On a map, Vietnam is long and curved and looks similar to a cupped hand partially dipped into the briny South China Sea. Fingers and palm cradle Cambodia and Laos, while a thick ragged wrist blends into China.
It’s a sliver on any world map. But, once there it becomes a giant, its cities filled with boisterous outdoor markets and sidewalk vendors. Congested streets are filled with motor scooters and throngs and throngs of people. Anise, cinnamon, ginger and other spices cling to heated and humid Vietnamese air. Street cleaners sweep the sidewalks and roads with twig brooms, cobbled together with twine and bark.
Go farther and asphalt city streets become sparsely populated villages with dirt roads. These morph, once again, into smoothly paved roads nestled between mountains, hills and valleys, all planted with crowded tea and coffee crops that paint the landscape in glorious green hues.
Those same motor scooters that carried face-masked city riders transform in the farming lands. Lone riders navigate the streets with burlap-wrapped tea leaves, so high and wide they dwarf the driver.
My Vietnamese journey started in Ho Chi Minh City and ended in Hanoi. But James Sullivan, an expert on Vietnam and the author of National Geographic Traveler Vietnam, suggests starting in Hanoi and ending in Ho Chi Minh City.
“To know Vietnam is to be in the Five H club,” Sullivan said. It includes, but is not restricted to: Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, and finally, Ho Chi Minh City. You’ll need at least 10 to 14 days to fully appreciate Vietnam, because every “H” is unique.
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and has been since the 11th century. Most of its history is steeped there. After leaving Noi Bai International Airport, head 28 miles to the city center. Check into the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, considered by many to be, “the Grand Dame of Vietnam.” It offers colonial French sophistication and luxury accommodations. “The hotel just excavated and memorialized a war-time air raid shelter,” Sullivan said. “Joan Baez retreated there during the infamous Christmas bombings in 1972...and recorded part of an album - Where Are You Now, My Son - in that shelter during the war.” Look around for familiar faces. She just visited the site again in April.
“Hanoi is the most culturally profound city in Vietnam,” Sullivan said. It is the crucible of Vietnamese culture.” According to Sullivan’s National Geo book, highlights of Hanoi include both the Old Quarter and French quarters; Hoan Kiem and West lakes; St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi Citadel; Ba Dinh Square; and so much more. Yes, there are still memories of the war. Hoa Lo Prison, known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton, is a gruesome reminder. While some may shun this, others may opt to visit and learn from the past.
The History Museum is housed in an architectural work of Indochine-influenced genius. The Temple of Literature was, according to Sullivan’s book, founded in 1070 and “Modeled after the Temple to Confucious in Qufu, China.”
Walking is the best way to see Vietnam, but you’ll need a few planes, trains and inexpensive three-wheeled man-powered cyclos too. There is one word of caution. Motor scooters don’t stop for anyone and will veer around you. It can be daunting. Look both ways, twice. Once you commit cross the street, fast. Yes, I know this from inexperience.
HA LONG TOWN AND HA LONG BAY
Hanoi to Ha Long Town and the bay is about three hours by car or bus. Once there, Emeraude Classic Cruises is the best way to see Ha Long, which means, Bay of Descending Dragons.
The cruise is full service and even has spa offerings. Guests may stay overnight or for a few days. The limestone mountainous outcroppings that spear through the bay and into the sky may be the world’s most spectacular sight. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site and these limestone mountains are millions of years old.
OK, now relax, get back in the car and head back to Hanoi to catch a plane and continue your journey. You can skip Ha Long, but that’s a mistake, and, you won’t become part of the Five H Club.
“Fly from Hanoi to Hue via Vietnam Airlines. Hue is the second richest experience,” Sullivan said of the city located in central Vietnam. “It was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty and the palaces and pavilions of that time are still there.” Yes, they certainly are. The deep red and gold accents of Mieu Temple are only a glimpse of the grandeur and history inside the Imperial City.
“The Vietnamese, today, are busy rebuilding the palace that was destroyed during the French and American war,” Sullivan said.
I stayed in La Residence Hotel & Spa along the Perfume River. Walk through the center and then stroll near the river. Watch as traditional wooden boats are paddled along the waterway. Rent one if there is time.
DA NANG, Not an H Club member
“Get on the train in Hue and head three hours south to Da Nang,” Sullivan suggests. “That stretch takes you through some of the most dramatic scenery in the country. A spur of the Annamite Cordillera mountain range goes down to the sea.” Sullivan is right. The ride, although bumpy, offers spectacular views. Da Nang is the country’s fourth largest city. It sits along China Beach, now peaceful and serene, but once an American Marine outpost. En route from Da Nang to the Old Town of Hoi An, Sullivan suggests staying at the Nam Hai, a luxurious GHM property, one that offers every amenity.
Hoi An is a perfectly preserved ancient town. At one time it served as the country’s trading port. You won’t be trading pelts for dinner, but you will find shopping and plenty of sightseeing. The merchants’ homes and preserved town make this another UNESCO World Heritage site.
Stay at the Nam Hai Hotel a few days (8 miles from Hoi An), because Hoi An has a bevy of tailors that can create and make clothing in a day or two. The prices are pretty reasonable. I had a suit and dress made. I had the tailor make me a traditional aoi dai. It’s a long dress with open slits to showcase the matching pants. I’m American, so mine was lilac and purple. I’ve never worn this silken treasure, but it’s a visual reminder of the country and its wonderful
HO CHI MINH CITY
Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon, “is a late comer to the Vietnam stage,” Sullivan said. Saigon was populated, he said, “around the time the colonists got to Plymouth Rock.” There are other American similarities. “Ho Chi Minh, in Vietnam, is as revered as George Washington.”
The city blends old with new and is a bit livelier than the rest of the country. “It does have its own soul,” Sullivan said. “It’s a different color and has a different level of energy.” Yes, Ho Chi Minh feels more modern. Women in suits walk past those wearing traditional garb. Old and new live happily here. Sullivan (and I) suggest you stay at the old, but modern, Caravelle Hotel. During the war it housed many of the journalists and television crews covering the war. The Saigon Opera House is only steps from the entrance and other hotels and shops line the square.
Food is another enticement. I satiated my pho craving at the Caravelle and don’t recommend buying this flavorful soup from outside vendors. Street food is tempting and delicious and will taunt you with spicy aromas. Resist if you can, because it’s a bit risky. I threw caution to the wind and enjoyed a few bites here and there before the Vietnamese dragon descended.
Vietnam is known for the slender, well-hidden tunnels used during the war. The best are the Cu Chi tunnels, Sullivan said, and are located outside Ho Chi Minh City center. “I think it’s the best thing to do in Saigon,” he said. “So many people travel to Vietnam for that.” That ground, he said, “is as hallowed to Vietnam as Lexington and Concord is to Americans,” because the Vietnamese “tunneled their way to victory through perseverance.”
Make sure and try a few restaurants, buy incredible knock-offs and traipse through the market for the visual experiences. Whatever you do, don’t forget to buy lacquer wood sandals, decorated with embedded mother of pearl. You’ll never find them in America.
When you’re finally ready to leave Tan Son Nhat International Airport is only a few minutes away.
Note: Jim Sullivan’s National Geo book is filled with Vietnam’s best-kept secrets. He has other literary work too. If you want to learn how he fell in love with the country and a beautiful woman, read Over the Moat.