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Hanoi

  

Hanoi

Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam, albeit only the second largest city by population in the country. Located in the North of the country, it is known for it's older architecture, it's rich cultural blend of Southeast Asian, Chinese and French heritage, and it's many small temples. The city is more than 1000 years old, and has been occupied by many different nations during it's life.

During a trip to Vietnam, it is quite hard to avoid the capital, and there is absolutely no reason to. There are many museums, parks, historical sights and things to keep you well occupied, and you will never be stuck for something to do. Here are some highlights, picked out of the many attractions that Hanoi has to offer.
The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long - Thang Long is one of the previous names of the city of Hanoi, and the citadel is an interesting relic of Vietnamese history. It has been granted the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of it's historical and cultural significance, and stands 40 meters high, representing the historical political centre of the city. Here, amongst the beautiful architecture, you can find many artefacts that date back as far as the sixth century, from many different locations all around Asia as this used to also be a trading centre
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum - Ho Chi Minh is considered one of Vietnam's greatest leaders from history, and he has left a legacy that is celebrated throughout the country. The mausoleum is his final resting place, and has become one of the most visited attractions in Hanoi. This is a unique piece of history and an impressive piece of dominant granite architecture. Visitors should remember to dress modestly, so no shorts or short skirts, and be aware that security here is very strict and that bags and cameras will have to deposited upon entering. The mausoleum closes annually around October for the deceased leader's remains to be maintained, so do check that it is open before you go.
The Perfume Pagoda - This is a stunning temple complex, supposedly first built in the 15th century. They are built into a mountain range and have a complicated labyrinth of alleys carved out of the rocks, topped with thick forest and small trickling streams. This is a little trip out of Hanoi and into the Son Mountains, which requires a two hour journey followed by a board trip to the bottom of the mountains. There are lots of different pagodas to visit and some interesting geology to explore, as well as a beautiful temple. Between January and April, this site attracts even more visitors for the Huong festival.
The Old Quarter - This is a chaotic and bustling part of the city featuring many beautiful examples of colonial architecture along narrow and crowded streets. There are many Buddhist temples and pagodas, and this also functions as Hanoi's main commercial district. There are plenty of trendy cafes, bars and restaurants to keep you well fed as you explore around this historical part of the city.
The Temple of Literature - This is a really beautiful and picturesque building which has been preserved since 1070 when it was built. It is a really amazing example of classic Vietnamese architecture and offers an insight into a world of literature as well as peaceful courtyards, pavilions, passageways and the famous Well of Heavenly Clarity.
Ba Vi National Park - Ba Vi is just a short two hour drive away from the crowds and chaos of Hanoi city and into an area of outstanding natural beauty. In the centre of the national park is a three-peaked mountain amongst jungle and tropical rainforest. This is an excellent place for some hiking and to discover some of the natural side of Vietnam. There are also hot springs and a spa inside the park, panoramic views to discover, and mountains to climb.
Hanoi offers a plethora of different accommodation offers, from luxury hotels to more budget friendly shared accommodation in hostels and is often the starting or ending point for your Vietnam adventure. Most of the locals involved in the tourism industry will have a fair grasp of the English language which makes it very easy for you to navigate around. Whether you like history, culture, nature or sightseeing, there is something for everybody to enjoy.

 

Hoi An UNESCO World Heritage

  

Hoi An UNESCO World Heritage

Formerly known as Fai-Fo, Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a small city in the east of Vietnam. It is a well preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port which operated between the 15th and 19th century with a unique blend of architectural influences, both from Vietnamese culture and from abroad. It is an excellent place to escape the larger cities of Vietnam to as there is very little traffic and pollution, despite a steady rise in tourism in the last few years. Despite no longer operating so much as an international trading port, international business is still very important as the trade of tourism has taken over the town.

At the centre of the town is the iconic and beautiful Japanese Covered Bridge. This was constructed by the Japanese community to link them with the Chinese Quarters and has been well preserved ever since, becoming an emblem for H?i An and a top location to visit. While the French flattened the roadway to enable cars to cross, the original arched shape was restored in 1986 making it more true to it's original design. As Vietnam experiences a lot of earthquakes, the bridge has a very solid design and has survived some potential battering over the years. There are some old and weathered statues at either end of the bridge, a pair of monkeys at one end and a pair of dogs at the other, which are more than likely relevant to the year of the dog and the year of the monkey in one way or another, although nobody quite knows why.
Another top attraction is the Tan Ky House which was built over two centuries ago by an ethnically Vietnamese family and has been well preserved ever since. Both the Chinese and the Japanese have had heavy influences over the architecture and the attention to detail in the interior decorating is truly stunning. This little house holds a lot of history and culture and is a memorable and interesting destination for tourists in the area.
There are several tours operating in the area to give you an insight into the culture and history of the town, including boat and bike tours to explore the surrounding islands and villages, four tours around the town to introduce you to some of Vietnam's world renowned cuisine, and excursions out of town. One of the more popular locations to visit on these tours is the My Son Sanctuary which is another UNESCO World Heritage Sites dating back to the 4th Century.
Walking around the town is a good opportunity to admire the fusion of different cultures. A lot of the architecture has been well looked after and a gentle stroll would feel like a step back in time if not for all the modern tourists. The town is a blend of mostly Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese design with elements of French influences from colonisation. There are many little temples to discover, pagodas and ancient homes and buildings to explore around a series of canals and narrow streets and alleys. There are four museums around town to highlight the history and culture of the region, all of which can be accessed using a H?i An Entrance Ticket which is available from the tourist information.
Accomodation ranges from basic shared rooms in hostels from as low as $8USD a night to a $600USD a night world class, 6 star resort called Nam Hai which is supposedly the best in Southeast Asia, and everything else in between. There are restaurants and cafes all over town to cater to the tourists who may very well outnumber the residents of the town.
The main season for visiting H?i An is between the end of May and the end of August, when the weather is calm and mild and more stable. For those looking to explore the Cù lao Chàm Islands, this is the best time to visit the town as tours are more frequent and run more often. The weather in the remainder of the year is very temperamental and conditions can vary drastically between humid hot weather, cold rain, and windy conditions.
For a truly unique, historical and cultural experience in Vietnam, make sure to include a trip to H?i An on your travels.

 

Hostelling in Vietnam

  

Hostelling in Vietnam

There are many different ways to experience Vietnam as a country, from high priced luxurious tours to more budget friendly alternatives. Hostels often have a bad reputation, particularly for those who have never stayed in them before, however there are a lot of benefits to sharing your accomodation over having a private room in a hotel, and Vietnam is a great country to start.

The first, and probably the most important benefit is the price. You can find yourself a bed for as low as $4USD in Hanoi and $7USD in Ho Chi Minh. For those who are willing to sacrifice their privacy, having their own bathroom, and to risk sharing a dorm room with a snorer, the financial benefits are huge. Whatever money you save from your accomodation can go straight to paying for your adventures or can be put towards trying all of those exotic and exciting Vietnamese dishes. You can also have private rooms in hostels which tend to be cheaper than hotels, but still cost a little more than paying for a bed in a shared room. As people who stay in hostels tend to be budgeting a little more than those in hotels, the partnered companies who provide the tours tend to also be cheaper and more local, so overall you will be saving a lot, and maybe you will even go home with some change for once.
Socially, staying in hostels is awesome. You have no choice but to mix in with people from all over the world, with stories to tell and experiences to share. Quite often, travellers in Vietnam will actually be taking the same routes, and so for those who are travelling alone, it is a great way to meet and to make travelling companions who can help you to spread the cost even further. As a lot of people travel around Southeast Asia by motorbike, you can also find people who will travel with you this way, and perhaps have a more mechanical mindset than you for when they break down. As people who stay in hostels tend to be very international, they are usually very open minded, and you are likely to leave with some friends for life, as well as making a few friends just for the day.
Culturally, staying in a hostel usually lands you closer to the local action. They are usually run by local people who are fully immersed in the local world, and who will be able to recommend potentially less touristic attractions to visit and more diverse things to do. They will be able to send you to restaurants where the locals eat, and to give you a more legitimate and genuinely unique experience of Vietnam. As they are often family run businesses, you will be supporting the local economy in ways that the Marriott can't as an international conglomerate company. Staff are often young people who are enthusiastic about travelling and about the country that they are residing in, and want to provide you with the best snapshot of what their culture means to them.
For those really looking to budget, some hostels have a guest kitchen, although in Vietnam this is less common than in other countries. Here, you will be able to try out local ingredients and to make recreate some Vietnamese dishes while the recipes are still fresh in your mind, as well as team up with other travellers to save even more money and cook together. The sanitary element of hostels is often a worry for first time hostellers, however these are always improving to keep up with modern expectations, and the kitchen is, most of the time, a safe place to prepare, cook and to eat.
Hostels often provide very unique sleeping opportunities, and Vietnam is no disappointment at showcasing some weird and wonderful accomodation. The Circle Vietnam Hostel in Da Lat City offers guests the chance to sleep in some strange pipe shaped rooms, two meters in diameter, with a panoramic view of the city. The Asia Home Nha Trang is similar to capsule hotels in Hong Kong, with shared facilities and the chance to sleep in an all inclusive capsule bed. While competing with each other for guests, hostels quite often are very weird and wonderful places to sleep and offer a unique experience for their guests.
Like most of our visitors, if you are used to five star hotels and have never stayed in a hostel, maybe Vietnam is the place to try something new.

 

Preparing for your trip to Vietnam

  

trip to Vietnam

Vietnam is a culturally diverse and fascinating country, and is often a big step away from familiar cultures for visitors to the area. It has a variety of different climates, ranging from tropical to temperate mountainous zones, and the country experiences a high amount of rainfall and also some very strong sun, making it also very humid. For those flying in from Europe or the USA, it can be very difficult to know what to expect upon arrival.

The first thing to consider after booking your flights is to create a rough itinerary. This way, you can start to predict which areas you are going to be in and which vaccinations you may or may not require to protect yourself against infection. The zika virus is a risk in Vietnam, and travellers should take steps to prevent mosquito bites and sexual exposure to this during and after the trip. This is particularly dangerous for pregnant women as it causes serious birth defects, and so it is worth considering postponing your trip if you are expecting. Hepatitis A and typhoid are also possibilities, and it is worth checking with your doctor that you are protected against these before travelling.
Depending on what regions you are visiting, malaria can be a problem, but do be aware that preventative medication against this is very strong and can cause sickness in itself, so it should only be used if necessary. Rabies can also be found in some of the animals, so for travellers involved in outdoor activities, particularly in rural areas, and for people working with animals it is worth protecting yourself against this also. Yellow fever is not a problem in Vietnam, however if you are travelling from a country with a risk of the virus, you will require proof that you are vaccinated against it. It is usually considerably safer to get vaccinated from your home country before travelling than to get vaccinated upon arrival, and sometimes the vaccinations take a few days to become effective, so do ensure this is done before the start of your trip. It's also worth taking a small first aid kit with you, just in case, and it is also worth checking that your travel insurance covers everything you intend to do.
While it is very important to try the food of the culture on your trip, also be aware that unsanitary kitchens and a drastic change of diet can have very unfavourable effects on your body and potentially ruin your whole vacation. Immerse yourself into the new cuisine slowly, and don't eat from anywhere that looks too unclean.
After you have your itinerary, you can start to book accomodation, transfers, and to plan out all of your activities, from which you can start to pack your luggage accordingly. Everybody hates travelling with too much stuff, and there is a real art to packing light which will make all your transfers considerably easier. Vietnam experiences a whole plethora of different weather conditions, often all in the same day, so lightweight and multipurpose outdoor clothing is the most effective solution to ensuring you have the lightest baggage possible. A completely waterproof rain jacket is absolutely essential, but do be aware that the country is quite warm and so pack a small and light one. Strong sunscreen and polarised sunglasses are also very important, and due to the tropical conditions in parts of the country, it also pays to have some tropical grade insect repellent. The mountainous areas are a little cooler, and the temperature drops off a little at night, so make sure you also have some lightweight warm clothing with you as well as plenty of light clothing for the warmer weather. Aim for layering as this minimises packing and maximises the effect. Take some sturdy walking boots for hiking and some flip-flops for the beach. At least one swimming costume is a good idea, as you will likely spend a lot of time in the water.
The best way to obtain a visa for Vietnam is through the official government website, and all of the information can be found at https://vietnamvisa.govt.vn. Some nationalities can bypass this if they are staying for a short time, however you should absolutely ensure that you follow the correct procedure for your country and not make assumptions.

 

Sa Pa

  

Sa Pa Vietnam

Sa Pa (or Sapa) is a small market town in the north west of Vietnam which attracts a lot of tourists due to it's picture perfect views, it's dramatic landscaping and it's cultural antics. Snuggled into the mountains and overlooking a deep valley, this French settlement has become the tourism central for the region. The town is filled with colour as the local hill-tribe people flood the streets, and even on a misty day, which is quite common in the mountains, the views are spectacular.

The town is quickly increasing in size, and due to some building regulations being ignored, the buildings are growing taller and taller over the years. The town is heavily reliant on tourism bringing in money, and as a result the town is quite busy and not as quiet as “a small town in the mountains” suggests. Most people who visit the area have come to immerse themselves in a world of trekking and hiking, and so the town merely serves as a place to sleep and eat after a long day of tramping through the hills.
The area is awash with the iconic cascading rice fields that are often seen on postcards and travel websites for the area. Set against a backdrop of dramatic mountains, rolling mist, and small local villages, the real charm for the region lies outside of the city. A lot of tourists also opt to see the area by bicycle with plenty of routes to explore and plenty of rental opportunities from the town. For those exploring the area, it helps to travel light, but also to prepare for rain and bad weather with a lightweight waterproof jacket as weather conditions change very quickly in Vietnam, and even quicker when you are at higher altitudes.
Sapa is also home to Vietnam's highest peak, Fan Si Pan, which stands at 3,143m above sea level. The trek to the summit is a three day ordeal and is probably the most challenging route for tourists to tackle. If you want to take on Fan Si Pan, it is not allowed that you hike alone and a local guide is required, as well as highly recommended. There are campsites at around 2300m and 2900m where you will sleep after your first and second days of hiking. The view from the top is absolutely breathtaking, and will be worth all of the hard effort of travelling up there when you have a panoramic view of Vietnam. The hike passes several remote villages, going through different types of forest and crosses over mountain streams, providing interesting and diverse landscapes throughout.
For those looking for something a little easier, there are medium and easy graded walks that can last for everything between a few hours and and a few days. Always make sure you have spoken to local experts to enquire about track conditions, weather forecasts, the difficulty of the walk and what equipment is required.
Sapa can endure some quite rough weather, and for those who are dissuaded for venturing outside when the rain is falling, there is plenty to see and do in the town itself that should shelter you from the showers. There is a museum quite aptly named Sara Museum which showcases the history and ethnology of the area, including information about the ethnic minorities and the French colonisation. This is located behind the tourist information office and is worth a quick visit. There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants where you can relax after a long hike. There is also a market which operates just outside of the centre of town in a purpose built bus station.
Sapa is just a short journey from Hanoi, and some people even chose to hike there from the capital city. It offers a lot of diversity and contrast to the bustling streets of the capital, and is a great stop to include on even a short itinerary, especially for those looking for something a little more rural and a little more natural. There are plenty of transport options for those not willing to hike, and plenty of multi-day guided tours that leave from Hanoi for those who want to leave all the hard work and preparation for somebody else to worry about.

 

Stray in Vietnam

  

stray travel

Stray is tour company that operates in South East Asia and in New Zealand. They operate guided bus tours, mostly aimed at younger backpackers who wish to experience the country with some like minded people. Founded in New Zealand in 2002, the company prides itself on taking travellers off the beaten track, supporting environmental values (for which they have been accredited the Enviro-Gold award from Qualmark), for providing a unique perspective on some quickly growing tourist locations, and of course their iconic bright orange busses.

The main office for the South East Asia Stray Network is actually in Thailand, however the company offers a number of packages that remain solely within Vietnam and also that include Vietnam as part of a multi-country tour through the whole region. There are a variety of different tours and passes to suit everybody. Flexi-tours include everything such as your transport, your accomodation, your tour leader, activities, and offer the chance to be flexible if you wish to stay longer at some of the destinations and to hop onto a different Flexi-Tour coming through at a later date to carry on. Hop-on Hop-off passes allow the same benefits as a Flexi-tour pass, apart from accomodation and activities are pay as you go. They also have one-off adventures such as tours to islands, and city arrival packs which ensure you have a smooth and pleasant introduction to your arrival culture and make some friends.
The exclusive Vietnam Only tours available are a 14 day Flexi Tour or a two week Hop-on Hop-off pass, both of which start in Ho Chi Minh City and finish in Hanoi. There are often deals and packages available directly from the website, so it is worth keeping an eye on the activity at http://www.straytravel.asia as you approach booking your packages.
There are many tour companies offering similar packages to Stray, however there are many reasons why they are notable and worth considering. Stray, much like the name suggests, absolutely love to take their guests to remote and unique locations that are well off the beaten tourist path, so much so, sometimes they aren't even marked on popular maps. Obviously they still take you to all of the main places that are on everybody's Vietnam to-do lists, but even here they will try to give you a unique and individual perspective, and provide all of the history, culture and environmental information from their local guides and interpreters along the way.
The tour guides are not only very knowledgeable, but very friendly and helpful people. As you are accompanied by your guide for a couple of weeks, they ensure that they become not only your guides, but also your friends. They help you with booking accomodation and activities, tell you about their personal experiences, and ensure the whole group is always having a good time.
Stray's responsible tourism mission is quoted on their website as “to make sure our customers and crew leave the maximum positive impact on local communities, and the minimum negative impact on the environment.” They are very supportive of local communities and eco-tourism initiatives, helping out by including homestays in rural locations, lowering carbon emissions, respecting and educating about local religion and cultures and encouraging travellers to contribute as much to the locals and undeveloped communities as possible.
The company likes their customers to relax and to do all the stressful and hard work obtained by travelling for them. The guides are so passionate about their jobs that not only do they know almost everything you could possibly know, but they will help you with everything with a huge smile on their face, and probably enhance your expectations by suggesting things you wouldn't ever have thought of.
While most of the travellers on Stray are under 30, passengers range from 18-45 and nobody is left feeling excluded from the group. If you are travelling alone, and with no travelling experience, it is a fantastic way to meet people from all over the world, to immerse yourself in the local culture, to have a unique experience, and to create some completely unforgettable memories. Everything can be booked directly from the website, and all information regarding passes, routes, and the company's value are all found at http://www.straytravel.asia.

 

Vietnamese Food

  

pho food

Quickly growing in popularity all over the world, Vietnamese cuisine is packed full of flavour, and is a central part of the culture of the country. One of the greatest things about travel is immersing yourself in the local food scene and venturing as far away from the comforts of your own cuisine, and so here is a quick breakdown of some dishes that are worth trying during your trip to Vietnam.

Pho - perhaps the most well known and the most popular Vietnamese dish found abroad is the Pho. This found absolutely everywhere and anywhere in Vietnam, from the more established restaurants to makeshift Pho stands on the streets. It consists of a salty broth which contains rice noodles, meat (which is usually chicken or beef) and a generous serving of herbs. This dish is eaten by tourists and locals alike, and if you see a crowd of people seated on the street, you have most likely stumbled across a group of people enjoying it.
Bahn xeo - This is a very fine pancake, or crepe, like dish, which has been filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts as well as a garnish of herbs. The local way to eat this is to cut it into small pieces and to roll it in rice paper or lettuce before marinating or dipping it into the sauce that is served with it. Every chef has their preference on sauce and this will vary depending on region and the restaurant.
Bún Ch? - This is another popular dish all over Vietnam, particularly in Hanoi. This is grilled pork sausage dish served with bean sprouts, rice noodles, pickled vegetables and herbs, all brought together with nuóc châm sauce which should be used to cover the entire dish.
Bánh Mì - Much like Pho, this is another dish that has spread itself across international borders and can be found all over the world. This is actually a fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine and originates from French Colonisation, when the French arrived with baguettes. The baguettes were filled with Vietnamese ingredients such as crispy pork belly, daikon radish, meatballs and picked carrots and usually a lot of chilli peppers, and they can be found all over Vietnam.
Bot Chien - This one is particularly popular in Saigon as street food, and is often consumed in the early hours of the morning during nights out, much like doner kebabs in England. It consists of crispy fried rice flour dough with egg, and is served with papaya, shallots, pickled chilli sauce, green onions and vinegar.
Canh - No trip to Vietnam is complete without trying Vietnamese soup. Soup is often the cheapest and most flavoursome option on the menu, and they make particularly good snacks if you're not feeling too hungry. The Canh soups are mostly found in the South and contain a mixture of seafood, vegetables and herbs served in a starfruit, tamarind, pineapple or tomato base. There are a lot of contrasting flavours and textures that will send your taste buds on an adventure.
Bahn Cam - This is a popular fried dessert, soft on the inside and crispy on the outside, and speckled with sesame seeds. They are filled with a sweet bean paste and are a particular favourite amongst the locals.
Xoi - This is a savory rice which is very sticky in texture and, while it is served with chicken or pork or even eggs, often steals the show and becomes the centre of the entire dish. Whatever protein is served with the rice, you can expect dried shallots on the top.
While you will find burger and pizza restaurants if you look hard enough, isn't it better to ditch the comfort food and try something exciting and new? While you may eat something you absolutely hate, you may also go home with a new favourite food and a new found appreciation for Vietnamese cuisine.

Vietnam by motorbike

  

vietnam bike

One of the most popular ways to experience Vietnam, or indeed any of the countries in South East Asia, is by renting or buying a motorbike to travel between points of interest. This is particularly popular among the backpacking community, and is a unique and interesting way to experience the country.

The first thing to consider, if you wish to travel this way, is to ensure that your licence covers you driving in Vietnam. Check with your national automobile association that you are legal and okay to ride, and if not make sure you make the correct amendments to avoid getting caught out by authorities. Before you travel to Vietnam you should also ensure that you have the correct visa for your travel, and also travel insurance, especially as motorcycle accidents can be very harmful and are actually quite common. With this in mind, it might be worth also considering buying some protection such as motorcycle gloves and even potentially a helmet from a trustworthy source in your home country for some added peace of mind. While a lot of people don't wear helmets, it is a very good idea to have a good one with you.
It is also a good idea to ensure you have satellite navigation of sorts. While it is possible to get around using maps and compasses, it might be hard to locate an english speaking local in rural areas in case you need help with this, and if you don't have time to learn basic Vietnamese, this is your best chance for easy navigation. If you intend to use your smartphone, check you that use this abroad before you embark on your motorcycle adventure.
You will most likely land in either Ha Noi or Saigon, and the best places to locate and buy a bike are in the District 1 of Saigon and the Old Quarter of Ha Noi. Here, many backpackers will display their bikes with “for sale” signs attached on the side of the street. You can also use Craigslist Vietnam to buy and sell motorcycles. You can usually find a bike for between $400 and $800USD, and if you are only owning it for a short time, it is worth not getting some too nice as this attracts thieves. Honda Cubs and Wins are popular choices that shouldn't break your budget. When you are buying your bike, make sure you ask as many questions as possible to check for safety and the history of the bike also. If you have any emergencies during your trip, there are plenty of workshops on the roadside that should be able to help you repair anything that you can't repair yourself, although a little mechanical knowledge will go a long way during your trip.
Travelling by bike is a fantastic way to see the country as it allows you complete freedom over where you travel, where you stop, and how long you spend at each location. Travelling by public bus is considerably cheaper, but you will bypass a lot of amazing photo opportunities at the side of the road, and you have to rely on the bus schedules and locations that they travel to. As it's such a popular option for travelling around the country, you are likely to meet other people following similar routes who may even want to travel with you for a while. There is a real sense of adventure and adrenaline which you would not experience if you were travelling using public transport, and overcoming mechanical problems add to a general sense of satisfaction when you arrive at your destination. As the old cliche goes; it's all about the journey, not the destination. And for any of those really long trips that you don't want to complete on the back of the bike, it is actually quite common to take your bike on the train with you.
Vietnam has thousands of kilometres of coastal highways, steep and winding mountain roads, and rainforests to explore. Riding by motorcycle is a really excellent way to connect with the landscapes around you and for a once in a lifetime experience. If you are planning a backpacking trip around Vietnam or South East Asia, it is worth considering travelling this way, and the stories you will be able to tell afterwards are bound to make all of your friends and family very jealous.

 

Exploring the largest cave – Son Doong

  

Visitors to the beautiful landscapes of the Far Eastern jewel of Vietnam are often struck by the country's sheer diversity. Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are as bustling and cosmopolitan as anywhere else in the Far East; or, in fact, the world. The Mekong Delta and the bays of Ha Long contain fabulous landscapes. The central Highlands are a wonderful contrast of cultivated land and secretive indigenous villages. But travelling underground often displays Vietnam at its most breathtaking.caves in Vietnam Ha Long
For visitors who don't suffer from claustrophobia, exploring below the ground can offer glimpses of a fabulous subterranean world. One particular cave, Son Doong, lay undiscovered for centuries, until a local happened across it. Located near the border with Laos, in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Quang Binh Province – lying in the portion of the country that was North Korea prior to unification – this cave is the world's largest. As well as being a vast subterranean lair, it also contains a large, fast flowing river.
Its discovery was attributed to a local, named Ho-Khanh, in 1991. This area was actually feared due to the strange whistling sound which persisted (which was eventually attributed to the underground river). Following his finding, researcher arrived from the British Cave Research Association, led by Howard and Deb Limbert. They were surveying the cave in 2009, until their research was cut short by a calcite wall.
That Son Doong was actually discovered to be five times the size of Vietnam's previously largest cave gives some indication of the scale of the 1991 discovery. There are only two known entrances to a chamber estimated at being 9,000 metres in length, and 150 metres wide. Its main chamber is over 200 metres high. A cave exit was discovered in 2010, with the intrepid group who finally scaled the 200-metre high wall discovering pearls ‘the size of baseballs'.
Guided tourists first entered the cave last year, paying $3,000 each for the privilege. These explorers came from the UK, the US, Australia, Norway and Russia. They camped in the dripping cave environment for seven days and six nights. Now that the door to exploration has been opened, future tours will undoubtedly take place on a more regular basis.
The large amount of flowing water inside is something of a hazard for future cavers in Son Doong. Additionally, the entrance to the cave is narrow – it's hardly surprising that its existence wasn't common knowledge until fairly recently.
The new cave was described by the exploratory team's Howard Limbert as ‘a thing of overwhelming beauty and grandeur'. He added that within the cave system, each separate grotto possesses its own beauty, although he was particularly impressed by Ca Xai, a large cave with a lake at its base. This was measured with a 200-metre rope – which didn't reach the lake bed.
Son Doong will not be developed as a tourist destination, in a bid to preserve its natural beauty. However, the existence of fabulous cave systems such as this in Vietnam will only serve to whet the appetite for potholers, cavers and intrepid adventure tourists to seek advice about the whereabouts of Vietnamese caves which are open for business!

A taste of Vietnam

  

Throughout the world, people have developed a taste for Asian food, principally the dishes emanating from China, Japan or India. However, by travelling beyond these locations it's possible to immerse yourself in a diverse world of mouth-watering national dishes. Vietnamese cuisine is no exception.pho noodles vietnamese cuisine
When you travel to Vietnam, one thing you are bound to realize straight away is that food is readily available at every turn. As with other locations throughout the Far East, sumptuous dishes are hawked from stalls at every street corner, and in marketplaces throughout the countryside. As far as the actual menus go in Vietnam, there are hundreds upon hundreds of possible dishes to choose from. In addition, the menus vary from region to region.
Vietnam's larger cities, such as Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, will also offer you a taste of cuisine from any corner of the globe, as well as bountiful examples of indigenous cooking.
Rice
The ubiquitous cornerstone of dining in Vietnam, as with other parts of Asia, are bowls of rice or noodles. Where Western visitors are used to these side dishes forming a somewhat uninspiring part of their meal, really serving as little more than a filling for the more interesting main dishes, in Vietnam rice or noodles are integral to the meal. They can be cooked with an array of delicious sauces or gravies, with additional spices, giving them an extra ‘zing'. It seems particularly unfair to dismiss them as mere side dishes!
The ubiquitous cornerstone of dining in Vietnam, as with other parts of Asia, are bowls of rice or noodles. Where Western visitors are used to these side dishes forming a somewhat uninspiring part of their meal, really serving as little more than a filling for the more interesting main dishes, in Vietnam rice or noodles are integral to the meal. They can be cooked with an array of delicious sauces or gravies, with additional spices, giving them an extra ‘zing'. It seems partiIf rice is their staple dish, it is the boiled variety that is particularly popular, and is consumed with all three main Vietnamese daily meals. Tam thom or nahg huong are fragrant varieties, while grilled rice favourite in the autumn, and is eaten with bananas, eggs and sapodillas. Sticky rice cakes are also widely appreciated – known as banh chung. These are formed by mashing together glutinous rice, green bean paste and pork shavings. The cakes are then wrapped in banana leaves or bamboo.cularly unfair to dismiss them as mere side dishes!
Main dishes
The main dishes that you will be presented with as your choices on a Vietnamese menu are many and varied. You can expect to select from shrimp, shredded chicken, sliced pork, spring rolls, and an incredible variety of fresh seafood. There are also a range of more exotic possibilities including local shark fin, all manner of spices, and various unusual but tasty examples of locally-cultivated fruits and vegetables.
One of the best treats to keep an eye out for is pho – a spicy, meat-based noodle soup. It is very cheap, and comes in either pho bo (beef) or pho bo tai (fish) varieties.
How much to spend
When it comes to getting value for money for your dining experience, many tourists like to head off to the market stalls. Because these street hawkers are primarily catering for the local populace, the prices they charge are generally low.
If you want to actually sit down in a restaurant, the government-run establishments are comfortable enough, but can be quite sterile looking. There is also likely to be a 10% service charge added to the bill. Tipping is not a widespread custom in Vietnam, although it has become quite common in those areas favoured by visitors.
  
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