Vietnam: A Country of Contrasts

Vietnam is a country with an unfortunate recent history, but the vast majority of its inhabitants have now magnanimously put the carpet bombing and napalm behind them and look forward to a bright future based mainly on their considerable natural assets.

Tourists are discovering a world of hidden treasures in this jewel of a land, with everything from the bustling cities of Hanoi and Saigon to the serene rice fields of the central region and the idyllic beaches of the coastal strip awaiting them. The best way to see this incomparable SE Asian country is to join a small group highlights tour of Vietnam, enabling you to follow an organised itinerary and get the most out of the many attractions.

The classic way to experience Vietnam is to take the Hanoi to Saigon route. The skinny S-shape of the country more or less dictates this, and it’s the best way to see all the cultural sites as well as the great diversity of natural landscapes. Both of the main cities at either end of the curve have international airports, so it’s not necessary to double-up before flying home, whichever end you fly in to.

Saigon

Saigon in the south, now less picturesquely known as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), is the main industrial and commercial centre of Vietnam. There are a number of interesting things to see including the great Catholic Cathedral of Notre Dame and a War Museum highlighting aspects of the Great Struggle of Uncle Ho against imperialist aggression. All of central Saigon can be reached easily on foot from the main hotel district of Ton Duc Thang.

Mekong Delta

This is an area of outstanding natural beauty and one of the highlights of a visit to Vietnam is to take a boat upriver from here and experience the exquisite calm of the vast rice fields, distant mountains and plains of the interior.

Central Highlands

This includes the southern section of the Truong Song Mountains as well as several provinces. Dalat is the regional capital, and the area is characterised by volcanic peaks, waterfalls, forests and exotic flora like orchids growing vibrantly wild. Dalat was developed by the French as a hill resort for flustered and overworked administrators, and now it’s a pleasant town to relax in whilst traversing the country.

Phu Quoc Island

This charming island in the Gulf of Thailand is the largest in Vietnam and is worth a stopover for its excellent beaches and resorts as well as fine sailing along the coastline. The local luoc mam fish sauce is its main claim to fame and is exported globally, with fishing being the main industry. There are, however, plans afoot to turn the island into a playground for wealthy tourists, so it’s worth dropping in now before the developers inevitably overdo things.

Hanoi

Last-stop Hanoi is Vietnam’s glamorous capital city of weathered French colonial buildings, tree-lined boulevards, elegant squares and just the occasional bomb shelter to remind one of its turbulent history. The main attractions are easily reached on foot or by tuk-tuk and are centred on the areas of Central Hanoi and Hoan Hem Lake. The 19th century Jade Hill Pagoda, surrounded by water and shrouded by trees, and the ancient One Pillar Pagoda practically rub shoulders with Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and the Revolutionary Museum, two contrasting aspects of modern Vietnam.

David Elliott is a freelance writer who loves to travel, especially in Europe and Turkey. He’s spent most of his adult life in a state of restless excitement but recently decided to settle in North London. He gets away whenever he can to immerse himself in foreign cultures and lap up the history of great cities.

(Image by lrargerich)

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