A teacher and writer, Kim Jane Saunders is a graduate of international politics and history, and holds a master's degree in education. She has lived in Hong Kong and Indonesia, and has traveled extensively throughout East and Southeast Asia. Currently living in Singapore, Kim acts as lecturer and consultant on issues relating to contemporary Asian culture.
There is so much more to a true travel experience than our title indicates; however, some boxes are well worth checking. One of my favorite categories to check off is UNESCO World Heritage Sites; what makes a tangible UNESCO Site, you ask? It is a natural or man-made site, area, or structure, recognized as being of outstanding international importance, and therefore deserving of special protection. Sites are nominated to, and designated by, the world heritage convention, an organization of UNESCO. In addition to tangible cultural heritage, there is also a category for intangible cultural heritage such as traditional and unique music, song, and dance forms—Hue royal court music is a perfect example.
Vietnam is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the first of which was named in 1993—the complex of monuments in the former imperial capital city of Hue, located in central Vietnam, followed closely by Halong Bay. The ancient port town of Hoi An and the ruins of the old Cham capital at My Son were both designated UNESCO status in 1999. Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park in the north, the 11th-century Thang Long Imperial Citadel, and the 14th-century stone Ho Dynasty Citadel all followed in the mid-aughts. And finally, the Trang An landscape complex of some 30,000 limestone karst peaks located in the northeast, was designated in 2014.
Vietnam covers 205,805 square miles, larger than California and slightly smaller than Texas. North to south it is 1,025 miles; geographically it is a long ‘S’ shape with 2,025 miles of coastline, including islands; and at its narrowest point, it is just 31 miles wide. Given the vast geography of the country, and the distances between its eight world heritage sites, the million dollar question is—how do you visit them all?
Naturally, there are airports linking the major cities, and the reunification express links north to south as does the north-south highway. Of course, all of these modes of transport take time; the best way to see and experience as much of Vietnam as possible is a two-week long cruise, and that is one of the reasons Zegrahm has been offering this unique itinerary for over 25 years. On Vietnam: Culture & Cuisine, you can visit four of these stunning UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Beginning in the north enables travelers to experience the limestone karst wonders of Halong Bay, land of the descending dragon, and immortalized in the movie, Indochine. Local dragon boats take visitors to the major sites, beaches, caves, and grottos with time for visiting floating fishing village. Box number 1? Check!
Sailing south, the next port of call provides access to the imperial city of Hue (which rhymes with sway), without the very long drive from Da Nang. Founded by Emperor Gia Long and home of the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 to 1945, Hue had an impressive Imperial citadel with a forbidden purple city. Beijing, it is not, as it was extensively damaged during the Tet offensive of 1968; but what remains is well worth seeing. Hue is located on the banks of the Perfume River and a river cruise takes in the 16th-century Thien Mu pagoda. There are several imperial tombs, including that of Emperor Tu Duc, who built his mausoleum in the mid-19th century and used it as a summer palace prior to his death. Emperor Khai Dinh was the penultimate ruler and his tomb boasts art deco features being built in the early 1900s. Box number 2? Check!
Calling in at Da Nang makes it possible to see both the ancient port city of Hoi An, and the ancient Cham temple sanctuary of My Son. (For a complete cultural experience it is worth visiting My Son in the morning. Angkor Wat it is not, again having been badly damaged during the Vietnam war, but it is infinitely worth seeing.) The original temple was built in wood in the 4th century but burned down a few hundred years later. The red laterite brick structures, 70 of them, were built during the 8th through 14th centuries. Box number 3? Check!
From My Son one travels back via Hoi An; the key port in Vietnam from the 16th to 18th centuries, Hoi An hosted traders from China and Japan. The Japanese bridge was built in 1593—and is featured in The Quiet American—and there are a number of very fine 18th century-style shop houses, such as the house of Tan Ky. Box number 4? Check!
For more information on our upcoming expedition, visit Vietnam: Culture & Cuisine.