HANOI, HALONG BAY, NINH BINH AND HOI AN
Who doesn’t love Vietnam? Max and I did a trip to Vietnam in September 2010 and we spent 2 weeks visiting this land of staggering beauty, delicious cuisine and friendly people. It survived a shocking war lasting almost 20 years, where hundreds of thousands died and people are still wondering today what it was all about.
Yet over time, the beautiful people of Vietnam have refused to let hard feelings linger and they’ve moved on and they welcome international visitors with grace and charm.
We arrived into Hanoi where we spent 3 nights in the Old Quarter at the Anise Hotel. One thing we learnt quickly about crossing the chaotic streets of Vietnam was to just look straight ahead and keep walking. Somehow the cyclists, motorbikes and cars just swerve around you (I always said a little prayer before stepping out). No point waiting at a crossing for the traffic to stop – because it won’t.
The Old Quarter, which was on our doorstep and almost 2000 years old, was a hive of activity and a hustle and bustle of people going about their daily activities. Each street of the Old Quarter is named after the goods which the artisans and traders sold.
After exploring the Old Quarter, we proceeded by foot to explore the rest of the city and were greeted with scenes of beautiful traditional and colonial buildings, wide boulevards and tree-lined streets – a stark contrast between the haves and the have nots.
On the fourth day we travelled to Halong Bay as we were doing an overnight junk cruise on the Calypso Cruiser. The transfer took about 3 hours and we stopped at a workshop where disabled people were busy making beautiful, silk pictures. Needless to say, I purchased one and found a place for it on my bedroom wall.
The shame of it all is that since our trip, the outside of the boats have now been painted white which detracts from their appeal and charm. Thankfully the interiors retain their rich, carved wood.
There’s a few different stories going round as to why this was done. One was that the white boats would identify that they were registered in Halong and the non-white boats were registered in Catba. Another is that after the sinking of one of the boats, they were required to become licensed and a way to identify which were licensed was to paint them white. But then what’s to stop any of them doing it?
Having said that, the scenery is second to none and that’s what it’s all about – the panoramic, breathtaking scenery. We swam, and ate, and explored caves and climbed to the top of Titop Island for the most spectacular views. Wonderful!
The following day, we took a transfer from Halong Bay to Ninh Binh (95 kms south of Hanoi) for our night’s stay. This area is known as the Inland Halong Bay. At the time, not many people had heard of it however it’s become extremely popular for the stunning scenery.
In the afternoon after settling into the Ninh Binh Hotel, we hired bicycles from the hotel and road around the nearby countryside, riding through villages and paddy fields. In one village, we were greeted by the villagers who came running out to give us high-fives and a group of children eventually started following us, some banging away in unison on little drums.
CYCLING AROUND NINH BINH
The next day our guide, Long, picked us up for our trip to Tam Coc and to do a boat trip down the Ngo Dong River. You sit in a little boat where the peddler uses her feet to row the boat and takes you on a tranquil journey along the beautiful river, past paddy fields and through caves. Best time to go is when the paddy fields are green or yellow in order to get the full impact of the surreal scenery and it’s recommended to do it either in the morning or late afternoon.
Sadly, as it’s become popular, some hawkers have become a problem demanding additional tips once you’re on the boat otherwise they won’t go any further, and people on shore asking you to buy food for the rowers. We didn’t experience any of this and it may be because at the time it wasn’t a significant tourist destination or perhaps because we booked it via our guide. It’s probably worth giving them a couple of dollars just so that you have a pleasurable experience.
We arrived back into Hanoi in the late afternoon and Long took us to the railway station for our 15 hour overnight journey on the Reunification Express to Danang. In a previous post, I mentioned I wasn’t really a fan of overnight train travel because of the constant stopping and starting which doesn’t allow for a good night’s sleep. Nevertheless, it was an experience. We arrived the next morning and took a transfer straight to the town of UNESCO World Heritage listed Hoi An – a must visit and a photographer’s dream.
Our hotel was the Life Heritage Resort (now called the Anantara Hoi An Resort) and it’s a beautiful French colonial-style building located on the banks of the Thu Bon River and less than 1 km from the historic quarter of Hoi An. We checked-in, freshened up and explored the hotel before strolling into town, admiring the ancient architecture along the way, ranging from French colonial to wooden Chinese shophouses and temples.
We stopped at the Japanese Covered Bridge which was built in the 1590’s and had lunch at Café 43. The décor was very ordinary but the food was delicious. I believe they now charge an entrance fee to get into the Ancient Town.
The next morning, we had booked an eco farming and fishing tour which we shared with a couple of young Asian girls. The tour included cycling through the countryside, hands on farming at a vegetable farm, taking a ride in a basket boat, learning to fish and finishing off with an amazing barbeque lunch of fish and stuffed squid – best I’ve ever had and it was made on a simple grill with coals, at the back of the little boat.
While we were learning to cast nets during the fishing demonstration on the beach, I proceeded to throw the net as was instructed and when I spun round and cast it out to sea, I caught a man!
ECO FARMING AND FISHING TOUR
Instructions on how to catch a man!
In the late afternoon, we returned back to the hotel to enjoy its ambience and also do a bit of swimming in the pool. The next day we took a 10 minute taxi ride to Cua Dai Beach with it’s fine, white powdery sand and seafood restaurants. It’s only about 7 km from Hoi An and there are plenty of hotels and resorts if you prefer a beach experience. If you’re not renting a sun lounger, then you’re expected to purchase a drink or fruit from the hawkers. The safest time to swim is between April and August.
We returned to the Ancient Town for more exploring and dinner. Hoi An is an experience not to be missed and should be included in everyone’s first time visit to Vietnam. We’ll certainly be doing it again on our next trip.
The next day we transferred back to Danang for our flight to Nha Trang.
TO BE CONTINUED
IMAGES – ON UNSPLASH
- Image 1 – Lukasz Saczek
- Image 2 – Son Vu Le
- Image 3 – Nguyenthe Loi
- Image 4 – Matthew Nolan
- Image 5 – Mana Amir
- Image 6 – Stephan Valentin
- Image 11 – Char Hung Tsang
- Image 12 – Logan Lambert
- Image 16 – Seb Thomas
- Image 18 – Joss Woodhead
- Image 21 – Joaqin
- Image 22 and 23 – Ruslan Bardash
- Image 35 – Chang Duong
- Image 29 – Tycho Atsma
- Image 30 – Steve Douglas
- Image 38 – Vu Nguyen
- Image 40 – Toomas Tartes
- REST OF IMAGES – Author’s own