Halong bay, Vietnam

Vietnam: Enter the Dragon of South East Asia

Ever had a wish list of places you would like to visit? For travellers seeking a vacation that is a mix of culture, heritage, natural beauty, relaxation and one that is easy on the pocket Vietnam could be top on the list. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Tiny Dragon of South East Asia’ Vietnam is waiting to be discovered for its ancient ruins, spectacular scenic beauty and its hidden treasure ‘the locals’ with warm smiles and conical hats.

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is a blend of west and east with both French and Chinese influences that are evident in its design and architecture. Hanoi nicknamed the ‘Paris of East’ is a picturesque city with several serene lakes, French colonial-era buildings in trademark yellow ochre, shaded boulevards, colourful markets and friendly, helpful locals ever ready to strike a conversation.

Flower Seller in Hanoi @Rafiq Somani

During our trip, we saw people sitting on small, plastic stools and enjoying leisurely meals, relishing pho (noodle soup) and having extended conversations. Another thing that drew our attention was that Vietnamese women seemed empowered and independent—managing small businesses, working in various establishments. It may be traced back to Vietnam being a matriarchal society before Chinese rule.

Locals enjoying a conversation, Hanoi @Rafiq Soamani

 Motorbikes are the vehicles of choice for most and Xe Om, catching a motorbike taxi, is an option for exploring the city. Xe Om jockeys can be found sitting and sometimes taking a nap on their bikes and for VND 20,000 can zip you around the town for a short trip.

While my better half was busy with official work, I decided to explore Hanoi solo, armed with a map and a guide book. I was nervous as I didn’t have a Vietnam cell phone number. Although I had ventured alone on an earlier trip to Thailand, my husband had escorted and guided me, a day earlier. This time around I was left to my own devices. My back up plan was to, in a worst-case scenario, take a cab and head back to the hotel.

The hotel coach dropped me to my first stop The One Pillar Pagoda. It is so-called because it is built of wood on a single stone pillar. Legend has it that Emperor Ly Thai Tong, who was heirless, dreamt that Goddess of Mercy handed him a male heir. He eventually married a peasant girl and had a male child. To express his gratitude, he constructed this pagoda in 1049. The next place that I wanted to see was The Ho Chi Min Museum. It was closed for the afternoon break, something that my guide book didn’t mention.

One Pillar Pagoda, Hanoi @Shameera Somani
Cot Co Tower @Shameera Somani

Cot Co Tower, a three-tiered 33 metres tall flag tower, built in 1805 was my next stop. What was striking about it was its 36 flower-shaped windows. It was built as a military observation post for the Citadel.  Since I was already at the military museum complex, I decided to see it too. The exhibits at the Vietnam Military History Museum traced the wars that the country had fought one against the French and the other American.

As a teen, I had heard a song “19” which had an anti-war message and focused on America’s involvement in the Vietnam war. It spoke about the struggles and effects it had on the young soldiers whose average age was 19. Suddenly the lyrics came back as I saw pictures of young soldiers and children affected by the war. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of nine-year-old ‘Napalm girl’; running naked on the road after being severely burned by a napalm attack; was there too. One of the outdoor exhibits in the museum had wreckage from a fighter plane gunned down during the war.

Close to the military museum was ‘The Central Sector of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long’. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 to coincide with Hanoi’s millennial anniversary. This Citadel, built in the 11th Century, was a living place for royal families from the Ly Dynasty. Excavation work took place from 2002 to 2004 and remnants of older buildings were unearthed at 18 Hoang Dieu Archaeological Site. Foundations of ancient palaces, ponds, wells, relics were uncovered.

There were several buildings in this complex where the relics, artefacts and mock-ups of the citadel itself were on display that provided a glimpse of its glorious past. While exploring the site, I saw a group of young girls dressed in the traditional Vietnam costume ‘Ao dai. It is is an elegant well-fitting silk tunic worn over pants. Very similar to the long kurtas and palazzos which are a style statement back home. They had gathered in the gardens for a photo shoot for some wedding, I guessed.

Girls dressed in the traditional Vietnam costume ‘Ao dai @Shameera Somani

I was tired but contented at having overcome my fears of exploring alone. And happy at being rewarded with what I had seen, I hired a cab and headed back to our hotel. The next evening, we were driven by our hosts to Halong Bay. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also known as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

Our hosts took us to an exotic seafood restaurant where one could pick and choose from an array of live fish, crustaceans. For the courageous eaters (count me out) snakes, eels, octopus and other sea creatures. These would then be skillfully cooked alive in hotpots on your table. It was served with noodles, mushrooms, assorted herbs and vegetables. Traditional Vietnamese cooking involves minimal use of oil, lots of herbs and fresh vegetables with an equal measure of meat. I wondered if this was the secret to the women’s radiant and flawless complexion, shiny, silky hair and youthful looks

Halong Bay is known for its 1960 limestone and schist islands and spectacular caves emerging out of emerald waters that are so tranquil that it’s hard to believe it’s a sea. In Sino-Vietnamese, ‘Ha’ means to lower and ‘Long’ means a dragon – ‘Ha Long’ means descending dragon.  The Halong legend is that many centuries ago, the Vietnamese were attacked by vicious foreigners. A mother dragon and her children were sent down to help the people. The dragons spitted out emeralds, which formed into islands and created a defence system that helped the Vietnamese win.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Halong Bay, Vietnam @Rafiq Somani
  • Halong bay, Vietnam
  • Halong bay, Vietnam

Next morning, we went to the bay and purchased tickets (170,000 VND) for the Halong Bay ferry boat ride. Our hosts had one of their attendant girls accompany us. She mentioned how much she enjoyed watching Bollywood movies and Hindi TV serials which are now popular in Vietnam. It came as a total surprise to me as she discussed, ‘The movie of a teacher and special boy’ (Tare Zameen Pe). ‘The movie of three friends in college’ (3 idiots). ‘The long story of an Indian bride who married young’ (Balika Vadhu). Bollywood heartthrob Aamir Khan seemed a popular actor there!

As we set out on the bay, we noticed islands emerging through still waters in varied shapes, sizes and dimensions. Christened with names of objects they resembled, like Ga Choi Islet (fighting cocks), Choda Islet (dog) and so on. The Dinh Huong Islet, in the shape of incense burner, is an iconic image printed on 200,000 VND note.

After alighting from the ferry, we walked into the Thein Cung Cave. It has an abundance of stalactites and stalagmites in various forms and shapes. Travel guides were pointing to multiple structures and interpreting them as different objects and animals, weaving stories and folk tales around them. After exiting from the cave, we headed back to our ferry and continued sailing as we came across several more islands.

After the ferry ride, as we walked down the bay, we saw a Water Puppets Show. Skilled puppeteers manoeuvred these hand-crafted wooden puppets in a shallow pool of water from behind a screen. Stories and folktales were performed, accompanied by traditional Vietnamese music.

Water Puppets Show, Halong Bay @Rafiq Somani

After bidding adieu to Halong bay we headed back to Hanoi. The next day being our last day in Hanoi we decided to pick some souvenirs and visit the Hoan Keim Lake (Turtle lake) which is a central feature of Hanoi. Ngoc Son Temple is on a small island in the centre of the lake. A scarlet painted wooden bridge called Rising Sun Bridge connects you to this island. It was overcrowded with tourists wanting to click photographs. 

Vietnam, although not as frequented by the Indian tourists as compared to other South East Asian destinations, is a treasure trove waiting to be explored. Several international flights from major cities in India can take you to Hanoi. Another option is to take a flight to Ho Chi Min City and then take a domestic flight to Hanoi. From Hanoi, an overnight trip to Halong Bay, which is 165 km away, is worth it. Depending on your budget and comfort, you can do a net search for accommodation.

This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons magazine, Dec 2016.

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