Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Destination Vietnam - From the Mekong River Delta to Ha Long Bay

By Samantha Berkin

Fortunately, the present-day experience of traveling from South Vietnam to North Vietnam is not at all like it was during our parents' time. Instead of fighting from a swift boat in the Mekong Delta, you can now be enjoying cheap beer on a luxury liner. You can even make silly television shows about making the entire South-to-North trek on underpowered motor scooters in the rain.

Either way you look at it, the experience is, shall we say, a lot safer. This is even true if you are stupid enough to be taking a scooter into Vietnam traffic as an inexperienced Westerner, but just barely so.

Vietnam is a stunning country with rich history, beautiful, powerful scenery, and it is a good value destination on top of that. It is also popular as a destination for some of the older crowd. There is a generation of tourists out there, freshly retired, who want to visit the country under more favorable circumstances than they did in the past, people who want to choose to visit the country rather than be forced to do so.

Starting in the South, cruising the Mekong River is a popular place to start. Many travelers choose to start in Cambodia and cruise down the river before disembarking outside Ho Chi Minh (Saigon for all you old-schoolers out there) and taking a bus in. Another highlight of a trip in the area can be taking the Cu Chi tunnels into the city instead. The Viet Cong dug this nearly 200 kilometer-long network of tunnels to infiltrate American camps in Saigon during the war.

Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling, modern city, and the most populous one in Vietnam. It is also a traffic nightmare, as well as an excellent place to go shopping and pick up some trinkets for the folks back home. Don't forget the Presidential Palace and possibly a visit to the War Remnants Museum while staying here.

Next on the list of places to see would have to be Nha Trang, consistently ranked as one of the top beaches in Vietnam, as well as one of the most beautiful bays in the world. The scuba diving in particular is making this a huge backpacker destination. More and more, however, the big tour companies are also catching on to this fact. Just check out a comparison of Vietnam tours, browse around, and you will find that many of these tours include Nha Trang. Additionally, it was the site of Miss Universe 2008, and will play host to Miss World 2010. Not my thing, to be sure, but for some, I guess this is an attraction.

Most people do not have forever to dilly-dally in Vietnam, so for the next major attraction on the list, we are going to have to jump all the way forward to Hoi An, home to numerous small museums concerning the history and culture of the region. This ancient town has been remarkably well-preserved over the years, well enough for the area to be recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a traditional South-East Asian trading port.

Hue is another great ancient city with an amazing amount of monuments . This was the Royal City, the ancient capital of Vietnam. The "Pass of the Ocean Clouds" is supposed to be an unforgettable drive. Our imaginary itinerary next takes us to Hanoi, the capital and second largest city of Vietnam. Hanoi has been a city for nearly 1000 years, and this has necessarily left its mark on the area. If you want culture, history, urban tourist attractions, and the like, the city is definitely a must-see.

Of course, the true must-see destination of Vietnam, and where we will end our journey, is Ha Long Bay. This site should be recognizable to backpackers, seasoned world trekkers, and even those armchair travelers out there whose idea of travel is watching an old VHS flick on the tube television. This was where the young couple floated around for days in Indochine (an amazingly beautiful movie, which I highly recommend, by the way.) In more recent times it was highlighted in Tomorrow Never Dies, one of the forgettable Pierce Brosnan Bond films.

Beyond all that, it is shockingly beautiful. The landscape is utterly surreal, with over 2000 small limestone islands erupting from the placid jade waters. A complex of grottos and caves, mountains and beaches, floating fishing villages and spectacular sunsets should enthrall you. Silently, you mourn the fact that you must inevitably return from this island paradise to the drudgery and office politics of the paper company you work for in Scranton.

I'm a world traveler and recent Columbia University graduate. I'm looking to share some of my experiences/tips with others so they can discover their next perfect trip. I'm a little older than your usual graduate, because I took gobs of time off to travel extensively!

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