Vietnam: An-extraordinary-route

6 February, 2018

Planes, trains or automobiles? If you’re traveling in Vietnam you really don’t have to choose – you can ride them all, and then some, as you journey around this captivating Southeast Asian country.

How would you travel in Vietnam? Well, how would you like to travel? In this fascinating, S-shaped country there are so many novel ways to explore the cities and get to know the landscape, the culture, the history. How to begin? Well, let’s start off with a meal and a walking tour down south, in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).
Sharing a meal with someone is a good way to begin to understand a place. “Eating is a very social activity and you’ll rarely see a Vietnamese person eating alone,” explains Vu Vo, founder of street-food-tour company Saigon Street Eats, who grew up working in his parents’ restaurant. Their food tour takes guests on a walk through areas rarely visited by foreigners, and as you walk through lively fruit, vegetable, meat and fish markets and stop for a snack at food stalls you’ll peek into local life, as well as learn about the intricacies of Vietnamese cuisine. An absolute must while you’re in Vietnam, is to enjoy a bowl of pho for breakfast, a noodle broth served with herbs – delicious!
Another fun way to orientate yourself within HCMC is to explore the vibrant streets on the back of a scooter. Vespa Adventures has a small fleet of vintage Vespas and a range of tours that includes Insider’s Saigon, on which you’ll be taken to some of the city’s famous sites and some not-too-well-known ones too – including Tich Quang Duc Memorial (the monument to the burning monk), the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas, the Old Post Office (an architectural gem) and the spectacular Saigon Cathedral.
After eating your way around HCMC you’ll probably enjoy some exercise – and the multi-day bicycle trips that Backyard Travel offers around the lush Mekong Delta will allow you to stretch your legs in the (very flat) delta area, known as the “rice basket of Vietnam.”  Here, where one third of the country’s fresh produce is grown, you’ll cycle through the intricate web of waterways, paths, alleys and roads that lead through crops and plantations, and along the way have the chance to see floating markets, small home industries and little villages.
Further up the coast, an hour’s flight from HCMC, the resort area of Cam Ranh Bay offers travelers the chance to indulge in a seaside holiday. The Anam is a beautiful luxury resort that opened in 2017. Its exterior walls are shrouded in gorgeous plants while the interior walls are adorned with original paintings by Vietnamese artists, and the hotel offers visits to the homes of local artists (highly recommended). Although the area is not yet developed for tourism (not a problem if you’re looking for a resort experience), the beach in Cam Ranh Bay is perfect – a long ribbon of white sand, and you can explore the bay on one of The Anam’s beach club’s jetskis, or a sea kayak.
Linking cities (including Nha Trang, near Cam Ranh Bay) along the coastline of Vietnam is a railway line, and the “Reunification Express” runs the 1,726 km long line between Ho Chi Minh City in the south and Hanoi in the north. The sleeper train is relatively inexpensive – even if you travel first class, which is fairly basic but still comfortable – and will give you the chance to relax while doing some sightseeing as you get from A to B. You don’t need to do the entire journey, and it’s best to get a travel agent to book the section of the trip you’d like to do. Traveling this route by train is a wonderful way to watch the landscape change, from dramatic seaside views to sections that run through rice paddies, and also through bustling towns and cities, showing slices of daily life.
Almost halfway up the coast of Vietnam is the city of Hué, once an important religious, cultural and political center. Here, a visit to the Imperial City (also called Imperial Citadel), built almost 700 years ago, should be very top of your list: the historic buildings and monuments in this UNESCO World Heritage Site are remarkable. It’s an interesting place to wander for a few hours. In some parts there are crumbling ruins that are slowly being engulfed by shrubs, flowers and trees, which make an evocative subject for photography.
A pretty three-hour drive from Huế is the enchanting town of Hoi An. Throughout the day men pedal tourists through the old town, a World Heritage Site, in old-fashioned cyclo-cabs; women paddle visitors on lazy trips in small, colorful boats up the river; bicycles weave gracefully between pedestrians; tables and chairs spill out onto cobbled pavements, where delicious coffee, fresh pastries and tasty Vietnamese cuisine are served late into the night. In the evenings, people release thousands of floating lanterns onto the river that wafts through the town – it’s an enchanting and very romantic sight. Sunset is a lovely time to be out on the water – just stroll along the river and you’ll be inundated with offers to ride in a boat (for a small fee).
When you reach Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, in the north of Vietnam, you might want to pick up the pace a little: climb on an Ural motorbike or old wartime Jeep and use this city as a starting point from which to explore the rugged mountains, humble villages and adorned pagodas of north Vietnam. For 20 years, Cuongs Motorbike Adventures has been taking travelers off the beaten track, and their trips are really memorable. Of course you can’t go to Hanoi without spending time in the character-filled and very colorful old town, and a good way to connect with this city is to wander from coffee shop to coffee shop (there are many!), sampling the different ways coffee is served in Vietnam… on ice, with yoghurt, coconut milk or even beaten egg white. Look out for one of the nostalgic hipster-style Cong Caphe cafés – the coffee there is always good.
A very special way to end a trip to Vietnam (or to begin, if you’re flying into Hanoi) is to take a seaplane to Halong Bay, where dramatic limestone karsts rise steeply from the water. The views from the air are outrageous – spikes of islands engulfed with jungle loom from the bay like shattered shards of glass – and give you an extra appreciation of the seascape you’ll sail in if you spend a few nights on a junk. floating on emerald waters between jagged islands that, according to legend, were formed when pearls spat from a dragon’s mouth turned to shards of jade as they hit the water. An absolutely magical land, indeed.
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