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Impressions of Vietnam: A bit off the usual tourist trail
Vietnam: a land of motorbike traffic, conical hats, street food, greenery (rice fields, city trees, parks), water (sea, river, lakes), limestone karsts and caves, and friendly people.
Although one reads about the traffic, it doesn’t really prepare you for the sheer number of motorbikes vying for space with innumerable taxis and the odd mad bus driver. After a while, you will become used to (if not necessarily comfortable with) crossing the streets where traffic lights are few and far between and there are no stop signs. One wades through as one would move through a fast moving crowd (although preferably without any bumping). Try to attach yourself to a group or a guide and follow along without looking.
You can’t experience Vietnam without trying the street food as this is how the majority eat. Freshly prepared from food likely brought into town the night before, there is an enormous variety to choose from. Noodle soups with various ingredients (usually some type of meat) are popular, as is grilled seafood. Try a “Food on Foot” tour to introduce various foods and learn how to eat it! One adds to your bowl from the side dishes of greens and sprouts, limes, chili, etc. The best places are often those that specialize in only a couple of dishes, and the “kitchen” is on the sidewalk. Some have inside seating but tiny red or blue plastic stools on the sidewalk (or street) are inevitable. Actually, most people walk on the road and sidewalks are extensions of shops and restaurants or for motorbike parking. Numerous cafes serve the special Vietnamese coffee, which consists of a drip filtered shot of espresso, usually mixed with condensed milk and ice which makes it taste much like chocolate milk.
Vietnam cities are pleasing to the eye. Take a chaotic Asian city, add colour to the buildings (turquoise, green, blue, yellow, red brick and clay tiles, rich brown woodwork), lattice iron grills and fences, leafy green trees, and some peaceful lakes and parks with large communist monuments. To the ubiquitous motorbikes carrying anything and everything (even a live cow!), add ladies with conical hats and face masks on motorbikes, bicycles, or walking with large baskets of fruit hanging from both ends of a bamboo pole bouncing on their shoulder.
Vietnam seems orderly and relatively clean. Walks are swept and the garbage piles collected regularly. The pavements and roadways are in relatively good repair. The front side of the tall, narrow buildings are pleasantly decorated. They are built this way as street front property is expensive and usually used for retail space. Storefront on ground floor and living quarters above, stretching back with no windows for middle rooms as they are built contiguously with no space in between. They look pretty strange when they stand alone.
Vietnam is also very green. Many city streets are lined with stately trees that manage to survive the smog (which isn’t very bad). Kelly green rice fields blanket the country, along with sugarcane, cassava, corn, sweet potatoes, rubber and a lot of fruit trees. You can savour a variety of succulent fruits, such as the splendidly coloured dragon fruit when it is in season around Mui Ne. There are several large national parks covered in trees, but otherwise there is not a lot of forested area.
You will find yourself on or beside water many times: strolling around one of Hanoi’s lovely lakes where people congregate to exercise, show off their dogs (a luxury item), and generally socialize; cruising among the striking limestone karsts of Halong Bay; motoring or being rowed along lazy rivers and through grottos in the Ninh Binh region and through the canal network of the Mekong Delta; swimming through a cave near Phong Nha; splashing in the waves of the South China Sea; and striding along the endless beach near Mui Ne on the southwest coast.
Ninh Binh is a region of towering limestone karsts on land that rival those in the waters of Halong Bay in beauty, although many are being destroyed to make cement. In Phong Nga National Park, although only the most adventurous will visit the recently discovered largest cave in the world (Son Doong), you can marvel at the first km of Paradise Cave, the longest dry cave in the world (31km), opened in 2011. Some pretty fantastic limestone stalagmites and stalactites viewed from a wooden walkway.
Hanoi is green and pretty: brightly painted homes, large golden government buildings, the colonial architecture of the French quarter and several peaceful lakes. The old quarter is a big market, with silver street, shoe street, eyeglass street, plastic basket street, etc. A local travel agent (such as Custom Vietnam Travel) can arrange day tours and make restaurant suggestions too. Share dinner with a smart young person from “Hanoi Kids”, a service that matches students that want to practice English with tourists that want a local companion, or perhaps the chocolate buffet at the famed Metropole Hotel. Industry is everywhere and you can tour nearby towns that specialize in one product: such as the rich furniture making Dong Ky and the rice paper making Tho Ha. After trying to make one, share a cup of tea and some juicy sweet mandarins and a traditional instrument jam session with the local representative who greets the tourists. There will likely be no other tourists around this tiny village. It is interesting to walk along the alleyways lined with woven bamboo racks covered in rice paper that crackle and pop as they dry, with a background of pigs oinking and roosters crowing. It is good to reserve a day to just wander around the city, risking solo road crossings, snapping photos incessantly.
Although known as a wonder of the world, the (expensive) cruises in Halong Bay are mainly about the standardized tourist activities. Don’t miss climbing the steps to the top of Titop Island to get a panoramic view of the majestic karsts sharing the bay with a multitude of tourist cruisers. Don’t be too excited to join the 6am tai chi session as it is pretty lame. Sometimes the cruises end early to avoid approaching typhoons. If you want to see the area and save money, consider doing a one day trip (staying near Halong if you don’t want to travel back and forth in one day). You won’t miss the sights, just the cruise experience.
Whizzing on the back of a motorbike through village lanes, country paths through rice fields and on the wide, well maintained, mostly empty roadways, while taking in the breathtaking scenery of Ninh Binh, creates an immense feeling of glee. The informative local guide, Toan Duong, drives slow enough to absorb the spectacular scenery and make frequent photo stops and fast enough to get a nice breeze and get places. This is the less visited “inland Halong Bay” with the same type of karsts, and so much more. Floating along waterways and through rocky passages under the karsts in a boat rowed by the feet of a woman wearing a conical hat is extremely peaceful at Van Long Reserve bird sanctuary. Be careful at Trang An to make sure you don’t share a boat with very noisy local youngsters. The view atop Mua caves, overlooking Tam Coc on one side and vast tracts of rice fields on the other, is stunning and well worth the climb (bring some water).
An 8 hour train ride to Dong Hoi brings you near to Phong Nha Farmstay, a little Western oasis in the rice fields of a small village run by an Aussie and his local wife. The rooms are very basic (especially for the price) but the common area is a pleasant hangout for intrepid travellers. The tour through the heavily forested National Park, through which the Ho Chi Min trail passed, is not to be missed. After seeing the indescribably fascinating Paradise Cave, the group paddles (in a rather circular fashion) to another cave which is explored by squishing barefoot through knee high mud, squeezing through a crevice passageway and then swimming back to the entrance in the dark. Even on a cool, rainy day or if you aren’t keen on the swimming idea, it may turn out to be the best part. Take a day to walk around the village, being greeted by everyone you pass and granting requests for photos from the schoolchildren. If a high river prevents you from reaching the “Pub with Cold Beer”, you can enjoy a tasty lunch and informative chat at the Pepper House Homestay. If the road is muddy, go barefoot and feel as carefree as a child.
The little Oasis Hotel across the river from the town of Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta, run by a Kiwi owner and his a lovely Vietnamese wife, is very welcoming. Wander through the riverside night market, try some juicy rambutan fruit (called chôm chôm = "messy hair" in Vietnamese), and enjoy a massage from a blind person. A day trip might involve motoring along the river, passing coconut processing factories and stopping at “factories” that make clay bricks and coconut candy, putting in a bumpy tuk tuk and walking through coconut plantations to a generous lunch at a village restaurant set up for the hordes of day tourists that come through this area (which you can avoid by getting an early start). You with then be poled (by another woman of course) in a canoe down the canals, past fishermen setting their traps, back to the main river and the boat home. The weather is hot and humid so lazy days are fitting, swinging in a hammock under a woven roof gazing at a full moon framed by palm trees.
November weather may not be particularly sunny, but you may not experience much rain, especially at the beach destination Mui Ne (which is supposed to be the driest part of the country). Rain or shine, plan to relax, read, sort some photos, get a manicure/pedicure/massage and gorge on fruit. Walk the strip of nonstop restaurants, clothing/souvenir shops, fruit stands, food stalls, massage salons and resorts through to "little Russia" filled with Russian tourists, or along the long sandy beach (as long as the tide is out).
Bui Vien St. in Saigon is unbelievably lively at night: full of Vietnamese and foreigners sitting on the sidewalks and in alleyways, usually on plastic chairs, and jammed into small spaces. Street food sellers, some stationary and some with push carts, prepare seafood, shell fish and mollusks, noodle soup with various types of meat, cut fruit, smoothies, sweet buns, nuts, etc. Older or ugly foreign men chat with girls in short skirts and dangerously high heels sitting outside happy hour girlie bars. One might see limping foreigners (likely from motorbike accidents), hippy backpackers, some pretty rough looking characters, and always a plethora of motorbikes vying for space. It is hard to imagine if you haven't been to Asia. Explore a local neighbourhood or busy local market with a “Saigon Hotpot” (another student exchange), or catch up on your shopping for gifts to bring home and a few other things (custom made bikini, suitcase, scarves, leather goods, and coffee/tea) from the shops inside or outside Ben Thuan market and Saigon Square. Make sure you bargain!
Wherever you go, Vietnam is very welcoming to visitors and easy to tour.