Gillian Vine appraises the contrasting attractions of Vietnam's two main cities.
There are 95 million people in Vietnam and nearly all seem to be on scooters aimed at me as I try to cross a street near my Hanoi hotel.
Enlisting the help of a friendly local, I make the heart-fluttering journey to the Lotte skyscraper and pay about $15 to zip up to the 65th floor observation tower.
The view is spectacular, even though somewhat hazy as a result of the high humidity, 31°C temperature and Hanoi’s location on the Red River and its numerous tributaries.
After a meal of fried rice and shellfish soup, which cost less than $6, I repeat the harrowing road crossing back to the five-star Daewoo Hanoi, deciding the lake view from my seventh-floor room is all I can cope with for now.
I next venture out on a small-group bus tour as a cunning way to avoid being mowed over while exploring the city. I wasn’t entirely confident about the side trip, a ride on a trishaw pedalled by a wiry man who looked at least 70, but despite my initial nerves, I loved it.
A ‘must’ on every Hanoi tourist’s itinerary is the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, ‘Uncle Ho’, the Communist leader who remains the symbol of unification of northern and southern Vietnam, although he died more than three years before the last American troops left.
No photos are allowed inside the tomb, guarded by goose-stepping military in pristine whites. To me, the embalmed body doesn’t look real – the hair is very odd – but he draws the local faithful, from schoolchildren to the aged.
Adjacent is the Buddhist temple, Chùa Một Cột, or One Pillar Pagoda. Built more than 1000 years ago by a childless emperor, it became an important fertility shrine after his wife conceived and remains so to this day, although the original structure was destroyed by the French in 1954 and the present building is a replica.
Not far away, some parts of the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu) have also been replaced but the essence of Vietnam’s first university, which dates back to 1076AD, remains, as do many of the steles (stone slabs) that record the names of successful students. Mounted on turtles, symbolising longevity, the steles underscore the importance of education in Vietnam, a concept which crumbled during the 67-year French occupation but was reinstated by Ho Chi Minh.
The importance of Uncle Ho cannot be underestimated. When Communist forces seized Saigon in 1975 they renamed the city after him. Some 1100 kilometres (2 hours by plane or 33 hours by train) separate the two cities and while, from the air, they appear similar – sprawling and surprisingly green cities on the caramel-coloured Mekong – on the ground there are marked differences. Hanoi retains more French charm while Ho Chi Minh immediately presents as more westernised. In the south, the 1955-75 conflict is referred to as the Vietnam War but in the north it is called the American War.
Moreover, many locals still call the southern capital Saigon. You’ll still find French colonial buildings dotted around Ho Chi Minh City too, like my elegant centre-city hotel that has kept its 1930s name, Grand Hotel Saigon.
On a city tour, the Reunification Palace is most interesting for the gates broken down in 1975, when the Communists charged through, but the CIA building has nothing to remind me of the famous evacuation pic of people clinging to chopper skids. At the War Remnants Museum the number of American aircraft is interesting, while seeing how prisoners were treated is chilling, with the scariest exhibit the French guillotine, dragged around the country to execute ‘traitors’ until 1969.
I’m happy to trade grue for calm at the Taoist Jade Emperor (or Tortoise) Pagoda. I obey the sign ‘xin để giày dép nổi dậy’ (literally ‘Please leave the footwear up’), although I curse that I’m wearing laced sneakers, instead of sandals more easily kicked off.
A friendly monk lets me take his photo and hopefully he blesses me, as the next part of my journey involves crossing the river in a low-slung boat with ratty cane chairs to sit on and no life jackets. That seems safer than an even lower-slung canoe along a canal, where I’m convinced crocodiles lurk. It’s the only time I’ve been glad to learn a species is now rare.
Back on land, a sumptuous lunch reminds me why I’ve fallen in love with Vietnam and leaves me wondering why I left it so long to visit and how soon before I can return.
One of Vietnam’s top tourist attractions is Halong Bay, 170km east of Hanoi. Famous for its breathtaking limestone (karst) islets, it is best appreciated from the water, in a modern junk or conventional vessel. Stay overnight to indulge in leisurely kayaking and swimming, then dine on fat Halong Bay oysters and sleep well before rising to experience sunrise over the water, perhaps while doing a little tai chi.
Don’t miss the opportunity to visit some of the caves, of which the most impressive is probably Hang Sung Sôt, a massive complex filled with stalactites (the ones that drip downwards) and stalagmites. A guide pointed out ones in the shape of Buddha and various deities, which I duly admired but chose to ignore the one he called ‘Man in the morning’, a vast phallic symbol spotlit in pink.
Trinket-touting sellers are now rare. Two years ago, as part of a push to reduce pollution, the government decided to clean up Halong Bay, starting by moving out the inhabitants of the floating villages, who travelled around the bay selling souvenirs. The villages are now gone and pollution issues considerably lessened, although Vietnam is slow to catch on to the idea of giving up plastic bags.
TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS
Best time to visit: October to March, although rainfall can still be high in Ho Chi Minh City in October. Temperatures average mid to high 20s.
Money: Vietnam is largely a cash society but NZ dollars can be difficult to change into dong ($NZ1=1500 dong approx.), so take Australian or US notes, or simply use an ATM. Carry only the money you need for the day, leaving the remainder, with your passport, in the hotel safe.
Cellphone: Keep charged and learn the numbers for emergency services (113 for police, 114 for fire and 115 to call an ambulance).
Water: Drink only bottled water and use it to clean your teeth. Carry water always, as well as wet wipes, tissues and hand sanitiser.
Shopping: Posh shops usually have fixed prices but in the markets, bargaining is expected. Aim to pay no more than half the first price the vendor quotes and above all, keep smiling as you bargain.