The old map of Viết Nam shows very few towns. The country was very rural, the thousands of villages scattered over the low-lying plains of the north, in the Red River valley and Delta. Towards the south, the landscape broadens out, dotted with settlements along the coast, right down to the Mekong Delta. Some villages were grouped around a citadel, which served as an administrative, civil and military centre, and these settlements grew into the provincial capitals. True towns and cities did not emerge until the nineteenth century. The layout of these cities had practical reasoning behind it, taking account of roads and navigable waterways, geography and exposure to the elements (rain, wind, typhoons), and risk of enemy incursions.
In antiquity, peasants and merchants would come and sell their wares beside the city walls. Today, a new industrial belt, a mixture of light and heavy industry, provides work for the city dwellers, who are still fed by the crops grown in the surrounding countryside. Since the economic expansion, the urban areas have been transformed and modernized, growing denser and expanding like multi-headed hydras into the surrounding land. In the city centres, skyscrapers have been built whose tops are shrouded in the huge monsoon clouds. The outskirts are home to those who have been displaced from the centre of town by redevelopment, along with the latest arrivals, thousands of rootless young people in search of work and a better quality of life.
In its early years, Thăng Long (now known as Hà Nội) was a fortress surrounded by a group of villages. Specialist markets were held there: a grapefruit market, a coconut palm market, a rice market, a fish market and a frog market. Trade has continued and the complex of markets is now known as the Old Quarter or the 36 Guilds District, after the trade guilds that were once based here. The streets take their names from the trades of that period: Veil Street, Raft Street, Tinplate Street, Sugar and Salt Street, Mat Street, Tinplate Street, Fan Street, Paper Street, Bamboo Street and Hemp Street. In the years that followed, the unruly river and lakes were tamed by embankments and many temples were built, the strong walls of the fortress vanishing in a maze of narrow streets.
Yellow ochre, dark green and jade: the colours of the walls and shutters in Hà Nội are striking features of an architecture that has successfully combined oriental and Western styles. There is no feverish building here; everything is measured, metered out sparingly, except for the sound of car horns. But despite the lack of space in the cramped flats, city life cannot be confined. People enjoy taking chairs outdoors to sit on the pavement. The street itself also overflows into the houses. You can hear the cries of the soup-sellers, the shouts of the children in the nearby schoolyard. On the pavement, you can find manicurists and hairdressers, knife-grinders, women selling ice-creams and sweets, and a host of traders displaying their wares on the doorstep.
Sài Gòn (HCMC), the megalopolis of the south, is a daughter of the tropics. Fuelled by the trade in the Mekong Delta, the focus of hope and envy, it has had difficulty controlling its own growth. Work is still being done: containing and cleaning the backwaters, draining the swamps that enclosed and once separated the towns of Sài Gòn, Gia Định and Chợ Lớn (the Chinese district), which have now been reunited administratively into Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh. Renovations are happening, tower blocks are springing up. The former Sài Gòn is looking to the sky, towards the outside world, towards its future.
Occupations in the city are diverse and the inhabitants work as merchants, officers, teachers, government workers, factory workers, construction workers or street vendors. For many people, each day starts with early exercises in public parks, enjoying a hearty breakfast, immersing in the narrow streets teemed with motorbikes, cars and buses, and dealing with a full day of working and studying. While with farmers and city-dwellers with low income, they have to work harder and take multiple jobs at the same time due to the pressure of the high cost of living.
It is clear to see that motorbike is the most important transport of Vietnamese in both countryside and cities because of its cheap, mobile, and compact advantages when moving and according to the living habits of Vietnamese people. Whenever you step on the city streets, you will feel overwhelmed by the heavy traffic of motor scooters and cars. In big cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh city, traffic jams are common during the morning and afternoon’s rush hours.
Here the keys to happiness are simple: a motor scooter, a mobile phone, a gang of friends. At mealtimes, phones ring constantly, suggestions and invitations flying like bullets: a game of billiard, a soup stand, some bánh xèo pancakes and spring rolls, a fashionable café, a beer with grilled goat meat, and the finest chè (dessert). This concentration of people brings a hunger for community and identity in which anything and everything can become an excuse for a gathering, for spending time together and sharing a few moments of life. On Saturday evening, the endless dance of motor scooters begins, going for a spin around the cathedral (Nhà thờ Đức Bà Sài Gòn), down Đường Đồng Khởi street to the Sài Gòn River and then riding up Lê Lợi Boulevard. People chat with each other from their bikes, by the light of their headlamps, yelling and gossiping, sending each other burning looks and meaningful smiles. This young city is changing, but in many ways, it remains the same. It is this love of hedonistic freedom, combined with a longing to embrace others, that gives Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh its special charm.
Despite witnessing the fast development of urbanisation, most cities in Vietnam still keep a harmonious blend of modern and traditional. It is very easy to find ancient cultural and historic sites or attractive landscapes beside high-rise buildings and skyscrapers. If you are looking for something unique in the heart of Vietnamese cities or outskirts, check out these recommended following experiences :
Enjoy Street Food Tour in Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An or Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
You can hop onto a street food tour in almost every tourist hub throughout the country like Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An or Ho Chi Minh city. Travel with a friendly local guide who knows the area very well with small and hidden corners of cuisine, what you have is not only the traditional taste of each destination but also its culture.
Take a Motorbike Tour
Enjoy a city unique experience by having a motorbike tour. Imagine what if you hop on the back of a motor scooter and join the heavy traffic just like the locals do? In big cities like Hanoi or Saigon among rush hours, this can become an unforgettable sightseeing excursion experience for tourists.
Enjoy coffee – over and over again!
Vietnam is a country you will start to get into the coffee world as well. There are many wonderful coffee shops around. But, you can get regular coffee basically everywhere and it will be fantastic!
Join in a Handicraft Tour
Have some hands-on experiences with Vietnamese traditional products. The options are diverse with many workshops about such as pottery, coffee, lantern or carpentry, etc. On these tours, you will have chances to meet the descendants of the original craftsmen and see how they produce impressive handicrafts.