(Or, In search of Ho Chi Minh)
Hànội Airport is a wrongfooting introduction to Vietnam’s capital. It’s magnificently efficient, from the immaculately attired border guards and passport control officers to the pretty young girls at the Viettel desk who set us up with a local SIM card in record time. Finding a Grab to take us into town was equally stress-free.
It became clear just how wrongfooting the airport is the moment the Grab left the sanitised atmosphere of the airport compound, however. No stranger to the chaos of Southeast Asia, Hànội’s traffic is in a league of its own, rivalled perhaps only by Phnom Penh. Drivers approach other cars (and pedestrians) as if blind: they don’t really look where they’re going, they seem to feel their way through.
Fortunately, it’s all done at (relatively) slow speed: accidents are therefore few and far between. Besides, what damage can a car (or one of zillions of mopeds) travelling at a snail’s pace actually do?
Despite its recent and rapid modernisation, Hànội, its old quarter at least, retains almost all of its chaotic charm. Laid out in a (highly vague) grid pattern around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, with streets named after the crafts and goods once traded there, narrow storefronts spill out onto sidewalks, selling everything from silks and Ho Chi Minh t-shirts to moody electronics and conical hats. Old French colonial houses vie for space with traditional Vietnamese homes. Every now and then a contemporary building towers over both.
Walking through the old quarter of Hànội shortly before sunset, as its bright lights begin to flicker and its streets begin to teem with nightlife, only the odd Vietnamese flag hints at the country’s politics (it is one of very few countries in the world that still declares itself communist). Its distinctive yellow star and red background scream Socialist Republic, even if the ads for Victoria’s Secret knickers and H&M swimming costumes do not.
Occasionally, one of the (many) electronic billboards will briefly halt proclaiming the virtues of Chanel or Dior to display a party slogan, no doubt imploring locals to uphold the spirit of the revolution or to resolutely unify the nation, only to quickly give way to the United Colors of Benetton. It’s striking that a country which in the 1960s so completely mastered the art of propaganda these days feels secure enough to do without it. (Although there are, as we would discover, exceptions).
An evening meal in Hànội can be anything, from a sophisticated French-inspired fusion of flavours to simple grilled treats prepared by a street vendor (who might be resting her feet on a bucket used for washing dishes). For a mix of the two there is nowhere better than Chả Cá Thăng Long, where everything great and good about Hanoi comes together: aromas, chaos, charm, flavour, mayhem.
Initially, you’ll have little idea as to what needs to be done to create a meal using the bunsen burner, fish, salad and noodles that will be placed in front of you. Just follow the lead of the locals at your table (this is not the kind of place where you will have your own) and dig in. It’ll be one of the best fish suppers you’ve eaten in years.
Not that fish is Hànội’s signature dish. That would be pho, the beef variety in particular. A clear soup with noodles, salad, and beef sliced so thinly it all but dissolves in the broth, within a day or two in Hànội you will be able to recognise a good pho from a bad. For the best we tasted, head to Pho 10 Lý Quốc Sư. You’ll need to wait for a seat, but it’s worth doing so. The only downside is that every other pho you subsequently eat in Vietnam (or elsewhere) will seem dull in comparison.
On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France in Hànội’s Ba Đình Square. His proclamation paraphrased the US Declaration of Independence: ‘All men are born equal: the Creator has given us inviolable rights, life, liberty, and happiness.’
Ho—who had lived and worked in New York—admired the US. The US admired Ho, who had fought against Japan during World War II, and initially promised him support in his pursuit of independence. When France objected, the US withdrew its backing. Ho sought support elsewhere, in Moscow and (later) Beijing. The rest is one of history’s greatest what might have beens.
Today, Ba Đình Square is a vast open space dominated by Ho’s mausoleum, built on the very spot where he made his independence declaration. Expect airport style security if you want to get anywhere near it. It’s also one of very few places in all of Vietnam where you will see a portrait of the modern country’s founder—others include Sàigòn’s French colonial-era post office, while there's also an enormous statue of Ho in central Sàigòn. It’s clear, however, that whatever cult of personality may have developed around Ho in previous decades, it’s long gone. Were his face not on Vietnam’s banknotes, it would be highly feasible to visit the country and not once see his pointed white beard.
It was on an agreeably leafy terrace close by, with Ho’s mausoleum still in shot, that we first tried a classic Vietnamese coffee, celebrated across the world and as much a symbol of Vietnam as, well, Ho Chi Minh. Thick, syrupy, sweet and (in this writer’s opinion) revolting it’s as unpalatable as the old communist himself. Vietnam does make good coffee, but it would be a few days until we found it.
Before that, a detour to Hạlong Bay, the poster boy of Vietnamese tourism. It’s easy to see why: it’s one of the most spectacular spots on earth, and we were lucky with the weather (not something that could be said about much of the trip—we travelled in February).
Hundreds of tours (some including overnight stays) depart from Hànội each day for Hạlong Bay, and any of the many travel agencies in the centre of the city will sell you one. Almost all include a hotel pick up. There’s a motorway almost all the way to Hạlong Bay, and the journey takes no more than two and a half hours, including a stop. Averse as I am to organised tours, trying to do the trip independently would be a pain.
February is not peak season and the port from where boats depart for the bay’s outer islands was almost empty when we arrived. There are tens of gawdy hotels surrounding the port, which made us glad we had not booked a trip with an overnight stay. There appeared to be very little to do, and very few places to eat.
On the boat to the outer islands, however, there was a feast. Most trips include a sumptuous buffet lunch, dominated by fish and seafood. Hang Sung Sot cave meanwhile is impressive, and we had it almost to ourselves—once again justifying our decision to visit Vietnam out of season. There are many other caves hidden away on the thousands of islands in the bay, but Sung Sot is the pick.
Before returning to port, the more adventurous can engage in a spot of kayaking around the bay—keeping your belongings dry is an issue however, as there is nowhere to store them. We took the over-50s option of a leisurely boat trip. We even had time to drink coconut milk on a beach before heading back to Hànội.
It was the prospect of visiting an even more magnificent cave that took us to Phong Nha, our next destination. The tourist village of the same name that has developed to serve the cave and service the adrenaline needs of Gen Z is the backpacker and adventure capital of Vietnam, full of hostels and homestays and short on decent hotels. It does, however, boast a truly outstanding curry house, Ganesh.
We chose our particular bed and breakfast not least because they arranged transfers for us to and from Đồng Hới (the closest airport and railway station). It was basic but we at least had our own bathroom. It was also, importantly, quiet, although not devoid of idiots.
One evening, a ‘family’ meal arranged by the owner for his guests was an awful reminder of why staying in hostels is such an atrocious experience for anyone aged over 21 and/or with half a brain. Everyone at the table spent the evening attempting to outdo everyone else with tales of derring-do and border runs, visa delays and missed connections. It was a pissing contest for the over-privileged. We made our excuses and went to bed early.
Fortunately, Phong Nha Cave, approached by boat, proved to be worth an evening in the company of backpacking bores. So is Paradise Cave, approached by a lovely (uphill) walk through what was once thick jungle. Torrential rain ended our plans for a much longer hike in what is unquestionably one of Vietnam’s most enchanting regions.
Despite being a railway buff and an advocate of train travel whenever and wherever possible, first sight of the Reunification Express, which runs from Hànội to Sàigòn, made me glad that Amelia had vetoed the idea of taking it all the way from north to south.
A three-decade veteran of CFR (Romanian railways) I know a grim train when I see one, and the Reunification Express is grim. A three hour journey from Đồng Hới to Huế (and then, a few days later, a similar length journey from Huế to Đà Nẵng) was more than enough.
It was punctual—despite the vast distances it travels—and cheap; there’s little else that can be said in its favour, however. It’s crowded, insalubrious, and the catering is far from tempting. (A well-known travel scribe who has written extensively about train travel across the globe later told me she had been taken rather ill after eating on board).
Certainly, the route from Huế to Đà Nẵng in particular is spectacular, but viewing it through curtains that haven’t been washed in years and similarly dirty windows somewhat negates the impact.
Huế was our next stop, the seat of Nguyen dynasty emperors and Vietnam’s capital from 1802 to 1945. Alas, it was almost entirely destroyed during the war, specifically during the fierce battle for the city that followed the Tet Offensive of January 1968. The imperial fortress, most of which was constructed in the 19th century, is the main attraction. It’s well worth a day’s exploration, although few of its buildings remain fully intact. Bullet holes adorn many.
Outside the city, in the surrounding hills, are several imperial tombs which survived the war. The Đồng Khánh and Tự Đức tombs are the most impressive (and best preserved). They’re accessible by bike although the wet weather meant that we hired a car and driver.
Back in the city, which is sliced in half by the wonderfully named Perfume river, we ate two of the best meals of the entire trip. The first was at Madame Thu, a tiny place where—unless you get lucky, as we did—you usually need to wait for a table. The second was across the street at La Carambole, a bistro run by a gregarious Frenchman and perfect for a guilty portion of steak and frites after what had by now been a week of rich Vietnamese food.
As an aside, we ran out of clean clothes while in Huế. A local laundry washed, dried and pressed the lot in a couple of hours for around $5. Huế was also the only place in Vietnam I was offered (by men on mopeds) tarts and marijuana. I turned down the offer of both.
Hội An, like almost nowhere else on earth, manages to pull off that rare trick of being at once the very definition of overcooked tourist hotspot and one of the most charming places you’ll ever visit.
The nightly lighting of thousands of paper lanterns on the Thu Bồn river is the kind of set piece spectacle that usually has me running for the hills. At Hội An, even the presence of half of Japan couldn’t spoil its appeal.
Spared (relatively) by the war, the town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port active from the 15th century. It peaked in the early 1800s before quickly declining as it became unsuitable for increasingly larger ships which began docking at Đà Nẵng instead.
The city will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has seen the excellent The Quiet American. Its older quarter continues to boast thousands of timber frame houses, shops and pagodas. Cafes and restaurants line the riverfront, all serving the city’s delicious coconut coffee—it tastes as good as it sounds and is proof that Vietnam can make decent coffee when it puts its mind to it.
An hour’s drive from Hội An is the Mỹ Sơn temple complex, which dates from the 4th to the 13th centuries. It was the centre of a unique culture which owed its spiritual origins to Indian Hinduism—hence most of the temples are dedicated to Shiva, one of Hinduism’s principal deities. Some were damaged during both the French and American wars, but most have been maintained and are well-preserved. Helpful signs make it clear who was responsible for the large bomb craters that litter the site (spoiler alert: It was the US). According to UNESCO, the possible presence of unidentified, unexploded ordnance continues to hamper the archaeological research of parts of the site.
A wide beach, some 30 kilometres in length, stretches north from Hội An to Đà Nẵng. Much of it is littered with high rise hotels and apartment buildings, some completed, others abandoned, none remotely tempting.
One rare sunny morning we nevertheless decided to spend a day at the beach, at the relatively skyscraper-free Hội An end, with the notion of at least dipping our toes in the South China Sea. Needless to say, it began raining shortly after our arrival.
We braved it out for a while, drinking coconut coffee under an umbrella. By the time we decided that the rain was not about to halt anytime soon, the only other people on the beach were a British couple (at least he was British—she, I think, was Russian). They bemoaned the weather, before dropping the extraordinary revelation (when asked where they’d travelled from, and where they were going next) that they’d been right here for two weeks and were soon going home. That, it appears, was their Vietnam holiday. They’d not even been out to Mỹ Sơn.
We left before I had a chance to quiz them about flying halfway across the world to sit on a beach for a fortnight. It seems a miserable thing to do.
Seafood markets such as this one, in Hội An, will cook your purchases for you so that you can eat them right away
Done with Vietnamese trains, we travelled on to Sàigòn by plane. Sàigòn (and it is Sàigòn, at least in the vernacular—hardly anybody refers to it as Ho Chi Minh City) would (trains aside) turn out to be the biggest disappointment of the trip. If you’re looking for skyscrapers, sky bars, overpriced restaurants, luxury brand shopping malls and some of the world’s worst traffic, you’re in luck. If you’re looking for the Sàigòn of every Vietnam War documentary, forget it—it doesn’t exist anymore.
Not that it totally lacks appeal. It’s charming to see how many young people throng to its many pagodas early in the morning before heading to work. The communists did not erode the buddhist faith entirely; indeed it appears stronger than ever.
On central Nguyễn Huệ Square, which leads from the attractive French colonial city hall to the Sàigòn river, just past the enormous statue of Ho Chi Minh you’ll find an otherwise nondescript apartment block (much the same as any you’d find in any capital of any country in Central and Eastern Europe, although it was built before the communists took the city) in which just about every apartment has been converted into a gorgeous little cafe. And they are—believe me—all gorgeous. We didn’t visit every one (there are only so many coconut coffees I can drink), but we visited enough to convince ourselves that they all wanted to outdo each other. Some were dedicated to contemporary art, others books, others cats. One sold expensive perfumes. Seats on the tiny balconies looking over the city are at a premium, but we found a couple eventually. Start on the top floor and work your way down.
If there is one place in Vietnam where propaganda reaches off-the-charts levels, it is—somewhat unnecessarily—at the main war museum in Sàigòn. The irony of course is that any objective telling of the Vietnam War (such as the unrivalled Ken Burns documentary), complete with a detailed account of every atrocity committed by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, would still leave the United States on shaky moral ground.
At what is officially the War Remnants Museum, the curators do not leave anything to chance. There’s no room for ambiguity or nuance. Just about every mention of South Vietnam refers to ‘American puppets’, and an entire floor is given over to the (unquestionably devastating) effects of Agent Orange. Credit where it’s due, there is a small section devoted to reconciliation, but there is no real narrative, no retelling of the war. It could be (and perhaps one day will be) a great museum—it certainly has the potential to become so. Today it is merely a hodgepodge of propaganda and exhibits displayed with little or no context.
Far more satisfactory for history buffs is a visit to Monkey Island at Cần Giờ, south of the city. Besides thousands of monkeys who like nothing more than to steal the spectacles of visitors (we were warned to take our glasses off before arrival. One stubborn woman didn’t, and had them grabbed off her face within seconds) the island (in fact a mangrove forest) is home to a well-preserved Viet Cong base, accessed by a thrilling speedboat ride. The guerillas launched more than one thousand attacks on Sàigòn from here over a ten year period from 1965 to 1975.
Today a protected area, Cần Giờ was sprayed (by the US) with some 2.4 million litres of Agent Orange between 1965 and 1970. That it has recovered so well—it is once again dense forest—is testament to how nature has broadly recovered from the war.
Indeed, by and large, so has the country itself. According to the World Bank Vietnam—which ditched central planning in 1986—has gone from being one of the world’s poorest nations to a middle-income economy in one generation. Between 2002 and 2021, GDP per capita increased 3.6 times, reaching almost $3,700. Poverty rates declined from 14 per cent in 2010 to 3.8 per cent in 2020. The absent Ho Chi Minh would no doubt approve, but he’d surely be appalled by the state of the trains.
We flew from Bucharest (via Doha) with Qatar Airways into Hànội and out of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s slightly more expensive than returning from the same airport, but worth the extra: Vietnam is long, and you’ll waste a day (or more) if you have to return to your starting point.
Within Vietnam we flew with Vietnam Airlines from Hànội to Đồng Hới, from where we took a train to Huế. We then got back on the train at Hue to travel to Đà Nẵng, the closest station to Hội An. A flight (again with Vietnam Airlines) from Đà Nẵng brought us to Ho Chi Minh City.
For the trip to Hạlong Bay we joined a tour in Hànội, while to get to Phong Nha from Đồng Hới our host arranged a private car transfer.
Hotels throughout Vietnam are good and reasonably priced, with the exception of Saigon which is significantly more expensive than the rest of the country.
We stayed at
Hotel Emerald Waters Classy
Yes, that’s the name, classy. And it is, kind of. Rooms are small but lovely, the location is perfect (in the centre of the old quarter) and the breakfast fabulous.
Phong Nha Tuan Garden House
A basic hostel/homestay with wonderful owners and a good cooked breakfast. Beware backpackers.
Amy Hotel & Apartment
Lovely room and good location but the breakfast was the weakest (as in, almost non-existent) of anywhere we stayed.
Silkian Hoian Hotel & Spa
Wonderful hotel a short walk from Hội An’s historic centre. Lovely pool, although the weather meant it didn’t see much use.
Hoang Lan Hotel
Central, but tucked away behind a couple of larger buildings this was a quiet place—rare in Saigon. Good breakfast.
We ate at (not a definitive list)
Chả Cá Thăng Long
Pho 10 Lý Quốc Sư
Bistro La Carambole
Hồ Lô Quán
Morning Glory Original
Chips 'N' Fish 'N' Stuff
Phương Nam Cần Giờ Resort
We visited (again, not a definitive list)
Hoàn Kiếm Lake/Ngoc Son Temple
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology
Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts
Phong Nha & Paradise Caves
Đồng Khánh Mausoleum
Tự Đức Mausoleum
Minh Mang Mausoleum
Hội An Night Market
An Bang Beach
Mỹ Sơn Temple Complex
War Remnants Museum
Binh Tay Market
Central Post Office
Café Apartment Building
Monkey Island/Cần Giờ
Hang Duong Market