Vietnam’s evolution as Southeast Asia’s fastest growing tourist destination has been monumental. As millions of tourists pour in, here is how to travel through the country responsibly. By Divya Behl & Vikas Plakkot
“India? You’re our first guests from there! Everyone in Vietnam loves Indian TV,” announced Hung upon receiving us, still wearing his helmet and poncho. He introduced us to his friend, Navie, who slipped out of her helmet and adjusted her hair to perfection before shaking our hands. “Hop on then! Let’s show you our city,” Hung exclaimed in broken English. Soon, we were lost in the sea of helmets zooming about the chaotic city of Ho Chi Minh.
We’d booked a scooter tour of the city (previously called Saigon) on Airbnb upon seeing this listing: “No tourist sites, only local places with local friends.” We weren’t quite chasing the vanity of being away from fellow travellers, but making an attempt at meeting locals who would hopefully guide us to places that were yet to be run over by tourism.
The Many Flavours Of Saigon
As our scooter came to a screeching halt, first of many, we found ourselves in a temple by a street that was devoid of people and frills. Our student-guide narrated the story of the Buddhist monk who immolated himself as a mark of protest against the Vietnamese government in 1963 at that very spot. As much as that shocked us, we knew we had made a smart choice in joining Hung and Navie, for we were already somewhere a guidebook wouldn’t have led us. By the end of the evening, we had learned how to fry banh trang (rice paper) from a street vendor, ventured into cosy apartment buildings that constituted a maze, sampled a gazillion snacks the names of which we couldn’t pronounce, and engaged in hours of conversation about Saigon and Vietnam with two 19-year-old locals.
Saigon, much like the rest of Vietnam, begins and ends with food. While the business capital is bustling with WiFi-enabled cafes, gourmet roasters, and skyscrapers poking the clouds, it is in the streetside eats that our hearts were stolen and friendships were made. Sitting on plastic chairs that would have better suited our four-year-old niece, we sampled the bun bo hue (beef noodle soup), banh miop la (baguette with fried eggs—yes, the french influence is very visible), and banh xeo (utterly crispy ‘sizzling pancake’). Our desires were already getting the better of us.
Beyond Instagram, In Hoi An
From Saigon, we jetted off to Da Nang in central Vietnam, skipping the vast entirety of southern Vietnam. We knew we’d be far away from the clutches of tourism if we ventured deep in the South, but we embarrassingly admit to having given into our FOMO. Upon arrival, we wasted no time in taking a cab to Hoi An, the town of lanterns that can give any celebrity a run for their money on Instagram.
In The Old Town, Lanterns Of All Shapes And Sizes hang like chandeliers in the middle of ancient alleys. The walls exhibit a multitude of colours, but wear a rusty look all the same. Like ants emerging from anthills, tourists stream into and out of cafes along the river. The boatmen sit with little lamps, which are meant to draw couples to a romantic escapade. There are boutiques with rows of suits and gowns, watched over by local tailors. All of it makes for a fairy-tale setting, but it isn’t long before you notice the plastic kissing the riverbed, the well-practised and oft-annoying haggling of the street vendors, the cacophony of noises from a flock of drunk tourists, and the crumbling authenticity of this tiny town.
But take nothing away from Hoi An. All it takes to appreciate the town is to ditch the nightlife for a humble bike ride to its outskirts. Away from the madding crowds, the Hoi An suburbs are where we watched Vietnamese farmers go about their daily work, a raft of ducks waltzing through the crystal river, and stumbled upon a hidden beach where children played football as their mothers watched broodingly.
Am Undiscovered Lagoon
None of us is the biggest Top Gear fan, but we know enough to trust that a road featured in the show is asking to be driven on. Thus, we decided to make our journey north to the imperial capital of Hue through Hai Van Pass, which shot to popularity after a feature on the automobile show in December 2008. But, instead of making this journey on our own, we chose to ride with experienced Vietnamese riders who not only knew how to navigate a high pass like that safely, but also promised to take us to places they claimed we’d never see on to-do lists.
In a few hours of riding with Phu and Bat, we were already being treated to Vietnamese adult jokes, gorgeous views of the pass looking out to the ocean, lesser-known stories from the war, and an unforgettable seafood meal in a restaurant yet to be pinned on Google Maps. The pièce de résistance was when they drove us into the heart of a small village surrounded by prawn farms on one side and the vast Tam Giang Lagoon on the other. Here, no English signboards were to be found and no special treatment was given to tourists. You either blend into the foreign culture or leave.
Just as evening set in, we rode through an area dotted with what looked like miniature palaces. “They are tombstones,” informed Phu, reading the question on our minds. “Are these royal-family tombstones? How many years did they rule?” I asked, only to receive a snigger in response. “Na! These are just regular people. Families here compete over building the grandest tombstones, and some of them do not even have the dead in them. They are just palaces of memory.” If there was any doubt on how far off the beaten path we had come, this response sealed it.
Meeting The Past
In Hue, the country’s capital in the 19th century under the Nguyen dynasty, we’d planned to spend just about a day and a half exploring its palace buildings and the surrounding pagodas. But once we were in the city and walking its relatively empty streets (in contrast with Saigon), we found ourselves wanting more. A day and a half quickly turned to four, and each day, we ventured aimlessly in different directions, stumbling upon the most unexpected places and people.
On one day, we caught the sun setting over the River Perfume from a hill. On another, we reached a beachside shack with not a soul in view, and gulped down grilled prawns with the town’s very own Huda Beer. Even when we weren’t wearing lab coats in hope of new discoveries, the city’s well-documented palace complex gave us enough to chew on. A spectacular compound with each wall and stone reeking of glorious history, the palace may take up a whole afternoon but is well worth it.
All Roads Lead To Hanoi
The crown jewel in Vietnamese tourism is undoubtedly Ha Long Bay. Spectacular limestone karsts tower over the bay’s famously emerald waters as you sail on a Chinese junk boat. The stuff of Instagram dreams, right? But, the more we spoke to locals, the more disheartened we grew by the stories of extreme ecological and environmental damage that tourism had caused to the bay.
Lack of effective waste disposal methods, displacement of fishing communities, and the monopoly of large-scale Western tour operators are among the problems plaguing the bay. Fighting our desire for social-media validation, we chose to skip the bay. Sometimes, being a responsible traveller is about consciously choosing where not to go. Instead, we headed straight to the capital—Hanoi. The contrast between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh is immediately visible, the former seeming older with architecture that’s a clear nod to its past. The lanes are narrower, and the crowd visibly older, as the youth are gradually shifting to Ho Chi Minh in search of jobs. The very first evening, we went on a food expedition through the Old Quarter, guided by a lovely young lady whose love for Vietnamese food shone through from the word go. By the end of the tour, we were barely able to function. After all, this is the city where the late Anthony Bourdain and former US President Barack Obama sat down to eat a six-dollar meal of bun cha with cold beer.
We spent another couple of days in the vicinity of Hanoi; none of these trips was more alluring than our day-long visit to Ninh Binh, often christened as the Ha Long Bay of land. Surrounded by lush greenery, elusive wildlife, and glowing streams, Ninh Binh felt a bit like an infusion of Asia into the magic of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
Vietnam is a country that packs it all in—from bustling metropolises to empty beaches, mouthwatering food to unique culture, and verdant landscapes to crowded streets. In another year, two million additional tourists will enter Vietnam. If you’re one of them, ask yourself, “Am I leaving anything apart from footprints behind?” The Vietnamese will thank you, behind their shy faces.
Fly into Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. Thai Airways (thaiairways.com), Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com), Scoot (flyscoot.com), and Air Asia (airasia.com) operate from major Indian cities.
Park Hyatt Saigon: A boutique hotel set within a French colonial building. Doubles from `35,000; hyatt.com Anantara Hoi An Resort: A riverside resort away from old town. Doubles from `15,000; anantara.com Imperial Hotel: Hue’s premier hotel with old- world charm. Rooms from `7,500; imperial- hotel.com.vn Hilton Hanoi Opera: Award-winning hotel with an iconic building in the heart of the French Quarter. Rooms from `10,000; www3.hilton.com
Join the responsible-tourism company, Footprint (footprint.vn), on a trail of Vietnam. For bike rentals to ride through Hai Van Pass, contact Hoi An Motorbike Tour Adventures (hoianadventuretour.com).