VietnamDiscovery.com is the official online channel for tour booking of Vietnam Discovery Travel Jsc. The website is set up in an attempt to reach out to customers by presenting to them more than 10-year experience in Vietnam travel arrangements in just a few mouse clicks.
In celebrating its 10th birthday, VietnamDiscovery.com proudly introduces many newly added features to enhance customers’ experience in booking Vietnam tours through the website. Tailored to users’ needs, the new features have been released recently and received positive feedbacks.
One of the new features is the interactive map with the outlined path for every tour on the site. The maps will mark all the destinations along the trips according to the detailed itineraries. Users will have a general idea about the trips they are considering.
A tour planning package is also added with several highly useful tools for tourists planning their trip in Vietnam. Users can fill out the query form answering their favorite itineraries and budget and choose from several tailor-made tours offered based on their answers. The package also includes currency converter, weather check and separate pages for sharing real-time Vietnam travel experiences and frequently asked questions about Vietnam.
With hundreds of different tours onsite, VietnamDiscovery.com also invented a new way of classification in which tours are classified into both tour styles and tour destinations. In each destination, new contents are updated such as detailed city travel guide, typical tours available for each city as well as cities’ highlights (attractions, restaurants, bars and useful travel pointers).
Users visiting the website now can also surf through updated Vietnam travel news, access photos gallery with pictures taken and uploaded by travelers, and check out the company other travel services such as Vietnam Visa, Vietnam Hotel or Transportation.
In reflecting to the website’s changes and innovations, CEO of Vietnam Discovery Travel, Mr. Nguyen, stated: “Having been working relentlessly for ten years in domestic and inbound tourism, Vietnam Discovery has built a reputation among fellow travelers with highly-qualified tour programs, outstanding travel consulting and responsible travel services. And, I am positive that we never stop striving to be better and do better!”
Wish to share your opinions on our new features?
We want to improve our website to perfection, to make it everything you want and need it to be. So we would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions on the new features. You are welcome to be as honest as you like, please email any (constructive) comment to email@example.com and let us know what you think.
Vietnam Discovery Travel Jsc.
The backpacker grapevine, online and word of mouth, lands Vietnam travelers in areas where Westerners congregate such as Ho Chi Minh City (HCM City’s) Pham Ngu Lao area in District 1. One Westerner I spoke to there said he had heard about it by posting a query on the lonelyplanet.com website about where to find the backpacker social life when he traveled to HCM City.
In the few years since those first cheap hotels opened, hundreds more guesthouses and cheap hotels in ho chi minh have started thriving businesses in the few blocks that the area occupies. Many of the properties that do not have rooms for rent operate as restaurants, bars, Vietnam tour operators or shops selling souvenirs, cheap clothing and knock-off CDs – basically anything a backpacker might buy. “Open tour” buses, which allow travelers to hop on and off buses several times with a single ticket, start from here and arrive there, heading for all the country’s top destinations – Nha Trang, Hoian, Hue or Hanoi. Normally these deposit passengers at a commission-paying guesthouse, and budget travelers could face a battle to head elsewhere.
However, the area’s success has caused property prices to rocket, and many guesthouses are now giving themselves a facelift, re-branding themselves as boutique hotels and charging US$50-70 a night, much higher than three to five years ago. But, in general, for the moment at least, there is enough curiosity about Saigon’s backpacker ghetto that it draws curious Vietnamese and Westerners to hang out in its quirky bars and cafes.
Just like the HCM City’s backpacker area, Ta Hien Street in downtown Hanoi is a popular destination of foreign tourists to trade travel stories and drink some of the world’s cheapest beer. On the website of The Lonely Planet, Ta Hien is dubbed as “The first street that backpackers visit when they arrive in Hanoi and the last place they see before they leave.”
The 200-meter-long strip of broken pavement and sullen houses in the heart of the old quarter plays home to hundreds of travel agencies, budget hotels, cheap eats, hawkers and any business that is likely to ply a few dollars from the price-conscientious backpacker.
But the real meet and greet spot of the city is draught beer corner, an intersection that serves up cool pints of odd tasting beer for as little as VND3,000 (16 U.S. cents) a glass. At the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets, the four draught beer shops are teaming with groups of backpackers who have settled into Hanoian street life. But when sunset falls, the “international crossroad” starts to come alive. It all starts at about 8 p.m. and goes until midnight. People gather, drink beer, chat and sing.
Besides Saigon and Hanoi, other cities across Vietnam that are making tourism a specialty are watching backpacker areas that spawned a few years ago grow and develop organically.
It is said that visitors cannot claim to have been to Can Tho City in the Mekong Delta region if they have never been to the city’s Ninh Kieu Pier.
The capital of the Mekong Delta and a few hours by bus from Saigon, Can Tho attracts backpackers who want to discover the mystique of the Mekong. Ninh Kieu Pier cannot compare with the backpacker area in HCM City for the dynamism and variety of tourist services. However, its natural scenery far outshines that of city’s area. One of the interesting things is that the pier for the boats is in the middle of the park. The boats take passengers across the river. They also take visitors to orchards on islands a few kilometers from the city, to the tourist attraction of Huong Phu Sa on another island, or to the floating markets of Cai Rang and Phong Dien.
At one end of the park, Can Tho Market bears the signs of increased tourism. The 200-year-old market has been restored to keep the original character. The central part of the market has become a large area where souvenirs are sold. When night falls, the restaurants here are full of foreign visitors. Especially, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., the floating restaurant keeps moving slowly along the Can Tho River, so tourists on the restaurant can enjoy looking at the scenery of the mighty river in the dark.
Traveling toward to the central region, when staying in the central coastal city of Nha Trang, budget travelers would do well to visit the “headquarters” of foreigners on Biet Thu Street. With many shops owned by foreigners, visitors there may feel as if they are walking down a street in a modern European city. While the rest of the city sleeps, the party rages all night in the haven. Most of the mini-hotels, shops, restaurants and bars are crowded with large numbers of visitors from Europe, America and other places.
Over the length of its 500 meters, there are over 20 restaurants and bars serving food from Germany, Italy, France, Japan, Korea and others. Shoppers will find a treasure trove of souvenir shops selling locally produced goods and there are plenty of travel agents offering tours and travel services.
Meanwhile, the whole ancient town of Hoi An in Quang Nam Province that is some 500km north of Nha Trang City is seen as the area for backpackers as it is so small that tourists just need to walk about two hours to discover it. The sightseeing places gather in some central streets, especially on Tran Phu Street. Tourists can see many houses built based on Chinese architecture. The night in Hoian is very beautiful, especially the riverside road, where many restaurants have romantic decorations. On the 14th day of the lunar month, people will switch the electricity off and hang decorative multi-colored lanterns.
Traveling some 150km toward the north to visit Hue City, the former capital of Vietnam and now a tourism destination, backpackers can go to the area including Nguyen Tri Phuong and Le Loi streets to feel the social backpacker atmosphere. From the “backpacker/budget traveler” alley with a few hotels and cafes whose prices are listed for foreigners, tourists can easily go to the river, Imperial Palace and Dong Ba Market. Scooters-for-hire are available.
In general, the backpacker areas have greatly contributed to Vietnam travel industry and helped popularize the country’s beauty to the world. Thus, it is necessary for tourism authorities to improve the good things of the areas and set some standards so the backpackers will pass on their recommendation to the next wave of travelers.
Vietnam travel is set to welcome a record 5 million international tourists this year after the arrival of 428,300 visitors last month.
General Statistics Office figures put total arrivals to November at 4.6 million, 36.5% higher than for the same 11 months last year. The monthly average was 420,000 visitors, the highest in the last 20 years. The previous record, 4.236 million visitors, was set in 2008.
Tourism industry revenue is expected to total US$4.6 billion against 3.8 million visitors and $3.05 billion last year.
The new figures were a milestone in the development of Vietnam travel industry and proved that travellers still thought the country was safe, friendly and attractive, said Director General of Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) Nguyen Van Tuan.
The Director General attributed them to Vietnam travel potential and the global economic recovery.
Systematic promotion campaigns as well as major national and international events had been especially important, he said.
Visitors from mainland China, Japan, Malaysia and Thailand, where the currencies were stronger than the dong, preferred Vietnam for its cheaper prices. They could buy more with their money in Vietnam than in other countries.
Director of Travel Department under VNAT Vu The Binh said the record 5 million international visitors for the year was the result of a successful process and the industry would continue to promote the country’s image and tourist products.
For example, the administration had piloted a trans-national caravan tour within Vietnam, Lao, Thailand and Cambodia as “Four countries – One Destination” earlier this month.
It would launch promotions in the major markets of Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore later this month.
But the industry lacks trained staff, infrastructure, competitiveness and tourism products, says the VNAT.
“The key objective is to find and develop highly typical tourist products including shopping and adventure tours as well as resorts. These are the ways to attract more foreigners who will return” said Binh.
Manager of Maketing Department of Saigontourist Travel Service Company Doan Thi Thanh Tra said it was important that each tourist enterprise seeks and offers suitable and typical services for its clients. They also need to better train their staff and improve service quality.
Vietnam’s travel season usually goes from September to February, so the industry could be expected to bloom in the last month of the year, she said.
Vietnam Travel – it is one of the best choice for many tourists 2010. To have plan for your great Vietnam tours, what is the most things you should know? Of course, we should not forget checking the weather at Vietnam destinations before. Here below are some useful information of the best weather at destinations in Vietnam.
Vietnam is a country located in Southeast Asia and therefore it benefit generally on a dry and warm weather, yet there are several seasons with specific characteristics. However, because of the fact that Vietnam stretches on the entire estern side of the Indochina Peninsula on the shores of the South China Sea and features a 3260km-long coastline there are large differences between north and south, as well as between the coastal area and mountainous regions.
Generally, in Vietnam are two seasons: one dry (considered as winter), extending from November to April, and one wet (or summer) from May to October. However, the regional characteristics vary very spectacular with tropical monsoons occurring from October to April in the north and south and from May to September in the central region, these periods of time representing the season when falls most of the country’s rain. When comes about temperatures, holiday makers are beckoned about the fact that the weather can get exceptionally hot year-round, yet it’s cooler in north between October and April. Temperatures around the country often reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the hot and rainy season (May to September, but especially in July and August), but the northern highlands and region of Hanoi can be often chilly in the winter with temperatures dropping up to 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit)!
When is the best time to visit Vietnam? The peak tourist seasons are November-January and April-June, when hotels, trains, and flights tend to get booked up, tourist spots are crowded and the prices of hotel rooms and vacation packages often increase. However, there are significant differences between accommodation prices in top vacation spots like Hanoi, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh), Nha Trang, Halong Bay, Dalat, Hue, Sapa or Hoian and the regions where go on holiday fewer foreign travelers. The main climatic particularities of the most visited Vietnamese travel destinations are the following: Hanoi – features a typical northern climate with a cold and dry winter (when temperatures can drop to as low as 5 degrees Celsius or 41 degrees Fahrenheit) and a hot and extremely humid summer (temperatures can climb up to a maximum of 35 degrees Celsius or 95 degrees Fahrenheit); Saigon – due to its southern location it has a tropical climate with an average humidity level of 75% and an average temperature of 28 degrees Celsius (82,5 degrees Fahrenheit), the monsoon season last from May to November and the dry season between December and April; Halong Bay – is characterized by a humid and tropical climate with a hot and very humid summer and a dry and cold winter, the best time to visit the region being considered from October to April; Nha Trang – has a special weather without rainy season, so there is a warm and beautiful climate almost year-round, excepting the period of time between late October and early December.
Vietnam is in the last years a more and more visited Southeast Asian country due to the very attractive travel deals, the number of foreign holiday makers increasing continuously, coming mostly from UK, Australia, Canada, but also from USA and Scandinavia. As result of the flourishing tourist industry, hotels in Vietnam are in large number, particularly in top vacation spots, and feature high class amenities and very good services. There are many people who go in holiday in Vietnam seeking to visit tourist attractions in the largest cities of Hanoi and Saigon, take cruises in Halong Bay, or spend beach vacations in high end resorts in Nha Trang. However, there are also many travelers who take tours (especially the all inclusive packages increased recently very much in popularity) of different lengths and visit regions of the country where can be admired fantastic rain forests teeming by exotic plants and animals, ancient Buddhist temples and forgotten palaces, mountain villages where live tribes featuring unaltered cultures, and many others. In concordance with weather characteristics in each region, vacationers are advised to avoid visiting Vietnam in the rainy season because then the humidity is really high and the word “deluge” becomes a another signification!
8 Dec, 2010
Travel to Vietnam, visit Sapa and beautiful north allows visitors to experience authentic tribal life, writes Rob McFarland.
Teetering down steep stone stairs in inappropriate shoes and tight white designer jeans is a young, affluent Vietnamese woman. She’s holding a multicolored umbrella to protect her from the sun and is being led carefully by the hand by a private guide.
Coming up the other way is a young girl from the local Black Hmong hill tribe, dressed in an embroidered jacket and wearing the tribe’s trademark black hat. Her face is creased with effort as she struggles with a large basket of sticks strapped to her back. She stops to let the descending woman pass and they exchange a glance that speaks volumes about the extremes of modern-day Vietnam.
Although technically still a communist country, Vietnam is now home to a generation of youngsters who’ve embraced capitalism. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have the sort of designer boutiques and high-end restaurants you’d expect to find in any fast-paced Asian city.
And although both are compelling destinations, if you’re looking for a respite from the chaotic din of motorbike horns and the extreme sport of crossing the road, you need to head north and, in particular, visit a beguiling hillside town that’s nestled among some of the country’s most spectacular scenery.
Sapa was once an old French hill station but has developed over the past 20 years into a popular tourist destination. Travellers are drawn here by the dramatic landscape of mountain peaks and plunging valleys and the chance to interact with the locals.
Travel to Sapa, which is located 380km north of Hanoi, is an adventure in itself. After stocking up on biscuits and beer at Hanoi train station, we drag our luggage across several sets of tracks to board the overnight train to Lao Cai.
Our final destination is the swish Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa and, if it wasn’t a Saturday night, we’d be delivered there in a velvet and mahogany-panelled carriage of the resort’s private train. Unfortunately, tonight is the one night it doesn’t run so we’re on an older, shakier version.
We arrive at Lao Cai in the murky pre-dawn light and watch the market town come to life. Normally you’d take a 1.5-hour bus transfer straight to Sapa, but today we’re making a detour to one of the region’s must-sees: the Sunday market at Bac Ha.
Local minority groups from around the north-west congregate in Bac Ha each week to trade and socialise. Beautifully dressed hill tribe women in embroidered dresses and bright headscarves barter and laugh while a lazy procession of motorbikes, horses, carts and water buffalo ambles by. Wicker baskets full of live pigs and chickens are prodded while, nearby, raw meat is hacked apart.
Our onward journey to Sapa reveals tantalising glimpses of the Alps-like scenery for which the region is famous. As we climb into the clouds, verdant valleys plunge away from us on all sides to reveal hundreds of metres of carefully terraced rice fields.
With its polished wooden floors and cosy feel, the Victoria Resort is a welcoming haven at the end of our trip. Rooms are on the small side but are beautifully furnished with antiques and local handicrafts.
Sapa is a much bigger tourist destination than Bac Ha market and inevitably it has a different feel. Expect to be surrounded by grinning, trinket-laden hill tribe girls the moment you step outside, and much of the market here is devoted to souvenirs rather than essential supplies for locals.
Although you could easily spend a couple of days ambling around town, the big drawcard is the chance to get among the scenery and interact with the local people.
The next day we set off for Cat Cat, a small Black Hmong village 3km south of Sapa. The second we emerge from the hotel we’re befriended by a group of Hmong women who pair off so we each have a guide. Their grasp of English varies, but all have mastered the basics: “Where you from?” and “How old are you?”. Particularly important is “You married?” and when I reveal I’m not at the prehistoric age of 37, my companion looks shocked and cries, “Why not?”
Getting hitched is a serious business around here and the hill tribes engage in some interesting wooing techniques. As recently as a decade ago, men would kidnap girls from a neighbouring village to trial them for marriage. If they got on she’d stay, if they didn’t she’d be returned. Weekly love markets to pair off youngsters were also commonplace, although an unhealthy interest from tourists has all but stamped these out.
The village of Cat Cat comprises simple wooden shacks along a steep path that leads to a waterfall. Many locals have set up stalls outside their houses selling scarfs and jewellery, and gorgeous children chase each other around courtyards.
It’s here that I witness the glance between the affluent city girl and her basket-laden hill tribe counterpart. To be fair, both look equally uncomfortable in the 30-degree heat.
The following day we tackle an even more spectacular trek, starting at the Black Hmong village of Lao Chai and passing through the Giay village of Ta Van as we follow a stream along the valley floor. It’s all camera-happy stuff, but I already know that it’s not what I’ll remember most. The enduring memories will be of those little glimpses I’ve gained of day-to-day life for the minority groups that eke out an existence here.
On the way back to Sapa, we pass two children herding a pair of enormous water buffalo along a ridge. At one stage the giggling little girl clambers on top of one of the animals and lies down while her brother shepherds them along with a stick. It’s about as far away from inappropriate shoes and designer jeans as you can get.
In the past few years, besides Tombs, temples, pagodas etc. Hue tour visit village has attracted many foreign visitors. What is the reason for this attraction of Hue tour?
Going with a group to visit Thanh Toan village, we got acquainted with a young American girl asking about her reason for this visit, she said: ” the air is fresh, the village is peaceful and remains its soul of Vietnam.
With this short Vietnam tour, I think I understand more about local people, their working day, their relationship etc.
It is very interesting to explore a different culture in a typical village like this by yourself”. A French visitor shared her thinking:
” I can not expect for more! Modernization sometimes makes us bored, what we want to do is to explore and experience ourselves. This is a full feature of small Vietnam, I think I have become a Vietnamese even in a short day”.
Hue is very rich in culture which has deep influence on the life-style of surrounding villages. I think that tourism should not be rigid. Mixture of destinations including village visiting is a good way to introduce and to help foreign visitors have a better view over of Vietnam travel, country, people, culture and history. Each countryside has its own features including villages. Like foreign friends, many Vietnamese people living in cities often come back their villages where they were born and brought up in the weekend as a short vacation to find peace, breathe in fresh air. Vietnam is on the move but traditional value of many villages has not changed!
(Source: internet vina)
Frommers.com is an essential online destination for those planning the perfect travel excursion. Not only can Frommers.com visitors easily find candid, timely articles written by Frommers.com experts, they also can read excerpts from and purchase Frommer’s Guidebooks. Here below is some advice from professional experts for Vietnam tours adventure 2010.
- Kayaking in Halong Bay: Often in conjunction with luxury cruises, kayaking in Halong Bay means going through low caves at low tide to get to the collapsed center of huge limestone and volcanic rings, where walls of jungle vegetation tower hundreds of feet overhead and crawl with monkeys, snakes, and rare animals. Kayaks are the only way to get up close.
- Multisports in the Central Highlands: Opportunities abound for trekking, climbing, and mountain biking. Just contact one of the many small outfitters in Dalat.
- Cycling the Mekong Delta: The best part about cycling in Vietnam is that, with some exceptions, the routes are quite flat. Adventure-tour outfitters out of both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi can make any arrangements for a tour of any length, even providing a support van, and going by bike gives you a close-up view of it all.
- The Central Highlands or the Far North by Motorbike: The rural roads of Vietnam beg to be explored, and going by motorbike, though dangerous, is a great way to do it. From Dalat in the Central Highlands, arrange a ride with an Easy Rider, motorcycle guides who can take you up the Ho Chi Minh Trail (now a highway) and as far as Danang and Hoi An. In the far north, the Russian Minsk motorbike is the workhorse of the hills, and you can rent your own bike or go with a guide out of Hanoi and visit some incredible terrain.
- Taking On Fansipan or Trekking the Far North: The very top of Vietnam, Mount Fansipan is a multiday adventure and only for the hearty, but the views afforded and the experience itself is amazing. There are lots of outfitters in the popular tourist town of Sapa, and you can arrange any number of treks to ethnic hilltribe villages, even overnights and homestays.
- Sail or Kite-Surf on the South China Sea: Opportunities for watersports and sailing are many as you travel along Vietnam’s coast. Most resorts have boats for rent, and Nha Trang is a good bet, as is the area off Mui Ne Beach near Phan Thiet, which is becoming a very popular wind- and kite-surfing spot.
- Cuc Phuong National Park: A great little overnight from Hanoi for nature lovers, Cuc Phuong hosts a unique primate-research center, has good basic accommodations, and offers lots of hiking trails. Good guides are on hand to assist or hire for the day.
- Cat Tien National Park: Bird-watcher heaven, little Cat Tien is halfway between Saigon and Dalat and an overnight stay includes night spotting, rustic accommodations, and a morning hike. The place is crawling with jungle animals, birds, and lots of naturalists and ornithologists chasing after them with binoculars.
From http://www.vietnam-visa.com | Netherlands citizen need a valid visa to visit, do business or work in Vietnam. The normal Vietnam Entry Visa is issued by the Vietnam Embassy in Canada, and the Vietnam visa on arrival can be done by our online visa service.
1. Get normal Vietnam Entry Visa (before travelling)
You apply for Visa to Vietnam by mail or in person at the Vietnam Embassy in Netherlands, and may receive after about a week, by following the below instructions:
- Fill out the online form at www.vietnam-visa.com
- Print out that form, and glue on a passport photo
- Send them together with + the fee ($79 for 1-month single entry visa) + your passport + a return pre-paid express post envelope to the Vietnam Embassy in Hague, Netherlands at the following address: Read more of this article »
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.”