I’ve spent more time in Vietnam than any other country besides my home; in fact I lived there for the last year. Originally as part of my career break in 2007, I traveled through Vietnam from North to South soaking up it’s fascinating culture for 4 weeks.
I had already traveled my way through Thailand and expected Vietnam would be similar; to my surprise I was wrong. From the moment I landed in Hanoi I knew it was different than the rest of SE Asia. There was no McDonalds, very little trace of western influence, and the people really did wear those conical hats (and they weren’t just wearing them to impress the tourists); Vietnam was really intact.
The whole country is diverse and it’s best if you can spend time to visit it completely observing the difference in people, terrain, culture, and food. The North is home to the old city of Hanoi, the rice terraces of Sapa, and the coastal site of Ha Long Bay. I found the north to be richer in ethnic diversity with influence coming from the neighboring countries of China and Laos. Local markets burst in color, and odors; not to mention many foods most westerners would never consider eating!
I traveled by train through the center of Vietnam becoming acquainted with the historic little towns of Hoi An and Hue. This is where you find the warring history of Vietnam. Very few towns remained in tact due to the constant fighting. The central coast was a hot bed of activity and many old ruins tell the old stories of empires and modern wars.
The south is home to some surprises; did you know there are sand dunes in Vietnam? Neither did I! The beautiful beach towns of Nha Trang and Mui Ne boast sun and adventure providing a great break from city life. As you continue inland you come to Da Lat, the heartland of Vietnam. The rolling hills of the central highlands are lined with rows and rows of vegetables providing all of the produce and flowers for the southern part of the country. It also provides a super relief from the humid, balmy weather at lower elevations!
Ho Chi Min City (HCMC) is the only real bustling pseudo modern city; and it’s quickly developing. Construction cranes dot the landscape while the river snakes in and out of the many districts. HCMC is the ‘pot of gold’ at the end of the rainbow for locals looking to move out of their villages and make a better living for themselves and their families. Finally, move on to the Mekong Delta where life is in a constant state of flux thanks to the lack of solid ground to live upon.
As I traveled and lived in Vietnam, I continued to meet eager locals who wanted to share their culture and experiences with me. I found myself on the back of motorbikes, riding bicycles, navigating local fish markets, taking cyclos, cooking Pho, and even navigating the streets of HCMC on my own motorbike.
The country is changing quickly, so make sure you make a stop there before McDonald’s does!
To read more of Sherry’s more obscure cultural observations about Vietnam visit: