Vietnam may first bring to mind the eponymous war and then the delicious cuisine but there is much more to this Southeast Asian country. A culture spanning back thousands of years and of course the beautiful nature. Experience the country’s unique flair and find out what makes it tick – just like the Vietnamese themselves.
Temples as oases
Whenever your senses are the worse for wear from the sheer noise of Saigon, visiting a pagoda will soon soothe the soul – relax, here at last is a place without the rattling of mopeds and incessant hooting, a place of contemplation with Buddha where you can rest for a moment. The timeless atmosphere of this world apart, enshrouded in incense, is often just a few yards from the chaos of the main roads – in Le Van Duyet temple, for example, which lies a little further off the beaten track.
Just grab a plastic stool, take a seat on a street corner and order a ca phe sua nong. Then watch as the delicious smelling, thick, bitter coffee drips from a dented tin filter into a glass before sweetened condensed milk is added. The whole process takes place in slow motion – and helps enormously to relax in the midst of Vietnam’s frenzied everyday hectic, even if only for a few minutes.
People move slowly and reverently past the revolutionary leader’s sarcophagus; soldiers in pristine white uniforms scare hawkers away; nobody is allowed to talk or even whisper. Hands must be taken out of pockets, sunglasses and hats removed. ‘Uncle Ho’, who can be seen behind the polished glass window, looks almost as if he is wistfully turning his head to see each visitor.
The early bird…
Everyone in Vietnam is up and about early in the morning. In the cool of the day between 5:30am and 7am people doing their morning gymnastics can be watched at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. Balance out your own yin and yang with a bout of shadow boxing, exercise to the rhythm of the cha-cha or play a round of badminton.
‘Homestays’ in Vietnam are always good for a surprise. Sometimes you spend the night in a type of dormitory under the roof, other times – in stilt houses – you sleep in the living room and meet the family personally. You can stay with the Vietnamese in their homes in cities, in the mountains, in the Mekong Delta, in national parks and on the less touristy islands.
At the fortune-teller
A glimpse into the future costs just a few dong. In the mountains, in particular, you can even watch the shaman telling a person’s fortune. The tools of his trade include a dog-eared book in Chinese characters, two split bamboo sticks, a stone that is heated in the embers of a fire and a thread that he winds around the stone – and, there you are, his ‘telephone to the spirits’ is ready for use.
Try a tasty treat of a special kind. Start off with a steaming bowl of soup made with noodles, beef and onions, soya bean shoots and tiny strips of banana leaf – and slurp it quietly! For the next course, just follow the columns of smoke to a barbecue stand where skewered octopus is sizzling away, as an accompaniment dunk mint and basil leaves in a dip made of salt, pepper, chilli and lemon. Save the best ’til last: diep nuong mo hanh, scallops decorated with shallots and finely chopped peanuts – soft and slippery and incredibly cheap on top!
In the Graham Greene Suite in the Metropole in Hanoi it is not difficult to imagine how, in the 1950s, the eponymous author kept to his daily writing schedule like clockwork. Or how, one war later, Joan Baez strummed We Shall Overcome in a bunker under the pool. And in the Mekong Delta you can retrace the steps of Marguerite Duras in Sa Dec or of W. Somerset Maugham under the tamarinds along Saigon’s tree-lined avenues, just like in the days of old.
Buy the Vietnam Marco Polo Guide.