As I walk around Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, one of the most famous sites in the Vietnamese capital, there is a moment that stops me dead in my tracks.
After two years of closed international borders and social distancing, a multi-disciplinary street dance festival is taking place on the road just ahead.
Around 10 energetic hip-hop artists, a crowd numbers in the hundreds, all gathered shoulder-to-shoulder for the clearest view. The majority of them wear masks, a few notables do not.
It’s been way too long since I’ve been part of a scene like this. The energy is contagious.
Watching the crowd of onlookers and nearby troupes in last-minute rehearsal before hitting the stage—the “bad boys” in leather jackets, the flamenco dancers in ruby skirts—one gets the impression that the past two years have never didn’t happen, that life in Vietnam just went on as it always did.
But that was not the case, with strict lockdowns affecting every corner of the country. Vietnam has since reopened to international tourists. It also dropped pre-arrival testing requirements from May 15, although Smartraveller advises some airlines may still insist on a negative test.
I’ve been in Vietnam for a few days now, having flown Vietnamese carrier Bamboo Airways from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City and then to ancient Hanoi in the north of the country. I relish the opportunity to finally be back.
Having fallen in love with Vietnam, its food and its people on previous trips, I was curious what it would be like after the pandemic. Would the incessant hum of scooters and crowded markets that engulfed your senses remain, or would it be a shadow of itself, forever changed?
My questions were answered within minutes of stepping out of Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City. Thick, tropical heat, a cacophony of car and scooter horns, and that unmistakable aroma of Southeast Asia snapped me out of my travel daze. It was glorious.
Exploring on foot, it was as if life had indeed returned to normal, with some slight changes.
Face masks are the new normal
Once worn only when sick or riding a scooter (exhaust is no one’s friend), face masks are now worn by most people when out in public, including markets and public transport.
Although it’s no longer enforced as the government relaxed strict rules put in place at the start of 2020, it’s become a habit for many now – a personal choice you can follow or ignore. That said, many locals still insist that travelers wear masks in public. It is polite to do so.
New beginnings and a life on hold
In the tourist mecca of Halong City – gateway to UNESCO-listed Halong Bay – in the far north, it was much the same, although it was clear that all had not come out unscathed.
The hundreds of night junk cruises that depart and return each day are mostly dormant, moored in ports awaiting the day when they can come alive again.
Vinayak ‘Vinny’ Razdan is the hotel manager of FLC Grand Halong Bay, a colossal five-star hotel and golf course perched on a hill overlooking the region’s famous islands. When it was forced to close in March 2020, many of its 750 employees suddenly found themselves without jobs or security.
FLC Hotels and Resorts is part of the FLC Group, the parent company of Bamboo Airways.
“People did what they had to survive at the time,” says Razdan. “Many staff have returned to their hometowns, become fishermen or worked with their families in the fields; others have become delivery drivers for take-out-only companies.
Razdan also temporarily returned to his native India, choosing to spend time with his family, before returning once the local situation improved.
A rebound in domestic tourism has allowed many employees to return to previous roles, while some have opted to pursue their new careers.
Now, with international visitors slowly arriving, Razdan and the community hope the worst days are now behind them, with the country finally able to rebuild its struggling tourism industry.
The roads less traveled are in
Vietnam is home to more than 96 million people, with around 18 million foreign tourists visiting each year before the pandemic. Tourism accounted for almost 10% of its GDP in 2019.
Western travelers are currently rare, but those who are here feel incredibly lucky.
After two years of considering our impact on the planet, many believe there is now a chance to “do things differently” this time around, to give back to locals more than we take, and to fully immerse ourselves and d to embrace the culture, without imposing our own.
There is also a call to share the love in an effort to limit the effects of over-tourism, visiting destinations beyond the classic meccas of Halong Bay, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City.
Quy Nhon in Binh Dinh province – midway between tourist maps of Nha Trang and Da Nang – is one of the lesser-known towns hoping to capitalize on this mood, especially with direct flights from the international hubs of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Dating back to the 11th century, the town was built on fishing and farming (the fleet of circular, vibrating fishing baskets is a captivating sight to behold) although it was briefly used as an army base. American air, with the old runway now integrated into the main street.
There are two FLC hotels in the city – the impressive 1,008-room FLC Grand Quy Nhon and the FLC City Beach Quy Nhon – both geared towards domestic guests at present, while hoping curious Westerners will also attracted by its beautiful beaches and bustling markets.
Other notable destinations include Ninh Binh, home to tall limestone mountains (much like those found in Halong Bay) overlooking lush green rice fields below; and Da Lat, described as “a little corner of Paris” and home to a myriad of stunning waterfalls and lakes.
With an extensive network of airlines across the country, it’s easy to venture out and explore.
A moment on the lips that is worth seeing
Back in Ho Chi Minh City, life continues to flow like the traffic that fills its streets – it’s both organized and chaotic, a well-oiled machine that has weathered countless storms over the centuries. The pandemic was just a jolt, and it is already putting those days behind it.
Shopping and street food have long been its most alluring features, along with French colonial architecture like the Post Office and Ho Chi Minh City Cathedral. That hasn’t changed.
Stainless steel carts are still ubiquitous along the streets, all serving plenty of bánh mì, mouth-watering pho bò (beef pho) and delicious goi cuon (fresh spring rolls).
Above all, it is the inhabitants who remain the greatest treasure of Vietnam.
Like the rest of the world, they’ve all been doing the rough stuff for the past few years, but they’re always smiling, always warm and inviting, always eager to share their culture. And, they are ready to welcome us back – right now.
The author traveled as a guest of Bamboo Airways.