Visiting Vietnam is a very unique experience for anyone who wants to be educated about culture, history and myths, and enjoy the beauty of nature at the same time. Vietnam is a country that is known for its resistance and strength of its people who went through a lot of loss, pain and courage. The minute you land in Hanoi, you will be dazzled by the rice fields and spacious landscapes. This country stood fiercely and won the war against the US because they were armed with myths and legends of their ancestors that talk about resistance, hope and magic.
I had the privilege to visit north and south Vietnam along with a Kuwaiti media delegation, invited by Emirates airlines. It was an exceptional journey in two unique entities in the same country. In the north, you can sense that people are still living in the past, cherishing their ancestors and preserving the heritage. In the south, due to its growing economy and expensive shopping centers, people – especially the youth – tend to look to a more futuristic future.
Till this day, you can see the French influence, especially in the old buildings in Hanoi in the north of Vietnam that stand as witness of the French colonization in 1887. In the south, you can sense the American influence in terms of military, economy and expanding cities.
Vietnam is a very rich country when it comes to agriculture. It is one of the world’s richest agricultural regions and is the second largest (after Thailand) exporter worldwide and the world’s seventh largest consumer of rice. With a history of planting tea for over 2,000 years, Vietnam is one of the largest and oldest tea-producing countries in the world. As for coffee, its production has been a major source of income since the early 20th century. It is the second largest coffee producer in the world after Brazil, with robusta coffee accounting for 97 percent of Vietnam’s total output.
I have been travelling for business trips with Emirates for a long time now, and my motto for this airline is and will always be: “If you want to be spoiled, travel with Emirates airlines”. Our visit from Kuwait to Hanoi wouldn’t have been as perfect and comfortable if it wasn’t for this exceptional airline. This is not a surprise, because according to the 2019 list of the world’s best airlines, Emirates won the in-flight entertainment award for the second time. The flight from Dubai to Hanoi is approximately six hours. When visiting Vietnam, you will have an incredible and unforgettable experience with its endless attractions and touristic sites, cultural landmarks and inexplicable yet delicious cuisine.
Here are some places that I strongly recommend if you are planning to visit Vietnam.
The Old Quarter
Hanoi, located on the banks of the Red River and the capital of Vietnam, is considered to be one of the most ancient capitals in the world. If you are the kind of person who enjoys street-cheap shopping such as shoes, souvenirs and handicrafts, the Old Quarter is the place to be. It is preferable to reach there on weekends (Friday, Saturday and Sunday). Hanoi weekend night markets usually start from around 7:00 am onwards and stretch from Hang Dao Street to the north to the edge of Dong Xuan Market.
Hanoi weekend night markets are full of life, music, roadside stalls, local food vendors, street artists and children playing games and enjoying their childhood away from the Internet and technology. It is very vibrant, colorful and illuminated with decorative lights, which make it easier for tourists to take pictures of the sites within the area. The Old Quarter’s markets are like a never ending carnival during the weekends.
Forty percent of Vietnamese people work in the government sector, while 60 percent have their own businesses. They are very good in selling things and bargaining. So most probably during your shopping there, the most enjoyable new skill that you will gain is bargaining technique – it is a way of life over there. In the evening, if you are tired from all the shopping, bargaining and the excitement, you can take a cyclo ride tour – famous three-wheeled carriers that take you around the Old Quarter to explore the exciting local daily life of Hanoians and get you back to your hotel.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake or Sword Lake as the legend says is considered to be the center of Hanoi, not only physically but also symbolically. The lake is full of tortoises, and because the tortoise is considered a sacred animal in Vietnam’s culture (along with the dragon, phoenix and unicorn), Hoan Kiem Lake has become a holy place that nurtures tortoises. The lake also surrounds Ngoc Son Temple, a pagoda sitting in the center of a small island. The lake and temple are probably the most famous places in Hanoi to rest and enjoy the view, especially since they offer plenty of trees and shaded spots and are a great place to sit back and watch the locals.
After a leisurely walk in the early morning around the lake, don’t forget to stop at the corners to see locals reading the “Standing Newspaper”. The aim of the standing newspaper is to serve the people and not for private benefit. Every morning at 6:00 am before going to work, people simply stand and read the paper on the stands, or they can listen to the news through speakers in the streets while they are drinking their famous coffee or tea.
The Temple of Literature
With the special beauty and the harmony of architectural works with historical value, the Temple of Literature is one of the most favorite attractions in Hanoi. Founded in 1076, Quoc Tu Giam was established within a temple to educate Vietnam’s royalty, mandarins and members of the elite. The university functioned for an incredible 700 years, and its gardens and well-preserved architecture offer a fascinating glimpse into Vietnam’s past.
You can get there in around 10 minutes by taxi from Hoan Kiem Lake and one hour if walking. It is Vietnam’s oldest imperial academy under the feudal courts and the first national university. The temple was built in dedication to Confucian philosophy and still holds a spiritual significance for each generation of students and educators in Vietnam at present. The temple has been chosen as Hanoi’s symbol of wisdom, talent and study. One cannot explore the depth of Hanoi if skipping a visit to the very symbol of this old city.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square is also considered an important touristic attraction in Hanoi. It is the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh, the most iconic and popular leader of Vietnam, known to his people as ‘Uncle Ho’. His body is preserved in a glass case at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in central Hanoi.
Ba Dinh Square in front of the mausoleum is noteworthy as the site where President Ho declared the independence of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. The square is composed of 240 patches of grass divided by intersecting concrete pathways – make sure not to walk on the grass. The spacious and clean square is an excellent place to go jogging, do yoga or simply enjoy walking in a peaceful environment.
The puppet show
You can know and feel the essence of a country through its arts and culture. You cannot visit Vietnam without watching the famous puppet show or the traditional water puppet. In fact, the Vietnamese call themselves the water civilization because of the water puppet shows that they have created. It is a famous Vietnamese art with over 800 years of history. The tradition of water puppet theatre stems from a time when rice paddy fields were flooded and villagers would entertain people by standing in waist-deep water with the puppets performing over the water.
Using large rods to support the puppets, it appears as if they are moving across the water with the puppeteers hidden behind a screen. Performances are accompanied by a Vietnamese orchestra playing traditional music using drums, wooden bells, horns, bamboo flutes and cymbals. There are also authentic Vietnamese operatic songs telling the story being acted out by the puppets. Seeing puppets come to life performing traditional folklore, legends and historical tales is an act that gives you a glimpse of ancient history.
No doubts Vietnam is an interesting country filled with myths and legends, which makes it a unique place. If you want to travel back in time where dragons and brave men fought using magic and fire, then a cruise trip to Halong Bay is the answer.
In ancient Vietnamese, Halong literally means “descending dragon” and originates from a legend of this ancient land. The legend says that during the old time when the country was newly formed, Vietnamese had to fight against fierce invaders coming from the north through the sea. Feeling sorry for the country, the Jade Emperor sent Mother Dragon and her children to earth to help ancient Vietnamese people defend the country.
While the mighty enemies were attacking the mainland, the Mother Dragon and her children suddenly appeared and incinerated the enemies with their divine fire and giant emeralds. The emeralds from the dragon’s mouth were scattered around the battlefield on the sea and formed an invincible defensive wall that left the enemy battleship fleet sinking. Thanks to the dragons, the northern invaders were finally swept away and peace finally came back the Southeast Asian country once again. After thousands of years, the wall of emerald turned into islands and islets of different sizes and shapes.
After the battle, the Mother Dragon and her children didn’t go back to the heavens, but stayed in the mortal world and turned into human form and help people in planting, cropping, raising cattle, reclaiming and expanding the country.
To remember the help of Mother Dragon and her children, the people named the bay where the Mother Dragon descended “Ha Long or Halong”, and the bay where her children descended “Bai Tu Long”, which means “Thanks to the Dragon’s children”. This legend is also a part of the general belief that Vietnamese people have dragon origins. (Taken from www.halongbay.info/news/the-legend-of-halong-bay.html)
You can discover one of Vietnam’s most spectacular northern jewels with a private Halong Bay day cruise. If you are staying in the center of Hanoi, you can depart from the buzzing streets of Hanoi in the early morning, leaving the city buildings behind in exchange for the beauty of the Red River Delta. On your way, you will pass by smaller towns and farmlands, enjoying views of the typical Vietnamese countryside.
After reaching, you can board a private junk-style boat, cast off and cruise across the emerald green waters of UNESCO-listed Halong Bay. You can enjoy sitting in the dining area or in the open-air top deck to admire the scenery and the refreshing sea breeze. You will be navigating around the bay’s 1,500 limestone islands, providing an opportunity to see these remarkable, geologic wonders from up-close and afar.
There are several caves you can discover there, but the one I saw was Thien Cung Cave (Heaven Cave), which is located in the north of Dau Go Cave. The cave has numerous stalactites and stalagmites with special and strange shapes such as dragon, phoenix and four pillars. Entering the cave is like entering a portal to another time and era.
After enjoying this phenomenal experience, you can enjoy lunch that will be served on board. Personalized service by the ship’s crew will be offered while feasting on delicious, fresh seafood and a selection of Vietnamese dishes. After dining, the ship will begin circling back to port, and you can end this incredible day by relaxing on the open-air top deck while enjoying more breathtaking views and the refreshing salty sea air.
If you are a pearl lover, then you have come to the right place. Before going to the Halong Bay cruise, make sure to tell your tour guide to make a stop at the Legend Pearl Halong Bay showroom. Vietnam is a producer of Akoya cultured pearls. Many pearl farms are located in region around Halong Bay. Before entering the showroom, you will see the pearl harvesting and preparation process that goes into making the shiny pearl jewelry you wear. The prices are not as cheap as you think but slightly cheaper due to the cheap labor.
Your journey will not be complete without visiting south Vietnam. It will take you approximately two hours by air from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. South Vietnam has another flavor than the north. You can feel it in the air, the weather is slightly cooler and the people are different.
Cu Chi Tunnel
Before visiting the Cu Chi Tunnel, make sure to be well-prepared and wear long sleeves, pants and a hat to cover your head, because you will be doing some crawling while experiencing the tiny tunnels that Viet Cong soldiers used in order to survive. It is definitely not for claustrophobic people, because these tunnels are not a joke at all.
At Cu Chi Tunnel, you can find facts about the tunnel with details of well-known victories, and also visit structures that simulate the former liberated area of Cu Chi during 1960-1975. The relics of Cu Chi Tunnel are preserved at Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. Ben Dinh tunnel is the one I had the opportunity to visit – it has historic revolutionary relics recognized by the state as national relics. It was the base of the Cu Chi District Party Committee during the resistance to the US. It was also a place for dining, living and meeting, as well a unique battle deployment with contributions to fighting the enemy and national salvation.
After you finish your incredible and eye-opening tour, visit a shooting range at your own expense to try firing an AK-47 or MK 16 machine gun, then pass by the souvenir shops to seek closure for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The FITO Museum
As early as the 2nd century BC, Vietnamese have used hundreds of plant species for medicinal purposes. Statistics from the Vietnam ministry of health show that 1,800 medicinal plant species have been found in Vietnam. So if you are interested in herbs and medicine, the FITO Museum is a must-see. A unique blend of traditional and modern architecture, the museum includes a ground floor and five upper floors that are home to 18 exhibition rooms.
The museum has an impressive collection of 3,000 items relevant to traditional Vietnamese medicine dating back to the Stone Age, along with implements used to prepare traditional medicine such as knives, grinders, mortars and pestles, pots and jars. You can also find books and documents on traditional Vietnamese medicine. Don’t forget to buy a few herbal medicines and tea on your way out – trust me, you will not regret it.
‘From Norodom Palace to Independence Palace 1868-1966’ explores the nearly century-long history of the building that once served as the seat of French colonial government in Cochinchina. It subsequently witnessed many dramatic episodes in the rise and decline of the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, the founding leader of Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
The Independence Palace was designed by architect Ngo Viet Thu, the first and only Vietnamese man to win the Grand Prix de Rome in 1955. The palace is a harmonious combination of wind, water and sunlight. It reflects the Eastern traditional philosophy and Vietnamese national characters. The Independence Palace is not only a special symbol of architectural art, but also an important historical Vietnamese relic. The palace is pretty huge and it will take you at least two hours to roam it.
War Remnants Museum
The War Remnants Museum is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most enticing cultural and tourist sites. Founded on Sept 4, 1975, the War Remnants Museum is a member of the International Network of Museums for Peace (INMP) and the International Council of Museums (ICOM). It’s a unique museum in Vietnam to systematically study, collect, conserve and display exhibits on war crimes and consequences inflicted on the Vietnamese people by foreign aggressive forces. Simultaneously, the museum appeals to everybody to oppose unjust wars, preserve global peace and promote friendship and solidarity among nations.
It consists of three floors divided into rooms. The ground floor has an open-air exhibition on the imprisonment system during the Vietnam War and international support for the Vietnamese people in their resistance war. On the second floor you have a conference room, war crimes section and Agent Orange effects and Agent Orange consequences through children’s painting. The third floor has exhibits on the historical truth, requiem, Vietnam war and peace, Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and white doves.
Maybe the most complex and touchy feeling that I experienced was at the War Remnants Museum. Each and every room exhibits photographs of young soldiers, women and children who lost their lives during the war. When entering the rooms, you can sense the silence, heaviness and sadness that weigh on visitors reading the names and dates of each photograph taken, a reminder of the violence, brutality and cruelty of humankind and war. In my opinion, the museum is a very important place to see and visit to understand the bravery and suffering of the Vietnamese people up-close and personal.
If you have more time to spend in southern Vietnam, you can also visit these interesting places: The Old Saigon Post office, Dong Khoi Street (formerly Rue Catinat), Continental Hotel, City Hall and Ben Thanh Market. Definitely, don’t miss out the Saigon Opera House, which is also known as the Municipal Theater. The building stands as one of the impressive sight in Saigon -during both night and day. Saigon Opera House was built in 1898 by the French architect Eugene Ferret in the “flamboyant” style of the French Third Republic. My advice to you is to go to the entrance, ask about the night’s show, book a ticket and enjoy the memorable experience of traditional and modern art that the talented Vietnamese artistes present.
Tips on the road:
Tip 1: If you’re a first-time visitor to Vietnam, I recommend you to research the history and background of the country before travelling, to understand the dynamics of the country in order to appreciate it more.
Tip 2: The official currency of Vietnam is the Vietnamese dong. Most shops and hotels accept the US dollar. It’s handy if you bring some dollars. It is harder to find a place to exchange money in the north than the south. In case you need to withdraw money from an ATM , it’s better to do it at an international bank . You will need an average budget of $40 to $50 per day.
Tip 3: The internet is very fast. It is better to get a line with internet or only internet if you wish from the airport, it is easy, fast and cheap.
Tip 4: Travel light and take light clothes and your most comfortable walking shoes, because if you really want to enjoy Vietnam, you have to explore it on foot – and trust me, there is a lot of walking.
Tip 5: It is a must to try their cold or hot tea and coffee along with their dry fruits that they serve along with the tea or coffee. You will never taste anything that good elsewhere. Don’t forget to buy several packs of coffee with its specially-designed kettle and herbal tea. Also if you like handmade art , they are really known for their artistry in making amazing drawings on boxes, it would be a good souvenir for yourself and your beloved ones.
Tip 6: Whenever you are in souvenir shops or any shop, bargain, bargain and bargain.
Tip 7: Where to stay? I had the privilege to stay at two hotels. The first one is Hotel De l’Opera Hanoi M Gallery and the second one is Mejectic Hotel -Ho Chi Minh City. I strongly recommend them both. Excellent location, amazing and luxurious architecture, clean and the service is awesome.
Tip 8: It is rare but not impossible to find halal or Arab restaurants – just make sure to do your research and Google the restaurants around you beforehand.
By Sahar Moussa