WORDS: Linda Long
I had been more than slightly intrigued by Vietnam for many years. With a number of Vietnamese communities in Australia due to the high migration following the Vietnam War, I had long been interested in Vietnam’s rich history. As a 17-year-old student in Melbourne, I remember being introduced to the delicious Vietnamese cuisine and had always wanted to know more.
When my husband therefore suggested Vietnam as our next travel destination, I couldn’t have been happier. I have always wanted my kids to grow up appreciating other cultures and the wonderful diversity we live in, so the location was perfect.
So it was time to plan! I set about arranging a customised private tour for our trip to work in with our little ones. I was able to choose where we wanted to go, and the schedule was flexible. Doing a bespoke tour made everything seem easy and fun, plus it gave us lots of options.
ARRIVING IN ASIA
When we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), we were amazed by what we saw. Everywhere we looked, there were motorbikes! We ventured into the streets outside of our hotel, and felt like we were in a whirlwind.
The next morning, our tour guide met us at our accommodation. Ho Chi Minh City was already bustling with traffic, even though it was early.
We drove for about an hour or so to the Cu Chi tunnels, a network of underground tunnels used by Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. The tunnels were astounding – dug by bare hands and basic tools. We crawled through some of them, which was a chilling experience.
Next, we visited the War Museum, and learned about the large quantities of herbicide dioxin, known as ‘Yellow Rain’, sprayed by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. We learnt children were still being born with severe physical deformities due to the toxic residue. We left feeling very contemplative. The experience at Cu Chi tunnels and the War Museum had a profound effect on all of us.
The following day, after a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel, we drove to Cai Be, about 70km away in the Mekong Delta region. Upon our arrival in Cai Be, we boarded a private motorised boat and cruised along the Mekong River. We docked at several places and visited the small fruit orchards and cottage industries on site. We even witnessed the making of coconut candy and pop rice.
The villagers amazed us with their humble lifestyle – they smiled and waved, and were softly spoken. They also gave us gifts of beautiful organic tropical fruits. We were surprised to see that some people had monkeys as pets, and were even more surprised to note family graves situated right in front of homes. We were told the Vietnamese like to keep their family close together, whether dead or alive.
On the way back to our hotel, our guide asked if we would like to go to Saigon Zoo. This was not part of the scheduled program, but we had some extra time and we thought our little girl might enjoy the outing. We were surprised the zoo was quite beautiful (although the buildings were old and run-down by Australian standards).
Over the next few days, as we explored the former Saigon, we were particularly surprised by how the Opera House, the Saigon Post Office, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Hotel Continental Saigon looked like they belonged in Paris. With a number of buildings constructed during the French colonisation, their French colonial architecture was clear for all to see.
We were also amazed by the Ben Thanh Market which was built in 1870 by the French (it is the oldest surviving market in Saigon). Everything is for sale at the market, from clothes to food of all varieties. We bought our daughter a Vietnamese outfit called Áo Dài, which is the Vietnamese national costume comprising a fitted silk tunic worn over pants.
The next half of our trip was spent in Hanoi and its surroundings.
Upon arrival in Hanoi, we were met with the usual traffic jam of motorbikes, although we noticed that Hanoi was slightly more orderly than Saigon. In the distance, the daily news and communist propaganda projected from loud speakers over a backdrop of motorbike horns.
First we checked out Hanoi’s iconic lake, Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, which was like an oasis in the city with a small structure in the middle of the lake known as the ‘Turtle Temple’.
That night, we went on a street food tour. We were blown away by how delicious everything tasted. We also sampled Weasel Coffee, which essentially is coffee brewed from beans harvested from the droppings of weasels!
Our trip to Vietnam would not have been complete without a visit to Halong Bay – the famous icon named as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2012. Containing thousands of limestone islands (karsts), we couldn’t wait to see it. Our tour guide arranged a private boat for us which was a welcome surprise. It was an amazing feeling to travel in our own vessel, and to have a team of crew at our service! We loved the cruise and were mesmerised by the stunning natural beauty.
Another place we visited over the next few days was the Ho Chi Minh complex which was constructed to honour the late President Ho Chi Minh, who devoted his whole life for the national liberation of Vietnam. Our guide took us to the Dong Xuan Market, which we did not enjoy, as every bit of available space was tightly packed. There was a lot of squeezing through gaps and it looked like a hoarder’s paradise!
Our next shopping destination was more enjoyable – the Korean owned Lotte Department Store – which opened on 3 September 2014 and is Hanoi’s second-tallest building. There were a good variety of goods on sale at a range of prices.
Towards the end of our trip, we visited the Thang Long Theatre to see the renowned Water Puppet Show, a unique traditional Vietnamese art. We enjoyed the show and cherished the opportunity to experience another aspect of Vietnamese culture.
The day after, we went to Ninh Binh, in particular to visit Tam Coc, which is known as Halong Bay on land. It was a sunny day, and fortunately our guide had the foresight to bring umbrellas to shelter us from the sun. The rower of our boat also used his feet rather than his hands to row which made us giggle!
On our last night in Hanoi, we had dinner in an elegant restaurant near our hotel called the 1915 Indochine. There was a great variety of fresh cuisine which was beautifully cooked, at a fraction of the price we would normally pay in Melbourne.
I wish we had more time in Vietnam, as I would have loved to have visited the sand dunes in Mui Ne. However, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to have visited Vietnam before it has been transformed into another Westernised Asian city.
Since the millennium, Vietnam has experienced remarkable growth and development, and sadly the paddy fields are being replaced by concrete jungles. As a result, modern-day Vietnam is made up of the old and the new, and the division between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is stark.
Linda’s travel tips:
Do your research – travel blogs are a good source of information for places to eat.
Do a customised private tour – the itinerary can be tailored for your family.
Stay in nice hotels – you can order room service if the kids are too tired to go out for dinner.
Traffic – when crossing the road or walking.
Pickpockets – while out on the streets.
Tourist traps – e.g. women in conical hats holding yokes with baskets of fruits/fake weasel coffee.
Food poisoning – when buying food from roadside stalls.
Massages – when my hubby went for a massage at the hotel, he was offered an erotic massage (which he declined)!