Vietnam is a great destination. I travelled the country from north to south about two years ago with one of my sisters. It’s challenging to know the best time to go for when the weather is ideal in the north it’s not so great in the south and vice versa. So we just decided to go during the Canadian winter when most parts of the world seem warmer than home.
We stopped for a few days in Hong Kong and expected it would be clean and orderly like Singapore, a place I’d visited many years ago, and indeed it was.
Hong Kong is shiny with signs everywhere that tell you not to do bad things.
Big, expensive, sleek stores are everywhere. I can’t imagine there are enough rich people to keep them in business but there obviously are. There are wide walkways crossing the city above the streets and an outdoor elevator (with a roof) to take you up the steep hillside. The metro and bus systems are incredibly efficient and we travelled around the island just to test them out! There are great restaurants and hotels, of course. For me, Hong Kong is a bit soulless and I was rather relieved to come upon Green Peace activists protesting the reclaiming of land from the sea (I joined Green Peace shortly after that). Hong Kong is fine for a short, comfortable stay. I bought nothing, despite its reputation as a great place to shop.
Hanoi is not shiny like Hong Kong and perhaps can best be described as gritty. I really liked the place. The often repeated slogan is that ‘Vietnam is a country, not a war’. After visiting the museums and art galleries of this city, I indeed started to think of the Viet Cong as fathers and husbands as well as soldiers.
Not a lot seems to have changed since the war ended, although there is hope that the re-construction period, with foreign industry and private enterprise, will bring some prosperity. The people appear to be relatively unrestricted, at least in comparison to communist Cuba where citizens are significantly restricted. And unlike many Latin American destinations, there were no soldiers with guns staring down at us in banks; there were no checkpoints along the routes, at least where we travelled.
Vietnam is one of the poorest countries in the world with a per capita annual income of about US $500. You can travel very inexpensively but unlike in India or many countries in Latin America, there seems to be a shortage of comfortable, locally-owned, inexpensive hotels. We did not see many foreign tourists.
Hanoi is polluted, motor bikes are everywhere and it is almost impossible to cross the street unless you hang onto a local. When I tried to cross by myself I would always have a ‘Canadian moment,’ pausing in horror in the middle of the road, unsure what to do. What is so unnerving is that the motorbike drivers (and there seem to be millions of them) only look straight ahead. They NEVER turn their heads to see who is on either side of them. I read somewhere that this typifies the Vietnamese people, that they drive like they work, looking only ahead and stopping for nothing.
I was also told that 95 percent of deaths in this country are due to motorbike accidents, and given their poor health care you might understand why crossing the street is so scary. Drivers must now wear helmets so public health is making some inroads and perhaps things will improve.
We visited pagodas, temples and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, all very interesting. The French influence is apparent in the Old Quarter and there are many shops selling the best croissants I have ever eaten. Art seems to be a growth industry and we spent hours exploring the back alleys, visiting tiny shops filled with antiques, paintings and photographs. Several adorn my home in Canada today.
Sapa is a wonderful place, in the scenic mountains close to the Chinese border and inhabited by colourful hill tribes. It was cold when we went there but many locals wore only sandals on their feet and seemed quite poor. Wherever we went we were surrounded by friendly groups of women selling wares and willing to have their photo taken for a price.
To get to Sapa, we took an overnight train to Lao Cai from Hanoi in a private car with sleeper that the Victoria Sapa Resort operates. The regular train cars certainly seemed to be quite acceptable.
A bus took us from Lao Cai to Sapa and we stayed at the Victoria Resort, which is rather lovely (and luxurious). The Sapa area is spectacular for hiking and exploring. Think about spending at least two full days there.
The train from Lao Cai arrives in Hanoi at 5:15 in the morning so we spent a few hours in the lobby of the Hilton hotel until it was time to travel to Halong Bay on the coast. Shuttle buses can take you there or you can hire a car and driver. The ride is interesting, past rice fields and villages built on top of coal mines, with horrific pollution.
Halong Bay is where the ‘dragon descends into the sea’. It is also a natural wonder of Vietnam and a UNESCO Heritage site. Over 3,000 limestone islands jut dramatically out of the water and when your ship sails around them it seems like you’re travelling around icebergs. It’s a great adventure, rather other-worldly, with junks, homemade row boats, floating villages and underground caves. We had a cabin on the paddle-steamer Emeraude, which was built to replicate a ship from the French Indochina era. I usually don’t travel in this class but just enjoyed it while it lasted.
Flight to south Vietnam
By Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2010