A blossoming peach tree, a doe-eyed baby peering over her mother’s shoulder, an armchair and even a whole roasted pig - I see all sorts of curious cargo being carried on the back of mopeds as my rickshaw ambles through the backstreets of Hanoi, the bustling capital city of Vietnam.
This south-east Asian country, which stretches from China to Cambodia, with a snaking coastline lapped by the South China Sea, is home to 88 million people, 35 million mopeds and motorbikes and, more recently, an increasing number of tourists.
Since direct flights from the UK launched more than a year ago, Vietnam has rocketed in popularity with the British market. Great prices (Vietnam was rated the second best value destination in the Post Office Long Haul Report 2012), safe passage (there are very few threats to tourists), and a fascinating culture are attracting more and more visitors.
The country is a patchwork of vivid green rice fields and vibrant cities, dotted with UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the ancient town of Hoi An and the picturesque Ha Long Bay.
With so much to take in, one of the best ways to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of Vietnam is on a whistle-stop escorted tour of the country. In 12 days, I’m able to sample some of the highlights.
I start my journey in Hanoi, a city teeming with activity. Every moment spent exploring the busy streets is an assault on the senses. Tiny mobile food stalls selling sweet-smelling sticky treats are set up wherever the industrious see fit, while customers squat on tiny plastic stools. Barbers snip away in pop-up pavement salons, while vendors wearing traditional conical hats trade their wares from baskets hanging on the ends of a pole like scales balancing on their shoulders.
It’s quite a contrast to the peaceful Halong Bay, where we cast off for a relaxing cruise of the tranquil, emerald waters aboard a deluxe junk boat. Decked out in polished dark wood, our vessel features gorgeous en suite cabins, a restaurant, bar and spa.
We might be tourists but back on land, the 11-hour sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue is a very real Vietnamese experience. We bunk down in basic four-berth cabins while the carriages clunk through the night. It may not be the best train journey I’ve ever had but it’s definitely one I’ll never forget!
Our knowledgeable guide, Anh, who accompanies us throughout our trip, shows us around the historical sites of Hue, which was the country’s capital from 1802 to 1945. Most impressive is the ancient, walled citadel and its imperial Purple Palace, similar in many ways to the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Rivalling Halong Bay, the historic, old world port of Hoi An is undoubtedly a highlight of this adventure. Vietnam’s waterways were once the main routes for transport and trade. From the mid 16th century to the early 19th century Hoi An was a thriving trading post.
One thing’s for sure, life never stays still in Vietnam.