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Special prayers are held at Vietnamese and Chinese pagodas on days when the moon is either full or the merest sliver. Many Buddhists eat only vegetarian food on these days. Some of the major religious festivals follow a lunar calendar. They include: Tet (late Jan-early Feb), the most important festival of the year, marking the new lunar year as well as the advent of spring; Wandering Souls Day (August), the second-largest festival of the year, when offerings of food and gifts are given to the wandering souls of the forgotten dead; Doan Ngu (June), when human effigies are burnt, becoming soldiers in the god of death's army; and Holiday of the Dead (April), which commemorates deceased relatives.
Vietnam is made up of equatorial lowlands, high, temperate plateaus and alpine peaks. Although Vietnam's wildlife is rich, it is in precipitous decline because of the destruction of habitats and illegal hunting. Less than 20% of the country remains forested, and what remains is under threat from slash and burn agriculture and excessive harvesting. Fauna includes elephants, rhinoceros, tiger, leopard, black bear, snub-nosed monkey, crocodile and turtle.
Although Vietnam lies in the intertropical zone, local conditions vary from frosty winter in the far northern hills to the year-round subequatorial warmth of the Mekong Delta. At sea level, the mean annual temperature is about 27°C in the south, falling to about 21°C in the far north.
Four great philosophies and religions have shaped the spiritual life of the Vietnamese people: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity. Over the centuries, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have melded with popular Chinese beliefs and ancient Vietnamese animism to form what is known as Tam Giao (or 'Triple Religion').
The Vietnamese language (kinh) belongs to the Mon-Khmer stock, which comprises Mon (spoken in Burma) and Khmer (the language of Cambodia), as well as Khmu, Bahnar, Bru and other languages of the highlands of Vietnam. Mon-Khmer, Tai and Chinese elements are combined with many basic words derived from the monotonic Mon-Khmer languages. The most widely spoken foreign languages in Vietnam are Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), English, French and Russian, more or less in that order.
Popular artistic forms include: traditional painting produced on frame-mounted silk; an eclectic array of theatre, puppetry, music and dance; religious sculpture; and lacquerware.
Vietnamese cuisine is especially varied - there are said to be nearly 500 different traditional dishes, ranging from exotic meats such as bat, cobra and pangolin to fantastic vegetarian creations (often prepared to replicate meat and fish dishes). However, the staple of Vietnamese cuisine is plain white rice dressed up with a plethora of vegetables, meat, fish, spices and sauces. Spring rolls and steamed rice pancakes are popular snacks, and the ubiquitous soups include eel and vermicelli, shredded chicken and bitter soups. Some of the more unusual fruits available include green dragon fruit, jujube, khaki, longan, mangosteen, pomelo, three-seed cherry and water apple. Vietnamese coffee is excellent.
Hanoi, capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is one of the most beguiling cities in Asia. A lovely landscape of lakes, shaded boulevards and verdant parks is home to such beautiful and diverse architectural treasures as a 1500-year-old pagoda, colonial French homes and astounding modern skyscrapers. Its bustling markets, thriving nightlife and excellent food are attracting visitors of every stripe to this ancient city.
HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON)
Ho Chi Minh City is the heart and soul of Vietnam. It's a bustling, dynamic and industrious centre, the largest city, the economic capital and the cultural trendsetter. The streets, where much of the city's life takes place, is a myriad of shops, stalls, stands-on-wheels and vendors selling wares spread out on sidewalks. The city churns, ferments, bubbles and fumes. Yet within the teeming metropolis are the timeless traditions and beauty of an ancient culture. Sights include the Giac Lam Pagoda, the neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral, Reunification Hall, Cholon market and the former US embassy, scene of such havoc during the 1975 evacuations.
The city of Dalat is the main centre of the Southern Highlands region. In the past it was renowned as a cool, green city with a park-like environment. This is changing fast, as the economy booms and life speeds up. Still, Dalat is definitely worth a visit and it's a good base for trips into the surrounding highlands, which remain tranquil. In Dalat, make sure you visit the Hang Nga Guesthouse & Art Gallery, nicknamed by locals the Crazy House. It's a counter-cultural gem created by artist and architect Mrs Dang Viet Nga (known as Hang Nga).
Although it could well develop into a flashy resort such as Thailand's Pattaya Beach, Nha Trang is still fairly quiet. Things are moving, though, so see it while it lasts. With very clear turquoise waters, snorkelling and diving are prime activities, and just lazing on the town beach is an experience in itself. You'll be offered everything from lunch to a manicure.
The most beautiful city in Vietnam, Hué was the country's capital from 1802 to 1945, and has long been a major cultural, religious and educational centre. The remains of the huge, moated Citadel, constructed by the Emperor Gia Long from 1804, contain many interesting sights, such as the Nine Holy Cannons, the Imperial Enclosure, the Palace of Supreme Harmony and the Halls of the Mandarins. Sadly, the intriguing Purple Forbidden City was largely destroyed during the Vietnam War. About 15km (9mi) south of Hué are the Royal Tombs. Hué has many other places of religious and dynastic importance, and some good museums.
Magnificent Halong Bay, with its 3000 islands rising from the clear, emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, is one of Vietnam's natural marvels. The tiny islands are dotted with innumerable beaches and grottoes created by the wind and waves. The most impressive of the grottoes is the Hang Dau Go, a huge cave of three chambers. The name Ha Long means 'where the dragon descended into the sea', and refers to a legend about a dragon who created the bay and islands with its flailing tail. There's even a modern legendary creature, the Tarasque, said to haunt the area.
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