I first visited Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in 1995; Vietnam tourism was evolving and beginning to take root as an integral part of daily life in major cities. By my next visit in December 2012, tourism was booming. Brand-name hotels shared the skyline near the legendary Rex Hotel. Restaurants catering to Western palates were popular and street vendors could be found on nearly every corner. Vibrant art galleries and souvenir shops were sprouting up, while every mom and pop seemed to offer visits to local food markets combined with cooking classes. Fast-forward to a recent visit in June 2019: The historic district of Hanoi has become a frenetic mecca of consumerism with a plethora of coffee shops, bars, fast-food venues, gold shops, and boutique hotels with elegant spas and souvenir shops.
The historic core of the lovely, slower-paced “lantern town” of Hoi An has given way to tailor boutiques, juice bars, foot-massage spas, and souvenir shops that spill into the street. The Vietnamese merchants have become consummate purveyors of consumer services, products, and goods. But my mission was to rediscover the graceful and charming Vietnam I was smitten by so many years ago. And it’s still possible to uncover, with all its bewitching charms.
Pandaw’s Halong Bay and Red River Cruise
Pandaw’s Halong Bay and Red River Cruise offers a journey into village life, tribal communities, floating fish farms, Buddhist and Taoist temples, local markets, festivals, and traditions while gliding down the Red River Delta and its tributaries. Tourist cruise ships don’t sail here, due to the shifting river sands and shallow depth, which constantly changes according to the seasons. The RV Angkor Pandaw, with just 32 guests, has a very shallow draft, allowing access to many branches of the river (and villages untouched by mass tourism) and providing fascinating encounters.
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Unconventional boat-docking areas open a unique gangway to welcoming Vietnamese. One such docking area on the Lo River had guests exiting the RV Angkor Pandaw directly onto a local ferry filled with rice farmers and a motorcycle transporting a crush of chickens.
I smiled at an elderly woman perched on the wide edge of the ferry railing; she smiled back, showing off her black, betel nut–stained teeth, a great source of pride. We disembarked along a country road, ambling between the newly planted rice fields and were greeted by three delightful school children, age 12ish, who spoke very good English. They joined our group to promote tourism to the Viet Tri city area while practicing their English and guiding guests through the town’s sensory-overload farmer’s market. Unlike in Vietnam’s big cities, our children guides weren’t interested in selling us anything; they just wanted to show off their market and village. We passed plastic tubs overflowing with live fish, caged ducks with wings flapping, freshly plucked chickens and unusual produce, like hot-pink dragon fruit, mixed in with cheap plastic toys and ladies underwear.
Highlights of Vietnam Tourism
Our excursion continued to the ancient Hung Temple, where we learned how to fold square, stuffed, sticky-rice cakes used as offerings while worshipping ancestors. Fragrant green tea was graciously provided along with the temple’s high-octane rice wine, which….
By Mary H. Thieme
Photo: Pandaw River Cruises