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  • Vietnam: Not just a war by Tristan Rentos 2011

    Due to the generous amount of holiday time that all Super English teachers receive (the most of any language school in Surat) we have a wide selection of travel destinations to choose from. This year, Chris and I went to Vietnam.

    This wasn’t my first time in the ‘Nam, nor will it be my last. This country is truly something special. The sad fact is when most people think of Vietnam, the next word that pops into their head is ‘war’. These words seem to go hand in hand, such as ‘pint of beer’, and ‘hot and spicy’. For many people, especially the older generation, this is what Vietnam is - a war that was fought over 35 years ago and defined a part of their lives back in the day. For me, Vietnam is about two things – the atmosphere and the scenery.

    Let’s get one thing out in the open: I have been to Vietnam twice, spent most of my time in the north and I have never been openly racially vilified or been a victim of any crime. I am not an American, but sometimes people jump to the wrong conclusions. OK, so we all get charged more than Vietnamese people when we’re out and about, but Vietnam is not alone in having a dual pricing system (Thailand does this as well). As for the inevitable comparison between Thailand and Vietnam, they are two totally different countries with different cultures and histories. Vietnamese food is less spicy than Thai food, and has more of a Chinese influence. I will say one thing though – thanks to French influence (they ‘managed’ the country for a few years as part of French Indochina) the Vietnamese bake excellent bread, brew very tasty coffee, and most importantly have really good domestic beers, in my opinion far superior to Chang, Singha and Leo that we have in Thailand. Saigon Export (black label) isn’t just a good Vietnamese beer, it’s a good beer full stop. Oh, and ladies, the chocolate is excellent!

    If you are a Super teacher living in Thailand, I would suggest that you confine your traveling to the middle and north of Vietnam, simply because the south of Vietnam is too similar to the south of Thailand. The beaches are better in Thailand, there is better tourist infrastructure in place and Saigon is trying a bit too hard to be like Bangkok (you might as well just go to Bangkok and have the full ‘Sukumvit’ experience rather than the junior version in Saigon if that is what you’re after in a holiday). The middle of Vietnam, however, is not similar to Thailand and has some real gems. Even if you don’t get a suit made up, Hoi An is such a beautiful old town that you will find yourself walking around for hours looking in every nook and cranny for that one souvenir that you just have to take home with you. Hue is the old capital of Vietnam, and the old citadel is well worth a look if you’re an old building buff like me.

    Now the north, in my opinion, is the highlight of Vietnam. I’ve been banging on about this for years, but Hanoi is the best capital city I have been to anywhere (yes, that includes Canberra, the capital city of Australia which is about as interesting as dry toast). The old quarter, famous for its shopping is literally a maze of lanes and side streets, with one particular product being sold by multiple vendors on one street (for example, on one of the streets north of Hoan Kiem lake every vendor sells shoes – just shoes – on the entire street). As with Hoi An, you will want to just walk around for hours on end, looking in every shop for that special find. The lake itself is a nice place to sit and relax, and the baguettes, coffee and tree lined boulevards make for a relaxing place to collect your thoughts, despite the crazy traffic.

    I won’t go too much into Halong Bay, because both times I’ve been there it has been foggy and I haven’t seen much to write about (better luck next time I hope). Right up in the northern mountains on the Chinese border is a town called Sapa, and this is Vietnam at its best. You cannot go to Vietnam without going to Sapa, because these are the best views you will see outside of the Nepalese Himalayas (and yes, I’ve been there too). Basically you get the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, a town on the Chinese border, then get a connecting minibus to Sapa. You find a hotel, dump your bags, then venture out to a coffee shop and talk to the charming minority villagers who try to get you to buy souvenirs. In winter, several cafes have an open fire going, it’s like being in the Swiss Alps without the massive price tag or the skiing. You can hire a car/motorcycle and explore the local villages, which I highly recommend doing. I have never been to a place with better ambiance than Sapa; if someone told me that I had to spend the rest of my life there I would be very happy.

    When it’s all said and done, Vietnam is far more than just a former cold war battleground. You couldn’t have a better holiday in your very best of dreams.