Posted by: acooksca | 03/11/2010

Vietnam, Get There Soon

Vietnam's emblem, the ao dai

Vietnam's emblem, the ao dai

The ao dai (long shirt) is a high-collared silk dress that Vietnamese women wear over blousy trousers. The ao dai flatters the female form, hinting at every curve, while exposing nothing. It was developed in Hanoi in the 1930’s as women rebelled against stodgy dress to step briskly into modern times. It has become an appropriate symbol of Vietnam, alluringly traditional while eager to establish her place in the twenty-first century.

This is a country emerging from famine and poverty…twenty years ago Vietnam was rated as one of the poorest in the world. In 1988 visas for independent travel were not available. By making arrangements through local companies a few back-packing westerners began to discover Vietnam’s charms. They also found unexpected cost spikes, time frame frustrations and charges that were both expensive and required to be paid in dollars. There were no rental cars or driving permits allowed for foreign drivers. There was not one world class hotel in the country. Saigon had remnants of semi-modern hotels left over from the American occupation but these were let to rust.

Suddenly all of that changed and in a big way in 1986. Russia pulled its aid to Vietnam, forcing the Communist government to reinvent its economic strategy. The policy of doi moi (renovation) encouraged private sector ownership and production in agriculture and light industries. Efforts were also made to improve the country’s infrastructure to attract foreign investments.

Today a visitor has plenty of tempting choices in lodging, dining and ways to see cultural sights. International hotel chains such as Intercontinental and Hyatt have beautiful new properties in the South while romantic old hotels have been renovated using state funds. We wondered if this was the right moment in time to visit Vietnam, to get a feel for the traditional ways before they were swept away in the rush toward ATM’s and cell phones.

My husband Bruce and I wanted to maximize our experience and time so we contacted experts in the area, Asia Transpacific Journeys. They arranged a 2-person custom tour to five areas: Ho Chi Mon City (Saigon) and the Mekong Delta in the south, Hoian on the Central Coast, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay in the North. At each sight we had a driver and guide as well as a local chef to explore the markets and cuisine. I wanted to understand the culinary traditions of each area, see the article called A Cool’s Tour of Vietnam and recipes above.

Saigon (Ho Chi Min City)

In this country of 86 million souls, Saigon at 6.2 million is Vietnam’s largest city and one of the new Asian boomtowns. Saigon is passionate about embracing a modern free-market life and actively courts foreign investment unlike conservative Hanoi 1,000 miles to the north. In the city center international hotel chains, French designer boutiques and construction sites for high rise office buildings sandwich between shanty-like shops and congested alleys. Saigon is Vietnam’s most bustling center, though you still wouldn’t call it a modern metropolis.

With conveniences of modern life such as ATM machines, international cafes and a casual feel, the compact old French Quarter is a pleasant place for a traveler to stay. This is the heart of Saigon with wide boulevards and the remaining French-Colonial architectural gems: the cathedral, opera house, post office designed by Gustav Eiffel and the confectionary-looking city hall.

Hotels made famous by Vietnam war era correspondents …the Rex, Continental and Caravel, are also in the French Quarter. You can have a drink at the same roof top bars where journalists watched the fall of Saigon in 1975. A few blocks away on the Saigon River is the romantic Majestic Colonial Hotel. Built in 1925, it was let to deteriorate, as most the colonial buildings were, after the withdrawal of the French in the mid-fifties. It is restored, sumptuous and a wonderful bargain at $200 for a deluxe river view room in a five-star hotel. Day and night we watched the river with its mix of barges, freighters, tiny wood sampans and, in the evening, twinkling multi-level diner boats.


We took along a guide book published in 2006 by National Geographic Traveler. It talked about the blend of motorbikes, bicycles and bicycle-rickshaws on the streets. In the few years since that book was written bicycles and rickshaws have disappeared totally. Motorbikes now stream down every street and alley. Visitors need to learn the technique to cross the street. Walk slowly and deliberately with no sudden stops or changes and the river of motorbikes parts and flows around you with millimeters to spare. Legally, motorbikes can carry two adults and one child under four (these are Honda 50 scooters, not our larger motorcycles.) Occasionally we saw five on a scooter or someone transporting cargo such as a refrigerator or a tower of crates with hundreds of eggs strapped to their scooter.

Within walking distance of the French quarter are the two top tourist attractions. In April 1975 a North Vietnamese tank bashed through the gates of the South Vietnamese Independence Palace, delivering the dramatic coup de grace to the government of the south. The North Vietnamese renamed it the Reunification Palace and kept the interior and furnishings as they were at the time of take over… a museum to the struggle.

The War Remnants Museum (sometimes called the Museum of American War Atrocities) was harder to take. Despite its grim message of devastation it is a popular stop with foreign visitors, particularly Americans too young to have taken part in the war. Explicit photos are accompanied by highly condemning quotes.  Remarkably, we never once felt animosity while in Vietnam. In fact, in Saigon in particular folks have a ready smile and gentle acceptance of visitors. Maybe they let go of the war better then we did and went on with building their country. Maybe it is because more than half Vietnamese are under 30 years of age and weren’t directly involved. Whatever the reason, I think it is important for us to acknowledge our painful past with Vietnam to appreciate the generous spirit of the people who welcome foreign visitors with genuine smiles.

Much of Saigon has been modernized in the past 30 years. Warrens of single story thatch roof buildings have been replaced by four story apartment houses with ground level shop. The districts outside the French quarter of Saigon have a third world urban frenzy about them. One draw for tourists are two massive markets crammed with food, clothes and household goods mostly manufactured in Vietnam. The Cholon and Ben Thanh Markets are the hyperactive commercial hearts for city-dwellers. We met with a local chef to view the markets and sample dishes (see the article A Cook’s Tour of Vietnam above.) But you could easily grab a taxi to the markets and entertain yourself for hours trying to identify the hundreds of types of fresh produce alone.

Mekong Delta

Vietnam has absorbed the contributions of other cultures. Buddhism from India is the very essence of their daily life. 300 years ago Chinese immigrants brought with them a spirit of commerce and trade. The French introduced plantations of coffee, cocoa and a host of foreign food stuffs that are now staples, such as baguettes. Forty years ago Americans brought machinery and know-how. Today, the Japanese are financing infrastructure improvements that promise a slice of modern life to the countryside.

Fortunately for travelers looking for the traditional ways, there is still plenty of rural life along the immense spread of the Mekong River. This watery landscape produces so much rice, fresh fish and fruit that after feeding much of Vietnam there is enough bounty to export, making it one of the greatest agricultural areas in the world. In fact, Vietnam is now the second largest extorter of both rice (after Thailand) and coffee (after Brazil) and world leader in black pepper.

Vietnam - Mekong floating market

We headed South from Saigon with a guide and driver and within a few miles understood the biggest block to Vietnam’s rush toward the future… the roads. There aren’t many. And what there are can’t begin to handle all the traffic efficiently. Fifteen years ago there were virtually no private cars and mostly bicycles on the thin national road between Saigon and Can Tho, the capital of the Mekong Delta. Now that road is heavily congested with motorbikes and vehicles and you can wait in line for 5 hours to cross on the two ferries. Several nearly completed bridges and sections of freeway should greatly ease this by the end of 2010.

We were relieved to be out of the traffic jam when our car went on ahead and we hopped a series of small boats to explore the river and waterways that separate hundreds of islands. Each riverbank house, many made simply of wood planks and tin, has a small garden with a shrine to the garden god and an ancient sampan (canoe) tied up. Fishing and produce provide these families with something to sell at the floating markets. They buy wares such as building materials, household goods and clothing.

The boat glided into a narrow channel to our lunch stop at a large local home. The owner employs many women on her island preparing a full meal of traditional dishes including a specialty of the area: “elephant ear” fish. Wrap the fried fish with herbs and greens in very thin fresh rice papers and dip in a pungent sauce…yum.

It is hard to visit the Mekong without bumping into the production of food. Often entire villages are dedicated to making one product. We visited the open air workshop of one extended family making rice noodles using a complex series of ancient presses and charcoal fired vats. On another island, a candy making co-op draws a stream of visitors to watch coconut taffies being made. I stopped to photograph a fascinating process of raw rice puffed in 300 degree sand, then separated and bound with coconut milk caramel into sweet blocks. The owner of a fruit orchard welcomed us to taste mangosteen, jack fruit, durian, milk fruit and dragon fruit while sipping tiny cups of fresh flower tea.

After the quietude of floating amongst the Mekong islands it was a shock to return to the congested commercial centers of dusty shops and refreshment stands edging the national road. Down dirt streets running perpendicular to the road you see shanties tucked into tropical greenery with collections of motorbikes, clothes lines and water tanks clustered around. And lots of people…many going about their business while others lounge in hammocks at road-side rest stops in the late afternoon heat. Vietnam is the size of New Mexico with 50 times the population.

One of the reasons to make the journey to the Mekong Delta is to visit Vietnam’s most celebrated floating market. The population of Chan Tho swells by thousands each morning as a flotilla of small boats cluster to buy and sell wares. It is as fascinating as it is age-old. Our own boat joined the mix to slide past sampans heavily laden with turnips, pomellos, onions, pineapples. Woven rush cages hanging off some boats held live catfish, shrimp and river crabs.

Our guide told us that he had to gauge his clients before entering the on-land market here, a place of flopping fish, pungent dried things and muddy aisles. We passed his more-interested-than-squeamish test and launched into the daily rhythm of this authentic local food place. Yes, there were cleaned frogs sharing a bamboo platter with the pale fleshed skinned rats, squirming river eels being disemboweled and displays of pig parts including a mound of eyeballs. But it was all so fresh, the cleaned carefully segregated from the questionable, that there was no smell or sign of decomposition. It was a joy to stand in the crush of local shoppers, munching coconut pasty puffs hot from a tiny rice husk burner and receive smiles from vendors as we admired their wares.

Central Coast and Hoian

The flight from Saigon to Danang, 500 miles to the north, is only about one hour but you feel you’ve arrived in historic Indochina. Within a 50 mile radius of the airport are three of Vietnam’s five UNESCO World Heritage sites:  Hue, My Son and Hoian.

Hue is a monument of citadels, palaces, pagodas and museums to its heyday as the imperial capital of Vietnam (1802-1945). Fortress like walls surround the Forbidden Purple City from where the Nguyen kings reined for over 100 of years. Outside the walls, pagodas dot the surrounding hills marking the tombs of royalty. Across the Perfume River the French set up their own town in the late 19th and early 20th century and some of their villas, churches and municipal buildings survive.

Like Cambodia’s Angor Wat, My Son is a 1,500 year old temple complex that lay forgotten until French archeologists stumbled on it in 1898. This was the holy land for the Cham people, an Indianized culture of Malayo-Polynesian origins.They governed central Vietnam from about 600 AD to 1471 when they were defeated by the Viets, a Chinese influenced kingdom from the north. Today My Son is mostly in ruins. It suffered both from time and destruction during the Vietnam War but is being restored. Most visitors arrive early in the morning for a half day visit and return to stay in Hoian.

Hoian is a dreamy old trading port with an intact “ancient town” dating back hundreds of years. It had been a river port since the 2nd century B.C.  During the 10th century Arab seafarers brought the spice route to Hoian. Chinese and Japanese merchants settled and built a town in the 15th century. By the 16th to late 17th centuries Dutch, Portuguese and English trading vessels crowded the docks of Hoian’s riverfront.

Hoian Riverfront

Hoian lost its prominence in the late 19th century when the river silted up. UNESCO inscribed Hoian’s “ancient town” on its World Heritage List as the best preserved historic port of Southeast Asia. We were amazed at how intact the old town is and by the detailed architecture of the merchant’s houses, most all of them preserved from the 17th-18th century. Five temple/gathering  places are still in use since the 1600’s and give a glimpse into the wealth and importance of this town.

One old home is in the hands of the same family after 7 generations. Small dark wood paneled rooms hold carved furniture with delicate mother-of-pearl inlay. Ancestor alters, tucked into corners, display photos of deceased relatives and treats for their spirits such as fresh fruit and rice wine. Two young women from the 6th generation of the family showed us watermarks six feet up the walls. These days the river floods annually and overtakes the interior of the house to these marks. They move the furniture to the second level and go live in a home away from the river for several months each year.

Hoian’s wonderful Chinese temples hide behind thick walls with carved gates. Enter those gates and you find a serene courtyard, a relief from the congested streets of the ancient town. It was Tet, the New Year celebration when we arrived, and incense smoke streamed upward through of the open roofed temples. Carved murals told the story of immigrants who survived a typhoon at sea to arrive here from the Fujian Provence of China. The Fujian temple, dedicated to the Chinese goddess of the Sea, is downright opulent in guilt figures.

Hoian has solid infrastructure for a visitor, the best selection of hotels and travelers services between Saigon and Hanoi. Restaurants and bars appeal to the intentional crowd and some are very good ( look for an article above called A Cook’s Tour of Vietnam for a discussion about food in Hoian). This is a place to see soon, however, as it is a little touristy already. Resorts are popping up daily on the gorgeous beach just a few miles from Hoian. China Beach at nearby Danang is where the U.S. marines launched their stay in Vietnam in the 1960s. Today traditional family homes there are being bulldozed and replaced with condos promising life on Vietnam’s Riviera. In December 2009 a huge casino/hotel opened on China Beach.

For the moment, however, Hoian is a small town, busy with locals and visitors. It can get crowded especially in the morning around the outdoor market adjoining the ancient town. But during certain hours each day access to the old town area is limited to “primitive travel” (no motors). Hoian is surrounded by a countryside of rice and vegetable fields. Rent a bike and go for a ride….you will appreciate the quiet and start to understand that 85% of Vietnamese live in a rural setting.  At night take a stroll to appreciate the riverfront buildings in the peace they have known for most of the past 300 years.


Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and the presence of the government means the city is both stately and more conservative than Saigon. Near-by China has had tremendous influence and Hanoi is older and more culturally complex. While the rest of Asia boomed after World War Two, Hanoi stagnated for most of the rest of the century. It has kept a dated look and feel that makes it “one of Southeast Asia’s most captivating cities” says National Geographic Traveler.

We could have spent a week in Hanoi getting to know the main districts and boulevards. Our tour company positioned us in a newly opened boutique hotel around the corner from Hoan Kiem Lake, the epi-center of Hanoi. We learned to appreciate this 25-acre oasis in the middle of the bustling city for its shady promenade on warm afternoons and glittering necklace of lights in the evenings. This is the social center of Hanoi where you stroll with throngs of families, lovers, tourists, smartly-dressed business types and couples in bridal wear getting their pre-wedding photo albums done.

Touching the north side of the lake is the “Old Quarter”. We caught a cyclo, a slow moving bicycle rickshaw, to watch
Hanoi Old Sector Houses

Hanoi Old Sector Houses

daily life spill out into the narrow streets. We were peddled through a thick cluster of 19th century “tube house”…thin buildings with a commercial first floor and 3 or 4 residential floors above. Sidewalks are packed not only with shoppers but older women who squat behind tiny charcoal grills cooking their specialty that you literally eat in the street. Some streets sell one item in all the shops and take their name from this. We rode down Shoe Street passing one shop after the next heaped with every variety of shoes. Toy Street, Men’s Street (clothing), Household Goods Street. If you want a garment made you would head for Silk Street.

To the south of the lake is the old colonial French section. The opulent 1902 Opera house is the centerpiece of this quarter of original buildings. Most have been repurposed into everything from schools to motorbike repair shops. The Metropole Hotel, however, remains a Grand Dame of elegant travel from the turn of the last century. It is a stately colonial masterpiece taking up a full block with its sprawling internal courtyard, pillars and balconies, white façade and green shutters.

We started to gather a portfolio of peaceful places to escape the fierce street traffic in Hanoi. There are 3 million people living in Hanoi and 1.5 million motorbikes. You can restore yourself in Ba Dinh Square, a huge compound of high profile tourist attractions in a  park-like setting. Stroll by the marble mausoleum of Ho Chi Min and a traditional house built on stilts that he used as his modest home. Anchoring the grounds is a grandiose 1906 chateau, the Presidential Palace, which Ho Chi Min refused to take up residence in.

Nearby is the Temple of Literature, where we began to understand the esteem that Vietnamese hold for education, literature and Confucianism in particular. Between 1070 and 1919 the brightest of the country came to study in this compound of temples, courtyards and pavilions. It is remarkable in a country that has lost so much to war, not only in the last century but in frequent earlier incursions by Mongols and Chinese, that this elegant temple complex still stands.

Other peaceful places to enjoy are the blocks of wide tree-shaded boulevards of embassies and consulates in the same area. They are housed in lovely mansions of various European architectural styles from the 1920s and 1930s. Westlake, on the outskirts on Hanoi, is a favorite place for locals to hire swan shaped boats, dine at lake side pavilions and make an offering in the areas oldest pagoda.

The war is also memorialized in Hanoi. A monument at Westlake explains that John McCain was recovered from his plane there when it was shot down. Nearby a vegetal green pond holds the partially submerged wreckage of a B-52 bomber, brought down in Dec. 1968. Today the pond is hemmed in by a rather posh residential neighborhood. The most renowned war time attraction is the “Hanoi Hilton” where U.S. pilots awaited a P.O.W.s fate. This prison was built by the French in the 1890s to incarcerate Vietnamese dissidents. It seemed more quaint then menacing.

Leaving Hanoi for our final stop in Vietnam we came quickly to the Red River and miles of tidy rice fields. It was the end of winter and for mile after mile whole villages were in the fields to plant and irrigate the new green shoots. Wealth is coming to the North from rice and industry. We hope Hanoi delays, as long as possible, demolishing its past glories in favor of a generic Asian cityscape.
Ha Long Bay

The second most visited area in Vietnam is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay. You have probably seen it in movies such as “Indochine”.  Ha Long is a seascape of craggy stone towers, some rising hundreds of feet from a jade green sea. It’s a stunning natural site and a must-see for a visitor to Vietnam.

Our tour company booked us on an “up-scale junk” for an overnight cruise. Upscale it was, but junk-like only in the traditionally shaped sail on the top “sun” deck. Paradise Cruises  sails three custom built 17 cabin cruise ships in Ha Long Bay. Our very comfortable cabin came with a private outdoor deck on which we enjoyed an evening cocktail before a well-crafted five course dinner.

Caves and grottos feature in any itinerary in Ha Long and the stunning Cave of Surprises is justifiably busy. This is a

Ha Long Bay

large walk-in cave of stalactites and well-lit rock formations.  The cruise stopped by another island for kayaking and a 360 degree view of the bay from atop a 400 step staircase. More fascinating yet was a slow turn in a skiff around a floating fishing village. The villagers live their whole lives in small houses on rafts.  Their fishing boats are large enough to negotiate the sea just beyond the protective clutch of islands.

The real thrill of being here is the sense of wonder you get from a sea interrupted by eroded towers and conical crags. The Ha Long experience is about being afloat in this primeval looking setting and letting yourself drift away.

Although Ha Long spreads over 620-square miles, your boat will have lots of neighbors at the close-in sites. Book a cabin on one of the many overnight cruise boats to enjoy the evening and early morning quiet amongst the towers. At this time it is a 3 to 4 hour drive from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. An airport is in the works and when it comes this area will be smothered in the vacation condos and marinas advertised by developers on billboards along the road.

Vietnam has reached a balance of modern infrastructure and traditional life to make a visit both comfortable and immensely interesting.  But don’t wait long before going. Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s emerging country and is daily loosing its unique traditions in a headlong surge towards modernity.



  1. Great article. Can’t wait for the low down on the food!

  2. Thank you, thank you. thank you, What a great trip!! I feel like I was with you, due to your great writing. I also had to realize how little I knew of Vietnam ( until now) since my “marching to end the war” was my total experience. so…….maybe a trip?If I do your article will be with me. great travel guide. Again thanks Joan

  3. You captured the essence of Vietnam so well. That was fun to read. It’s been 13 years since I visited Vietnam- still sounds wonderful. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane. Kim

  4. great write up…it is changing fast, but the disparity between haves and have nots keeps on growing unfortunately.

  5. Great story Karen! Can’t wait to visit Vietnam now. Hope to see you & Bruce soon. Take care, Joyce

    • Joyce…so glad you enjoyed it. There is so much to say about this great destination and it is a pleasure to share it!

  6. What a delight account of your travels and foodie adventures! I certainly enjoyed it. Thanks. ..vt

    • I think you and Mike will enjoy the cook’s tour part coming soon… just testing the recipes now…Karen

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