocopied books for $2.
The Cu Chi Tunnels
The fascinating Cu Chi Tunnels were our first visit as we travel Vietnam. Agent Orange, napalm and constant bombing wiped out the jungle during the Vietnam War but it is now lush and green and the Vietnamese are capitalizing on tourism. Our guide, a former translator for the American army leads our group telling the story of the North Vietnamese and how they defeated the U.S. The caves were right under the Americans noses, literally. They showed us how they would escape in the jungle and camouflage the entrances with termite hills. We learned that they fought in sandals made from tires to avoid jungle rot and we learned how they wore checkered scarves to announce that they were fighting for the North and how farmers snuck food to soldiers.
For Those Who Dare
It was then into the claustrophobic original tunnel to crawl for 100m in darkness to get a sense of just how uncomfortable the conditions were. The dim lights went out for a few minutes and for a while there and I had no idea where our guide was, being near the back of the crowd. Earlier, I saw some lights leading to another direction and I was starting to panic that we had taken a wrong turn. The tunnel system is hundreds of kilometres long and worry was setting in that we might be in here for a very long time. Three bats flew through our little conga line in the dusty tunnel, but a few minutes later, we emerged drenched from the heat and covered in dirt. I was feeling proud for making it through, and glad that I did not opt to take the chicken route near the start of the tunnel.
War Remnants Museum
Back in Ho Chi Min, we visited the War Remnants Museum, an emotional look at the effects of war and a fascinating display honouring photographers and correspondents who lost their lives covering the war. We walked by the Armerican Embassy known for the infamous rooftop helicopter evacuations after the fall of Saigon and we checked out the thriving waterfront with luxury hotels, nightclubs and bustling river.
Mekong Delta Tour
The three day trip to the Mekong Delta is a steal. Tour companies in Ho Chi Min City offer great package deals fighting for tourist dollars to all destinations. For only $30 an all-inclusive trip supplies you with a guide, food, accommodation and transport.
Life remains unchanged here as farmers still bring their produce to the floating market and people still wash their clothes by hand on its banks. Strong women row our boat down an estuary surrounded by thick jungle and we don conical hats pretending to be Rambo. We are paraded from one shop to another set up strictly as a tourist trap. At small factories, we learned how to make coconut candy and rice paper being offered a taste to entice us into buying a souvenir. It is all a little contrived at times as they try very hard to make you purchase something, but the scenery is incredible and watching local life unfold is fascinating.
Travel in Vietnam
We return to the city and buy a “tourist” bus ticket north. This great invention allows us to travel from Ho Chi Min City in the south all the way to Hanoi in the north. For $30 US, you can stop at as many places as you like for as long as you like. Just hop off at your destination, and then when you want to move, go to the office in town and book a seat for the next day. It makes traveling a cinch.
- Our first stop is Mui Ne. A spectacular beachfront visited by very few tourists. Kite surfers ride the waves in its windy bay, women offer cheap massage on the beach that is so vigorous that it leaves bruising and the sunsets here are some of the most spectacular you will ever see. The high winds whip and swirl the clouds throughout the day and when dusk sets in the setting sun illuminates the sky with deep reds and bright yellows.
- A short jeep ride takes you out to the town’s main attraction, the sand dunes. Giant rolling hills of sand surrounded by green fields looking as though a bit of the Sahara has been dropped on the land. We walk to the top in the scorching heat and take a thrilling magic carpet ride down its sandy banks.
- After wasting away five days in paradise, we decide that we need to see more ot the country and time is an issure, so we reluctantly pack our bags and head north.
Next stop, Nha Trang, a far busier beach town with high-rise buildings, giant resorts, nightclubs, and fine dining. This long stretch of beach is well developed and touts are everywhere selling jewelry, hats, t-shirts and of course cheap photocopied books.
We take a day to visit the mud baths to bask in its cool medicinal mud. All of my travel weary bones and muscles are treated to a relaxing day of pampering and nurturing, preparing me for the days to come. We will be going to Hoi An next, and I need to be in top form for the ultimate shopping experience.
Hundreds of shops vying for your business to sell you tailor made clothes whipped up in a matter of hours. Chosing a shop can be difficult and we were standing in the rainy street confused when a lady approached us and said to follow her. Reluctantly we followed her through winding streets and alleyways, when we finally came to her shop in the market. We proceeded to pick out patterns and styles, while an army of women took our measurements, aided us in choosing material and colours from the walls of fabric. Tailors work around the clock to please the many passing travelers and our new wardrobe was ready the next morning for pick up. From cashmere suits, cocktail dresses and silk shirts to cargo pants and surf shorts, we bought it all for a steal and end up sending 12 kg of clothing home to Canada
After shopping till we drop for 3 solid days, we are off to Hue close to the North-South border Staying in one of its many clean and cheap mini hotels, we stumble onto Café on Thu Wheels, a unique café with its walls covered in writing from past guests. We book a motorbike trip to see the sights and it is a thrill to explore the countryside in the fresh air.
Taking another trip to see some tunnels and old war sights, I grow weary and look forward to moving on to Hanoi, the nations capital.
A colonial city full of French architecture, sidewalk cafés, and cobblestone streets. We explore its sights eating French baguettes and sipping lattes on Hoan Klem Lake, then book a tour to Halong Bay.
A wonder of nature in the South China Sea, where 1000’s of island jut out of the turquoise water creating a never ending horizon of mountains. We explore the labyrinth on a small teak cabin cruiser, where we have our own private bunk and are treated to a feast. Sleeping in the bay surrounded by these sleeping giants while looking into the clear night sky is a unique experience.
The final destination of our Vietnam adventure takes us to Sapa, a mountain town near the Chinese border. We stay with the hill tribes in the vast rice terraces and trek for three days in this rugged land. The beauty is overwhelming as every corner I turn leaves me more awestruck. Giant terraces filled with water glisten in the sun for as far as the eye can see. Water buffalo graze in the fields and villagers dress in traditional hand made clothing.
The villagers live by the old ways, harnessing water from the mountain to use as irrigation, weaving their own material, growing their own rice and vegetables and raising their own livestock. They are a people truly at one with the land, but that hasn’t stopped some of them from owning a satellite televisions.
Vietnam is a fascinating adventure with so much to see, you could easily spend two months exploring its countryside.