During my trip to Asia, many people told me to go to Vietnam, saying it is beautiful. Personally, it did not attract me much but trusting the advice of others I decided to visit it by spending six weeks. I must say that it did not drive me crazy from a cultural or naturalistic point of view, even if there are areas that are actually very beautiful. Tourism has already attacked this country and finding something that is genuine is actually difficult. What I liked most was the food and relaxation of its inhabitants. The most surprising thing was to see how much this country is booming and that it will soon grow, reaching states like Thailand and maybe even going beyond them.
Vietnam is a fairly large country and developed in length. The differences between north and south are marked and can be seen in the cuisine, language, geography, climate, culture and character of the people. The north is colder and rainier, both climatically and as regards people, more closed and detached. The north is more hectic and the south much more relaxed. Despite the well-developed tourism, prices are still very low: to sleep, eat, move, take organized tours, rent a scooter, everything costs very little. Although the local food is very good, ethnic restaurants of all kinds are teeming with cities allowing you to enjoy delicacies from all over the world at prices never seen before. I spent almost two months in this hospitable land. Below I illustrate my itinerary.
For an article on the history and culture of Vietnam, I refer here.
“And yet it turns,” said Galileo. “And still they sail”, the Vietnamese sailors on the coast of Annam might say about their junks.”Bernard Moitessier
Capital of Vietnam, it has 7 and a half million inhabitants. Extremely chaotic city, it embodies the strong contradictions of a developing country with its rich and clean neighbourhoods plenty of skyscrapers and poor and dirty ones, where people live in hovels. Despite this, I have seen very few bums and beggars, this in general all over Vietnam. The tourist area is the central one, the oldest, but also the most decadent. The attractions are many but all quite disappointing and the traffic and chaos are so crazy that they make you hate this tangle of contradictions with all of yourself. Inside there is a lake, so polluted that fish die. Not far from the capital there is the spectacular Halong bay, which I could not visit due to climate and time (it was Christmas). There are interesting museums about the Vietnam War, the only thing worth stopping in that city.
Visitable in one day from Hanoi, it is a small pearl immersed in a very peculiar natural context. There is the first capital of the first unified kingdom of Vietnam, called Hoa Lu (present Ninh Binh), of 967 CE. You can visit temples and pagodas of the time (including the largest pagoda in Vietnam) and some city gates. Not far away is the Tam Coc Bich Dong, which is a UNESCO World Natural Park. A wide and peaceful river flows in the middle of a gorge and it is possible to visit it on board a rowboat which rows are used by the Vietnamese with their feet (often women). The river passes through three very beautiful natural caves. The landscape is green and relaxing, even if it is a tourist destination and you risk finding the crowd of people (I was lucky). The surroundings can be visited by scooter, car or bicycle from which you can enjoy the greenery, the rocky walls, the silence, the surrounding plain.
Town of just 120 thousand inhabitants, it is famous for its tourist attractions. In the 16th and 17th centuries, its port saw Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Indians settle. Also used for trade by the Spanish and Portuguese, known to Europeans under the name Faifo. It was the first to get Christianized and among the various missionaries, there was Alexandre de Rodhes who devised the alphabet quoc ngu, the current one used by the Vietnamese to write. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it presents an architectural fusion of oriental (Japanese, Chinese, Indian) and western buildings in a unique result. It has a unique Japanese-made covered bridge in the world: inside it has a Buddhist temple. The surroundings of the city are very beautiful, green countryside and relaxing beaches.
The temple archaeological site of My Son is located not far from Hoi An. It dates back to the 4th century CE and was dedicated to Shiva, built by King Bhadravarman and was the main place of worship for the rulers of the Champa kingdom. The first buildings were built of wood and nothing remains of them, apart from a stele that speaks of it. The brick temples were built from the seventh century and the oldest of the eleven still present is from the eighth century. It is probably the oldest inhabited archaeological site in the whole of Indochina; unfortunately, most of the buildings were destroyed by American bombing. For historical importance, it is compared to Angkor Wat (Cambodia), Bagan (Myanmar), Ayutthaya (Thailand) and Borobudur (Indonesia). The architectural style recalls that of some temples of Angkor Wat.
The fourth city in the country, with its one million four hundred thousand inhabitants, it is certainly the favourite destination for Western expatriates. Presenting all the advantages of a big city, such as all kinds of shops, restaurants, shopping centres, large communication routes, entertainment it maintains a decidedly peaceful and relaxed character, with its long beach in the central area, the laid back inhabitants that are no stressed out. Close by there are the Marble Mountains which house the caves with Buddhist shrines inside; the French resort Bana Hills, extremely touristic but iconic with its bridge supported by giant hands and the mountainous area Son Tra, a small peninsula north of the city that features Buddhist temples, forests and dream beaches.
Town of a mountainous area, it is located on a plateau 1500 meters above sea level. French-based, it is full of western-style buildings. The most beautiful part of the town is definitely the Crazy House created by a Vietnamese who has lived in Russia for many years. Hotel, where you can stay overnight, has a unique and creative architecture that recalls the elements of nature. Da Lat is above all a tourist destination for lovers of nature excursions, it has various places of interest in the surroundings such as waterfalls, temples, farms, coffee plantations that can be visited, flower greenhouses. In the surroundings, there are many villages inhabited by different ethnic groups and with dialects different from Vietnamese. Usually, they dedicate themselves to agriculture. You can do many activities such as rafting, climbing, zip line, abseiling from the waterfalls, hiking and so on. The temperate climate in summer makes it one of the most popular destinations during the humid heat.
Ho Chi Minh City
Known until the ’70s as Saigon, and very often still called that, it was the capital of South Vietnam. Counting 9 million inhabitants (13 considering the entire metropolitan area) it is seen by many as a hellish place worse than Hanoi. In my humble opinion, the capital is decidedly more chaotic and insignificant from a tourist point of view. Ho Chi Minh City offers more interesting and better-preserved attractions, the centre is cleaner and more spacious, less chaotically crazy than that of Hanoi. Here too, the museums on the Vietnam War are definitely the number one pearl but there is no shortage of architectural works of interest such as the Basilica of Our Lady, the Xa Loi pagoda, the Landmark-81 skyscraper and the theatre. Do not miss the Ben Thanh market.
From Ho Chi Minh City it is possible to make several excursions of a day or more. One of the most popular is the one on the Mekong delta. I opted for the one-day one, given my limited time, which is done in the My Tho area. Honestly, I didn’t like it very much and in fact, they say that the best area is Can Tho but to visit it takes at least two days (from Ho Chi Minh City).
Tropical island south of Cambodia but of Vietnamese territory, it is a small gem in the Gulf of Siam. 93 thousand inhabitants live on 574 square km. The island has a perfect climate in winter. Although they are trying to launch it from a tourist point of view in a massive way, with the construction of hotels, western-style resorts and so on, it still maintains its original character especially the town of Duong Dong. The island has a fair amount of beautiful white beaches with fine sand and crystal clear sea. The most famous remains the starfish beach, where you can find many in the transparent water. There is no shortage of natural parks and waterfalls, although the best part remains the beaches.
An interesting country with a decidedly fascinating recent history and actually not very well known. An extremely calm and gentle population (slightly less in the north) devastated by a war that managed to win with patience and determination. A country in which it is ideal to invest money if you have it. A great nation that offers a great variety of attractions. What I missed is the architectural and spiritual part, as most of the temples are poorly maintained and uninteresting. In general, from an architectural point of view, there is not much traditional and for this, we must thank the Americans who destroyed the possible. A country worth enjoying calmly appreciating the kindness of its people, the goodness of its food and the relaxation of its life.
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