Exploring Vietnam

2012-10-10 07:22
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Pics: Vietnam at a glance

We give a quick round-up of must-know facts about Vietnam.

"It is impossible to come back from one's journey; there's always someone else coming back."

I'm not sure who said it, or if in fact, the internet just sort of made it up, but I know it's true. Quite true indeed. 

Especially if your travels take you somewhere so foreign it feels like you have stepped through the looking glass... or fallen down the rabbit hole.

I went to Vietnam for 10 days - travelling from Hanoi in the north right down to Ho Chi Minh City in the south - and someone else came back. Not someone vastly different, just someone mildly adjusted and somewhat wanderstruck.

It was my first time in the far East and while I definitely had expected extraordinary, the exquisite sensory overload that followed was more than I could have bargained for.

Vietnam is sultry and exotic but also strangely, and quite paradoxically, a rather gentle destination. 

It overwhelms newcomers with the exuberant life pumping through its city veins, then immediately sets in to soothe with the abundance of tranquil, tropical beauty. People wearing conical hats (they really wear them!!) wade around in rice paddies, while legions of scooters rush along the roads - some carrying families of four, some trailing farming equipment and fresh produce in little carts, some carrying miscellaneous loads such as a large bag of soft toys positioned precariously behind the rider and yet others playing steed to petite masked girls (apparently they're quite paranoid about keeping their skin pale, so they wear cute little masks that look a bit like doctors') in high heels and the latest trends. 

Named the second happiest country in the world for 2012 by the Happy Planet Index, it's clear that Vietnam has come a long way in providing its people with stability, peace and enough to eat, despite still being a one-party socialist state. In turn, the locals seem blessed with a rare type of gratitude that translates directly into that one thing we're all so desperately seeking - contentment. 

Our guide, Le Van Cuong - a Viet Cong veteran - explained it best when he said: "Right now we're very happy. For the longest time we were living in hell. At one point we used to get 100g of meat per person per month and 4 meters of cloth per person per year for clothing. So, while we're definitely not living in heaven right now, we're finally on earth."

While Cuong did have his reservations about the current one-party government, he was quick to point out the merits: free trade, free religion and an abundance of food for everyone. "We need rice, not human rights," he would quip ever so often, half joking, half serious.

If you plan on experiencing Vietnam for yourself, here's a round-up of must-know facts and things to do...

What to expect

- All the exoticism of other South East Asian countries like Thailand, but without the crowds.

- Romance - singles, if you're looking to meet your match on your travels, Vietnam is NOT the place to go. Interestingly, it draws lots of couples - both young and not so young - and seems to be shaping up as a popular honeymoon destination.

-  Polite and friendly locals. Even vendors in markets, as a rule, don't harass customers to buy.

- People wearing conical hats, water buffalo and colourful altars in rice paddies and fields next to all the big roads.

- Slow driving. The speed limits are quite a lot lower than ours generally are, so it will take you a good deal longer to drive 100km there than it would here. 

- Most importantly, expect as little as possible and you are guaranteed to be blown away. 

Incredible things to do

 - Explore the cities

While the natural beauty of areas like Halong Bay are what normally draw tourists to the country, Vietnam's cities are a feast of colour, sound and craziness that should not be missed. Take a rickshaw ride through Hanoi's old quarter to experience the strange zen that settles over you in the midst of manic movement. Wander around the romantic and peaceful streets of Hue and take a dragon boat cruise down the Perfume River. Soak up the New York-like fabulousness of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), window-shopping at designer stores like Gucci and take some time out at one of the many quaint coffee shops. Each of the cities has a character of its own that should be experienced as fully as possible.

- Go on a junk boat cruise in Halong Bay

The awe that overcomes you as you set out from the Halong harbour and head out into the calm, translucent water dotted with thousands of towering green outcrops is unlike anything you will ever experience elsewhere. Halong Bay is like the realization of a fantasy world that could only have been dreamed up by Tolkien or the likes. The best way to explore it is certainly by junk boat. A cute and cozy cabin fitted with a double bed, washbasin, shower and toilet become your home for one night as water laps lazily somewhere down below your balcony. Discover the nearby floating villages by canoe or raft and immerse yourself in the warm waters for a swim. After an evening of blissful sleep, wake up early and join the on-board Tai Chi lesson on the upper deck as the sun slowly starts its ascent. The unforgettableness is guaranteed. 

- Find out more about the America-Vietnam war

The one thing everyone knows about Vietnam is that it was once embroiled in an ugly war with the United States... thanks Hollywood. Strangely, not much remains from those dark days, however, if you are interested there are two must-visit spots: the Cuchi Tunnels close to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and the War Memorial Museum in the city itself. Both places are sure to linger with you for a while, as there is almost no comparison between the healed (and healing) place Vietnam is today and the dark pit it was cast into back then. Having a guide who actually fought in the war definitely added value to our experience, and made the horrors somewhat more real. 

- Invest in a tailored garment in Hoi An

Nestled right into the thin middle of the country, you will find the village of Hoi An. Recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, the oldest part of town is full of quaint, mostly yellow, two-storey buildings, cobbled streets, song birds in cages... and shops. Lots and lots of shops. And every second shop has an in-house tailor that can whip up pretty much any garment you desire within 24 hours or less at a prices that are wonderfully ludicrous. The same goes for shoes - whether it's a simple pair of slops you're after, sky high stilettos or beautiful boots, whatever you dream can be conceived in those streets. 

- Play farmer-farmer at Tra Que Village

Take a leisurely cycle from Hoi An to the organic farming village of Tra Que. Here you will get kitted out with a conical hat of your own, a brown shirt and some farming equipment. After a little bit of work in the fields, you head back to the restaurant area for a cooking instruction and a well-deserved fresh-from-the-earth lunch.

- Find out more about the last dynasty 

The city of Hue was considered the capital of the Nguyen dynasty during their reign from 1802 to 1945 and still offers visitors a peek into the lives of the long gone royalty. A good point to start would be the Imperial City, which is pretty much a replica of the Forbidden City in Beijing, where you can find out more about the lifestyle of the various emperors and their families. Visiting the sprawling Minh Mang tomb, located about 12km outside of the city on the West Bank, is also an absolute must as it allows you insights into the Buddhist beliefs of life after death. 

- Drink coffee

As an avid coffee drinker, Vietnam's penchant for this black gold was perhaps one of the most pleasant surprises on my trip. They have a special way of making it that involves a special one-cup filter placed a-top your mug and generous dollops of condensed milk. A definite must-try even for the teetotalers.

Other need to know Vietnam facts:

Getting there: Vietnam has three international airports - at Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and there are various airlines who offer flights from South Africa to here. Flights are indirect with either one or two stops and airlines include Cathay Pacific, Emirates, South African Airways, Kenya Airways, Singapore Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and Etihad Airways. Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines have one stop flights via Hong Kong and Singapore respectively, whereas all other listed here have two stops. 

We flew Qatar from Johannesburg to Hanoi with a two-hour stopover in Doha, Qatar's hub, and another hour in Bangkok. During the Doha stop we left the aircraft, but at Bangkok passengers heading on to Hanoi remain on the aircraft. 

Visa: South Africans need a visa to enter Vietnam. We worked through On the Go Tours who arranged visas on arrival for US$20. For this a valid passport and two 4x6cm colour ID photographs are required (strictly no smiling!). If you aren't working through a tour operator, or they do not have the visa on arrival option, you can apply for a visa at the consulate in Pretoria. This will cost R500 and an additional R300 courier fees for those living outside of Gauteng. Your passport should be valid for more than 6 months after your return date, and have at least 2 blank pages left. Two colour photographs are also required here. 

Currency: Vietnam Dong, but US Dollars are accepted pretty much everywhere.

Exchange rate: This is a tough one and best worked out in a sort of three way dance between the dollar, dong and rand. My tried and tested currency converting method went something like this:
20 000 Dong (yes, dong is pretty big and you'll get to be a millionaire for a while. And there will be dirty jokes about big dong) = give or take US$1. If you know the Rand-Dollar exchange rate, it's then pretty easy to work out what you will be paying for an item. In our case it was about R8 to US$1.

Climate: Because of differences in latitude and the marked variety of topographical relief, the climate tends to vary considerably from place to place. While we were there (mid-September), days and nights were consistently hot and humid throughout the country with temperatures reaching the mid-30s. However, in the mountainous regions temperatures could get as low as 5°celsius between December and February. 

Food & budget: As a rule, food and drinks are pretty cheap. If you stop off at a mid-market street café, you can expect to pay about 40 000 Dong for a beer and about 80 000 for a decent plate of food. Which means a meal with two drinks would on average cost you no more than R60. While you would find ‘western' takeaway outlets in the cities, trying the local cuisine comes highly recommended. Shellfish, pork and various vegetables.

Time difference: Vietnam is 5 hours ahead of South Africa

Accommodation: The accommodation offering throughout Vietnam is pretty diverse - you will find anything from sprawling 5-star hotels (mostly in the cities, though) to humble backpackers. If you're not the roughing-it type, but also don't have a large budget to work with, you're in luck! Affordable, neat and welcoming 3- to 4-star hotels are a dime a dozen.

Official languages: Vietnamese. Despite the relatively long occupation by France between the mid-1800s and 1940, the coloniser's language has all but disappeared, it is only really still spoken by the older generation. English is widely understood, if not spoken fluently.

Nadia travelled as a guest of Flight Centre and On the Go Tours, on the 10-day Very Vietnam tour which departs year-round and starts at R14,540 per person excluding flights.

Price includes: Airport arr/dep transfers, 7 nights 4 star hotels, 1 night deluxe junk boat, 1 overnight sleeper train, breakfast daily, 4 lunches & 1 dinner, all transportation and guided sightseeing with local Vietnamese tour guide.

Qatar Airways serve Vietnam daily from JHB with economy flights starting at R7550 and business flights from R36 250 

Reader offer: Flight Centre are offering 10% off Very Vietnam for all tours departing before October 2013 - booked by 30 November 2012.

Contact 0877 40 50 15 to book this tour now!

Read more on:    travel international


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