Vietnam still seems to be a divided country between north and south. Whenever I asked someone in the north if they had ever visited the south the answer was always “no” and in the south, when asked if they had travelled north, the response was “no because it’s dangerous”. However, both north and south have much to offer the foreign tourist.
South Vietnam is an outstanding destination because it has wonderful attractions, interesting culture, outstanding beaches, and places where travellers can relax and stay awhile. And it is all quite affordable.
English is not widely spoken but the US dollar is frequently quoted when discussing costs and locals often communicate with tourists by pointing to English phrases. In spite of the recent history I always felt comfortable there.
Hoi An is real traveller’s haven, a delightful place with beautiful beaches, fabulous markets, friendly people, and a laid back atmosphere. We flew from Hanoi to Da Nang on Vietnam Airlines and caught a shuttle bus for the 25 km ride to Hoi An. You may have seen horrific images of the last American helicopters taking off from Da Nang at the end of the war with desperate South Vietnamese people hanging onto the platoons, only to fall into the South China Sea. Rather surreal but times have changed.
Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site and in fact was relatively untouched by the war. The Old Town is just a pleasant place to wander around. If you are a shopper, you will go crazy here and many locals speak some English. We stayed at a hotel on the Cua Dai beach, which is about 5 km from the town.
We caught a flight from a strip-mall-like airport with a disgusting bathroom-with-no-toilet-paper in Da Nang on a plane where if you leaned back you found yourself in the lap of the passenger behind you, and landed in another strip-mall-like airport with a disgusting bathroom-with-no-toilet-paper near Nha Trang, which is said to be one of the touristy spots in the country. The drive from the airport was rather surprising for there was much rubbish scattered about and little evidence of progress.
I had booked our hotel well in advance and didn’t realize that it was quite luxurious and on an island. We obviously enjoyed the place for we spent only one day in Nha Trang itself. Nha Trang is much larger than Hoi An and doesn’t have the same laid-back charm but is considered a major tourist destination.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
When we arrived in Vietnam’s largest city, formerly called Saigon but now known as Ho Chi Minh City, it was all decked out for Tet, the lunar New Year, which is the most important festival for Vietnamese people. While much of Vietnam seems impoverished, Ho Chi Minh City struts a little, with its modern high-rises and department stores. There are also colonial buildings and wide avenues built by the French. While it is called a city on the move, it is also one in transition for traditions of the past are very apparent.
The War Remnants Museum is a must-see, for it is a look at the Vietnam War from a Vietcong perspective. So you see photos of the first GIs landing in Da Nang in 1965, a mother fleeing American bombs by crossing a deep, fast-flowing river while holding on to her young children, GIs pointing their guns at villagers, Son My massacre, child victims of Agent Orange, forests destroyed by toxic chemicals, GIs dragging a villager out of an underground shelter, and so on. There is much else to see in this city, such as the Fine Arts Museum and the many small shops and galleries that crowd the back streets.
I first visited Southeast Asia more than 30 years ago and was charmed by the people and the landscape. Travelling Vietnam from north to south is a remarkable journey with much to see and do. We opted to travel down the coast by plane but certainly met many who did it by train so if you have the time you may choose to do that at least for part of the route. Even at that, we did not have time to go south of Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta, so I will return and finish the journey (and head over to Cambodia at the same time).
By Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2010