hether clients are ecotourists,
history buffs, culture vultures, shopaholics or war veterans, they
are likely to find something of interest in Vietnam.
During my two-week visit, we split our time largely between
Hanoi, the capital city, and Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial hub
of the nation.
No matter where I traveled, I found the Vietnamese people to be
friendly and warm toward U.S. visitors, a bit surprising
considering the history between the two countries.
I asked one tour guide in Ho Chi Minh City how they could be so
He told me the sentiment is best expressed in a quote from the
current leader of the Communist party in Vietnam. "He said, 'You
cannot change the past. What you can change is the future.' We want
to work with the United States. We want to be friends."
First stop, Hanoi
Hanoi, with about 4 million residents, has a thriving old
quarter at its center, where motorbikes buzz past row upon row of
shops selling everything from lacquerware to custom-made clothing,
souvenirs and other items. The city's lakes provide calm areas
inside the city limits, notably Hoan Kiem Lake, where the
18th-century Ngoc Son Temple sits on a tiny island reached by a
One of the most pleasurable -- and unique -- ways to tour the
city is aboard a cyclo, the bicycle-based, human-powered taxis that
ply the streets (although they mostly just serve tourists now).
Other top attractions include the Temple of Literature, a
beautiful example of traditional Vietnamese architecture built in
A more recent attraction is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex,
where visitors can see the preserved body of the founder of
modern-day Vietnam, who died in 1969.
Unfortunately it was closed during my visit for its annual
two-month fall maintenance. Also closed was the nearby Ho Chi Minh
Museum, although we were able to visit the stilt house where he
lived. We walked past the stately Presidential Palace, which was
constructed in 1906 as the Palace of the Governor General of
Indochina -- one of many historical structures in Vietnam that have
served more than one purpose during various governmental eras.
Another building in this category is the Fine Arts Museum housed
in the former French Ministry of Information. The building today
has an impressive array of paintings, sculptures and other works of
Clients interested in military history will want to visit the
Army Museum (which once served as French barracks), where full-size
tanks and jet fighters sit outside buildings with detailed exhibits
about military campaigns through the years.
Most first-time visitors to Hanoi set aside an evening to attend
the Water Puppet Theater, part of an ancient Vietnamese tradition
that dates back some 1,000 years and still dazzles visitors with
its carved puppets that glide over the water, accompanied by live
music, depicting legends and local lore.
Halong Bay is one of the top destinations for overnight and day
trips from Hanoi. Frequently featured in brochures and magazine
articles, the bay is dotted with thousands of dramatic limestone
islands and populated with houseboats.
Cruises aboard small wooden vessels can include lunch and take
anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of nights and include
visits to huge caverns.
Ho Chi Minh City
Hanoi is best viewed from the slow-moving seat of a cyclo, but
Ho Chi Minh City has moved beyond that. It simply has outgrown the
relaxing vehicles in favor of thousands of motorbikes and a faster
pace (although hotel guests are routinely approached by the few
cyclo drivers who remain).
The largest city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City retains much of
the allure it had when it was called Saigon. Many people still call
it Saigon, in fact (and the airport code is still SGN), although
officially the name only applies to District 1 -- there are 16
urban districts in all.
The capital of what was once South Vietnam, it is today the
nation's economic powerhouse and is traversed by several broad,
French-style boulevards. Much of the tourist activity takes place
in District 1, near the major hotels.
One of the most popular sites is the War Remnants Museum, a
sobering collection of exhibits, weapons and devices used during
the war (which in Vietnam is called the American War). Few exhibits
so graphically show the tragedy of war, regardless of the side on
which one is fighting.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum offers exhibits about the city itself. The
museum is housed in an 1886 neoclassical building once called Gia
Equally fascinating is Reunification Palace, which is much the
same as it was when it was known as Independence Palace or the
In 1975, Communist tanks crushed the gates at the Palace and
took control of South Vietnam. Once the south's version of the
White House, its original mid-1960s furnishings have been
preserved, right down to the rows of telephones and an underground
communications center that South Vietnamese officials once
Earlier parts of Vietnam's history are evident throughout the
city, including Notre Dame Cathedral, built during the French
colonial era, and temples and pagodas dating back much further.
More recent history can be celebrated at Pho 2000, a budget-priced
restaurant that attracts tourists by the busload; this is where the
Clintons had lunch during their visit nearly four years ago.
Day trips offer glimpses into other interesting aspects of the
region. We visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, where endless miles of
underground corridors, barracks, meetings rooms and other
facilities served the Viet Cong for years, keeping them well hidden
from U.S. and South Vietnamese government troops. You can fire a
gun in the firing range ($1 a bullet), learn how rice wine and rice
paper are made and even crawl through a small segment of the
underground system (although claustrophobia prevented me from doing
During the same day trip, we also visited the Caodai Great
Temple, the Holy See of a religion founded in the early 20th
century. Caodaism combines what its founder considered the best
aspects of Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam, Taoism and
Its colorful Great Temple -- site of a daily religious service
-- is visited by many tour groups.
For more information, contact the Embassy of the Socialist
Republic of Vietnam, 1233 20th St. NW, Suite 400, Washington D.C.
20036; phone (202) 861-0737; fax (202) 861-0917; e-mail [email protected] or visit the Web at www.vietnamembassy-usa.org.
To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to
[email protected] .
Room key: Renaissance Riverside Hotel
Address: 8-15 Ton Duc Thang St., District 1, Ho
Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Phone: (84) 8 822 0033
Fax: (84) 8 235 666
Reservations: (800) HOTELS-1
General Manager: Christiane Wasfy
Rates: Special rates start as low as $90, plus 5%
service charge and 10% government tax.
Location: In the city center, across the street
from the river.
Built: Opened in 1999
Review: Centrally located in District 1, the
349-room property has lovely river views, and a relaxed, upscale
ambiance. It's easy walking distance to several tourist
attractions, business addresses, and nightlife. In spite of the
hotel's size, it has a classy, uncluttered lobby, with live
classical music greeting guests every evening. On-site facilities
include the Riverside Cafe, which serves a mix of Eastern and
Western cuisine, the upscale Kabin Chinese restaurant, and a Lobby
Lounge. The property also has a nicely sized rooftop pool,
well-maintained health club with steam, sauna and spa services, a
business center and meeting/event facilities including the Grand Me
Linh Room, which seats up to 136 guests, banquet-style. Well worth
the extra fee (which is only about $25 per night) is an upgrade to
the Renaissance Club, which includes separate check-in/check-out,
extra in-room amenities and access to a lounge with an extensive
complimentary breakfast buffet, evening cocktails and hors
d'oeuvres, snacks and beverages throughout the day, and
complimentary Internet access for 20 minutes per day in the