Wednesday, September 21, 2011

VIETNAM – TOURISTS’ PARADISE

“Why Vietnam, of all places? What's there to see, anyway!” The eyebrows went up several notches when we announced our vacation plans. Images of a long suffering, war-ravaged country, run by a Communist government, did nothing to add up to Vietnam as a tourist’s destination of choice, especially if one was from West Bengal. I wondered for a moment if our research had gone wrong somewhere.
Flying from Calcutta through Bangkok, we reached Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly called Saigon, in South Vietnam, in the evening. As we exited the airport, the wide roads, the crowded streets, orderly traffic and the brightly lit towering buildings impressed us immensely. This was surely not what a country recovering from the effects of several invasions and a long war with the US was supposed to look like. This was as modern a city as any city could be.
We had to have an early dinner and check in. "Early", because we learnt that the Vietnamese start their days very early indeed, have lunch at 11 am, and dinner by 7 pm. Restaurants are virtually empty and about to close by 8 pm. But we were still on Indian time, which meant that we were one and a half hours ahead of even their "early" dinner time!
During our city tour the next morning, we were impressed by the beautifully maintained public parks, monuments, and many lakes dotting the city. The French Quarter was not unlike Paris. Apart from museums and cathedrals, the main post office itself was a sight to behold. The wide pavements were swept 3-4 times a day. The parks had exercising machines (all in working condition, and free) that one would normally find only in a gym. The city folks were out by 5 a.m. at these parks, walking, jogging and exercising together. Most left for office by 7 a.m.

GPO at HCMC
About 40 km from the city, at Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh, are the 250 km network of Cu Chi Tunnels. The area represents the typical symbol of the inner strength, the resilience, the dogged determination and the innovative fighting spirit of the Vietnamese people. The tunnels themselves are very small in size, most being only 1.2m high and 80 cm across, with no lights, and unique ventilation systems. The wide variety of booby traps to maim and kill the unwary American soldiers must also be seen to be believed. A knocked-out M-41 tank, a bomb crater, shooting with a rifle and live bullets, underground kitchens, old surgery facilities, meeting areas, ammunition factory and camouflaged dining halls added to the thrill. Back at the city, our day ended with a full body message, topped up with a river cruise, lots of music and dancing, and a feast fit for the kings.
Da Nang, in Central Vietnam, is an hour north by flight. It’s an unbelievably picturesque city on the South China Sea. The city boasts of a very long bay area and a beach that’s adjudged as one of the 6 most beautiful beaches in the world. The spotlessly clean pavements were much wider than the roads that ran along the coast line and along both sides of the river; not a single hawker or beggar was in sight. At one end of the beach lies the Monkey Mountain, hosting a temple and a Buddhist pagoda. A calm, serene place, it offers a panoramic view of the bay area, the beach and the city.

Da Nang city- straddles the river; it leads to the sea.

Da Nang beach
Just across the river Han is Han Market, a must for shoppers. Buy your gift items from here for yourself or the people back home.
On the way to Hoi An along the paved, wide roads, is the Marble Mountains. It’s a cluster of five mountains, said to represent the five elements of the universe. Do not be afraid to climb the 200 steps to the top of one of them. Avoid the lift, climbing is more fun. The inside of the natural cave on the top is bigger than any cathedral you have ever seen, and the view from the top is worth the climb.
The ancient town of Hoi An, an World Heritage site, was next on our agenda. In the 16th and the 17th centuries Hoi An was the leading international trading centre in Central and Southern Viet Nam. An estimated 300 to 500 tailors there can stitch you any clothing in two hours flat. A walking tour around the charming and wonderfully preserved section – combining Chinese, Japanese and European influences – is its main attraction. The city gets flooded every year by the Hoai River that runs along it, the flood water getting into the 150 year old wooden houses too. In 1946 the flood was 2.5 metres high, repeated in 2007. Yet, life goes on.
If you visit Hue, insist on road travel. The 35 km journey across the mountain pass and the heavenly sights are a photographer’s delight. Use the 16 km long tunnel, but only for your return journey to Da Nang.
The capital city of Viet Nam, Ha Noi, was an hour’s flight from Da Nang. Ha Noi is known for its numerous peaceful lakes, shaded boulevards, verdant public parks and colonial architecture. Stay in the Old Quarter, if you wish to know the city from close. Take an early morning walk. Watch the city wake up ever so slowly. Over the loudspeakers, for about 30 minutes every morning, you’ll hear the local People’s Committee announcing messages on cleanliness, discipline, hygiene, and other civic duties. For breakfast, try out the specialities like pho (rice noodle soup), the bun cha (grilled chopped meat) or Cha ca La Vong (fried fish) at one of the many roadside eateries.
There are a whole lot of places to visit in Ha Noi. The capital city is also a shopper’s and gourmet’s paradise. You will rarely see more polite, courteous, ever smiling, disciplined or helpful people. And there are lots to see and enjoy. So stay an extra couple of days at the end of the tour and explore the city on your own.
Our last port of call was the Ha Long Bay, 180 km from Ha Noi by road. The Bay is a dense cluster of over 3,000 limestone monolithic islands rising spectacularly from the ocean, each topped with thick jungle vegetation. Words cannot describe the wonder of this place, a World Heritage Site. The Sung Sot cave is massive and stunningly spectacular. Looks like a straight lift from the Indiana Jones movie set. There are a lot more islands, many such caves worth visiting. Plan a two-nights' stay at Ha Long Bay, and if possible, stay overnight on an island. Your time won't be wasted. 

Later, we did some kayaking and swimming, visited a fishing village, spent hours on the sun deck, took hundreds of photographs, and gorged on the food served. Without doubt, this was by far the best part of the tour.
Ha Long Bay

The General Post Office, ,HCMC

Between HCMC and Huae

At Huae

If you are choosy about food, you will miss one of the most compelling  reasons for visiting Viet Nam. Because of the 3000 km long coastline, sea food predominates. The taste is unique and fantastic, most unlike Chinese or Thai food. A typical lunch or dinner may consist of seafood soup, white cabbage salad with shredded pork or chicken and peanuts, fried fillet fish with spicy sauce, stir fried pork with baby corn, fried chicken with cashew nuts, stewed fish in clay pot, sour fish soup, sautéed water spinach, grilled shrimp in garlic sauce, steamed rice, deserts and padanus or Jasmine tea. Visit a new restaurant for every meal. The names of the dishes may appear to be similar, but the way the food is cooked will blow your mind. Make the best of your stay in Viet Nam - the country is a gastronome's delight.
While there, we found that there were a lot more fabulous places that we had not seen yet. We are determined to go back soon. 

Strangely though, we did not come across a single Indian during the entire tour. However, having seen the photographs and heard about how much we enjoyed the tour, our friends and relatives too have now queued up to visit Nam. West Bengal was under Communist rule for 35 years. Viet Nam has always been ruled by the Communists. But the difference and the rate of development have left us speechless. My son said it was the best vacation he had ever had. We agree with him completely.
Do not miss the photographs of Viet Nam.  Copy/paste the  following to your address bar: https://picasaweb.google.com/home?hl=en&tab=mq.


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For your information:

  • The best time to visit is late March to early May.
  • Even for the so-called conducted tours, in Viet Nam you need not travel in a large group. The local tour operators will accept even a small “group” of three (as they did for us), provide a 9-seater Mercedes air-conditioned vehicle and an English speaking guide, for the entire tour - everything tailor-made, exclusively for you
  • The travel agency will arrange for airport pick up and drop, hotel reservations (hotels are very reasonably priced), and local sightseeing. Being the smallest possible group, you are free to adjust the schedule to suit your convenience.
  • Local currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND), but prices are freely quoted in USD too. 
  • Changing currencies is easy; there are exchange bureaus everywhere. Even the jewellery shops offer a very good rate. Exchange rate is USD 1.0=25,000 VND. (As on March 1, 2014 the rate of exchange with INR is INR 100= VND 34,000 approx.)
  • Visiting Viet Nam is not only much cheaper than touring Europe, but it is hassle free and far better value for money.
  • You may consider touching Angkor Wat (in Northern Cambodia) on the way from Bangkok to HCMC. It is mid-way between Bangkok and HCMC, about 45 minutes' flying time from Bangkok.
  • Carry empty suitcases. Almost everything is very affordable in Viet Nam.
  • All three-star hotels are of excellent quality, conveniently located, smartly outfitted, offering (unlike in Europe) English TV channels, English newspapers, WiFi, and internet access at the lobby - everything for free. Some have swimming pools too. Other hotels too are quite reasonably priced.
  • English is spoken by only a few, the signboards and road signs are all in Vietnamese, but one can easily get by (the local people are used to tourists). The local guides speak English. We found our guides to be very gentle, very courteous, very polite. 
  • We did not see a single Indian during the entire 11-day tour. But there were a large number of tourists from other countries. Wonder why!
  • Almost all the outlets, shops, malls, restaurants, counters, supermarkets are run by girls. Rarely would you see a store being ‘manned’.
  • Every toilet, even in public places, is spotlessly clean and maintained as in a five-star hotels.
  • Local travel is 95% by two wheelers. Two wheelers or cycles are available for hire. Public transport remains a rarity in most cities.
  • You’d hardly see any policemen anywhere, except on the highways. No video cameras either. Yet the traffic is disciplined,  moves smoothly, no one jumps the signals.
  • The people have a great sense of cleanliness and discipline, are very hard working, proud of their heritage and their hard-fought independence. The country is fully geared towards offering the best to the tourists.
I know of several who, after having read about this blog on Viet Nam and seeing the photographs, have already been there. Go ahead, have a great time, folks! Without doubt, it's value for money, any day! Have fun. 

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