By Lidiya Prasad
Vietnam had been an unchecked destination on our bucket list for a very long time, until last month. The city, known for its elegant boulevards and imperial buildings, had captured our attention after a friend lauded it as ‘a mustvisit’. Our flight to Vietnam’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport was pretty tiring and uneventful, but what made the long journey worthwhile was the breathtaking view on our drive from the airport to the Park Hyatt Saigon in Ho Chi Minh City. Ho Chi Minh City, commonly called Saigon, is a pulsating, historically rich city, which has an interesting piece of story hidden in every turn and curve. The city is vibrant with life and is also a commercially lucrative centre.
Our first day was more about exploring the city and its varied, spicy gastronomic delights. For every traveller in Saigon, beginning the tour with a visit to the War Remnants Museum will introduce them to the country’s political and historical backdrop. The museum exhibits period military equipment, photographs and posters, the remains of a disturbing past. But the realisation that grips us at the end of the tour is that Vietnam has been resilient time and again in the face of adversity and distress. After spending almost two hours at the museum, our next stop is the Notre Dame Cathedral. History has it that this monumental basilica was once a pagoda that was abandoned after the war, and a bishop decided to turn the ruins into a beautiful church. We were lucky enough to reach the cathedral before the mass, as it is the only time that it is open to the public. The interior looked a tad dull, yet the ambience was divine and peaceful. The cathedral, located in downtown Saigon, is a reflection of the largely Buddhist Vietnam’s communal tolerance and harmony. We clicked a few photographs and decided to binge on some local cuisine before heading elsewhere for the day.
Our pick for lunch was The Deck at Saigon. Overlooking River Saigon, the restaurant is elegant, warm and dreamy. We ordered risottos and oysters, and some wine to wash down the grub. The resto-bar serves some of the world’s most fashionable wines, and its signature martinis are a delight. We wouldn’t call the food great, but the staff, service and drinks were on point, which cheered us up for the rest of our day. The best time of the day to visit the Deck would be at sunset, as the view at the time is mesmerising. After a hearty afternoon meal, we headed back to our hotel room for a quick nap, as the scorching heat had worn us out a bit by then. The Saigon Opera House beckoned us for a fun, pleasant evening. The building, a classic French Architectural beauty, is perfect for photographs. We watched Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera perform the AO Show, a blend of Cirque du Soleil and traditional Vietnamese elements. Hands down, it was one of the best live performances I had been to so far. The day passed by eventfully and we retreated to our room, ordered in a simple supper and decided to call it a day. Saigon had been really good to us, and we couldn’t wait to hop to our next destination, Hanoi.
The capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, awaited us the next day. The country’s oblong shape makes road travel really long, but for those who enjoy road trips, the journey from Saigon to Hanoi is filled with picturesque stops like Nha Trang for beach time, Hue to delve into culture and history, and Hoi An for its pleasant vibe and beautiful setting. However, owing to lack of time, we took the early morning flight to the capital city, and spent the day exploring its many pagodas, museums and quaint buildings. The Temple of Literature completely amazed us with its architectural splendour and old world charm. It houses a couple of steles, which display the names of students who have passed out of the ‘school.’ Typical to scholarly temples, there are altars that have been dedicated to intellectuals like Confucius.
Our next stop is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The prospect of getting to see the remains of the iconic human behind Vietnam’s victory over its colonisers was exciting and chilling at the same time. Once inside, it is pretty quiet, as is expected, and the air, quite cool. It would be advisable to avoid tank tops and shorts, as the attire is not permitted in the mausoleum. The afternoon sped by and after a quick meal, we decided to take it slow into the evening. It had been quite a hectic day with all the travel, but all worthwhile. We paid a visit to the St Joseph’s Cathedral, the oldest in Hanoi, and soaked in the beauty in its aged appearance. We did not linger there for long as the Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which is in the Cathedral’s vicinity, called out to us for some peace and quiet. We watched the people go by, living their normal lives, all happy and busy.
Ha Long Bay was one of the most anticipated destinations on our trip, and the fact that it was the last one on our itinerary meant that we had no more early morning flights to catch or other hassles to get in the way of our enjoyment. From Hanoi, the Paradise Luxury Cruise took us to Ha Long Bay. It was two days of pure bliss, staring into the vast ocean and the infinite beauty of the bay. The cruise offered us a spa, rooms with private jacuzzis, a breathtakingly beautiful view of the emerald waters and tiny islets, and great delights for the tummy. Along the journey, there were cave explorations and kayaking time as well. Our favourite bits about the cruise were the cooking demonstrations and the happy hours on the sundeck. The evenings were memorable, with stunning sunsets and the murmur of the waves against our ship. It was almost as if we wished the trip wouldn’t end so soon.
We returned to Hanoi the second evening, did some local shopping, and just-touristy things, buying curios and souvenirs for friends and family. A slice of Vietnam—the beauty in its mundane setting, its ethereal islands, rivers, and colonial grandeur—was going to stay with us even after we bid adieu to the city the next day.
Best time to visit
January to March: The weather is amazing and there are plenty of colourful festivals
April to June: Great for hitting the beaches, which will not be too crowded
Mid-September to December: Perfect time to visit North Vietnam
Typically warm and humid. But snowy mountains and sunny beaches also abound.
Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Nha Trang
Fares range from INR 16,700 to INR 31,600 during peak season