A trip to this country will mostly take tourists to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience a bit of the country’s eclectic culture in other cities like Da Nang, Hue, and Hoi An.
by Anita Zaror
As a Scottish friend of mine who lived in Ho Chi Minh City for eight years says: Vietnam is an acquired taste.
My first experience in the country, four years ago, was that of arriving to Hanoi and booking what looked like a very nice boat, through a travel agency at Noi Bai International Airport, only to end up in a much lower standard boat. We cruised Halong Bay for the next few days, without having any chance to do anything about it as we were simply told that “the other boat was full”, once we were already on the sea. Because being scammed by the locals after you put one foot in a new country is not part of what I define as a good travel experience, I can’t say Vietnam remained in my heart as a preferred travel destination. Nor was it gaining that space on my second trip there when, at the visa on arrival counter in Ho Chi Minh City, because I paid in Thai Baht instead of U.S. Dollars, I was charged with an exchange rate 20 percent higher than the official one. But this article proves that I drew my conclusions too soon … and that my friend is right: some countries deserve a bit more time to let them grow in your heart – and Vietnam is one of them.
A Look Back
Vietnam was conquered by France, to become part of the French Indochina in 1887, until its 1954 defeat by communist forces under Ho Chi Minh. The same year, it was divided into the communist North and anti-communist South. The South received increased U.S. economic and military aid in the 1960s in an attempt to bolster the government, and the U.S. armed forces were withdrawn following a cease-fire agreement in 1973. Two years later, North Vietnamese forces overran the South, reuniting the country under communism.
All along Vietnam you’ll find historical and architectonical traces that, at least to me, spoke at times of Asia, at times of France and, at times, even of the U.S.
Vietnam offers heaps of activities, landscapes, flavors, and cultural heritage to immerse in, but here are some of the highlights that I enjoyed the most, and that you might want to check out on your next trip there.
How does flying low cost with a business class service sound? Vietjet (www.vietjetair.com), a self-defined “new-age airline,” is indeed quite sui generis when it comes to the services they provide: they are a low-cost airline that also offers premium packages that will give you access to priority check-in and boarding, front row seats, 30 kilograms of checked-in luggage, and access to business lounges at the domestic and international airports where they operate, among other benefits, which differentiate them from a traditional low-cost carrier. Other value-added services include a loyalty program, a “hot seat” service that allows you to pick your own seats, the possibility of booking a hotel and getting insurance through their website, and a shuttle bus service for passengers.
Already operating with an extensive network within Vietnam, Vietjet is slowly expanding throughout Southeast Asia, like with their direct flights from Bangkok to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. In my experience, Vietjet was a really friendly and professional airline that lived up to their promise of “providing punctual flights and high quality service.” It has received several awards such as the “Budgies & Travel Awards,” “Top 5 Best New Route Launch,” “Golden Star Award for Quality” and—and this is interesting—“The Airline with Cultural Creative and Entertainment In-Flight Programs,” and the “Most Friendly Transportation and Best Promotion Airline in Vietnam.” Don’t be surprised if during the launch of a new route the flight attendants become performers and turn the aircraft’s aisle into something like the stage of a Bollywood movie, as they begin singing, dancing, and giving gifts to astonished and smiling passengers.
I had the chance of visiting Vietjet’s headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City, and I was surprised to see how truly horizontal their organization’s structure is: hundreds of employees wearing casual clothes sit in a loft-style office, including the CEO, whose office is just an open workstation with a simple sign saying “CEO” that hangs from the ceiling. This friendly style is also shown in Vietjet’s warm service on the ground and up in the air, and even in the playful uniform of the flight attendants, which looks like a combination between a school and a girl scout outfit.
Why fly Vietjet? Because it will give you a glimpse of the Vietnamese culture. For their friendliness, their love for celebrating, and smiles that are authentic.
Visit Hue’s Imperial Citadel
The capital of the Southern Kingdom under Nguyen Lords’ Dynasty, and Vietnam’s official capital under the Tay Son Dynasty, is worth seeing because it talks about a more traditional side of Vietnam that you will also get to see in other cities, visible in the vast architectural and cultural legacy left by its monarchies.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hue’s Imperial Citadel is located on the north bank of Huong River. A lot can be said about this magnificent place—which will require half a day of your time to explore—, but better hire a tour guide or take your guidebook to discover it, and be prepared to walk a lot in the heat.
Take a Dip in China Beach
Located in Da Nang, Vietnam’s fifth largest city, with a bit of imagination China Beach might remind you of Miami’s South Beach a few decades ago. There might be some truth in this statement, as back in the days of what the Vietnamese call the “U.S. War,” China Beach used to be the rest and recreational hang-out spot for U.S. soldiers.
There is not much to do in Da Nang besides spending time in the modern hotels and fashionable restaurants by the Han riverfront—but who wants to have anything to do, when there’s a 30-kilometer stretch of beach that goes from Da Nang all the way to Hoi An, further south.
You’ll see locals and tourists bathing in China Beach’s calm waters from May to July, while surfers will take advantage of the swell from September to December. A walk or a jog along the shore at sunrise or sunset will take you past people (mostly Vietnamese) meditating, doing yoga, having their wedding photos taken, or eating at the beachfront restaurants. Go to some American diner in town, and your experience of Vietnam while reminiscing about the U.S. legacy will be complete.
Cook with Ms. Vy
Food in Vietnam, as everything else, needs time to be explored and understood, as it might not be consistent all through the country as it is in Thailand where, regardless of where you eat—be it a renowned restaurant or a food market—you can expect to be delighted.
To understand Vietnam’s cuisine go to Morning Glory cooking school (www.restaurant-hoian.com), is run by “Ms. Vy,” who owns several restaurants in the area. Besides the fact that the quaint old town of Hoi An, UNESCO World Heritage Site, is definitely worth a visit to see its historical buildings and colorful food markets, a visit to the nearby An Hoi peninsula (where the school is located) will be more than enjoyable, and you can see the boat and mat-weaving factories that it is known for.
At Morning Glory you’ll discover ingredients and dishes from the whole country. But if you don’t manage to make it to Ms. Vy’s school, when in Vietnam you can’t miss the carts offering tasty fresh baguettes with pork and vegetables for VND 15,000 by the roadside in every city. This is one more display of the eclectic culture that is so Asian at times, and so French other times.
Splurge at Hotel Metropole Hanoi
After staying at Hotel Metropole Hanoi (www.sofitel-legend.com/hanoi/en), you will want to go back to Vietnam’s capital just to stay there again – I mean it. This heritage hotel built in colonial style more than 100 years ago, and fully renovated in June 2009, is the only one of its kind in the city—together with only a few others in the region: the Raffles Hotel Singapore, The Caravelle Hotel Saigon, The Peninsula Hong Kong, and the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok—and stands as an example of that very sophisticated French side of Vietnam.
Presidents, movie stars, and other celebrities make up an extensive list of VIP guests who have stayed at the Metropole on their visit to Hanoi, such as the H.R.H. Princess Chulabhorn Walailak, Shimon Peres, Robert de Niro, and Mark Zuckerberg, among many other.
This is the first Sofitel Legend in the world. Located five minutes walking distance to Hoan Kiem Lake and Hanoi Opera House, and 10 minutes to the Old Quarter, it features 364 rooms divided into two wings: The historical Metropole wing, inspired by classic French architecture with a hint of local Vietnamese style, and the Opera wing, created in neo-classical style This wing also houses the Club Metropole lounge on the seventh floor, which offers a butler service worthy of its VIP guests.
With gourmet food offered in its F&B outlets—don’t miss having a meal at Le Beaulieu international restaurant—, personalized cooking classes, a world-class spa offering treatments in rooms styled in both Asian and Western themes, and free Qigong and yoga classes for guests, you will not want to go out of the hotel. Other highlights at the Metropole include a luxury limousine service, an outdoor swimming pool, as well as a fun and introspective guided tour of the “bomb shelter,” that delves into the history of the hotel and the country.
My advice: don’t get discouraged by your first experience in Vietnam – it’s worth visiting it again and hanging in there. After all, every country has its “things”; some simply show them after a while. And although some other (honest ones) might feel incomprehensible after the first taste, they may go on to show you a pleasurable and unique experience once you’ve learnt how to appreciate them. Like caviar or sea urchins. Like Vietnam.