Looking back on Vietnam, I am amazed at just how much we were able to see and do in such a short time. We started by stomping around Hanoi’s time-worn roads, visiting coffee shops and wartime palaces before moving on to the turquoise waters of Ha Long Bay and the thick jungle and rolling hills of Cat Ba island.
Next our journey took us south along the coast before we arrived in Hue. This city is placed on the Perfume River and was just south of the DMZ in the war. The Citadel there was damaged badly by bombing runs but recent renovations allowed us to enjoy the few buildings remaining.
We stayed in the cheekily named Google Hotel (lots of Asian hotels and restaurants use names like Facebook Grill, or Myspace Tower) where I was treated to free beers all night as long as I bought a meal. Bargain! It was here that an odd waiter took to serenading us every breakfast time, with a rendition of ‘The wind beneath my wings’. After a few days of this I think he sensed our bemusement, and moved onto some fresh tourists.
We pressed on to Hoi An – a beautiful town poised on the mouth of a river. The old buildings and wooden vessels had a definite charm, and we enjoyed several days of walking the narrow roads and exploring the many small shops offering a variety of local arts and crafts. The food and drink here was a notch above the rest, and we met up with Nicole’s sister Lynne and her boyfriend Andy for a change of pace and relaxation.
Hoi An is very much a tourist town, the locals dress in traditional wear, and some artsy businesses have started up. One particular favourite was a shop that sold hundreds of scale models of wooden ships, all built to exacting standards. We spotted the HMS Victory and regaled the shop attendant with news that we used to live next to the real life ship.
As we were walking back to our hotel, a voice called out my name. I looked over and a classmate that I used to sit next to during Biology lessons during senior school was sat having a few beers outside of his hotel. Amazed at the remote chance of this, we stopped and spoke for a while.
Hoi An is famous for its tailors and many people come here to have suits made. For as little as $100 you can get a tailored suit and quality increases up to about $300. Andy had planned ahead specifically for this, and made a bee-line for a tailor of notable repute.
This town is on the World Heritage list, and the locals definitely make the most of this, with prices set much higher than elsewhere in Vietnam. Even so, I would happily return some day to soak up the atmosphere once more.
After bidding farewell to Lynne and Andy, we took the train south to Nha Trang. This beach paradise has been somewhat let down by rapid development in the town. Massive high-rise hotels tower over the long beach, and the sound of hammers and drills fill the air, sometimes drowning out the crash of waves. Whilst the beach was pleasant, I wouldn’t go back.
From Nha Trang we took a sleeper train down to Saigon. After reunification the name was officially changed to Ho Chi Minh City but the people in the south still call it Saigon.
Saigon was the polar opposite of Hanoi. A modern city; it was also very busy. Wide avenues replaced narrow streets and luxury shops lit up the city at night. Nicole and I took the opportunity to visit the Saigon Saigon Bar at the top of the Hotel Caravelle for a drink one evening, and spent an hour looking out over the city. This bar was where all the war correspondents used to drink; far enough from the bombing targets but close enough to see the action across the river.
We also looked around the Reunification Palace, which used to be the seat of power in the south, before the north stormed the grounds with tanks, an event that marked the handing over of power at the time. Under the palace lay the bunker and command centre. This made for an interesting sight, and meant we had seen both of the authoritative desks in the country during the war.
Before leaving Saigon we happened across our new American friends, Eric and Diana, sat at one of the little cafes on the side of the road. These cafes operate out of people’s front rooms, a patch of lino covers the pavement and hosts a load of small red stools or cushions. We spent the evening drinking thirty pence beers.
Overall Vietnam was probably my favourite country so far. The people are both friendly and accommodating, but also take no nonsense. They have a fierce independence and the country is moving quickly into the modern world. It’s not as developed as Thailand, but has that great mix of old and new. Despite the frantic nature that inhabits most of Asia, I still found plenty of time to chill out and enjoy the atmosphere in the many excellent coffee shops. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.