The best of Vietnam, from north to south

Sapa

Dramatic peaks and rice terraces of Sapa

From the heights of plunging mountain vistas at the top of the world in northern Vietnam to the watery depths of the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, a tour through this long, skinny country is ever-changing.  Covering Vietnam from end to end in two separate visits I found extravagant scenery, affordable travel, friendly people and delectable foods. From the commercial nerve center of Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by many residents, in the south, to the beaches and cultural attractions of Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hue in the middle, and up to the din and bustle of Hanoi in the north, there are innumerable sights to behold. But of all that I have seen and done in Vietnam, two areas stand out above all others: Sapa and the Mekong Delta. Unfortunately for the visitor with limited time, they are on opposite ends of the country, 1,270 miles (2,047 km) apart.

On many levels, including culture, attitude, food and dress, there are significant differences between north and south, and in my experience visitors tend to prefer one over the other, with different people falling into either camp. Stereotypes about Northerners center around perceived differences, with Northerners considering themselves more refined and thrifty and Southerners believing they are more dynamic and less conservative. Southerners, who tend to embrace Western attitudes and commerce, consider themselves foodies and relish their nightlife, while Northerners, taking more influence from neighboring China, can be more traditional and formal.  In regards to food south Vietnam has been influenced by multiple ethnic groups, while in the North the food tends to be more monotonous, though it is the birthplace of Vietnam’s most famous dish, pho.  Linguistically, different regions use 4, 5 or 6 tones, and although Vietnamese from different regions can generally understand each other, between differences in accents, tones and words it can be challenging. For example, when I tried to learn a few basic words in Vietnamese I found that the words for man and woman (important for distinguishing bathrooms) were different. In south it was usually ong and ba, while in the north it was usually nem and nu.

Sapa

Two Black H'mong young women in traditional dress

Two Black H'mong young women in traditional dress

Sapa, located in the high mountains of northern Vietnam, is like a fairyland of dramatic, crested landscapes. Just a few miles from the Chinese border at the tail end of the Himalayan chain is the charming French hill station of Sapa.  Turn in any direction and jagged peaks, softened by cotton-candy clouds crowning the summits, lie before you.  Vivid green rice terraces, cultivated by the ethnic H’mong tribes who have called this foreboding place home for generations, march down the steep slopes to the river valleys far below.  The Black H’mong, known for their almost black indigo fabric, still wear their tradition costume of leggings applied by wrapping thick strips of fabric, loose pants and colorfully embroidered tunic. Men and women, together with massive water buffalo, tend to the crops as they have for centuries, cultivating rice and tending to their farm animals corralled in front of their simple houses.

Trekking tours and homestays with H’mong families afford visitors a rare glimpse into a unique lifestyle, and although many tourists flow through the area it remains an exceptional experience.

Mekong Delta

Dragon fruit

Load of dragon fruit on the Mekong River

The Mekong Delta shares a couple of things in common with Sapa, but otherwise they are complete opposites. Rice cultivation is the primary focus in both areas, and they share a link with the Himalaya, as the Mekong River, which forms the vast delta region, originates in a tiny stream high in the Himalaya, over 3,000 miles distant.  The Mekong Delta, however, is a watery world where transportation is often easier by boat than vehicle, and where flooding regularly alters the landscape. In addition to rice cultivation, aquaculture thrives, with many families raising fish in large nets suspended under their houseboats. Floating markets attract farmers from far and wide, peddling the fruits of their labor in a cacophony of water borne activity.  Boats laden with tropical fruits and vegetables of vibrant hues such as dragon fruit, mangoes, cabbages, and carrots ply the waterways. Commerce finds a way to thrive, and all manner of floating cafes, bars and gas stations supports the marine lifestyle.

Tours of the Mekong Delta offer the opportunity to stay in houseboat hotels and drift through the hubbub of floating markets.

Travel Logistics

Travelers to Vietnam usually arrive in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Sapa is accessed from Hanoi, while Ho Chi Minh City is the jumping off point for the Mekong Delta. While independent travel is possible, it’s almost impossible to travel as cheaply or efficiently compared to joining a 2 or 3-day tour. Any hotel or travel agent can arrange for a tour, with prices varying according to the level of luxury desired. In Hanoi and throughout Vietnam, a widely used operator is Sinh Café, while in Ho Chi Minh City, Kim Travel is an option.

If time permits, follow the well-worn tourist trail up or down the central coast, visiting Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Nha Trang and other hot spots. If time is limited Vietnam airlines offers relatively inexpensive flights between domestic destinations, while day and overnight trains and buses are popular alternatives, with the train being the more comfortable option in most cases.

Vietnam has much to offer, from beautiful vistas and fascinating history to ease of travel and welcoming people. Sapa and the Mekong Delta are two remarkable examples of the best of Vietnam, where visitors can step, for a brief moment in time, into another world.

Information:

Sinh Café
Sales office #1
19 Hang Bac St., Hanoi
Tel: (+844) 39263625 or 39263626
Hotline: (+84) 913382721

Kim Travel
270 De Tham St.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
08/836-9859

Getting there:

Airlines providing service from the U.S. to Vietnam include United, Delta, Singapore Air and Vietnam Airlines with airfare running about $1,500 and higher with one or two stops to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Flight time is about 17 hours or more.  Check Kayak for more information.

All photos by Inga Aksamit

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