The overwhelming image retained by visitors to Vietnam is that of a country blessed with an extraordinary beauty. It’s a mosaic of mist-shrouded mountains, vibrant green forests, a patch-work of rice paddies and pristine white beaches, whilst its villages and cities are custodians of the culture and monuments of a unique 2,000 year old civilisation.
A journey through some of the delightful countryside is like stepping back in time: farmers bent double underneath their traditional conical hats work in fields stretching into the distance, whilst docile water buffalo methodically plough the rice paddies. On the roads there are bicycles being ridden to market, over-loaded with everything from huge sacks of rice to an imponderable number of ducks! Lining the riverbanks are wooden houses, balancing precariously on stilts and thatched with palm leaves.
Vietnam has a long and chequered past: for 2,000 years it was ruled by the Chinese, the Khmers, Mongols, Portuguese and the Japanese. They all left their legacies in the temples and Pagodas, together with palaces, fortresses and innumerable other buildings in every style imaginable. It was then colonised by the French, whose contribution was cathedrals, fine mansions, neo-classical public buildings, not forgetting excellent baguettes and pastries – an eclectic mix! Many visitors also inevitably recall the US-Vietnam war – who could forget those dramatic images of the frantic helicopter flights from the roof of the US embassy?
In the past few years Vietnam has opened its doors to the world and much has changed. Today, in one of the world’s last communist countries, the motorcycles and western dress of the industrious youth happily co-exist with orange-clad Buddhist monks and political posters from a different era. Visitors are invariably impressed by the development of excellent hotels and services in all the major centres and the much-improved road network.
Hanoi and Saigon still retain a French flavour in their pavement cafés, architecture and wide tree-lined boulevards. In Hue, the former imperial capital, we see the amazing Citadel and its imperial Forbidden City, modelled on Beijing. Contorted by years of erosion, we’ll also explore the staggeringly beautiful rock formations of Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
But Vietnam is more than just history and scenery. It also boasts a world-class gastronomic heritage: a delicious fusion of Malay, Chinese and Thai cuisines. With plenty of French-run restaurants thrown in for good measure, all at excellent prices, you really are in for a treat! The Vietnamese themselves are a wonderfully friendly people, always smiling, courteous and proud to show off their beautiful country to all.
Our tour in Cambodia includes a stay in the capital, Phnom Penh. Beautifully located at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, Phnom Penh, with its vibrant riverside ambience, is one of the ‘hidden gems’ of Asian cities. After being virtually completely depopulated during Pol Pot’s regime, the city is now full of life and thriving once more. A short flight away is the town of Siem Reap, the gateway to the incredible complex of temples within the ancient city of Angkor. At its height in the thirteenth century, Angkor had a staggering one million inhabitants, larger in area than Manhattan. It was the capital of the fabulously wealthy Khmer Empire that stretched from Thailand, through Laos and Cambodia to southern Vietnam. The incredible state of preservation, the beauty of its design and artistry of its sculptures have, for many, made Angkor one of the great wonders of the world.
Vietnam and Cambodia are countries in flux, but bicycles and mopeds still outnumber cars by 100 to 1, so now is the time to visit these most fascinating and colourful destinations, whilst so much of their unique character and traditions are still in evidence!