To many, Easter Sunday signifies the true beginning of spring and the renewal of nature and life. It is also a sacred day for the Christian faith and an occasion to celebrate with the city’s five-star hotels fighting it out for your presence on Sunday.
*Caravelle Saigon (17-19 Lam Son Square, Dist. 1, tel: 38234999)
Guests are invited to try caviar, champagne, lobster and more than twenty different desserts at the Caravelle Hotel’s buffet brunch.
Seafood is always the big pull at Nineteen Restaurant, and Easter Sunday is no exception. Consume fresh lobster, tiger prawns, soft-shell crab, clams, mussels, snails and more cooked to order.
A huge salad bar, barbeque station with rack of lamb and imported beef tenderloin, choice of soups, lengthy list of appetizers and more traditional main courses like roast turkey, duck and rabbit will also help loosen a few belts.
The price is around VND1.1 million++ per person
*Park Hyatt Saigon (2 Lam Son Square, Dist. 1, tel: 3824 1234)\
Easter Brunch will be offered in the Opera Restaurant from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, with a rich buffet set throughout the open kitchen. Brunch begins with a variety of starters including seafood on ice, artichoke crust, followed by savory Easter pie, fish and meat and assorted pizza from the wood-fired oven. More than ten dessert items will also be offered to finish brunch on a sweet note.
Easter eggs made of chocolate will be on sale.
Easter brunch is priced at VND1.1 million ++ per person with a free flow of Prosecco or VND1.7 million with a free flow of Champagne.
*Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon (8-15 Ton Duc Thang St., Dist. 1, tel: 3822 0033, ext. 2300)
The Renaissance is hoping to attract visitors with their alcohol choices in combination with Sunday Brunch at VND624,000++ per person or VND832,000++ per person (including a free flow of chilled vodka, wine, beer and soft drinks)
Dining Vouchers are accepted with food only. Dinning Club Members accepted. The brunch is available from noon to 3 p.m. at the Riverside Café on the hotel’s Ground Floor.
*Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers (88 Dong Khoi St., Dist. 1, tel: 3827 2828)
Celebrate Easter Sunday with brunch at Saigon Café with all your favorites. Enjoy freshly chilled seafood including crabs, prawns and scampi, rack of lamb, the Sheraton’s famous grill station and splendid selection of desserts including baklava with chocolate and almonds and puff pastry filled with custard and raspberry.
*Windsor Plaza saigon (18 An Duong Vuong St., Dist. 5, tel: 3833 6688)
On Easter Sunday, the Café Central An Dong on level 4 of the hotel will feature an Easter brunch with traditional activities for children such as an Easter egg hunt and egg decorating. Additionally, classic Easter dishes, such as roast lamb, will be available.
To celebrate in style take in a superb dinner at TOTT Bar & Restaurant on level 25.
HCMC, the country’s biggest tourism center, last Saturday announced the best travel firms, hotels, travel websites, shopping venues and tourism service providers in the city.
Four businesses – Saigontourist Travel Service, Fiditourist, Ben Thanh Tourist and Vietravel – are all included in the lists of the top 10 inbound companies, 10 outbound companies and 10 domestic companies.
All these companies but Fiditourist are in the top five with the best e-commerce websites, together with Viet Media Travel and TST Tourist.
In the hotel category, there are five best five-star, five best four-star, and 10 best three-star hotels. The five-star Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers is the best hotels ho chi minh city for businessmen, and the InterContinental Asiana Saigon is the best hotel for meetings.
The top ten shopping venues include Tax Plaza, Vincom Center, Zen Plaza, Miss Aodai, Parkson, XQ Saigon, Khaisilk and PNJ jewelry shops.
Tourist parks, restaurants and transportation service firms in the city are also selected for their outstanding services.
The city’s Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism collaborated with the HCMC Tourism Association to organize the selection joined by tourism experts, customers and media to mark HCMC Tourism Day.
The four-day HCMC Tourism Day at the September 23 Park closed on Sunday. Around 80 tourism service providers occupy 140 of the 172 booths at the seventh annual event. Around 24 other provinces and cities joined to the gathering as well.
Written by Cheryn Flanagan
Sunday, 10 September 2006
“You see real Vietnam,” Dung yelled back to me as we sped along the twisting, snaking asphalt of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The jungle was all around us: a jumble of a million different leaves, grasses, textures, shapes, shadows, and shades of green, all enveloped in the blue hue of morning light. Above us, the heavens were a battlefield of lucent white skies and lead-colored rain clouds, sparking lush green hills and bathing others in shadow. I could feel the wind and hear the place: the roar of a waterfall, the electric chirrup of insects, the caws of birds. Off in the distance, a fine mist smudged the jungle’s timberline and the mountains beyond, consuming the road we traveled, as we wound our way into the heart of the Central Highlands.
Benjamin, my travel partner, and I hadn’t planned to visit the Central Highlands when we arrived in Vietnam. Like many people who journey here, our plan was to travel the country’s eastern seaboard on Highway One, which traverses the length of the country and links Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, along with a handful of other tourist haunts along the way. Highway One owes its popularity to the ‘open bus circuit’, which allows tourists to hop on and off the bus at a string of destinations without the constraint of a schedule to keep. It’s a cheap way to travel, considering you can make a trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City for under $30.00 on an air-conditioned ‘luxury’ bus. But convenience and cost aside, a trip along Highway One feels more like a Disney ride; the cities along its path have been commercialized for the tourism boom and with the numbers of foreign visitors, they have lost a certain feeling of authenticity. It didn’t take long before Benjamin and I found ourselves wishing for a less prescribed way to experience Vietnam.
Enter the Easy Riders. They’re a group of freelance motorbike guides, based in the Central Highlands and South Central Coast, who take travelers on the back of their bikes to see “real Vietnam”. We met Dung (pronounced like Young) in our hotel lobby in the pastel-washed town of Hoi An. He’d just arrived from Nha Trang with an English couple who told us ride was excellent, the roads decent, and that their 4-day ride was, “…incredible; the highlight of our SE Asia travels.” Dung had two bikes and was looking for customers to make the return journey to Nha Trang. We signed up. On a quest to find the real Vietnam, we rode into the Highlands on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a journey that would span four days and cover almost 500 miles, traveling by motorcycle through some of Vietnam’s more remote areas.
The modern day Ho Chi Minh Trail is more symbolic than exact – it’s not the original tail, but a relatively new highway, which was completed in 2002 to the chagrin of many who believed it to be a foolish endeavor, a colossal waste of money, and a tribute to an artifact of war that represents bloodshed, death, and to some, defeat. And although it’s not the ‘real’ trail, there are plenty reminders of combat, with long forgotten American landing strips and barracks intermingled with Vietnamese cemeteries and war monuments. Blood-red flags emblazoned with a single gold star line the road – a reminder of Vietnam’s quest for unity and harmony, long embroiled in conflict.
Despite the images of war, a journey along this road, as it winds along the Truong Son Mountains, is one of immense beauty, with a diverse population of ethnic minorities and a varied landscape: farm land and bucolic emerald fields; soft, swelling hills; ruddy, rolling rivers; hardwood rainforests, waterfalls, miles of rice paddy, cornfields, black pepper farms, rubber tree forests, and coffee plantations. It was Dung’s habit to stop suddenly, pulling over to the side of the road to take in the views or to traipse through the fields of a farm or plantation. He would pull plants right out of the ground to show us how yams or peanuts or lemongrass grow; tug coffee beans, soybeans, and green beans right from the bush; dip fingers into bowls of rubber tree sap.
Much of our time was spent motoring, and stopping, along the highway in this way. Coiling, curling mountain roads; flat stretches lined with colorful bursts of bougainvillea; rustic villages with homes of rammed earth and wood planks; lively cities with whirling traffic circles and beeping horns; fleeting scenes of life: children returning home from school, women shopping, pigs on their way to the marketplace, farmers harvesting their fields, young boys shepherding herds of cows, businessmen making deals, wedding parties, funeral gatherings… ordinary things that become extraordinary in a foreign land.
We took breaks at roadside stalls and restaurants where we always found government men drinking beer in the afternoon. At times we found more peculiar sights, like a monkey and dog at play, seemingly ignorant of the fact that primates and canines usually don’t get on very well. Once in a while, we’d stop at a restaurant without any customers, and the matrons would devote all of their attention to us, telling Benjamin he is handsome and that he has a beautiful nose, encouraging me to cover my tanned arms to preserve my beautiful white skin – all done with sign language or with Dung’s translation. The curious women inspected our clothes and our faces and touched the hair on our arms. They tried on our sunglasses, and inquired about the use of odds and ends in our backpacks, like hand lotion or lip balm. They always wanted to know where we were from and how we liked their country. They smiled when we told them the Highlands were beautiful, the twinkle in their eye full of pride.
But the physical beauty of the Central Highlands cannot conceal a past and present fraught with conflict. “Many people die here in the war,” Dung told us often. This, his explanation to other admonitions, “I don’t stop there because they no like tourists.” The Central Highlands were an important strategic location for U.S. forces during the American War, and many of the places we passed through along our journey, cities like Kontum, Pleiku, and Buon Ma Thuot, were heavily bombed during B-52 air raids. And, as Dung said, many people died. On occasion, Dung told us to say we are Canadian instead of American. This advice led me to rip up several hotel registration forms with ‘Canada’ written as our country of origin when I realized that we’d have to hand over our U.S. passports to the hotel management for the night. Dung laughed at my folly. “No problem,” he said, leaving me feeling bewildered and embarrassed. It was hard to know when to be American and when it was best not to be. But I never felt unsafe during the course of our travels – I wondered if Dung was not just a bit paranoid.
But perhaps Dung’s caution was not completely unwarranted. The Central Highlands have not always welcomed out-of-towners. In fact, the region was closed to foreigners until 1992 and then again for periods of time in 2001 and 2004. Until the ’90s, the sensitivity stemmed from rumors of secret re-education camps said to be hidden in the area. In 2001 and 2004, travelers were refused entry because of local uprisings over human rights violations and land disputes. The Central Highlands is home to a large population of hill-tribes – ethnic minority groups, or Montagnards, as the French named them. Many of the Montagnards helped the Americans during the war and for this, among other things, they have been victimized. Quite a few have fled to Cambodia, seeking ultimate asylum in the U.S. The issue is ongoing: during our travels in the Central Highlands, the Montagnards were again in the news. 100 people from a group of 700 who escaped to Cambodia in previous years were being sent back to Vietnam.
We met many of the Montagnards as we traveled the Ho Chi Minh Trail; Dung would pull over to the side of the road at a house or a village and suddenly, we were ushered into their world, their homes, and their lives. Our initial encounter took us by surprise. When we left Hoi An, we didn’t know the protocol for such visits. While we did know we’d be meeting hill-tribe people, we didn’t realize it would be so random and impulsive. All it took was for Dung to notice someone was at home.
Our first of such stops was a home occupied by a single family, 20 people and 3 generations, all living together under one roof. Inside, it was dark and cool, with shafts of sunlight streaming in between the bamboo slats of the walls. Numerous animal skulls were mounted to the ceiling, some charred black from the cooking fire; rudimentary hunting tools leaned against a wall; tobacco leaves were hung to dry; chickens pecked and roamed freely; a litter of puppies scampered about; old men and younger men swung lazily in hammocks; a cooking fire smoldered in a corner; old women dressed in traditional garb crouched on the floor; a few children gnawed on fat stalks of sugar cane; a group of teenage girls sat at a table eating a lunch of fish and rice.
“They are Sedang people,” Dung told us, and of the older generation at home that day “they not speak Vietnamese.” Many of the ethnic minorities have their own languages, and while the younger generation learns Vietnamese in school, the old folks are locked in a time warp, unable to communicate with the outside world. The generation gap stretches beyond language, though. The government has done much to assimilate the Montagnards, and the result is a visible divide between the old and the young. In this house, the elder women were dressed in traditional clothes, while the younger girls and boys looked like they could have come straight from the city, with bleach-streaked hair and silk-screened t-shirts. Seeing them all together was like witnessing the past in a collision with the future.
“They very poor, they work for themselves,” Dung explained. “They grow corn and hunt at night with flashlight and gun. Shoot the snake, shoot the pig.” From the array of skulls mounted to the ceiling, it appeared that they eat many animals: cats, dogs, goats, cows. “They have simple life,” Dung continued, pointing to the kitchen, which was nothing more than a fire pit recessed in the bamboo platform. There were no modern-day conveniences, no plumbing or electricity… and upon noticing a small, fluorescent light bulb mounted to a support beam, Dung showed us the power source: an old car battery. And while it was covered in dust and cobwebs, it seemed to be one of the family’s most valued possessions.
We met more Montagnards in Kontum, children left parentless from disease, farming accidents, and, I presume, clashes with the government during ethnic uprisings. Dung described the latter, obliquely, as ‘hill-tribe wars’. There are over 300 orphans at the two homes we visited, with a representation of 10 ethnic minority groups, and ages ranging from newborn to 20-years-old. Outside one of the orphanages, a Catholic church stands next to a traditional Bahar rong house, an odd juxtaposition of steeple and thatched roof. Christianity was brought to the Montagnards in the early 1900s and still remains strong in the community.
Most of the children we met were friendly and affectionate, but some of them bore a haunting countenance of sorrow. The younger children, perhaps in the naivety of youth, seemed less affected by their loss. They approached us with huge smiles, holding their half-eaten lollipops out to us as gifts as they climbed onto our laps, and nuzzled their faces against our shoulders. It was at one of these orphanages that we met Cham.
A man with a humble disposition and a face lined by time, Cham has worked at the orphanage for 6 years as a teacher. He told us he was orphaned himself at the age of 11 – the communists killed his father outside of Pleiku, the body was never recovered. Cham smiled when he learned we were American, saying, “I was a captain on the American side – an advisor to the U.S. during the war.” He can’t have been the only person we met in the Highlands who’d been on the losing side of the war, but he was the only one who talked about it. Cham told us that he’d gone to prison camp in 1975, where he spent more than 2 years upon defeat in the war, and added that if he’d been imprisoned for just a little longer – 3 years – he would have been eligible to immigrate to the U.S. I could tell by the look in his eye and the sound of his voice that he very much wanted for that to happen. Life was tough for Vietnamese on the ‘enemy side’ after the war, and still is today. “I am unlucky,” Cham told us. It is the Vietnamese way to associate the good and bad in life with luck.
And for the unlucky, traveling the Ho Chi Minh Trail can be dangerous. The highway is lined with spirit houses and graves where people have died in accidents. “33 people die there when the bus went over,” Dung pointed out as we rounded a curve on one of the highways’ many steep mountain passes. And it’s not just the road that can be dangerous, it’s the other drivers, animals, and weather, too. Giant, tank-sized trucks and slipshod drivers ran us off the highway at times; dogs, cows, chicken, and geese wander onto the road; man-eating potholes, unpaved roadway, rickety wood-planked bridges, mudslides, floods, and fallen rocks make the highway an obstacle course of video game proportions. And, we had rain. At times a light mist, but at others, a torrential downpour. Our journey brought us to the Highlands in July, during the wet season. At times we were forced to ride through a storm, chasing the blue sky and rainbows we could see in the distance.
We only saw a handful of other Westerners in our four days on the road, less people than I counted in a single hour at the café where we had breakfast on the morning we left Hoi An. Many of them were also traveling by motorbike, but some of them were also in cars. It might seem safer, or more comfortable, to travel by car. But on a motorcycle, without the barrier of doors and windows and an encasement of metal, you can feel the weather: the hot rays of the sun and the stinging pelt of the rain. You can smell the place: the sweetness of wet earth, the exhaust from belching trucks, the aroma of cooking fires. You can feel the road: the cracks, the composition of the pavement, the curves. And at the end of the day, you can feel it all on your skin, somehow softened by the sun, the wind, the dust, and the grime. Traveling by motorcycle is the ultimate feeling of freedom. It is, Benjamin whispered to me late one night, the best feeling in the world.
At our journey’s end, we again found ourselves in the jungle and I was reminded of Dung, on that first day, yelling back to me, “You see real Vietnam.” I came to understand in the days in-between that like the jungle, Vietnam is a tapestry of textures, shapes, and shadows, all woven together in a cloak of unity. It’s a place scarred from its long history of war, with old wounds that haven’t quite healed and new wounds opening up every day. It’s a place with open arms and closed doors. It’s enigmatic, diverse, and multilayered, with a varied landscape and a rich cultural diversity. It’s a place of beauty and strife, pride and prejudice.
When the road we’d been traveling met up with Highway One, congested with tourist busses on their way to Nha Trang, Dung pulled over one last time at a shack selling sugar cane water. “I show you real Vietnam,” he said after some time of silence. I looked at the bored faces staring out from windows of the tour busses speeding by and replied, “Yes Dung, you did.”
By Heather Ramsay
A cruise on Halong Bay is an essential part of any visit to northern Vietnam, claimed our itinerary. Similar statements must be made in every guide to the country, because when we arrived at the embarkation point we felt as if we’d a entered a tourist mill where we’d be sucked in, processed and churned out a day later.
However, we were soon led through the throngs towards the junk-style boat that would be our home for the next 24 hours. After inspecting our cute, wood-panelled cabin, we hastened upstairs to the spacious sundeck, eager to see how the crew would extricate us from the tangle of boats. Miraculously, it happened without a fuss and we were soon floating towards Halong Bay, often described as one of the greatest wonders of Asia.
Soon after casting off we were invited to lunch, which consisted of whole crab, fresh prawns, melt-in-your mouth fish and an unrecognisable but tasty Vietnamese dessert. Oh, and did I mention French wine?
Thus sated, we retired to the deckchairs to watch the panorama of Halong Bay unfold. This Unesco World Heritage site consists of around 3000 precipitous limestone islands jutting out of the emerald-green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The name translates loosely as “place of the descending dragon” and legend says that the islands were hewn from the seabed by the thrashing tail of a dragon.
Our junk cruised through narrow channels between towering islands covered in dense vegetation, and navigated slowly past misshapen pillars of rock. The concentration of odd-shaped islands in such a compact area made them seem as if they overlapped, creating a layered effect that stretched into infinity.
Groups of simple houseboats huddled under craggy overhangs, and our junk nudged up alongside one of these floating villages. As well as being the family home, the houseboats are fish farms that provide an income. Large square nets attached to pontoons disappear into the depths, while smaller tanks hold seafood that’s ready for sale.
Our chef purchased a selection of fish and crustaceans, and after we’d watched the sun set over the bay, we settled in for another meal extravaganza, knowing that the seafood couldn’t possibly be any fresher.
Most of the time we didn’t see other tourist boats, but the lights of other boats reflecting on the silken waters imparted a sense of security. There are also a couple of places where tourist boats congregate to disgorge their human cargo for short excursions. The first of these was Sung Sot cave, where we traipsed through a series of limestone caverns lit (rather tastelessly, I thought) by coloured bulbs.
The other was Luong Cave, where we clambered in to a rowboat and headed through a low opening at the base of a rocky island. We emerged into a lagoon encircled by sheer cliffs where we drifted in silence, listening to the shriek of seabirds and the wash of waves against the boat. Our timing was fortunate because as we exited the cave an armada of rowboats was heading our way, but despite the occasional feeling of being on a tourist treadmill, the cruise was a superb travel experience.
For a complete contrast to the seascapes of Halong Bay we headed back to the capital, Hanoi, and took an overnight train to the former French summer retreat of Sapa. Sapa and the surrounding mountain areas are known for their ethnic minority groups (known collectively as Montagnards) who follow a simple rural lifestyle raising animals and growing crops. Many women are skilled at embroidery and stitch-work, producing intricate pieces for their own use and for sale.
Once a week the hill tribe people converge to trade livestock, produce and goods – and once again our timing was fortunate. We arrived in time for the Coc Ly market, which only happens on Tuesdays – and although 17km of the drive was over a rough dirt road, it was worth the discomfort.
Coc Ly market is mainly attended by the Flower H’mong people, whose traditional dress features floral patterns embroidered in ultra-bright colours. Flamboyant headgear seemed to be the rage, with some women sporting large, round hats that resembled 70s-style lampshades, while others opted for folded cloth.
The market carried all kinds of everyday goods but, not surprisingly, the most popular stalls were those offering cloth and fluorescent wool. Meanwhile the men hung around stalls selling mounds of fresh tobacco leaves, which were smoked in a big bamboo bong.
From Coc Ly we took a relaxing boat ride down the Chay River then drove to Sapa via Lao Cai, on the Chinese border. After Lao Cai, the road wound tortuously up through a series of switchbacks, zigzagging towards the distant mountains. Heavily terraced hillsides dropped away below us, sculpted into productive land by hundreds of years of human toil.
Sapa town perches on the slopes of a high valley surrounded by mountains, and its French colonial architecture gives it the feeling of a European alpine village. From our hotel room we could see Fansipan, which, at 3143m, is the highest peak in Vietnam. Keen trampers can make the ascent, while another popular option in this region is multi-day treks with overnight stays in hill-tribe villages.
There are several H’mong, Dsao and Tay villages near town, and once we dragged ourselves away from Sapa’s cosy cafes, we wandered down paths through rice paddies to subsistence communities that still live by the rhythm of the seasons.
With the increase in tourism, canny villagers have seen a way to make extra cash and our rural rambles were often interrupted by women and children selling embroidered goods such as purses, tablecloths, and bedspreads. But it was worth the meagre cost of a couple of colourful pencil cases to be escorted around the villages and given an insight into local lifestyle and customs.
On our last morning we slogged up a steep path to Dragon Mountain, where attractive public gardens have been created among tall, thin spikes of black rock. From a high point known as Dragon’s Awe we looked over the gardens and the town to Fansipan, which, as usual, was draped in clouds.
We made the most of this peaceful vista, knowing that our next destination was hectic Hanoi, which contrasts well with Sapa and Halong Bay to form an interesting tourism triangle in the north of Vietnam.
NEED TO KNOW
Getting there: Flight Centre has return flights to either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City ex-Auckland from $1569. Flights can be to Hanoi and from Ho Chi Minh City or vice versa, and can be packaged with Adventure World’s range of Vietnam tours.
These include the 10-day Highlights of Vietnam tour, which is priced from $1270 per person, share twin. Conditions apply to fares and tour packages. Adventure World can also customise itineraries for individual travellers.
Vietnam has some fantastic shopping opportunities, so it’s well worth setting aside half a day or so to properly peruse. Hotspots include Hanoi, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City, each of which has a temping selection of everything from avant-garde art to sumptuous silk suits.
Some of the best buys are as following:
Vietnamese Art & Antiques
There are several shops to hunt for art and antiques. Both traditional and modern paintings are a popular item. More sophisticated works are displayed in art galleries, while cheaper mass-produced stuff is touted in souvenir shops and by street vendors. A Vietnamese speciality is the “instant antique”, such as a teapot or ceramic dinner plate, with a price tag of around US$2.
As Vietnam has strict regulations on the export of real antiques, be sure the items are allowed out of the country. Most reputable shops can provide the necessary paperwork.
Vietnam is emerging as a regional design center and there are some extravagant creations in the boutiques of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Ao dai, the national dress for Vietnamese women, is a popular item to take home. Ready-made ao dai costs from US$ 10 to US$20, but custom numbers can cost a lot more. There are ao dai tailors nationwide, but those in the tourists centers are more familiar with foreigners.
Hill-tribe gear is winding its way to shops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. It’s brightly patterned stuff, but you may need to set the dyes yourself so those colours don’t bleed all over the rest of your clothes.
T-shirts are ever popular items with travellers, cost from US$1 to US$4.
Non (conical hats) are favorite items for women in both rainy and sunny times. The best quality ones can be found in the Hue’s area.
Hot items on the tourist market include lacquerware, boxes and wooden screens with mother-of-pearl inlay, ceramics, colourful embroidery, silk greeting cards, wood-block prints, oil paintings, watercolours, blinds made of hanging bamboo beads, reed mats, carpets, jewellery and leatherwork.
It’s easy to by what looks like equipment left over from the American War, but almost all of these items are reproductions and your chances of finding anything original are slim. The fake Zippo lighters engraved with platoon philosophy are still one of the hottest-selling items.
Bargaining should be good-natured, smile and don’t get angry or argue. Once the money is accepted, the deal is done. Remember that in Asia, “saving face” is very important. In some cases you will be able to get a 50% discount or more, at other times this may only be 10%.
Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam is a metropolis on the move. The commercial hub of Asia’s newest tiger economy teems with motorcycles and scooters; there are 3.15 million of them officially registered, with about a thousand new scooters being signed up every day. They flow along the streets en masse, 24/7, like criss-crossing shoals of fish. From what I can tell, the average occupancy of these machines is about 2.2. Three-up is common; four-up, not unusual. On a couple of occasions, I think I saw five-up including toddlers.
In a tapering 1,500km-long country like Vietnam, a sense of nationhood has been something of a struggle to come by. However, the motorcycle could be riding to the country’s rescue. This is a nation that lives in the saddle. It eats, sleeps, holds neighbourly conversations (at 70kph, with just a few inches separating interlocutors as they buzz down the street), reads newspapers, carries washing machines, walks the dog, transports pigs, chickens and ducks, and works on laptops, all on motorbikes. If you see a pile of furniture tottering down the street, that’ll be someone moving house on their motorbike. Crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh City requires faith. Step out and let the stream eddy miraculously around you, and be sure not to panic halfway across and change direction. That could be fatal.
Paddles and pedals: fishing boats in the resort and market town of Nha Trang (Getty Images)
Until crash helmets became mandatory earlier this year, motorcycles were notching up horrific casualties: one thousand motorcyclists a month, apparently. Now, crash helmets are bona fide fashion items. Even when not saddled up, young Vietnamese flaunt them about town, emblazoned as they are with colourful designs. Face masks, too. You find surgical white masks being worn, as well as coloured scarves wrapped around the face, Lone Ranger-style. The women complement the look with elbow-length silk gloves to prevent their arms getting sunburnt. The effect of the gloves, masks and helmets is to transform Vietnamese women into ninja Catherine Deneuves caught in a dash from operating theatre to movie premiere.
The Caravelle Hotel is the place to shake off jet lag. Opened in 1959, with bullet-proof glass, it was the base for The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC and CBS during the Vietnam War. Journalists and armchair strategists covered the closing exchanges from the top floor bar. The hotel overlooks the opera house, the Hotel Continental, where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American, and the twin spires of Notre-Dame cathedral, legacies of French colonialism whose imprint is still clearly visible on this haphazard city. Every side-street shows the accent of pre-war France in its shutters, balconies and Art Deco flourishes.
Elsewhere, a less romantic, more hard-edged version of Ho Chi Minh City is taking over, as newly minted skyscrapers reach upwards like a graph of soaring capitalist growth.
What should one see? The Reunification Palace, where the president of South Vietnam lived, is a 1966 building eerily reminiscent of the Royal Festival Hall. Its occupation by communist forces on 30 April 1975 marked the end of the Vietnam War. The tanks that smashed through the gates that morning are still in the grounds, as tourist attractions. The palace shows, if nothing else, what frightful taste the presidents of South Vietnam had: featureless concrete vistas offset with the most hideous soft furnishings. Goodness knows how it ever past the feng shui man.
Everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City you see war relics – a gun, a tank, a military vehicle, an aeroplane – memorialised into tourist attractions or civic amenities. The War Remnants Museum is a refreshingly harrowing exhibition of the horrors of war, rendered in photographs, installations and military hardware. It makes the grisly Imperial War Museum in London look like Disneyland.
For a people that saw off the French and the Americans within the space of 21 years, the Vietnamese are a remarkably friendly lot, and welcome visitors of all nations, including Americans and the French. If this was England, you’d never hear the end of it: the Vietnamese, in contrast, have a wonderful calm acceptance of the past and seem focused solely on the future. This is a quality that the West secretly admires.
Ho Chi Minh is worth a day or two, but it is good to get out of the city. Two hundred miles to the north-east, you find Ninh Van Bay, the jewel of the 3,260km Vietnamese coastline. Arcs of honey-coloured sand, a warm sea studded with coral reefs, a fan-shaped cluster of islands to keep off tsunamis, a mountain rampart to guard against typhoons, and the sunniest climate in Vietnam… these are what make Ninh Van one of the most beautiful bays in the world. Nha Trang, the main town, spreads out behind the beachfront promenade, where every morning thousands of Vietnamese perform t’ai chi among the topiary.
Hailing a trishaw, I plunged into the massing scooters of the rush-hour traffic to find the beating heart of the town, Nha Trang market. This must rank as among the culinary wonders of the world. There are more varieties of fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices and pulses here than you can shake a chopstick at, along with several things in the meat and fish section that would give a society for the ethical treatment of livestock a collective heart attack.
I spent a morning dodging bicycle panniers laden with pomelos, ducking beneath crates of mangos on vendors’ heads, sidestepping porters balancing swing-basket yokes filled with rice, and puddle-jumping between stalls selling fish and seafood kept alive by having water splashed on them. The narrow alleys were filled with delivery men, fresh ingredients, the noise of motorcycles and horns, and customers dawdling or catching up on gossip. You could hear the haggling for miles.
Vietnamese cuisine is a close cousin of Chinese, thanks to China’s occupation of Vietnam for the thousand years up to the 10th century. But the Vietnamese tend to use more fresh herbs than the Chinese, and they love soups and steamed fish. However, once you have covered the basic rice/soup/fish combinations, Vietnamese cuisine goes way off-piste. Very few species of animal in Vietnam escape the meat cleaver, u o wok and burner. Just about every animal in the country has a dish devoted to it, and sometimes a restaurant, too. This flair for gastronomic improvisation is a legacy of war. Faced with destroyed fields and nothing to plough with, Vietnamese cooks were reduced to experimenting with bat, cat, rat, dog, seahorse and the celebrated 18-inch mouse-eating Vietnamese centipede.
“In the Mekong delta [southern Vietnam], you eat a lot of snake, gecko and turtle,” said Trung, my guide. “Cobra is a favourite. The blood is served with rice wine. The heart you knock back in one, while still beating – bang-bang! – and the meat is served both grilled and as a soup.”
Snake is the chicken of south-east Asia. If you’ve travelled in this part of the world, you’ve probably eaten snake several times without knowing it. Since December last year, airport officials at Hanoi have uncovered at least two consignments of smuggled snakes. One was labelled “seafood”. It contained one ton of live rat-snakes.
My rickshaw driver parked outside what looked like a motorbike shop. A palisade of new scooters gleamed outside. Upon closer inspection, the premises resolved into a café. This was Bac Hai, Nha Trang’s premier pho opportunity. Pho, a noodle soup, is Vietnam’s national dish; it may have originated from French pot-au-feu – whose last syllable it shares.
The interior of Bac Hai is as basic as a beer crate. You sit on red plastic stools and eat off metal trestle tables, with what look like betting slips for napkins. The noodles are served in a soup with chunks of beef or pork or sna… sorry, chicken. With lemon and chopped Vietnamese basil, a bowl of pho makes one of the most rewarding ways of spending a dollar.
Every fifth shop in Nha Trang appears to be a coffee shop. In fact, the whole country is on a caffeine high, as you might expect from the world’s second biggest exporter of coffee (after Brazil). Coffee is a Vietnamese ritual. Hot water drips through a tin filter placed on top of a glass. Once the water has seeped through, ice and condensed milk are added and the concoction is stirred and served. It tastes like coffee ice cream and is the perfect antidote to Vietnam’s perennially sweltering climate.
Nha Trang is primarily a market town and beach resort. It is also the birthplace and home of a local cultural icon: Long Thanh, the photographer whose black-and-white images capture the soul of the Vietnamese people, set against moody landscapes. His Hoang Van Thu Street gallery is well worth a visit. Thanh wanders around town and the hinterland taking extraordinary shots of archetypal Vietnamese scenes of bicycles, baskets, rickshaws, women in their conical hats, crones and moments of every day life, images that have merited Thanh more than 57 international shows – and there isn’t a single war-scene among them.
Where to stay in Nha Trang? If you want real value for money, there are hundreds of hotels catering for Vietnamese holidaymakers. Vietnam’s average annual wage is US$600 (£307). Were you to go native in Nha Trang, you could live like a king for a few hundred pounds. But if you want to indulge yourself, the Evason Hideaway at Ana Mandara is the only hotel built directly on the beach (all others are set behind the promenade). It comprises villas, pavilions and walkways set in a formal garden ablaze with tropical plants. You have to watch where you walk, in case you tread in one of the water features with their very hungry goldfish.
“The average room costs US$188 [£99] a night,” said Lionel Valla, the manager. “You can have a one-hour massage for US$45 [£24]. Vietnam is the best value in south-east Asia. And we have a 600-metre beach.”
Even though the Ana Mandara is hemmed between the promenade and the beach, it feels like a calm oasis. If you really want to escape from the crowds, the rickshaw rallies and scooter races, then head to the Six Senses Hideaway Ninh Van Bay, accessible only by boat, seven miles across the bay. Here, you enter a realm that has less to do with Vietnam and more to do with the imagination of its owners, Sonu and Eva Shivdasani. It’s a place you visit if you want to see Vietnam by looking down the wrong end of a telescope.
The Shivdasanis have gone for the natural look. Everything is designed to look as undesigned as possible, and as close to a piece of driftwood as possible: call it low-impact chic. A chair or bathroom sink is not just a chair or bathroom sink: it comes wrapped in a whole sustainable, carbon-neutral, light-footprint philosophy. It is a five-star Robinson Crusoe experience with the mod cons out of sight, and with terrific food, wine and service. I spent three days there, mesmerised by the luminous splendour of Ninh Van Bay; the water, the air, the light, melding colours and sheer lack of motorcycles.
It sounds odd to say that Vietnam seems relatively unspoilt by hordes of foreigners when, during the last century, it was trampled over by the French, the Japanese, the French (again) and Americans. It also had million of tons of bombs dropped on it, as well as horrific quantities of Agent Orange. But a visit during these more peaceful times is a chance to marvel at how this charming country has shrugged at the horrors of the past, drawn a line under them, and is moving forward to make a different type of history – on scooters.
The writer travelled with Qatar Airways (0870 389 8090; www.qatarairways.com), which flies to to Ho Chi Minh City via Doha.
Alternatively, Air France (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.co.uk) flies via Paris.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an “offset” through Abta’s Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Caravelle Hotel, 19 Lam Son Square, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (00 84 8 823 4999; www.caravellehotel.com). Doubles start at US$234 (£123), including breakfast.
Evason Ana Mandara, Beachside Tran Phu Bloulevard, Nha Trang, Vietnam (00 84 58 522 222; www.sixsenses.com/ana-mandara). Doubles start at US$306 (£161), room only.
Six Senses Hideaway, Ninh Van Bay (00 84 58 728 222; www.evasonhideaways.com). Doubles from $844 (£444), room only.
Long Thanh Gallery, Hoang Van Thu Street, Nha Trang City, Vietnam (00 84 58 824 875; www.longthanhart.com)
Red tape and more details
British passport-holders require a visa to visit Vietnam. These can be obtained by post or in person from the Embassy of Vietnam, 12-14 Victoria Road, London W8 5RD (020-7937 1912; www.vietnamembassy.org.uk) and cost £38.
www.vietnamtourism.com; 00 84 4 942 3760
By Rory Ross
The Independent (UK)
August 9, 2008
Going to Vietnam, you can discover the country through various cities, tourist sites … by air, road, train or boat…
Traveling by Air
Traveling by air may be the first choice for traveler in Vietnam. There are three international airports in Vietnam: Noi Bai in Hanoi, Tan Son Nhat in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang in Danang city. Airport tax is 14$ for only international flights in each airports.
Flights are available to almost big airports such as Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Phnom Penh, Dubai, Paris, and Frankfurt…
In major cities of Vietnam, plane ticket booking is available via telephone and internet. It is also available at civil aviation ticketing offices, travel agencies and hotels.
Taxies service are available all day at the airport, hotels, railway station in the big cities and provinces. The prices is about 1$ for the first 2km, and every kilometer thereafter costs about 0.5$. It can be vary based on the taxi service provider you choose.
Pedicab or Cyclo
Pedicab available in some cities such as Hanoi, Hue, Dan Nang, Hoi An and Saigon. You can discover these city by Pedicab (it is called “xich lo” in Vietnamese). It costs about 40.000 VND to 50.000 VND / hour (3$ ~ 4$ dollars / hour). It is very convenient that you can take photos or make movies while sitting in pedicab.
Vietnam’s railway provides an alternative travel mean to the plane. You can travel through Vietnam by train but it takes time because the journey time is long. Sleeping compartments usually are available on the long-distances train.
Ticket can be bought at the station of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City in advance.
Cars for Rent
Cars for rent are available at almost travel agencies. There are a wide range of cars you can rent with drivers.
Motorbikes for Rent
Motorbikes for rent are available in almost tourist town and cities. If you want to have an enjoyable sightseeing you can rent one. It costs about 6$ to 12$ performance day to rent a motorbike.
Here, new buildings, there, persons in a hurry… It is the picture of a busting, dynamic but beautiful and friendly city – Ho Chi Minh City, the Chief Southern Centre of Vietnam!
Introduction & Location
If you have visited a number of cities in Vietnam but forgot Ho Chi Minh City, you have not known much about Vietnam for real. It is considered the capital of the Southern area of Vietnam. It is located near the Mekong delta, about 1,760 kilometers south of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam with the population of 7 million in the area of 2095 square kilometers (908 square miles). Ho Chi Minh City is the second heart and soul of Vietnam, to Hanoi. It’s a bustling, dynamic and industrious centre, the largest city in the country, the economic capital and the cultural trendsetter. Yet within the teeming metropolis are the timeless traditions and beauty of an ancient culture.
Ho Chi Minh City (abbreviation HCMC), commonly known as Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam and the former capital of the Republic of Vietnam. The city used to be a small fishing village, inhabited by Khmer people, Cambodia before becoming a land under Nguyen dynasty rule in 1698, being conquered by France from 1950 to 1975. Throughout its long history, HCMC appears to be not only a modern and dynamic city but a cultural and historical one as well.
Following the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Nevertheless, the old Saigon moniker is still used by both Vietnamese and foreigners.
You are going to visit Sai Gon? The best time to visit weather-wise is the dry season between December and April, when the humidity is more manageable. The clouds start getting heavy around November and stay through March. The Tet Festival in late January or early February is an exciting, if extremely hectic, time to visit. Being only 10.5° above the equator and between 5 and 10m (16-35ft) above sea level, Ho Chi Minh City is almost a template for tropical weather. Temperatures rarely vary from about 30°C (86°F).
People and Culture
Exploring deeply inside Sai Gon, tourists may be surprised at the diversity of ethnic minorities in the magnificent city and its surroundings. Apart from Kinh (or Viet) people, there are a number of others, for example, Chinese, (the largest Chinese community in Vietnam), Khmer, Cham, Nung, and Rhade, etc. Each of them has their own cultural characteristics, languages, costumes, lifestyles, and religions such as: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Ancestor Worship, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, Islam, Hinduism, and Bahá’í Faith. Yet, the vast majority is Kinh people, whose common charateristic is to be friendly, hospitable, open-hearted, and straightforward.
These days, lots of Sai Gon’s youngsters and youths could speak English fairly well. They are more and more fond of communicating with foreigners in English for practice. More importantly, they are helpful, which fully reassure first-time foreign visitors to this city.
HCMC, as known, is now growing up to be an industrious, modern and dynamic city, with a lot of new modern constructions of Western architecture. However, here and there you can still see ancient monuments such as Notre Dame Cathedral, Thien Hau Pagoda, Phung Son Tu Pagoda, etc., making it a special picture of “an integrated rather than dissolved city”. HCMC is called “the Pearl of the Far East” or “Paris in the Orient” thanks to this special fascinating beauty, capable to have most travellers lengthen their stay.
Places of Interest
Being a city embracing both traditional and modern beauty, HCMC is an ideal destination of interest for every generations with different characters.
You are young, active and playful? There are uncountable places of entertainment for you in this fast-growing dynamic city. Dam Sen Water Park is worth your try. Opened in 1999 with new water slides added each year, this water park offers some truly unique water slide experiences (including the amazing “Space Bowl”)! Or you may like to watch films? Galaxy cinema with up-to-date films on big screen would be your premium choice. Though not as huge as that in some other countries, it is one amongst the top places of entertainment in Ho Chi Minh City these days.
If you prefer places of religion and history, here we go! Notre Dame Cathedral (Nhà thờ Đức Bà) is the old architectural monument, which is much enchanting. Incense Thien Hau Pagoda is dedicated to Lady Thien Hau, the sea goddess, who left two giant turtles to keep an eye on things in her absence. A festival is held in her honor on the 23rd day of the March lunar month. Don’t miss the gorgeous sculptures in the walls of the courtyard outside the temple! Quan Am Pagoda, the oldest pagoda in town, and Phung Son Tu Pagoda, which is dedicated to the God of happiness and virtue. The pagoda itself is dusty and dwarfed by high-rises under construction nearby, but the small, sculpted grounds are a good place for a rest from the hectic city. Besides, you should also visit some premium museums of the city, such as the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, Museum of Vietnamese History, and Revolutionary Museum and the War Remnants Museum.
Further more, HCMC is a city that churns, ferments, bubbles and fumes. The streets are a jumble of street markets, shops, pavement cafes, stands-on-wheels and vendors selling wares spread out on sidewalks. It’s impossible not to be infected by its exhilarating vibe.
Dynamic economical outlook
As mentioned, HCMC is now one of the two most significant economic centre of Vietnam. Around 300,000 enterprises are trading in high-tech, electronics, processing and light industries, in construction, building materials and agro-products on a whole. Further foreign investment is now pouring into the city. Month by month, year by year, buildings, contructions of entertainment, tourism, and companies come up. Higher education in Ho Chi Minh City is much concentrated, with about 76 universities and colleges and a total of over 380,000 students. The health care system of the city is relatively improved with a chain of about 100 public-owned hospitals or medical centers and dozens of private-owned clinics. Transportation is more and more convenient with four means of transport system: airlines, rail, road and marine. What is more, mass media is day by day fast developing. It is also the home of hundreds cinemas and theatres, parks, and luxury and standard hotels. Well, what can you see from this much-to-say view? I can only see rapid growth and great economic as well as tourism potential!
- Notre – Dame Cathedral
- War Remnants Museum
- Jade Emperor Pagoda
- Binh Tay Market
- China Town
- Cu Chi Tunnels