Visit Vintage Vietnam

Posted on: 22 June 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Most visitors to Vietnam are overwhelmed by the sublime beauty of the country's natural setting.

With the Red River Delta in the north, the Mekong Delta in the south and almost the entire coastal strip are a patchwork of brilliant green rice paddies tended by women in conical hats.

Vietnam, a name too long associated with the horrors of war, has finally won its last battle - to capture the imagination of the travelling public. Elegant Hanoi now vies with its dynamic sister, Ho Chi Minh City (still fondly called Saigon by the locals), for the attention of visitors drawn by the eclectic mix of old and new. In both cities the streets are jam-packed with motorbikes and scooters, often carrying whole families, and the markets are chaotically busy.

Elsewhere, the scenes are timeless. Early morning on the Mekong Delta brings the daily floating markets where fruit and vegetables are peddled. Everywhere the green patchwork of rice paddies stretches into the distance, broken only by the silhouette of water buffalo and conical-hatted farm workers bending down to tend the young plants.

The soaring mountains in the north of the country tower over tiny villages where life continues much as it has done for centuries, with traditional costumes still proudly worn. Old French hill stations survive throughout the country offering welcome respite from the heat of the plains below.

The ancient former imperial capital, Hué, takes visitors back to a time of concubines and eunuchs. In every town, young women wearing the simple but feminine national dress, the "ao dai", weave their way through the traffic at the controls of a motorbike.

Only in Vietnam could the past and the present be encapsulated so perfectly.

Highlights

Dalat

The city of Dalat is the jewel of the southern Central Highlands region. The cool climate and park-like environment (dotted with Vietnamese-style kitsch) makes it one of the most delightful cities in Vietnam. Dalat is also a good base for trips into the surrounding highlands, which remain tranquil.

Emperor Bao Dai's Summer Palace is stuffed with interesting art and artefacts, and is well worth a look. Make sure you visit the Hang Nga Guesthouse & Art Gallery, nicknamed the Crazy House by locals. It's a counter-cultural gem created by artist and architect Mrs Dang Viet Nga (known as Hang Nga).

A one pillar pagoda in HanoiHanoi

Hanoi has shaken off its once hostile attitude to travellers to become one of the most beguiling cities in Southeast Asia. It's slow-paced yet quick to charm, with a lovely landscape of lakes, shaded boulevards, verdant public parks and French-colonial architecture.

Hanoi personifies the spirit of historic Vietnam in the temples, monuments and pockets of ancient culture along the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, yet perfectly reflects the rapid changes sweeping the country as Hanoian yuppies sip cappucinos in roadside cafés and compare cell phones.

Thien Hau Pagoda

One of the most active in Cholon, Thien Hau Pagoda is dedicated to Thien Hau, the Chinese goddess of the sea. As she protects fisherfolk, sailors, merchants and any other maritime travellers, you might stop by to ask for a blessing for your next boat journey.

Mariamman Hindu Temple

A splash of southern India's colour in Saigon, Mariamman Hindu Temple was built at the end of the 19th century and is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Mariamman. There are only 50 to 60 Tamil Hindus in HCMC, but the temple is also considered sacred by many ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese.

Cua Dai Beach

Cua Dai is a monster beach that continues all the way up to Danang, an incredible 30km (19mi) of pristine white sands. This fine palm-lined beach is hugely popular at weekends, but can often be deserted at other times. Fresh seafood and refreshments are sold at a line of kiosks that lead to the beachfront.

Climate

With a multitude of altitudes and latitudes there's always somewhere that is pleasantly sunny and warm if you're prepared to find it.

Temperatures are usually hot and humid, around the low 30°Cs (high 80°Fs), but if you head north and along the coast they cool down to comfortable temperatures towards January.

The weather is determined by two monsoons; the winter monsoon comes from the northeast between October and March bringing wet chilly winters to all areas north of Nha Trang, but dry and warm temperatures to the south. From April or May to October, the southwestern monsoon brings warm, humid weather and buckets of rain to the whole country except for those areas sheltered by mountains.

Getting There

Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat Airport is Vietnam's busiest international air hub, followed by Hanoi's Noi Bai Airpot. A few international flights also serve Danang. Bangkok has emerged as the principle embarkation point for Vietnam but it's still possible to get direct flights from a number of major Asian cities and a few Australian cities.

Buying tickets in Vietnam is expensive. Departure tax is 14.00, which can be paid in dong or US dollars.There are currently 10 overland border crossings for travellers coming to Vietnam, but more may open soon. All crossing points suffer from heavy policing and often requests for 'immigration fees'.

For getting to/from China, it's become very popular to cross the border at Friendship Pass, or Dong Dang, 20km (12mi) north of Lang Son in northeast Vietnam, to get to/from Nanning. There is a twice-weekly international train between Beijing and Hanoi that stops at Friendship Pass. The other popular border crossing with China is at Lao Cai in northwest Vietnam, which lies on the railway line between Hanoi and Kunming in China's Yunnan Province. There's also a seldom used crossing at Mong Cai.

It's possible to enter Laos from Lao Bao in north-central Vietnam; there's an international bus from Danang to Savannakhet (Laos). The other crossing is at Keo Nua Pass/Cau Treo, west of Vinh and Nam Phan/Na Meo near Mai Chau. There are four crossings to Cambodia. Bavet/Moc Bai links Phnom Penh with Ho Chi Minh City and the road is in reasonable shape now.

There are also two crossings in the Mekong Delta, a river crossing at Kaam Samnor/Vinh Xuong and a land crossing at Phnom Den/Tinh Bien. Most recently, a new crossing between Pleiku and Banlung (Cambodia) has been opened. Some of the road is terribly rough, and you need to have your visa sorted before you cross from either side.

Getting Around

Vietnam Airlines has a near-monopoly on domestic flights, which are relatively expensive. The departure tax on domestic flights is about 1.50, payable in Vietnamese dong only.

Laos, VietnamUltracheap buses and minibuses criss-cross the country in an impressive network of routes. These are smarter, faster and safer than they used to be and are a good way to meet locals. The alternative, used by many foreigners, is to charter a minibus. They cost more can be faster as they don't stop as often; ask at budget hotels and cafes for details.

While sometimes train travel can be slower than bus travel, it is safer and more relaxed, and you're likely to have decent legroom. There are several types of train, including the famous Reuinification Express; but think twice before you take a crowded, snail-paced local train. Petty theft can be a problem on trains, especially in budget class. Children throwing things at carriages, everything from rocks to cow dung, is another problem, and you're advised to keep the metal shield on the window in place.

Hire cars and drivers are available at reasonable prices. You'll still be stopped by the police to pay all sorts of 'fines', but at least you'll have a local with you to do the negotiating. You can hire a motorcycle to drive yourself if you have an International Driver's Permit endorsed for motorcycles, but you'll need nerves of steel.

Travelling through Vietnam, and around the towns and cities, by bicycle is worth considering, though the traffic is still a hazard on highways without wide shoulders. Trains and buses will carry your bike when you want a break.

Other than the sophisticated local bus networks in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, local transport is by taxi (some metered, some not) or cyclo (pedal-powered vehicles that are cheap and plentiful). If you're in a hurry, and fearless, try flagging down any passing motorbike. Many people will be happy to give you a lift for a fee a little higher than the equivalent cyclo fare.

Visa information

People of all nationalities require a visa to enter the country, and while Vietnamese bureaucracy is legendary, completing the visa application is pretty painless. You'll need at least one passport-sized photo to accompany the visa application.

Tourist visas are valid for a single 30-day stay and enable you to enter and exit the country via any international border (make sure to specify this when arranging your visa). Depending on where you acquire it, prices for single-entry tourist visas cost around 35.00-80.00. Cambodia, where your visa application can be processed on the same day, is the most convenient place in Southeast Asia to get a Vietnamese visa. Bangkok is another popular place, as many travel agents offer cheap packages including both an air ticket and a visa.

If you plan to spend more than a month in Vietnam or travel overland between Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, it's possible to get a three-month multiple-entry visa. These are not available from all Vietnamese embassies but can be picked up for 75.00 in Cambodia and for 85.00 in the USA.

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