Vietnam is emerging as one of Asia's most popular holiday destinations. Joanna Booth visited the country's north
“Sticky rice! Sticky rice!” Our guide ran behind us, waving his arms. Not, as you might think, encouraging us to try this Asian culinary staple.
‘Sticky rice’ was the code-word to signify that our group should stick together, coined by him in sheer desperation at the fact we kept wandering off on our own.
His task was impossible. He’d brought us to Thang Long Royal Citadel in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, intending to use the archaeological remains to illustrate thousands of years of history. At the same time, hundreds of students, fresh from graduation ceremonies, descended on the same spot.
Stunning Vietnamese girls, as vibrant as flowers in coloured dresses and bursting with desire to pose for photographs among the crumbling buildings proved a far more compelling prospect for a group of European travellers than any relic could, however venerable.
PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
In the UK, Vietnam used to be more famous for its past than its present. The country’s name would most regularly precede the word ‘war’, and tourists there tended to be backpackers overlanding across Indochina.
Now, it could hardly be more different. Vietnam is one of southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economies, and tourism is developing rapidly. With direct flights from Gatwick with Vietnam Airlines, expanding programmes from operators including Kuoni and Virgin Holidays, and a rash of new, high-end hotels, there’s hardly a hot-for-2013 list that doesn’t feature the destination.
But in its rush to reach the future, Vietnam hasn’t lost touch with its past. It’s still a communist nation, and traces of the groups who’ve traded and travelled here across the centuries can be found everywhere, from the old wooden Japanese merchants’ houses on Hoi An’s pretty streets to the Sanskrit carvings on the temples at My Son.
Combine this with natural beauty – beaches to rival Thailand’s and the towering green islets of Halong Bay – and a cuisine that’s worth visiting for alone, and it’s not hard to understand why so many people are excited about Vietnam.
Tradition and modernity collide most evidently – and almost physically – in the streets of the capital Hanoi. In the Old Quarter, a maze of streets dating back to the 13th century, you wonder how the hordes of motorbikes carrying whole families manage not to mow down hawkers with bundles of goods, supported on long shoulder poles, or plough straight into the rows of open-fronted shops selling everything from traditional silks to sim cards.
For tranquillity, retreat to the beautiful Temple of Literature, which houses altars layered with red lacquer and gold leaf and crowned by stern-faced statues of Confucius.
An illustration of much more modern history – and a glimpse into Vietnam’s political system – can be found at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Revolutionary leader, prime minister and president, ‘Uncle Ho’ remains one of Vietnam’s most significant and beloved public figures.
After standing in a very communist series of queues, soldiers sternly direct visitors into a chilly chamber where the queue slowly circles his tiny embalmed body raised in an elaborate casket.
Somewhat macabre to Western eyes, the Vietnamese see it as a chance to honour their national hero. Cover shoulders and legs, and keep hands out of pockets within the mausoleum – a gesture of respect.
A three-and-a-half hour drive from Hanoi is Halong Bay, one of Vietnam’s best-known and certainly most-photographed sights. Its beauty is almost other-worldly – and this impression will only increase, as the tankers and freight ships that sit somewhat idiosyncratically among the seclusion are in the process of being banned from the bay.
When the sun shines the steep limestone outcrops jut out of the sea in a shimmer of blue and green; when it’s overcast they loom like anchored clouds. A cruise is imperative, and there are more than 450 ships to choose from. Many offer day tours; some, overnight voyages.
I sailed with Au Co Cruises, whose two new ships are the most luxurious in the bay, featured by the likes of Cox & Kings and Abercrombie & Kent. It specialises in two-night voyages that take passengers far away from the crowds in the areas close to the city to the three bays in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Activities include guided kayaking tours, swimming, cycling in the dense rainforest of Cat Ba island (pictured below), and exploring the caves millions of years of erosion have hollowed out of the rocks. We took a tour of the vast Sung Sot cave where limestone pillars soar above your head, and even dined one evening by candlelight in a small cave set with tables draped in white linen.
The ship is beautiful, mixing Vietnamese and French colonial influences, with dark wooden floors and large windows, and the service and food are of a very high standard.
The 32 spacious cabins have large bathrooms and balconies, and the facilities are those you might expect from a luxury river cruise vessel, including a spa and Jacuzzi. The entire top deck is lined with sun loungers – perfect for relaxation, except in the morning when it hosts daily tai chi classes. Au Co Cruises can organise a helicopter transfer from Hanoi, cutting the journey time to 45 minutes.
For clients who’d prefer a shorter one-night cruise, sister company Bhaya Cruises offers options on authentic yet luxurious junks, crowned by traditional curving sails.
The exquisitely pretty harbour town of Hoi An is, for most travellers, the quintessence of Vietnam. Tiny traditional houses line the narrow, bicycle-filled streets, where aged women in conical hats – called leaf hats – sell trinkets and snacks. Brightly coloured lanterns are everywhere, in the restaurants, temples and on the bridges that cross the river.
A trade centre for silk, spices and ceramics since the 15th century, Hoi An is an architectural history book, where visitors can see original Japanese and Chinese merchants’ houses, and workshops that still produce fine silks and lacquer ware.
Inland from Hoi An, the temples at My Son are evidence of even earlier history. For more than 1,000 years this valley was the site of religious ceremonies for the ruling Champa dynasty, and the Hindu influences in this complex of brick-built temples will be evident to anyone who has visited India.
An expert best brings both these easily-combined sights to life, so for clients travelling on tailor-made itineraries it’s worth asking your tour operator to organise a guide.
My flying visit only took in Vietnam’s north, but most clients will want to spend longer and visit the south too. There are many highlights, including Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where clients can visit pagodas, palaces and the moving War Remnants Museum, the nearby network of Vietcong tunnels at Cu Chi and the fertile Mekong Delta.
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