After the traffic, pollution, and chaos of Hanoi, we ventured to the interior of Quảng Ninh province to explore the vibrant rice paddies and flower plantations. We arrived at a small port full were greeted by a large boat with orange sails which for two days transported us to a magical realm.
The name Ha Long means "descending dragon." According to legend, the Jade Emperor ordered a dragon to help stop the Chinese sea invasion. The dragon swooped down from the sky, spitting chunks of jade and destroying the enemy ships. These chunks of jade went on to form the many islands which we see today. The legend also says that the dragon is still alive and sleeping at the bottom of the bay.
During the morning, the bay tends to be covered in fog which lends a fascinating air of mystery to the islands and karst formations. You occasionally cross paths will conch vendors in their little boats which adds a touch of color and life to the surroundings. At night, the boat lowers its sails and drops anchors, letting you spend the night floating in the calm waters beneath an incredibly starry sky.
This city is located in the center of the country. Its historic district is a mixture of Chinese, Japanese, and French influences and has been declared a World Heritage Site.
One of the most interesting places to see is the 17th-century Japanese Bridge, an icon of Hội An (it's actually depicted on Dong bills). It's a reddish wood and stone covered bridge that's also home to a Vietnamese temple. It was built to link the traditional Japanese and Chinese districts of the city.
The banks of the Thu Bồn River are always bustling and full of shops and restaurants. There is a very well-kept walkway on the right side. The atmosphere is great at night: there are people out for a walk, getting some fresh air, visiting the markets, and selling colored lanterns. Our visit coincided with the full-moon celebration so the area was especially lively.
Hanoi is a much quieter city than Ho Chi Minh City, but there is still tons of traffic. That's one of the things that strikes you first when you take a tour around the city. The streets are filled with people, cars, motorbikes, noise, street stalls, women unloading food, and more. It's a beautiful city where I wouldn't hesitate to live, especially when you take Vietnamese hospitality into account.
The Sapa Valley is, without a doubt, my favorite place in Vietnam. After spending nearly a month touring the East Coast and experiencing its nerve-wracking motorcycle-taxis and marketplaces, arriving at Sapa was to finally be at peace. Sapa is a small town located at 1600 meters above sea level in the green mountains close to the Chinese border.
The town itself is nothing special: it’s a colonial city founded by the French, but the truth is that today it has been ravaged by tourism, restaurants, pubs, and souvenir stands. In short, it has become almost unrecognizable. However, Sapa is ideal for excursions and hiking to see the local ethnic-minority Hmong, Tay, Dao, and Nung tribes. These people cultivate immense rice fields that stretch as far as the eye can see and form an incredibly beautiful landscape of terraces.
Every day, the main square of Sapa is filled with women who come on foot from their villages to sell handicrafts to tourists. I was very surprised by their good English and friendliness, nothing to do with the rest of the country. Many of these women will also rent beds in their homes for a small sum. I couldn’t do it because my visa was about to expire, but I’m convinced that the experience would be worth it.
I won't lie: Sapa is touristy, yes, but you also have plenty of space for yourself and the place is totally different from the rest of Vietnam. Even the women seemed charming, despite the fact that they could get a bit pushy selling their scarves and shawls.
To get to Sapa, take a train or bus from Hanoi and you'll arrive in Lao Cai in 8 hours. From there, you'll have to take another bus.
The name comes from the fact that it was the first university in Vietnam. The complex is surrounded by brick walls and has a pond and gardens in the center which were once used for relaxation and mediation by the elite students. The whole place exudes a distinct sense of tranquility and harmony.
The names of the students who attended the university are carved on stone turtles on each side of the temple. They offer food, incense, and symbolic money to a statue of wise Confucius and his helpers, which also adds a mystic touch to the place.
The mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh is a pharaonic structure in Ba Dinh Square and holds the preserved remains of the leader of the Vietnamese revolution and the father of modern Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh. This magnum opus was built in 1975 and reminded me of the tomb of Che Guevara in Santa Clara, Cuba and even that of Lenin in Red Square when I visited during the Soviet era.
Ho Chi Minh had wanted for his remains to be cremated, but his successors disobeyed his will in the belief that such a famous character should be eternally present and revered by future generations. To keep his spirit alive, they decided to display his corpse in this mausoleum, no doubt inspired by the case of Lenin. Vietnam is not known for its mummification techniques, so the body is transported to Russia every year for "maintenance." Therefore, the mausoleum is closed in the months of October and November when to body is transported to Russia (this is why it's said that the corpse is most traveled of all time).
The mausoleum is built of marble from the mountains of Da Nang. There are huge lines to visit the glass-encased remains that start in the early morning. It is a place of pilgrimage and Vietnamese come from far reaches of the country to visit. The place is guarded by the white-uniformed Royal Guard and the changing of the guard is spectacular. The utmost respect is mandatory during the visit: no cameras or backpacks, and women must be covered up.
I went to visit the grave for two reasons: firstly, the huge queues, but also to understand and respect this emblematic symbol of Vietnam. Like most tourists, I simply see the mausoleum in the great square, the parades, the red flag waving in the wind and the famous slogan written in Vietnamese: "there is nothing more precious than independence."
It’s the pride of the town. I have to admit I imagined it would be bigger. There are two monkey statues at the entrance to which the locals offer gifts. You have to pay to cross the bridge but the price includes access to other temples in Hội An. The ticket office is right in front of the bridge.
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it was previously known, is a busy city whose streets are full of people and Vietnam’s ubiquitous heavy traffic. It’s also a city that has a European air due to the monuments built by the French after seizing the city in 1859, a fact which has earned the city the nickname of “Paris of the East.”
Spending a day exploring the historic and narrow streets amid the hustle and bustle of the city is an experience that no traveler in Vietnam should miss.
Water puppetry is an ancient Vietnam art form. There are two stories that seem to explain its origin: one says that it was started among rice farmers who worked in the flooded rice paddies of the Red River delta. The other states that it began with traditional puppets being used during a great flood.
While the audience will invariably be mainly western tourists, the fact is that the show is just beautiful. I loved the stories! Peasants defending their villages against dragons, inter-clan battles, fisherman fighting with their fish (to the point to where it seems like there was a real live fish in the water), all accompanied by music which seems to breathe life into the show.
The musicians are in a sort of box off to one side of the stage, which itself is a water tank. The puppets are controlled by people on the sides of the stage (in waist-deep water) who move them with long sticks adapted with some mechanism to move the puppets back and forth.
Apparently, the puppets only last 3 or 4 months and then you have to replace them. Their manufacture is big business but you can also find smaller examples in nearby souvenir shops.
The shows tend to fill up, so make sure to get your tickets a few hours ahead of time or else you'll be spending the night in your hotel room!
Located about 70 km. from Da Nang, these ruins represent some of the most important remains of the Champa culture, a Hindu civilization that peaked between the 4th and 8th centuries. They are in rough shape due to the U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War and the depredations of the French, but still have great a cultural significance and were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. The first buildings were built of wood, but were replaced by brick and sandstone after several fires. The height of the towers varies from building to building, but can reach up to 24 meters. Curiously, the pronunciation of the name tends to annoy the Vietnamese as most Westerners tend to pronounce it as if it were the English “my son.” It is a rather popular for pre-wedding photo shoots.
This shallow freshwater lake is located practically in the center of Hanoi and is surrounded by trees which create an oasis of peace amid the city’s tempest of traffic and bikes.
The name "Hoan Kiem" means "Lake of the Restored Sword," a name derived from a legend where King Le Thai To found a sword in the lake that made him invincible to his enemies. After his battles, the sword was retaken by a turtle that lived in the lake. The Turtle Island containing the Temple of the Jade Mountain is located in the center of the lake and is accessible via a bright red bridge.
The Hoan shopping center, Hanoi Opera House, and Water Puppet Theatre are all located near the lake. There are also dozens of good restaurants overlooking the lake.
In the limestone islets of Halong Bay's, there are many caves, but you can't visit them all, even the ones you want. The Vietnamese government and army have everything very organized. Hang Sung Sot cave is one of the largest, with three huge chambers that can only be accessed by a small boat. The big boats are anchored in the small bay right in front, and personally, I thought that they were the best part of the visit. The entrance to the cave is at a certain point. There are a few steps to climb, and with the heat and humidity, it's a bit of a challenge. At the top, there is a wonderful aerial view over the islets and boats. It looks like something from a pirate movie. The cave itself is great, but it's illuminated with brightly coloured Asian style, and is quite full of tourists, which is kind of sad. I've been much more beautiful caves here in Spain, but you have to visit to see for yourself!
Hue is the historic city of Vietnam, a Unesco heritage site, because of its past and its monuments, temples, palaces, mausoleums, architecture, gardens and all this is a collection of things that make your visit highly recommended, a why it's nice to walk and visit, despite being rather Unesco site, conservation is not as good as one might wish.
The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City offers an overview of Vietnam’s wars with China and the United States. You can find the remains of tanks and airplanes, real torture chambers, famous photos, harrowing videos, and all kinds of media highlighting the horrors or war. It’s worth a visit and will change your thoughts about the Vietnamese people.
The Saigon Central Post Office is one of the most beautiful colonial buildings in the city. The French influence is indisputable; this is especially so considering that it was designed by the architecture studio of Gustave Eiffel himself in the late 19th century.
It didn't seem too crowded when we visited, but perhaps it's hard to tell since the symmetry and dimensions give a truly colossal aspect to the place. The sensation of space is due mainly to the large skylights in the ceiling which fill the building with natural light. One curiosity of this building is the names written on the columns: Franklin, Ampere, and other scientists who made major leaps in the field of electricity. No one knows why Eiffel chose these geniuses for this building.
The real star of the Saigon Central Post Office is the portrait of Ho Chi Minh crowning the main room. His image can be seen from all corners of the room, leaving little wonder as to why the city now bears his name. There are also some interesting old maps of Vietnam and Saigon and booths with antique postcards.
Oh, and it's free to visit. I recommend spending a decent amount of time here to be able to explore it fully. It's beautiful inside and out and makes for a great starting point before doing some shopping on Dong Khoi.
The Thiên Mụ Pagoda (which means Heavenly Lady) is on a hill next to the Perfume River and is a symbol of the city of Hue.
Legend has it that in 1601 a mystic predicted that whoever found a pagoda on the promontory along the Perfume River would usher in a great dynasty. Nguyen Hoang, governor of the province of Thuan Hoa, followed the directions and the mystic's prediction was confirmed. The Nguyen Dynasty and its lineage, was the last of the imperial dynasties to rule Vietnam and lasted until 1945.
The pagoda can be recognized by its Phuoc Duyen octagonal tower. Each of the tower's seven floors is dedicated to a Manushi-Buddha, which is a Buddha that makes its appearances in the form of a human. The best thing is definitely the boat ride on the Perfume River from the center of Hue to the outskirts where the pagoda stands.
The Perfume Pagoda is one of the most beautiful places in North Vietnam. It's a Buddhist shrine on the mountain of Huong Tich, at which we arrived after canoeing down the Day River.
The temple is located 70km. south of Hanoi and is not actually a pagoda, but rather a magical complex of temples that seems to emerge from the surrounding jungle. This temple complex is a Mecca of sorts for Vietnamese Buddhists, so much so that they've even added a cable car to help pilgrims avoid the 14-kilometer walk through the thick tropical brush surrounding the temple.
To get to the Day River, I'd suggest taking a bus from Hanoi (about 2 hours) and then chartering a boat to take you to the foot of the mountain. You can then opt for the hike and enjoy the hidden nooks and temples in the jungle or take the cable car and enjoy the wonderful views. The best bet is making the walk up and then going back down on the cable car.
The city of Hanoi appears to be surrounded by a constant mist due to the humidity and fumes of millions of motorcycles. One place to truly appreciate the mist is at the "Lake of the Restored Sword," a pleasant place in the center of the city whose island contains the Temple of the Jade Mountain, one of the most photographed temples in Vietnam and home to a legend that’s like an Asian version of the King Arthur story.
The legend states that a fisherman named Le Loi dragged from the lake a magical sword which turned him into a brave warrior. His courage led him to be proclaimed king (King Lê Thái Tổ) and lead his people to victory in a 10-year war. One day, he was walking through the garden and saw a giant turtle emerging from the water and coming towards the royal boat. Feeling threatened, the King threw his sword into the water and the turtle grabbed it in its mouth and carried it back to the depths. The king felt the gods must have been angry and had sent the turtle to reclaim the sword. Since then, the turtles in the lake have been things of reverence and they roam free in the temple on the island.
The parks surrounding the lakes are full of elderly Vietnamese men playing cards or checkers (and curious onlookers enjoying the games).