Vietnam is a beautiful country of intriguing history and stark contrasts. I began my trip in the southern city of Saigon. Since the end of the Vietnam War it is referred to as Ho Chi Minh City, but the local people here rarely refer to it as this. It is a sprawling city with some great attractions, and some sobering memories, as I found out while visiting the War Remnants Museum. Here you can see what happened during the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese people, and a lot of it can be hard to swallow. Visibly deformed children affected by toxic chemicals like Agent Orange were there, not as an exhibit, but as an upsetting reminder of the legacy the war left in the country.
Small wages, big smiles
Moving on from the southern capital I joined a motorcycle tour that would travel through the country right up to Hanoi in the north. We passed through the villages and rice paddies that make up a large part of the country, and I was surprised by what I learned from our guide as we travelled. It’s almost unbelievable as you drive through the rural towns and mountain villages to believe that the people working there are probably earning no more than $50 a month. Most Americans would struggle to cover costs of rent, bills, food and transport on $50 a day. You would think that these people would be hanging their heads down and unhappy, but it is rare to see a person who does not beam a big smile at you. One of the most lasting impressions made on me during my visit was that even without anything the people here are happy.
We rode close to the Laos and Cambodia border as we meandered along the new Ho Chi Minh road, which gave us some amazing views of the mountains and jungle. To break up the journey, we stopped for a few days in the central Vietnam city of Hoi An. This was by far my favourite city in the country, much more relaxed compared to Saigon and Hanoi, with a beautiful beach and wonderful central market area. I had to be a little careful on the beach not to show too much flesh, a warning that wasn’t listened to by some groups of girls on their gap year. They were shown a little more attention than they wanted from the local men there. Throughout my travels I have learnt that abiding by local customs and culture will not only avoid you becoming an attraction to the locals, but also make you feel much more comfortable and at home wherever you are.
Architectural pho pot
Hoi An is a wonderful blend of Vietnamese culture with a French influence, and the magnificent old town that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Here you can imagine what the historic trading port would have looked like hundreds years ago. The architecture here has been influenced by Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and Europeans over the past five centuries.
Leaving Hoi An was tough, not only because I liked it there so much, but because I knew the long motorcycle ride ahead would leave me with a sore bum. But the show had to go on, and off we went on the last stretch of our journey to Hanoi. The country seems to bottle neck in the middle, and the first day of the ride was along busy roads which seemed too dangerous for my liking. After a quick chat to the guide, we convinced him to take us along a more scenic route the rest of the way.
Arriving in Hanoi was a bit of a shock after a couple of days in the peaceful countryside. But I soon got settled in for the last few days of my trip, and tried my best not to let the stifling heat get on my nerves. I made an itinerary to see the top attractions like the Hoan Kiem Lake, the One Pillar Pagoda, and the National Museum of Vietnamese History. One of the most surreal places to go in Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where you can take a look at the embalmed body of the late Vietnamese leader. A little weird, but definitely a must do activity when visiting the city.
I finished my trip by letting my hair down and enjoying some cheap drinks at Bia Hoi Corner. Here the beer is ridiculously cheap, and it attracts tourists and local alike, although from what I could see it was the tourists taking most advantage of the discount alcohol. With a slight hangover I left Hanoi in the morning, happy that I had seen so much of Vietnam, and knowing I would come back again someday.