A taste of South East Asia in Vietnam’s two big cities

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Peter joins the finale group at the cultural night that opened the Expo.

It was a first taste of South East Asia for Editorial Director Peter Stonham when he attended the recent International Travel Expo HCMC held in Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Peter was particularly pleased to be able to visit both the two main cities in Vietnam and see how they have developed since the end of the war in 1975.

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The traditional old town in Hanoi.

He first spent a few days in the former North Vietnam capital and now national capital, Hanoi, after flying for 12 hours from London with Vietnam Airlines. The 36-degree Celsius very humid heat meant that the sightseeing tour had to be taken gently, but Peter saw the Mausoleum and Museum devoted to the independence leader Ho Chi Minh, French colonial government buildings and several Chinese pagodas, plus the very bustling and historic Old Quarter, and main market. The city has been changing fast, with Western-style shopping malls and more intensive motorised transport including a massive number of motorcycles and scooters, replacing the former bicycles and rickshaws. There are steps to preserve the traditional central area but the population growth is rapid and pressure on space in and around the city is great, with many new towerblock developments in the suburbs. Whilst tourism is growing, people are still friendly and it is pleasant to stroll around the streets in the city centre if you can avoid the motorcycles! A particularly delightful feature is the several large lakes in the city centre, and surrounding verdant vegetation.

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Hanoi’s bustling market

After a couple of days in Hanoi, Peter flew south to Ho Chi Minh City for the Expo. Formerly known as Saigon, but renamed after the independence leader, HCMC is a larger and more modern city, with more evidence of its time as the Western and American-influenced capital of South Vietnam. There are more examples of impressive French colonial buildings, in particular the grand Post Office plus a number of memorials to the war, including the major museum, which chronicles in detail both the French and American interventions in the country and the battle for independence and reunification. Some of the exhibits are harrowing, reflecting the large number of both American-led troops and local population who were killed in the struggle, and the devastation wrought. Peter reflects that although Vietnam is officially a Communist one-party state, in many ways it is very Capitalist and Western, with familiar consumer brands and commercial activity. The old-style Communist posters and banners marking the 70th anniversary of the country’s original independence seemed rather incongruous against this background! Whilst there is a strong Chinese influence, in particular in and around the massive Chinese Market in HCMC, which is very well worth a visit, Vietnam and its people are rather different from its very large neighbour.

Peter’s visit was just for a week, and he stayed only in the two big cities, but the Expo provided more information about other parts of the country including traditional towns and villages, forest and river trips, and fast-developing beach resorts. The Expo was also a showcase for the surrounding countries in South East Asia and there is a more detailed report on page 22. The opening night’s cultural stage show gave Peter a fantastic display of the costumes, music and dance of the countries of the region.