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A historical and once turbulent land
Vietnam is a nation with a split personality. Stepping off the plane can be a journey into a maelstrom of astonishing noise and activity, of captivating culture and history, of action and excitement. Or it can just as easily be a soft landing into a relaxed beachside paradise, somewhere chilled and reflective, peaceful and intimate, indulgent and relaxing. Which Vietnam are you?
Best time to visit
Southern Vietnam is generally dry from November to April. May to October is warm, with heavy showers and the odd overcast day. Northern areas are cooler and drier from January to May and September to December. June to August can be hot, humid and showery.
Vietnam is fascinating. Few countries in the world can offer such a diverse range of culture, history, natural wonder, excitement and outright indulgence and relaxation.
Vietnam has long been over-shadowed by near-neighbours Thailand, Malaysia and Bali as a destination for beach holidays in South East Asia. It appears her time has come, as an explosion in the profusion of quality beach hotels has firmly cemented Vietnam front and centre as the beach destination of choice. As with Thailand, travellers can experience both ends of the spectrum, from vibrant beach resorts with entertainment a plenty, to completely secluded luxury hotels with private beachfronts and perfect peace and tranquillity.
Vietnam’s beaches are typically in the southern half of the country, from Danang right in the centre, south through Hoi An, Nha Trang and Phan Thiet to the idyllic island of Con Dao out in the South China Sea.
A long time favourite for cultural and touring holidays, Vietnam is an engaging and captivating country to explore. The north-south geography adds to the convenience, as well as making a beach break extension a simple add-on. The vibrant, exciting, competing cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) are bewildering in their ceaseless cacophony noise and activity. Motorbikes and scooters flow round the cities day and night and crossing the road is an experience in itself. But within both lie a rich bounty of sightseeing gems and experiences. Hanoi particularly, with its preserved French colonial heart is a joy to explore with stalls and street diners spilling onto the pavement and into the busy roads themselves. Museums abound and those with an eye on recent history can even visit the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself and pay peculiar homage to the embalmed remains of the long deceased revolutionary leader himself.
Other cultural highlights include the attractive UNESCO World Heritage city of Hoi An, the ‘American War’ remnants of the ‘DMZ’ and the tunnels of Cu Chi and the old imperial capital of Hue with it’s impressive royal citadel.
Natural wonders, asides from the beautiful beaches, include the simply breathtaking formations of Halong Bay in the north. This cast enclave of the Gulf of Tonkin reveals a staggering collection of impossibly beautiful limestone islets, or karsts. The country’s interior also consists of tracts of verdant, mountainous landscapes, in places pouring down to the sleepy coastal fringes. To the south, the lush landscape of the Mekong Delta is home to much of the country’s agriculture, with exotic fruits grown amongst the arms of the delta and vast quantities of rice on a patchwork of paddocks that quilt the plains.
Food is an important part of Vietnamese life, with much cultural importance given to the freshness of local ingredients and pride in the various regional flavours. At first glance, the food can be compared with Chinese cuisine, but closer inspection reveals an abundance of fresh herbs and a simple elegance uncluttered with preserves and flavours. Dishes are deftly cooked with minimal intrusion so as to preserve the freshness and flavour of the ingredients. Favourites include refreshing noodle soups, often best savoured from street vendors, and which are surprisingly satisfying on hot, humid days.
The people of Vietnam have a fierce independent streak and immense pride, perhaps no surprise after centuries of warring against regional and global powers much more mighty than they. In hotels and resorts, service is faultless and always courteous and friendly, but on the streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh in particular, expect short shrift should you stray off the pavement or dither in a queue. For your own sanity, best to interpret the typical Vietnamese impatience and bluntness as characterful, rather than rude. Although, should you engage the younger members of Vietnamese society in conversation, which they are always keen to do, you will no doubt find yourself embroiled in a passionate discussion on the latest transfer news from the English Premier League – a national obsession.
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This is probably the only country where you’ll need tips on crossing the road! The cities are really busy, and roads full of small motorbikes. There seem to be thousands of them coming from all directions. My guide explained that if you step out and walk slowly and directly across the road, everyone will drive round you.
After a couple of failed attempts and what looked like a curb-side hokey cokey dance, I took the plunge. After a few tries you soon get the knack of it, and it always stands out as a memorable travelling moment – anyone who's been to Vietnam will know exactly what I mean.