Vietnam: Hoi An to the Mekong Delta
| 31 August 2017
The Hai Van, or Ocean Cloud Pass links Hue to Da Nang and takes us to Hoi An – my highlight of the trip. It’s famous for its tailor shops where you can get a tailored suit made for about $100 in just 24 hours.
The Ancient Town is the most famous area of the city with its mix of French, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese architecture. At night the whole area is lit up with colourful lanterns and the towns is abuzz with restaurants and bars. The shops stay open late so that tourists will continue shopping and bartering into the night. The beach is just a short 10 minute taxi ride away and has plenty of bars and restaurants.
The ubiquitous sunbeds are owned by the restaurants, so you either have lunch at their place and sit for free, or it’s 50,000 Dong a day to hire (about £1.80).
One of the tours not to miss in this area is to My Son, just an hour and a half drive from Hoi An. The area is a World Cultural Heritage Site surrounded by mountains in the Ancient Champa Kingdom. It houses partially ruined Hindu temples, all of which were built between the 7th-13th Centuries.
After a few days enjoying everything Hoi An had to offer it’s on to Nha Trang on another overnight train. These trains are definitely not Orient Express standards, so it’s important to prepare your clients. The air-conditioning in the sleeper carriages is very urgent so they will need warm clothes like bed socks, long sleeve jumpers, long trousers and if possible a sleeping sack. There are blankets and pillows but they are not always clean and certainly don’t smell too fresh. The cabins are shared so eye masks and earplugs are useful. The toilets are far from smelling like roses and they rarely ever have toilet roll, so are sure they have tissues with them. Finally if they get motion sickness, tell them to take tablets for this because the trains sway all over the place. Other than that, it’s plain sailing!
Nha Trang is a very big busy city favoured by the Russians for beach holidays. The seafront is lined with hotels and beach clubs. You can take boat trips out to the local islands to see how the local fishermen and their wives earn a living, then on to areas where you can snorkel reefs, but one night is definitely ample here unless their interest is in relaxing on the beach in the sun.
After one last overnight train journey the tour finishes in the city of Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as the locals still prefer to call it. It’s a city that never sleeps. On my arrival at 5am people were still pouring out of the lively bars.
There are a couple of trips you can pre-arrange or book locally that are definitely not to be missed. The first is the Mekong Delta trip, it’s about an hour and half drive from Saigon, it runs through China, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia Before finishing in Vietnam, from where it then runs the last 50km to the ocean. We were assured the brown colouring of the river is due to the silt and clay and not pollution.
The first stop on the river is Unicorn Island where visitors met locals that earn a living harvesting fresh fruits like dragon fruit, papaya and banana, as well as honey and its sweet by-products. Next was Bentre Island, this is much larger with a population of 1.5million, and is connected to the mainland by bridge. The island houses a coconut plantation and a factory that produces products like coconut candies, coconut shampoos and coconut wines.
The other tour to include is the Cu Chi Tunnels. Again just an hour and half drive from Ho Chi Minh, visitors get to visit the old tunnels used by Viet Cong soldiers and even have a chance to crawl through parts to see how claustrophobic it was.
The tunnels construction started in 1948 in the Cu Chi District of Ho Chi Minh and ran down to the Saigon River. They run from 3-10 metres deep underground and there are traps set along the way to trap, kill and maim any would-be intruders. They were made small so as to prevent the larger American soldiers accessing the tunnels.
The tunnels were ingenious! They contained kitchen areas where they burnt fires to cook food. Holes were dug on the surface low to the ground and hidden by mounds of soil, allowing the smoke to be released but so that it appeared to be mist and wasn’t detected by the enemy aircraft.
Artificial termite mounds were constructed above ground and hollow bamboo poles stuck through them down to the tunnels to allow fresh air to enter from the surface. But to me the tunnels feel hot and stuffy and it often felt like there was no air down there.
The area was also the place where the war was coordinated by the Vietnamese, so boardrooms were also created in the tunnel network. The Viet Cong used to go above ground to find the unexploded American bombs which they took back to dismantle and use to create their own weapons.
Any mother that lost two or more of her children in the war against America was considered a national hero, and she was able to claim a monthly allowance from the government. If you have clients that are really interested in this history and want to learn more locally, the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh is definitely worth visiting, it gives a great insight into the war.
Vietnam really is a beautiful country – the scenery is stunning, the people are friendly and helpful and the food is out of this world. It should be a must see on anyone's bucket list.
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