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Olly's Asia adventure

by Oliver Lomas on 28 September 2012, 15:09PM Olly's Asia adventure

Holed up in a Ho Chi Minh street-side café, slurping (unashamedly loudly) my way through a bowl of noodles and casually spectating at the fast-paced sport that is Vietnamese daily life, I plot my next move.

It’s a trickier task than it sounds because as soon as I step into the sea of pedestrians and motorcyclists, I am committed to participating in the game – no time for second thoughts, wrong decisions or hesitations. In short, if you are standing still in Vietnam, you are probably the only one doing so…

Indeed, you don’t so much as visit Vietnam as become immersed in its lifestyle of relentless activity that will entrance and bewilder in equal measures.

It would be easy to categorise Vietnam as akin to south-east Asia’s other big draw Thailand, but for a country immortalised in modern history books, there is no hard sell here – just endemic charm, beauty and intrigue at every turn.

Taking advantage of the new Vietnam Airlines route operating out of London Gatwick offering cheap flights to Vietnam, we chose to fly into Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) with Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong airline excelling with its friendly staff, enjoyable food and copious entertainment options, making the long-haul flight feel considerably shorter.

Stepping out into Ho Chi Minh for the first time, my senses immediately pique to register the hive of activity unfolding with every glance. Even from our impressive vantage point in the hotel opposite the famous Bin Than Market, shops appear to spill out onto pavements, traffic follows no obvious direction and locals mingle loudly in the many corner-shop cafes.

Generating an unmistakable vibe that buzzes day and night, you can’t help but admire Ho Chi Minh City from the sidelines with a drop of the local tipple and a spot of fresh – and alarmingly spicy – food, including Vietnamese spring rolls, a traditional Pho or even a crusty baguette, a relic of Vietnam’s French colonial roots.

Inevitably, the legacy of the Vietnam War remains in evidence at most turns and weduly took time to learn more about the infamous conflict that raged between 1955 and 1975.

Key to the Vietnamese war effort was the guerrilla tactics it employed to spurn rival forces, most notably the fascinating Cu Chi tunnels that were dug by the Viet Cong to connect villages and towns using an intricate network of burrows. Stretching some 250km, the Cu Chi tunnels included underground weapon factories, kitchens and even hospitals, while we were also shown the many man traps intended to catch out enemy soldiers.

Getting the opportunity to travel through one of the tunnels, we descended into the dimly lit burrow and struggled our way across. When you consider this tunnel had been widened for tourist comfort, you realise there would have been nothing remotely comfortable about them when they were being used day-in, day-out more than 40 years ago.

Squinting in the sun light as we concluded an otherwise eye-opening half-day tour, we turned intrepid adventurer for the afternoon by following a walking tour of Ho Chi Minh City as recommended in the guidebook. As well as taking time to sample more of the city’s excellent value culinary delights, we got a glimpse of Vietnam’s iconic Reunification Palace, City Hall and the Saigon Notre Dame – another nod to its French connections.

Swapping the hustle and bustle of the city for somewhere altogether more sedate, we ventured into the more rural region of Mekong Delta. As the colour of the landscape turns greener the further you explore, we took great pleasure in learning how to make rice noodles, coconut candy and honey as tutored by the friendly and welcoming locals.

Our highlight, however, was the floating market, where various wares and products balance precariously on large boats and you sail, rather than walk, between the ‘stalls’. Unusual, and a bit hectic as oars clash and boats bump, it’s still an excellent opportunity to sample an occurrence that, while quirky to us, happens every day here.
Naturally, no visit to Vietnam is complete without taking advantage of the country’s many splendid beachside locations. Once a knowing wink between those fortunate enough to have discovered something akin to its more famous south-east Asian counterpart Thailand, we discovered a small island north of Nha Trang on which to relax, swim and dive in peace.

Once refreshed, we continued our route along the fringe of the glittering South China Sea, arriving in the UNESCO protected town of Hoi An, which offered a glimpse of Vietnam at its most beautiful and authentic. From the picturesque coastal scenery, to the enigmatic charm of the ‘Old Town’, Hoi An was a fine destination to reduce the pace and enjoy Vietnam’s calmer side.

We were even fortunate to witness a floating lantern display, the delicate ‘beacons’ slowly travelling along the river as they colourfully brightened up the night sky.

Heading further north, via an internal flight, we arrived in the capital city of Hanoi. Vietnam’s centrepiece, Hanoi is just as lively as Ho Chi Minh in the south, with its intriguing tapestry of streets that wend between countless market stalls and a population that busily goes about its daily life around you.

We didn’t stay in Hanoi for long, instead opting to take advantage of its gateway towards the stunning Halong Bay. One of Vietnam’s most popular sites, Halong Bay is characterised by its hundreds of limestone islands, shrouded coves and hidden beaches, each flourishing in a palette of spectacular colour.

After boarding our boat, we sailed between the vertical cliff faces and past islands poking out the water, an extraordinary setting that had me reaching for the camera every few seconds.Furthermore, we also got the chance to stay a night in a traditional Junk-style boat, complete with a fresh seafood dinner.

It was a fitting end to our Vietnam adventure, the traditional accommodation, delicious cuisine and breathtaking scenery of that moment indicative of this intriguing country as a whole.

Departing for the second leg of our Asian jaunt, we arrived in Hong Kong and quickly discovered exactly why it is forging a reputation as one of the world’s most revered holiday destinations.

Crossing over to Hong Kong Island, where the city’s iconic skyline is to be admired, the glittering array of glass-faced structural marvels rise from the ground as a literal display of this metropolises’ glowing ambitions. Home to 1,223 skyscrapers at last count, the imposing buildings double up in the reflective waters of Victoria Harbour, a spectacle enhanced when the sun sets as bold flickering lights and lasers burst forth to pierce the night sky in what is referred to as the ‘Symphony of Lights’.

Kicking back in the lavishly appointed 4* Cosmopolitan Hotel, we appreciated the luxurious amenities, which included flat-screen televisions, tea and coffee making facilities anda comfortable seating area, not to mention the striking views across the inner-city Lucky Valley Racecourse.

Ideally situated for us to explore the city centre, when we weren’t craning our necks skyward towards the distant summit of the buildings, we were indulging in the plethora of shopping and entertainment opportunities – including the vast IFC Mall – and sampling some authentic Dim Sum from one of the many street vendors.

Taking to the Star Ferry for a cruise between Hong Kong Island and the district of Kowloon on the mainland, the spectacular views are rivalled only by those to be enjoyed from the top of Victoria Peak, which presides over the city.

Indeed, a vantage point isn’t hard to find in Hong Kong, whether you are travelling by tram to Victoria Peak, skipping between the escalators that link some of the harder to reach streets or supping an exotic cocktail on a rooftop terrace.

Hong Kong may have once had an image of being a mere stop-over on your wider travels, but the depth and breadth of this fascinating city is such that it deserves more than a couple of days to really scratch beneath its shiny surface.

Get blissfully lost in the labyrinth of streets, allow your senses to guide you and indulge your adventurous spirit as you explore beyond the obvious… Being unprepared has never been more rewarding!

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