Blazing a new Ho Chi Minh Trail
Written by Gemma Price Photography by Peter Stuckings
From the central and northern highlands, home to colorful ethnic minorities, to UNESCO-listed former feudal capitals and ancient port towns, Vietnam has a wealth of unique destinations and experiences that you won’t find anywhere else.
In 1010, Vietnam’s Emperor Ly Thai To founded his capital Thang Long, ‘Dragon Ascending’, on the banks of the Red River. Exactly one millennium later, the centre of the ancient Thang Long citadel has been recognised as a World Heritage Site, while the city on the same site today remains Vietnam’s political and cultural centre, and one of Asia’s most captivating cities. As Hanoi celebrates its 1,000-year anniversary, vestiges that attest to its rich and varied history can be found everywhere: modern Hanoi’s wealth of fine dining restaurants, upscale bars, contemporary art galleries, and eclectic designer boutiques today are set within a chameleonic cityscape of ancient temples, Chinese merchant townhouses, rambling French-colonial mansions, and landscaped lakes steeped in legend.
Some key sights include Van Mieu, or Temple of Literature, founded in 1070 as a Confucian Temple and which became the city’s first university; Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, where Uncle Ho’s embalmed body lies in state; and the iconic Buddhist One Pillar Pagoda. But one of the best ways to feel the spirit of Hanoi is to get lost in the city’s Old Quarter. The quaint lanes and narrow, tube-style shops of its ‘36 streets’ are one of Hanoi’s big draws, and since the first farmers and craftsmen brought their wares from their home villages to sell there 600 years ago, the lanes have evolved into a kaleidoscopic pageant of temples, meeting halls, and cluttered retail space. Street signs reveal what was traditionally sold along each thoroughfare: Hang Gai, or ‘silk goods’ street, was stacked to the rafters with multi-coloured rolls of fabric; traders along the aromatic Lan Ong street, named for an 18th-century physician, purveyed every kind of herb and spice. Although the modern world has encroached on the old quarter’s labyrinthine streets, many of the traditional trades linger.
Three hours east of Hanoi, UNESCO World Heritage Site Halong Bay is the emerald jewel in Vietnam’s crown, a spectacular seascape of precipitous limestone karsts with an arresting aura of mystery and magic. Sightseeing cruises around the Halong Bay archipelago were being operated by local shipping companies as far back as the turn of the 19th century, and today many of the tours have also adopted a retro, historic feel. Orange sails of Chinese junks cast against rugged limestone karsts evoke the nostalgia of former trading frontiers, and the design and ambience of upscale French paddle steamer Emeraude, from its fin de si?cle architecture to its brass nautical fittings, planked decking, and high-backed wicker chairs, convivially transports passengers back to the colonial elegance of yesteryear. Cruise itineraries vary, but most will include a trip to Sung Sot Caves (Cave of Surprises), with its spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations, an option to swim or kayak at the boat’s anchorage spot, and exploratory excursions by tender through rocky tunnels to deserted hidden beaches, completely enclosed by sheer cliff walls.
Around ten hours’ drive south, the UNESCO-inscribed cities of Hué and Hoi An are not just central to Vietnam’s landscape, they lie at the very heart of the country’s cultural heritage and national identity. Home to the Nguyen Emperors who ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1945, Hué became a key cultural centre focused on luxury and learning, attracting the country’s best craftspeople, entertainers, and artists, as well as leading scholars and monks. The ancient rambling citadel is the city’s main drawcard, but after exploring the crumbling gates and lantern-lit walkways of its ancient streets, a cruise down the Perfume River with stop-offs to explore the valley’s wealth of unique heritage sites on foot is a must. Lotus bloom-filled ponds encircle the ancient stone tombs of Nguyen kings; monks lead the call to prayer with locally-cast bronze bells at crumbling ochre pagodas; and local people invite you to relax in the serene verdant surroundings of their garden houses, formerly home to the feudal court mandarins.
Three hours south of Hué, Hoi An was established as an important trading point in the 16th and 17th centuries; although today the ancient town is probably more famous among travellers for its cheap tailoring than unique history. But once you’ve been measured up for that sharp bespoke suit or red carpet-inspired creation, there are plenty of cultural and scenic gems to explore between fittings. Every night the quaint cobbled streets come alive with light and colour as lanterns are lit to help hungry locals and visitors find their way to their choice of charming eateries and bars set within European, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese-built structures. Another sensory way to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of Hoi An is by signing up for a cookery course. While most of the restaurants offer ad hoc lessons in their kitchens, Red Bridge Cooking School’s half-day course is one of the best, and includes a trip to the local market to buy ingredients, a half-hour river cruise, recipe notes and – of course – a hearty lunch.
Another ten hours’ drive south is Nha Trang, a vibrant central coast town that found fame in the global spotlight when it hosted the Miss Universe final in 2008 (to be repeated in 2011), but which has been one of Vietnam’s most popular destinations since the French designated it as a holiday spot over a century ago. The region’s low annual rainfall and 300 days of sunshine give visitors plenty of opportunities to make the most of the 507km2 bay, voted among the world’s most spectacular beaches. Nha Trang has a strong maritime tradition, and the Hon Mun Marine Park, established in 2001, is Vietnam’s best-known dive destination. But Nha Trang is not just sun, sea, and sand – it’s also home to a wealth of ancient cultural icons and historical museums, such as the Po Nagar Towers, an 8th century Cham temple complex overlooking the bay and harbour below, and the quirky yet well-organised Alexandre Yersin Museum, which pays tribute to the colonial doctor, scientist, and explorer responsible for bringing the first enterprise of virology research and experiment to Vietnam in 1891.
Five hours south of Nha Trang, Mui Ne is another popular beach destination, particularly among expats and locals living 200km away in Ho Chi Minh City. As the province receives the lowest rainfall in the country, a few days is all you need to top up your tan, but consistent onshore winds mean Mui Ne is the best place in Southeast Asia to learn kiteboarding and windsurfing; indeed, many aquatic thrill-seekers linger much longer. Other popular pursuits include swimming, snorkelling, and kayaking, but the second biggest attraction after the beach itself is the white sand dunes, or Bao Trang (White Lake), which lie inland 65km northeast of provincial capital Phan Thiet. Sunrise or sunset is the best time to visit, and jeep tours can be booked from any of the new resorts and guesthouses that flank the beach.
And after a relaxing seaside stop, it’s time to head back to the big smoke. Whereas Hanoi is the country’s more traditional and historic seat of government, its southern sister Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s commercial hub, a dynamic cityscape continually growing and evolving with an energy and spirit unlike anywhere else in Asia. Although the War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace, People’s Committee, and Notre Dame-like cathedral are must-sees for first timers to the city, most visitors are more captivated by hectic HCMC’s contemporary attractions than its French colonial and wartime history. Downtown District 1’s wide leafy French-colonial boulevards and apartments are now home to sleek fashion boutiques, upscale bars and clubs, and elegant contemporary restaurants serving up delectable global cuisine. The powerful wave of creative self-expression that has swept over the urban fabric is visible everywhere, from fashion to art design, as a new generation of Vietnamese – both locals and those born overseas following the 1970s Vietnam War – turn away from tradition and convention to explore their own sense of style. Ho Chi Minh City is the perfect final stop on a tour of the country’s unique landscapes, culture, and history, epitomising Vietnam’s here and now, as well as its potential for the future.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam, the Delta is easily accessible from HCMC. Its floating markets, narrow canals, ceramics factories, and fruit and flower plantations are best explored by boat and bicycle.
An overnight train trip from Hanoi, Sapa’s lush green hills and valleys are home to many of the country’s colourful ethnic minority communities, such as the Red Dao and Black H’Mong, as well as Southeast Asia’s highest peak, Mount Fansipan.
Established by Vietnam’s former French colons, this temperate highland was the home of the colonial administration for six months of the year, and today is renowned for its gorgeous colonial architecture, including opulent Sofitel Dalat Palace and Emperor Bao Dai’s summer palace.
Although there’s little to see, many Vietnam veterans make the pilgrimage here every year to revisit their memories of the war, when this area – often nominally referred to as the 17th parallel – was the battleground demarcation separating North and South Vietnam.