Belfast Telegraph

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Wham, bam, thank you 'Nam: From the spectacular Halong Bay to the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam is mesmerising

Good Morning, Vietnam! There was no better feeling than waking up aboard a boat on the beautiful Halong Bay, realising the top item on my bucket list (a trip to this wonderful south-east Asian country) had been all I wished for and more.

One of the new seven natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay is a must-see on any holiday here. The Unesco Heritage site is home to some 1,600 islands and islets, forming a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars.

This jewel in Vietnam’s crown has to be one of the most remarkable places on this planet with its shimmering emerald green waters and unique landscape. The hundreds of stunning rocky outcrops emerging from the still waters are a sight you’ll never forget.

We booked an overnight cruise so we could also take in the beaches and caves along the bay. It was one of the highlights of our trip and the peace and tranquillity is a world away from the crazy city traffic of Ho Chi Minh (the city which was formerly Saigon) and Hanoi.

It seems that 90pc of Vietnam’s 90 million people own a moped or motorbike – and the other 10pc are saving to buy them. You will see them carrying everything on board from their entire family to TVs and animals.

The volume of traffic is unbelievable and if you’re nervous, crossing the road will seem like quite a feat. I had been told and didn’t quite believe it until I arrived that you just keep walking across roads like a lemming and the traffic will drive around you — which they do, as scary as it may be.

Hanoi was the first stop on my trip, flying there from Dublin via Dubai with Emirates on Business Class (I pushed the boat out since this holiday meant so much to me). It was such a comfortable and relaxing  journey that I didn’t feel at all jetlagged after 17 hours of travelling.

The capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is home to the mausoleum of the country’s former communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, a place of pilgrimage for many Vietnamese people who come to pay tribute to “Uncle Ho”, the man who led the fight for an independent, unified Vietnam.

The city is a network of streets dedicated to particular shops or products. They have a street where the shops only sell metal products, a toy street full of toy shops, beer street which does what it says on the tin, silk street and so on.

A great way to get a feel for the city and its cuisine is a street food tour. The pavements are littered with hundreds of food vendors selling a huge variety of food, where you can expect to pay £1-£2 for a meal.

Our tour guide, Kevin, was very knowledgeable and brought us to eight different restaurants and food stalls. He wanted to bring us to several others but we just couldn’t fit in any more food. We had perfect Vietnamese pancakes, beef noodle salad, steamed clams, roast duck and a Banh Mi burger. The dishes were truly delicious and, without this tour, I probably wouldn’t have sampled them all myself (www.tinhkevinstreetfoodstyle.com).

We also took the opportunity to sample some of Vietnam’s beers, including the local beer, which costs between 10p and 50p a bottle. Yes, you read that right, Vietnam is home to the cheapest beer in the world.

I could track my journey through Vietnam by the local brews, including the Hanoi Beer, Saigon Special, 333, and Platinum Beer, developed by north Belfast brothers Mark and Michael Comerton, who opened the first craft beer brewery in Vietnam.

Coffee is also big business here and the Vietnamese give the Europeans a serious run for their money as the world’s coffee connoisseurs. Coffee was introduced here by the French in the late 19th century but Vietnam started to grow its own crop and has put a unique spin on the drink. An absolute must-try is the local egg coffee, which involves beaten egg whites poured over an espresso, resulting in a sweet caffeinated mousse.

We caught a bus tour to the ancient hindu temples at My Son. Some were damaged during the Vietnam War but several of the extraordinary towers are still standing. They were constructed between the 4th and the 14th century AD by the kings of Champa. It is the foremost heritage site of this nature in Vietnam so include it on your itinerary.

From Hanoi, we flew further south down to Hoi An, a truly captivating city which retains a feel of centuries past. It was once an influential port along the infamous Silk Road.

For more than 500 years, merchants from China, Japan, France and Portugal settled in the prosperous town resulting in a distinctive blend of culture, cuisine, religion and architecture.

Make sure you check out its Old Town, which is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a south-east Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Explore the beautiful Japanese Covered Bridge, which was built in the 1590s.

And as if to show people with links to this part of the world are everywhere, one morning as we sat over breakfast in the Old Town, a French cafe owner recognised our accents as he is married to a woman from Portavogie and had got hitched here.

Hoi An is also home to what must be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, where we spent a lazy afternoon.

The city is also famous for its tailors, who can rustle up anything you wish overnight. I had a two-piece cashmere suit, two shirts and a tie custom-made for around £100 in total.

With the suitcase growing in size, thanks to my new purchases, our next and final stop was Ho Chi Minh city, the biggest city in the country with an estimated 12 million people living there (formerly Saigon so no prizes for guessing the name of the local beer).

Here we got some fascinating insights into the country’s troubled history and the impact the bloody and brutal Vietnam War had on the country.

It is worth booking a tour to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels which are about a two-hour drive from the city. This 250km-long network of underground passages was used by Viet Cong soldiers during the war with the US. They served as hiding places, hospitals, food and weapon caches, and living quarters.

We had a fascinating tour guide, Nguyen Congtuan (www.kimtravel.com), who served with the South Vietnamese Army which fought alongside American soldiers. He was able to give a first hand perspective of the war and even showed us the shrapnel still embedded in his face from one battle which almost killed him. The 71-year-old veteran also told how during the war, what is now a vast green space resembled a lunar landscape because of ceaseless bombing and deforestation by Agent Orange deployed by US forces.

Visitors can experience the tunnels first hand and crawl around the safer parts. Some tunnels have been widened to accommodate Western tourists.

In the city, visit the War Remnants Museum, a chilling but fascinating place. Here, the history of the war from 1955-1975 and its effects on the people is recorded from a huge collection of exhibits and work by war correspondents and photographers from all over the world.

The horrors of war are truly laid bare here with the stories and photographs about how three million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans were killed. You will also learn about the effects that Agent Orange is still having to this day with children being born with missing limbs and life-changing health complaints.

In a centre in the museum you can meet some of these wonderful people and hear their story. Despite all that happened the Vietnamese people I met were very forgiving and pragmatic.

The Vietnamese themselves are part of what makes this beautiful country so brilliant to visit. The country has achieved so much since the war and is such a mesmerising place that you need to see it for yourself.

Travel factfile

I travelled with Emirates from Dublin to Dubai and on to Hanoi, returning from Ho Cho Minh. 

Prices:

- Dublin to Hanoi, Economy Class Return inclusive of all taxes & charges – from around €742

- Dublin to Hanoi, Business Class Return inclusive of all taxes & charges – from around €2,879

- Dublin to Ho Chi Minh, Economy Class Return inclusive of all taxes & charges – from €729

- Dublin to Ho Chi Minh, Business Class Return inclusive of all taxes & charges – special fares from €2,785

The flights

- Emirates operates two daily departures from Dublin to Dubai with excellent onward connections.

- Passengers flying First Class with Emirates can enjoy a very generous baggage allowance of 50kg, In Business Class, 40kg and in Economy, up to 35kg.

- Lounge access and the airline’s chauffeur-drive service are available to both First and Business Class passengers. Your chauffeur will collect you from home for your journey to the airport and you will be met at your destination and taken to your hotel/accommodation. 

- All of Emirates’ customers can enjoy in-flight telephones, SMS and email and for the children, complimentary children’s activity packs.

- Ice is Emirates in-flight entertainment system, where  travellers can immerse themselves in up to 3,000 channels of movies, TV shows, games, audio books and music.

- In First and Business Class, passengers can enjoy lie-flat seats, integrated passenger seat control, massage enabled seats and a generously sized touch screen TV

- On the A380 (double decker aircraft) you can socialise in Emirates’ A380 On-board Lounge — exclusive to First Class and Business Class. Enjoy complimentary canapes, cocktails wines, champagne and beers.

- For bookings: www.emirates.ie or see your travel agent.

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