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Four guaranteed Vietnamese treats you will encounter while visiting this startling nation.
1. Fog…Yes, fog
Never will you be so delighted to see fog as you will in Sa Pa. The terrain dazzles its most spectacularly when cloaked in low lying mist, which happily, due to the region’s 1500m position, is a common occurrence. Famed for its landscape of staggered rice paddies, verdant green fields and numerous hill tribes that harvest the rice terraces, Sa Pa is an oasis of rivers, forest and livelihood. Guided tours lead participants through the peaceful slopes and colourful ethnic villages; absorbing the rich cultures and crisp, fresh air. Authentic Vietnamese clothing and hand-made souvenirs can be picked up along the way, bought from local ladies and skipping hill tribe children - with grins as wide as they are genuine.
HOT tip: Pick your souvenirs wisely; competition can be intense especially amongst children. Once you've bought from one, there will be dozens more expecting the same. Stay fair but firm.
2. Bikes. Millions and millions of bikes
Once you hit Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll be sharing the city with over two million scooters, mopeds and motorcycles, so watch your step. Inherent to Vietnam’s heritage, bicycles of any nature are part of the Vietnamese lifestyle, hence while you’ll see all manner of objects precariously hanging across the handlebars, from balloons to wicker baskets, building materials, sleeping babies and even dogs – if it can balance, it can ride. As the nation’s most inexpensive means of travel, you’ll be overwhelmed by the sheer number of two-wheeled mobiles hogging the roads and at times there is little more than an inch between each. But there is (seemingly) a method to the madness and somehow it just works. A sight to behold, who knew bicycles could be so beautiful!
Hot tip: Wary of crossing Ho Chi Minh’s busy roads? Let drivers see you in advance. Walk slowly and the vehicles will manoeuvre around you - but make your actions predictable so there's no second guessing. If in doubt, shadow a local.
3. Water + puppets = visual mastery
Drawing on traditional tales that shaped the nation centuries ago, water puppetry is unique to Vietnam. Performed in shallow water, intricate and beautifully painted wooden puppets are manoeuvred by master puppeteers to the sound of traditional Vietnamese instruments. Originating from decades prior, it was traditionally staged in paddy fields or shallow lakes, with puppeteers waist-deep in water, controlling the characters from below the surface via pole and string apparatus. These days, slick city performances can be found across many of the country’s metropolises, all of which put on an awe-inspiring display of immaculate precision and skill.
HOT tip: If you’re keen to combine a Vietnamese hot spot with one of the country’s finest shows, head to Hanoi’s Thankg Long Water Puppet Theatre.
4. Water. Water. Water
If there’s anywhere you can make a big splash, it’s Vietnam. From oceans to rice fields, rivers, deltas and annual festivals, water abounds across the country. Visually, Halong Bay is almost as iconic (and recognisable) as the New York City skyline. With towering karsts cut from years of wind, waves and erosion, they’re flanked by a perennial emerald sea dappled with traditional Vietnamese boats. Then there’s the Red River which is often described as ‘inland Halong Bay’ due to its gigantic limestone karsts that protrude from the water like magnificent beacons of Mother Nature. Take a day trip from Hanoi to the Red River's Ninh Binh province and you’ll be rewarded with a blossoming countryside fed by the resource-rich Red River. Take a wooden rowboat and discover the dark grottoes, fields of pond lilies and soaring mountainside.
HOT tip: From May to September tropical storms are frequent in Halong Bay and tourist boats can alter or cancel their itineraries. Ask about full or partial refunds before booking.
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