Beneath an intense grey sky, Vietnam’s cities catapult through life. A mass of locals on two wheels take advantage of every gap in the road, each of them desperate to get somewhere at constant speed. The buildings don’t so much tower as they tumble, fighting for space in an ever-dense battle for attention and recognition without appreciation for aesthetic value. Between the rush of Yamahas and the shelves of the shops, traditions struggle to hold firm; as iron kettles are heated on stoves on the pavement, crowds of straw hats adorn street sellers purveying mangosteen and Lychee on wooden rods, next to souvenir outlets offering straw hats of their own. In Hanoi, one is closer to the heritage of Vietnam, the arches and temples of folk religions intertwine with the roots of the banyan trees and the markets of the people. Ho Chi Minh City feels a little wider, a little less chaotic in construction and closer to a colonial vision of Indochina, with boulevards and extensive public transport work being undertaken in its bid to become a metropolitan city.
Venturing outside of the main cities provides the eye with spectacular beauty. Tall limestone islands rise out of serene waters in Halong Bay, a landscape littered with cruises jostling for a share of the tens of thousands of travellers that flock there every day. Kayaks and GoPros attempt to immerse the tourists in the surroundings, venturing through huge caverns and around secluded beaches, taking a dip when no one is looking. To reach this haven, one travels by minibus through the derelict, part-built or forgotten villas on the closest mainland, boards a pre-booked cruise rarely seen in the adverts, before being immersed in the island towers. Further south, the citadel of Hue is a haven of Vietnam’s imperial history, scarred by its more recent history of intense and unforgiving warfare. Seat of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, the imperial site was modelled on Beijing’s Forbidden Palace, and its sprawl contains gilded pagodas, tombs and monumental gateways. It is a vast compex of tiled roofs and worship, ornate decoration in red and gold, shaded and cooled in the oppressive heat of central Vietnam. Hue’s citadel cuts a tragic figure due to its war-torn nature, the fortress walls that surround the complex are textured through remnants of gunfire, whilst of the 160 buildings initially built, only 10 original sites remained due to two heavy bombing campaigns from the French and the Americans.
Vietnam hurtles forward. Construction work and industry appear beside main roads and between buildings, reconstruction of culturally important monuments occurs alongside the development of office buildings and business headquarters. Huge main roads are being built before your eyes, an infrastructure to curb the dangerousness of the motorbikes is being put in place, Sheraton Hotels appear along the coast near Da Nang, the country is transforming itself into a tourist haven that suits travellers of all ages and all budgets. The imperial citadel of Hue is undergoing a constant rebuilding programme, Vietnam’s architectural heritage is being preserved despite all efforts of bloody warfare to destroy it. Alongside this reconstruction, the conflicts that swept the nation are not forgotten, exemplified through visiting the Viet Cong’s Cu Chi Tunnels. Accessible through a tour bought in Ho Chi Minh City, these sprawling underground villages are accompanied by contemporaneous propaganda videos, demonstrations of the brutal traps and ingenious entrances used by the Viet Cong, observing American bomb craters and suffering tourists wishing to deafen everyone within a 200-mile radius through utilising the shooting range. Serving as the base of operations for the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive, the tunnels are a tangible relic of the country’s past, so much so that one can crawl through (and in some cases, get stuck in) sections of the underground labyrinth.
There is a sense of accessibility as a result of the lingering French influence on many aspects of Vietnamese life. The road signs, names, food labels, and shopfronts are all readable, as the roman lettering allows even the most unseasoned Englishman to brutally murder the pronunciation of the words that confront their eyes. The food is a combination of local flavours, technique, with a French base. Balanced between softness and sharpness, smoothness and crispness, the food is what dreams are made of. Simple items such as the Banh Mi encompass this notion, a small Baguette stuffed with delicious flavours and textures unlike any imitation available and far cheaper. Regional dishes dominate; much of the charm in Vietnam exists in a sense of exploration and discovery, new tastes and new textures await in each passing village, town, and city, igniting a desire to try as much as possible wherever possible. There are combinations unheard of and broths that so deceptively simple that leaves you wondering why everyone the world over does not eat as the Vietnamese do. Whether you are waking up to a steaming bowl of Pho or settling into the evening with some Bun Cha, there is something gorgeous awaiting you in every corner of the nation.
The French colonial architecture that remains has either been repurposed for the government, demolished by the government, or transformed by local businesses exploiting their ‘old-world’ beauty. Shining yellow underneath blue and grey skies, and behind high iron gates, the Presidential Palace in Hanoi offers aesthetic respite from the near-Soviet brutalism of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The pleasant yellow continues into the National Museum of Fine Arts in the capital and HCM City’s Palace of Fine Art, albeit the latter is in a state of near disrepair. The colonial villas of Hanoi are found on the outskirts of its old market, housing galleries and cafes, offering calm and reflection away from the hectic centre. In HCMC, the colonial concrete complexes have been littered with smaller businesses, clothes shops, cafes and retailers, they are maze-like and secluded, with spiral staircases needed for their discovery. The buildings in the second city are making way for the glass boxes of the financial need, Vietnam’s burgeoning economy spares no nostalgia for its colonial past.
Between the two cities, the country’s oasis, Hoi An, exists between eras, frozen in time. The port town ceased trading 200 years ago, and has preserved a harmonious balance of Japanese, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Portuguese and French buildings and communities dating from the 15th Century, set to lantern light when night falls. The serene beauty of the candles floating on the river, gondolas drifting along the water, and the coloured lanterns defining the scenery across it combine to perfect effect. The town at night is buzzing with tourists and locals alike, all eating under the moonlight, wandering through its streets and enjoying this shared paradise. When the sun basks the town in light, and a calmness pours over the people, the varying temples, homes, and businesses are on view, ornate in their individuality and unique position in the world, to this place. The greenery of the vine trees twist over the shopfronts in competition with the bright colour of the lanterns that hang overhead, the vibrancy of Hoi An is unparalleled in its understatement. Specific to the town is its ‘Cao Lau’ dish, the mixture of cultures and traditions is reflected in the myriad flavours of the thick, pork and noodle-filled broth, available in most restaurants and heaven for the senses.
Vietnam is home to exhilarating contradiction. It is a serene paradise with furious development, a rocketing economy that still leaves many of its people poor, full of urban sprawl and rural neglect, where a motorbike will probably run you over. You will love every second of it.