Dec 11

Written by: chris
12/11/2016  RssIcon

Vietnam - Land of the Rising Dragon

Like so many in the West, my image of Vietnam was coloured by vague notions of the Vietnam War and little else. So when an opportunity came up to host a trip with Senior Discovery Tours to Southeast Asia, I was quick to agree – I wanted to see this intriguing country up close and personal. And that’s exactly what I was able to do on this tour of what I now know to be an amazing land of exciting contrasts. 

It is currently half way between its Communist past and its capitalist future: it’s a very interesting time to visit Vietnam. The itinerary covered the two major cities of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi, plus excursions out to the Tunnels of Cu Chi in the south and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay in the north.


Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City?

It’s definitely Saigon! That’s what the people who live here call it, and they are very proud of this city of over ten million. With good reason. It’s a colourful, chaotic, crazy concoction of citizens who are busy creating a new Vietnam with this city at its heart. The streets are a mayhem of countless scooters riding in phalanx down every street and on every sidewalk. Commercial life is rampant and vibrant. It’s just the tonic for recovering from 18 hours of flying and 12 hours of time zones!

To get my bearings on my first day I took a walk along the Saigon River and on to the Botanical Gardens, where the main attraction were the great bonsai trees. The Zoo contains some energetic gibbons and sorry-looking Asian elephants. Next door is the Vietnam History Museum which provided a good crash course on the civilisations that rose and fell in this part of Asia prior to the 20th century, including sculptures and art from the Dong Son civilization 4,000 years ago, the Cham and Khmer cultures and the Le Emperors. 

The highlight on day one was definitely the Jade Emperor Pagoda. This took some tracking down amidst the maze of backstreets, but it was well worth it. It’s not ancient, but it is wholly immersive, full of local worshippers and chants and incense and smoke and grotesque statues. It’s all in honour of the supreme Taoist god – the Jade Emperor – who decides who enters heaven and who does not. There are divinities looming through the smoke and side chapels with altars full of offerings and hero figurines and gongs and burning incense. The worshippers were very tolerant of Western visitors and the atmosphere was welcoming and exotic – a great introduction to Vietnam!

The whole Senior Discovery Tours group of 29 came together in the evening for a splendid welcome dinner in our first class hotel, the Lotte Legend Saigon. It’s an impressive, eclectic gathering of well-travelled wanderers from all over Canada who will add an extra dimension to the trip.

We all set out the next morning to see the sights with our local guide Hieu. Starting with the Opera House, a glamorous French Colonial building; just opposite is the Hotel Continental, where Graham Greene wrote ‘The Quiet American’ which I am reading on this trip. We walked across to Nguyen Hue, a monumental pedestrianized avenue which sweeps up from the river to the great statue of Ho Chi Minh in front of the City Hall (originally called the Hôtel de Ville and now formally renamed the People's Committee Hall). ‘Uncle Ho” is a much admired father figure of the nation and there were many locals making a pilgrimage here.

Reunification Palace was the site of the French Governor General’s home, then the Japanese HQ, then the French again, eventually being rebuilt in the 1960’s as the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace. Our tour of this massive building was a time warp back into the last few years of the country’s independence in the 60’s and 70’s as the rooms have been left as they were when the North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates on April 30th 1975.

The War Room and the Bunker were particularly interesting, full of campaign maps of half-forgotten battles. The War Remnants Museum was a logical next step. This riveting, emotional telling of the American War – as the Vietnam War is logically known in these parts – reduced me to tears in Room 3 where photos of war crimes such as the My Lai Massacre bear witness to the effects of the war on the civilian population. 

The tour continued with views of Notre Dame Cathedral (a déjà vu of cathedrals in French cities), the General Post Office (Eiffel designed in the 1880’s) and the rooftop where the last US helicopters left in the Fall of Saigon in 1975. We drove along the Saigon River to Cholon, the largest Chinatown in the world, where we mixed with devotees of the goddess Thien Hau at the Thien Hau Pagoda. Courtyards and altars alternated light and shadow, all under massive coils of incense hanging overhead.

From here I gingerly mounted a ‘cyclo’ for an hour’s ride through the city to Ben Thanh Market. Cyclos are bicycle rickshaws where the rider sits in the front and the driver/cyclist steers and powers from the rear into the infinitesimally small spaces that randomly appear in the chaos of traffic on every side. A memorable ride for sure! The market was a treasure trove of everything under the sun piled high in canyons of narrow aisles. I bought some local coffee where the beans have been passed through the gut of a weasel before grinding…


The Tunnels of Cu Chi

This site, 65 kms outside Saigon, epitomizes the unbelievable determination of the Viet Cong to win the war. At its maximum, there were over 250 kms of underground tunnel networks connecting the end of the Ho Chi Minh trail just across the border in Cambodia with the Cu Chi area and on to Saigon itself. In this underground labyrinth, the Viet Cong burrowed out hospitals, kitchens, schools, sleeping quarters and more.

Now visitors can see and experience for themselves just a very small part of what life was like in this forested region northwest of Saigon. I could barely squeeze into a section of the original tunnel (50 x 80 cms) and even a section that has been enlarged for visitors was claustrophobic enough. It is impossible to imagine what it must have been like down there for thousands of people as the bombs rained down from above. There are also examples of the snares laid in the forest for unsuspecting troops above ground – frightening and gruesome.

Hanoi - City of the Soaring Dragon

A 90 minute flight transported us north to Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam and a much more ancient city than Saigon. We met our new guide Huan and crossed the Red River to our hotel: the Intercontinental Westlake. It’s a haven of calm in this bustling city of seven million, partly built over the misty waters of West Lake in a series of linked pavilions. We started our exploration of Hanoi at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. This modern museum is a colourful introduction to the 54 ethnic minorities who live in the country, many as hill tribes in the northwest mountains. Some tribes now number only a few hundred, but each has a unique language and culture. Primitive bows and arrows give way to wooden sculptures and sophisticated weaving. Outdoor exhibits include traditional tribal homes.

Vietnam’s oldest seat of learning is The Temple of Literature, which was both a temple of worship for Confucius and a school of scholarship for his teachings which was established in 1070 AD. We walked through four ancient courtyards full of 11th century courtly architecture and graceful gateways to the sanctuary around which are 82 stone stelae. These are lists of graduates from the 1400’s onwards carved on the backs of stone tortoises. Today’s graduates still come here for their photos and add a splash of more modern colour. Continuing our tour of the ancient sites, we stopped briefly to admire the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Imperial Citadel, the centre of Vietnam’s military power for over a thousand years.

Ba Dinh Square is the heart of a complex that is of the greatest importance to most Viet people. It is a monumental square whose focal point is the massive, sombre mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. The man himself wished for a simple cremation, but it was not to be, and people come from all over the country to view his preserved body. The orange hues of the Presidential Palace lie at a respectful distance and across a pretty lake and gardens is Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House. His former home was very simple and reminded me of Gandhi’s last residence in Delhi. Also here is the One Pillar Pagoda, a wooden temple built above a pond nearly a thousand years ago by a king of the Ly Dynasty.

No trip to Hanoi is complete without spending time wandering around the Old Quarter and this was perhaps my favourite venue in the city. The sprawling maze of tiny streets and alleyways dates back to the 13th century. They were ablaze with colour, lights, smells, noise and people. Old juxtaposed with new. Carrying poles or shoulder yokes next to scooters. Deep fried insects sizzling next to cell phone displays. It was lovely just to saunter through this mishmash of human exuberance.

We took in a Water Puppet Show performance – an ancient and intricate fusion of aquatic puppetry music and dance. We finished the evening by having dinner with the Family Tuong in their home in the Old Quarter. It was a magical finale to Hanoi, capped by tales from the 93 year old great grandfather who had fought successively the French, the Americans, the Khmer and the Chinese in defense of his homeland.

Halong Bay

My journey around Vietnam climaxed with a trip to its most famous image: the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. The four hour drive east to the ocean provided a window into rural Vietnam. It was a succession of paddy fields, water buffalo, duck ponds, interspersed with an occasional factory complex like the Samsung one with 40,000 workers. Again: yin and yang. We also visited crafts people at work: stone carvers, embroiderers, paper mâché and pearl jewelers. Then the flat fields gave way to increasing conical hills that signaled the start of karst landforms – an eroded limestone landscape that is the central feature of Halong Bay.

To see this world renowned, but decidedly weird landscape, we boarded a converted junk at Dao Tuan Chau Island and set off for the Gulf of Tonkin. The name derives from a local legend: the ‘Descending Dragon’ protected Vietnam from foreign invaders and the 1,600 islands dotted haphazardly around the bay were deposited there by dragons to thwart the enemy ships. Less romantically, the unique landscape of sheer islands rising from the ocean is the result of an old eroded limestone plateau that has been invaded by the sea. It is visually stunning. Our cruise took us around many of the islands, past floating fishing villages and to Heavenly Cave – just one of many grottoes in these limestone spires. Truly one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” and the perfect way to end my trip to this “Land of the Rising Dragon”.

Planning Your Trip

I travelled with Senior Discovery Tours, a leading tour company specializing in trips for the mature traveller. Their website is and their telephone number is 1-800-268-3492. I am pleased to wholeheartedly recommend them. Their truly all-inclusive tour used the finest accommodations in Vietnam and sourced the best local restaurants to sample the Vietnamese cuisine. The itinerary was comprehensive without being over-busy. Their Tour Manager Lucia was superb, as were their local guides. Recommended reading: Lonely Planet and Vietnam Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton.


I would recommend the accommodations I experienced on this trip:

Lotte Legend Hotel Saigon

2A-4A Ton Doc Thang Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City 011-84-8-3823-333

Intercontinental Westlake Hanoi

1A Nghi Tam, Tay Ho, Hanoi 011-84 4 6270 8888

Novotel Ha Long Bay

160 Ha Long Road, Bai Chay Ward, Ha Long City 011-84-33-3848-108


Grateful thanks to Lucia Biason, the Tour Manager on our trip and to Oedile Daniels who made it all possible back at Senior Discovery Tour’s base in Toronto. Also to our local guides in Vietnam - Hieu and Huan - and to all our fellow travellers who made the trip such a delight.

Copyright ©2016 Chris Robinson

5 comment(s) so far...


Re: Vietnam - Land of the Rising Dragon

So lovingly described, Chris! We have enjoyed reliving our visit through your blog.

Thanks for re-igniting those warm memories on this frigid Ottawa day!

By Dev Loyola-Nazareth on   12/29/2016

Re: Vietnam - Land of the Rising Dragon


Your words and photos bring me back. What a great start to our adventure.


By Lucia Biason on   2/15/2017

Re: Vietnam - Land of the Rising Dragon

Wonderful and thorough explanation of everything Chris! You have filled in the many blanks in both my running notes at the time, and the gaps in my photos!

By Sandra Miller 1/12/2017 on   2/15/2017

Re: Vietnam - Land of the Rising Dragon

Thank you Chris & Dara for your guidance and friendship. This fabulous blog vividly describes our tour so well. I will enjoy looking back often and sharing with the many folks who ask "Did you enjoy you trip?"

By Arlene Turner on   2/15/2017

Re: Vietnam - Land of the Rising Dragon

I am happy to read your article or about beauty in Vietnam

By Mr Công on   2/15/2017

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