Affordable and exotic Vietnam

By | Category: Travel destinations
inside a Vietnamese pagoda

inside a Vietnamese pagoda

Vietnam offers great value to English people looking for somewhere exotic, comparatively safe and out of the ordinary. With direct flights to Vietnam, and British people no-longer requiring a Visa, once there the pound goes a long way. Hanoi, the capital is so different from anywhere in the Western hemisphere and is an ideal place to start as a stepping stone to soaking up the atmosphere of the country. Despite it being the end of November it was still warm and humid. There is a sort of mist in the air, probably a mixture of heat and pollution! In the old town the streets team with people and the shops, many with their goods spilling onto the pavement, are open from eight in the morning to ten at night. An added charm, and quite unexpected are the expanses of water, lakes dotted around the city.

Cars are a rarity but virtually everyone has a motorbike, and the roads are chock-a-bloc with them. Learning to cross the road is an art. “You just walk across the road and take no notice of the motorbikes” said Louis, our guide, “they will drive around you”. This sounded rather daunting but it was amazing how quickly I conquered it without worrying.

A sightseeing tour of the old quarter by cyclo is an unforgettable experience. Seated comfortably on a cushion my driver pedaled, perched behind me. Bikes and cars were coming at us from all sides and yet he easily weaved his way through the crowds. Their currency is dong, and I got thousands for my pound. Prices quoted in thousands of dong sound expensive but in fact everything is incredibly cheap. My hour’s ride was just a few pounds, and a tip wasn’t expected.

making a wish in the Temple of Literature

making a wish in the Temple of Literature

Many of the people practice Buddhism and temples and pagodas abound. At the 11th century Temple of Literature which has extensive grounds young ladies dressed in their finery were being photographed with bouquets of flowers in preparation for their graduation. The Vietnamese are superstitious and students come here to touch a stone turtle which is supposed to bring luck. At the entrance to a statue of Confucius are two long necked cranes. I was told to touch one, and make a wish. Here’s hoping it works! One of the city’s attractions, and said to be unique to Vietnam, is a theatre performance with water puppets. The spectacle is accompanied by musicians using traditional instruments unlike those found in the UK. Despite being apprehensive about the visit, it was very entertaining with each scene telling a story through the decorated puppets who were cleverly manipulated by long sticks in a pool of water by people behind a curtain.

A four hour drive from Hanoi, Halong Bay, an UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site is an enormous expanse of water with over 1600 uninhabited limestone karsts (pillars), and islets rising out of the water with heights of up to 10 meters (330 ft) some with caves and grottos in them. In 2011 the area was voted one of the seven new Natural Wonders of the World.

halong Bay

Halong Bay

The area is one of the ‘must visit’ places in the country with visitors coming for a short overnight cruise as I did or staying for several days as the boat sails around some of the 367 islands. The area is great for kayaking and canoeing. From our cruise boat, I and several others took a ride on a sampan rowed by a young lady with her two year old son sitting playing next to her. Luck was with us as we saw several Cat Ba golden-headed Langur, a rare and not often seen species of monkey who were frolicking on the rocks. In the area, but back on land, I visited a pearl farm where I was shown how cultured pearls are made. I had never realised that they are formed from living oysters, and of course there was a large room with lots of items including jewellery for sale.

Limestone hills and mountains cover a lot of the area in and around the Northern and Central areas of Vietnam, and is a haven for anyone who enjoys caving. Many of the caves have only recently been discovered. In Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, I climbed the 519 steps to the entrance of Paradise Cave which is 360 metre above sea level and 31.4km long. An UNESCO World Heritage site it was only open to the public in 2010.

Paradise Cave

Paradise Cave

Created by nature over millions of years, it is filled with stalactites and stalagmites in shades of blue, mauve, and a sandy colour. While some of the formations just looked spectacular others appeared to have been sculpted. At Phong Nha – Ke Bang Cave there is an underground river and visitors are able to explore the cave in a kayak or by swimming. The more daring can zip-line at the entrance to Dark Cave. There is a nominal charge for visiting the various caves as there is for all the activities.

Particularly in the north of the country where I visited, the food has a lot of similarity to its neighbour China with sticky rice being served rather than bread. Vegetables are thinly sliced and the food is eaten with chopsticks although knives and forks are also put on the table. Chill is used a lot. Street food is a very common and cheap way to eat.

Pho - the national dish

Pho – the national dish

Pho a meat based broth made with rice vermicelli, spring onions, beansprouts and chill peppers is their national dish as is Nem, the word for spring and also spring roll.

Smoking is still acceptable in hotels so it’s important, if you are a non-smoker, to stipulate that you require a non-smoking room.

Vietnam is seven hours ahead of GMT and flying time is around eleven hours so if possible because of the jet lag try and have an easy day on arrival to make the most of your holiday. I travelled to Heathrow on the Heathrow Express which takes fifteen minutes from London’s Paddington Station. The Piccadilly tube also goes to Heathrow but it takes exceedingly longer although it costs far less.

Vietnam Airlines offers the UK’s only nonstop flights to Vietnam, with six flights per week from Heathrow to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.

For more about Vietnam, click here.



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