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Vietnam & Cambodia …a magical mystery tour (Part 1)

| 04 Jun 2019

In October 2018, Carmel Suthons and Paul Saker travelled with Cox & Kings to Vietnam and Cambodia. In Part One they recount their journey through Vietnam, from the capital Hanoi in the north right down to the Mekong delta in the far south of the country.

Part One: Vietnam

Hanoi

We began our holiday in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Despite having been devastated by the 1972 Christmas bombings during the Vietnam War, the city retains a certain architectural charm. The streets are lively, and traffic lights are a mere suggestion here. The only way to cross the road is to step out confidently and walk steadily to the other side as traffic swarms around you. Amongst all the chaos, lanterns reflect off the peaceful waters of Hoàn Kiếm lake, creating a romantic glow around the old Ngoc Son temple, and families delight in shows at the Water Puppet Theatre while enjoying ice cream or coffee. The Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as he is affectionately referred to in this part of Vietnam, was a great start to the trip. This was followed by a walk through the grounds of the Presidential Palace, where we saw the vintage cars in which he often appears in documentaries and newsreels.

Traffic in Hanoi, Vietnam

Traffic in Hanoi, Vietnam

Halong Bay

From Hanoi we were driven to Halong Bay for a two-day cruise on a junk. By junk, we mean a fabulous, comfortable boat with roomy cabins and en suite bathrooms. Set in the South China Sea just off the Vietnamese mainland, the emerald green waters provide a magical backdrop to 2,000 towering, limestone islands. This must be one of the dreamiest places on Earth. If there is one essential stop in Vietnam, this is it.

View from our junk boat, Halong Bay, Vietnam

View from our junk boat, Halong Bay, Vietnam

There’s the opportunity to kayak among the floating villages. It’s difficult to describe how beautiful the scenery is. We enjoyed a cooling swim off the boat, although I’ve never seen such a quick exit from the waters when a large jellyfish was spotted close to the boat’s hull.

On the way to Ha Long Bay we were reminded of the new Vietnam that is emerging when we passed the massive Samsung factory. There’s also the thriving clothing manufacturing industry. Vietnam is undoubtedly a country going places.

Hoi An

Next stop was Hoi An. We first flew to Da Nang, which has long ceased to bear any resemblance to its darker days as the main US military base during the Vietnam War. This is a thriving, fun-loving city with modern flare, evident in the spectacular Dragon Bridge, which crosses the Han river. Shaped like a snaking dragon, it even has a dragon’s head which spouts fire and water vapour.

We stayed some way out of Da Nang, close to Hoi An, where our hotel looked out across endless sandy beaches and the warm waters lapping An Bang beach.

The little town of Hoi An looks like a movie set it’s so beautiful.  Old houses with intricate carvings and tiled roofs are remnants from a once bustling merchant town. The real surprise is at night when the town is transformed into a magical fairyland of thousands upon thousands of coloured lanterns lighting up the streets and river. We sipped cocktails and watched the passing parade of pleasure boats bobbing along, a kaleidoscope of colour and motion.

Lanterns in the streets of Hoi An, Vietnam

Lanterns in the streets of Hoi An, Vietnam

Huế

From Hoi An we were driven to Huế, travelling over the magnificent Hai Van Pass. Huế suffered badly during the war. Some of its old temples and palaces lie in ruins from the relentless bombing and shelling from both sides during the Tet Offensive. Miraculously, the Imperial Citadel, which includes the Forbidden City, survived. Styled upon the Forbidden City in Beijing, the palace was built by the supreme Emperor of Vietnam in the early 1800s when Huế was the capital. Its delicate, wonderfully preserved structure exudes a sense of calm.

Three-dimensional ceramics, Hue Forbidden City, Vietnam

Three-dimensional ceramics, HuếForbidden City, Vietnam

We visited Ta Om Garden House in Old Huế, which belongs to an architect whose grandfather was a mandarin in the last royal court. Built in the classical Chinese style, it has been lovingly restored. We enjoyed a private and very special lunch here with our menu scribed stylishly on a fan. It was most definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

Feeling quite whoozy with happiness, our guide led us to a boat for a trip from the imposing Thien Mu pagoda, up the Perfume River towards the city’s centre. En route we stopped at a jetty where two rickshaws were waiting for us. We had a fun ride through the centre of Huế, weaving in and out of the crazy Vietnamese traffic.

Nightlife in Huế is buzzy with an endless selection of great bars and restaurants to choose from. The quality of food and cocktails is excellent. We loved Huế and have vowed to return.

The final resting places of two of the emperors of the Nguyễn dynasty, the last imperial family of Vietnam, are located in Huế. They are magnificent examples of royal mausoleums. Emperor Khai Dinh spent much of his twilight years with his concubines here, enjoying the vast lotus pond, island, temple and pavilions, while the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc contains some of the most spectacular three dimensional mosaics, with ceramics imported from Italy. Quite breathtaking.

Mausoleum of Emperor Tu Duc, Hue, Vietnam

Mausoleum of Emperor Tu Duc, Huế, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is still referred to by many as Saigon. Flying into the city, and you do just that (the airport is right in the centre), gives you some idea of how huge it is. In 1986, the Communist Party of Vietnam announced its own version of perestroika where private ownership was encouraged. Since then, international investment has poured into the country, kick-starting its economy, and none more so evident than in this thriving city.

The streets are free from litter and there is little crime other than pickpocketing. The work ethic is humbling. We were surprised to discover that education is not free and yet everybody is striving to better themselves. Locals would politely engage us in conversation in attempts to improve their English, which is now the second language.

City Hall, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

City Hall, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

We had started nervously engaging with the traffic in Hanoi, gained some confidence in Huế but nothing could have prepared us for what Ho Chi Minh City had to offer. As you walk across the street, a million scooters fly past your eyes in both directions, accompanied by maybe a thousand or so cars. And yet we never once saw anybody get even slightly ruffled. It’s chaos but it’s calm.

We can highly recommend a romantic dinner at the Temple Club, one of the oldest restored restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City and very atmospheric.

The Cu Chi tunnels, burrowed by the Việt Cộng during the Vietnam War, are not to be missed. There are 150 kilometres of tunnel networks, even containing underground clothing factories and arms labs that took the unexploded US bombs and re-fashioned them into grenades. Some of the tunnels have been enlarged for visitors as many of the original tunnels are too tiny. It was unsettling just to walk through the woods where anthills served as ventilation holes and leaf-covered trap doors were everywhere. Camouflaged booby-traps had steel spikes to tear the legs off enemies while holes in the ground allowed Việt Cộng  soldiers to shoot at close range. We were constantly aware of what it must have been like fighting such a resourceful and invisible enemy.

Cu Chi tunnels, Vietnam

Cu Chi tunnels, Vietnam

The Mekong delta

The Mekong delta is the bread basket, or rather rice bowl, of Vietnam. Two hours from Ho Chi Minh City, it’s a seemingly endless panorama of bright green paddies stretching to the horizon, marbled with channels of water fed from the mighty Mekong river, the 12th longest river in the world. A private boat took the two of us down the river with its bustle of traffic and iconic long-tailed outboard motors churning up and down the reaches. Chugging along, we were served a scrumptious meal of freshly caught, deep-fried river fish prepared by our hostess at the stern of the boat. After this feast, we boarded a small canoe wearing traditional Vietnamese hats as sun protection, and slipped along the mangrove-lined channels, watching electric-blue kingfishers flitting from one low hanging branch to the next.

Vietnamese woman rowing boat, Mekong delta, Vietnam

Vietnamese woman rowing boat, Mekong delta, Vietnam

Vietnam is an utter delight. Its natural beauty combined with the buzz of its cities, historical treasures and truly wonderful people makes it a place to return to. It was with both regret and expectation of new things to come that we flew to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.

 

Cox & Kings recommends the Grand Tour of Indochina, a small group tour that visits Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. We also offer suggested private itineraries including Vietnam & Cambodia in Style, a luxury tour that includes many of the same places visited by Carmel and Paul. Alternatively, if you are interested in a tailor-made trip, please either call one of our Far East travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.



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