Vietnam is a huge country. Sure, it’s not in the league of Kazakhstan or Russia, or even Mongolia, but it’s still pretty big – particularly as the temptation is to try and see the whole country in one trip. We had 3 weeks, and to be honest, with any less time than that, I wouldn’t even attempt it. The most common thing that people seem to do is to split time in Vietnam into two, and usually allow about two weeks for each half. One of the main reasons for this is transport, as it takes at least two or three night buses to get from Hanoi (in the north), or Ho Chi Minh City in the south. The other reason is Hoi An. It’s about 5 hours by bus south of Hue, and is so wonderful that it must get included on a trip to the north, or a trip to the south.
As such, we tackled the south of the country first, and slowly worked our way north.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is a sensational introduction to Vietnam. By that I mean that it is a huge assault on the senses! Loud, chaotic, and teeming with people, it’s a lot of fun, provided you can get used to crossing the roads!
We only spent a couple of days here, with the tourist regulars of the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi tunnels top of our list of things to do. Both give an extremely one sided view of the ‘American Aggressor War’, and neither hold anything back. The War Remnants Museum used to be called the ‘American War Crimes Museum’, and the exhibits haven’t changed with the rebranding. It is 3 floors of photographs and information of the horrors of war, including a large section on chemical warfare, and leaves you in no doubt of who was responsible.
The Cu Chi tunnels (tours easily arranged from Saigon) are another one sided account of the war, and we both ended the day feeling troubled. Not, however, in the usual way that one gets after visiting a historical site of terrific human tragedy, where the overwhelming feeling is often remorse, and desperation to prevent such horrors from happening again. This time it was a sense of disappointment, tinged with disgust at the way it was presented. I didn’t get the impression that there was any regret about the loss of life on both sides, just a sense of pride at the way that the Viet Cong was able to kill as many South Vietnamese and American soldiers in the most gruesome of manners. Most memorials or battlefield sites that I’ve visited in the past try and remind you that we must do everything we can to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Here it was not like that – it more seemed like a challenge. And the on site shooting range was just crass and distasteful.
High up in the hills, Dalat is steeped in French colonial influence, and has been used as a place to escape Saigon for centuries. It is mercifully cool in the day, and almost even cold at night. You definitely don’t need aircon! For those of you who’ve been struggling in the 40 degree heat, it’s paradise! The climate also lends instead perfectly to some adventure sports, with a lot of hiking, and canyoning on offer. We stayed at the Dalat Backpackers Hostel, and we honestly couldn’t recommend them highly enough. The cheap, spacious double rooms are supplemented with free breakfast, free beer (for an hour), and a free dinner, as well as a hefty discount off their canyoning tour. A great place to meet other travellers, as well as booking Easy Rider motorbike trips.
The day we spent canyoning was a definite highlight. Good quality kit, a surprisingly good emphasis on safety, and guides who also want you to have fun, all added up to a great day of abseiling, waterfalls, jump-offs and zip lining. The free beer at the end just added to it!
Dalat is also Vietnam’s wine capital. It’s the only place in South East Asia where we’ve found wine that is remotely any good at all. True, the cheapest stuff is fairly unpalatable, but the ‘premium’ or the ‘superior’ bottles are well worth a try and not expensive (about £3-5 per bottle from the shops; double that in restaurants).
Well worth a stop.