Vinh is roughly halfway between Hanoi and Hue located twenty kilometres from the sea in the narrowest part of Vietnam. The Lam River loops round the south and east of the city, and the mountains of Laos are clearly visible to the west.
It’s a sizeable urban area with about a quarter of a million people, and the capital of Nghe An Province. Its harsh climate, frequently subject to a hot dry wind from the west and violent storms from the South China Sea, coupled with its poor quality soil, has made Vinh one of the poorest provincial cities in Vietnam.
Founded in 1802, it was more or less destroyed during the French-Vietnamese War. After rebuilding and reaching city status in 1962, it was again flattened during the American War. This time it was rebuilt with assistance from the now-defunct German Democratic Republic.
To say it lacks charm is an understatement. If you're a fan of East German ‘social realist’ architecture, you'd probably be impressed, but for anyone else, it’s an undistinguished straggle of buildings surrounded by rice paddies, and not much more.
Vinh is bisected by Highway 1. It is also served by the north-south rail link and regular flights to and from Hanoi. It’s possible to cross the border into Laos at the Cau Tre border gate, about 105km west of Vinh. About 10km from the city is the Cua Lo port. Nearby is a long stretch of white sand beach lined with poor quality hotel development. The beach is poorly maintained and dirty – even so, it’s very popular with Hanoi city-dwellers as the nearest thing to a seaside resort in the north of Vietnam.
In our view, there are only two reasons for including Vinh in a tour programme. The first is as a stopping-off point for a road trip along Highway 1 – one of Vinh's few plus points is a couple of reasonable hotels.
The other is to visit Kim Lien, a small village 14km west of Vinh, where Nguyen Sinh Cung was born in 1890. His father, a minor mandarin expelled from the Imperial Court for his anti-colonialist sympathies, could hardly suspect his son would become Vietnam’s saviour and one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century as Ho Chi Minh.
There's not much to see apart from a few reconstructed houses and a small museum, but it’s a place to stand on one of the world’s historical crossroads.