Saturday, January 21, 2012

Vietnam, Nature’s Work of Art

There are travel experiences that change the way you look at the world, and for me, that was my trip to Vietnam.
The most profound aspect of visiting Vietnam was to see and witness a place … a country that has survived on its own terms, and although have gone through an arduous history, numerous foreign colonization and occupation, Vietnam and its people have maintain their dignity, graciousness, and indomitable spirit that was humbling to see and experience.
an evening stroll in Hanoi
Our trip in Vietnam started out in its capital, Hanoi. Although still a bit rough around the edges, the beauty and the serenity of the city blew me away … even with hundreds of motorbikes swarming around you.

For anyone looking to travel to Vietnam, I highly recommend a tour company, Focus Travel and if possible, ask for a guide named Nguyen Cong Ha, who not only did a wonderful job showing and guiding us around Hanoi, but being a history teacher, he was a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the history of Vietnam. And like much of the people we had met in Vietnam, I found him to be proud, resourceful, knowledgeable and infinitely wise.

Of course, Hanoi is a magical city. Being one of the most ancient capital in the world, Hanoi is packed with museums, monuments, and historical sites … not to miss: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the One Pillar Pagoda (especially seeing it glistening off the Turtle Lake during our evening strolls), Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), Quoc Tu Giam (National University), Ngoc Son Pagoda at the end of Hoan Kiem Lake. There are also wonderful cafes and restaurants all around the city … my favorite being the neighborhood near the St Joseph’s Cathedral.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Also, Hanoians are extremely proud of their cuisines … and after having tasted the delectable meals in Hanoi and throughout Vietnam, I can definitely understand why, and anyone interested in learning more about cooking classes, walking tours and language lessons in Hanoi, I recommend Hidden Hanoi.
Ha Long Bay
As sad as we were to leave Hanoi, I could not have been happier once we arrived in Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay is a breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage site situated about 170km (3 ½ hour drive) north of Hanoi, and it is without a doubt one of the most spectacular natural sites I have seen in my life. This densely concentrated zone of stone islands is world famous for its spectacular scenery of grottoes and caves, and resembles a geographic work of art.
There are many tour companies that offer different types of sailboats and junk boats (the traditional Chinese sailing vessel), but we opted to rent a private junk boat for ourselves, which was preferable in comparison to sharing a larger boat with 10-15 others.

Being one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam … and in SE Asia definitely has its downside; Ha Long Bay is definitely touristy, and everywhere you go, you will be bombarded by hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors at all times. However, if you rent a private boat, you have the option to sail around the bay at a more leisurely pace, choose the course and where you want to go.

Also, the biggest highlight of our trip was that as part of the tour, we were provided with a freshly cooked meal. We were actually taken to boat vendors and were able to choose and buy fresh seafood & vegetables from them, and our meal was prepared right on the boat, which turned out to be one of the most delicious and memorable meals I’ve had.
After spending 2 days in Ha Long Bay, we returned to Hanoi to catch our flight to Danang. I’m sure there are many transport options, but having only 2 weeks, we opted to fly to major destinations. Vietnam Airline and Jet Star Asia have great domestic connections throughout the country, and you can get a good rate if you book through a local travel agent, which you can easily do even after you arrive in Vietnam.
Cham Museum
Aside from the Cham Museum, there aren’t a lot to see and do in Danang. However, we absolutely loved nearby China Beach, which was absolutely gorgeous and isolated from most of the tourists.
China Beach
From there, we were able to drive to Hue and Hoi An. Although not as scenic as Hanoi or Hoi An, from cultural and historical standpoint, Hue is definitely a must see. It was once Vietnam's Imperial City and later the country's capital under the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945), and not visiting Imperial Citadel in Hue is like visiting China without seeing the Forbidden City.

Although much of Hue including most of Vietnam's walled Citadel and Imperial City was destroyed during wars with the French and the Americans, there's still much to see. However, I recommend that you find a good English-speaking guide who can help you understand the background and the history of the place; otherwise, you might see just walls and rubble.
the Citadel & Imperial City
Hoi An
Then, we were headed to Hoi An (about 3 hour drive), a meticulous little town reminiscent of a Hollywood movie set. Hoi An has a distinct Chinese atmosphere with low, tile-roofed houses and narrow streets, and the original structure of some of these streets still remains almost intact.

Unfortunately, like Ha Long Bay, Hoi An, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site draws in hordes of foreign tourists, and as beautiful as it is, at times, the atmosphere of the city feels a bit Disneyland-like in a way that everyone sitting around you and near you in cafes and restaurants are tourists.

However, our lovely hotel Thuy Tien Hotel and Hai Scout Café, a charming little restaurant near the Japanese Bridge where we had a tasty meal for next to nothing were definitely the highlight of our visit.

Of course, the tailors of Hoi An … overall getting cloths custom made in Vietnam … have been well-known and publicized, and without a doubt the workmanship of the tailors and cloths that we had it made in Hoi An were impeccable and inexpensive (and delivered to our hotel). However, unless you’re looking to have custom made suits or dresses, I found that the ready-to-wear cloths found in stores, esp. in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City suit my style better and were definitely more up-to-date than the tailored clothing.
Ho Chi Minh City
Then, our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City. There’s nothing more I enjoy than finding a vibrant modern city in Asia, and despite the misconception and the stereotype of Asia being a hodgepodge of underdeveloped nations, there are numerous cosmopolitan modern cities that rivals Europe and North America, and HCMC is definitely one of Asia’s metropolis (9 million in population) that should not be missed.

Whether you want the finest hotels and restaurants or the classiest designer boutique (on Dong Koi Street), HCMC has it all, but what I enjoyed most was just sitting in one of the many cool cafes or open-air restaurants around Ben Tanh Market, and sipping Vietnamese coffee and people watching for hours.
HCMC Post Office
HCMC City Hall
Also, I recommend visiting the Cuchi Tunnels and the temple of the infamous Cao Dai sect, which are nice day trips from HCMC.
However, beyond the elegant façade are remnants of HCMC and Vietnam’s torrent history, and no place are the atrocities of war(s) more clearly displayed than at the War Remnants Museum … a stark reminder of the devastation that Vietnam and its people suffered and endured during the French colonial period and America’s occupation told from the viewpoint of the Vietnamese people.

Needless to say, for anyone who was raised in America like myself, this is a perspective that we are rarely exposed to, and after visiting the War Remnants Museum, I have learned to look at the world, especially my own and the political choices that are made in my own country in a more critical way, as all too often, history is told by those in power.

Although Vietnam has been well discovered by now, what makes the country so fascinating for me is its intricate culture and history, and how in spite of outside world’s … and much to my chagrin, most foreign visitors’ misconception of labeling this vibrant land and culture as something of a relic, a so-called “exotic land”, Vietnam continues to flourish.

I, for one, can’t wait get back to Vietnam to witness its evolution.

1 comment:

  1. beautiful photos and excellent writing. Can't wait to go - thank you!