By: Darlene Silvestri
Vietnam, a country with a war-torn history and diverse past, has always held a certain amount of intrigue for me. As a young adult in the mid 60’s to early 70’s, there wasn’t a day that passed that Vietnam was not front and center in the media, where images of a war-torn country were brought to life and made lasting imprints in the memories of those who lived through that tumultuous period. Many of my friends had older siblings that were serving or being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. The country and its people became a part of my consciousness. So, when American tourism to Vietnam began to rise, I knew it would be on my “must see” list of destinations. My travels to Vietnam would take me to Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi Ann and Saigon.
The first stop of our journey was in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Hanoi, a city on the Red River, is both dynamic and chaotic. Motorbikes dodge and weave through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter. Many of the historic buildings have been restored and some converted to five-star luxury hotels which offer a taste of colonial era splendor. However, Hanoi is emerging as a new face of Asia, one of mega-malls, condos and office towers. Modern and medieval architecture blend beautifully on the streets of this Vietnamese capital city. Hanoi has it all, ancient history and the legacy of a colonial past along with a modern optimistic outlook to the future.
Our small group was fortunate to spend the day with a well known Vietnamese historian who had lived over the French and American times. It was a great opportunity to gain an insider’s understanding of Vietnamese history and culture. Other highlights included a cyclo tour around the Old Quarter to witness the vibrant life along the street sides and an evening performance of the traditional water puppets show.
From Hanoi, we made the 160 km transfer to Halong City where we boarded a private junk to begin our cruise through Halong Bay while enjoying a fresh seafood lunch on board which included the best prawns I have ever tasted. Halong Bay, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a slice of the South China Sea with more than 2,000 limestone peaks rising straight up out the water. The views at sunrise and sunset are incredible. Halong Bay is now one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam.
After transferring back to the Hanoi Airport, we boarded a flight taking us to the city of Hue. Hue, once the capital of Vietnam during the 19th century of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), is still an important literary and cultural center. The city is dissected by the Song Huong River which is commonly known as the Perfume River because of a scented scrub that grows along the river. Along its banks south of Hue, lie many of the impressive tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty’s emperors. Our cruise on the river included a visit to Thien Mu Pagoda, a lovely seven-tiered structure surrounded by gardens. The Pagoda is arguably the most famous pagoda in Vietnam and is also known as the Heavenly Lady Pagoda.
Afterwards, we made a visit the Imperial Citadel. The Citadel was the administrative center of southern Vietnam in the 17th and 18th centuries. Located within Hue’s Imperial Citadel is the Forbidden Purple City which included a vast collection of ancient pavilions and rooms. Although they were heavily bombed in 1968 by American military strikes, most have been rebuilt. The Citadel is a cultural highlight of a visit to Hue.
Departing Hue, we then traveled 100 km over the Cloud Pass (Hai Van Pass) to Danang, and then on to Hoi Ann. During a walking tour through the ancient town of Hoi Ann, we saw temples, old houses, pagodas and the 400 year old Japanese Covered Bridge. We found the bazaar a great place to buy silk.
Our last visit before returning home was in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City. Upon our arrival we were met and led through the famous Ben Thanh market by a famed chef, who was there to purchase fresh ingredients that she planned to use at a hands-on cooking demonstration for us in her own kitchen. Our preparations resulted in a fabulous lunch which included Vietnamese spring rolls, Banh Xeo (Vietnamese pancakes) and Vietnam’s national dish Pho (Vietnam’s spicy noodle soup). Ho Chi Minh City is the undisputed culinary capital of Vietnam.
No trip to Ho Chi Minh would be complete without paying a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, located approximately 20 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. These tunnels became legendary in the 1960’s and remain a haunting memory of past conflicts. Most entrances were so well disguised that only a small portion was ever discovered despite the fact that some 125 miles ran under US military bases. Some consider Chu Chi a place of pilgrimage.
Now, decades after American pulled out of South Vietnam, there are few remaining scars from that conflict and those that preceded it. Vietnam’s allure is easy to appreciate. It is a land of natural beauty with a unique history and fascinating cultural traditions. This, along with a fabulous variety of cuisine, and the warmth and graciousness of the Vietnamese people, make it an unforgettable experience.