Vietnam is an oft-discussed topic on the travel blogosphere. Some people hate it because of its intensity and the fact that you can get ripped off at other turn, while others are cautious fans. I think I might be unique in the blogosphere however because I think it’s one of my favorite countries I’ve visited. True, Vietnam is a challenging place to travel, especially compared to nearby Thailand. There are people who want to defraud you, and it doesn’t have the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat like Cambodia does, or the development and Full Moon parties of Thailand. But I think that what Vietnam has to give a traveler outshines any of the other countries in the region and many around the world. What makes Vietnam special, you may ask? Well…
Vietnam is easy to travel: Vietnam is a skinny country. It hugs the coast, fanning out only in the north, where you can visit the minority hill tribes, or the south, where you can explore the Mekong Delta. Otherwise, most of Vietnam is in a straight line. Furthermore, this straight line is very easy to navigate. Vietnam has a bus system that is very straightforward to use for the average tourist. Many English speaking travel agencies will sell you bus tickets, which can be individual, or hop-on, hop-off, allowing a backpacker to take a bus down the coast, stopping for a few days at different hot spots. Places that are attractive to backpackers are in a straight line, and usually not more than an overnight bus ride apart. The 30-hour bus ride found elsewhere in Southeast Asia is not a problem in Vietnam.
Vietnam is cheap cheap cheap. I guess this applies to Southeast Asia as a whole, but its certainly a perk. A $1 meal on the street and a $10 nice room in a guest house is a great deal, and accomodations can be even less if you’re not fussy about where you stay. Public transportation is cheap, and many sights are free to enter. Zipping around a city on a motorbike taxi is pretty cheap too, just make sure you hold on tight. If you’re looking to travel on a budget, Vietnam is the place to do it.
Vietnam has stunning natural beauty: Ha Long Bay’s karsts were a major draw for me. I was so excited to cruise among the thousands of mountains, even swimming in a cove at one of them. Ha Long Bay is a world treasure, with ample reason. Ha Long Bay isn’t the only beautiful place in natural Vietnam. Rice paddies, palm trees, and white sand
Vietnam has fantastic food: Should I tell you about the pho? Heaping bowls of broth and meat and noodles, served from a stand on the street, eaten while sitting on plastic stools. Bun cha is reason enough to go to Hanoi, with noodles, crab spring rolls, pork patties and fresh greens on top. The only place to eat proper Cao Lau, made with water from the local wells, is in the market in Hoi An, while you can eat the French-inspired bahn mi sandwich, with Vietnamese flavors and meat inside a crispy baguette just about anywhere. Gelatenous rice crisps in Hue were a stand out, as were fried crepes filled with shrimp and bean sprouts eaten with greens. To wash it all down, have some local beer (Saigon is a favorite) or rich Vietnamse coffee with condensed milk. Thai food is great, no doubt, but Vietnamese takes the cake.
Vietnam is full of history, both ancient and modern: Hue is home to palaces and tombs from old Emperors, while Hoi An remains a perfect jewel of a trading town, and the influence of the Chinese traders still resonates in its architecture. As an American, however, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a more recent and depressing history. The horrific Vietnam War left scars on America but that does not compare at all to the scars it left on Vietnam. While people are very open to Americans, I still was able to feel the intense pain and nationalism at the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison where POWs (including John McCain) were held, as well as the museum about the war in Saigon.
Vietnam is the place for both an adventure and just hanging at the beach
I’ll finish this post with two stories:
One morning in Hue, I began my day with hot noodle soup (chicken broth, thicker noodles, a few mysterious meatballs floating in it, a hardboiled miniature egg, and VERY spicy) at a street cafe, and a coffee at a cart with a few Vietnamese people who wanted to practice their English. I decided to rent a boat to explore the Perfume River and the temples nearby. Chartering the entire boat for a day cost about $20. We cruised up the river, which became increasingly beautiful as we got out of town and approached the mountains and rural areas. My first stop was a beautiful (and large) Buddhist pagoda. In addition to the tall towers at each end, there were Buddhist shrines hidden in pine forests, each with a novice monk ring a vibrating bell that would echo across the serene gardens. Then it was back on the boat. We made our way downriver and I disembarked at a woodsy area. A steep climb up some rocks led to a little hut where motorbike drivers congregated. I had to hire one to take me to the Minh Ming tomb, which was 8 km inland. This is where the real adventure began. On the back of this motorbike, I zipped over bumpy roads, through woods, passed rural houses with Buddhist shrines burning incense out front, around rice paddies and the occasional cemetery. The tomb was even more beautiful than I expected. Small temples were clustered around a lake full of lily pads ringed with pine trees and the occasional palm. Not another Westerner in site. A perfect day in Vietnam, one huge adventure.
The next day I moved on to Hoi An. Hoi An is a beautiful trading port and is known to be the place to get custom clothes made. After exploring the markets, historical sites, and getting a dress custom made for me (it’s beautiful and cost only $30—I still wear it to parties as well as to work with a cardigan), I hit the beach. It was long, curving around a magnificent cove, with white sands and palm trees swaying overhead. I rented a lounge chair on the beach from a restaurant and was able to order beer and spring rolls to eat and drink when I wanted. The water, meanwhile, was perfectly clear and very warm, warmer than the Caribbean or Mediterranean. Another perfect Vietnam day, this one full of relaxation.
Vietnam is perhaps the best place I’ve been. Please go, and I’d love to hear your stories if you’ve been.