Vietnam is a country of contrasts and any time is a good time to visit. Be aware, though, that the north of the country gets quite cold from December to February, while the humidity in the south can mess with your head! The Vietnamese are a friendly and accommodating people, doing their best to keep the horrors of their history behind them and just get on with life. The country has been reinventing itself in the eyes of the world since the late 1980s, when the government introduced economic and political reforms that would lead it to being one of the world's fastest growing economies before 2010. They have a long way to go before they're on par with the Thais or Indonesians for being tourist savvy, but rest assured that this innocence adds to the attraction of the place. And speaking of attractions, Vietnam has almost too many to highlight! A trip here will surely include visits to Sapa, in the north, where the H'Mong, Yao and other peoples still dress and live as their ancestors did, and to the capital of Hanoi, where the influences of many cultures can be found in the architecture and cuisine, to name a few. Other 'musts' include the ancient citadel in Hue, the beaches on the tropical island of Phu Quoc, and sailing along the Mekong where a life of trading and haggling is centuries old. Of course, there's also the one and only Ho Chi Minh City. Still known as Saigon by many older Vietnamese, this city is experiencing new wealth and has both eyes firmly on the future. It caters for every budget, offering food of numerous nationalities, markets bursting at the seams with bargains and all manner of attractions and places to party or pamper. Vietnam is definitely the place to be in Southeast Asia. ~ Tina Spice
As the stars fade and the colours of the sky slowly begin to change, the dark shadows of the immense temple walls gradually emerge. The anticipation builds among the hushed crowd as the temple’s towers and their reflection in the moat surrounding the vast complex become increasingly clear. And then, this visually, architecturally and artistically breathtaking scene reveals itself in full glory, rendering viewers speechless; its a truly amazing moment. Seeing Angkor Wat was just one of many such 'pinch me' moments I had during my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with Journeys Within, an award-winning Southeast Asia tour company. I actually stopped counting them after just a few days into my fascinating cultural odyssey; they came so fast and furious, one after another, all I could do was continue to pinch myself to ensure I wasn’t dreaming.
It was on the third round trip that worry, maybe even fear, began to overtake me.
The tropical sun was scalding and I was sweating, the dust of the red dirt road trailing behind us like a cyclone. The scooter I was driving - more like managing to keep upright - was coated in the dust, dirt and grime of two previous trips back and forth to the island’s only hospital, a mere thirty kilometres away. We were on Phu Quoc Island, my girlfriend and I, and we were in the midst of experiencing, the hard way, why every traveller should always be prepared for emergencies, big and small.
Phu Quoc. Pronounced 'foo hwoc', this island is located off the southwest tip of Vietnam and is an idyllic hot spot for those seeking sand and sunshine, massages and mojitos. It's rapidly becoming very popular with both tourists and Saigonese who can fly there daily in just 45 minutes. I recently spent three weeks there and had plenty of time to scope out the good and affordable places to satisfy any visitor's hunger, regardless of their tastes. Here are my top nine choices, all of which offer great food and atmosphere with none of the fancy pants prices! [ed. All prices are in Vietnamese dong - VND - unless otherwise state and at the time of posting US $1 = 20,000vnd].
Sakura. Set back amongst the trees on Ong Lang Road, Sakura is a small and unassuming wooden hut that manages to turn out fantastic food. Kiem, the Vietnamese owner and chef shares her life story on the first page of the menu. It's both harrowing and inspiring, but lets you in on how her experiences have shaped who she is today and why she has such a passion for food. It's a nice, personal touch. Don't let the simple surroundings - complete with wondering chickens and dogs lazing under the trees - discourage you from enjoying Kiem's culinary flair. We sampled and I can recommend the fish with lemongrass and chilli for 65,000 [ed. about $3.25!], the tofu and vegetable curry for 30,000 and you simply have to top it off with one of Kiem's specialties: a huge Euro style pancake with homemade mango and pineapple jam for 25,000 vnd. Oh yes it was delicious! Sakura also has fresh juices and coconuts, and as she was once married to a US soldier Kiem speaks excellent English.
When the Vietnamese government decided to open it’s doors to tourism in the 1990s, it did the rest of the world a service. And while this long country has much to offer from top to bottom, its biggest draw by far is Ho Chi Minh City.
Busy and bustling, hot and humid, HCMC is attracting an international crowd and the numbers are growing each year as more and more travelers seek out a change from the usual SE Asian destinations. Many savvy locals are taking advantage of this newfound income by creating businesses they never could in previous years and the injection of life and spondula into the city is palpable.
There’s a good reason why many high end, multi national stores have already opened up in HCMC - the Saigonese can now afford their wares and the tourists are switched on to this city. That aside, HCMC is a very affordable holiday destination or more so if you care to live there as an expat. If you can look past the total chaos that is the traffic and into the heart of this city, you’ll find it friendly and welcoming with a genuine heart that is as yet untainted by western consumerism.
There are, however, a few tips and tricks to surviving here, whether you're here for a month or a year or somewhere in between. Paying attention to them can mean the difference between a good time and a great time, and can keep you safe in one of the busiest cities in Southeast Asia.