Vietnam. It has a lot going on. There are all kinds of places to go, things to see and new friends to be made in this long coastal country. Like Thailand, this was home to me for a few years, in the mid-90s. Back then Westerners were very rare and many called me “Russian”. Now it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Southeast Asia, and for good reason! Here are some thoughts on a few of my favorite places, which I jotted down when visiting the country again in early 2017.
Hanoi. If you had to pick one capital in Southeast Asia to visit, this is it. Are cities becoming bigger? Yes. But how they grow, and what they retain, makes all the difference. Like the rest of Vietnam, Asia … planet Earth, urban areas are on the increase. You don’t want to see just cities when vacationing but some are a must. Motorcycles replace bikes, satellite TV replaces government-controlled channels, and mobile phones are now in the hands of all. Take that for what it is. But specifically, for Hanoi, it still retains a charm all its own. French colonial buildings are preserved instead of destroyed. There are still wide avenues, the Opera House and the maze-like Old Quarter. Visitors are coming here because they want to see and feel that old world charm. Hanoi is still Hanoi! Don’t miss it.
Hué. As my driver exits the airport and turns north onto the main road towards Hué, I am once again immersed in typical Vietnamese traffic – a clutter of motorbikes and cars weaving in all directions. I call it organized chaos. It looks strange to the Western eye, but it works.
A row of shops turns into flooded rice paddies. Nothing unusual until you catch sight of small, hollow, concrete structures from an era long ago: bunkers. Dotting the fields, these few remaining military outposts are a reminder of something horrible that happened generations ago. A war that intertwined the history of a Western power and a fledgling Southeast Asian country grasping for independence. The former DMZ and past US military presence in nearby Danang is the reason for the old pillboxes. The openings look like sunken eyes and the concrete is like the gray skin of a sick old man. Most of these structures are gone – torn down by hand and hammer in order to access the rebar in the days when Vietnam was trying to rebuild with limited resources. And then … flooded rice paddies turn to a row of shops. My car moves forward in time while I head for the former Imperial city of Hué.
Hué is a city, but it doesn’t have that typical urban feel. It’s much more spread out and open. It has wide avenues and low-rise buildings that don’t eclipse the sun. It runs along both sides of the Perfume River, giving it a more relaxed feel. Depending on the point of your historical timeline, Hué was the seat of Nguyen Dynasty emperors or remembered as one of the most infamous battles during the 1968 Tet Offensive. For my generation (and its popular culture), Full Metal Jacket comes to mind. Lying in bed at my riverside resort at night I can hear the local longboats plying the river, powered by low horsepower engines that produce a put put-like noise – not so different from the sound of choppers going to and from DMZ camps and firefights … but allow me to focus on Hué’s rich history …
The Citadel, the Forbidden Purple City, Thien Mu Pagoda and the Royal Tombs are all sites that makes Hué worthy of a couple of days. If coming from a bigger city (like Ho Chi Minh City) then time slows down as well. You can bicycle or go by boat to most places. It’s well known for Buddhism, vegetarianism and its “royal” cuisine. And Ga Hué (station) is one of the first major stops on the Reunification Express coming from Hanoi.
Hoi An. In its own way it feels like one of those mystical places that you hear about by word of mouth. On a regular map it’s just a dot below Danang but it has a big heart. Formerly known as Fai Fo it was first part of the Champa Empire, which predates the Vietnamese. But it wasn’t until its discovery by the Portuguese that this village turned into a graceful example of a world class trading town with influences from all corners of the Earth – Chinese, Dutch, Japanese, along with Indian and a bit of French to add to the mix. All would leave their mark on tiny Fai Fo. No wonder it has UNESCO World Heritage status!
One can easily walk the ancient town of Hoi An within an hour. Its rich, colonial architecture, thriving riverside markets, temples and Japanese covered bridge are intact and evidence of days gone by. Sometimes it seems that the only giveaway to the present era are motorbikes and the travelers passing through. One can walk the maze-like streets, cruise along the river, bike through the open countryside and swim at the nearby beach. There’s plenty for the “shopper” to do too since Hoi An is famous for textiles.
The daylight hours offer many activities and an overview of Hoi An’s history. At night, the ancient, narrow (pedestrian only) streets come alive with thousands of colorful lanterns overhead, glowing candles floating on the river (as an offering), music drifting out of cafes, vendors selling their wares on every corner, the man on his bicycle loaded down with huge sacks of exotic fruit shouting out his produce to the chefs in the back of each restaurant, and the thrill from visitors which is palpable in the air.
Probably the biggest delight is the cuisine! All those seafaring empires that made their impression on this town also put an influence on Hoi An’s various dishes. This makes the food slightly different from typical Vietnamese and it stands out in a big way. The town offers a great selection of restaurants, and a world class cooking school where visitors can sign up for a half day class, honing the culinary art of Hoi An. For many, this is one of the most popular and satisfying activities to do in Vietnam. You’ll walk away inspired.
So, for great memories, circle that dot on the map just below Danang.