Timing is everything, or at least it can feel that way when you’re travelling. High season / low season, dry season/rainy season, soccer season/hurling season – these things make a big difference. And as much as we do our best to time all our travels to hit places at absolutely the ideal time, sometimes that just isn’t possible. Which is how we found ourselves traversing Vietnam in September at both the height of their considerable annual heat (35C+) and even more considerable rainy season (a lot). Needless to say, the humidity was formidable, although still preferable to those bi-hourly downpours (if only barely). Yet, somehow, we still found ourselves enjoying Vietnam immensely. Definitely enough that we regularly discuss returning someday at a more palatable time of year.
Vietnam is long and narrow, and your only real choice is whether you start in the south or, as we did, in Hanoi in the north. Hanoi is a fascinating, energetic city with a central Old Quarter set around beautiful Hoan Kien Lake. The narrow, “bustling” streets (a favourite term of guidebook writers) are choked with stalls, shops, mopeds and, oh, so many people, and generally seem as though they haven’t changed in decades. Nearby Ha Long Bay is possibly Vietnam’s most famous attraction. This fascinating expanse of limestone islands covered in jungle and riddled with caves and lagoons is best visited on a multi-day cruise. Costs for basic trips are ridiculously low for such an incredible experience, featuring unparalleled scenery, the usual sumptuous Vietnamese cuisine, plus all sorts of opportunities for swimming, kayaking, biking and obviously, amateur spelunking.
Farther south and a short trip inland you’ll find even more extraordinary limestone formations, these ones surrounded by lush rice paddies, lazy streams and green hills. Water buffalo wallow in muddy ponds while you spend the morning floating along beautiful Tam Coc river, passing through magnificent rock grottoes, sliding past solitary fishermen quietly pulling their nets up from the reeds, and a unique flotilla of female sales folk who work the paddles with only their feet, much like me when I drop the remote on the floor.
Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam’s illustrious past, may boast the majestic Imperial Palace and a massive Citadel with an actual, real-life moat, but it was the smaller, more chaotic city of Hoi An that stood out for us. Wandering its maze of tiny streets and claustrophobic alleys, there was still a sense of peace and permanence to the old French buildings, the weathered dock, the battered fishing boats and the ancient market where friendly merchants continue selling the exact same fruit/fish/baskets/bread/rope/hats/bowls out of the exact same stalls they have for generations.
A short trip west from less-than inspiring Nha Trang is wonderful Lak Lake, a quiet, picturesque place ringed by coffee plantations, rice fields and small hilltribe villages. It is a great place to rent a rickety mountain bike and tour some of the countryside – dodging scurrying chickens, lumbering cattle and the occasional bride getting doubled on the back of a pedal bike through a heavy rainstorm. Last but not least, you’ll want to brush up on all your history in Ho Chi Min City, the centre of both Vietnamese government and taxi drivers who ignore you any time it starts to rain.
All told, rain or not, Vietnam is a must-visit. Noticeably more modern than some areas of Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar), yet with a far more restrained tourism industry than places like Thailand or Bali, Vietnam’s mix of history, nature and culture is fascinating and impressive, especially considering that this friendly, manageable country is also one of the most affordable destinations in the world.
- It makes sense once you think about it, but in Vietnam, they call it “The American War”.
- Do you really get to be shocked when you’re on Monkey Island and your backpack gets stolen by a monkey? Besides, our British friend may have lost his passport, wallet, camera and phone, but at least our brave guide was able to recover his left flip-flop.
- Don’t be afraid to rent a scooter, but you’ll blend in a lot better if you avoid using those annoying signal lights.
- Roughly 90% of Vietnam gets up by 5:30 am to perform awkward calisthenics in the park. I assume the remaining 10% are already frying noodles.
- If you stay in a hotel that proudly promotes its status of “ONE STAR”, don’t expect a mint on your pillow. At least not a fresh one.
Note on featured image
Exploring Ninh Binh (Submitted)