Traveling from Hanoi to Saigon during the month of December, a time of warm and balmy weather, I felt completely immersed in the diverse culture of Vietnam. My travel companion and I used Hanoi and Saigon as bases, fanning out into the countryside for side trips. This juxtaposition of city and country vastly enriched our cultural immersion. No sooner had our spirits overdosed on a city’s vibrant and vivacious street life, than the laconic landscape of the countryside provided a calming counterpoint.
For my companion, it was a return to memories of a people and country that, in the early ’70s, as an Army soldier, had captivated him with its natural beauty. For me, it was a chance to visit a place I had experienced only from a distance when, years earlier, I watched scenes of devastation on the evening news from the security of my family home in America. Exotic names like Ho Chi Minh, Da Nang, the Mekong Delta, Ha Long Bay, Hanoi and the infamous Hanoi Hilton that had become part of the landscape of my subconscious came to life in ways I’d never imagined as we traveled southward through the country from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, as it is colloquially known.
From Hanoi’s very modern Nội Bài Airport, we took a 45-minute ride to our accommodations in the heart of the city. In both Hanoi and Saigon, we arranged apartment rentals prior to our arrival. With our lodging within walking distance of Hoan Kiem Lake, we found ourselves greeting the day with early morning forays to the lake, where local residents gather in droves.
Hanoi’s Outdoor Living Room: Willow-shaded benches lined the walkways along the lake’s curved shore, where groups of Vietnamese, old and young, vigorously exercised in soft morning light while the lone Tai Chi practitioner could be seen here and there. Men and women formed separate friendship groups, sitting and chatting on benches as the city slowly warmed with the rising sun.
Navigating Hanoi’s streets: For a Westerner, stepping into the streets of Hanoi is an act of bravery. Mopeds, bicycles and cyclos careen madly past. Pedestrians pulling handcarts, even the sporadic pony cart, all vie for position. No one stops. Doing so is tantamount to suicide. I quickly learned that, by stepping into this maelstrom, I became a player in a street ballet. My role required that I keep moving until I reached the other side having, I hoped, conducted myself admirably in one of the world’s most chaotic examples of improvised choreography.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter: Seeming worlds away from the serenity of the lake but located just across Cau Go Street is the tumultuous jigsaw of narrow lanes that make up Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Dating back to medieval times, the 36 byways of the quarter still bear names reflecting the artisanal trades that flourished here more than six centuries ago. We loved wandering the quarter’s sinuous side alleys, stopping to sip fresh-roasted coffee at a sidewalk cafe and buying prayer flags to bring home. Each experience emphasized the diverse culture of Vietnam and its people.
In the French Quarter, wide boulevards lined with tamarind trees evoked a timelessness that seemed untouched by the tide of vehicles zipping by. Traversing the city by foot did the most justice to our sightseeing jaunts; we succumbed to the occasional cyclo ride only when we felt brave enough. The front cab of a cyclo (a bicycle-drawn rickshaw) normally holds two passengers, but we often saw drivers straining to pedal a cab stuffed with three or four.
From dawn to dusk, even late into the evening, pavements teemed with pedestrians. Early each morning, we observed young women carrying baskets of warm bread while soup vendors squatted over steaming pots of the country’s famed pho, a rice noodle soup with chicken or beef. Entrepreneurs everywhere sold flowers, shoe shines, fruits and vegetables. The sounds of honking horns and bell-ringing bicycles created syncopated background music. We were surrounded by drama on a living stage set of diverse cultures, unlike anywhere else in the world.
Ha Long Bay: Venturing beyond Hanoi, we used the services of Kim Cafe a combination Internet cafe/travel agency, for booking side trips. Our most memorable one, an overnight trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, was booked through them. The all-inclusive package covered transportation, lodging, exploration of island caves and a boat cruise on Ha Long Bay.
Our fully occupied bus, containing a mix of Canadian, American, European, Asian and Australian travelers, left Hanoi very early for the 4-hour drive through the countryside, where we observed lots of new homes under construction along the main road. Village scenes were interspersed with miles of rice paddies, where barefoot farmers worked the fields alongside water buffalo. Over-nighting in Cat Ba at the very clean and pleasant Sunflower Hotel, we awoke early the next morning, throwing open the windows to a glorious view of the boat-filled harbor.
Our afternoon cruise along Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site was unrushed and peaceful. On board a wooden junk, we floated between the thousands of karsts and limestone outcroppings that rise up out of the sea like stone cathedrals. Ethereal and otherworldly, some appeared barren, rocky and weather worn, while others, heavily cloaked in vegetation, hid their stone surfaces in greenery. As I stood on deck and looked out on the mist-enshrouded islets, the vista before me felt both beatific and surreal. I felt as if I had fallen into an Asian brush painting.
Around lunchtime, a fishing family of four pulled a row boat alongside our vessel, offering up buckets full of freshly caught lobster and crabs. We purchased huge portions, enough for a feast. Before long that’s exactly what we enjoyed, compliments of the fine cooking of our onboard chef. Still today, thoughts of Ha Long Bay conjure up dream-like images of an otherworldly landscape, stark yet serenely beautiful.
Handicrafts for sale: Upon returning to Hanoi, we visited the Craft Link organization (43 Van Mieu). This not-for-profit outlet serves handicraft workers throughout the country. On display for sale were wonderfully original products such as hand-carved wooden objects, furniture, silk scarves, lacquer ware and other handicrafts made by ethnic minorities.
Vietnam has more ethnic minority groups than almost any other Asian country, and many live in the outer remote mountainous regions. Craft Link’s sales benefit these artisans by providing them with an outlet and teaching them good business skills to market their wares. We found the distinctive items on sale to be of exceptional quality. The sophisticated black silk Hmong jacket with embroidered collar I found there now hangs in my closet as an elegant reminder of classic handcrafted workmanship not found anywhere near my hometown.
Hoi An: Six days into our trip we flew to Da Nang and were transported by car to the beguiling city of Hoi An, about 18 miles from the airport. A 2-night stay at the romantic Hoi An Riverside Resort proved to be a restorative retreat. Our river-view room, set amidst lush gardens, was part of a 2-unit villa. Staff and service were superb. After an early morning exploration of the countryside along the Do River, we enjoyed breakfast al fresco in the covered outdoor patio dining area where a local fishermen paddled past as we watched schoolchildren scamper along a path on the opposite bank.
The town’s appeal lies in its timelessness, the simplicity of its daily life and its ties to the sea. At dawn, village women in small boats meet the larger fishing boats off shore, collect the morning catch and ferry it back to be weighed and sold. Around noon, if you stop by one of the sidewalk cafes scattered around the waterfront, you’ll want to try the seafood and fish soup. It only gets fresher if you catch it and cook it yourself. Many chefs are second and third generation. The passed-down recipes are even older.
Memorable meeting: One morning, while walking along the river, we sighted a curved wooden bridge. As we detoured into the fields for a closer view, we met a farmer and his wife. The man asked if he could look at our cameras, then asked if we were American. “Gunfire killed my father,” he told us, “in the American War.” Stunned, we offered condolences. “You are not to blame,” he said. “You are welcome in my country.” He then offered to take our photo as a memento of our meeting. This was one of several encounters where we felt deep forgiveness; where we were treated with the utmost humanity by survivors of Vietnam’s tragic history.
Traditions of Hoi An: Hoi An is also known for its wealth of antique homes built by prosperous Chinese merchants. Their descendants now number about one-quarter of the city’s residents. Because it is a textile and art center, we were approached several times by women who asked us to visit their tailoring shops for a “fitting.” We succumbed to having several outfits stitched at one shop. In the process, we found the subtle charms of Hoi An most exemplified in the friendliness and warmth of its people. By the time we had been back for several fittings, we knew each of the seamstresses at the Thu Thuy Shop (60 Le Loi St.). Although prices here are a tad higher than at other places we had checked, we found the quality of the workmanship to be superior.
Hoi An’s shows its magical side come dusk when thousands of colorful lanterns light its cobbled lanes. Many harbor chef-owned restaurants serving that morning’s fresh seafood catch. One evening, we happened upon an electric performance of traditional music and dance befitting Hoi An’s reputation as a performing arts center. At the Traditional Arts Theater, on a cramped stage, a male dancer, fighting an imaginary foe, leapt and pounced before a rapt group of tourists and locals. As in Hanoi, Hoi An proved to be an intense immersion into the diverse culture of Vietnam.
On to Saigon: Heading south, we flew with Vietnam Airlines into Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport. While Hanoi had impressed us with its heritage and history, Saigon’s dynamism blew us away. For sheer energy, this city can hold its own against Manhattan, Hong Kong and any other metropolis on the planet. And yet the sweetness of the Vietnamese people continually shone through. We still found sidewalk vendors selling fresh noodle soup. We still found the simple decency that had accompanied us throughout our journey. And of course, the diverse culture of Vietnam was on show everywhere, from art galleries to design centers, from sidewalk soup kitchens to high-end eateries, from colonial architecture to ancient wooden vessels plying the river.
One evening, exhausted after a day of museum visiting, we gave our cyclo driver some cash and asked him to pick up a takeout of roast duck from a recommended restaurant. Not knowing his name and not sure if he would return, we wondered if we had been too trusting. Within the half hour he returned, bearing a freshly roasted duck and wishing us a good evening.
As in Hanoi, cafe culture thrives in Saigon. Each morning we’d make our way to the Highlands Cafe, a few blocks down Dong Khoi Street. Chic surroundings and fabulous coffee along with the complimentary house copy of the International Herald Tribune made this our favorite spot for a hit of java. In the evening, scores of young people gathered at Highlands where ice cream sundaes were added to the menu. When the International Herald Tribune ceased print in 2017, I wondered if Highlands began offering complimentary copies of the New York Times instead. I miss the “Herald.” It always felt like a traveler’s friend.
Local tours: Again we used the services of an Internet cafe/travel office, this time, Sinh Cafe. Sinh runs a number of travel cafes around Saigon and we chose one near our apartment to book a 2-night Mekong Delta trip.These tours are an incredible value, and we counted on the hotels in the Delta to match the quality and cleanliness of our previous lodging in Ha Long Bay. While they were adequate, one cannot say more. One hotel was so basic I could not find its name anywhere, a first in my experience.
Our guide, provided by Sinh Cafe travel services, proved to be very knowledgeable. En route, we stopped in Can Tho, the largest city in the delta area, located on the second arm of the river. To reach it, we crossed the Mekong on an old ferryboat. Here, boat women navigated the coffee-colored waters, shielding their eyes from the searing sun with conical grass hats. Their boats, laden with colorful fruits and vegetables, were en route to Can Tho’s vibrant floating market, which we visited the next day.
The “Mighty Mekong:” We marveled at the river’s vitality, carrying all manner of vessels, from fragile rowboats to massive sampans. Its energy was everywhere, even along its shores as youngsters, like children everywhere, ran to its banks to wave and shout as we passed. Each leg of the voyage found us mooring along the river, stopping to explore different villages before a change in water vessels, a flat-bottomed boat, a barge, a ferry and, for the major part of our journey, a larger riverboat.
A farewell celebration: After our tranquil interlude in the Delta, we returned once again to Saigon, diving into the city’s myriad activities, browsing bookstores, visiting art galleries and museums. On our last night in Saigon we celebrated Christmas Eve at the Sofiitel Saigon Plaza Hotel where we indulged in a lavish buffet dinner accompanied by live Vietnamese entertainment. (One of the most comfortable and comforting places to loaf over well-made cocktails is at the Hotel’s Lounge where we enjoyed a before-dinner glass of wine.) Saigon’s festive holiday spirit rivals any holiday or even any New Year’s Eve celebration in the States.
That evening, the markets and upscale boutiques pulsed with activity as scores of shoppers turned out. Leaving the Sofitel close to midnight, we found the streets alive with confetti-tossing revelers. By the time we reached the sanctuary of our apartment, we had become part of the throbbing throng of celebrants, covered in confetti and cocooned in the great bond of a people who were celebrating their own brand of freedom.
If You Go: We booked our lodging with travel company, Untours. Untours provided us with apartments in Hanoi and Saigon. A local representative of the country met us at both major airports, arranged transportation to our lodging and was on call during our stay in Hanoi and Saigon. We appreciated having an English-speaking local person available to offer advice for our side trips and also be there for the occasional general inquiries when they arose. I would highly recommend their services but, unfortunately, Untours no longer handles travel to Asia. For travel in Europe, where they represent many cities, visit Untours website: https://www.untours.com/