The more you delve into Vietnam, the more layers you uncover in its history. Containing flavours of France, hints of Hinduism, the tang of China and Imperial seasoning, this South-East Asia gem is one big melting pot of tradition and modernity. To savour this cultural fusion, check out our top list of international influences and where you will notice them most.
Thien Mu Pagoda – Buddhism
The seven tiers of this tall pagoda stand out against the sky and symbolically connect to the northern Indian tradition practised by Buddhist monks in Vietnam. Guardians stand at the entrance to the temple, where you can remove your shoes and pay respects to a happy Buddha, and Buddhas representing past, present and future. The highlight of my visit was the meditative calm of the bonsai courtyard – some of the carefully cultivated miniature trees are hundreds of years old. Our guide estimated that there were about 90 monks and novices living in the complex.
Temple of Literature – Confucianism
Built in 1076, this Confucian temple of learning and scholarship is considered the site of the first university of Vietnam. To this day, graduates gather for photos inside its walls, and the names of the most elite students are engraved on the shells of 82 stone turtles.
My Son temples – Hinduism
Each of the many Hindu temples of this sacred site is made of three buildings – a meditation room, gate and temple itself – and were all constructed by the Champa kings of the 4th to the 14th century. The oldest of the ruins onsite dates to the 7th century, which is older than the Angkor Wat. As we explored, our tour group passed Sanskrit inscriptions and the yoni and lingam symbols of male and female fertility. The complex represents a sobering collision of cultures, manifested in the countless bomb craters left over from the American War of the 1960s.
Hue Citadel – Imperialism
Within this citadel in Hue lies the Imperial City, the palatial complex belonging to the Nguyen dynasty and lying on the banks of the Huong River. The Nguyen dynasty was the last of Vietnam, ruling from the early 1800s to 1945, when the emperor abdicated before the new Communist government. The colourful mosaics, intricate architecture and vast expanse of this site, believed to be modelled after China’s Forbidden City, are only a hint at the splendour once situated here. Conflict during the French colonial era and Vietnam War of the 1960s left most of the site in ruins which are gradually being restored.
Sights of Saigon – French colonialism
A drive around Ho Chi Minh City, the unofficial second capital of Vietnam, shows off distinctly French architecture. The façade of the Notre Dame cathedral echoes that of its eponymous Parisian cousin, and right across the street is the Saigon Central Post Office, built in the late 1800s when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. In northern Hanoi, the French Quarter stills possesses its European aura, although in this city, the Francophiles will be happiest gazing at the Hanoi Opera House or Presidential Palace.
Ho Chi Minh – Vietnamese Communism
The tall pillars of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in Hanoi are testament to the grandeur and respect afforded to the Communist leader. His preserved body can be viewed inside at certain times of year. Nearby, you will find the stilt house where Ho Chi Minh coalesced before his death in 1969, the carp pond around which he is said to have walked, the small house in which he received guests and the conspicuously yellow Presidential Palace.
For immersion into more culture and architecture, read about the 12 Must-See Temples in Asia.