Monday, November 15, 2010

Tourist paths often cross in 'Hello again' Hanoi, Vietnam


These days it's hard to feel like an independent traveler on the road from Hanoi to Saigon.

Anyone who tackles the around 1,145 kilometers from north to south, or in the other direction, will find themselves running into the same people at the pagodas, hostels, bars and restaurants recommended by the same leading travel guides.

“Hello again” might easily be the motto of the trip, although fortunately the familiarity of the travel companions underway does not detract from the many things this part of Vietnam has to offer.

Most tourists in Hanoi check into a hotel in the old part of the city where swarms of clattering mopeds roam the congested streets. Visitors allow themselves to be pedaled around in rickshaws and amid the chaos the odd chicken still manages to hop unscathed from one side of the narrow carriageway to the other.

Everyday tourism remains unaffected by Socialism, the only outward signs of which are the prominent red flag with the yellow star. Vietnam's national colors hang from almost every house, and not just in Hanoi either. Former Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh is also omnipresent. His embalmed body lies in state in a glass coffin at a mausoleum dedicated to his memory.

This grand example of Soviet-style monumental architecture is an essential stop on any Hanoi tour, just like Halong Bay. Getting there is straightforward, even if the only method on offer for tourists without a hire car is to board one of the numerous air-conditioned minibuses bound for the coast.

Halong Bay is one of the most photographed places in the whole of Vietnam and the images convey an accurate impression of a truly splendid coastal panorama. The limestone pinnacles rise up almost perpendicularly from the shimmering blue water. The bay can get crowded though. The harbor is packed tightly with the numerous tourist boats which ply the sights and the eye is offended by discarded pieces of rubbish bobbing on the waves.

The next stop on a classic Vietnam tour is the relaxing city of Hue. During a cruise on the Perfume river tourists glide past magnificent pagodas and tombs. The old fortified citadel with the Forbidden City was badly damaged during the 1968 Tet offensive by U.S. troops but still lives up to its status as a UNESCO world heritage site.

From Hue a bus goes to Hoi An, a shopper's heaven where it is possible to order made-to-measure versions of suits and outfits from the collections of world famous designers for a fraction of the usual cost. There are dozens of tailor shops here and some visitors bring along from home photos of garments they would like made.

Once the final stitches have been carefully applied it is time to head for Saigon. The city has a western feel to it with neon advertising hoardings, dubious-looking bars and rows of boutiques selling expensive clothes.

The prices are generally still lower than those in western Europe and many other parts of the world and so Saigon is ideal for those seeking some bargains before they board the plane for home.

In the Mekong Delta travelers can recover from the rush around the retailers on one of the river cruises which usually call in at a local coconut candy factory. Naturally guests have the chance here to buy some tasty souvenirs and say “hello again” to some of the old acquaintances they are certain to bump into.


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