Over the summer, my trip of seven weeks in Vietnam was fantastic, most of the time was spent volunteering in Hanoi; but luckily there were opportunities to travel as well. So, here are some personal recommendations, in no particular order of preference.
- Old Quarter- Hanoi
No trip to Vietnam is complete without experiencing the noisy and bustling Old Quarter. There is literally so much to do here; whether that is trying some cheap street food, drinking a half-pint of Bia Hanoi for just 5,000 Vietnamese Dong (VND), which is worth around 14p. Most of the fifty streets in the District have small family-run shops (that have operated since the 13th century); so, there are, also, plenty of opportunities to part with your dong! The signage on each particular street is a reminder of the Old Quarter’s mercantile past, as each street was named after what it predominately sold – Hang Gai, for example, means the street of hemp.
- Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi
Although, heaving with tourists and street sellers, this lake is much loved by Vietnamese people. It’s not hard to see why – beautiful trees, the light of the Turtle Tower shimmering in the night, a clean environment and the famous red Hue Bridge connecting Ngoc Son Temple to the shoreline – all help make this lake unmissable for many Vietnamese and tourists alike. The origins of this unique setting are the product of Vietnamese legend where Heaven presented Vietnamese General Le Loi with a magical sword as help for expelling the Chinese invaders. Sometime in the 15th century when victory had been claimed, a Golden Turtle reclaimed the sword giving the lake its current name: Lake of the Restored Sword.
- West Lake, Hanoi
For those wanting to get away from the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter, look no further than West Lake. Despite being less famous than Ho Hoan Kiem, West Lake is the city’s largest with a circumference of fifteen kilometres. The trek up there is well worth it for the stunning lakeside views from restaurants and the shoreline. Also, there are delightful swan boats on the shoreline that are used for tourist trips.
4. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, Hanoi
This is a great place for travellers who enjoy taking in many sites at once; as this complex (north west of the Old Quarter) is dedicated to looking at the life of one of the greatest figures in Vietnam’s past: Ho Chi Minh. The variety of attractions include the Botanical Gardens, Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House, his Mausoleum, his Museum and the Presidential Palace. My favourite place within the complex was the Stilt House, situated overlooking a small lake and it is resolutely guarded. This simple dwelling is in the communist style; as it is where the communist father of the nation lived intermittently between 1958-69 (during the Vietnam War).
5. Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution, Hanoi
Many tourist guidebooks, suggest that this small museum is for specialist historians and so is not worth a visit. Although, minimalist in style and in favour of the Vietnamese viewpoint, there is a treasure-trove of some 40,000 objects in the collection. These include impressive statues, many letters and of course communist flags! The objects tell the story of Vietnamese history from the Colonial War against the French to the modern day.
- Cuc Phoung National Park- 45 km west of Nihn Bihn
This National Park is a hotspot for wildlife, as there over three hundred species of tropical birds; so, it is ideal for any budding naturalists. Unlike Kew Gardens, one can hear the real sound of the jungle, feel the heat and see large and wild tropical insects. On some trails, it is possible to reach the Thousand Year Old Tree in the centre of the Park. This walk is off the beaten track enough to make it exciting, while at the same time still being manageable.
- The Countryside around Hoi An
For those wishing to delve into the variety of traditional landscapes in Vietnam, the countryside around Hoi An fulfils such desires. Hiring a bike for the day for as little as 30,000 dong (88p) opens up a variety of potential areas to explore, including many small pagodas, sandy beaches (such as Cau Dau, where the fresh coconut milk is simply divine) and many different traditional villages selling commodities such as fresh vegetables.
- Imperial Enclosure inside the Citadel, Hue
For any history lovers this is a sight that cannot be missed. A series of 2.5 km walls surround the enclosure; which was the capital of Vietnam – Nguyen Emperors ruled there from 1802 to 1945. Going through the impressive Ngo Mon Gate reveals a vast site, which certainly warrants at least half a day’s exploration. The Hall of the Mandarins (where state officials had working offices), Thai Hoa Palace (where the Emperor met visitors), Dien Tho Residence (where many Queen mothers lived) and the Royal Theatre (where traditional music was played) are all attractions there. Helpful, firendly and informative guides can be purchased for an extra fee of around 150,000 dong.
- DMZ (Demilitarized Zone: an area where military activity is prohibited) Tour
Although it is hard to imagine the countryside (known as the Demilitarized Zone) north of Hue being a battleground in the Vietnam War, a good tour guide can truly bring this area back to life. My recommendation is, therefore, to get a slightly more pricey veteran guide, as he is able to bring real-life insight into the conflict. There are several different tours that take in different sites – my one went along highway one to the north of Dong Ha. Some sites that are particular favourites included Cau Tung Beach (where north Vietnamese smuggled weapons onto Con Co Island) and the Vin Moch Tunnels (where some ninety north Vietnamese families disappeared into two miles of underground tunnels).
10. Perfume Pagoda, 65 km west of Hanoi
It takes around an hour of travelling up the beautiful Sui Yen River, until one reaches an entrance to a complex site of some thirty pagodas. It is quite a trek up some limestone cliffs before visitors reach the most famous one: the Huong Tich Pagoda (a beautiful and mystical cave). This is the final destination for many Buddhist pilgrims, who pray for good health, fortune and for a good crop harvest .