Go to Vietnam, The Country That Switched Out Its Weapons of War for A Set of Clubs

Improved Vietnam Map

These days, the last word you should associate with Vietnam is war. While it’s true that the Vietnamese have never been a people to say die, they are also some of the most welcoming, resilient, sophisticated and creative individuals you’ll have the pleasure of meeting in times of peace. A melange of Indochinese and Gallic influences, Vietnamese culture is an effortless marriage of seemingly disparate elements. One bite into a baguette filled to bursting with pate, cilantro and chilli and a morning walk past rows of beautifully preserved colonial houses, you might find yourself wondering why we see East and West as binary oppositions and not as two sides of the same coin. While the Vietnamese and their culture are a huge part of the allure, one must not neglect to mention their delightful homeland. A lush, humid locale with every sort of tropical topography in the book, from temperate highlands to steamy jungles to beaches, it’s a splendid canvas upon which the resourceful, artistic Vietnamese have left their indelible mark.

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The sun dappling the lush green patchwork of Bac Ha Valley. Source: Hai Thinh

The misty hills play host to a vast rainbow of tribal villages and the immense Mekong river snaking along the south has been fertile ground for a vibrant semi-aquatic culture centered around sampans, stilt villages, fish farms and the occasional pet python. Unsurprisingly, this land of beauty and possibilities is becoming quite the mecca for golf travelers. Could the country produce the world’s next big PGA player? We certainly think so.

A Brief History

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Ferocious Viet Cong soldiers. Source: peteralanlloyd.com

You’d never have known it from meeting the Vietnamese people today, but theirs is a history of constant uprising against opportunistic foreign invaders. They’ve had to face down a rather diverse array of oppressors, first the Chinese, then the Mongols, then the French and most famously of all, the United States. And amazingly, all these powerful enemies have had to retreat with their tails between their legs when they discovered the hard way that the people of this small, unassuming nation are no pushovers. Tough, brilliant fighters that do perfectly fine even in the absence of an army, the Vietnamese would rather die than relinquish their autonomy and they’d have every intention of taking you with them. So if you’re thinking of doing a spot of colonizing while there, just don’t.

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A parade in honor of the badass Trung sisters in Saigon, 1957. Source: Wikipedia

The first invaders the Vietnamese had to stand up to were the Chinese. The Chinese ruled over them for 1,000 years, during which they profoundly influenced Vietnamese culture. But their unwilling subjects had had enough and the Trung sisters were the first to put up a substantial resistance effort by creating their own independent state in 43 AD. Although their eventual defeat led them to commit suicide, the sisters paved the way for their successor, Ngo Quyen, who bested them in 938 and made Northern Vietnam its own country with Central Vietnam as a vassal. After fending off hordes of Mongols in the 13th C and the Chinese again in the 15th C, Vietnam became a stable, prosperous nation.

Cue French occupation in 1883. The French charged the Vietnamese heavy taxes for basic infrastructural projects like railways. Of course, they didn’t take that lying down either. A certain someone named Ho Chi Minh began resistance efforts from the safety of China in 1925. His Revolutionary Youth League eventually became the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1930. It was a long difficult struggle for independence that culminated in a 57-day siege that brought about French surrender in 1954. After that, the Vietnamese communists only had the world’s greatest superpower to contend with.

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During the Vietnam (or American?) War, women didn’t just sit at home and make Vietnamese sandwiches. Source: Minh Truong

The US invaded the country on the pretext of dubious “unprovoked attacks on two American ships off Vietnamese shores. The longest, most brutal war in Vietnamese history followed, resulting in many casualties before Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Cong forced US soldiers off Vietnamese soil with the Tet Offensive. A rare period of peace followed and has continued well into today, with both sides having worked out their differences and reopened diplomatic relations in 1995.

Golf in Vietnam

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Caddie gear’s a little different in Vietnam. Stock photo

Thanks to its long, tumultuous past, Vietnam hasn’t had much time to make a true pastime of golf. The first sign of it came with the French invaders, who built the first course in Dalat in 1922. However, hasn’t stopped IAGTO from voting the country 2012’s “Undiscovered Golf Destination of the Year”. There are 35 golf courses scattered all across the country, some of them award-winning. The best are mainly concentrated along coastal areas like Danang and Nha Trang, with The Bluffs at Ho Tram Strip now considered one of the best courses in the world. You would be wise to get on that before the rest of the world belatedly catches on.

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Safety

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Happy minority chicas. Source: customvietnamtravel.com

You could not be safer here, even if you’re a woman traveling alone. The most you’d have to worry about is petty crime. Try to avoid wearing flashy jewelry or flaunting expensive things that could draw attention to you. Snatch thieves on mopeds are always on the lookout for new victims and may not hesitate to snatch at a handbag you’re holding too loosely. Also, just comport yourself with extra caution in the demilitarized zone, where loose bits of explosives could cause you serious injury. Other usual precautions apply. Don’t do drugs, stay away from prostitutes and be on the lookout for scammers. You’ll be fine.

Day 1-Ho Chi Minh City

  • Breakfast on pho or banh mi
  • Drift along the Mekong Delta and soak in its colorful inimitable culture
  • Browse Ho Chi Minh’s shops in search of the perfect decorative tchotchke
  • Feast on slippery banh canh cua
  • Dive into the jovial drinking scene at a raucous bia hoi

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Cyclists speeding by Ben Thanh Market. Source: trulyvietnamtours.com

Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s most frenetic metropolis. Everywhere you turn on the streets, you’ll be surrounded by a dizzying array of cyclos rolling like scattered marbles on every street, regardless of the painted lines on asphalt. You’ll also feel like you’re traversing different worlds on every street instead of a single city. One moment, you’ll be walking along an alleyway flanked by upmarket art shops. Then make a turn and you might come across a grand French colonial opera house, an incense-laden temple, or a hole-in-the-wall pho joint where everyone’s slurping on noodles perched on plastic kiddie stools. The contrasts the city offers are only made richer by its very recent past, which lives on in the memories of the previous generation and in monuments like the War Remnants Museum. The looming presence of the past could be sobering in any other city, but here, it only serves to show you how far everyone has come.

Drop off your baggage at Ma Maison Hotel, which is located off bustling Cach Mang Thang Tam St. The hotel has just 12 rooms and is meant to cater the the French art aficionado in you, with its Provence-inspired decor and wide range of art on display. Great. Breakfast is next on the agenda. As a general rule of thumb, eating is best done where the locals congregate in the densest droves. Also, taking a taxi is very cheap and you can walk to a lot of places, so the city’s all yours. We’d recommend either Banh Mi, the quintessential Vietnamese sandwich, or pho. They’ll be better than anything you’ve ever tasted in Chinatown at home. Don’t forget your ice-cold cup of Vietnamese coffee to wash it all down with.

When you’ve eaten your fill, freshen up for your tour of the “rice bowl” of Vietnam, a.k.a the Mekong Delta. It’s a literal universe away from the bustling center of HCMC, where people conduct much of their livelihoods in boats and floating villages or on tiny offshore islands. You’ll be staggered by the size of the Mekong itself, which is a monstrous, sluggish river that stretches choppy and mud-brown as far as the eye can see.

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Mekong’s Floating Market is the Delta at its most chaotic. Source: saigoncitytours.com

The highlight, however, is the diverse cultures that have molded their lives around this huge tributary that make the trip worth it. You’ll see fruit orchards, paddy fields, mangroves, smiling vendors selling their wares on floating markets, flower nurseries and children carousing on the backs of water buffalo. Be sure to board a tiny sampan headed for the little islands on the river, where you travel along boat canals fringed by dense thickets of palm, only to emerge onto a jetty leading to a tiny village where coconut candy is made and sold and the kids keep massive pythons as pets.

When you come back, take advantage of the Vietnamese pride in artistry and peruse the craft shops lining the streets of Ho Chi Minh. Cheap and of impeccable quality, the handicrafts are a joy to browse for and would brighten up the most disheveled hovel. Look out for lacquerware, paintings, ceramics, silks, rosewood boxes and woodblock prints. Have dinner at Kim Long, where banh canh cua is dished out.

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Banh Canh Cua. Source: foodiefc.blogspot.com

Banh canh cua is Vietnam’s answer to udon, with thick noodles made from tapioca flour, rice flour, or both. It comes swimming in a rich, unctuous crab soup that transforms the dish into a viscous, delectable mess. You can temper the richness by adding kick with chillies, green onion and fresh lime. Afterwards, head on to Bui Vien St, where you will have an endless selection of bia hoi, informal joints where old ladies deal out jugs of pale watery beer to both locals and backpackers looking for a relaxing evening and possibly a few new friends.

Day 2 – Ho Chi Minh City

  • Brave the heady traffic on a cyclo tour
  • Drop in on Binh Tay market, where the locals really shop
  • Be careful not to burn your mouth when you bite into piping hot banh xeo
  • Check out the Vietnam Golf and Country Club
  • Marvel at the claustrophobic Cu Chi Tunnels as you try to rein in a panic attack.
  • Keep warm by indulging in a claypot catfish supper.
  • Order an overpriced drink at the historic Rex Bar

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What you look like when you own the streets. Source: backpackingteacher.wordpress.com

We don’t know how you could possibly get a hangover from 3% beer, but if you’ve somehow managed it, nothing says pick-me-up like a cyclo tour throughout town. Yes, you get on the back of one of those precarious mopeds zipping in and out of traffic and let someone else do the death defying for you. It’s the true definition of a local’s-eye view of the place and you’ll probably stop off at one of the city’s many markets in the process. Be sure to get your daily dose of ca phe at Binh Tay market, located in Saigon’s Chinatown and a much more authentically Vietnamese market than the much touted Ben Thanh. When you get back to District 3, venture out to Banh Xeo 46A, the best spot to dine on the eponymous delicacy. Ban Xeo is a huge, crispy rice crepe enfolded around a savory mix of meat or shrimp, diced onion, mung bean and bean sprouts. Be sure to eat it fresh off the griddle, as it gets cold and soggy very quickly and that’s exactly what you don’t want. Dip it in pungent fish sauce to really get the most out the crispy, fluffy pancake.

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Vietnam CC. Source: saigon-online.net

Afterwards, grab your golf clubs and head to the Vietnam Golf and Country Club, the first 36 hole course in the country and the closest to Ho Chi Minh City’s center. It’s a public club, so no need to frantically dial tour agencies or the few Vietnamese people you know for access. After that, see if you can get a cab driver to take you a few hours out of town to the Cu Chi Tunnels. We feel like a trip out here is essential to any visit to Saigon, as you will never understand how truly dogged and determined the Viet Cong were to protect their turf of all costs.

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Claustrophobic tunnels are how the Viet Cong won the war. Source: hivietnam.vn

The tunnels form a network that stretches all the way to the Cambodian border, making for a vast, claustrophobic underground city. They are so narrow that a teenager could barely squeeze through, much less a full-grown American soldier. That was kind of the point. The much smaller-sized Viet Cong could only just crawl through the tunnels while any American chasing them would get hopelessly stuck and thus, vulnerable to bayonets closing in on him from either side. You will also see booby traps with vicious looking spikes hidden from the naked eye, ready to ensnare anyone clueless to the lay of the land. The idea was to advantage the locals, who were intimately familiar with the land, while silently ambushing and picking off any outsiders who stumbled in on the territory without a clue. Basically, the Viet Cong won the war from underground. You might be interested to note that many of the fiercest warriors were not trained fighters, but peasants and farmers, several of them women.

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Caramelized claypot catfish. Source: afar.com

All that talk of war will make you ravenous by the time you get back and we have just the antidote. The humble bottom-dwelling catfish is raised to new heights in Vietnamese cuisine and the best iteration of it is caramelized claypot catfish. Make your way over to Dong Hua Xuan in the Binh Tanh district, where the catfish is spicy and the gravy topped with a decadent layer of melted pork fat. Scarf it down with bowls of fluffy white rice while it’s still hot. Cap your night off with a silly, overpriced drink at the Rex Bar, where the American military commander’s daily war conferences, the “five o’clock follies”, were once held.

Day 3 – Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat

  • Silence your hunger pangs with nem nuoc
  • Grab hold of the local biker dudes, the Easy Riders, for the best tour you’ll ever have of the Vietnamese hills
  • Drinking coffee pooped out by a weasel

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An aerial view of the township. Source: stranfers.com

Dalat has always been a holiday town, even when the French were here. You’ll definitely see the Gallic influences everywhere you go in town, including a replica Eiffel Tower and berets aplenty worn about town. It’s no surprise people come here to get away from it all, with its temperate climate, minority villages and bucolic scenery. The main draw would be the hill tribes, which all form 33 distinct ethnic communities and are easily identified by their colorful garb and the babies clinging to their backs. You’ll also be able to enjoy a healthy dose of Vietnamese kitsch, supplied by such architectural oddities as the local ode to surrealism, the Hang Nga Crazy House.

You’ll be spoiling yourself a little by staying at the area’s premier luxury resort, the Ana Mandara Villas Dalat. Don’t worry, this is no ubiquitous McHotel. It’s actually a resort village among pine-scented hills where you can escape from life’s travails, but not the French influence so prevalent in this town.

If you wanted to, you could just not leave your very own luxury villa within its grounds for the duration of your stay. But you’re too hungry for that right now. Make your way out to Ba Hung, where you will get to try a local specialty, nem nuong. A friendly warning, after you’ve had a bite, you might never be able to go back to the stale, bland spring rolls at your Chinese take-away. You’ll be given crepe-thin sheets of rice paper, which you are free to fill to bursting with herbs, grilled pork patty, fried sweet corn and rice paper rolls, pickles and shallots. The only other seasoning you’ll need is a thick peanut dip. Dig in and marvel at how sophisticated and balanced Vietnamese food can be in both taste and texture.

Now, it’s time to embark on an excursion to the hills, the main reason you’re here. Dalat’s highlands are rich in natural wonders, diverse little tribal villages and local farms producing silk, strawberries and vegetables. The array of activities may seem dizzying, but we promise it’s totally possible to do them all. Enter the Easy Riders.

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These guys are the vigilantes of the tourism industry, swooping in to save the day when many a traveler has been stranded in Dalat without an agenda. They’re local biker dudes who take tourists on the back of their vintage Russian motorbikes to points of interest off the beaten track. At one point, they didn’t even have a website and sometimes still don’t really even speak English, but they are intimately acquainted with the Vietnamese highlands and will allow you unparalleled access to everyday life in the hills. They don’t have a website, so look for them on Truong Cong Dinh Street in front of the Hangout Cafe. Like we said, vigilantes. And your itinerary may change everyday.

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Spectacular Da Lat Waterfalls. Source: www.ultimate.travel

They might decide to take you to beautiful cataracts bubbling down the slopes or to a tiny minority settlement with a giant chicken greeting visitors at the gateway. Just one note on visiting the villages, please keep in mind that they are not mere tourist attractions. People actually live here. Don’t gawk, point, take pictures without permission or wander where you please. Think about how you would feel if some random foreigner was trampling over your vegetable patch.

When you’re back in Dalat, scope out an unassuming alleyway between numbers 32 and 34 on 3 Thang 2 Street. Therein lies your evening meal, pizza. Not really, more like rice paper grilled with egg, mild baby shrimp, sweet and spicy sauce and spring onions. You’ll savor it piping hot and rolled up in newspaper. Addictive stuff. Cap off your night with some weasel coffee, if your Easy Riders hadn’t stopped off at a plantation earlier today. Essentially, this is coffee that has been through the digestive tract of a weasel and pooped out for your pleasure. Delicious. No, really.

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Weasel coffee doesn’t look too appetizing like this. Source: jeffrapsis.blogspot.com

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But like this… mmmm. Source: adventurefoodie.blogspot.com

Day 4 – Dalat to Hoi An

  • Kick off your day at the Dalat Palace Gold Club
  • Sample Hoi An’s abundance of street food
  • Walk across the Japanese Covered Bridge
  • Experience old world Fujianese splendor at the Tan Ky family house
  • Take a date out for dinner to the Morning Glory, one of the best restaurants in town

Start off your day with bo kho at the Lien Hua Bakery. This is a hearty, chunky beef stew flavored with lemongrass and served with your choice of baguette or noodles. The best way to start off what is likely a cold, foggy highland morning for sure. Squeeze in a quick round of golf at the Dalat Palace Gold Club, a golf course that makes the most out of its setting with stunning views of the surrounding hill country and Xuan Huong Lake.

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Source: 1golf.eu

But stand there and admire the view for too long. Today, you will be heading to Hoi An, arguably the loveliest city in the country. It’s sort of like a low-key Indochinese Venice, with quaint buildings, tranquil canals and absolutely no traffic. Thanks to the city’s past as a trading point, you’ll encounter the full range of Far Eastern architecture here, from Japanese covered bridges to Chinese temples to tea warehouses. It seems that UNESCO would agree, as it’s made the city a World Heritage site.

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Hoi An’s lantern-lit appearance at dusk is a vision. Source: visa-vietnam.com.au

You’ll be landing in Danang and bussing it out to Hoi An an hour away. Drop your bags off at refurbished colonial mansion, Ha An Hotel, with just 24 individually decorated rooms and overlooking a quaint courtyard. It’s an easy walk away from the historic center, which is exactly where you want to be. You will be going local for lunch and picking up street food wherever you can find it. Morsels to look out for are green sentinel crab fritters, shrimp spring roll and pork skewers, fried pork toast, “white rose” dumplings (shrimp encased in translucent white dough molded into a rose shape) and xi ma (black sesame pudding). If you’d like to venture further afield, you could cross a bridge from the Old Quarter to tranquil Cam Nam village, located on an island on a gently flowing river lined with swaying starfruit trees. There you can try minced clams and “smashing rice paper”, crispy rice paper broken and dipped into fish sauce and chili. If you like food, you’ll never want for variety or quality in Hoi An.

We’d encourage you to spend as much of your limited time in Hoi An as possible. Like many other beautiful, old-world towns, it’s eminently walkable and practically built for aimless meandering in scenic alleyways that time forgot. Not that you’d go wrong any turn you take, but you should definitely make a special effort to see the Japanese Covered Bridge, Hoi An’s most emblematic structure comprising of statues of animals of the zodiac and the Tan Ky House, a perfectly preserved gem of a courtyard mansion that lasted a family seven generations.

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The Japanese Covered Bridge. Source: travelblog.org

Otherwise, you could just wander the many craft stores, arrange to have a suit made at one of the hundred-some tailor shops clamoring for your attention, or getting a coffee as you people watch by the serene river. Have dinner at one of the best restaurants in town, the Morning Glory. It’s all about putting a luxury spin on down-home dishes here. Don’t miss the mi quang (turmeric-tinged noodles with pork, shrimp, herbs and grilled rice paper in meat broth flavored with fish sauce) and the smoked eggplant. Have a drink at Tam Tam, a lively spot located in a bright yellow and green colonial edifice. Walk off your buzz along the river, admiring the city lights playing along its surface. You’re in Hoi An, you’ll never get enough of the river.

Day 5 – Hoi An to Hanoi

  • Join the elite at the Montgomerie Links Golf Course
  • Meander the medieval streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter
  • Scope out the descendants of a famous magical turtle at Hoan Kiem Lake
  • Beseech the gods for brain power at the Temple of Literature
  • Dine on pungent cha ca la vong at… Cha Ca La Vong

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At the right time, Montgomerie Links Golf Club looks like another planet. Source: vietnamgolfclub.org

After your breakfast in your hotel courtyard, say goodbye to Hoi An in style at the Montgomerie Links Golf Course, a private club located midway between Hoi An and Danang. Located within a rather exclusive little community, it’s been voted by Forbes as one of Asia’s top ten most elite golf clubs and is the perfect place for you if you need to begin the morning feeling important. Board your flight for Hanoi, one of the most picturesque world capitals you’ll encounter. It’s a simulating blend of crumbling French-influenced architecture with big city buzz and you’ll be hard-pressed on deciding whether it’s a small colonial town or a major Asian metropolis. We’d say it’s a bit of both, with a dash of frowning Soviet-style monumentalism in the guise of structures like Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. You’ll never quite be able to pin it down and that’s one of the most captivating things about it.

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Hanoi meandering along the banks of the Red River. Source: viaggiamo.it

Your abode for now, Maison d’Orient, is all about spice-themed rooms, handcrafted furniture and propaganda posters. Be sure not to miss the ginger tea that they never seem to run out of on the ground floor. Sate your appetite by heading on down to Dac Kim for Bun Cha, a Hanoi specialty of grilled pork, pork patties and vermicelli in a light fish soup. Dress liberally with tons of chili and garlic before digging in.

After your belly is full and your breath sufficiently pungent, you now have all the time in the world to explore Hanoi’s old quarter. One of the most distinctive things about the city is its medieval system of 36 anes, where each street is devoted to selling just one particular product. There’s a street devoted to selling jewelry, another to bamboo products and still another to textiles. This form of categorization spans 2,000 years and while the shops on each street no longer always sell just one thing, there are a few that still preserve their historical integrity. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

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Somehow, there is harmony amidst the chaos. Source: 48houradventure.com

Emerge from the dense labyrinth of streets onto Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of the city. There’s quite a tale behind this placid body of water with its charming little temple on an island. When Emperor Le Loi was readying himself for battle against Chinese invaders, a giant golden turtle apparently emerged from the lake to offer him an enchanted sword that proved to be the key to his victory.

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approach to Ngoc Son Temple

The Huc Bridge. Source: press.hotels.com

It’s Vietnam’s very own Lady of the Lake legend and you can catch the descendants of this very illustrious reptile swimming around, the endangered giant soft-shell turtle. Grab some cinnamon ice-cream and have a foray into the Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple dedicated to scholars and the pursuit of knowledge. It’s one of the very rare examples of traditional Vietnamese architecture in town.

In the evening, sup on cha ca, an aromatic dill, turmeric and fish soup, at Cha Ca La Vong. It’s back to Hoan Kiem Lake straight after to sip Hanoi beer at the most atmospheric bia hoi in town.

Day 6 – Hanoi

  • Learn to laugh at yourself while imitating the old ladies practicing Tai Chi at Hoan Kiem Lake
  • Cross the Vinh Tuy Bridge to play at the Long Bien Golf Club
  • Do or don’t toss down a snake’s beating heart at the Le Mat Snake Village
  • Sup on a midday meal of banh rieu
  • Hit up some local history at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Hanoi Hilton
  • Immerse yourself in a performance at a water puppet theater

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Lakeside exertions at dawn. Source: euromentravel.com

We like encouraging invigorating exercise first thing in the morning, so back again to Hoan Kiem Lake. There will be scores of little old ladies there caught up in the gentle dance of tai chi. Join them and pretend you know what you’re doing, though we can’t guarantee that no one will laugh at you. You’ll breathe a sigh of relief when you arrive at the Long Bien Golf Club, where you won’t look like a total noob and where the cool breeze would be a welcome balm to any embarrassment you incur. It’s an exceptional public city course that couldn’t be physically closer to the city or farther away in feel. Just cross the Vinh Tuy Bridge from the center of Hanoi and you’re at a 27-hole, palm-strewn oasis.

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Long Bien Golf Club. Source: jggolf.vn

Do your best to get your adrenaline going, because you might need that surge of extra courage for your next experience. Those of you who aren’t squeamish or particularly fond of snakes might want to head to the Le Mat Snake Village ten minutes from town. Choose between 2 kinds of cobra and 2 kinds of pit viper and have the serpent of your choice slit longitudinally before you while it’s still wriggling. The bile, blood and beating heart will be mixed in with rice wine and you’ll be prompted to down it like a shot. Do it quickly, before the heart gives out. You’ll feel so much more… vital.

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Bun Rieu ain’t as spicy as it looks. Source: gastronomyblog.com

If you’ve decided that you can live without that particular unforgettable travel story, your next stop after the golf course is Mai Hac De street where you will treat yourself to bun rieu. This sour, spicy Northern Vietnamese noodle soup made from crab and tomato often comes with plump snails and is a feisty enough alternative to a live, kicking snake heart.

Pay your respects at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum next, which is your quintessential Communist monument to the dead complete with an embalmed corpse of a Great Leader on display. Whether you are Far Right or Left, in Hanoi, do as everyone else does and avoid shorts, don’t talk and take your hands out of your pockets. Many other visitors to the mausoleum will be Vietnamese and they will be very grave and solemn in demeanor. Do your best to follow suit.

After that, you could head off to the notorious Hoa Lo Prison or the Hanoi Hilton, where senator John McCain was once held prisoner. However, most of the exhibits will have to do with the Vietnamese struggle for independence from the French. The sinister guillotine on the prison grounds will be a sobering reminder of the horrors they had to face to secure their autonomy and the strength it must have taken to push through anyway. But if you’re not exactly in the mood for morbid, how about some empowerment instead? You’ll recall that many of the combatants in the Cu Chi Tunnels were hardy peasant women. Hanoi’s Vietnamese Women’s Museum is dedicated to women like them who put everything they had into building and protecting their country. You’ll learn about Vietnam’s bravest war heroines, a woman’s role in her family, her typical careers and some of the crafts minority women produce to support themselves. You’ll be amazed at how highly-esteemed and capable women can be in a society that seems so outwardly traditional.

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Surreal tableaus abound at the water puppet theater. Source: flavoursofvietnam.com

Get dressed up for dinner at the Ly Club, an elegant affair set in a genteel French Colonial mansion. The cuisine is a combination of the best traits of French and Vietnamese cooking and you can’t go wrong with cold sauteed clams tossed with parsley and clay pot pork with caramel, chili and green onion. End your fanciest meal in Hanoi with one of the city’s most distinctive and memorable nighttime pursuits, a water puppet show. Wooden, lacquered puppets act out everyday scenes from the life of a Vietnamese peasant while floating on the surface of a waist-deep pool. It’s a tradition that dates back to the 11th century, born when paddy farmers ran out of ways to entertain themselves when their fields flooded during the monsoon.

Day 7: Hanoi – Home

  • Bid a fond farewell to Vietnamese cuisine with a breakfast of banh cuon
  • Buy as many local handicrafts as you can get away with at baggage check.

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An eye-catching last breakfast of banh cuon. Source: vietnamfoods-nguyentienquang.blogspot.com

What better way to say goodbye to Vietnam than a Last Supper? Or last breakfast, if you want to be technical. Just the thing for those obnoxiously early mornings, banh cuon is essentially rice rolls stuffed with copious amounts of minced pork and mushroom. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything else that manages to be both delicate and warming all at once. You might want to take it easy on your last day here. After all, a city is so much more than its sites and Hanoi is one that most clearly reveals itself on its chaotic, picturesque streets.

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Boles of colored cloth are a feast for the eyes. Source: hanoikids.org

You’ll want to soak up as much of it as possible before you have to leave and we’d recommend perusing the vibrant, gem-like craft shops that seem to be everywhere you turn. Vietnam Quilts is an excellent source for high-quality patchwork quilts made by rural women along the Mekong Delta. Your go-to place for lacquerware with mother-of-pearl inlay and your very own water puppet would be Craft Link, located just down the street from the Temple of Literature. There’s no end to places selling beautiful things here, which would avail you well if your objective is to have every corner of your home remind you a little bit of Vietnam. When you board your taxi to the airport, you’d wish you could somehow fold the country into a neat little square like you would a silk ao dai and check it in with your luggage.

End

The Vietnamese were doing the rest of us a favor when they fought long and hard for their freedom. Had they just thrown their hands up and said, “We give up,” we would have been left with a grim, war-torn nation instead of one that offers its travelers vibrant, Gallic-accented cities, phenomenal cuisine, rich culture and friendly people with a head for business, boundless creativity and an infinite capacity for resilience. The many emerging golf courses are world-class and ready to welcome your patronage, but just don’t spend all your free time in Vietnam there. There’s a whole country out there waiting for you to explore.