Whilst many students tend to spend their summers on more local, Europe-focussed holidays such as a week’s clubbing in Ibiza, or relaxing by a sun-kissed beach in Costa Blanca, it’s long been the case that the ‘gap year’ or ‘year out’ demands travelling a little further afield – and tradition seems to dictate that one either heads to South America or Southeast Asia.
The idea of this is that before settling down into the grind of ‘adult life’, you have one last hurrah where you ‘see the world’ and get all your adventuring out of your system before you get that nose to the grindstone and start being a grown-up. Thus, Europe is often eschewed in favour of larger-scale, inter-continental pursuits. One such popular destination is Vietnam. So what is it about this Southeast Asian country that makes it such a traveller’s paradise?
As the starting destination for many such travellers’ pilgrimages across Southeast Asia, Vietnam is brash, loud, intimidating and exhilarating. More ‘Westernised’ than Cambodia or Laos, but less touristy and commercial than Thailand, Malaysia, or Singapore, it serves as the perfect cultural decompression chamber for bright-eyed Westerners taking their first steps on the Asian continent.
The Madness of Ho Chi Minh City
The first thing we noticed landing in the capital of Ho Chi Minh City was the overwhelming abundance of motorbikes due to their relatively low cost in comparison to cars; there are five or six motorcycles for every car in Vietnam and they all whizz around like bats out of hell, speeding recklessly and weaving in and out of one another seamlessly like fish undulating within their shoal. Road safety is a serious issue in the country (30 people die in road accidents every day) but you wouldn’t know it; there are hardly any dedicated pedestrian crossings or traffic lights. What this means is that when you want to cross the street on foot, you’re literally expected to just start walking out into the middle of traffic and the bikes will duck and weave to avoid you. This is heart-racingly terrifying the first time you try it, but once you get used to it, it becomes second nature; when my friend and I moved along on our journey and were re-introduced to the concept of pedestrian crossings, we scoffed at them.
Hanoi and Halong Bay
Moving on from Ho Chi Minh City, my friend and I flew north to Vietnam’s largest city, Hanoi, which feels distinctly more ancient and historical than its southern cousin, with Ho Chi Minh having the same grey throbbing bustle of any Southeast Asian city and Hanoi retaining more of an individual aesthetic. Along our journey south from Hanoi we passed through the small town of Hoi An and the beachside party stop that is Nha Trang, yet the most spectacular of our Vietnam destinations was Halong Bay. Our boat tour of this beautiful fishing bay was the highlight of our time in the country, and we were blown away by the splendour of the intricate coves, the atmospheric caves and rock formations, and the picturesque floating villages – clusters of fishermen’s houses and communities, floating in the bay and strung together by floating walkways.
Vietnam is a breathtaking country, one which is unapologetically brash and intimidating, but whose occasionally prickly façade gives way to spots of incredibly rich beauty and depth if you look hard enough.
Tom Hoare is a travel writer based in London. He’s spent time living in Sydney, Paris, and New York, and can usually be located in the local karaoke bar in whatever city he finds himself in.