Vietnam: Overview

As part of my travels in 2001 I ventured through Vietnam with Intrepid Travel. Following is an overview of that experience.

[singlepic=946,150,,,right]Vietnam…Scooters…Everywhere.  They are your first impression when entering the country and a lasting one throughout.  After all…they are everywhere.  The best part about Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) were the scooters.  If you weren’t zooming around the city on back of one, you had to dodge them.  And what fun that was – just like a live action game of Frogger.  And since the few sidewalks that are around turn into parking lots for the scooters, you are forced to become one with the traffic.  Add on top of that cyclos, bicycles, and the occassional bus or car, you’ve got fun every step of the way.  This all goes for the rest of Vietnam as well, on different levels – but it’s all part of the charm.

It’s difficult to sum up my time in Vietnam as there have been so many impressions made and experiences happened.  As I made my way South to North – Mekong Delta, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Halong Bay, Hanoi – each step has been a journey in itself.


1. Scooter – of course.  Whether zooming through the streets of HCMC or the villages of Nha Trang and Hoi An, it was an exciting way to travel around Vietnam and visit places tour buses or Westerners never go.  Another person from my group and I rented a motorbike one day in Hoi An and visited villages where we were greeted like celebrities.  Women huddled together gossiping would point and laugh – field workers would stop and stare – and kids would jump up and down shouting hello.  It was all very humbling.


2. Boat – being paddled through the maze-like jungle of the Mekong Delta.  Visiting floating villages and markets, where the locals lives revolve around the water.  Relaxing on top of a boat as we cruise the various islands off Nha Trang, sometimes snorkeling, sometimes swimming with our host as he served up drinks from the floating bar.  Floating down the Perfume River in Hue aboard a boat on which the family lived, visiting Pagodas and Royal Tombs along the way.  And sailing to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay, past the numerous islands and caves that make up this World Heritage Site.

3. Bicycle – In Hoi An, our guide took us out for dinner to a “local” place, only 30 minutes away – on bike.  Imagine 12 of us riding in pitch blackness on village roads.  Just as you get used to the darkness, a scooters headlight blinds you and you hope you don’t run off the road, or into someone else.  A similar challenge was met in Hue, but instead of darkness, it was rain.  Add heavy traffic into that, and it was quite adventureous.

4. Trains – Three in total – two at 12 hours, one at 18.  Plenty of beer could ensure a good nights sleep – for some.  And the adventure to get the beer, walking through endless compartments filled with locals sitting in hard seats (or lying underneath them) made our berths seem extravagant.  But no one enjoyed being woken up at 4:30am by blaring Vietnamese Muzak.


[singlepic=941,150,,,right]Want to open your own business?  Welcome to Vietnam.  Do you have access to a CD burner and photocopier?  You can open your own record shop.  A two litre bottle for petrol and a bicycle pump?  You’ve got yourself a road side station.  Are you an ambitious restauranteur?  All you need is some knee-high plastic chairs and table and a kerosene stove.  Want to open a market?  A stick with two baskets on either end to hold your fruits or veggies and your in business.  And of course the land of tailors – Hoi An.  For $100 you’ve got yourself a whole new tailored wardrobe in one day.  It’s addiciting!  Myself – I got tailored two trousers, 3 shirts, a 3/4 length wool coat, a traditional Vietnamese dress, and two pairs of shoes custom made for that price.


[singlepic=943,150,,,left]As an American, there is no escaping the “American War” here.  And after seeing primitive yet highly effective booby traps, the extensive underground tunnels of the Viet Cong, and the density of the jungles & rivers, it is no surprise that America lost the war.  And as the only American on the tour, our local guide was always quick to point things out to me only — “that’s the old CIA headquarters”…”the US Embassy used to be there”…”what did you think of the War Crimes Museum?”  But there are no hard feelings, as this country has only been at peace in the last 10 years after hundreds of years at being at war with various nations and itself.


[singlepic=945,150,,,right]Uncle Ho.  Yes, Ho Chi Minh himself.  Or should I say, his well preserved yet utterly creepy body.  He arrived back in Hanoi just in time from his annual “preservation” trip to Russia.  But as freaky as seeing his body was, it was the pomp and circumstance surrounded by the visit that made it truly unique.  The rules included, no bags or cameras allowed inside the Mausoluem – dress respectively, no hats or shorts – walk quietly in pairs – and you can not put your hands in your pockets.  Walking up the red carpet inside the darkened tomb with guards surrounding him, it ironically felt like I was in line for a ride at Disney World.  Bring on “Uncle Ho’s Magic Roller Coaster”.


See Cambodia

Of course I haven’t even touched on the vast beauty of the endless rice fields, the charm of Hanoi and Hoi An, the Vietnameses freaky obsession with Karaoke, and the food, oh glorious food.

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