Arriving into Ho Chi Minh City from the airport is not for the faint hearted! You really feel that you’ve been thrown in at the deep end with the sea of mopeds heading down the street (7.43 million at last count!) and the sheer noise of the place. We arrived at the hotel as part of our Luxury Bespoke Tour and settled in for the night as we had big plans for the day after.
We started off the following day, meeting our tour guide Dinh who took us out in his cyclo (probably the best way to describe it is a bicycle with a human sized basket on the front) and visited all the must-see sights in Ho Chi Minh City; the General Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral, both classic examples of colonial architecture. We then headed off to the impressive looking Reunification Palace where the official South Vietnamese surrender was signed in 1975. Last but not least the War Remnants Museum, which houses all the old military equipment from the Vietnam War. It also gives you a different slant on the story of the war too from their own (often differing from ours!) perspective.
The Mekong Delta was next on the list, two and a half hours drive from the city. It’s one of those must see places and the ‘rice-bowl’ of Vietnam. The colourful markets, the friendly locals and also where certain species of animals have been rediscovered long after they thought were extinct. In a few years’ time the whole region will be fundamentally altered due to several damming projects in the pipeline. Go see this biological treasure trove whilst it’s still there.
After a drive back to Ho Chi Minh City, we caught the short flight to Danang which is the closest airport to Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of my favourite spots in the whole country. It’s recognised as an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port, with influences of all the nations that have made their mark on this phenomenal country. Nightlife and restaurants are around every corner and it has a real buzz about it.
The drive north of Hoi An is spectacular. It’s one of the highlights of Vietnam. It’s not called ‘Ocean Cloud Pass’ for nothing. Approximately 120kms down the road it descends across the Perfume River into Hue. Hue was the national Capital between 1802 and 1945 and contains many important historical buildings, especially in the Imperial City. The food in Hue is said to be some of the best in Vietnam, but watch out, it can be quite spicy!
We boarded our overnight train at Hue Station after a couple of days in the ‘Imperial Capital’. Whilst the carriages aren’t what we would describe as luxury, they are adequately comfortable and an ideal way to cover the nearly 800kms to the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi.
Hanoi is a lot less frenetic than Ho Chi Minh City and home to some fantastic museums, such as the Fine Arts Museum and the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. Also don’t miss the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake. If you’re an early bird you’ll catch some of the local residents practicing traditional T’ai Chi on the shore.
On the coast about three hours east is probably Vietnam’s most visited attractions. Halong Bay, which is often listed as one of the natural wonders of the world and is another of Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various shapes and sizes. The vistas are simply stunning and the Halong Violet boat is the ultimate in luxury, with only 6 individually themed cabins decked out in 1930’s style and floor to ceiling windows to make the most of the views.
After 2 nights on the Bay it was time to head back to Hanoi and our flight home. We found this way of travelling ideal as although we personally stuck pretty much to the suggested itinerary, the bespoke nature of the tour meant that if we wanted to add/take out bits before booking then we could make the trip truly our own.
A wonderful country that is undergoing immense change whilst it embraces a more capitalist future. Go before it changes too much!