Backpackers paradise , A place to go
24.09.2011 - 04.10.2011
Vietnam is not an established and recognised tourist destination in the world.
Our decision to spend ten days in this country gave us more rewards than we had imagined. A young nation with much history and culture of their own, a vibrant economy , hard working resilient people with inherent discipline in their daily lives , abundance of natural beauty – hills , water bodies , rain forests and miles of green fields . The country is a narrow stretch of land bordering China in north, Laos and Cambodia in West and the South China Sea all along the East going down to the Mekong Delta. Relying mostly on agriculture, it has a manageable population of 90 million. And the population looks mostly young.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh city, the first thing that strikes one is the traffic. There are 4 million bikes for a city of population 10 million. The traffic moves smoothly , no policeman to control , very few traffic signals , pedestrians crossing the waves of bikes moving at sensible pace, no jostling for space , no conflict with the cars . The drivers look focussed on driving, impassionate with no compulsion to beat the clock.
There are also no posters, no banners, no dogs on the street or processions. Street food is prepared, sold and consumed quickly. Restaurants employ usherer who stand on the street calling backpackers and tourists in broken English . At $ 20 a double room including breakfast in most cities, this country is really cheap.
After watching the water puppet show in a theatre we went on cyclos through the centre of the city. What a ride that was ! And then time for Dinner cruise on Saigon river. Sailing leisurely with other boats passing by, the Vietnamese songs, the skimpily dressed fire dancer and a sumptuous dinner spread made our cruise a memorable experience
Next day on a full day tour of Mekong Delta we saw the floating market and the village where they make rice paper and coconut candies. The narrow village street with children cycling, the village lady working in field with her toothless grin, the boatwomen who took us rowing from one village to another – picture post cards that will remain etched in our mind.
We walked the streets of Saigon and stood outside the Independence Palace where the war finally ended. The big metal gates that came crashing down by the liberating army tanks .The helipad built at building top. The last people running away from the city held on to a ladder dropped from a hovering helicopter. The war museum with well documented display of atrocities committed against small little people of this predominantly rural country.
I once asked the receptionist of our hotel – don’t you feel angry for all the crimes committed during liberation war against your people? The answer (that was in the past, we have to live for the future) impressed me to no end.
Da Nang located next to the Han river was once the Capital of this country . We travelled to Hoi An, a UNESCO heritage site with old buildings, Pagoda and few narrow streets. Plenty of shops selling souvenirs. We saw how silk is produced, then woven and converted by skilled hands into embroidered articles. On our return journey we stopped at the statue of Buddha located on a high hill facing the sea. A well kept garden, a few statues of dragons, laughing Buddha and the decorative Pagoda added to the beauty of this serene place.
Looking out of my hotel room early morning , I find scores of street vendors already preparing breakfast for sale . A gas stove , a few utensils, some boiled meat and vegetables , egg , French bread and a few small chairs / tables for the customers . Vietnamese noodle soup with beef seemed to be the most popular dish. At 50 pence a piece, I settled for the French bread with 2 egg omelette sandwich. It tasted pretty good and very fresh.
Ba Na hills on way to Hue has the longest and highest cable car ride in the world. The place around is green with dense vegetation, streams flowing down the hill side. . We could see far in the horizon. The mountains end into flat land and then merge with the sea.
Our final destination Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. A modern city with Old Quarters and French quarters. Narrow lanes lined with shops that sell anything and everything. Wide roads and a beautiful lake at city centre .Early morning walkers, joggers and practitioners of Tai Chi . Opera House built by the French . parks and monuments. Tourists sitting in roadside cafes and restaurants remind you of Paris. An ancient Pagoda, the Ho Chi Minh museum and his mausoleum . A revolutionary who fought against the French, the Japanese and the Americans. A larger than life man revered by the whole nation. A man who left behind no dynasty or personal assets. A proud independent nation indeed.
On our last night at Hanoi we had spicy food downed with red wine at a Thai Express restaurant. Sitting on the first floor balcony of KFC we watched the traffic flow by in the square below. Crowds of a vibrant city slowly melting into the night.
Our final retreat was Halong Bay , this is about 170 km from Hanoi. In between are miles and miles of rice fields that make Vietnam the largest exporter of rice. Small shops selling Tiger Beer, drinks, chocolates and mineral water .Souvenir shops selling marble statues and curios. Young petite ladies in colourful Vietnamese dresses in waiting.
Halong Bay is a world heritage site. The junk boats float in a picturesque bay 1500 square km in size. Limestone hills of various shapes that have risen all around by tectonic activity millions of years ago. Chinese sellers in their small boats selling everything a tourist looks for. The large caves with stalactite and stalagmite designs of various shapes and sizes. The living rooms and sea food in our boat are luxurious. Tourists from many countries mingle freely with their life stories. Waves are choppy at night during high tide and splash below the window level. It is an ultimate experience that cannot be explained.
I keep asking myself, why is Vietnam so different from our country and also an ideal tourist destination? Good infrastructure, it is cheap beyond one’s imagination , people are friendly , no security issues and hence very little controls ,you see more backpackers and budget travellers , can get visa online, there is one railway line going north south with Reunification express and Vietnam airways is with no frills but efficient. Amazing people who are so focussed. And in this world of obesity and health problems, they seem surprisingly healthy and fit.
Try Vietnam before it gets attention of the tourist world. You will not regret.