Lauren Cameron explores an off-the-tourist trail destination in central Vietnam. Photos by Lauren Cameron.
Described by Lonely Planet as “a city not worth spending time in unless you’re a Ho Chi Minh devotee or you must stop there en route to Laos”, Vinh has earned a sad reputation as an industrial, concrete hub and nothing more.
Blogs and travel forums diss the port city repeatedly, labelling it a Soviet-styled metropolis lacking in cultural value, despite its historic significance and prime location smack bang in one of Vietnam’s most peaceful rural provinces. In my opinion, that Vinh has yet to feel the full impact of tourism is its saving grace. The city’s streets retain a sense of what life in Saigon might have been like some 10 or 15 years ago; shops and stalls peddle bizarre trinkets from dawn till dusk, very little English is spoken, and one could count on one hand the number of Western-style restaurants to have opened in recent years.
Getting there is a breeze. There are nine 1 hour and 45 minute flights a day from Ho Chi Minh City – unless you would prefer the 26-hour train journey. I opted for short and sweet.
An assignment with Johnson & Johnson had brought me there. I was to venture into one of the province’s smaller townships to document the plight of children suffering tuberculosis – one of the country’s leading causes of mortality. But before leaving the city’s limits I had time to stop and explore, and boy am I grateful I did.
A key point in the East-West economic corridor linking Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, Vinh is considered the cultural and financial capital of central Vietnam; the powerhouse of the Nghe An Province. Though not exactly coastal, the city’s Southeastern perimeter hugs the Ca River estuary which, 18km on, leads to Cua Lo beach – a wonderful spot to have a dip in crystal clear waters before gorging on fresh seafood at one of the many seaside restaurants.
Nature has also endowed the Nghe An province with Pu Mat National Park, one of Central Vietnam’s finest places to take in the region’s unique flora and fauna. But the main reason visitors flock to the province is to visit the birthplace of Vietnam’s former Prime Minister Ho Chi Minh, who was raised in a small, humble hamlet in Kim Lien just 15km outside of Vinh City. A small, bamboo-walled recreation of the hut he lived in as a child is all that remains of the property itself, but walled within the grounds is also a museum, temple and family alter honouring the revered leader.
Attraction-wise, the city offers very little: two stone gates remain of Vinh’s ancient citadel, and a small museum (Xo Viet Nghe Tinh Museum) details the struggles of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement during the French occupation. In the city’s centre stands a 12m tall, copper colored granite statue of Uncle Ho surrounded by an area known as Ho Chi Minh Square. Bamboo and grass found in the square are taken from 61 provinces and cities throughout the country, symbolic of the monumental impact the man had upon his country.
The city was all but obliterated by US bombing during the Vietnam War, targeted for its strategic role as an industrial port and therefore the supply gateway to the Ho Chi Minh trail.
While scarce evidence of the bombing remains, remnants of the widespread damage caused can be seen in the city’s many communist-era buildings which were built with East German assistance once the war ended.
While not exactly a coveted destination for holidaymakers or sun-seekers, Vinh offers a snippet of the real Vietnam. I was there in early February, a month that sees an average temperature of just 15 degrees Celsius and at one point during my stay it dropped to just five degrees – a welcome respite from the sultry heat of Saigon. As I wandered the streets of Vinh shortly after dawn, covered in scarves and coats I hadn’t touched since moving to Ho Chi Minh City the previous year, the streets quite literally thawed around me. Elderly stallholders set up their wares on busy motorway side paths and produce markets burst into life down cramped side streets. I dined at a local restaurant, unnamed but known to many in the city, that specialised in goat. Blanched, boiled, steamed or stir-fried – the options were numerous, albeit limited to goat. Served with piles of fresh herbs, chunks of ginger and bottles of local rice wine; diners in this particular restaurant were riotously drunk at not yet 11am.
One afternoon I was traipsing the streets in search of the regional specialty – eel soup or sup luon. While not exactly considered a gastronomic delight in the Western world it was well and truly on my bucket list of Vietnamese specialties to try, and I had been captivated by the history of the dish. Understandably, Vinh went through periods of severe famine during the late 1900s as one of Vietnam’s most bombed cities, compelling locals to “look elsewhere” for ingredients. Apparently, they were to be found in the polyculture rice fields of the Nghe An Province – in the form of eels.
As stallholder after stallholder shook their head at me, having finished serving for the day, I had almost given up hope until I stumbled across a few plastic stools and a hut, lakeside. A few gestures and smiles later I had a steaming hot bowl of the stuff in front of me: a pungent, spicy, hot broth of chili, coriander, scallions, turmeric, mint, eel and fish sauce. Admittedly it took some courage to bite into the slippery sucker’s flesh and I am anything but proud to publicly disclose that first bite was all I could stomach, but the broth it sat in was surprisingly enjoyable! As I slurped my snake soup, I was approached by an old woman who could not quite fathom my presence. As she stroked my cheeks and smiled at me toothlessly, we developed what I assumed was a relationship, only to find that all the woman wanted was to cajole some money off me. The joy of finding eel soup had me feeling rather generous so naturally I handed her some cash, only to cause a public brawl between the old woman, a neighbouring stall, a fellow diner and a man off the street, who all felt it in their best interests to get my money back for me.
It was but one of several interactions I had with locals during my stay – one that still makes me smile in amusement. While Nghe An is a fast changing city, it is – for now at least – a place where friendships can still be forged over a cup of strongly brewed coffee, where locals are genuinely interested in travellers and their reasons for being there, and where life appears simpler than it does in many of the country’s more popular tourist destinations. If you are seeking an authentic encounter or two, give Vinh a chance, before it is too late.