Vietnam is an ancient place with a rich culture. To really know Vietnam is to know small towns where ethnic minorities live, traditional villages, spiritual sites, royal palaces, and the various ways people have sustained themselves over the centuries. As more resorts and hotels spring up to cater to a burgeoning tourism industry, let’s not forget to go outside the walls and explore a little. These 5 examples should give you a place to start!
SAPA, LÀO CAI
Ta về thị trấn Sapa
Mùa hoa nở rộ là ngà khói mây
Làn sương nhẹ hẫng mù say
Em đi ngược gió đong đầy nắng Xuân
Sapa is a small town with beautiful mountains, terraced rice paddies, and pleasant subtropical climate in northwestern Vietnam. It is populated by various ethnic minority groups including Hmong (largest group), Dao, Giáy, and Tày. Sapa comes from the word “Chapa,” which means “sandy place” in the Hmong language. Sapa is one of the best places to meet ethnic minority communities and learn about their fascinating cultures.
The town first appeared on Vietnam’s national map when the French explored the northern highlands of Vietnam in the 19th century. Its beautiful scenery and pleasant climate turned Sapa into a famous vacation destination. At that time, the town had already been a popular marketplace for local ethnic minorities to trade their handicrafts and produce. Since these vendors had to walk for hours from their houses to Sapa, they often spent the night in town. Naturally, it became a place where young vendors could socialize and potentially find a partner. This place, called the “love market,” still exists today
Right outside of Sapa is Mt. Fansipan, the roof of Indochina, which can be summited after an extremely strenuous hike, offering many scenic villages of Hmong, Dao, Giáy people. Local markets offer excellent eats including subtropical produce, free-range suckling pigs, river fish, purple sticky rice, and “thắng cố” (horse meat stew).
ĐƯỜNG LÂM OLD VILLAGE, HÀ NỘI
Ngõ nghèo gợi nhớ xa xăm
Đá ong mưa nắng dãi dầm quản chi
Từ đây dấn bước ra đi
Tâm hồng náo nức, gan thi với đời
Đường Lâm is one of the oldest villages in Vietnam. Despite many changes throughout Vietnam’s history, it still retains the characteristics of a typical Vietnamese village with an entrance gate, a banyan tree, a temple, a pagoda, a well, a watch tower, and endless beautiful rice paddies. Đường Lâm has a unique road and alley system that looks like fish bone, which makes it impossible for people to turn their back to the village temple, a subtle way to respect the village gods.
The seat of the old Sơn Tây province, Đường Lâm has almost 1,000 ancient houses built in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. These houses were all built with mud and laterite, a local type of rock that keeps structures warm in winter and cool in summer. Simple as these materials may sound, the houses are still in superb condition and inhabited by descendants of their original owners and builders.
Đường Lâm is also famous for its specialty Mía chickens and delicious soy sauce. It is such a pleasure to visit an ancient house, eat a countryside lunch with the owners under the hundred-year-old roof, catch a nice breeze from nearby rice paddies, and get away from the bustling city life. Everyone should experience it at least once to reflect on the present and past.
PHÁT DIỆM CATHEDRAL, NINH BÌNH
Ai về Phát Diệm quê ta
Thăm nhà thờ đá thánh ca dập dìu
Nắng xanh ngọn núi Cánh Diều
Nước non, non nước bao điều ước mong
Phát Diệm cathedral was built between 1875 and 1898 by Father Trần Lục and locals in Kim Sơn district, a predominantly Catholic region of Ninh Bình province. The cathedral is considered the center of Catholicism in northern Vietnam and it has excellent Christmas decorations and shows every year. It is a regularly visited because of its unique architectural style and rich history.
Built with just stone and wood, the cathedral looks like a Vietnamese pagoda combined with a Gothic church. The internal part of the cathedral also has some strikingly Asian features. For example, there are Vietnamese-looking angels in its vaulted ceiling and Eastern mythical characters such as dragons, phoenixes, tortoises, and unicorns on its walls. All the wooden statues in the cathedral were made by Phó Gia, a local artisan. It is said that Father Trần Lục wanted to blend the Vietnamese temple and pagoda building style with the Catholic church architecture to show the harmonious relationship between Christianity and other Vietnamese religions.
HUẾ, THỪA THIÊN-HUẾ
“Đường vô xứ Huế quanh quanh
Non xanh nước biếc như tranh họa đồ”
Huế is Vietnam’s last feudal capital where the Nguyễn dynasty reigned from 1802 to 1945. Before that, it went by the name Phú Xuân and was the capital city of the fedual Nguyễn lords who governed central and south Vietnam from the 17th to the 19th century. The city is known for its long history, rich culture, and great food – bún bò Huế, anyone?
Huế boasts numerous historical ruins including the Imperial Palace, the Forbidden City, and many shrines and tombs that belonged to the Nguyễn dynasty, such as the tombs of Minh Mạng and Tự Đức. The complex of Huế monuments within the Citadel is a recognized UNESCO world cultural heritage. Huế also has famous handicraft trades, such as porcelain enamel and wood carving and well-known local folk music (ca Huế).
The royal lifestyle and old customs of Huế live on through her people. Local folks are said to be polite and soft-spoken while the food remains sophisticated and well-decorated. Whenever I visit Huế, I enjoy the slow pace of life and the genuineness of the local people. A scenic city with the Trường Sơn mountain range in the background and bisected by the Perfume (Hương) river, Huế has been the inspiration for many famous novels, songs, and poems.
CÁI RĂNG FLOATING MARKET, CẦN THƠ
Chợ đã nổi từ nửa đêm về sáng
Ta vẫn chìm từ giữa bữa hoàng hôn
Em treo bẹo Cái Răng Ba Láng
Ta thương hồ Vàm Xáng Cần Thơ
Located not very far from Ninh Kiều Port, Cái Răng is one of the most well-known floating markets in Cần Thơ province. It is where local farmers sell vegetables and fruits on their own boats, canoes, and rafts. Instead of store signs, vendors hang their merchandise of fruits and vegetables on long poles call “bẹo.”
Today, to serve the need of sellers and buyers, there are even boat vendors who sell coffee, meals, medicine, etc. These special vendors often go around the market on their smaller boats to cater to customers.
Cái Răng is one of many floating markets typically found in the Mekong Delta. These markets started in the past due to the lack of ground transportation routes in the Mekong Delta. The waterways served as a much faster and more convenient way to get around and do business for local residents. Even after roads were built in this region, floating markets are still very popular. Besides fresh fruits and vegetables, visitors can also experience the well-known warmth and generosity of Mekong Delta residents. If you are lucky, maybe some vendors will even sing a few “vọng cổ” (Mekong Delta-style folk songs) lines for you.
Thu Tran is from Hanoi, Vietnam but currently lives in Seattle, WA. She is passionate about building healthy, livable, and sustainable communities. During her free time, Thu enjoys being in nature, reading books, playing soccer, and testing different cooking recipes.