By Roger Allnutt
Although the first port of call for most visitors to Vietnam is Ho Chi Minh City (still referred to as Saigon) more and more visitors are including the capital Hanoi, amazing Halong Bay and key towns of central Vietnam.
The mausoleum to revered Vietnam War leader Ho Chi Minh is a key stop for both locals and international tourists – often locals queue for hours to pay their respects. Nearby I caught a glimpse of the French colonial-style Presidential Palace, the simple house (on stilts) where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked.
The open space and wide boulevards of the Ho Chi Minh quarter are very different from the bustling, hectic center of Hanoi, only a short distance away, where the Old Quarter is a maelstrom of people, vehicles, and carts laden with goods all competing for space in the narrow streets. Centuries ago different crafts were centered around specific streets named after a different craft and many of those street names still exist today although the shops offer a tantalizing array of merchandise. At the northern edge of the Old Quarter the Dong Xuan Market is Hanoi’s largest, famous for its fresh fruit and vegetables; the mighty Red River flows through Hanoi only a short distance away.
To the south of this maze of streets is lovely Ho Hoan Kiem, the “lake of the restored sword,” a quiet retreat from the nearby bustle with tree-lined pathways surrounding the water of the lake. There are reminders of the days of French influence in the city with buildings such as the Presidential Palace, the Government Guest House, the Opera House modeled on the Paris Opera House (pictured, left).
Of more recent fame is the so-called Hanoi Hilton, the Central Prison (Maison Centrale) built by the French to hold Nationalist prisoners during the war with the French in the 1940s and 50s but then used by the Vietnamese to incarcerate American pilots shot down in North Vietnam. US Senator and presidential candidate John McCain was a prisoner for four years.
One of the unique experiences in Hanoi is a performance at the Water Puppet Theatre near the Hoan Kiem Lake. This fascinating 45-minute long show, based on an art form that originated over a thousand years ago, provides an insight into daily rural life to the accompaniment of a traditional orchestra playing flutes, gongs, drums and various stringed instruments. The show is very popular with tourists and it is advisable to book in advance (tour organizers usually do this).
All this sightseeing makes you hungry and Hanoi offers a dazzling array of choices. Small cafes sell local specialties which together with the local beer make a filling and tasty snack. Dog is a specialty of northern Vietnam and restaurants with the sign Thit Cho are devoted to this one dish – be warned!
Hanoi is an excellent base from which to explore other parts of northern Vietnam. These range from the hill tribe areas north and north-west to the Chinese border to the stunning visual beauty of the Halong Bay east of the capital (pictured, right).
About 2,000 islands are scattered across 579 square miles of the Gulf of Tonkin and a variety of tour boats, ranging from large Chinese-style junks to small runabouts, provide the means to explore a tiny fraction of these craggy outcrops. Ha Long means “descending dragon” and the legend is that a dragon plunging into the sea created these outcrops by the lashing of its tail – a much more interesting theory than the geological explanation.
After the hustle and bustle of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi the relative peace and calm of the smaller towns of Central Vietnam are a welcome haven.
The towns of Hue, Da Nang and to a lesser extent Hoi An will be remembered as scenes of some of the fiercest fighting during the Vietnam War. The scars of war are still visible, especially in Hue that was badly damaged in the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Once the Imperial City, Hue (declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993) is located on the Song Huong or Perfume River. The moated and walled Citadel is very similar in style to the Forbidden City in Beijing with three concentric enclosures, the innermost of which is the Tu Cam Thanh or Forbidden Purple City only accessible to the emperor, queen, concubines and servants.
South from Hue the road passes through green countryside, rice paddies, brackish lagoons where shrimp are farmed (fish paste is a big industry) and water buffalo doing all the hard work. The road over the Hai Van (Pass of the Ocean Clouds) Pass provides superb coastal views to the South China Sea.
Da Nang is one of Vietnam’s larger cities but has little to attract the tourist except the Cham Museum that contains many artefacts, especially stone carvings, from the Kingdom of Champa dating from the 7th to 15th centuries. South of Da Nang is China Beach which was a major US forces R&R area.
My favorite town in the central Vietnam region is undoubtedly Hoi An on the Thu Bon River about 19 miles south of Da Nang. It has a laid-back, relaxed atmosphere and many old and traditional buildings still remain. Tan Ky House is a fine example of an 18th century shophouse beautifully constructed with hardwood beams and tiny courtyards. By contrast a small French Quarter has survived for over 100 years while the best-known historical monument in the town is the Japanese Covered Bridge that dates from 1593.
Hoi An is famous for its tailors and it is possible to have clothes made up in very short time. Another speciality of Hoi An is lanterns and these are available in a dazzling array of designs and colours.
The number and range of excellent hotels has greatly expanded in recent years. The Sofitel group now runs the famous Metropole Legend, a beautifully restored French colonial-style hotel in Hanoi, while the Hoi An Beach Resort is relaxing and well situated. Best time to visit is December/January when the climate is cooler and less humid, although any time of the year is OK.