TRAVEL : Venturing into Vietnam

Rural villages, floating markets and top-class tailors are all highlights of a trip to Vietnam, says Tori Mayo.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 21st May 2013, 7:00 am

A blossoming peach tree, a doe-eyed baby peering over her mother’s shoulder, an armchair and even a whole roasted pig - I see all sorts of curious cargo being carried on the back of mopeds as my rickshaw ambles through the backstreets of Hanoi, the bustling capital city of Vietnam.

This south-east Asian country, which stretches from China to Cambodia, with a snaking coastline lapped by the South China Sea, is home to 88 million people, 35 million mopeds and motorbikes and, more recently, an increasing number of tourists.

Since direct flights from the UK launched more than a year ago, Vietnam has rocketed in popularity with the British market. Great prices (Vietnam was rated the second best value destination in the Post Office Long Haul Report 2012), safe passage (there are very few threats to tourists), and a fascinating culture are attracting more and more visitors.

The country is a patchwork of vivid green rice fields and vibrant cities, dotted with UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the ancient town of Hoi An and the picturesque Ha Long Bay.

With so much to take in, one of the best ways to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of Vietnam is on a whistle-stop escorted tour of the country. In 12 days, I’m able to sample some of the highlights.

I start my journey in Hanoi, a city teeming with activity. Every moment spent exploring the busy streets is an assault on the senses. Tiny mobile food stalls selling sweet-smelling sticky treats are set up wherever the industrious see fit, while customers squat on tiny plastic stools. Barbers snip away in pop-up pavement salons, while vendors wearing traditional conical hats trade their wares from baskets hanging on the ends of a pole like scales balancing on their shoulders.

It’s quite a contrast to the peaceful Halong Bay, where we cast off for a relaxing cruise of the tranquil, emerald waters aboard a deluxe junk boat. Decked out in polished dark wood, our vessel features gorgeous en suite cabins, a restaurant, bar and spa.

Setting sail at lunchtime, we cruise for a few hours through the Bay’s iconic limestone karst islands, then downsize to traditional rowing boats. Local women steer our flotilla on a gentle meander through the tiny floating fishing village of Vong Vieng, where villagers reside on pontoons.

Back on our junk, we dine on a seafood supper and even learn how to catch our own squid off the back of the boat.

We drop anchor overnight and awake to see the rocks emerging through the morning mist. There’s even the opportunity to do a Tai Chi class on the sun deck.

We might be tourists but back on land, the 11-hour sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue is a very real Vietnamese experience. We bunk down in basic four-berth cabins while the carriages clunk through the night. It may not be the best train journey I’ve ever had but it’s definitely one I’ll never forget!

Our knowledgeable guide, Anh, who accompanies us throughout our trip, shows us around the historical sites of Hue, which was the country’s capital from 1802 to 1945. Most impressive is the ancient, walled citadel and its imperial Purple Palace, similar in many ways to the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Vietnam is dotted in paddy fields so it comes as no surprise to learn the country is the second biggest exporter of rice after Thailand. Our tour group take to two wheels for a gentle bicycle ride through the rice fields, passing grazing water buffalos, to Tra Que village. The farming community here tend to vegetables on allotment-size plots and we get stuck in helping with a few odd jobs.

After sowing seeds in the heat of the midday sun, our feet are blessed with an indulgent, hot, lemongrass soak.

Peanuts, lemon basil and spring onions are among the produce grown here and we sample this fresh fare over several courses at lunch.

Pancake rolls or banh xeo are a staple of Vietnamese cuisine and, spurred on by expert tuition, we have a go at making them ourselves.

Rivalling Halong Bay, the historic, old world port of Hoi An is undoubtedly a highlight of this adventure. Vietnam’s waterways were once the main routes for transport and trade. From the mid 16th century to the early 19th century Hoi An was a thriving trading post.

Artisans and merchants sold their wares from narrow shophouses, which had a shop at the front, workshop in the middle and export facility directly onto the port at the rear. A couple of these have been lovingly restored and are worth a visit.

The iconic Japanese Bridge, Chinese temples and low-rise ochre-coloured architecture add to the charm of this colonial gem.

Though clearly a tourist hotspot, Hoi An retains a traditional feel: food is sold from tiny stoves on the cobbled streets, and a large covered market sells fresh local produce.

Tailors are also two-a-penny in Hoi An. I’m told Yaly is the best tailor in town. I take clothes to be altered and even have a pair of patent leather bespoke brogues made. With one-to-one service and on-the-spot adjustments made during a couple of fittings, I’m thrilled with the quality and exceptional value for money.

Escaping the city, we take to the water again, this time on the Mekong River via sampan boat to Cai Be and Cai Rang’s famous floating markets. Thick vegetation and shack-like houses propped on stilts line the river where traders jostle to sell produce from their long narrow boats.

The commercial routes in this country have largely shifted from waterways to motorways. Modern Vietnam is emerging from the south, the most progressive city being Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Located on the edge of the Mekong Delta, it’s the last stop on our epic trip. Tattoo parlours, neon lights and noisy bars with Western clientele, sit shoulder to shoulder with Vietnamese cafes, street stalls and traditional tailors.

The story of 20th century Vietnam is told through several buildings here. Built in the 1960s, Reunification Palace was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. On April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed into the gates signalling the end of the conflict. More can be learnt about the Vietnam War through photographic exhibits at the War Remnants Museum.

For an altogether different impression of this sprawling city by night, I opt for a bird’s eye view from Vietnam’s first fully open-air, swanky sky bar, Chill, at the top of the AB Tower. Swirling streams of traffic and skyscrapers displaying giant electronic advertisements are clearly visible below.

As moped and motorbikes criss-cross the narrow streets, I marvel at how life in these fast lanes is changing so quickly.

One thing’s for sure, life never stays still in Vietnam.

Travel facts

Tori Mayo travelled as a guest of On the Go Tours [020 7371 1113; www.onthegotours.com] on their Very Vietnam Tour. A 10-day tour from Hanoi to Saigon starts at £989 per person based on twin/double share and includes 4-star hotels B&B, some meals, 1 night deluxe junk boat, 1 overnight sleeper train, activities and an English-speaking Vietnamese tour guide.

Vietnam Airlines (020 3263 2062; www.vietnamairlines.com) offers the only direct flights from the UK to Vietnam, with twice weekly direct services from Gatwick Airport to both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, as well as onward connections to 23 destinations in Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia and Laos.