A swarm of western backpackers plagues South East Asia, united by one thing: a tendency to wax lyrical about the various places they visit. But which places are these, and what is so captivating about them? This summer, I spent two short weeks backpacking down Vietnam to find out.
Of course, I fell in love with Hoi An. The tranquil riverside setting, the high-end fashion boutiques, peeling ochre buildings and cascading bougainvillea all recall a Mediterranean setting, but Hoi An has its own distinct character. The ‘Reaching Out Teahouse’ drew us back time and again: a social initiative employing speech and hearing impaired staff, the teahouse embraces the sound of silence as customers seek respite from the bustle of the street. Delicate biscuits and refreshing teas are served exquisitely in china handmade in their arts and crafts workshop. With its quiet garden courtyard and peaceful atmosphere, the ‘Reaching Out Teahouse’ is an oasis. Equally compelling was lunch in the covered market: sandwiched like sardines on metal benches, backpackers and locals alike guzzle ‘Cao Lau’ and ‘White Rose’ from street food stalls. But the influence of ever-encroaching tourism can certainly be felt: many of these stalls have TripAdvisor reviews, and certificates on display.
Hanoi, however, seemed a little less geared up to tourists. Here I got more of a sense of the living, functioning city: locals squatted on pavements to consume their morning bowl of street food rice, and in the evening they gathered by the lakeside to lift weights in communal exercise areas. Many visitors are put off and overwhelmed by the noise, pollution and general busyness of this city. Overwhelming it is, but I found myself warming to it. The higgledy-piggledy rooftops, thick clumps of cascading telegraph wires, and the colourful buzz on the streets at night has its own special appeal.
The complete opposite to Hanoi was Phong Nha, a UNESCO World Heritage site and national park comprising three hundred caves and grottoes. Although rapidly making its mark on the tourist trail, Phong Nha is still a peaceful stop-off. Relaxing pool-side in the hammocks under the banana trees is the preferred way to end a day of cave exploration. Some of the sights are breath-taking: Paradise Cave is an other-worldly, cathedral-like space illuminated by ghostly lighting effects, and a dragon boat ride down-river will take you deep into the mouth of Phong Nha Cave, used by the Vietnamese during the war against the Americans to hide their ammunition and equipment.
But from a historical point of view, the most interesting of all the places I visited in Vietnam was the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh. From a harrowing exhibition about the victims of Agent Orange to the war machinery in the forecourt, this museum brings to life the horrors of the US-Vietnam war, and is a chilling reminder of the scars still carried by many Vietnamese citizens today. It was worth visiting Ho Chi Minh for this experience alone. As a backpacker, it is all too easy to be distracted by the party lights and the cheap elephant trousers and to overlook the suffering inflicted by recent history on the Vietnamese people.