Con Dao


    A protected Marine Nature Reserve, the Con Dao Islands (of which Con Son is the largest and where you are likely to be staying) can be difficult to get to, with irregular flights from Ho Chi Minh City or an overnight ferry from Vung Tau.. but my goodness, it's worth it!

    I must confess, the highlight of any travelling around Vietnam for me is usually the food, yet the lack of any real eating options outside of the main hotels didn't still manage to disappoint, as the scenery around Con Dao is so spectacular you'll want to stay forever. I think of all the places I visited in Vietnam Con Dao was possibly one of the most beautiful I've seen.

    The islands of Con Dao have a tragic history - they lay completely unoccupied until the French occupied Vietnam and used the island as one large prison complex, where prisoners were shackled, starved and beaten, forced into hard labour and subjected to some particularly cruel and unusual punishment. Sadly when the Americans arrived to 'save' Vietnam from Communism they kept the prisons running, and made good use of one of the most barbaric elements, the 'Tiger Cages'; even once their horrific nature had been exposed in the US media they simply built another set deeper in the jungle so the journalists wouldn't find them.


    Hanoi

    Hanoi is Vietnam's capital, lies on the banks of the Red River. It is cosy with tree-lines, boulevards, lakes, parks, French colonial buildings, elegant squares..

    As the capital of Vietnam for almost a thousand years, Hanoi is considered to be the cultural centre of Vietnam, where every dynasty has left behind their imprint. Even though some relics have not survived through wars and time, the city still has many interesting cultural and historic monuments for visitors and residents alike.

    The Architecture of Hanoi

    tuantaFor starters, the boxy, concrete architectural design trends that swept through much of the world in the 1970s and 1980s mostly skipped right over Hanoi. As a result, Hanoi maintains a charming blend of French colonial architecture, mixed in with traditional Vietnamese designs, and now with very western-looking skyscrapers.

    The Old Quarter is one of the first places you'll want to visit in Hanoi if you love looking at old buildings. It's in this popular tourist spot that you'll find the famous Temple of Literature and other landmarks.

    Adam63Many of the French buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries remain in Hanoi, such as the Grand Opera House, the Presidential Palace, the National Museum of Vietnamese History, and St. Joseph Cathedral. The outsides of these buildings harken back to a previous chapter in Vietnam's history, while the insides are filled with relics of Vietnam's history and culture. Inside the National Museum of Vietnamese History, for example, you'll find antiques and displays that document the thousand years between the tenth century and the twentieth.

    Lakes of Hanoi

    Besides its buildings, Hanoi is especially well-known for its many lakes. In fact, there are so many lakes in Hanoi that it is sometimes referred to by its nickname, 'city of lakes'. The most famous lake is probably the West Lake, known in Vietnamese as Ho Tay. With its banks dotted by Buddhist temples, the West Lake is a great place to tour.

    Alexis Le-QuocHoan Kiem Lake is another popular lake amongst tourists. With a curious pagoda in the centre of the lake known as the Turtle Tower, and a legendary history that involves an emperor and a magic sword, Hoan Kiem Lake is one of those places in Hanoi that takes visitors back to another time.

    Shopping and Dining in Hanoi

    If history and urban green spaces aren't your sort of thing, you might be pleased to know that Hanoi is also home to many modern shopping centres. Though you might still find a traditional, open-air market in Hanoi's Old Quarter, these days the young and hip in Hanoi visit places like the Trang Tien Plaza and the Vincom City Towers.

    At the end of a long day of touring, walking, and shopping, you'll be ready to relax in one of Hanoi's restaurants. If you like Vietnamese food, you'll be sure to be delighted by the variety of food available in Hanoi. Be sure to ask what words on the menu mean before you; in North Vietnam diners do have somewhat more eclectic tastes than in the rest of Vietnam


    Saigon


      While it may not be the capital of Vietnam politically, you only need to spend a short time in Saigon to see how it the pace of change in the south is shaping the country. The largest city in the country, with over 6 million inhabitants (and over 8 if you count temporary residents), Saigon is a crowded, fast, noisy, and overwhelming place at first. Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll find there is an energy and vibrancy to the city that can be very infectious.

      Brimming with life, (HCMC or Saigon as the majority of its residents still call it) offers a great deal for travellers and expatriates alike. There's a great deal to see and do, and no shortage of delicious treats to eat, whether at top restaurants or equally delicious street stalls for a couple of dollars.

      The pace of change in the city is staggering - on a daily basis buildings are pulled down so newer, shinier ones can be erected in their place. In around ten years the city went from a city of 3,000,000 bicycles to 5,000,000 motorbikes, leading the Saigon's very unique brand of traffic. Now car use is on the rise gridlock threatens to set in, but it is yet another reminder of how fast lives are changing in HCMC, and how more and more people are working their way out of poverty.

      Yet with a closer look you can find beautiful old buildings as well as striking new ones, cool, calm cafes with gardens that are set back from the road to give you a moments rest from the madness outside, relaxing spas and cool pools to swim in.

      There's also a number of great day trips that can be done from the site, whether to Tay Ninh mountain and the Cao Dai temples in the North West, the famous Cu Chi Tunnels where the resistance launched sneak attacks on the US forces based in Saigon, boat trips to Vung Tau, the Mekong Delta or to Can Gio, the huge area of mangrove swamps to the south, known as 'the lungs of the city'.

      Related Links

      - Magazine with places to eat drink and more
      - Competing magazine with a good website
      - Great charity working to help the children of South Vietnam. Run the annual Saigon Cyclo Challenge event
      People's Committee of HCMC
      Chefmoz: HCMC More reviews of HCMC restaurants


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