Vietnam has an epic beauty that operates in two gears. There’s the full-tilt buzz of daily life that beats at the heart of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Then there’s the meandering serenity of a landscape carpeted with mangroves, sugar-white beaches, rice paddies and gilded temples. Travel blogger Julie Falconer experiences both sides of this intriguing land on one of our tailor-made holidays called Journeys…
Blogger Julie Falconer combines her love of London with a wanderlust that takes her all over the globe. “I sometimes travel up to three or four times a month,” she says, spending around 100 days on the road every year. In addition to her blog, Julie’s travel writing has featured in National Geographic Intelligent Travel, Lonely Planet, British Airways High Life and Time Out magazine. And such is the quality of her photography, Skyscanner called her Instagram account the number one to follow. Find Julie on her website, Instagram or Twitter.
Hanoi is steeped in history, and it’s here at my first destination that I discover some of Vietnam’s most important sites. Dating back more than 1,000 years, the city is home to historic temples and colonial mansions that give it a vibrant, colourful character.
I start out with the help of Buffalo Tours (Flight Centre’s people on the ground), who take me to the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the national hero who helped Vietnam throw off the yoke of colonialism in the 20th century. Long queues form daily as locals and visitors wait to pay their respects. Nearby is Ho Chi Minh’s former home: a simple, traditional building on stilts that sits in contrast to the extravagant French-colonial Presidential Palace just steps away.
Later we’re transported back in time at the Temple of Literature, one of Hanoi’s most beautiful religious structures, and the Ngoc Son Temple, which sits on the pretty Hoan Kiem Lake. These temples and others in Hanoi are testament to the city’s rich history and culture.
One of the best ways to really experience a destination is by sampling its cuisine. I spend an afternoon at the Hanoi Cooking Centre, arranged by Buffalo Tours, where I use fresh produce from a local market and learn to make traditional dishes such as spring rolls, banana flower salad, and ginger chicken in a clay pot.
The next day I’m off to Halong Bay. In spite of its relative close proximity to Hanoi, the bay feels as far away from the city as the north end of the country does from the south. Where Hanoi is all energy, Halong Bay offers total tranquillity.
My mode of transport for the morning is a seaplane, a thrilling ride that offers me the best possible vistas of Halong Bay. As I look down over the green islands and slow-moving junks, I start to feel the energy of the city fade and a sense of relaxation wash over me.
After the majestic views from the sky, we land on the bay where I board a traditional junk boat. It’s here I spend a night and a day gliding slowly across the water, passing limestone islands that rise up out of the bay and awe me with their dramatic beauty. I swim beside crescent beaches, climb into deep caves, soak up the serenity of the water, and sit under a full moon after a spectacular pink sunset.
My waterborne Journey continues in South Vietnam, aboard a flat-bottomed sampan on a river in the Mekong Delta. The rocky islands of Halong Bay give way to flat rice paddies and metal houses on stilts, but the feeling of peace prevails.
I spend two blissful days and nights visiting temples and monasteries, meeting lots of locals along the way. A blue-robed Buddhist nun shows me how soy sauce is made, and a local villager demonstrates her handiwork as she weaves traditional bamboo baskets to help carry the region’s abundant rice supply.
I take a rowing boat through a narrow mangrove-edged river that’s fringed with green blossoms. And I watch birds swooping and calling through the Tra Su nature reserve. Back on land, I climb a tower with views of fields and streams below. Everywhere I go, I take in the bright orange spring flowers in full bloom on the trees. They only blossom for a couple of months each year, and I feel incredibly lucky to be here while they do.
I visit Tuc Dup Hill, where Vietnamese soldiers hid in tunnels during the American War. I crouch down and squeeze through narrow gaps in the rocks, imagining what life was like here as I’m taken deeper into the labyrinth.
I spend the next few evenings relaxing at the hilltop Victoria Nui Sam Lodge in Chau Doc (pictured above), swimming in an outdoor pool with sweeping vistas of the rice paddies. I eat dinner on the terrace in the warm summer air, enjoying local dishes with unique flavours and watching yet another stunning Vietnam sunset.
At the end of my trip, I throw myself back into Vietnam’s urban chaos with a final night in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s one of my favourite places in Asia, with its buzzing motorcycles, vibrant markets and great street food stalls selling Vietnamese specialities. My hotel, the Pullman Saigon Centre, has a rooftop bar from which to look out over the city, and after exploring the bustling streets I head up to take in the lights and sounds for the last time.
Seeing the city from so high sets it in slow motion. My lofty vantage point takes in the red tail-light glow of the traffic below, the rumble of engines muffled and carried away by the warm breeze from my peaceful, best-seat-in-the-house spot up on the roof.
Absent are the sounds of the horns and hawkers on the roads, and the altitude lends the city the same sense of peace that characterises the country. This might just be where the contrasts of Vietnam come together in harmony. As the busy city and quiet waterways blend in a 30-storey, all-encompassing view, I have a brief moment to appreciate every part of my Journey before I leave.
This article originally appeared in Flight Centre UK’s tri-annual magazine, The Experts. Read more here.