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Essential Vietnam

Tom Neal Tacker writes for Naked Hungry Traveller, an Aussie online magazine that bares the truth on travel experiences with stories, reviews, news, tips and pics.

Vietnam stretches for nearly 1,500 kilometres from its northern border with China to its vast Mekong River delta in its southern extremity. A mountainous spine bridges the northern, central and southern regions. 

First time visitors will be pleasantly surprised at the local laissez-faire attitude to enterprise. Though the Vietnamese are naturally entrepreneurial, they don’t push a hard sell. Wandering through bustling markets elsewhere in Asia can be a trying experience, as in, ‘Try this’ or ‘Try that’ yelled from every corner but here it’s more relaxed. Of course a sale will suffuse a vendor’s face with delight, but a simple reply ‘No thanks,’ doesn’t offend either. It’s as if fifty years of self-reliant government has had the effect of encouraging people to rest assured that the state will provide and that money is not necessarily the basis for a contented life.

This is not intended to portray the locals as glum. Rather, with a smile and hello spoken in Vietnamese, faces light up radiantly. More naturally friendly people are hard to find. If other countries proclaim that they are the land of smiles, Vietnam is surely the land of the big grin.

Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi
Two big cities dominate Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City still referred to by the locals as Saigon and Hanoi. The first is the economic powerhouse of the nation. Vibrant and brimming with activity, it’s the place in which to do business. It’s also a shopper’s paradise. Hanoi is the bureaucratic heartland, more relaxed, historic and atmospheric. A visit to Vietnam without seeing both its major cities is to leave the country half-explored.

Hanoi is filled with culturally significant sights. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the country’s pilgrimage place. Uncle Ho’s house and gardens near the mausoleum are open to the public. They are both particularly poignant. He is the founding father of modern Vietnam and his place in the national esteem is unparalleled. Due respect is required for a visit to his mausoleum. It is unforgettable.

Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon, may lack the cultural weight of Hanoi but its Reunification Palace, the War Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Jade Emperor Pagoda are all not-to-be-missed regardless. 

Le Thanh Ton street in District One near the central Ben Thanh markets is packed with bespoke tailors. Choose carefully, ask lots of questions and be prepared to order in large quantities: custom made suits, shirts and dresses for a fraction of what they cost at home. 

Dalat
If the heat of the plains or Saigon’s sultry humidity becomes more than bearable, the old French hill resort of Dalat is only a 40 minute’s flight away. At over 1,700 metres the surrounding countryside is verdant and agriculturally rich. Strawberries, artichokes and cabbage fields spread out along the often misty slopes. Dalat itself is a history buff’s endpoint: French colonial architecture reached its apex here. It’s also a golfer’s paradise. Vietnam’s premier course is here and well worth visiting, as is the heritage railway station, the town’s horticultural gardens and its innumerable cafes. 

Hoi An
Hoi An near Da Nang is one of Vietnam’s most picturesque towns. Protected by government building restrictions and therefore historically intact, it is easily negotiated in a matter of hours. The beaches nearby at Dien Ban, its famous China Beach, are ringed by the Marble Mountains and offer a variety of resorts, some super luxurious, some very family friendly. The long sweeping sands edged by the warm waters of the South China Sea are endlessly inviting.

About the author: Tom hails from the Windy City, he talks alot. Remanded to vagabondage at an early age. Inveterate diner and drinker. Travels widely, deeply with constant hunger. Tom's preferred motto: "Suck it and see."

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If you're ready to see this startling, majestic country for yourself why not check out all our trips to Vietnam.