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Vietnam: Hanoi, Halong Bay and Ho Chi Minh City in five days

Firstly, as is the case with any travel we do in the region, we wanted to learn Vietnamese traditions and cultures – eat the food, see the sites and buy beautiful local crafts. On the other hand, we also wanted to experience the canvas for so many war stories.  As an American, I wanted to see the place that caused unbearable psychological pain for so many of my countrymen and women, the place the shaped a revolution.

Typically, my husband and I stick with beach holidays: departures from reality into island rhythms, continuous relaxation, the lapping of waves and easy excursions with snorkels and fins.

Vietnam was going to be different. Choosing it as a holiday destination begged the question: why did we want to go there? We knew it as a nation with centuries of struggle for independence and peace; we knew it was overflowing with natural beauty and diverse landscapes, from mountains to the Mekong Delta. On a personal note, I knew it as a country where my American father’s generation was sent to fight in a war they did not understand or support, while friends and family at home raged and protested; and we also knew something of today’s Vietnam, heavily populated with resilient twenty-somethings dressed in traditional ao dais atop motorbikes – a new, forward-looking generation, charging ahead and leaving a trail of dust.

The answer was two-fold and, like our entire experience of the country, a bit of a paradox.

Firstly, as is the case with any travel we do in the region, we wanted to learn Vietnamese traditions and cultures – eat the food, see the sites and buy beautiful local crafts. On the other hand, we also wanted to experience the canvas for so many war stories. As an American, I wanted to see the place that caused unbearable psychological pain for so many of my countrymen and women, the place that shaped a revolution.

So, we planned our trip – Hanoi to Halong Bay to Ho Chi Minh City in five days – and boarded our flight.

Pho Goodness’ Sake!
Our first stop in Hanoi is also the most luxurious of our trip. The legendary Hotel Sofitel Metropole is the oldest and finest hotel in the city. Built in 1901, it is a gorgeous blend of warm Vietnamese beauty and hospitality with classic European heritage and architecture.

Our first stop: the Metropole’s café. We are in the mood to taste local cuisine. The traditionally dressed – and very beautiful – waitress explains to us, in excellent English, that we must try the pho (pronounced “fur”), a beef noodle soup that is a Vietnamese staple.

“Pho?”
we reply, interested.

“No, ‘pho’,” she says, correcting our pronunciation with such a slight change in tone that our untrained ears fail to detect it.

We spend the next few minutes sounding out various intonations and trying to get it right, giggling at how ridiculous we must sound. Our lovely waitress simply smiles politely.

Later, we learn that the Vietnamese language has one of the most complex vowel systems of any language and is regarded as one of the most difficult for a non-native to learn.

Needless to say, our lunch of pho was spectacular and we vowed to have it at least twice a day for the rest of our trip.

Reminders of War
We spend the remainder of our time exploring war memorials, POW detention-centres-turned-museums, local wet markets and breathtaking scenery. We see the old versus the new, modern hustle and bustle mere miles away from remote, indigenous villages.

In the north, we notice the solemn and thoughtful conservatism of the people, in clear contrast with the pulsing energy of those in the south. We crawl through the eerie Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City, hundreds of miles of hand-tunnelled warrens where the Viet Cong soldiers and their families cooked, slept, lived and fought for years to defend their country and their homes. We marvel at their ingenuity and resourcefulness: a booby trap made from bamboo and fallen aeroplane scraps; shoes made of tyres worn backwards to disguise direction of movement; such resilience through years of constant peril.

New Vietnam

Yesterday, we were sailing in an old junk boat among the awe-inspiring limestone outcrops of Halong Bay. Now we’re sipping wine and overlooking Ho Chi Minh City from atop the Rex Hotel, where so many American soldiers spent time during the war. Modern buildings are going up all around us. Newness is everywhere.

On our last night, during an indulgent romantic dinner at the Temple Club, we feel surrounded by a culture with true depth and altruism; people who care more about others than themselves and more about respect and duty than hedonistic delights. It’s in the flawlessly subtle flavours of our traditional Vietnamese food; and it’s on the walls in painstakingly detailed woodcarvings and vibrant silk fabrics.

As we look back at our five days in Vietnam, we realise that the contradictions and boundless variety of Vietnam have left a lasting and heart-felt impression on us. The contrasts to be found in Southeast Asia, and of this country in particular, are what make it so very rich. And the tenacity and ingenuity of its people are precisely what have carried it through its marred past and are taking it momentously into its future.

Temple Club
+84  829 9244

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