Life in the North of Vietnam seems to have largely remained unscathed by modernisation. Generally the weather is hot and steamy and for shopaholics the old town of Hanoi buzzes from early morning to ten at night. Natasha Blair reports.
The roads are thick with motorbikes as everyone seems to own one, with the odd car belonging to the city’s wealthier inhabitants. Crossing the road is an art. I was told by our guide Louis to walk out and the bikes would weave around me. It sounded daunting but is exactly what happened. A ride on a cyclo is an experience. I sat on a cushioned seat, and the driver pedalled from behind, weaving his way in among the crowds.
Hanoi has several lakes and various temples. The Temple of Literature dating back to 1070 has five courtyards. The Vietnamese are very superstitious which is why I touched the crane guarding the entrance to a statue of Confucius, said to make my wish come true. There are also stone turtles, which Vietnamese students still come to, to touch as it is said to bring them luck in their exams. In this area, archaeologists have discovered the foundations of an imperial city that existed over 1,300 years ago. Excavations are ongoing with the ancient citadel now granted World Cultural Heritage Status.
The area where the Opera House, with its French inspired architecture is situated in the chic part of the city. An area where there are designer-named shops. Around here are the smarter restaurants including The Press Club where two star Michelin Chef Alain Dutournier cooks. Unique to Vietnam is the Water Puppet theatre. Puppets on sticks are manipulated from behind a screen over water to the accompaniment of music played on traditional instruments. Each scenario tells a story.
The regions, known as provinces, around Hanoi are mountainous with scenery that is awe-inspiring. There are numerous opportunities to explore caves, and although it isn’t something I would have thought of doing, it is certainly one of the memorable parts of the trip. I went to Paradise Cave in the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park in the region of Quang Binh where I was glad of my visits to the gym, as I had to climb 519 steps to the entrance. Inside there are stalactites and stalagmites that have been created over millions of years in different hues of blue and yellow which descend from incredible heights. The mountainous region has numerous karst hills covered with green vegetation, creating stunning scenery. At nearby Dark Cave visitors can zip-line into a cave, and also go swimming. For anyone interested in exploring caves there are numerous options and levels of capability with jungles in some and where visitors, accompanied by a guide, can sleep overnight. http://oxalis.com.vn
A four hour drive from Hanoi, Halong Bay, an UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, is an enormous expanse of water. Over 1600 uninhabited limestone karsts (pillars), and islets rise out of the water with heights of up to 10 meters (330 ft) some having caves and grottos in them. In 2011 the area was voted one of the seven new Natural Wonders of the World. One of the ‘must visit’ places in the country, visitors can come for a short overnight cruise as I did or stay for several days as the boat sails around the islands. The area is also great for kayaking and canoeing. From our cruise boat I, and several others took a ride on a sampan rowed by a young lady with her two year old son sitting, playing next to her. Luck was with us as we saw several Cat Ba golden-headed Langur, a rare and not often seen species of monkey who were frolicking on the rocks. Back on land, I visited a pearl farm where I learnt how cultured pearls are made being formed from living oysters. There was, of course, a large room with lots of it ms made from them for sale.
The food has a lot of similarity to its neighbour China with sticky rice served with a meal rather than bread. Meat and fish is cut up and the vegetables are thinly sliced so that food can be eaten with chopsticks although knives and forks are also generally available. Unless you eat in a very smart restaurant, when there are a few people, the food is put on the table and every one helps themselves. Chill is used a lot. Street food is a very common and a cheap way to eat. Pho a meat based broth made with rice vermicelli, spring onions, beansprouts, and chill peppers is their national dish as is Nem, the word for spring, and also spring roll.
Smoking is still acceptable in hotels so it’s important, if you are a non-smoker, to stipulate that you require a non-smoking room.
Vietnam is seven hours ahead of GMT and flying time is around eleven hours so if possible because of jet lag try and have an easy day on arrival. I travelled to Heathrow on the Heathrow Express which takes fifteen minutes from London’s Paddington Station. The Piccadilly tube also goes to Heathrow but it takes exceedingly longer although it costs far less. www.Heathrowexpress.com
Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com) offers the UK’s only non-stop flights to Vietnam, with six flights per week from Heathrow to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City on new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners with onward connections via its comprehensive network of over 40 destinations in Asia, including 23 within Vietnam and Indochina. Return fares to Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi currently start from £391 or £425 per person respectively.
Words and Images (c)Natasha Blair. You can read more of Natasha’s articles on her website