Exotic Vietnam, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in February 2006
Cruising the Saigon River, 16-second video clip
Ho Chi Minh City dancers #1, 45-second video clip
Ho Chi Minh City dancers #2, 46-second video clip
Ho Chi Minh City dancers #3, 52-second video clip


Exotic Vietnam with its beautiful topography, unique sights, friendly people and excellent shopping, makes for a very interesting tourist destination.  As large as the U. S. states of Virginia , North Carolina and South Carolina combined, Vietnam offers many different types of terrain.  There are mountains, dense jungles, coastal plains and also river delta.  One of the thinnest countries in the world, Vietnam is 2,600 km long; but the width varies between only 60 km and 200 km, except in the far north where it is much wider.

Most tourists will be interested in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) in the South, Hanoi in the North, and the central region containing the seaport of Danang, the historical capital of Hue and the charming town of Hoi An.   In addition, the Central Highlands may be of interest to those with additional time; and beautiful Halong Bay in the North will be viewed by those arriving in Vietnam via ship.

Vibrant Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam and one of the most thriving cities in Southeast Asia, was built on a bend in the Saigon River.  With a population of nearly seven million, 300-year-old Ho Chi Minh City is the national's economic heart. 

At one time on a par with Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City has been called the Paris of the East.  Today it boasts colorful markets where everything from French baguettes to lacquer boxes is sold.   Waves of motorbikes flow past the city's French-built architectural landmarks such as the neo-Classical Notre Dame Cathedral, completed in 1880, and the French-era municipal theatre and city hall.

Fortunately, the sights of central Saigon can be reached on foot in less than half an hour from any of the hotels in the city center.   The tourist circuit usually includes Reunification Hall (formerly the presidential palace before the 1975 fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese), the Rex Hotel (frequented by American soldiers prior to "liberation"), the historical museum, the central market, Cholon (Chinatown), the war remnants museum (housed in the building formerly occupied by the U. S. Information Service), and one or more of the city's 200 pagodas.

At Cu Chi, 70 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, there is a network of more than 200 km of man-made tunnels which once allowed the Viet Cong to wage war on Saigon.  This is a popular half-day excursion.  These fascinating passages, enlarged in places after the Vietnam War to accommodate the larger bodies of foreign tourists, contained underground hospitals, kitchens, sleeping and living quarters and arms storage centers.

Hanoi, the charming and laid-back capital city with its tree-lined boulevards, elegant squares, old colonial-era buildings, lakes, and parks, was built on the Red River about 100 km inland from the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea.   Tourist highlights include the Temple of Literature (founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucious), the old, so-called French Quarter in central Hanoi with its maze of narrow alleys, Hoa Lo Prison (also known as the "Hanoi Hilton" which once housed U. S. prisoners of war, including U. S. Senator John McCain), Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and museum (including his modest house and the former presidential palace in which he refused to live), and national museums for history and the arts.

Danang, Hue and Hoi An are clustered in the central region of Vietnam.  It is logical to break one's air journey at Danang when flying between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

Danang, a major seaport and Vietnam's fourth largest city, is known for Marble Mountain, China Beach and the Cham Museum.  Marble Mountain is the collective name by which five nearby limestone crags with marble outcrops are known.   China Beach, 1 km from Marble Mountain and but one of Vietnam's many fine white sandy beaches, was a popular American R & R destination during the Vietnam War.  The Cham Museum, constructed in Danang by the French in 1916, contains art and architecture from the Cham Dynasty of the second century A. D.

Hue, Vietnam's capital between 1802 and 1945, is located on the Perfume River some 108 km north of Danang and 100 km south of the Seventeenth Parallel which once separated North Vietnam from South Vietnam.   Although invaded by the French and the Japanese and then later bombed by the U. S. in 1968, many tombs and other historical monuments still remain in and around the former Imperial City.    

Historic Hoi An, 32 km south of Danang, has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam.  This small and intimate town can be explored easily on foot.  Originally settled by Chinese and Japanese merchants in the sixteenth century, Portuguese and Dutch ships also called there.   However, by the end of the nineteenth century Danang finally eclipsed Hoi An in importance as the river which runs through Hoi An began to silt up.  The Japanese covered bridge, dating to the sixteenth century, is Hoi An's most-photographed monument.

For those with additional time, the Central Highlands will also beckon.  This lush area offers some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Vietnam.  The French used this region as a hill station due to its favorable climate with warm days and cool nights.   Interestingly, this region is home to as many as 35 of only 50 or so ethnic groups that exist in all of Vietnam .

Finally, those lucky enough to visit Vietnam via ship (and those willing to undertake a long day trip from Hanoi) are likely to encounter the scenic turquoise waters of Halong Bay near the port of Haiphong in the North.  Over 3,000 limestone islets dot the bay.  Some islets have miniscule beaches and some have spectacular caves and grottoes.   Most islets are covered with lush vegetation.  It has been said that Halong Bay, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, is the most beautiful location in all of Vietnam .


In Cairo the Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam will only issue 14-day single-entry tourist visas.  Tourists requiring a longer period of stay must request an extension after arrival in Vietnam. 

Another important concern is that Vietnam tourist visas are issued in Cairo strictly no more than 15 days prior to entry into Vietnam .  Because of this restriction, travelers planning multi-country itineraries may be forced to spend time in Vietnam prior to touring other countries in Southeast Asia.  In fact, travelers should give consideration to combining a visit to Thailand and/or Angkor Wat in Cambodia with their trip to Vietnam.  Air routings to Vietnam typically include Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.

The best time to visit Ho Chi Minh City is between December and April.   This is the dry season, although there is still occasional rain even then.  April is the hottest and most humid month.   The wet season runs from May to November, with the wettest period lasting from June to September.

The best time to visit Hanoi is during the dry season between late September and December or else in March and April.   January and February are cool and drizzly.  May to September is the rainy season when the heat can be oppressive.

The best time to visit the Central Highlands is from December to February, and the very best time to visit Danang and Hue on the coast is in April.  Danang and Hue are deluged by the southwest monsoon in October while the northeast monsoon affects the central coast from December to February.

ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com


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