Go East is a series from Lighthouse that brings you countries and destinations that lie east of India and have not hit the big time yet on the travel circuit. Forget Europe, forget Australia, forget Morocco. Give a miss to South Africa, drop the trip to the US, keep New Zealand waiting. Go east with Lighthouse as we move to Vietnam having covered Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
Vietnam! Depending upon your age, you have different ideas about it. Those who lived through the sixties and seventies will remember the long drawn war with the Americans slap-bang in the middle of it. For those who came in later, perhaps some remembrance of the border problems with China (what is new in that?). If it is anything later than that then you are too young! But, jokes aside, this is a country that has breath-taking beauty, an ancient culture and an economy that is going places. Time for you to dive straight into it!
Let us start with the capital, Hanoi, up in the northern part of this elongated country. More than a thousand years old, the city came into ‘recent’ prominence when the French moved the capital from Hue. So, what do you do here? Well, start with some of the museums – History Museum, Museum Of Vietnamese Women, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and Vietnam Military History Museum. One interesting museum is Hoa Lo Prison Museum that housed the US Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War. Apart from the museums there are the pagodas and temples: Tran Quoc Pagoda, Ngoc Son Temple, Tay Phuong Pagoda, Bach Ma Temple… Do stop by at the One Pillar Pagoda that was constructed in 1049 by an Emperor in gratitude to getting an heir.
Catch a train to Sapa, further in the north. Sapa is famous for both its fine, rugged scenery and also its rich cultural diversity. Trek to a hillside village for a homestay and traditional meals with a local family.
An overnight cruise on the Halong Bay is a must-do. The bay is a magical blend of land and sea with thousands of limestone islands and islets. The shapes are as varied as the sizes and many of the islands have been given names derived from their shapes. For example, Voi Island (Elephant), Ga Choi Island (Fighting Cock), Qua Chuong Island (Bell) and Mai Nha Island (Roof). The tranquil, emerald green waters and the captivating vistas soothe the soul and stimulate the senses.
From Halong Bay move to Hue, the erstwhile imperial capital. Pagodas and palaces, temples and tombs make up this ancient city. And, as one can expect, there is culture and more of it. The Citadel, which occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the Perfume River, is worth a visit. Along the Perfume River lie a myriad monuments including the tombs of several emperors. Also notable is the Thien Mu Pagoda, the largest in Hue and the official symbol of the city.
On the way to Ho Chi Minh City, stop at Hoi An. As you can imagine in a UNESCO World Heritage City, there is a lot of history around here. The Old Town has two landmarks – Japanese Covered Bridge and the Quan Cong Temple. The coupon system allows you to choose one to visit. Then there are museums, old houses and congregation halls to see. For cookery enthusiasts, cooking lessons are offered at several restaurants around town. You can also take a riverboat cruise, go bike riding, get some beach time or visit the My Son ruins.
And, then you reach Ho Chi Minh City. The elders may remember it as Saigon. The Mumbai of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minch City is the city of commerce and culture, the city of movement and progress. Temples, pagodas, museums abound and it is no wonder that it is called Paris of the Orient or Pearl of the Far East especially with its wide elegant boulevards and historic French colonial buildings. Do drop in at the Cu Chi tunnels located some 70 odd km from the city. The tunnels measure more than 200km in length and the main axis system has many branches connecting to underground hideouts, shelters, and entrances to other tunnels. Take the kids to the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens that dates from 1865.
In order to do Vietnam all you need to do is call Lighthouse on (0) 9818905024 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Once you are there you will understand why the French and the Americans spent so much time and money in fighting to keep it with themselves!