Vietnam, the land of vibrant natural wonders, comes alive for the travelling soul
Happy, high above the clouds at 30,000 feet, I was filled with a sense of exhilaration when the captain announced the descent to my destination, Vietnam. The clouds parted, and I got my first glimpse of Hanoi, the capital city and tourist hotspot, which embodies a cultural fusion between the rich Eastern heritage and the modern Western lifestyle. Before sightseeing, I withdrew some local currency and felt like an instant millionaire as the Dong’s lowest denomination is in thousands. Crossing the road in heavy traffic was quite challenging. It wasn’t until evening when I met Irma, a fellow traveller from Holland that I learnt to cross the road like a local.
The trick is to keep walking confidently and the two wheelers either stop or maneuver skillfully around you. While walking around the city centre, we sampled some delicious coconut coffee, Hanoi’s specialty, at Cong Capphe, outside St. Joseph Cathedral. I couldn’t help but try some of the delicious street food—from sweet garlic bread to local sweets. A walk along the beautifully lit Hoan Kiem Lake, with its iconic Huc Bridge and turtle tower, was the highlight of the evening. On my hotel receptionist’s recommendation, we went to Pho Ly Quoc Su, known for its beef pho, for dinner. Pho is the Vietnamese national dish and there are innumerable road side stalls with people seated on tiny stools, relishing this tasty noodle soup with various meats.
The Halong Bay cruise, a ‘must do’ on everyone’s Vietnam itinerary, was absolutely amazing. I chose one of the better-known cruise operators—Wati Travel and decided to go on the day cruise. The bay view of the hundreds of limestone islets, topped with lush vegetation, jutting out in the distance was truly breathtaking! As we cruised on the emerald green waters, we were served an excellent seafood buffet followed by freshly cut tropical fruits. The full day tour also included a visit to Paradise Cave which was beautiful, its cathedral-like cavern full of stalagmites and glittering stalactites of different sizes. Both these incredible sites, along with our jovial guide made for a memorable tour.
The ancient port town of Hoi An, located in Central Vietnam, was my favourite spot and I would love to visit again. Its well-preserved centuries old architecture, charming lantern lit streets of the Old Town and busy canals, all lend it an old-world charm. Recommended by a local, I went to Com Ga and tried their signature cao lau—a tasty chicken and rice dish. Later that evening, I enjoyed a traditional folk dance show and a water puppet performance.
The next day, I rented a bicycle for $1.50 to explore the town. I first navigated my way to Kim Bong carpentry village, following the meandering road through picturesque paddy fields. Later, I stopped for lunch at the charming Tra Que Herb village. The food at their Garden restaurant was to die for. I had fresh spring rolls along with their specialty, Tra Que salad, which is prepared using fresh herbs and sweet-scented vegetables grown at the garden. I wound down the day on the sands of the An Bang beach with a glass of wine, watching the setting sun disappear into the sea. It was a fitting end to my time in Hoi An.
My next stop was the former royal capital city of Hue. While I wasn’t planning on going there initially, I was persuaded after reading great reviews about the train journey from Hoi An to Hue. While winding across rugged cliffs, I took in the amazing views of the South China Sea coastline. In Hue, the royal tombs of the Nguyen dynasty emperors are exquisite. The second emperor, Minh Mang is known for having over 500 wives and 146 children. Influenced by Indian, French and Buddhist architecture, the 12th emperor’s tomb was spectacular.
The last stop on my journey through the country was Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s biggest city, still fondly referred to as Saigon. It is a dynamic urban centre with a vibrant mix of old colonial architecture and modern skyscrapers. My first stop was the famous Cu Chi Tunnels; our tour guide carried a toy chicken and asked us to follow it in order to not get lost. I bent down to make my way through the dark, narrow tunnel for around 50 meters till I started to feel claustrophobic. It was hard to imagine how people lived in these intricate network of underground tunnels, housing living areas, weapon factories and a hospital as well! I got a chance to fire up a war time AK 47 rifle at the shooting range for $50; it felt exhilarating.
The nightlife in Saigon is fantastic. A friend and I went to the Heli bar on the 51st floor of Bitexco Financial Tower. At 100.000 Dong each, the drinks were well-worth the unforgettable 360 degree sweeping city views; the live French jazz band added to the charm. The Racha Room and Glow Club in District One had a great vibe. A night on the town with friends, old and new, was the best way to bid ‘Tam Biet’ (goodbye) to a beautiful, vibrant country that has so much to offer.
What to know
Permits: Indian passport holders can get their visa on arriving in Vietnam
Currency: Vietnamese Dong (VND), 1VND = Rs 0.00028
Best time to visit: February to April (Spring) and August to October (Autumn)
Keep an eye out on: Pho, the national dish
Saachi Dhillon is a part-time Marketer and a full-time traveller. More of her travel stories can be found in www.backpackingindianchica.blogspot.in