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Visiting Vietnam

by Kim P. Robson, staff writer


Vietnam is ideal if the traveler is interested in exploring the exotic traditions of a 2,000-year-old culture, and rich history. According to Travel and Leisure magazine, Vietnam has been one of the hottest destinations since 1999. People who are unfamiliar with Vietnam may still think of it as a war-torn country, but after the liberalization and reunification it became an attractive spot for tourism. The sublime beauty of the country’s natural setting overwhelms most visitors to Vietnam: there are luscious rain forests, green rice paddies, inviting beaches, and majestic mountains.

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There are no good or bad seasons to visit Vietnam. When one region is wet, cold, or steamy hot, there is always somewhere else that is sunny and pleasant. North Vietnam has two seasons: cool, damp winters (November to April) and hot summers (May to October). The south is usually dry from December to April, and cooler and damper from May to November.

Vietnam offers the traveler many interesting and delightful sights. One of these is Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, the old capital of South Vietnam. The streets in the city center, where much of the city’s life takes place, are filled with numerous market stalls, shops, pavement cafes, and push-cart vendors. Sights include the Giac Lam Pagoda two miles from Cholon. Giac Lam Pagoda is believed to be the oldest pagoda in the city and is a calm place to visit. Families of the old and sick regularly go to the pagoda to pin their wishes to a large bronze bell, in the belief that when it is rung the messages will be sent to the heavens above. Notre Dame Cathedral, situated in Paris Square, was built by a French priest who set the first brick for construction in October, 1877 and the last one in April, 1880. The cathedral was built with specific designs and drawings. Arrangements made with France required that the construction work be managed by a French engineer named Baurad. The total cost of the construction was 2.5 million francs. The War Remnants Museum, established in September 1975 in Ho Chi Minh City, contains countless artifacts, photographs, and pictures documenting American war crimes, including the killing of civilians, spreading of chemicals, and the torturing of prisoners. Over the last 20 years, more than 6 million visitors visited the museum. Among this number, nearly 1 million were foreign visitors, including American tourists.
About 25 miles north is the city of Dalat. Its lovely park-like environment is cool and breezy making it one of the most delightful cities in Vietnam. One of the major attractions here is the Emperor Bao Dai’s Summer Palace, which is filled with stuffed tigers, Chinese antiques, and interesting European Renaissance and classical Asian art. It is also interesting to stroll around the old French Quarter, which has changed very little since the French departed.

The Valley of Love, north of the city center, is a kind of Vietnam-style Disney World. It is a fun place with a carnival atmosphere where you can hire a paddleboat for a ride on the lake or a horse from one of the Vietnamese cowboys. About eight miles out of the city are local villages of some of the hill tribes, including Chicken Village with a huge statue of a chicken.

Dalat is famous for its cafes, fresh vegetables, and strawberries. It is and extremely popular place for the tourist and honeymooners, and has a wide range of accommodation options.

If you are in the mood for beach and partying, Nha Trang is the place to go. The water here is very clear, making it an ideal place to snorkel, dive, and fish. When you’ve had enough of the sun, and beach activities, there are some interesting attractions nearby, such as the Long Son pagoda built recently to honor the monks who sacrifice their lives under the oppressive Diem regime, and the Cham Towers built by the ancient Cham people over 500 years, from the 12th through the 17th century. The north tower is 23 feet high and is dedicated to Po Nagar, a mythical goddess. Parts of the towers have undergone renovations in an effort to preserve them for future generations and tourist dollars.

Further north about 70 miles is the city of Hue, Vietnam’s main cultural and education center. Its famous sites includes the Imperial City, constructed in 1805 under the reign of Gia Long King and completed in 1832 under the reign of Minh Mang King. The city was built on the northern bank of the Perfume River.

Thien Mu Pagoda, also known as Linh Mu Pagoda, built in the 14th century is connected to a legend of a fairy lady and was therefore named Thien Mu (fairy lady from heaven).

Palace of Supreme Harmony holds the thrones of 13 emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1792 A.D.- 1883 A. D. The palace and San Dai Trieu (Esplanade of Great Salutation) were the sites for all major festivities, the Coronation Ceremony, the Emperor’s birthday, and the king’s court, held from the first to the 15th of the lunar month.

Half a mile away is Thai Hoa Palace an important building of the capital where organized ceremonies of the court were held. It’s Nine Dynastic Urns hold the ashes of the Nguyen kings and represent the power and stability of the dynasty.

Tiger Fighting Arena is a former enclosure reserved for animal fights between tigers and elephants to entertain kings and high-ranking officials. The last animal fight organized at the arena was in 1904 during the reign of Thanh Thai King. Hué has many other places of religious and dynastic importance, and some good museums.

Up the coast of Hue, about 70 miles, is Ha long Bay. The emerald water surrounds more than 3,000 islands, making this scenic attraction one of Vietnam’s most popular destinations. There are numerous beaches and caves on the islands. Ha Long literally means descending dragons, and according to local myth when the village people were fighting foreign invaders from the north, the gods from heaven sent a family of dragons to help defend their land. This family of dragons descended upon what is now Ha Long Bay and began spitting out jewels and jade. Upon hitting the sea, these jewels turned into the various islands and islets dotting the seascape and formed a formidable fortress against the invaders. The locals were able to keep their land safe and formed what is now the country of Vietnam. The Dragon family fell so much in love with this area for its calm water and for the reverence of the people of Vietnam, that they decided to remain on earth. Mother dragon lies on what is now Ha Long, and where her children lie is Bai Tu Long. The dragon tails formed the area of Bach Long Vi known for miles of white sandy beaches that are the Tra Co peninsula. There’s even a modern legend of a dragon–like creature called the Tarasque, said to haunt the area.

No trip to Vietnam is complete without a visit to the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Hanoi. It is slower paced than the former southern capital, and tranquil, with numerous landscaped lakes and public parks. The city has a French quality, with magnificent colonial homes and cobblestone streets.

The wonderful thing about Hanoi is that more than any other city in Vietnam it still retains its traditional culture. There are ancient temples and monuments, including the One Pillar Pagoda, that dates back to the founding of Vietnam, which became independent from China in the 11th century. However, the present pagoda is not the original building. The original pagoda was constructed in 1049 under Emperor Ly Thai Tong, after a goddess had appeared in his dreams and allegedly handed a son to him. Repeatedly damaged in its almost 1,000 years of existence, it has been renovated often. The last reconstruction took place in 1955, after the French colonial forces had blown it up before their retreat in 1954.

A great place to visit is Vietnam’s first university, Van Mieu Quoc tu Giam. This university, built in 1076, has 900 years of activity, and has graduated thousands of Vietnamese scholars. On the university campus are the historical remains of a 1,000-year-old civilization which include statues of Confucius and his disciples (Yan Hui, Zengshen, Zisi, Mencius), and ancient constructions such as the Khue Van Pavilion and the Hall of Worship.

Vietnamese culture is fascinating. Four great philosophies and religions have shaped the spiritual life of the Vietnamese people: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Over the centuries, the first three have melded with popular Chinese beliefs and ancient Vietnamese animism to form what is known as Tam Giao or Triple Religion.

Vietnamese (kinh) is the official language of the country. At the same time, dozens of different languages are spoken by various ethnic minorities, and Khmer and Loatian are spoken in some parts. The most widely spoken foreign languages in Vietnam are Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), English, French ,and Russian.

Vietnamese cuisine is exotic and varied: there are said to be nearly 500 different traditional dishes that include exotic meats such as deer and cobra and fantastic vegetarian creations. However, the staple of Vietnamese cuisine is plain white rice dressed up with a wide variety of vegetables, fish, meat, spices, and sauces. Spring rolls, noodles, and steamed rice dumplings are popular snacks. Fruit is abundant; some of the more unusual ones include: rambutan, longan, lychee, and durian. Vietnamese coffee (ca phe phin) is very good; it’s usually served very strong and very sweet.

Vietnam is an exciting place to visit; the hotels are affordable, the people are friendly, the history and culture is fascinating, the mountains and natural landscape breathtaking, and the food simply delicious. Vietnam offers excitement, tranquility, and simplicity all in one delightful package. Why not see Vietnam for yourself and explore what this country has to offer.

2003, Kalamalama, the HPU Student Newspaper. All rights reserved.
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