Sunday, 1 January 2017

A Vietnamese Adventure: Part 1 - Hanoi, Halong Bay and Hue



Happy New Year everyone!! What better resolution can you make to yourself, than to resolve to see more of our incredible world, to meet new people and experience new cultures and cuisines and have new adventures. With that in mind I thought I would start 2017 with a blog post on my travels around Vietnam.
Vietnam has been a staple getaway for travellers young and old for years. It's not difficult to see the draw, there are pockets of otherworldly beauty where time appears to stand still, co-existing alongside bustling metropolises where life zooms past at a frantic and unrelenting pace. Whatever your tastes, whether you're a foodie, a sun worshipper, an outdoorsy type, a culture vulture, a city dweller or you are looking to escape the crowds, this is a country rich in travel offerings which has something for you all. It’s also a place that’s easy to navigate for seasoned travellers and first-time visitors alike due to a well-worn tourist trail.

Vietnam has been on my travel bucket list for several years and the chance to catch up with an Aussie friend at a 'midway' point between us was all the excuse I needed to justify dipping into my emergency funds (an acute case of wanderlust can have serious health consequences after all) and book that flight.

Below is my round-up from what ended up being a fantastic trip. It's not meant to be an exhaustive guide, but instead like all my travel posts the focus is on wetting your appetite and encouraging you to have your own adventures, by providing a taster and highlights from each leg of my trip.




Hanoi

Background:
I honestly believe that travel is far richer an experience when you try to understand a little of the place that you are visiting and the forces which have shaped it. With that in mind here’s a quick potted history of Vietnam. Even if history’s not your cup of tea bear with me because it’s pretty important as context.

Vietnam is a country with an incredibly turbulent history - in the 1800s it was invaded and colonised by the French. During the 1940s a nationalist liberation movement emerged and began fighting to regain independence from French and Japanese occupation. After one hundred years of colonial rule, defeated French forces were forced to leave Vietnam. That led to a power struggle to control the country. The Vietnam War broke out - a long and bloody war that resulted in millions of deaths and pitted the communist regime of North Vietnam and its allies (known as the Viet Cong) against South Vietnam and its main ally, the USA (who got involved as they were trying to halt the spread of communism). After countless years of fighting the war finally ended - a peace agreement was signed between South Vietnam and North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. North Vietnam and the Viet Cong continued to push further south after it was signed. Civilians in the South fled the fighting, crowding into Saigon and looking for US troops still in the country who could get them out. In 1976 the South surrendered and the last US embassy staff were urgently evacuated and in 1976 North and South were unified under communist rule as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.


While steeped in history Hanoi pulsates with life and energy. You haven't see chaos until you've experienced the streets of this city. I feel like they should sell "I crossed a street in Hanoi and survived" t-shirts as the traffic is relentless and pedestrian crossings are nowhere to be seen. The secret is to hold your nerve and walk at a consistent pace even when a lorry is heading straight for you, as the traffic will just weave it's way round you. If it sounds terrifying, it is at first, but don’t worry you’ll eventually get the hang of it!


Sightseeing:
Given the history and the central role of Ho Chi Minh (the revolutionary leader who led the Vietnamese nationalist movement and fought colonial forces for the liberation of the Vietnamese people) a trip to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is a must-see as it holds the glass sarcophagus holding the embalmed body of Uncle Ho (as he is affectionately called). The reverence with which many in the country hold him is fascinating in itself and makes this a unique and unmissable experience.


Take time to wander through the Old Quarter and to soak in the sights, sounds and smells. From the bustling food stalls of Dong Xuan Market to the colourful silk scarves of Hang Gai Street, this is the historic heart of Hanoi, a mix of French colonial and ancient Vietnamese architecture, a full-on treat for all the senses and the best way to get a feel for the city.






Head to Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword). There is a fascinating legend associated with the lake. An ancient emperor was fighting a war against the Chinese when he saw a giant turtle arise out of the water with a sword in its mouth. The emperor took this sword and eventually defeated the Chinese army. When he was having his victory parade the giant turtle reappeared and demanded the sword back. It flew out of his hands into the turtle’s mouth and disappeared into the water. In 1968 the body of a huge turtle that scientists estimated was at least 200 years old was recovered from the lake - it is exhibited in Jade Hill Temple, on Hoan Kiem Lake.







Food:
Try Hanoian specialities, Bun Bo Nam Bo (beef with noodles, fried onion and peanuts) and Bun Cha (barbequed pork) from one of the tiny local street-side vendors. For Bun Cha I highly recommend Nha Hang Bun Cha (1 Hang Manh Street) - you sit just off the street on plastic seats, eating alongside locals. It's a perfect travel experience as you get to tuck into delicious grilled pork with rice noodles and crab rolls while watching life go by on the street in front. We had this at least three times before we left and it still makes my mouth water just thinking about it.


For something a bit different, check out modern cafe/restaurant, KOTO (Know One, Teach One), a non-profit vocational training program that aims to change the lives of street kids and disadvantaged youth in Hanoi. It's such a lovely concept and we had a great night out there sharing dinner and stories with fellow travellers.


Halong Bay

Halong Bay in north-east Vietnam, is one of those picture-postcard views which looks as magical in real life as it does in the photos. It’s famed for its emerald waters and towering limestone islands. Cruises are the most popular way to visit the bay and there are many on offer to suit every budget as this is one of Vietnam’s biggest tourist attractions. That does mean that you are usually surrounded by lots of other boats when you are out on the bay. If that doesn’t sound like you’re idea of fun, there is another option, but it’ll cost you!

We decided this would be one of those one of those experiences we were willing to splurge on and so we ended up booking into the Indochina Junk which is one of the luxury overnight cruises - we were lucky as we were visiting in the rainy season which meant we got it quite a bit cheaper than it would otherwise be. Transfers from Hanoi, food (dinner was something like six courses and included some great fresh seafood dishes), accommodation and activities are all included in the price. However the main reason we were willing to pay this higher price is the fact that (at least when I visited) this was only company that had permission to also visit Bai Tu Long, a far less visited part of the bay, which offers the same jaw-dropping scenery but is free from the crowds.




It's not a party boat which the small group of 17/18 year old lads on our trip found to their disappointment, but laying in a bubble-bath staring out of the huge bay window at the stunning view with not another boat in sight was a pretty fabulous way to spend an evening. The following day we went out on a kayaking and caving excursion which let us see the karsts up close. This would have been a great experience ,but I am horribly uncoordinated when it comes to anything which involves rowing and have a fear of deep water which I've never managed to shake, which means that I am a bit rubbish at kayaking. However that has never stopped me trying, even though within ten minutes of being out on the water, the rest of the boats were little dots in the distance and I was swearing profusely under my breath rather than enjoying the view. And don't get me wrong that view is pretty incredible.

Sometimes travel involves knowing the times when to scrimp and save and when if you can, to throw out the budget right out the window. I’m so glad we decided to do the later in this case.


Hue

Next stop was the historic city of Hue. You can get a train to Hue from Hanoi but I hear it takes ages and we were short on time, so we decided to grab a flight instead, which should have been simple - ‘should’ being the key word here.

In a moment of madness I stuffed all my important items in one bag and in the rush to catch the flight, left the very same bag in the back of the cab to the airport!! As I arrived at the gate and realised what I had done and with last call for boarding coming over the tannoy, I told my friend to get on the plane and I would meet her in Hue. 5 minutes later I realised that if I couldn't get my bag back I would be in serious trouble as I had no money, no passport and no phone!!! However a bit of quick thinking, a lot of ringing round and the help of some pretty awesome Vietnamese folks we managed to locate the taxi driver. Eventually he arrived back to the airport and there was the bag sitting in the back just as I had left it. I had to work hard to resist the urge to give him a huge hug, but instead gave him a pretty big tip which seemed to make his day. I had to make an unscheduled layover in one of Hanoi airport’s quite nifty sleep pods before jumping on a flight to Hue the following morning. I decided to chalk it up to experience but it also gave me a small sense of achievement that I was capable of handling this mega stressful (albeit self-inflicted) situation on my own, without a complete meltdown. I know it might sound strange but that near-miss travel disaster made me more convinced than ever to do a solo adventure one day soon.

Anyway back to the point, what you need to know about Hue is that for over a hundred years Vietnam was ruled by the Nguyen Dynasty and this was their base and as a result it is a city absolutely jam packed with royal grandeur.

Sightseeing:
Many of Hue’s attractions are found along the length of the Perfume River.


The Imperial Citadel (the home of the Emperors) is a huge sprawling enclosure that takes a couple of hours to explore. There are several different parts including the Citadel (which was there to protect the palaces inside), the Forbidden City (housing the emperor’s residence, temples, palaces and court) and the Hall of the Mandarins (used by mandarins as offices and to prepare for court ceremonies). This is a must-see if you are visiting Hue.



Check out  a couple of the Imperial Tombs - particularly the scenic Imperial Temple of Tu Doc (Tu Doc, the 4th emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, and the last Emperor of Vietnam, designed it himself and lived there for a while with his many wives and concubines),

Also make sure to visit the Imperial Temple of Khai Dinh (the resting place of the 12th emperor of Nguyen Dynasty) with its stone sculptures of dragons, elephants and warriors which gives it a mystical feel.









If you have time you should also check out the Thien Mu Pagoda. Legend has it that an old woman appeared on this very spot and told local people that a Lord would come and build a Buddhist pagoda for the country’s prosperity. Lord Nguyen Hoang on hearing this, ordered construction of the pagoda of the Heavenly Lady. It’s a pretty site and also offers a good view of the river and the surrounding landscape.




Other tips:
Joining a tour is a pretty good shout, particularly if you like me are very short on time. I booked onto a private motorbike tour with Top Gear Tours - I shopped around before choosing this one as not all motorbike tours have English-speaking drivers. The tour was perfect for me -  being on the back of a bike is something that I absolutely love and my guide was super knowledgeable and friendly. He offered plenty of contextual travel info on arrival at each site and let me wander around them at my own pace and return to him when I was done and was happy to chat away as I peppered him with questions about Vietnamese life. If you are a fan of the Top Gear TV show you’ll also love the fact that the company is named after “these three English men who were travelling around Vietnam on bikes” - Jeremy Clarkson and crew have definitely left their mark!


During our visit we opted for to stay in cheap, budget hotels. Most were fine but nothing to write home about. However I have to mention our accommodation in Hue because it was so good. We stayed in a superior twin room at Hue Serene Palace Hotel, 21 Lane 42 Ngyuen Cong Tru which was beautiful and at just $25 a night for two of us, a bit of a bargain. If you feel like taking a break from hostels or plan to use budget hotels too, definitely book into this place.


That bring us to the end of Part 1 of this Vietnamese adventure. Stay tuned for Part 2 which includes my trip highlight (Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park), my take on the traveller’s favourite (Hoi An) and the final stop of my time in Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh).



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2 comments

  1. well written as usual :)

    http://allornothing-blog.blogspot.co.uk/

    ReplyDelete

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