‘Which country are you from?’, a cherubic 10-year-old asked me as I was sitting at a highway rest stop in the Vietnamese countryside.
‘I am from India’, I replied, hoping for an enthusiastic response. But all I got was a blank smile.
‘Do you know India?’, I asked him again. He shyly answered, ‘No’ and expectantly looked at his large family who were sitting at the next table eager for him to translate. When they heard India, someone mentioned ‘Ando’ and the group animatedly started speaking.
Then started a flurry of conversation with the little boy as a translator. He was the first-generation English speaker, like many Vietnamese youths today. One of the questions he asked was, ‘Are you liking our country?’ And oh boy, was I enjoying every moment!
This was just one of many similar conversations I had on my recent trip to Vietnam. The country is full of a young population and, as in India, they were hospitable and wanted you to feel welcome in their country.
A kaleidoscope of landscapes
Vietnam is a Southeast Asian country and has a difficult history ridden with strife and war, especially the Vietnam War. They have memorials and museums of their war and history. But while the Vietnamese revere their past, they also look forward to growing as an economy and nation.
I travelled there in July, covering the northern territory, where I visited destinations including Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, and Phong Nha. The country itself is large and you will need at least 12-15 days to cover the entire length of 1,650 kilometres north to south. Some of its other popular destinations are Ho Chi Minh City (Capital City), Hoi An, Hue, Da Nang, and Phu Quoc.
North Vietnam is spectacular and is known for its natural beauty and culture. It has multiple UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is loved by Instagrammers who don’t even have to struggle to get fantastic shots!
Travelling across Vietnam
I started my journey with a big group of friends; we were a bunch of 10 travelling from across the world – USA, Hong Kong, and India. Flights from India to Vietnam have become affordable, and fly to two major airports in the country: Hanoi (North) and Ho Chi Minh City (South).
I took the flight to Hanoi and had a quick entry thanks to the e-Visa that I had applied for already. Since it was a big group, we used a lot of taxis. However, buses are a convenient option for inter-city travel, and motorbikes are the perfect mode to navigate the cities.
Savouring the natural beauty
The first stop was a visit to PhongNha, which is known for its striking mountain scenery of Karst Limestone Mountain and tropical forests. It is the location of the PhongNha National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cave system. We visited two caves here: PhongNha Cave and Paradise Cave, which have amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations, offering a surreal otherworldly experience. We traversed a river and climbed deep within a mountain to witness this beauty.
Next on the trip was a visit to NinhBinh, which is known as ‘Ha Long Bay on land’, and rightly so. Located in the Red River Delta, the river meanders through Limestone Mountains, creating dramatic scenery. We took a river journey across these mountains in an area called Trang An, where the movie Kong Skull Island was shot. The other highlight here was the Hung Mua Cave viewpoint, which offers breathtaking views of the entire region.
Our next stop was Sapa, a hill station town known for its verdant green rice terraces and hill tribes. We went up to Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in the Indo-China Peninsula, which is easily accessible via one of the longest cable car rides in the world. We also went on a trek with a local Hmong woman, who impressed us with her knowledge of the area and gave us a peek into the culture.
The best, of course, was reserved for the last: Ha Long Bay. If you Google Vietnam, this is the spot you will see first. The iconic bay is peppered with thousands of limestone islands topped by rainforests. We took an overnight cruise to enjoy this beautiful landscape, and undertook a range of activities including kayaking, swimming, and trekking on one of the islands.
As for the cuisine, Vietnamese food is quite interesting. When in Hanoi, a street food tour is a must. The Old Quarter is an excellent place for digging into local delicacies which include snails and frogs, too! Pho is the quintessential soup dish that one must have in Vietnam. The country is also vegan-friendly and, except for street food, almost every restaurant offers vegetarian versions. Although Indians might find the taste bland, for the homesick there are Indian restaurants in Hanoi!
By the end of our trip, we couldn’t have enough of Vietnam, it’s interesting cuisine, and cheerful folks who love showing off their country to travellers!
- Monish Menon