Known in some parts of the world only as a war, Vietnam is by far the most surprising country I’ve visited. Prior to my trip I was met with constant worrying from my parents. It wasn’t my first solo trip or my first time in Asia, but for some reason they were more anxious than ever before. We think of Vietnam and we think bombs, poverty and political/social unrest. I think I was even apprehensive myself; It’s natural to have such pre-conceptions about a part of the world so shadowed from our western lenses. I urge you, do not let this put you off. If I were to describe Vietnam in one word: magical. This wonderfully diverse, beautiful, loud country will steal your heart.
I was lucky enough to spend 5 weeks in Vietnam, giving me plenty of time to immerse myself in the country. Most long-haul international flights will take you into either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and these are brilliant places to start. The first thing you will notice when leaving the airport is the abundance of traffic, more motorbikes than you have probably ever seen in your entire life. Not a second passes where your ears are not filled with the honk of a passing vehicle. You will quickly learn that a beep in Vietnam is not quite practiced in the same way as the UK; it’s an absolute free for all. For a good week after I left the country, I could still hear the sound of a motorbike horn ringing through my ears.
The cities themselves are a surprise. Towering sky scrapers, bright lights and a cool, cosmopolitan vibe. To put the modernity of it all into perspective, the Hanoi bus system has free (actually working) Wi-Fi, when we can’t even get it on trains here at home! However, this doesn’t detract from the south-east Asian backpacker vibe that lingers wherever you visit. This is epitomised in Hanoi’s old quarter, made up of streets and streets lined with stalls and shops selling bright garments and souvenirs, local street food and of course BEER. In fact, there’s one street that is completely devoted to small traditional bars selling cheap beer, and when I say cheap- I mean less than 50p cheap. However, not only is Hanoi a brilliant stopping point for its cheap beer, but it’s a great hub to explore the North of the country, with many bus routes and day trips starting in the city.
Outside of it’s fascinating cities, Vietnam is home to some of the most wondrous and beautiful landscapes the world has to offer. No trip to Vietnam is complete without a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay. Tall limestone islands grow from the sparkling emerald waters. More than 1,600 islets crowd the bay, topped with rainforests- making for a stunning landscape. There is no doubt you will be taken back. Trips to the bay can be as short as a day tours, or you could even spend a few weeks in the many hostels available on some of the larger islands such as Cat Ba.
Seemingly worlds away from the island paradises of Ha Long Bay, is Sa Pa, a few hours further north. Here you can trek in the Valley of Muong Hoa amongst luscious green rice paddies surrounded by complete wildlife. Sa Pa offers the unique opportunity to stay with a local family within their home in one of the many small villages in the valley. A truly amazing and eye opening experience that I would recommend to anyone visiting the area.
As wonderful as the North of Vietnam is, it hosts a much cooler climate, so if you’re seeking the sun- head down south. Transport around Vietnam is extremely easy, cheap and convenient. If you avoid public transport and opt for sleeper busses, your journey will also be extremely comfortable (as far as transport goes). These backpackers suited busses stop at all major cities and towns, making it the perfect transport option. As you venture south, make sure you don’t miss the city of Hue. Famous for its magnificent and history rich Imperial City; A walled palace within the citadel. However, if modern history is more of interest to you- Hue was a central point for a lot of the fighting during the Vietnam War. As you walk around the citadel, you can even still see bullet marks in the bricks, and walls that were destroyed by American bombs. Despite the cities brutal history, the kindness, generosity and friendliness of the people is the most evident characteristic of this brilliant place. As you walk along the river, you’ll come to a small area of benches and shrubbery- a bit like a small park. The local students come here to speak to tourists to try and improve their English to benefit them in both their studies and their employability. During my time in Hue I visited this park every evening, each time getting to meet and know a new group of lovely people. There’s no better way to understand the beautiful Vietnamese culture and it’s differing values than to get to know it’s people, and this is the perfect place to do so.
A little further south, and extremely popular with tourists is Hoi An, a coastal city best known for the abundance of multi-coloured lanterns which line the ancient streets. The city is also famous for its large range of tailors. Pop into one of Hoi An’s many tailor shops and within a day or 2 you can have clothes of your own design custom made to fit you for a ridiculously small price. As if the shopping in the city isn’t enough to draw you in, it also boasts a number of beautiful beaches. My personal favourite is Hidden Beach; much quieter than the others nearby, allowing you to enjoy the white sands and turquoise waters in complete peace.
I could list endless towns, cities and provinces to visit in Vietnamas each just as fascinating, picturesque and unique as the next. Vietnam however, is more than just a list of places- it is truly magical and it’s hard to put into words just how captivating the country is. Every aspect of Vietnam has charm. From ‘Pho’ the delicious national dish, to the endless stalls and shops selling delicate handmade goods. One thing stands out above all whilst visiting Vietnam however; the warmth of its people. Vietnam stole my heart. I guarantee it will steal yours too.
Words by Molly Geddes