I’ve been to “Vibrant Vietnam” 4 times, if I recall correctly. Yet each visit, I enjoy the country again as if it was my first time.
There is a special magic about the country that is a bit hard to describe, but I will attempt to do that here. Of course it’s no secret that Vietnam has had a troubled past. The Vietnam war that took place between 40 and 50 years ago, that saw the reunification of North and South Vietnam still shows itself in tourist traps and souvenir stands. It’s hard to escape the memories of that conflict, when it is part of the reason tourists come to visit.
But to me, that’s really not the best or most interesting part of Vietnam. Perhaps if I was a generation older, it would be more significant to me. But I was too young when the conflict took place, for it to resonate with me very much. I don’t discount other people’s views on the subject, but it’s just not what I think about.
To me, the Vietnam that I think about is the current vibrant Vietnam. The country is experiencing a regeneration and a growth that is exciting to witness. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the country is on par with any western country, but it sill has a charm that is visible and inviting. The major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are becoming must-see destinations in SE Asia. Each of those cities has their own style and feeling, such that no visit to Vietnam would be complete without seeing both. And although the country is reunited geographically, the two parts of Vietnam remain distinctly different culturally and ethnographically.
In the north part of the country, the landscape is lush and mountainous. In the areas that border China and Laos, the land is carved layer by layer into rice terraces, tended to through the generations. There is a wide range of ethnic minorities in the region as well. What people often refer to as the ‘hill tribes’ reside in the north, and offer some of the best visual images of the indigenous people of the region. The capital city of Hanoi is emerging as a cosmopolitan city, filled with arts and culture. Compared to the busy hustling economic southern city of Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is relaxed and enjoyable.
Ha Long Bay, considered one of the more impressive and beautiful parts of Vietnam, is a short distance from Hanoi. Spending a few days on a luxury yacht slowly gliding through the limestone spiked peaks are one of the sublime joys that should be experienced in your lifetime. The region is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, and despite tourism replacing fishing as the main activity, it maintains its pristine beauty.
Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to as Saigon by most residents, is a sharp contrast to Hanoi. With fast-paced growth, both financially and vertically, this city would remind visitors of Singapore or Bangkok, more so than Hanoi. HCMC is the centre of commerce for Vietnam, and the largest city, though it’s not the capital. The residents are more aggressive financially, and you’ll find plenty of high end restaurants, hotels and bars.
The southern region of Vietnam offers up some beautiful resorts and beaches as well. With most of the country bounded by the South China Sea (called the East Sea by locals), the waves and winds can be big, leading to a popularity in kite surfing. The region is considerably drier than the north, and even has desert-like sand dunes, not far from HCMC.
Since the climate is quite diverse from north to south, there is no perfect time to visit the country and expect ideal weather everywhere. However, I have found that the best time to visit Vietnam is during the last part of the year, or the early part of the new year. The temperatures will vary considerably when you’re in the mountains in the north and the beaches in the south, but it’s generally pleasant at that time of year.
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