Vietnam (officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam) is a country that has a long history of fighting for its independence. The Chinese occupied the country for a 1,000 years before a dynastic rule, then there was the French, the Japanese, the French again and finally the United States. Since 1975 it has been a unified and independent state, albeit under a communist hammer and sickle which has softened towards a capitalist economy in recent decades.
I arrived into Hanoi by train from the Chinese city of Nanning (after a month intrepidly travelling around China) and was promptly met by James and Bevan (friends from my University days) and the three of us would travel the length of Vietnam over the next two weeks. We didn’t do a lot while in Hanoi, but we did visit both of the Hanoi Hiltons (where among others, Senator John McCain was once imprisoned), Bevan and James even wore matching army threads by pure chance that day.
One of the main attractions near Hanoi is to visit the town of Sapa located North West of Hanoi. In Sapa you'll observe minority tribes tending their fields on the sloping rice terraces of the breathtaking Sapa landscape. You can even join a trek through many of the guesthouses, many even allow you to stay overnight in a locals home which adds richness to your experience.
Another major attraction is to visit the emerald waters and towering islands of Ha Long Bay on the North Vietnamese coast. We headed out on a two day boat cruise to see it for ourselves with a group of other backpackers. The boat tour offered kayaking, swimming, a delicious dinner and there was plenty of time to take in the majestic sights of the limestone krasts too.
Once our time in Hanoi had come to an end we opted for the ‘more affordable’ bus option to travel the 800km south to Hoi An. So, after the long overnight seated bus ride (while also being hung over), along the infamous Vietnamese roads passing through Hue (former capital of the Rulers of Vietnam) to the seaside town of Hoi An, I was never so pleased to have finally reach a destination before. The Vietnamese definitely use their horns at every opportunity, even more than the Chinese!
Hoi An, is a coastal city halfway down Vietnam and it is one of the main places to visit in South East Asia to have suits, shirts etc. custom made. We wouldn’t let this opportunity pass us by, getting cashmere custom fitted suits made for USD $100. We got to know our tailors quite well over the several days of fitting and had a lot of fun with Nagh and the rest of the crew, so much so that we all went out for Karaoke on the final evening!
Many of you who were around during the Vietnam War might remember the city of Da Nang (famous for being an R&R spot for the Marines) which is 30km north along the coast. We would hire scooters for the day for the ridiculously low price of USD $3, this turned out to be a great way to check out and the Vietnamese countryside en route to Da Nang. For a communist state, we were rather surprised at the number of resort developments that were underway along the coast, it seems capitalism was getting, what might turn out to be, an irreversible foothold in the country. We’d also stopped and wandered along China Beach, which lies between Hoi An and Da Nang. China Beach is where the US Marines first landed in Vietnam in an effort to stem the spread of communism.
After several enjoyable days in Hoi An, and with suits and fond memories of Hoi An in hand, we headed further south along the coast to Na Trang; the most famous ‘resort type’ city in Vietnam. The day we arrived it was raining heavily, so the next day we continued to head south to Ho Chi Minh (HCMC, formerly (and more popularly) known as Saigon) in search of greener pastures (or rice fields).