From North to South, Vietnam captures, and never releases the hearts of its travelers. The bustling street markets, filled with exotic fruits, an extraordinary foreign language, and the smell of freshly caught fish. It is only the beginning of Vietnam’s reasons for being unlike any country in the world; being there will bring you to a dream state, instantly.
The streets are lined with bargaining women, with aged skin that hold more history, tragedy, and hope than people I have ever seen. They wait all day for tourists, and locals, to buy their Snake Wine, or Conical Hats, for just under a dollar.
Vietnam is treasured for her ability to captivate its people by her natural beauty and innate serenity, but also by the history, the temples, and the variety of personalities from city to city.
History of Vietnam
The Vietnam War, from 1955 to 1975, was an absolute devastation. Not only because of the horrific casualties of death, but also because of the destruction of the country’s, and its neighbors, infrastructures.
After the war, Vietnam was practically nothing except for dust, bombed buildings, carcasses, and broken hearts. Sadly, the damage from the war can still be seen today in poverty levels and Agent Orange birth deformities.
1. War Remnants Museum (Ho Chi Minh)
Most of the Vietnam War took place in the Southern part of the country; with Saigon being the capital, much blood was shed there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I visited the city, and museum, that I learned the most I ever have about what truly happened in the Vietnam War. Visitors should know that almost all of the exhibits contain extremely graphic material of photographs, stories, artifacts, and the truth.
The War Remnants Museum displays artifacts from the War, including anti-war movement posters, US Soldier documented stories and disturbing photographs. Before the entrance of the museum, artillery and bombs are displayed; on one side of the entrance, visitors can see the artifacts used in the French and South Vietnamese prisons of Con Son Islands and Phu Quoc.
The museum is designed in a way that a new theme is addressed on each floor. For example, the upstairs exhibition, Requiem, explores the work of the photographers that were killed during the war. The museum is located at 28 Ð Vo Van Tan cnr Ð Le Quy Don, and costs only 15,000 Dong, or just over a $1 to enter.
2. Marble Mountain (Da Nang, Vietnam)
Although, the country may have had an ugly and cruel past, it has the magical ability to have the most beautiful present. I found this beauty in Da Nang as I motorcycled through the winding roads towards Marble Mountain.
The attraction is a group of five mountains made of limestone and, not so surprisingly, marble. They are filled with pagoda temples, caves, and tunnels; there are also breathtaking Buddhist temples that are used for worship. A popular favorite of the Mountains is the view itself. Many visitors rest at a point where they can be drawn in by the view across Non Nuoc.
The ride up to the Mountains can be quite thrilling, and terrifying, for travelers who are not used to the Vietnamese traffic, and trust me, you will want to make sure you’ve taken a few practice rides on quieter streets and alleyways first. The Mountains are also accessible with a taxi; the fare for the taxis are usually around $2 to $5. The entrance fee into the Mountains is only one dollar.
Lady Buddha- Bodhisattva of Mercy
From the streets of Da Nang, a serenely white Lady Buddha stands tall over the mountains. She is located within the Marble Mountains and is one of the many attractions of the area. Visitors surround her, looking up until their necks are too bent back, and their eyes blinded by the sun; the statue stands at 67 meters.
The Lady Buddha is more traditionally known as the Bodhisattva of Mercy, or Quan Am. Throughout Vietnam, these Ladies can be seen in Buddhist pagodas, in houses, or standing throughout mountain ranges; they represent fertility, guidance, and protection.
3. Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
The most clear form of the country’s beauty comes from her magnificent nature that is inescapable; the “magnificent” not only comes from the unimaginable beauty, but from the actual size of the nature’s creations. Phong Nha is known for its enormous and brilliant caves.
The city is surrounded by nothing more than jungles, extravagant mountains, and lakes of the bluest of blue water. I remember standing at the foot of the long hills, looking to where they led and being in absolute awe of the striking scenery that was before me.
The Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is world renowned for its 400 million years old lifespan, mazes of tunnels and caves throughout the evergreen jungles, and underground rivers. The caves began being explored in the 1990’s and are continuously being unraveled by new discoveries of caves, the latest one in 2015.
The Park is an enormous 885 sq km and can be explored on guided tours, only. Tourists are not allowed to be alone in the jungles and caves because there are still hidden, and some active, bombs left from the Vietnam War. However, if visitors are insisting to do a solo voyage, the Park is still accessible, by motorbike, on the Ho Chi Minh Highway that travels through.
Uy Jang Jong’s Dark Cave Tour
With the size of the Park being so large, many tourists settle for signing up for a day tour. When I visited Phong Nha, I couldn’t even begin to think about how I could see all of the marvels with the few short days I had in the city.
Luckily, Easy Tiger, the lovely hostel I stayed at, had pre-planned tours set up with a local, Uy Jang Jong. Jong meets guests at the hostel and provides van transportation to the highest peak of the mountain to enter the jungle. The day includes, about four-six hours of jungle trekking (in the slippery mud, through high waters, and the highest of inclines), a traditional Vietnamese lunch, and the exploration of Hang Toi, or also known as the Dark Cave.
The exploration of the Dark Cave is unlike any of the others; as the name suggests, the Cave is in absolute darkness (except for the Headtorches that Jong supplies). The Cave can be entered through at either end with each route giving a different experience. The entrance to Jong’s tour will lead you through formations of majestic limestone and underground cave rivers.
To set up tours with Jong, travelers should stay at the Easy Tiger hostel, which only costs 180,000 Dong per night for hostel rooms of 4 to 6 beds; the workers are always more than happy to explain what each cave, and its tours, offer.
4. Hoi An, Vietnam
Besides for the natural beauty that the country holds, Vietnam’s enchantment should also be explored through her cities. Hoi An is a delightful town that is home to grand architecture and businesses, but also surrounded by the delicate traditions of its rivers and the heritage of its old port industry.
Walking through the town during the early morning, travelers will fall in love with the small Vietnamese women paddling slowly down the river, wearing their colorful garments and Conical hats. The streets are, for a moment, hushed; the buildings are painted the sunniest of yellows, and look as though they have been around since the beginning of history. Come lunch time, the streets become a parade of people who walk from the famous tailor shops, to the even more famous iced Vietnamese Coffee lounges.
Tailoring is a huge part of the culture, and industry of Hoi An and should be on the agenda. The women artistically can create any body wear: dresses, Men’s suits, swimming suits, undergarments, hats, you name it. They measure your body sizes, allow you to look through a textbook of material, and have the article ready for you in no more than one day. Impressively, they create everything from nothing, and have no limitations as to what they can make for you. Show them a picture of your favorite dress that is too expensive back home, and they will recreate it for you for fractions of the price.
5. Sapa Vietnam, Tram Ton Pass
Being in Vietnam already places travelers into a land from the books, but traveling practically all the way North of the country lies a city that will transport its visitors to a euphoric, and unforgettable, state of being, Sapa. It’s hard to tell if it is the primitive ethnic Vietnamese tribes, the rolling mountains covered by rice field terraces, or cooler climate, that keep travelers’ hearts, forever.
Or, it may just be the unforgettable experience, and views, of the famous Tram Ton Pass. The Tram Ton Pass, is crossed by the road that connects Sapa and Lai Chau, a city who shares a border with China. The pass lays on the northern side of Mountain Fansipan and stands at 1,900 meters.
The Pass is located about 15km from Sapa, but most travelers also stop to check out the view at 100 meters, Thac Bac, or the Silver Waterfall. The Pass is known for also creating a border between two different climate changes; on Sapa’s side, the weather is cold and foggy, while the Lai Chau side is full of sun and warmth.
The transportation to Tram Ton Pass is efficient and easy; it is only about 15 minutes from the city center, and can be reached by taxi, which should only cost about $5. However, to really indulge in the heavenly views alongside the road, travelers can rent motorbikes for about a dollar.