In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s huge capital city, you can visit cultural centers such as the Museum of Vietnamese History and wander among immaculate French-colonial architecture in the city center. Hanoi also presents colonial-era landmarks such as the Grand Opera House and the Presidential Palace as well as splendidly serene lakes and the spirited Dong Xuan Market. As vivid as these amazing sights are, some of the strongest impressions you’ll leave Vietnam with are in the realm of taste. Pho, salad rolls, sticky rice, steamed dumplings: Vietnamese cuisine is simply one of the world’s most distinct and complex. The country’s colonial heritage finds expression in culinary mashups such as banh mi sandwiches featuring meat and crispy vegetables in a French baguette. Natural scenery in Vietnam also packs a punch—perhaps nowhere more so than in Ha Long Bay with its looming limestone sea stacks.
When it comes to the arts, Vietnam has art forms which were either popular with the masses or with the royal court, but are enjoyed by all today.
Chèo is a form of musical theatre that springs from the northern part of the country, is usually performed outside, and includes singing and dancing. Water puppetry is a distinctly Vietnamese art form. Water puppet shows originated in the 12th century and are still popular today with visitors and locals alike. The performances depict Vietnamese life with puppets standing in water which obscures views of the poles that are used to control the puppets’ movements.
The most popular national sport is soccer. Boxing, badminton and martial arts round out the other top spots. Visitors will find plenty of opportunities to enjoy physical activities while in Vietnam. Cyclists will appreciate the scenery, and with over 2,000 miles of coastline, water sports such as snorkeling and diving are readily available. The mountains of the north as well as several national parks lure hikers.
Although rice is the cornerstone of the Vietnamese diet, Vietnamese cuisine is far from bland. Lime leaves, chili, lemongrass, basil and coriander are common ingredients that lend their flavors to the national cuisine. Nuoc mam, a fermented fish condiment is prevalent at any food establishment.
Influences from China, France and Thailand can be recognized in the national cuisine. There are also differences within the country between the dishes of the north, central and southern regions. Perhaps influenced by its climate, northern fare is heartier, tends to use soy sauce and is beef based. Central Vietnamese dishes are spicier than those of the north and south. The central Vietnamese cuisine is also more decorative and complex, which may be a reflection of the court food from Hue, a city in the middle of the country which was Vietnam’s former royal capital. Not only were commoners not allowed to imitate the clothes or music of the court, but they could not mimic the recipes. The chefs of Hue were handpicked from all over the country and brought to the capital to create new dishes with particular attention paid to the colors and designs which were meant to both amuse and impress members of the court.
Southern Vietnamese food places more of an emphasis on fresh seafood and often uses coconut milk in its most classic dishes, though the country’s coconut curry dishes are not as rich or heavy as nearby Thailand. Fortunately the fertile Red River and Mekong Deltas provide a wide variety of vegetables to all the regions of the country which are then used in a broad range of recipes.
Pho, a type of noodle soup served with spring onion, bean sprouts and herbs has become popular even outside the country as have the popular sandwiches called banh mi. These sandwiches contain pickled daikon, carrot and a choice of meat and they are made with the baguettes which were introduced by the French when they ruled the country. Steamed dumplings, called banh bao, can be filled with vegetables or meat and make for a either a tasty snack or meal.
Vietnamese desserts are quite different than those of Europe or the U.S. Condensed milk, fruit and beans are some of the ingredients used in a variety of Vietnamese sweets. Vietnamese donuts or fried bananas served with ice cream are popular and familiar to western tastes.
Almost as diverse as its cuisine, visitors can enjoy a variety of beverages not available at home. A refreshing drink when it’s warm is sugar cane juice which can be found just about anywhere and is very inexpensive making it a great alternative to water. Vietnamese iced coffee is very strong and is sweetened with condensed milk. The abundance of fruit in the country is well maximized in delicious fruit shakes. One of the more unusual ones is an avocado shake. Avocados are a fruit; in fact they are called ‘butter fruit’ in Vietnam, and are also used as a dessert ingredient.
Vietnam is located in the southeastern portion of Asia. China is the country’s northern neighbor. Vietnam also shares it borders with Laos and Cambodia.
The island’s topography is mainly flat with a few low hills. The country was once covered with mangrove swamps and tropical rain forests until the country’s push to rapidly modernize. Extensive land reclamation efforts in recent decades have actually increased the size of the country.
The geography of the country is extremely varied. Densely forested mountains yield to breathtaking passes then merge into low, flat deltas with their cultivated paddy fields. A long, narrow coastal strip follows the “S” shaped contour of the country culminating in thousands of islands and archipelagoes to explore. The country is divided into three distinct geographical regions. The terrain is hilly and mountains in the north. Central Vietnam is an area of highlands and the south is made up mostly of low, flat deltas.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is home to some of the most dramatic landscapes including caves limestone formations, primitive tropical forest, unexplored mountain peaks, underground rivers with grottos and dozens of rare plant and animal species.
While there are dozens of cities throughout Vietnam that offer many beautiful attractions, two cities should definitely be included in any visit to Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is near the delta of the Mekong River on the bank of the Saigon River. Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest city and the commercial center for Vietnam and many international companies. A lively, bustling city, it has wide boulevards and stately French colonial architecture that competes with modern skyscrapers. Good food and shopping opportunities are in endless supply, so take in the French Quarter, the delicacies of the Ben Thanh Market, and the mysterious Cholon area, Saigon’s Chinatown.
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, has a distinctive European feel. Famous for its lush parks and peaceful lakes, it is laid-back and beautiful. At the center of this historical and cultural gem sits the tree-lined Hoan Kiem Lake. Famous for its parks and surrounding gardens, it has hundreds of pagodas and temples to explore. The Old Quarter to the north trades in specialty crafts difficult to find anywhere else. And to the west, many historical monuments, the most famous of which is Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, occupies the grounds of the former Imperial City. The French Quarter to the south is an elegant reminder of Vietnam’s colonial past.
Hue is the ancient capital of Vietnam and home to imperial palaces, pagodas, temples, burial tombs and the scenic Perfume River. Ha Long Bay is an extraordinary natural wonder of emerald waters, sheer cliffs, and limestone & dolomite islands rising from the sea and shouldn’t be missed.
Most visited cities: Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hue
It is believed that the Vietnamese are descendants of Mongols from China who intermixed with migrants from Indonesia. In fact, China actually ruled the area for centuries in its early period. Although the Vietnamese chafed under Chinese rule, they learned from the Chinese how to construct dikes and irrigation systems which paved the way for the rice paddy agriculture still alive today. When the Chinese Tang Dynasty collapsed in the 10th century, the Vietnamese used the situation to grab their independence and even expand southwards. China tried to resume control in the 15th century, but a man named Le Loi was able to rally the people successfully and became the first emperor of the Le dynasty.
Approximately a hundred years later the Portuguese arrived to trade; they were not to have nearly the influence the French were to have a few centuries later. French colonization began in the 19th century. The rise of Vietnamese communism was a direct result of the desire for independence from the French. When France was occupied by the Nazis, the French Indochinese leaders gave in to pressure allowing Japanese troops in Vietnam. By the close of WWII, severe famine had led to millions of deaths. French control was severely tested in the Franco-Viet Minh War which finally ended in French defeat and resulted in the division of Vietnam into two zones.
Communist northern Vietnam launched a campaign to ‘liberate’ the anti-Communist south. Concerned about possible communist expansion, the U.S. sent combat troops to the country, though later American involvement ended up being controversial even within the U.S. In 1973 the Paris Peace Accords were signed even though war had never officially been declared. In the 1990’s, the U.S. lifted its economic embargo and full diplomatic relations were restored.
The country has begun to embrace a market economy resulting in strong economic growth. Wherever you go you will find it impossible to resist the grace and beauty of the Vietnamese and this charming country.