Vietnam: Peace and contrasts

By Tori Mayo

The war is the past. Today, Vietnam focuses on the future, writes Tori Mayo.

A cruise on Halong Bay is a tranquil escape from Vietnam's humming cities. Karst islands like these are commonly depicted in Vietnamese and Chinese art.
A cruise on Halong Bay is a tranquil escape from Vietnam's humming cities. Karst islands like these are commonly depicted in Vietnamese and Chinese art.

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 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, is home to 88 million people, 35 million mopeds and motorbikes and, more recently, an increasing number of tourists.

Great prices, 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 Halong Bay.

One of the best ways to absorb the sights, sounds and smells is on an escorted tour. In 12 days, I can sample some of the highlights.

I start in Hanoi, a city teeming with activity. Every moment on the busy streets is an assault on the senses. Tiny mobile food stalls are set up wherever the industrious see fit, while customers squat on tiny stools. Barbers snip away in pop-up pavement salons, while vendors wearing traditional conical hats trade wares from baskets hanging from the ends of poles across their shoulders.

It's quite a contrast to peaceful Halong Bay, where we cast off for a cruise on the tranquil, emerald waters aboard a deluxe junk. Our vessel has gorgeous en suite cabins, a restaurant, bar and spa. We cruise through the bay's iconic limestone karst islands, then downsize to traditional rowing boats. Local women steer us gently through the tiny floating fishing village of Vong Vieng, where villagers live on pontoons.

Back on our junk, we dine on seafood and even learn how to catch squid off the back of the boat. We drop anchor overnight and awake to see tall rocks emerging through the mist.

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 had but it's one I'll never forget.

Our knowledgeable guide, Anh, shows us around Hue's historical sites. It was the country's capital from 1802 to 1945. Most impressive is the ancient, walled citadel and its Purple Palace, somewhat similar to Beijing's Forbidden City.

Vietnam is dotted in paddy fields so it's no surprise to learn the country is the second biggest exporter of rice after Thailand. On bicycles our tour group ride to Tra Que village. The farming community here tend vegetables on allotment-size plots and we get stuck in helping with a few odd jobs. Peanuts, lemon basil and spring onions are grown here and we sample these at lunch.

The historic, old world port of Hoi An is undoubtedly a highlight of this adventure. Vietnam's waterways were once main routes for trade and from the mid-16th century to the early 19th Hoi An was a thriving trading post.

Escaping the city, we take to the water again, this time on the Mekong River via sampan to Cai Be and Cai Rang's famous floating markets. Thick vegetation and houses on stilts line the banks.

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). On 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 housed the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. On April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed into the gates signalling the war's end. More can be learned about the 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 with giant electronic billboards are clearly visible below.

I marvel at how life in these fast lanes is changing so quickly.

One thing's for sure - life never stays still in Vietnam.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies daily to Hanoi with a stopover in Singapore.

Further information: See vietnamtourism.com.

- AAP

- NZ Herald

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