5 Things Not to Miss in Northwest Vietnam

by on July 28th, 2011
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Cu Chi Tunnel

During the war in Vietnam, thousands of people in the Vietnamese province of Cu Chi lived in an elaborate system of underground tunnels. Originally built in the time of the French, the tunnels were enlarged during the American presence. When the Americans began bombing the villages of Cu Chi, the survivors went underground where they remained for the duration of the war.

The secret tunnels, which joined village to village and often pass beneath American bases, were not only fortifications for Viet Cong guerillas, but were also the center of community life. Hidden beneath the destroyed villages were schools and public spaces were hospitals where children were born and surgery was performed on casualties of war: underground were schools and public spaces where couples were married and private places where lovers met. There were even theaters where performers entertained with song and dance and traditional stories.

Cao Dai Temple

Indigenous to Vietnam, Cao Dai, is in fact a fusion of the teachings from Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, with elements of Christianity and Islam. Founded in the 1920′s, Cai Daism was seen as the answer to the ideal religion and they also worship western icons with the like of Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare and even Joan of Arc. The religion has about three million followers, all in Southern Vietnam and there are several Cao Dai temples in the Mekong Delta too but none as grand as this.

(Built between 1933 and 1955) The structure of the nine-story Cao Dai Temple is part pagoda, part cathedral, part mosque – representing the ideology behind the religion. The exterior – fluorescent shades of pinks and yellows, rococo walls and mosaic-mirrored tiles that glint in the sun seems to find their delicate balance in the chaos. To it top off, the exterior that is already a feast for the eyes, are further ‘accessorized’ with multi-colored dragons of all shapes and sizes. Above the main entrance is the all-seeing Holy Eye, the symbol of the Cao Dai sect. The interior, needless to say, is just as engaging as statues of Jesus Christ, Buddha and the Hindu god, Brahma, stand side by side.

The three principal colors of Cao Dai are yellow (for Buddhism), blue (for Taoism), and red (for Christianity), and these appear in worshippers’ robes as well as the temple. The most important symbol is the Divine Eye, representing God, which also appears in followers’ homes. It is a left eye, because God is Yang, and Yang is the left side. It has a ying-yang symbol in the pupil.

Within the temple, males must enter on the right and females to the left and shoes have to be removed before entering the massive main hall. Once you step into the temple, you seem to be removed from the hassle and bustle of the outside world and placed into a world of calmness, peace and light.

Services are held four times a day and visitors are welcomed to watch from the balcony above which runs the entire length of the cathedral. Rows and rows of gracefully attired devotees dressed in white stroll into the hall systematically, accompanied by the sounds of the gong. As if on cue, once inside the hall, the devotees kneel down together before the altar signaling the start of the prayers. The priests are easily identified by their white pointy hats decorated with the holy eye and are dressed in either red, blue or yellow flowing robes. The gongs are now joined in by the string instruments and harmonious chanting of the devotees. Photography is allowed here and is an excellent opportunity not to be missed as you will never find another moment like this anywhere else.

Phung Hiep Floating Market

Location: Situated where seven branches of the Mekong River and canals converge, 30km from Ninh Kieu Wharf in the centre of Can Tho City.

Characteristics: To Phung Hiep, visitors will see thousands of small boats full of agricultural products from Western corners to form 1km long floating market. It’s said to be a fruit-market of the Southern part and the market is cultural identity of the Mekong Delta.

The market meets all day long, but most noisy and busy in the morning. The precious evening, from far-and-wide, boats full of seasonal vegetables and fruits: mangoes, durians, bananas, oranges, coconuts… left their villages to head for the sun­rise market. Every boat is full of fruits. Some boats are covered with roofs, some are not. On boats without roofs, the sellers have to hold high a stick hanging with fruits as signals. Market-goers do not bargain, just a few words exchange, they sell and get paid. Normally, fruits are sold and brought to big boats. Then they will be transported to fruit-processing factories or to Ho Chi Minh City, Vung Tau, even to Hanoi and Northern provinces.

It’s a floating market’ but services are available, foods and drinks on small boats twist and turn to serve hungry sellers and buyers. Signal to buy is only a whistling or waving band. Apart from fruits, local products: snakes, birds, turtles… are easy to find near Phung Hiep bridge. These specialties are almost bought and brought to restaurants in Can Tho or Ho Chi Minh City.

Morning café

Saigon now; Saigon then, Saigon street corners contrast with vivid colors-life unfolds with the animation of the young and meditation of the old. We wake each morning into this bustling city, but who wakes the city up?

Today is the same as every day-a cup of black coffee. The difference is only the place. It is a western-style café on the corner of Pasteur and Le Loi streets. A Valentine’s ballad by Martina McBride and Jim Brickman sounds out, making the street life suddenly a shade more romantic.

At 7:30 am, employees walk into government offices. Vehicles pack half of the street every time the traffic light turns red. And you can watch the commuters, who have long faces and jutting chins-typical Saigon faces. They stop at the three-way crossroads when the traffic light turns yellow and then hurry forward when the red light changes to green after 45 seconds.

“Please buy a lottery ticket! “a 10 year-old girl cries. Her accent is from Quang province; her choice is pure, as if she never knew about life in the dusty streets. It is a tenor note in this morning’s ballad.

These are a foreign couple in white shirts and cream khaki trousers. The man holds the woman’s hand and they go to a nearby table, which has a good view of the street. The man has side-burns and puffs through a cigarette holder, gazing out at the street through the smoke. They call a street vendor and buy a colonial hat.

Three other men enter and choose a hidden corner in the coffee shop. They order coffee, tea and strawberry juice. They are about 60 years old. They start talking about Saigon in 1975-their accents sound like Vietnamese from overseas. They sit with a meditative look, chatting about Saigon streets and about the corner where they are now sitting.

The men talk about the city Saigon once was before the names of streets were changed. Whoever was born and grew up in Saigon before 1975 knows the old names of streets, such as Green Tamarind Leaf Street.

Nightlife in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City of Vietnam also known as the financial and business hub of the country is known to have a notorious and riotous nightlife since the Vietnam War, which was forcefully derailed after 1975 as the nightclubs, pubs and discos were made to shut down. However now again this city is booming with an explosive nightlife as the nightclubs have again surfaced the cultural realm of the city. The recent nightlife displays a plethora of nightclubs, pubs and discos both highly recognized as well as the petty or insignificant venues. Given the essence of the city center the entire set up of the nightlife is concentrated in and around District 1, supposedly on the streets around Dong Khoi and Hai Ba Trung. Though District 3 is also known to harbor a few good bars and nightclubs but District 1 still rules the scenario regarding a loud and chaotic nightlife.

In Ho Chi Minh City most nightclubs are deemed to shut down by mid-night while few of them continue to groove and serve drinks as mostly the guests tend to party till late and leave only at the early morning hours. These nightclubs and bars are mostly credited for serving imported drinks which are more expensive compared to the other local alcohols sold in the small nightclubs and pubs. In most nightclubs you are entitled for one free drink covered by the over all charges. In most of the petty and insignificant bars they don’t charge any entry fee but nightclubs tend to charge mostly below US $10. Ho Chi Minh keeping in sync with the latest fashion and trends allows its youngsters to follow any latest casual and fashion statement and feel relaxed.

The Bar culture in Ho Chi Minh City is known have had a highly inconsistent standing as the bars tend to come and go out of prominence. According to the recent norms Apocalypse Now Club is the trend setter of the day and has proved its mettle amidst the other nightclubs and bars. These bars mostly provide you with the dance floor and the utmost pleasure to be able to enjoy your drinks with your friends and companions. Few such bars uplifting your spirits after a tiring day in Ho Chi Minh City are, Café [email protected], Allez Boo, Blue Gecko, Bottom Line, Café Latin, Catwalk Club and Karaoke, Eden Bar, Go2 Bar and Lounge, Havana Bar and Café, Ice Blue, Juice Bar, Q Bar, Qing, Sango-Aquarium Bar, Skewers Bar, Shadow Bar, Tex Mex Pub, Underground Pub etc. While in Ho Chi Minh one should not miss out on a trip to these bars for a taste of intoxication at the late hours of the day.

Gambling though is looked upon with contempt for the locals of Ho Chi Minh, but the foreigners and tourists in Ho Chi Minh are allowed to try their luck on the basis of their foreign passports. The country boasts of only one casino in the northern fringes but presently gaming centers armed with slot machines are emerging to the fore front and to name a few we have, Chats Slot Gaming Center, New World Hotel, Le Lai, Club 21, Omni Hotel, 251 Nguyen Van Troi, and OV Club, Equatorial Hotel, 242 Tran Binh Trong etc. Simultaneously the clubs though they made a slow and insignificant appearance but now they have increased in number and offer a variety of music performances and techno, pop and retro genres to select from. Spaceship on Ham Nghi being the largest and the most technically advanced club still attracts crowds with its splendid lighting and shows. Several international hotels stage grand night performances by local and international bands. The list includes Caravelle Hotel on Lam Son Square, the New World Hotel, Le Lai, the Equatorial Hotel, and the Tran Binh Trong. One may even find gypsy and flamenco music performances taking place at the Carmen Bar, 8 Ly Tu Trong.

This article written by Lanh Nguyen from Vietnam Heritage Travel

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