While living in Vietnam I found there frequently wasn't much information or decent photos of places to visit off the beaten track available on the internet - it may be easy to find information on towns on the Sinh Cafe routes but beyond that places were often something of a mystery.
It also seemed that many of the guides I came across didn't express the sheer beauty of the country, with dry descriptions and little information beyond where to sleep. I want to try and correct that with this blog and travel guide - although it is still early days - and plan to cover plenty of the hidden locations that make Vietnam so special.
Still, I'm not a fountain of all knowlege by any means, and I would welcome anyone who is so inclined to send in their own stories, tips and advice to the website to help it grow into an authoritative guide on travel in Vietnam. Similarly if you have questions about your upcoming visit please make contact and I'll do my best to offer any tips I can think of.
In the meantime, start reading about the wonderful destinations we do cover!
My Son Ruins
Mankind builds marvelous and imagination-defying cities and structures, then erases them again as the centuries, along with the fickle loyalty of scholars, priests, kings, and common people render them either obsolete or irrelevant. The ruins of My Son in Vietnam, not far from Da Nang and Hoi An, fall into this category.
My Son was once an impressive place, a holy valley of impressive Hindu temples and burial grounds of the royalty of the Champa people. My Son was the Vietnamese equivalent of places like Cambodia's Angkor Wat and Egypt's Valley of the Kings. In its heyday, My Son included over seventy temples, along with a number of monuments with inscriptions in both Sanskrit, the holy language of ancient India, and Cham. In 1999, UNESCO named My Son a World Heritage Site.
History of My Son
Long before Phong Nha-Ke Bang (also spelled Phong Nga-Ke Bang) National Park came into existence, the Champa people were using its caves for various purposes. The Champa were people of ancient Cambodia and Vietnam who ruled most of southern and central Vietnam from the seventh century through the mid-nineteenth century. Carving out inscriptions on steles and altars inside the caves, the Champa left their mark in the magnificent caves many years before modern Vietnamese and British scientists would begin to explore the caves. Later explorations discovered Neolithic axe heads in the area, showing that use of the caves date back even before the time of the Champa people.
There is no overstating the magnificence of the caves in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The park was created to protect the world's two largest karst, or limestone, regions. Inside the limestone topography are over 126 km of cave systems, with over 300 caves and grottos (grottos are caves that have been inhabited or used by humans). For anyone visiting Vietnam with the slightest interest in caves, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a must-see destination.
Phong Nha Cave
The Tay Son Rebellion in Vietnam brought Nguyen Phuc Anh to power in 1802. Declaring himself Emperor Gia Long, he began construction on a grand fortress-palace in Hue in 1804. Today the emperor's construction is known in Hue merely as “the Citadel”, and its inner sanctum, once the home of the emperor and his family, is called “the Purple Forbidden City”. Although the Citadel and its Imperial City were badly damaged during the Vietnam War in 1968, they remain one of Vietnam's top tourist destinations.
Early History of the Citadel
Like many of Asia's leaders of the past, the emperor relied upon traditional methods of divination, called geomancy, to choose the location for the Citadel. With a wish to create a sort of mini-Forbidden City like the one in Beijing, tens of thousands of labourers were conscripted to construct his fortress and palace. They dug a ten kilometer moat, along with thick earthen walls, to create the Citadel's perimeter. Copying the French military architect Vauban, these earthen walls were later replaced by two-meter-thick stone walls. Inside the outer perimeter, a smaller moat and smaller brick walls bounded the emperor's Purple Forbidden City. The Purple Forbidden City, besides elaborate residences, also included a network of gates, courtyards, and administrative buildings. The emperor didn't live to see the completion of his architectural masterpiece; dying in 1820, the Citadel was finally completed in 1832 by Gia Long's son, the Emperor Minh Mang.
The Citadel and the Vietnam War
Is it best to explore Vietnam on a guided tour?
Vietnam is a beautiful country with a great deal to offer the visitor. However it is also a country that can be very tiring and at times frustrating to navigate, particularly when short on time. Yet travelling independently can be extremely rewarding, so should a traveller go it alone or seek the help of professionals?
It is hard to give a general answer for all visitors as it really depends on what you wish to get from your trip. If you simply want a holiday, perhaps with a bit of culture thrown in then why not book independently - you can find a luxury resort around the beaches of Mui Ne or Hoi An that will offer a great chance to relax and unwind, with daytrips to nearby sights and attrations that can offer a glimpse of life in Vietnam, should you get bored of the beach.
If you're a budget traveller, a backpacker short on money but with plenty of time, for a real adventure we would highly recommend travelling independently. You are in the unique position of being able to explore the nooks and crannies of the country where few would normally venture, to take the time to meet local people and ask where they would go and visit if they could. Furthermore, the cheap tours available to budget travellers are normally geared towards economies of scale, with rigid itineraries, packed buses and a fairly generic feel, so little is to be gained by taking the pre-planned route.