‘A thousand years enslaved by China/A hundred years trampled by France/Twenty years of civil war day by day’. The words of the revered 20th-century poet and songwriter Trịnh Công Sơn encapsulate the tribulations of the Vietnamese nation; it is impossible to understand Vietnam without first reflecting on its turbulent past.
The country’s strategic location has made it vulnerable to millennia of invasions. In 111 bc, Vietnam fell to the Han dynasty and became a colonial vassal of China until 938; it was colonised by the French in the mid-1800s. Following the declaration of independence in 1945, the Vietnamese fought the First Indochina War until 1954, eventually defeating the French in the battle of Điện Biên Phủ. Divided in 1954 into a communist state in the North and the Republic of South Vietnam, it fell victim to the polarized ideological struggle of the Cold War and was not reunified until 1975, after another protracted war – referred to in the West as the Vietnam War.
Yet today’s visitors find a dynamic country, respectful of its traditions but eager to move forward. Its economic growth rate is currently among the highest in the world, while its society remains firmly anchored by its customs and beliefs. Vietnamese culture is further enriched by the indigenous traditions of the fifty-three ethnic minorities that share the territory with the main Việt (Kinh) people. The intertwining of various creeds – Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism – has resulted in Tam giáo đồng nguyễn (The Three Teachings from one source), a doctrine of tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
The tour starts in North Vietnam, the cradle of Vietnamese civilisation with its fertile Red River delta. The capital, Ha Noi, was established in 1010 and has remained a political and administrative centre ever since. The aesthetic charm of the city derives from its blend of ancient monuments, pagodas and temples, alongside the 19th-century colonial buildings.
The city of Hue, in central Vietnam, is often regarded as the intellectual and spiritual centre of Buddhism. The Nguyễn lords, the last feudal dynasty of Vietnam, made Hue their capital in 1802, leaving a complex of impressive monuments.
To the south, along the majestic Hải Vân pass, lies the ancient port of Hoi An, one of the most delightful and vibrant towns in southeast Asia. Once an important trading post, it reflects a blend of indigenous and foreign cultural influences, with its well preserved communal houses, ancient wells and a unique Japanese roof-covered bridge.
In South Vietnam lies the country’s largest metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City. Under its old name, Sai Gon, it was the capital of the French Cochinchina and later of the Republic of South Vietnam. As the country’s main commercial hub, it is dizzying and captivating – but it is also the gateway to the lush, tranquil, coconut-clad Mekong Delta.
North of Ho Chi Minh City, to the casual eye, the landscape barely seems scarred by the Resistance War against the USA that shattered the region over half a century ago, but beneath this serene landscape the immense network of tunnels dug by the Việt Cộng at Cu Chi remains astonishingly intact.
Ha Noi. Rooms are available from 2.00pm on 12th February or 19th November, allowing for early check-in today (flights from London are not included – see Practicalities). The tour begins with lunch followed by a lecture at the hotel, and an afternoon cyclo-tour offers a gentle introduction to the city. Ha Noi’s Old Quarter and the 36 guild streets represent the traditional commercial heart of the city: most street names start with the word hàng (goods, merchandise), for example Hàng Bạc (silver); Hàng Mắm (fish sauce); Hàng Bông (cotton). First of three nights in Ha Noi.
Ha Noi. Explore the Old Quarter in more depth. On the Hoàn Kiếm Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) is the Turtle Tower Pagoda and the Temple of the Jade Mountain, connected to the city by the iconic red Húc Bridge. Ha Noi also has a number of French colonial buildings, such as the Opera House, the Post Office, the Cathedral and the Metropole hotel (our base). The Temple of Literature was built in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius. It is the site of Vietnam’s first university (1076).
Ha Noi. Eating on the street is a typical activity for Hanoians and makes up an important part of the city’s unique culture. This morning we explore the Old Quarter from this gastronomic perspective. In the afternoon there is a visit to the Museum of Ethnology, which houses an extensive collection of traditional costumes and artefacts from Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minority groups.
Ha Long Bay, Lan Ha Bay. Drive to Ha Long Bay (Bay of the Descending Dragon) (c. 4 hours), a vast area characterised by thousands of towering limestone islands rising dramatically from the sea. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 – a justified accolade for a place of sublime natural beauty. We board our ship at the busy Tuan Chau port, but then divert to the less-visited (but no less spectacular) Lan Ha Bay. Overnight in Lan Ha Bay.
Ha Long Bay, Hue. Visit the largest fishing village in the bay, where the c. 700 residents live in remarkably spacious floating houses. The monolothic islands also hide numerous caves, adorned with stalactites and stalagmites. Disembark the boat mid morning and drive back to Ha Noi. Fly to Hue (Vietnam Airlines), arriving late evening. First of two nights in Hue.
Hue. Take a Dragon Boat down the Perfume river to the 17th-century Thien Mu Pagoda (Pagoda of the Celestial Lady), which is Hue’s best-preserved religious monument and still functions as a monastery. Visit a private garden house, the former home of Princess Ngoc Son, and see the collection of artefacts from the days of the former Royal Empire with one of her direct descendants. In the afternoon, see the Royal Tomb of Minh Mang, the second Nguyen Emperor, which is renowned for its symmetry and grandeur.
Hue, Hoi An. Rise before dawn for an out-of-hours visit to the Imperial Citadel, built in accordance with the principles of ancient oriental philosophy when Hue became the capital of unified Vietnam in 1802 ce. Return to the hotel for breakfast, then depart for Dieu Thanh Pagoda in the late morning. The nuns prepare a Buddhist (vegetarian) lunch. Continue to Hoi An by coach, arriving late afternoon. First of three nights in Hoi An.
Hoi An. In the morning, explore Hoi An on foot. The atmospheric old town has been more or less safeguarded from the modern curse of motorised vehicles, and its riverside charm adds to the appeal. The colourful architecture has been exceptionally well preserved and reflects influences from China and Japan as well as its indigenous heritage. The afternoon is free to relax or take part in an optional cooking class (details available at a later stage).
My Son, Hoi An. The Cham civilization ruled Central Vietnam between the 4th and 13th centuries, and the Hindu sanctuary at My Son (c. 40 km inland from Hoi An) contains the most extensive temple remains to survive – and was once the capital of the Champa Kingdom. The temples are partially ruined, and only 20 remain where c. 70 once stood, but the site’s setting in a tropical valley surrounded by mountains and streams is nonetheless beguiling. In the evening we explore the street food scene of Hoi An.
Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City. Fly to Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam Airlines), arriving at lunchtime. Late-afternoon visit to Salon Saigon, a contemporary art space in a restored French colonial building. There is a tour with the curator, a Vietnamese-French artist and scholar. Continue to dinner at Henry Cabot Lodge, home to the US Ambassador to South Vietnam in the 1960s. The villa is now a private residence that has been fully restored to its former glory. First of four nights in Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City. Explore Ho Chi Minh City’s architectural cocktail of colonial-era buildings, pagodas, merchants’ residences, modern buildings and vernacular houses. We see the Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral – a red brick edifice with twin spires constructed from materials imported from France – the Central Post Office, completed 1891, and the Reunification Palace, the headquarters of the Sai Gon Government during the American War. Also visit the War Remnants Museum.
Cu Chi, Tay Ninh. Travel to Ben Duoc by speed boat to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, a vast and elaborate underground network used by the Viêt Công during the Second Indochina War. We visit the more extensive but less-busy site, which is slightly further from the city. Drive to the Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh and observe the colourful midday service. Founded in the early 20th century and indigenous to Vietnam, Cao Dai is a fusion of elements from Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, with some aspects of Christianity and Islam.
Mekong Delta. A far cry from the hubbub of Ho Chi Minh City, the Ben Tre Province is known for a slower pace of life, revolving around tropical fruit gardens, rice cultivation and coconuts. Spend the day on board a wooden river cruiser, exploring the network of tranquil waterways fed by the Mekong River. Despite the seemingly unhurried existence of the local people, the area is a hive of activity: these swamplands produce more than a third of Vietnam’s annual food crop, as well as bricks, incense and the many miraculous incarnations of the coconut.
Ho Chi Minh City. The tour ends after breakfast.
Dr Dana Healy
Senior lecturer in Vietnamese studies at SOAS, University of London. Dana specializes in modern Vietnamese cultural studies, including literature, film, religion and gender. She studied Vietnamese Studies at Charles University in Prague, where she also completed her PhD. She first visited Vietnam as a student in 1983 and has been engaged in teaching and research relating to the country ever since. Her academic work embraces a broad spectrum of topics: she lectures on Vietnamese language, literature and culture and has published widely on modern and contemporary literature and cinema, literary representation of war, gender and the Vietnamese diaspora.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £5,830. Single occupancy: £7,140.
Domestic flights (economy class) with Vietnam Airlines (Airbus 321): Ha Noi to Hue, Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City; transport by air-conditioned coach; airport transfers to meet your chosen international flights (including fast-track security on arrival); accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 9 lunches and 9 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes the services of the lecturer, tour manager and local guides.
Flights from London to Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh City to London are not included in the price of the tour. The recommended flight options (accompanied by our lecturer and/or tour manager) for the November departure will be available at a later date.
Additional nights and airport transfers.
It is possible to arrange additional nights at the hotels before or after the tour. Airport transfers are included in the price of the tour – we will ask for your flight details at a later date.
Visas are not required for UK citizens for stays of 15 days or less. Most other foreign nationals require a visa, which is not included in the tour price. We will advise on the process.
Sofitel Legend Metropole, Ha Noi: a Ha Noi institution and one of the finest hotels in Asia: 5-star luxury blending French and Vietnamese influences. Bhaya Classic Cruise, Ha Long Bay: a traditional wooden junk, not luxurious yet authentic and adequately comfortable. La Residence, Hue: 5-star riverside hotel in the former residence of the French Governor, exceptionally restored in an Art Deco style. Anantara Hoi An Resort, Hoi An: a peaceful 5-star resort on the banks of the Thu Bon river and a stone’s throw from the historic centre. Park Hyatt Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City: plush yet congenial 5-star hotel in the city centre – the best hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
The tour involves a lot of walking in town centres, where coach access is restricted, and a lot of standing in museums and at sites. Uneven ground and irregular paving are standard. A good level of fitness is essential. Unless you enjoy entirely unimpaired mobility, cope with everyday walking and stair-climbing without difficulty and are reliably sure-footed, this tour is not for you. There are some long coach journeys during which facilities are limited and may be of poor quality. The tour spans over 1,500 km from north to south, and the weather varies accordingly: it can be chilly in the north and very hot in the south. Average distance by coach per day: 42 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.