In the absence of any recent travel, I’m going to tell you all about my trip to Vietnam last year. I had wanted to go to Vietnam for years, ever since I studied the Vietnam War in history when I was 16. I wanted to see the places where the war took place and learn a bit more about the war, and also the country itself, which I had heard was beautiful.
I went on a group trip, as Vietnam was not a country I felt happy to see alone, although I know a lot of people do go there independently and manage with no problems. I chose a 20 day trip, which started in the south, in Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon is known these days, and ended in the north, in Hanoi. Along the way, we saw beaches, and small towns, and big cities, and caves, and mountains, and homestays in out of the way locations.
Ho Chi Minh City was a big culture shock. I’m reasonably well travelled, but found Ho Chi Minh City to be a big shock. It was hot, and steamy, and smelly, and noisy, and dirty. The roads were chaotic, heaving with motorbikes which are not keen to let pedestrians cross the road, even at pedestrian crossings. Everything you have ever read about crossing the road in Vietnam is true! Even the pavements aren’t exactly pedestrian friendly, as this is where the motorbikes are parked, forcing pedestrians to walk in the gutters and rubbish or on the road.
In Vietnam the war is called the American War, and there are a number of places where tourists can go to learn more. There are 2 sets on tunnels (well, 2 that I know of) used by the Vietcong which are open to the public and which we visited. The first was the Cu Chi Tunnels, just outside Ho Chi Minh City, and the Vinh Moc tunnels, which are much further north. At both sets of tunnels tourists can go into the tunnels and try and get a feel for living in them. Take it from me – they are not for the claustrophobic! Even slightly enlarged for tourists they are small, a tight squeeze and at times you still have to bend over to walk along them.
It was definitely worth visiting them though, as they give a good idea of what the Vietcong endured living in them, whilst fighting the American soldiers. At the Cu Chi Tunnels, there are also examples of the bamboo traps which the Vietcong set to harm and maim but not necessarily to kill the American soldiers.
The other place to learn about the war is the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. It is very anti-American though, full of images of the horrors that the Americans inflicted on the Vietcong and civilian population, and somewhat lacking actual information about the war, such as how and why it started, or details of key battles/offensives.
There is one other place to learn something about the war. This is at the small hamlet of My Lai. At My Lai, 500 Vietnamese civilians were killed by American soldiers one morning in March 1968. They chose the hamlet in the belief that there were Vietcong in the area and flew in early in the morning and just opened fire on the villagers, who were getting ready for market day. Today, the burnt remains of some of the houses remain, forming part of the museum along with an actual museum and memorial that tourists can visit to learn about what happened. It is considered one of the most infamous events of the war, and was the one event/place which still seemed to affect our Vietnamese tour guide who was born after the war ended and so has no memories of the war.
During our time in Vietnam we stayed at 2 homestays. The first was on the Mekong Delta. To get there we had a trip along the Mekong, spending some time cruising along, admiring the beautiful scenery, and watching daily life such as the floating market, and enjoying the peace and quiet after the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City. Our homestay was overlooking the river and so pretty. We spent the evening there relaxing in hammocks and chatting, getting to know each other.
Our other homestay was in a village called Mau Chau, and was in North Vietnam. Mau Chau is in a flat valley surrounded by rice paddies and mountains, and absolutely stunning. I think you’re meant to believe it’s the real Vietnam, but it’s actually obvious that is increasingly catering for tourists as there is a market in the village centre for tourists, and a small number of hotels/bars/hostels. However, that doesn’t take anything away from the gorgeous scenery. Not a lot of organised trips go to Mau Chau, and this was on of the reasons I chose this trip, as I wanted to see the mountains. Definitely worth it!
The other reason I chose this trip over all others was our visit to the Phong Nha National Park, in Northern Vietnam, which again few organised trips visit. It is in the mountains, and gorgeous, and the main attraction here ( in addition to the mountain scenery) is the caves. The cave complex is enormous, but only a small part of it is open to the general public. We went in the Paradise Cave, which has steps and a wooden boardwalk enabling tourists to walk safely about 1km in to the cave, and the Phong Nha Cave, which is accessible on a boat along a river. The caves are full of stalagmites and stalactites, and well worth a visit. I expect a lot of people don’t go there, as it doesn’t get the worldwide attention of some places, such as Halong Bay, but it deserves more visitors. It was definitely one of my favourite days in Vietnam.
The highlight of my holiday in Vietnam, and I guess most peoples’ highlight is Halong Bay. For me personally, I’m not sure life gets much better than spending time on boat, and Halong Bay is a spectacular place to spend 24hrs on a boat. The scenery was amazing, absolutely stunning and it was all very relaxing. We had nothing better to do than sit back and watch the scenery go by. In the evening, we sat in the top deck of our boat, watching the stars. Holidays can be such hard work!
Of course, we went to other places, but these were some of my favourite places and best memories. Other highlights includes Hoi An, where we had clothes tailored for us, Hue which was the capital in imperial days and home to the Imperial Citadel which has a faded beauty to it, and Hanoi which was slightly less chaotic than Ho Chi Minh City and definitely our favourite of the 2 cities. Random highlights include the very impressive thunderstorms with awesome lightning, and the powercut which led to a candlelit breakfast in Hanoi as the dining room was inside and had no natural light!
This holiday was one of my favourite holidays, partly because I travelled with an amazing group of people, but also because of the fantastic places I saw, and the people of Vietnam who were so lovely and friendly and welcoming.