Exotic, Intense, And Full Of Promise…Welcome To The New Vietnam
“Of all the places that I’ve traveled in Asia,” writes Correspondent from that part of the world Wendy Justice, “Vietnam is perhaps the most exciting, vibrant, and intense. It can feel quite foreign and exotic.
“The northernmost Vietnamese coast is spectacular. Known as Halong Bay, it covers 600 square miles, with thousands of jagged, limestone karsts rising like castles out of the ocean. There are dozens of caves, deserted beaches of fine, white sand, and almost 2,000 islets extending far into the Gulf of Tonkin.
“Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is Vietnam’s most popular tourist destination. Monkeys and other wildlife are the only inhabitants of most of the tiny islands. There are only two towns of any consequence on the larger islands, and a few small floating villages, where permanent residents farm fish and pearl oysters, traveling by boat to visit neighbors. Gorgeous any time of day, the islands of Halong Bay become stunningly beautiful in the evening, when the silhouettes of the karst formations morph into surrealistic splendor.
“As you head south along the coast from Ha Long Bay and the Gulf of Tonkin, there are several other beach areas worth exploring. The China Beach area between Da Nang and Hoi An on the central coast is becoming a popular resort area. Nha Trang’s white sandy beach stretches for six miles, while many peaceful, quiet beaches are found to the north and on the outlying islands. This is a great town for seafood.
“You will also find many scuba outfitters based out of Nha Trang. Mui Ne Beach, 120 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly called Saigon), is considered one of Vietnam’s more beautiful beach areas. It is an extremely popular international spot for wind and kite surfers. The Ha Tien area near the Cambodian border and Phu Quoc Island in the Gulf of Thailand offer superb, isolated, soft sand beaches and excellent diving opportunities.
“A trip through Vietnam reveals graceful women dressed in flowing, ankle-length, silk ao dai and woven cone hats, terraced rice fields, and serene mountains. Despite outward appearances, though, this is not a laid-back country. These people, who have lived through unimaginable oppression and poverty, are determined that hungry times will never happen again. People are working in the fields and in their shops from daybreak until well after dark. Commerce, even in the smallest of villages, keeps markets busy and lively. Fixed prices are rare, and skillful bargaining for the best price is the cultural norm.
“This is a country where motorcycles outnumber automobiles by a huge margin, and it’s common to see entire families precariously seated on a single tiny motorbike. Traffic rules are almost non-existent, with busy roads and intersections packed in a barely controlled chaos of people, bicycles, and noisy engines.
“Chinese-style Daoist temples are busy during all hours, as people wander in to pay their respects to their ancestors or to pray for prosperity and family blessings. Almost every house has a family altar, tended daily with offerings of incense and fresh fruit. Pictures of elders and ancestors are clustered here. A photograph of Ho Chi Minh also has a place at many altars, especially in the northern part of the country.
“The food is fantastic. There are more than 500 Vietnamese dishes, which tend to be healthy and to emphasize fresh ingredients. Although there are recognizable Chinese and French influences, Vietnamese cuisine is unique. Meals tend to have small portions of lean, often chargrilled meat, with generous helpings of fresh or raw greens, pungent herbs, vegetables, and rice, and usually include fresh fruit for dessert. It’s a healthy, low-fat diet, which explains why it’s so rare to see an overweight Vietnamese person. With its emphasis on clean, distinct flavors, Vietnamese food is some of the most varied – and I’d say best – cuisine to be found in all Asia.
“The French occupied Vietnam for many years, and you would expect that most Vietnamese would be fluent in French, but that’s not really the case. The French withdrew from Vietnam in 1954, and only those old enough to have lived under the French rule have retained the language. English is rapidly becoming widely spoken throughout the country. With the energy so characteristic of Vietnam, English-language schools are popping up everywhere and are packed full of young Vietnamese who are convinced that learning English is critical to their success.
“Given the consuming desire to be connected to the rest of the world, Internet is ubiquitous throughout Vietnam, perhaps more so than in any other country in Asia. The cities have Internet cafés on almost every corner, and they are always full of locals chatting, e-mailing, and surfing. Even the smallest villages have at least one Internet café, packed full of youngsters, teenagers, and their parents.
“Despite Vietnam’s turbulent history, the Vietnamese are perhaps surprisingly gracious and friendly to Westerners. Tourists from France and the United States are arriving in growing numbers, and, even in Hanoi, once the stronghold of North Vietnam, Westerners are made to feel welcome in every way.
“Many Vietnamese believe that bringing a wealthy foreigner (common thinking is that all foreigners are wealthy) to their home will bring them good luck. Having a foreigner at a wedding is auspicious; if you happen to walk past a wedding, don’t be surprised if you’re invited in to celebrate the happy occasion.
“Overweight Westerners might be taken aback to have someone casually touch their stomachs in passing. The superstitious Vietnamese aren’t being forward. They just want the good luck a full belly signifies!
“The days of a battered, violent, war-torn Vietnam have passed, and this country today vibrates with vitality. After so many years of war, this new peace and prosperity bring hope and promise to this land, and the enthusiasm in which it is being embraced is palpable.”