There’s no denying the friendly feeling you get when you visit Vietnam. A profound sense of humanity and harmony infuses every aspect of this nation. It is also a mysterious and beautiful country – with 2,140 miles of coastline, bays crowded with a maze of limestone towers, French-flavored cities, soaring mountains and a river and delta system that hosts a rich array of wildlife and supports an ancient rural way of life. Gate 1 travelers witness it all in the most enriching manner possible.
Ho Chi Minh City: French Colonial Splendor and Colorful Markets
Named for Vietnam’s revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh City has deep roots in Southeast Asian culture and history. Yet this stunning city – the former Saigon – strikes a very French pose with its wide boulevards and glorious architecture, holdovers from the hundred-year French occupation that ended in 1955. The twin-spired, neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Basilica was built with materials imported from France. The Saigon Opera House carries echoes of the Petit Palais in Paris. Even the Post Office, designed by Gustave Eiffel after he erected his famous tower, stands as a stately remnant of the French.
Captivating though these are, the city’s most colorful and mesmerizing experiences are found in its markets, where you’ll soak in the true Vietnam. Dong Khoi Street, the main shopping thoroughfare, captures the pulse of the city with its colorful shops and aromatic food stalls. And at the bustling and intoxicating indoor emporium of Ben Thanh Market, an architectural beauty in its own right, all things Vietnamese can be found, from handicrafts to ao dai, the traditional silk tunic worn by women. But perhaps the most unique markets in the Ho Chi Minh area are the ones that float. Boat excursions from nearby Bach Dang Pier lead into a fascinating maze of canals, where ancient houses and canal-side stalls are orbited by traditional longboats laden with all manner of goods and produce plucked from local farms.
The Mekong Delta: Ancient Waterworld
Ho Chi Minh City is the gateway to the Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s vast and astonishingly beautiful network of waterways that spill into the South China Sea from the fabled Mekong River. River cruises are the most awe-inspiring way to connect with this forgotten world of stilt houses, narrow sampan boats, and locals sporting non la, the traditional straw hat.
In and around Cai Be Harbor, more than 500 vendors gather in boats and at dockside stalls to sell fruits, vegetables and handmade wares. It’s an intoxicating atmosphere, all unfolding in the shadow of the massive French Gothic Cathedral. More French influence lines the Mekong’s shores further upstream toward Sa Dec and the border city of Chau Doc. Here, old colonial mansions and merchant homes hug the river’s banks, boasting of a once-powerful empire.
Hoi An: A Journey Back to Ancient Asia
There is no place in the world like Hoi An, a remarkably preserved Southeast Asia trading port. The buildings and streets of its Old Quarter remain much as they were more than 500 years ago. As far back as the 8th century, when the Champa people called this place home, a thriving spice trade infused unprecedented wealth into the region. Much later, a vibrant trade with Japan, China, India and Holland lured settlers here from those countries. The city’s famous, bright-red Japanese Covered Bridge still straddles the canal that once led to the Japanese settlement.
With such a rich past, it’s easy to understand why Hoi An is an important UNESCO World Heritage Site. The spirit of its origins live on in the fascinating Old Quarter as artisans fashion paper lanterns and residents carry goods in wicker baskets hanging from sticks slung over shoulders. The Phuoc Kien Pagoda is one of the city’s more flamboyant structures. Built in 1692, today it serves as an Assembly Hall for locals.
Hue: A Once Great Capital
Though Hue was the capital of Vietnam for only 143 years, from 1802 to 1945, its cultural influence on the region has been immeasurable. This may be because the Nguyen Dynasty that ruled from here constructed such a vast and imposing complex of palaces and fortresses. Their Imperial City, badly damaged during the Tet Offensive of 1968, has undergone remarkable restoration. Its most notable structures are the 1.5-mile wall that surrounds it, the Imperial Enclosure, Thai Hoa Palace (or the Hall of Supreme Harmony), Hall of the Mandarins and the Forbidden Purple City, named after its Chinese counterpart. One especially priceless feature of the city are the Nine Dynastic Urns that stand in a row before the The Mieu Temple, specially cast in 1836 to celebrate the sovereignty of the dynasty.
Halong Bay: A String of Limestone Pearls
Halong Bay is arguably one of the world’s most scenic places. More than 3,000 islands rise from its shimmering waters, many of them several hundred feet in elevation. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is shrouded in myth and legend. According to one tale, the many islands were formed in Vietnam’s earliest days when it was vulnerable to invaders. The gods sent dragons to this coastline to protect the new country and they spat out jade and other jewels into the water. These precious stones linked together to protect the land from enemies approaching by sea. In another story, these towering islands suddenly appeared from the depths of the water in front of oncoming ships, leaving the enemy to crash into their rocky shores.
Sailing among this breathtaking archipelago is every traveler’s dream. The karst cliffs dwarf our ship, a traditional junk. Floating fishing villages cling to the shores of some islands and inviting sandy beaches line the shores of others. Within many of the hulking rocks, vast and echoing caves have a history all their own – each one a wonder of hanging stalactites, soaring stalagmites and small waterfalls.
Hanoi: The 1,000-Year-Old Capital
Hanoi recently celebrated its 1,000th birthday. For much of its history, it has been the political and cultural capital of the country, save for the brief period from 1802 to 1945 when Hue held that title during the Nguyen Dynasty. During the nation’s more turbulent times, it was the capital of French Indochina (1902-1954) and of North Vietnam (1954-1976).
Like in Ho Chi Minh City, the city’s French colonial influence is prevalent in the glorious architecture. But more than 50 ethnic groups have also shaped Hanoi and the surrounding region; many of their stories and cultural relics are on exhibit at the Museum of Ethnology. But perhaps nowhere is the nation’s heritage more dramatically represented than in the world-renowned water puppetry that originated here. These fascinating shows are performed over a pool of water, depicting ancient folktales and long-cherished lore set to traditional music and Cheo, a form of opera.
So Many Ways to Explore Vietnam with Gate 1 Travel
By land or by water, Gate 1 Travel offers so many ways to experience Vietnam. Our Classic Vietnam program shows you the best of all the major cities, including Halong Bay. You can also combine explorations of this remarkable country with time in its neighboring countries throughout Southeast Asia: Cambodia,Thailand, and Laos. And to witness life along the Mekong River, embark one of our thrilling river cruises. These enriching journeys feature glimpses of village and city life along this legendary waterway, with hotel stays in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon); the Cambodian city of Siem Reap, gateway to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat; and Thailand’s temple-strewn capital of Bangkok.
No matter how you choose to explore Vietnam with Gate 1 Travel, you’ll enjoy comfortable accommodations every step of the way, the expert and welcoming services of our Tour Managers, and generous features that bring the local culture to life – all at the Gate 1 value you know and love.
We hope to see you in Vietnam!