The edge of the world is an acceptably hyperbolic description of Halong Bay, a surreal seascape of conical limestone islets and dreamy emerald waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. It is one of Vietnam’s biggest tourist attractions, pulling in many thousands of overseas visitors each year – I’m talking pre-Covid times, obviously – on package deals from Hanoi.
To escape the crowds, I had booked a boat that sailed off the beaten track among the Bai Tu Long islands, to the east of the most popular parts of Halong Bay. After a visit to a cave and a swim, I decided to take a kayak out to circle one of the cone islets. One of the crew, a young guy called Duong, came along with me.
No other boats were in sight and, as we paddled along, it felt as if we had the entire South China Sea to ourselves. “Hey Mister Nigel!” – Duong had laid his paddle across the kayak and wanted to talk. He proceeded to quiz me on my marital status, my parents and the details of any siblings and children I might have – all done with such charming guilelessness that I was not in the least offended, even though I was startled by the personal nature of the questions.
This encounter, set amid such beautiful surroundings, summed up the charisma of a country that manages to be both thrillingly strange and immediately approachable to the Western visitor. It also provided real insight into Vietnamese culture, which is rooted firmly in family and forebears. On another trip to Vietnam, this obsession with family and ancestry took me to another extraordinary place, this time one barely visited by tourists.
We were a few miles south of the former imperial city of Hue when my guide twisted round in the front passenger seat of the car and asked if I wanted to see the City of Ghosts. When I looked puzzled – I had not heard of the place, and it did not feature in guidebooks – he talked about the importance of ancestor worship in the lives of Vietnamese families and explained that the cemetery known as the City of Ghosts was where this idea reached its most extreme expression.
Our visit, which involved a detour to the coastal plain between Hue and Danang, took us into a bizarre nether world. The City of Ghosts was a sprawling necropolis of extravagantly decorated mausoleums that seemed to get more and more outrageous the further we ventured into it. Costing far more than many houses for the living, these tomb-houses were paid for largely by the Viet Kieu – the Vietnamese diaspora, many of whom were the “boat people” of the 1970s and 1980s who fled Vietnam in leaky boats from this very place, or the white sand beaches behind it.
We met a man gloomily contemplating the damage done to his family tomb – a riot of pillars, pagodas and dragons done in brightly-coloured tiles – by a lightning strike just the day before. The man picked up shards of shattered tile and shook his head. It was not the damage that concerned him, but what the damage meant. An ancestor had evidently expressed displeasure by sending down a thunderbolt, and he was trying to work out why.
While, for the Vietnamese, long-term memories stretch back for generations, short-term concerns barely touch on the most traumatic passage in the country’s history, the conflict known in the West as the Vietnam War in which millions of Vietnamese were killed. The war officially ended in 1975, before the majority of the population was born, but its legacy remains evident – from sites that have been “repurposed” as tourist attractions (the Cu Chi tunnels; the prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton” where American PoWs, the former US Republican Senator John McCain among them, were incarcerated) to the lingering suffering caused by the defoliant known as Agent Orange.
However, the people themselves display no apparent rancour towards the West in general or Americans in particular. Instead, they embrace the future as they turn Vietnam into one of the most dynamic economies in south-east Asia. This blending of the old and the new, the mysterious and the thoroughly modern, is what makes the country one of the most congenial destinations for overseas visitors.
One of my fondest memories is of catching the overnight train from Hanoi to Hue in a wooden sleeper carriage, having just that morning been kayaking in Halong Bay. The ambience was reassuringly old-fashioned but there was air-con that worked and the punctuality was a revelation for this veteran of Britain’s rail franchises and their somewhat elastic timetabling.
The train departed Hanoi’s railway station at 7.30pm and, 420 miles later, arrived on the dot of 8.30am, in Hue. A breakfast of French pastries in town was followed by a drive out to view some of the Nguyen Dynasty mausoleums along the Perfume River.
The next day, heading south, we drove up the Hai Van Pass, a coastal route that crosses at its high point an ancient dividing line of rival kingdoms. The views of Danang Bay and, inland, of the forested Truong Son mountains, are spectacular. Bristling on this summit are fortifications old and new, including a pillbox left over from the war. As I was taking some pictures and stretching my legs, I noticed a young couple preparing to climb this pillbox. They did so with a step ladder while dressed to the nines – she in a pink dress and a tiara, he in a suit. And once they were safely on the roof, they posed for wedding photographs against that dramatic scenery.
The scene summed up a country that has grown peace and prosperity from the ruins of war – finding new ways of moving forward while staying proudly rooted in its deep history and culture.
10 reasons to book a trip now
1. The rich ethnic mix
There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, making it the most complex culture in south-east Asia. The Viets are the biggest, accounting for 86 per cent of the population. The rest live mostly on the margins, leading simple rural lives still characterised by distinct dwellings and ways of dressing. Sapa in the northern hills is a popular base for tourists wishing to visit minority markets and villages as well as trek in the mountains. The province of Ha Giang, further to the north-east, is less developed with an even richer mix of minorities. Visit the excellent Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi for a good grounding.
2. Paradise island
Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese resort island off Cambodia, was largely undeveloped and unknown 20 years ago. Things have moved apace and it is now a mainstream destination with a sophisticated infrastructure of hotels, restaurants and activities (snorkelling, scuba diving, hiring a motorbike to explore the forested and hilly interior). But its essential charms remain intact: glorious white-sand beaches (especially on the west coast), warm seas, spectacular sunsets and laid-back charm. In the far south, the five-mile cable-car ride to HonThom/Pineapple Island, with dramatic views of the archipelago, is claimed to be the longest such sea ride in the world.
3. Halong Bay
It’s a cliché but it’s also a must – you will not be disappointed, so long as you plan with care. If you can afford it, book a berth on a small luxury boat and head east to the Bai Tu Long islands to beat the pack of day boats. Explore the floating village of Cua Van, swim off an uninhabited island and enjoy exceptional levels of service and food on board.
The landmarks of Vietnam’s cheerfully chaotic capital are the key to understanding modern-day Vietnam. Your budget might not extend to the elegant Sofitel Metropole, one of the world’s great colonial-era hotels, but do drop in for lunch or tea.
This takes you to the heart of the French quarter with its neoclassical opera house, but also within strolling distance of peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake and, to the north, the bustling old quarter. In the west, the Confucian Temple of Literature is another oasis while the complex of botanical gardens, presidential palace, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (where his body lies in state) and Uncle Ho’s actual house reflect Vietnam’s momentous history. Fuel up on the tasty street food as you go.
5. Ho Chi Minh City
Brash, frenetic, vertical – the former Saigon may not be the country’s political capital but its teeming streets and chaotic, non-stop traffic are where the pulse of modern Vietnam beats most insistently. The War Remnants Museum, a monument to the horrors of war, is a sobering reminder of how far Vietnam has come in the past half century.
Otherwise, the best way of experiencing the city is to immerse yourself in those streets and alleyways, on foot (be brave and bold at crossings) or by xe om (motorbike taxi). Highlights include Ben Thanh Market and Cho Lon, the sprawling Chinatown.
6. Hoi An
Rather like a miniature Venice, this former trading port on the Thu Bon river pulls off the unlikely feat of being both a shameless tourist trap and a timeless romantic getaway. That pretence is most successfully maintained at night when the streets are strung with paper lanterns and the old wooden traders’ houses are crammed with groups of diners and drinkers. Daytime is for bicycle tours of the irrigated countryside nearby, a lazy day on Cua Dai Beach or an excursion to the evocative ruins of My Son, a Hindu temple site of the Cham kingdom dating back to the 4th century.
7. Cat Tien National Park
Tigers once roamed Vietnam’s lush rainforests and the country was rich in fauna. These habitats were largely destroyed during the war and the process has been continued by logging and the planting of cash crops. But Cat Tien, 80 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City, provides 275 square miles of tropical rainforest that protects several persecuted mammal species including elephant, civet and the tiny mouse deer. It also has 350 bird species, making it one of the finest bird-watching sites in south-east Asia. An antidote to the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City.
8. War and Peace
Most tourist itineraries take in the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong hid out in the war, on a day trip north of Ho Chi Minh City. But it can be a dispiriting conveyor-belt experience. Far more instructive is to head north on a day trip from Hue to Khe Sanh, a US base besieged in 1968, and on to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and the fishing community of Vinh Moc. During the war, the village dug itself into the earth to avoid US bombardment. Two thousand yards of tunnels are accessible to visitors.
9. Mekong Delta
Happily, plans for a vast theme park in the Delta known as “Happyland” have been abandoned and the charms of these watery flatlands remain the simple ones of river life, floating markets and rich agricultural land. Day trips are available from HCM City, whisking you down on new highways and bridges for boat tours, but it is better to linger a day or two to get into the rhythm – either on a short cruise or on a home stay in the settlement of Vinh Long.
10. Paradise islands
The Con Dao archipelago, a cluster of 16 small islands lying off the south coast, is probably where Phu Quoc was a decade ago. Only one island, Con Son, is inhabited. It used to be a penal colony, but today’s incomers enjoy some superb beaches, scuba diving, inland trekking and bird-watching. The tiny island town, with its French colonial buildings, is delightfully laid-back and there is an increasing range of accommodation including the ultra-luxe Six Senses spa resort.
The Daily Telegraph